Friday, October 21, 2016

In Peter Matthiessen's Footsteps

Greetings All,
After spending 3 nights in Shey it was time to leave and continue our trek in the Dolpa District of Nepal.  A frenetic Montain Weasel visited our camp dashing from one empty marmot burrow to another and bouncing off our toilet tent.  The Mountain Weasel is listed as near-threatened by the ICUN because it is in significant decline due to habitat and resource loss.

Mountain Weasel

We trekked pass Shey Gompa one last time and headed up a side valley toward our next objective, the Saldang La.  Along the way were tiny settlements where people were grazing yaks, sheep and goats.  The trail climbed gradually toward the pass and we stopped for lunch at its base.  We resumed our climb and Chet paused to listen to a noise overhead.  Large flocks of birds were flying high above us.  At first we thought they were geese as they were flying in a V formation but they sounded more like cranes.  Several flocks coalesced into one massive flock heading south toward India. 

Migrating Cranes

We soon reached the Saldang La, our third pass at 16,500 feet!  To the north lay the dry mountains of Mustang and the Tibetan Plateau beyond.  

Us on the Saldang La

A descent through barren valleys brought us to the tiny village of Namduna Gaon.  Several yak trains were heading up the Saldang La.  There is a brisk trade between Saldang and Ringmo.  In ancient times salt from Tibet was the main trade commodity but today lumber from the forests around Ringmo seems to be in high demand.

Yak train near Namduna Gaon

We camped above the village and the Namdung Monastery which we would visit in the morning.  When we showed up early the following day, the Gompa was locked and there was no one around to open it up.  Chet kept yelling for someone and finally a woman arrived from the fields to let us in.  As with most gompas we've visited so far this one was vacant as the head lama was in Kathmandu.  It seems the gompas are only functional during ceremonies. 

Inside Namdung Monastery

After our visit we continued down toward the village of Saldang.  In about 2 hours we could see the village below.  To my horror a massive trek group of 30 plus their staff and 50 or so mules were camped there.  Thankfully, we camped above and could not see them from our tent.  It turns out they were a group of 28 doctors from the US traveling to remote villages in the area to provide basic medical care, very admirable but difficult work under such primitive conditions.

Doctors' Camp at Saldang

In the afternoon we visited the home of an Alchi or Tibetian medicine man who was also a monk.  He invited us into his home to see his private Gompa. We climbed up a crude ladder to the shrine.  He had many things including ancient texts written by his great grandfather on yak leather.  

Ancient Text on Yak Leather

We went into his little shop where he showed us a picture book called "Caravans of the Himalaya" written in 1995 by Eric Valli in which he was featured.  Some of the photos showed primitive medical procedures which I can't imagine enduring.  The Alchi had some medical instruments hanging from his belt.  When I asked him what they were he pulled out what looked like a crude scalpel.  I cringed.

"Caravans of the Himalaya"

The following day we awoke to more rain so we decided not to visit Karang, a smaller village to the north.  The group of doctors was packing up camp.  The bad weather had forced them to change their plans as well.  They would cross the Saldang La and head to Shey instead of visiting a village further north.  The rain stopped in the afternoon and we visited the Samyeecholing Monastery.  As usual, we had to find someone with a key to let us in.  A young monk showed up, unlocked the door and we entered the main chamber.  The monk opened a few windows and lit a few butter lamps so we could see the interior better.  Freshly painted (about 2 years ago) murals adorned the walls and again all the typical Buddhist artifacts were present.  I gave the monk a kata or scarf given to us by our friend Galden Sherpa when we were back in Kathmandu and he draped it over the middle statue.

Inside Samyeecholing Monastery

This Gompa was unique in that it had both Hindu and Buddhist deities represented.  The original monastery was built here 600 years ago but the present day one is only about 20 years old.  The young monk took us upstairs to a tiny chamber with old statues about 300 years old.

The Old Gompa Room

We returned to camp for tea around 4:00.  I looked out of the mess tent to see a herd of dzos (yak/cow hybrids) coming down the pass carrying long timbers.  We went out to photograph them and ended up taking this video as they headed straight toward our toilet tent!  Would it survive?

Whew, that was a close one!  The next morning we left Saldang and headed down the valley past the villages of Namdo and Rapa.  This time of year everyone is busy harvesting barley.  The plants are either pulled out of the ground or cut with a sickle and are stacked neatly once the heads with the grain is removed.  The livestock gets to eat the stalks during the long cold winter.

Stacks of Barley

We left the main trail and headed for our next campsite near the hamlet of Rakka.  When we arrived we found that the campsite had been obliterated during the last monsoon and that a small lake was now in its place.  We headed further upriver to a suitable campsite.  While we were setting up our tents, I noticed a herd of 35 or so Blue Sheep across the river coming down for a drink.  A male with massive horns paused mid-drink for Marc to take his photo.

Blue Sheep Ram Drinking at the River

It was a cold walk up the river valley the next day until the sun finally reached us.  The remaining bushes gave the desolate valley some autumn color.  What looked like tamarisk had turned a deep purple and other bushes a brilliant red.  

Fall Colors

We had lunch at the confluence of the Dachen and Nagon Kholas before heading up the broad gravel bed of the Nagon Khola toward the Langmuse La, our fourth pass crossing.  It started to sleet around 2:00 and I wondered if it would make tomorrow's pass crossing difficult.  We have microspikes but the rest of the crew and the mules did not.  The skies had cleared up the following morning and we climbed steeply, encountering snow sometimes as deep as a foot but mostly only 2-3 inches.  The slopes we had to traverse above looked steep and with the newly fallen snow, slick.  I kept telling myself if Putchay and the mules could do it so could I.  We put on our microspikes which gave me more confidence.  It wasn't so bad.

Approaching Langmuse La

We reached the top around 9:45 where we could see Dhaulighari looming to the east.

Us on Langmuse La

We took a few photos and headed down the south side which fortunately was snow-free.  Another large flock of cranes flew high above us.  We reached the valley floor where the remnants of many camps were strewn about.  Locals come here in the spring to graze their sheep and goats and have left behind old shoes, aluminum cans and worst of all broken glass.  It was sad to see in this remote and beautiful valley.

High Meadow Camp

We set up camp on the far side and as we were preparing for tea Marc spotted a Wooly Hare but I missed it.  It would have been a new mammal for me.  After tea we climbed the ridges above camp in search of the hare.  It was a long shot but we had to try.  Lo and behold we startled it and it sprang along a ravine coming to a stop long enough for Marc to get a photo.

Woolly Hare

It was near this remote valley that George Schaller, a biologist accompanying Matthiessen on his travels in 1973, spotted two Snow Leopards.  We'd have to be content with the Wooly Hare.  The next morning we headed out toward the Bagala, our 5th and final pass crossing.  As we got closer we could see that there was a lot of snow on the pass.

First Look at the Bagala

Could we make it over?  Chet said they'd have to do a reconnaissance trip after lunch to assess the situation.  I wasn't so sure.  I was already thinking about a "Plan B."  When we arrived at the junction of 2 routes, one toward the Bagala and one toward the Numala, I hesitated.  Chet asked us which pass we wanted to take.  The Bagala meant a much shorter route back to Juphal but we were uncertain if we could cross it.  The Numala was a sure thing but meant 5 long days of trekking to get back to Juphal.  After careful consideration, we chose the Numula and set up camp at the junction.

A trekking group from Singapore was coming down the Numala and reported that it was snow-free.  They also reported that an American trek group had camped at the base of the Bagala but decided to turn back.  We felt that we had made the right decision to climb the Numala the next day.

The next morning we awoke to clear skies and made the straightforward 3000-foot climb to the top of the Numala Pass.  We were rewarded with stunning views of Dhaulighari and Annapurna to the east.

Us on the Numala

A long descent brought us to the Tarap Valley and the village of Tokyu.  I was shocked to see motorbikes in the village.  How did they get here?  There is no road to this remote village.  I found it ironic that the yaks were hanging out by the motorcycles.  Could this mean the end of the yak trains?

Motorcycle and Yaks in Tokyu

We stopped to visit the local Chaiba Gompa before continuing on.  Once again we had to find someone to unlock the door.  It was an old Gompa, maybe 300 years.  There were some large Buddhist statues inside and a pile of mani scrolls.

Inside Chaiba Gompa

We continued to the village of Dho Tarap where we spent the night.  The next day the Tarap Valley narrowed into a deep canyon.  It took us two days to negotiate the long canyon, sometimes climbing high above to avoid sheer walls while other times approaching to within 5 feet of the raging torrent of the Tarap Khola.

Deep Canyon of Tarap Khola

The canyon ended at a confluence just below the village of Khani Gaon.  Chet took us to see our final Gompa.  We crossed the raging river on a wooden plank bridge and climbed up to Chhedhui Gompa past old chortens.  

Chortens Below Khani Gaon

When we arrived it appeared deserted but we could see an old man spinning a prayer wheel.  Chet called to him but he didn't seem to have the key.  An old woman showed up with a couple of girls and opened the door which wasn't locked.  It was an old Gompa maybe 600-700 years old.  At first the woman said no photos but she gave in.  There were statues, masks, horns and butter lamps.  

Inside Chhedui Gompa Below Khani Gaon

We were then taken into the back chamber which had even bigger and older statues.  

Old Statue Inside Chhedhui Gompa 

The following day was our last long hike and brought us to the town of Dunai.  We camped at a new lodge just outside of town.  Dibi, the owner, has a daughter in Canada and a son in the US and was happy to talk to us.  Our 22nd and final day of the trek was a short one.  It didn't take long to reach Sulighat which closed the loop on our long circuit hike.  Now it was just a mere 1400-foot climb from the Thuli Bheri Khola to Juphal, the end of our trek!  We celebrated the completion of our journey in the footsteps of Peter Matthiessen with a raffle of items we brought from home and a tip ceremony for our amazing trek crew.

Raffle in Juphal

During my speech I broke broke down into tears.  I wanted to convey to them just how special Nepal was and how much we appreciated all their hard work.  This trip would not have been possible without their guidance and support.

Chet, Pemba, Chahndan, Shree Dahn, Jamar and Birendra

We later learned that George Schaller at the age of 84 and Alex, Peter Matthiessen's son, had just completed a 30-day trek in the area!  Like us they were seeking to experience the spirituality and adventure that Peter and George had 43 years ago!  I think both parties were successful!

We hope all is well back home.
Peggy and Marc

Our route map:

More detail:

Covered over 190 miles and climbed over 40,000 ft

1 comment:

Karen said...

Peggy & Marc, we so enjoyed your post on this amazing trip to Nepal. You two continue to top yourselves in adventure experiences. Your endurance and fortitude are to be admired and treasured. Congratulations on completing what looked to be a very difficult trip, even for you. It's all the more interesting to me as my mother's caretakers (husband and wife) are from remote Nepalise villages. Unfortunately I don't know the location. Thanks for sharing.
Karen & Gary, friends from Belize trip