Tatopani to Ghorepani; Trek day sixteen; In which we climb a lot of stairs

If yesterday was the Day of Downhill, today was the Day of Uphill. We had to slowly and painfully gain back every meter of altitude we’d lost yesterday, plus interest. The reasons were still valid - we had to make it to Ghorepani by nightfall so that we could leave our bags at the lodge in the morning and climb Poon Hill without them - but that didn’t make the climbing any more enjoyable. In a sense the entire trek to date, including the Thorung-La Pass itself, had been only training for this day, because we had to gain almost 1700m - more than half again the most we’d climbed in a single day so far.

The day didn’t start off well. Relying on our terrible maps and contradictory directions from villagers, we got lost only half an hour after Tatopani. We lost an hour trying to find the trail among a chaos of knocked-down stone buildings (don’t ask me, I don’t live there) and temporary-permanent detours before we finally discovered the ten million stone steps leading up, up, up. Five hundred ugly meters straight up and on top of the hill we discovered what we thought was Ghara village. I was surprised that it had come up so soon, but happy at our good progress. Turns out my happiness was premature - Ghara is either two completely separate villages with the same name three kilometres apart, or one very long, strung out village. By the time we’d reached the second half of the village (or the second village?) an hour later, I thought we were in Sikha and had a nasty surprise.

Our map said there was a temple for Ganesh in Ghara. We couldn’t very well pass one of Ganesh’s temples without paying our respects, so Sheryl asked around until she found an old Hindu woman sifting rice. The old lady told her about the village’s three temples. The furthest away was for Shiva, the nearest for Durga Devi, and the farthest for Ganesh. She drafted a decrepit old man to take us to Ganesh’s temple. We’d never have found our way ourselves through the village’s twisting alleyways and staircases.

There was nothing to show that the temple was actually a temple, and it was hard to tell where the entrance was. We got confused by the layout and went in in a completely cack-handed way. To start, we went the wrong way around the building and in a small door which led right into the inner room. We hadn’t counted on that, and had to strip off our packs and shoes in a hurry and carry them outside. Of course we got caught, which was embarrassing. We’ve visited a lot of Hindu temples - we know what to do and how to behave. The representative of the caretaker family was bemused at our presence and amused at our awkwardness - at least he wasn’t too offended. We asked to see the god, still thinking it would be Ganesh - there were posters of him all over the place - but when the man opened the doors to the shrine, it wasn’t an idol of Ganesh that greeted us, but some lion-headed god instead. We were both very confused, but there was no polite option left except to go through the motions of a quick prayer. I’ve never seen the lion-headed god before, but after later research I think it might have been Narasimha, an incarnation of Vishnu. Seems clear to me that poor old Ganesh had his temple usurped.

We left Ghara still confused about the temple episode, and I wished we hadn’t wasted the time. I wouldn’t have minded if we’d been able to see Ganesh, but the trail was long and we hadn’t really had the time to spare. We didn’t reach Sikha, halfway to Ghorepani at 1935m, until after 2 in the afternoon. The trail had gotten really unpleasant, steep and covered with stinking donkey, cow and water-buffalo dung. It’s a bad sign when you’ve learned to distinguish between them. Sikha was another ridiculously long strung-out village. We’d walked far enough to cross a small town before we reached what looked like the middle.

Sheryl decided that she needed lunch at this point, so we stopped. Lunch was yet another comedy of errors. Hardly anything was open in the village. An old woman beckoned us into one place and then went to fetch her… Daughter? Daughter-in-law? Who knows? Cue lots of loud back-and-forth in Nepali from behind the building, and the younger woman finally came out to take our order. Honestly, it seemed as if she’d never seen her own menu, and was a bit foggy about the entire concept of a menu, or indeed of a restaurant. She repeated every word we said in Nepali or in English slowly and bewilderedly. Finally she went and fetched an old man loitering on the street outside and made him translate. We got our order placed but after five minutes of the old man explaining to her how to cook the momos (Tibetan dumplings) and chow mein we’d ordered (and her repeating his words slowly and bewilderedly) we decided just to leave. The old man took pity on us and told us that there were more restaurants open five minutes further uphill. We finally ended up at a place swarming with flies, but at least they were friendly and knew what momos were.

They were painfully slow, though. The checkpoint guard at Sikha told us that it would be an hour and a half to Chitre, and another hour and a half onward to Ghorepani. We’ve never yet been as fast as any Nepali’s estimate, so time was getting short. Lunch didn’t come until 3:15 and I reckoned that with the heavy overcast, there were only around three hours of daylight left. We bolted our food in five minutes and were on the road two minutes later.

After having trouble all morning, Sheryl suddenly had a burst of energy after lunch. I could hardly keep up with her at points. I think most of it was fueled by anger, though - I’d nearly caused inadvertent relationship destruction by suggesting that her heart hadn’t been in it that morning. Whatever the reason, we did the supposed 4km and 400m altitude gain to Chitre in the Nepali-standard hour and a half, though it cost us one lung each. So much goddamn steep uphill climbing - it was both hands and both feet at times. The weather started to get cold and damp as we climbed, and I began to be very concerned about the weather. Suddenly the oncoming dusk wasn’t the only reason to hustle up the mountain - neither of us wanted to be soaked and freezing. The trail was all stone steps again, raised in the middle and with slippery mud-gutters to either side, because cows and donkeys don’t like stairs and make their own paths.

We took a short rest at Chitre and then pushed on. It was tough, but we managed to do the five kilometres and 500m climb up to Ghorepani in another hour and a half. The last stretch into Ghorepani was the worst. I never want to do that again - 1670m of climbing and 17km distance, all unrelenting climbing. It was no fun at all. Ghorepani’s stone street and blue galvanized roofs came up through the mist about 20 minutes before dark. We had nothing left, but dragged ourselves to a lodge we’d seen recommended in a trail report back in Kathmandu - the Hungry Eye Guesthouse. I hadn’t written down why the anonymous commentator had thought the place was good, but having a goal was better than choosing randomly, I reckoned. I’m glad we stayed there, despite the single-layer plywood walls. The staff were very friendly, the showers were hot and they let us sit next to the wood-stove. It started to rain hard only a few minutes after we arrived, with lots of lightning and thunder. It made me glad we’d tried so hard to get there quickly.

The flirty girl who worked at the lodge dragged us into the kitchen after dinner to watch a video somebody had made that spring about Ghorepani, which had lots of silly-looking traditional dancing among the blossoming rhododendron trees. I’ve seen a lot of traditional dancing in a lot of countries, and it’s all started to blur into a lot of jumping in circles holding hands and wearing goofy costumes. Even the costumes start to look the same after a while. But she was very proud of it, and the family that ran the place was very nice, so we enjoyed it. They wanted us to stay up and visit with them, but we were both bone-tired and the heat of the kitchen was putting us to sleep.

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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