Jagat to Dharapani; Trek day two; I get my hiking mojo back; The Day of the Donkeys

Since Sheryl had done so well and I had done so badly the day before, I decided to take her up on her offer to put a couple of kilos of food in her pack (she’d offered yesterday but I wanted to make sure she’d be okay before loading her down). Also, since there had been so many water taps by the side of the trail, it wasn’t necessary for me to fill one of the big collapsible two-litre bottles. I don’t know if it was the fact that my pack was 4kg lighter all of a sudden, or if my body had gotten used to the idea of hiking, but I felt so much better. Whatever had been plaguing me yesterday was gone and I felt like dancing.

Of course, we’re still a lot slower than the Frenchmen - their legs are twice the length of ours. We take two steps to every one of theirs, and there’s not much to be done about that even if I feel like a goddamn hobbit trailing along after Gandalf and Aragorn.

Twenty minutes out of Jagat, following the road, we came to a sign pointing off left to a hot-spring. Wish I’d known about that yesterday night. Continuing down the road, a bunch of guys start whistling and making “come back” motions. It turns out that the trail leaves the road - despite what our map said. There were the remnants of a torn cardboard sign on the ground, which I propped up again on the signpost for the hot-spring, in the hopes that anyone coming after us wouldn’t get lost. Ben and Christian were with us at the time, and we all wondered if the British had made the right turn, since they’d left before the rest of us.

The trail followed a lot of ups and downs for the few kilometres to Chamche, a fly-blown, dirty little place. Christian stopped for a while to play football with some local kids - he loves the villages most. The kids had all lived their lives in this little village perched on the side of the deep river gorge, and it was second nature to them not to kick the ball too hard. Not so for Christian, and after he’d sent the ball down the side of the mountain one too many times he decided it would be better to continue his trek.

The trail continued to follow the river all day long, as it would for the next week at least. We’ve left the rice terraces behind now. The villages are getting smaller and rockier, and the villagers are nearly all of Tibetan extraction. I’m now confirmed in my opinion that toddlers doing namaste are the cutest thing in the world. Everyone is still friendly and quite happy to have their photos taken, though they’ll never ask. In a fascinating bit of synchronicity, Christian took some pictures of a tiny, jolly, toothless old woman who couldn’t have been more than four feet tall, and when he showed his photos to a woman serving us lunch a few villages down the trail, the woman delightedly exclaimed “That’s my mother!”

The theme of the day was Donkeys. So many donkeys. We passed at least a dozen trains of pack-donkeys in the first few hours of the day. The trains are mostly ten or twelve donkeys long, but some we saw were more than twenty. I’ve never seen so many donkeys in one place. Some of them were heading up into the mountains and were loaded with bigger packs than I’d have thought they could carry, and some were heading down and out of the mountains and had no packs. At a narrow suspension bridge across the gorge just past Chamche there was a massive donkey traffic jam with one train trying to cross the bridge at the same time as another train was trying to cross in the opposite direction. You have to be a bit careful with them because they can’t see behind them so they don’t know how wide their packs are, so sometimes they crush you against the rock walls beside the trail. Sheryl loves donkeys and was in heaven all day. I like them too, but these were working donkeys and clearly didn’t have the time to stop and be petted. Half the time we were stuck behind them, but one particular train was driving us ahead of them for ages. Donkeys can go surprisingly fast when they want to, and they have a natural instinct to follow and try to catch up to anything walking ahead of them. So when we walked faster to try and get away from them, they walked faster to catch up. Eventually we were all nearly running and out of breath and I decided that it was up to the supposedly sentient bipeds to resolve the situation, so I called a halt and let them pass us.

This was much nicer, except for the other thing that donkeys do - and they do it a lot. You know you’re bored when you start discussing the comparative textures of dung on the trail, and you know you’ve spent too long trekking when you can tell donkey from water-buffalo and cow from horse, and how long it’s been since they passed that way (no pun intended). In our defence, a lot of the trail is very steep, so you spend most of your time with your nose practically touching the stuff. We got used to it pretty quickly, but at first it was pretty off-putting - I was donkey-crap to the knees - and occasionally it can be downright dangerous, it makes the trail so slippery.

It was a long, hot climb to the village of Tal, where we took our midday break. It was cloudy and threatening rain the whole time, but I wasn’t complaining - the trail was completely exposed as it crawled over bare rock, and bright sun would have been bad. Halfway up we stopped at a tea-house. Ben and Christian were leaving as we arrived, and we compared notes. None of us had seen Bryn and Fiona all day, which was slightly worrying. As we were leaving ourselves, though, they dragged their feet up the trail looking thoroughly hot, miserable and cranky. Just as we’d been afraid, they’d missed the detour at the hot-spring in the beginning of the day and had had to pick their way over landslides that had destroyed the trail, and then cut through leech-infested fields to climb up the steep mountainside to Chamche.

Tal is an odd little place. It’s got one street that has a dusty, wild-west feel to it. Horses are hitched to rails outside the shops and the sides of the river gorge are carved sandstone canyons. There are even a couple of saloons, though in Nepal they’re barbershops and not bars. You approach from above and descend to a flat, silted-up river plain with white sand and boulders. The river is very wide and flat here, and it carves the silt into islands with rippled surfaces. A half-submerged stone causeway leads along the side of the gorge to the flat, packed sand of the village itself. Although we had lots of energy we decided to stop for lunch at a Tibetan place. The Brits caught up as we were finishing, and we left them debating whether to stay the night in Tal or to follow the plan and press on to Dharapani.

After Tal the trail entered an alien, silver sculpted sand- and rock-scape in strange patterns. As we walked beside the river, bad weather started to blow in. The clouds thickened and darkened and rain looked imminent. The wind started to blow hard, stinging our eyes with sand, and clouds billowed up from down the valley and filled the gorge. Landslides had destroyed the trail on the eastern side of the river twenty years ago, so a “temporary” detour over an ancient wooden bridge to the other side of the river was necessary. After that the trail got bad, with huge steep climbs up a twisting dirt path to the top of the gorge. The climb was long and ugly, the uglier for being a surprise - naturally, being a detour, it didn’t appear on any of our maps. Sheryl was very discouraged, thinking that we had to go all the way up to the top just to come right back down again. She was very happy to find that we didn’t have to go back downhill immediately (we came down gradually instead).

The last couple of kilometres before the village of Karte, we passed a bunch of road crews. I may have mentioned before that Nepalis are a very obstinate people who, I think, enjoy doing things the very hardest way possible. So many times we saw people doing things in such crazy, inefficient ways that we had to shake our heads. It’s not that they’re stupid - they’re the same mix of dumb and bright as the rest of us. It’s just that they’re incredibly stubborn. They do things the way they do them because that’s the way they do them, which is the way they’re done. Witness the Nepali method of shovelling. It’s shovelling, right? You wouldn’t think it would be subject to much variation in technique. You have a shovel, you put the pointy end in the dirt and you lift it with the handle. Not in Nepal. In Nepal, shovelling is a tricky and intricate task that requires two people to do properly. One man does the pointy-end shoving and the lifting. The other man has a rope tied to the shovel, which he pulls on as the first man lifts. I am not joking. The first time I saw it, I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry. Sometimes the two men can get into enough of a rhythm that it’s no less efficient than one man by himself, but mostly it’s a fumbling, ridiculous, dirt-spilling exercise. The only hypothesis that I can come up with is this: Too many people, not enough shovels.

We’d thought of staying in Karte if we couldn’t make it all the way to Dharapani that day. Sheryl was starting to flag as we reached Karte, but after taking one unimpressed look at the place we decided to stick with the original plan. Anyway, we had to carry word to Ben and Christian that the British were safe. It wasn’t so far to Dharapani anyway, as it turned out. We had a choice of bridges on our approach to the village - one new-ish steel suspension bridge (all the suspension bridges in Nepal are built by the Swiss) and one ancient, rotting wooden hulk. The wooden one may actually have been the newer bridge - things age quickly in the mountains.

There was an ACAP checkpoint in Dharapani. Sheryl was for stopping, but I wanted to go and check in. It seemed stupid not to, since if something happened to us that night or the next morning, I’d rather people know where we were last seen. It was another kilometre uphill to the checkpoint - if I’d known, I’d have waited until tomorrow. Indeed, the rangers were very surprised when my answer for “Which village staying?” was Dharapani - seems that everyone checks in when they’re leaving and not arriving. I’d left Sheryl at the bottom, hoping that she’d find us a guesthouse, but she was too tired to move. Which was fine, in the end, because Christian had come galloping after us through the village and brought us back to the guesthouse he’d found.

The British had come into the village about 20 minutes after us. I was very happy to know that today we weren’t the slowest group. I’m also pretty happy with my energy level and performance today. I even had some energy left for reaching the checkpoint, which means that even though I’m carrying the heaviest pack and walked the furthest, we weren’t the slowest. We’ve done 15km today and gained 600m altitude. Hundreds of kilometres further to go, so I hope my energy lasts.

Flourish

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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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