Bhulbule to Jagat; Trek day one; Rice paddies and landslides; In which I am a tortoise; Beware of falling rocks

Since we hadn’t done any walking yesterday, the ostensible first day of our trek, we decided that our arrival at Bhulbule should count as Day Zero, and that this should be Day One. There had been a gigantic rainstorm pounding on the tin roof of the lodge through the night, with dramatic thunder and lightning. The power went out at one point, and when I looked out the window there wasn’t a single artificial light to be seen. It hadn’t fully stopped in the morning. We were all afraid that we’d find a solid, opaque grey sky and muddy ground, which is exactly what we saw when we all came down to an early breakfast.

In a pattern that was to hold true for most of the trek, the British left a bit before us, just after breakfast, and the French a little after. The Frenchmen, Ben and Christian, are both so tall, though, that their long legs overtook us ten minutes along the trail.

I didn’t feel like I was performing very well at the beginning. The air was thick and muggy, and the rain made us keep our waterproof jackets on. Neither of us have the special, expensive rain-gear that’s both waterproof and breathable, and the heat had us dripping with sweat inside the plastic shells - which defeated the purpose a little, I thought. Sheryl claimed she wasn’t very hot, and said that I was bright red and overheating. I certainly felt like it.

My pack is way too heavy. I’d helped Ben and Christian lift theirs down from the roof of the bus the day before, and I’d swear that their two together weighed less than mine. And I made the same mistake I always do and forgot to leave some weight allowance for water. Sheryl always guzzles double or triple the amount that I do, and so I was carrying two extra litres for her besides the litre for myself. That’s another three kilograms on top of what I’d planned for. I felt like a tortoise all day long. We were the slowest of the three groups, which was really embarrassing. I’m slower than Sheryl! I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I have no energy. Sheryl says I’m recovering from being sick, which is probably at least part of the reason.

The trail itself, once we got past the mud and the dripping overcast, was… interesting. I don’t think I’d call it beautiful - not yet. There’s too much mud, too many water buffaloes, and too many villages for that. It’s so strange to be somewhere so rugged and difficult, and yet so thickly populated. It’s never more than a couple of hours’ walk from one village to the next, and farms and houses are strung out along the trail between. One bad side effect is that the trail is strewn with trash, and all of it is from the locals - gum wrappers, empty paan packets, broken flip-flops and the like are all over. It’s a bit disquieting to see such a striking landscape treated with such disrespect. Everyone we met was friendly, quiet and polite, and invariably replied to our namaste with a smile and the same. The little kids are all adorably ragged. To show special respect, the namaste greeting is accompanied by the hands held palm-together in a sort of praying gesture - usually at chest-height, but the higher the hands are held, the greater the respect. The kids’ little piping namaste and graceless prayer-hands were impossibly cute.

We’re still quite low in the mountains and nearly all the land is under cultivation - rice paddies, mostly. All the steep hillside are terraced in curvilinear steps of bright emerald green, shockingly vibrant even under the damp grey sky. Every so often a great scar of dirt and grey rock would tear through the green, relics of past landslides.

It would have been almost impossible to lose the trail even if we didn’t have a map. It follows the deep gorge that the Marsyangdi River has carved out. It’s more of a walking highway than a hiking trail. It was never laid out for hiking in the first place - the route of the trek simply follows the paths that the villagers and their livestock have been taking from place to place for hundreds of years. Signposts are few, but the locals are many. We only took one wrong turn, and an old woman corrected us almost immediately.

The first four kilometres of the day were mostly flat. As we were to discover many, many times over the course of the trek, there’s a very special Nepali sense of the word “flat” which means that you finish at roughly the same altitude as you started. There can be enormously steep hills in between, but if it’s a zero-sum game then it’s “flat”. Bhulbule to Ngadi Bazaar, though, really was mostly flat. Good thing too, because between the heat, the mud, and the thick air, I was finding it hard going indeed.

If I’d known what was coming after Ngadi, I wouldn’t have complained. I knew from our handy elevation chart of the trek (which I would have many occasions to curse for an inaccurate and misleading piece of trash in the weeks to come) that we had to gain a little over 400m over 4km to get to the village of Bahundanda, but it wasn’t clear to us that all of the altitude gain would come in the last half-kilometre in a brutal vertical climb. It took us ages to get up, panting and gasping. This was the village we’d been thinking of trying to reach the night before! The climb was no fun at the beginning of the day, and it would have been even less fun at the end (in fact, we had to do an almost identical climb at the end of this day, so I don’t have to imagine what it would have been like).

On the way up, we were passed by a gang of women carrying gigantic, flat slabs of rock downhill on their backs. Another thing we were to discover about the Nepali people is that they always do things the hardest way possible. They’re very strong and sturdy people and they think nothing of carrying huge, heavy loads over long distances. I thought this was a remarkably absurd example of the mindset, though. I felt like telling them that, wherever it was they were going, there would be rocks there too, and probably even better than the ones they were sweating under. It made me shake my head, but also made me shut up and stop complaining about how heavy my pack was. Even the old women and little children of this country put me to shame. I can only imagine how much a real porter carries - we haven’t seen any yet.

At least we caught up with the British and the French at Bahundanda. The five kilometres from Bahundanda to Ghermu where we stopped for lunch was one of the (very) few downhill sections of the first half of the trek, and it was very welcome by that point.

I do officially owe a humble apology to all European hikers, though. Through all the trekking we did in Europe, I’d expressed scorn for the Gore-Tex-clad lines of them marching in lock-step along the trail, each with their set of hiking poles, looking for all the world like a rowing team without a boat, or like a giant centipede. I never had any time for hiking poles, considering them a useless indulgence at best and a noisy, trail-scarring eyesore at worst. But I knew I shouldn’t really judge without trying them myself, and I’d heard that they help a lot with steep downhill trails. I’d ruined my knees carrying a heavy pack down a steep mountainside in Fjordland National Park in New Zealand a few years back, and I was willing to try anything to stop that happening again. They’re very cheap in Kathmandu (Rs 500 each - about CAD$7.50, as opposed to $50 at home) and so I compromised and bought one. And here’s my apology - I’m very sorry to all the European hikers that I silently mocked and insulted. Trekking poles help a lot and I’ll never hike without one again.

I was losing it by lunchtime. It didn’t help that our map is terrible and I hadn’t been paying much attention to landmarks. When we reached one of the Swiss-built steel cable suspension bridges (very bouncy and hard to walk on unless you stay exactly in the middle) and switched to the west side of the river, I thought we were much farther along the trail than we actually were. The disappointment didn’t help me much. Some bland chow-mein (the first of very, very many such meals) did help a bit, but watching two demented cows yoked together, trying to take advantage of the farmer’s inattention to rampage through the cornfield, helped my mood much more. They both had different ideas of which way to go - it was like a quadrupedal slapstick routine. They did manage to drag the plough through two or three rows of corn before the farmer noticed in horror, though.

I needed every smile, because the last three kilometres of the day were pure hell. The map said that we only needed to gain 170m to get to Jagat, our final stop, but that can’t possibly have been true. Halfway from Ghermu to Jagat we were stopped by a guy in a hard-hat and an accomplice sitting across the trail and whistling signals to another group ahead. We were instantly suspicious, calling to mind the stories we’d heard of foreign trekkers being robbed on the Annapurna Circuit, or shaken down by Maoist rebels for voluntary contributions to the cause. With this in mind we walked through their half-hearted roadblock and continued up the trail. Cue frantic shouting and whistling and cries for us to “Come back! Very dangerous!” The note of panic in their voices made us think that either they were genuine, or very good actors, and so we went back. It turns out that they were a road crew clearing a landslide that had destroyed a section of the trail. They were doing this in typical Nepali fashion, by rolling gigantic boulders downhill. If we’d ignored their warnings any longer or if the crew up the hill hadn’t heard the whistles of the crew at the bottom, we could have been crushed.

Chastened, we chatted with the hard-hat while we waited for the go-ahead. He didn’t have much English, but he asked the usual set of questions (when he asked where we were from, we told him we were American, which is what we say any time we do something stupid). Finally the crew upstairs had finished rolling rocks and we could continue. Around a switchback up ahead was a broken-down roadblock, which we ignored and stepped over. Cue more frantic whistling and shouting, this time from a local man at the top of the hill behind us. Looking around, we realized that the trail had just reversed back onto itself and following it would take us into the path of the boulders again. The local guy, pointing exaggeratedly, directed us to a tiny, slippery footpath that couldn’t have been more than a couple of weeks old, leading more or less vertically up a steep muddy slope. We took him at his word and started up. We were still half-expecting to be robbed, but the footpath rejoined the main trail at some point past the landslide-clearing operation.

The ascent nearly killed me. I was wiped out and overheated. No breath, no energy. So slow. It took forever for us to get to Jagat. For me to get to Jagat, I should say, since I was the slow one and was holding Sheryl back. She was talking with a little local girl who was walking with us, and I didn’t even have the breath to join the conversation. I couldn’t do anything except keep my eyes focussed on the trail and put one foot in front of the other. I’d have been humiliated if I’d had the energy. I haven’t felt so physically miserable since… well, since the food-poisoning episode of the week before. My feet were throbbing and aching and my hips were stiff. My calves were cramping. The worst was a terrible headache. All the muscles at the back of my neck had tightened until they felt as if they were pulling my skull apart. Thinking back, it was probably the jolting, bouncing ride on top of the bus the day before that did it - that and being unused to carrying my pack for long distances. I’m so out of shape, it’s embarrassing.

When we finally arrived in Jagat - with great relief on my part - it was to find that the British had come in half an hour ahead of us, and the French more than an hour. Ben and Christian, decent guys that they are, had negotiated us a group rate at one of the village’s guesthouses. I was very happy just to stop walking, and didn’t even care (much) that all the hot water had been used before we arrived. We’d walked 16km today and gained 440m of altitude, in about eight hours of walking time. I’ll be better tomorrow, I hope.

Chris Liberty - Dispatches from a Gentleman Adventurer
Being the internal dialog of a vagabond who chased his own tail across five continents for 4 years and 2 days from May 2008 to May 2012, in search of something that never really became clear.
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