Manang to Yak Kharka; Trek day seven; Yaks!

We’re getting high enough now that the limiting factor for how much distance we can cover isn’t our stamina but the change in altitude. In order to avoid the dreaded altitude sickness it’s important not to sleep any more than 400 or 500 meters higher than you did the night before. The trail is getting a lot steeper as we approach the Thorong-La pass, so even though the villages might be closer together horizontally, we have to stop at the one that’s the right distance away vertically. That meant that today was a short day - only 9km from Manang to Yak Kharka. Even so, at a gain of 500m altitude we’re pushing the boundaries for altitude sickness.

The climb out of Manang was no fun - muddy and slippery, and I was still stiff from two days ago. The next village was very close, overlooking Manang from nearly on top. It took that long for my joints to warm up and loosen up, and then the walking got easier. Sheryl was feeling very poorly, though - mostly her stomach.

A couple of hours out of Manang we were still following the riverbed. The thin little river twisting in the midst of the wide, rocky vally floor had carved neat patterns in the gritty grey silt, and the grey mountain light played tricks on our eyes as we walked. Once we heard a loud rumbling like thunder in the distance, but that kept going on and on, far longer than any thunder. Looking around we saw a huge avalanche across the valley. The force of it, and the sheer amount of falling snow, was awe-inspiring. From a distance and even through binoculars, it looked just like a big waterfall. I felt very sorry for anybody who happened to be at the bottom.

We saw more wildlife that morning than in the rest of the trek. Every so often there would be little rodents about the size of guinea pigs, black or speckled, with a round nose and bum, short tail and big round ears. I think they may have been marmots. Sheryl never saw them so she thinks I was making them up. She definitely saw the eagles, though. There were two of them, probably a mated pair. They were massive birds, honey and brown in colour, with powerful wings. I saw the first as it floated past just off the trail, right at eye-level and no more than ten meters away. Magnificent.

Even in these desolate heights there are still herders. We were walking through beautiful high alpine meadows, all in muted greens with little round boulders scattered unpredictably around and sheer drops to one side, and there were lots of shaggy little goats with flat twisted horns that were painted in various colours. It was an amazing landscape and we took a lot of time going through it. Everyone asked us later if we’d had trouble, but we were just enjoying ourselves too much to hurry - especially when we didn’t need to.

The name Yak Kharka means “Yak Pasture”. Even though I kept calling it “Yak Carcass” (another example of the sort of humour which is funny only to me), the name still filled me with hopes of finally seeing yaks. Even just one yak, I would have been happy with. So I was overjoyed, as we walked the last couple of kilometres to the village, to see half a dozen dark shapes on the other side of the gorge. Yaks!, I yelled, and we whipped out the binoculars. Sure enough, there were five wild yaks - four black ones and one brown one. I was very excited to finally see them even if they were so far away, and I was very impressed with how steep the slope was that they were navigating. They looked just like their pictures - stumpy-legged walking carpets with horns coming out one end.

Little did I know that a great herd of yaks awaited us. Yak Kharka is well-named. It’s just a little mudhole with a couple of tourist lodges and a couple more for locals, but there are definitely yaks. As soon as we ate and got settled in the lodge we headed out into the steep pastures outside the village to see them. There must have been a hundred yaks there - although, since they were probably all female, they were likely not yaks but naks. I am not kidding. A female yak is a nak.

Whatever they were, yaks or naks, we treated them with respect at first, not knowing how wild, irritable or dangerous they might be. Their horns are long and sharp, I know that. I’ve had much worse receptions from cows, though. I wouldn’t call the yaks placid - they only let us get so close before they started stamping and bucking - but they were clearly used to people. One thing I hadn’t realized was how small yaks are. They’re much smaller than cows. Even the biggest only came up to Sheryl’s chest. Their legs are very short, and they’re much slimmer than cows, too. Most of them is their great, shaggy coat of hair that reaches down to the ground and sways as they walk. Often, when they had their heads down grazing, it was hard to tell which direction they were facing.

We spent an hour taking pictures of the yaks, until the light began to fade and the herder decided it was time to take them in to the village. He followed the traditional Nepali method of herding, which is to shout, whistle and throw rocks at the animals until they move in the right direction. Unfortunately for us, the right direction was directly toward us! We had to scramble for high ground to avoid getting trampled by the stampede. The herd parted around our little rock outcropping, charged madly to either side and streamed down the hill.

It was too early for us to go in, though - especially with such a magnificent view on display. The setting sun lit up the snow-capped mountain peaks in the distance and turned the valley into a boiling cauldron of icy plumes, framed by the dark shadowed slopes to either side. We felt… privileged, somehow, to be allowed to witness it.

We were bloody freezing, though. I haven’t felt cold like this for a long time, and now I’m remembering just how much I hate it. It’s not so bad during the day when you’re moving, but when the sun goes down it’s a different story. There’s a freezing wind that whips through the holes in the walls. We’re under many blankets and a sleeping bag, I’m wearing all my clothes, and I’m still cold. There was a fire in the common room at the lodge and we were very grateful for it, but it didn’t make our beds in the other building any warmer. I hope there will be only one more night at these frigid high altitudes before we cross the pass and descend to warmer regions again.

Dinner for me that night was a yak burger, naturally. I had to know. To my complete lack of surprise, it tasted like a mild sort of beef. I would have great cause to regret my curiosity in the days to come, though, when suffering through a bad bout of food-poisoning at the worst possible time. Bad yak meat is not a good thing.


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One Comment on this Dispatch:

June 25th, 2009

When a YAK and a NAK yack does the NAK yack more than the NAK???

¬ Bill
June 27th, 2009

Well nakturally!

¬ Chris
Chris Liberty - Dispatches from a Gentleman Adventurer
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