Snow Storms and Tree Ferns
With Dana left behind in Kathmandu to earn a living, I set out on March 6th for the Jaljale Himal in remote northeastern Nepal. Bordering Tibet between the Makalu Barun National Park and the Kangchenjunga Conservation Area, the region is culturally diverse and biologically rich. In the absence of willingness by the government of Nepal to protect the area, I have been discussing with The Mountain Institute the possibility of using a conservation easement/land trust model to safeguard this precious ecology. Conservation easements have not been used in Asia; this approach presents huge challenges and expansive possibilities here.
The Jaljale Trek was an early foray into the proposed project area to begin assessment of those challenges and possibilities. I went with Alton Byers, a geologist with The Mountain Institute instrumental in establishing the Makalu Barun National Park, six porters, a cook, and Laxmi and Karma from The Mountain Institute (photo A). This trek was immediately distinguishable from earlier journeys into the mountains of Nepal. We had no guide; no one on the trek had ever been the intended but tentative route. For 14 days we saw no other westerners and for 8 days no other people. The awe and apprehension of the children bespoke little exposure to westerners. We ran out of food and ran into snow. Trails were often only precipitous hints that someone or something had passed this way before. At times we did not know where we were; our two maps could find little to agree about. If uncertainty characterizes adventure, this was one for sure. But from the outset, signs were auspicious. I met Karma (photo B), my close companion for the expedition, at the Kathmandu Airport, and we boarded Cosmic Air for Tumlingtar. I was in for 15 days of cosmic karma.
March 7. After a shabby night in Tumlingtar, I awoke to an alchemist breakfast in which the cook turned flour and oil into a lead pancake. We set out early for Chainpur where we would join Alton and the rest of the crew. In the first hour we forded two rivers, following closely behind an 11-year old girl and 12 year old boy. Twice they watched from the other side to see if I would make it. Then for two hours they walked with me on their way to school.
March 8. At Mayam, we turned north up the Milke Danda (ridge) headed for the Jaljale Himal. We passed a man weaving the bamboo baskets used by porters to carry immense loads. Bamboo is to these hill people what cedar was to the natives of the Pacific northwest. It is woven into every aspect of their lives. The forests were filled with primroses (photo C), orchids (photo D) & (Photo E), magnolias, and rhododendrons, though the brilliant red laliguras that is the national flower of Nepal was just emerging in a few precocious trees.
March 9. Journeying further up the ridge, we met rain, thunder, and hail. The geography of this region is a complex system of high ridges and deep, steep valleys. The ridges are dotted with kharkas or pastures. Each has stone and bamboo structures for the herders and their animals - cows, goats, sheep, and yaks. Too early in the season for most herders, these kharkas and goThs became our campgrounds and shelters, with the men using the goThs for cooking and sleeping. The kharka areas are badly degraded by overgrazing and cutting of rhododendrons for fuel. Burning only what others had cut did not absolve our guilt. Kerosene stoves provide little warmth.
March 10. Last night was the Holi festival full moon. At six a.m. the tents were covered with snow, feet were frozen, and the trail up the ridge blanketed in snow. The early morning sun was brilliant on Makalu, Chonku Chuli, and Chamlang (photo F) to the northwest and silhouetted Kangchenjunga (photo G) to the northeast. The morning ridge walk through a sea of rhododendrons was breathtaking. In places the trail was terribly steep and icy, impossible for me without my Vibram soles and trekking poles (photo H), a snap for porters with flip flops and 70 pounds in their baskets. We waited out a snowstorm in a goTh with a smoky fire, and found a Himalayan black bear print in the snow. Incredible evening light lit a patch of gnarled fir trees.
March 11. Another clear morning cast pink morning light on the Makalu Himal. We counted 350 growth rings on the stump of an old fir. As we climbed further up the ridge (photo I), the snow got deeper and opinions differed as to where we were. None of the group had been here. With the weather deteriorating, we dropped back down the ridge and made camp in a snow bowl (photo J). The porters cooked and camped under a giant rock overhang used by centuries of yak herders. For the last two days melted snow has been the only source of water. Food and kerosene are running low.
March 12. Morning frost covered our sleeping bags, and boots were frozen solid at about 15,000 feet. Unable to locate the trail, we abandoned our search for Sabha Pokhari, a lake that had to be somewhere nearby. Several porters felt ill - too much cold, altitude, and work - and not enough water. We decided to drop down the ridge to a more hospitable climate and camped at a kharka at the head of a ridge leading into the remote Mewa Khola valley to the southeast. Khancha and Karma made momos for dinner (photo K).
March 13. I took many early morning pictures - Makalu, the main north/south Jaljale Ridge; the ridge into the Mewa Khola; the destruction of rhododendron forest to secure firewood (photo L). In five hours, we dropped 6000 feet into a forest of white rhododendrons. The reds were just beginning to show their color. Twenty-five of Nepalís thirty varieties of rhododendrons live here. What an amazing difference from day before yesterday. After lunch we dropped another 3000 feet and crossed a suspension bridge to the village of Phakumba, meaning big pig in Limbu. A ninety-year-old Gurung great grandmother (photo M) lit her homemade cigarette with an ember form the fire (photo N). A little girl chased the baby goats and held them tightly (photo O). At about six oíclock we found a Limbu house with corn drying under the eve where we could stay for the night (photo P). But they had no extra food, just plenty of millet wine drunk through a bamboo straw. Even an 18-month old had sips of wine as we sat around the fire in the house. Three of our men went to find food, to return with only sugar and a 17-kilo $35 goat. With great excitement, our guys beheaded, scalded and scraped the fur from the goat and then singed the remaining hair from the body and head (photo Q). While preparations were underway, I served Jiffy extra crunchy peanut butter and Pepperidge Farm crackers to the goat scrapers and our host family. Within an hour we had charred goat meat cooked on a stick over the fire.
March 14. Starting late, we gained 5000 feet climbing another ridge out of the sharply cut Mewa Khola valley. We made camp in a rough kharka.
March 15. Awoke surrounded by orchids, red and pink rhodys, and leafless trees covered with magnolia blossoms. In the early morning sun I saw a scarlet-breasted sunbird. Continuing up to the central Jaljale spine, we bought milk from a Sherpa woman cow herder. I have eaten roasted goat meat and goat meat soup, but at the risk of culinary insensitivity, declined a bowl of chopped goat heart, goat blood and intestines, and goat lung soup. The head is still with us, along with promises of goat head soup. I am assured that it does not include eyes or brain. After a slow lunch we continued up a steep, snowy, and illusive path. Finding water is a constant challenge. Saw two sets of leopard tracks in the snow. Again we are above 13,000 feet, and found camp only as the light ran out. Cold and windy, we set up in the dark and cooked in a goTh. I donít know how the porters stay cheerful.
March 16. The clearest yet mountain air magnified the mountains. We could see deep into the valleys, high up the ridges and across into Tibet. Surprised, we learned that we were out of food. Two porters left early in the morning to look for supplies in the Mewa Khola valley, with plans to meet us that evening. I am told that this is what it was like to trek in Nepal in the early 1970s. Succumbing to a conspiracy of silence, I had goat head soup for lunch before continuing up the steep icy ridge trail. We camped in the same place as on night five. The porters who went for food returned about 10:30 p.m.
March 17. In the early morning from this angle I could see Everest in the distance, in addition to Makalu and Kangchenjunga, which I had come to take for granted. As I sat warming on a rock, ten snow partridges wandered into camp. Karma and a porter used the bamboo roof of the goTh as a veranda (photo R). Today we again made a seemingly vertical descent of over 9000 feet, this time to the west into the valley of the Sabha Khola. This was one of the most difficult trails I ever walked. One porter slipped off the trail and lost his load down the hillside. Both kerosene stoves were broken, leaving us dependent on firewood. Khancha, our strongest and most experienced porter, lost his balance when getting up under a heavy load on steep terrain. I ran (believe it or not) to grab his arm while Karma secured his load so it would not pull Khancha over the edge. Saw more leopard tracks. We have now seen tracks and scat of Himalayan bears, common leopards, jungle cats, yellow-throated martins, and wild dogs. We finally got to the Limbu village of Phaduwa. Hot water constantly added to millet mash in wooden mugs created a perpetual flow of home brew. A hard day for knees.
March 18. Karma and I slept in a 6 x 8-foot storage room at the back of the house. At four in the morning I was awakened by an unidentified roar punctuated by a rhythmic pounding. This set off the dog who finally woke up the rooster. Two of our porters joined us with their bed roll (one of the tents) in our cozy space. They had been displaced from the bamboo shed where they were sleeping because it was the place where rice is pounded by a giant lever raised by someone standing on the other side of the fulcrum (photo S). The roar came from the hand grinding of millet between two stones on the floor immediately above us (photo T). Women performed all of this work. I seized on this as evidence of inequity until I learned that the father and son had departed for the fields at five a.m. At mid-morning we passed Sunamala, Kaunchaís Rai village high on a hill across the valley (photo U). The name is derived from sunya, the Nepali word for 0. It used to be a Mugger village, but when all of the Muggers died or left about 100 years ago, the village was renamed 0 because there were no more Muggers. At least that is what Khancha told us. The countryside was dotted with big, leafless trees decorated with brilliant red flowers - phaledo or flame of the forest. Descending into the Sabha Khola valley, we were surrounded by tree ferns, bananas, papayas, poinsettias, palms, and all manner of tropical plants. We kept meeting Khanchaís friends and relations on the trail. An ancient group of five Limbus looked like travelers from Chaucerís Tales (photo V). A 79-year-old Gurkha veteran who had fought all over the world with the British army wanted to trade his bird-capped walking stick for one of my trekking poles. When I said that I wanted to take a picture of the two women for my wife in Kathmandu (photo W), the men insisted with great laughter that I take Dana a picture of me with the two women. Another group from Khanchaís village had walked three hours to watch a helicopter land in Barabese with rice and salt. Barabese was flying the hammer and sickle Maoist flag. We decided to push on to Dhupa where we stayed with a Tamang family on top of the ridge (photo X) .
March 19. I slept on the second floor of a mud and bamboo storage shed (photo Y). The ladder up was made from notches in a small log. Every time I went up or down, porters came running to catch me. The pounding rice alarm went off at 4:30 a.m. By seven, I was taking pictures of family, relatives, and neighbors with the digital camera. People pointed with giggles and delight when they saw their picture on the tiny screen. At first ever so shy, a glimpse of their faces on the bright screen led to requests for individual pictures, group pictures, family pictures, neighborhood pictures - a wonderful way to cross the cultural divide. Looking for a place with water for lunch, we ended up watching an 80 year-man weaving a split bamboo mat for drying rice (photo Z). To keep the bamboo slats pliable, he spit water on them from a rusty old bowl. The delicate splitting of the bamboo was done with a large khukri, the traditional curved knife made famous by the Gurkha soldiers. For $3 I bought a 5 x 8 foot mat to support local crafts. The man boasted of having had four wives. Declining blood sausage, I finally said goatbye to the goat. We saw three schools decorated with pro-Maoist slogans and walked through a community forest being devastated in the interest of cardamom production.
March 20. After a night in a nameless one-room hotel in Gangue, we headed for Khadbari. All morning we met friends and relatives of Karma on their way back to their remote village on the Tibetan border from the southern planes where Nepal meets India (photoZz). About 60% of the village follows this traditional migration to escape the bleak winters with little food and to trade alpine medicinal herbs for those from the tropics. Today things are relatively easy with only 15 days walk to the nearest bus stop.
After a wonderful welcome from the local staff of The Mountain
Institute orchestrated by Laxmi and a visit to a woman weaving
cloth from nettles, we headed down the valley for the three-hour
walk to the airport at Tumlingtar. Cosmic Air was waiting there
to close this magic adventure from the snowstorms of the Jaljale
Himal to the tree ferns of the Sabha Khola.