March 6, 2018: Day 1
Kathmandu to Soti Khola (by Jeep)
Today is the day! We have been planning, preparing, stressing out and getting wildly excited about this day for a long time now. Today we set off from Kathmandu to begin our two week trek into the heart of the Himalaya’s to circuit around the eighth highest mountain in the world, Manaslu. We used our two day layover in Vancouver to stock up on some trekking essentials and then spent a week in Kathmandu adjusting to the food and culture, and partaking in the amazing Holi festivities. But now the time has finally come! We’ve gone over the maps, the itinerary, asked a million questions, gotten to know our guide Tek and his brother Bhim our porter, and now all that remains is to get out there.
The Jeep bounced away from our hotel at 9am and we were off. Almost. We had to make three different stops to find a functioning ATM because we had a last minute panic that we would not have enough cash to last two weeks in the mountains. There is no access to money once we leave the city, so it’s better to be safe and have extra than cut it close. We stashed our thick wads of tens of thousands of rupees, and then we were off! Sort of… after a mere half hour of maneuvering through the wild, boisterous city streets of Kathmandu we finally began to leave its clutches, but as we peered at the traffic on the other side of the valley – where we were headed – it was clear that cars were backed for miles up on the winding road hugging the mountain side. A huge crowd of people were gathered in the road. This cluster was clearly the source of the blockage and soon enough we were backed up with the rest of the traffic. After a while we, like everyone else, got out of our vehicle to walk down the road a ways and investigate and see what we were up against.
On a hairpin bend in the road, a green bus had collided with a transport truck full of bricks, of all things. The front of the green bus was smashed and the transport truck was tipped on to its side, the red bricks spilling from its back like blood. Another truck, a much larger transporter, had got involved in the middle of the collision somehow and was struggling to run so it could move itself off the road, but they finally got it out of the way and a path was cleared. People were running around like ants trying to help in some way or other – throwing bricks aside or tossing huge rocks under the damaged trucks wheels so it wouldn’t roll back into the collision or yelling orders to others. There is no waiting for police or other services here. Everyone simply gets out and helps move things along in any way they can. Traffic slowly began to move, but we had been set back at least an hour and a half from this accident. Sadly, thus is life on these treacherous roads; accidents are common and people drive like absolute maniacs! By the time we passed the accident we saw a huge group of humans working with the strength of ants pulling and moving the shattered green bus by hand out of the ditch! Our hotel hosts and guide Tek, and porter Bhim.
Our driver and guide had told us that the first three hours of our drive was on a good highway and then the next four hours was ‘offorad’. The ‘good’ highway was nothing to write home about (yet here I am, hmm!), but dear spirits, they were not kidding when they said off-roading! It wasn’t even a road, it was a path cut in sand! Deep ruts of red sand were the only semblance of a path we had to follow while climbing the steep mountain side perched on a cliff with no room for oncoming traffic at all. Which is preposterous considering this pathway was a construction zone and huge dump trucks were working on it. We constantly had to back up as a large truck came barreling towards us, huge clouds of red dust exploding all around as we scrambled to do up the windows and suffocate in the heat until it passed. There was a lot of honking and terrifying maneuvering, but our driver was skilled. We were in the usual off road trek fare – a Scorpio, which was some sort of land cruiser-esque vehicle, and thank god we were! This thing took the beating of its life.
We bounced around like shoes in a dryer on high heat. Poor Jan is prone to motion sickness and was not having a good time. I had suffered a bit of motion sickness in Mexico which was an entirely new phenomenon for me so I was pretty worried I would be struck down on this insane ride too. But thankfully I wasn’t and I attribute it entirely to distracting my mind for hours with my new addiction – crossword puzzles! But this was without a doubt the most ridiculously bouncy car ride I have ever been on in my life. I am amazed we even made it to be honest, without the car disintegrating into a million broken pieces (not to mention our own poor jarred bones!). At the very least I thought we would surely break down or get a flat tire. But our vehicle was an unstoppable beast, our driver a true professional. You know what the craziest thing about all this is? Buses do this trip. I kid you not, full length local buses drive on this sandy rutted path up a mountain and down it, and somehow make it. I didn’t believe it was possible, I mean we barely made it in our off-road vehicle! And yet, unbelievably, we met a bus on the path. I was speechless. And desperately grateful to be in this jeep and not that bus! And while we were as comfortable as we could be, the three of us bouncing around, trying not to crack our skullls together, poor Bhim was squished in the back of the jeep with all of our bags! Luckily he had a sort of sideway facing mini seat, but it could not have been comfortable.
I had really wanted to enjoy more of the views along the ride but I was so scared of getting sick that I didn’t want to risk looking anywhere other than my crossword. It was hard enough to see much between the dust and the wild knocking and bouncing about of my head. I spent much of the time ensuring my skull didn’t knock sideways into Jan’s! We were often perched on the edge of a narrow dirt path, nothing but hundreds of feet of drop away directly below us. I have the utmost respect for our driver who managed to get us here in one piece. Well, almost. Poor Jan got sick on the way. I felt terrible for her as I know that wretched feeling all to well. She’s a trooper all right! We all agreed that it was the worst road any of us had ever been on by a long shot.
We finally made it to Soti Khola at 6pm. Once our knees and heads stopped shaking and spinning, we offloaded ourselves and our bags and got set up in our little triple room – the first of many tea houses we would be staying in on our journey. We each had a little single bed with some linens – what more does one need? The view of the Buri Gandaki river out back was gorgeous, the way it snaked and raged past us in the twilight. It provided us the most wonderful white noise all night. The hard to get to impoverished village was rough and gritty, but the Buri Gandaki cutting through the towering mountains surrounding it made it beautiful.
After settling in, we sat with our Nepalese Guide Tek and his younger brother Bhim, whom Jan knew and had employed on her last trek in Nepal the previous year. We once more discussed our plan of action and route that they had drawn up for us. They were both so easy going and helped put my mind at ease. I think we really lucked out with them! But soon exhaustion hit us; the ride was stressful and took a lot out of us, but it wasn’t even 9pm yet, so we took a stroll through the only street in the village in the dark. We gazed up at the stars, impossibly bright out here tucked away in the mountains, far from the city light pollution, and wondered at the new positions of the constellations- everything was turned around on this side of the world. We encountered a herd of mules and donkeys grazing in the garbage strewn in the street and startled each other. Alas we could stay awake no longer and all made for home, excited to finally start our trek in the morning!
March 7, 2018: Day 2
Soti Khola to Khorlabesi
Hours: 9 (2 hour stop)
Altitude gain: 240m
Well, I didn’t sleep much at all last night (what a surprise!), and then I woke up to the lovely surprise of diarrhea. Oh boy what a way to start the trek! Am I seriously going to get a stomach bug on DAY 1?! Oh, and what else? I also started my period! Wonderful, just wonderful! Since I was unable to sleep, I got out of bed around 6am, took my journal and crosswords and sat on the deck over looking the Buri Gandaki and listened to it roar while the rest of the world woke up. It was nice to have some time alone in the morning even if my stomach was off. Turns out Jan’s stomach was off too, though she initially thought it was residual sickness from yesterday. I was able to get my breakfast down, made about four trips to the toilet in an hour and then packed up. We took our time and were the last ones to leave which I was okay with (gave me more chances to use the toilet!).
We hit the trail around 9am with the sun already blazing hot on our faces, walking along the bumpy road that we had driven in on. It carved along the mountains, hugging them tightly, the blue river booming below us. Occasionally we had to move off to the side of the path for the herds of donkeys and pack mules who came ambling through, their bells jingling and backs sagging with their impossibly heavy loads. A John Deer tractor full of sandbags got stuck trying to ascend a steep (and I mean steep!) soft dirt hill and we watched amused as they worked it out. The terrain kept changing throughout the day as we trekked further into the mountains. It was beautiful. We climbed through the mountains on paths cut into their sides, then down to the river beside its roar for a while, crossing over and back again several times picking our way over the stones, occasionally slipping in a bit. And I am happy to report that my new hikers held up and even stayed dry when I slipped in ankle deep!
We hiked back up the mountains into villages, up and down from paths to rivers to bridges to sand to shattered shale rock and over rockslides. You name it, we traversed it that first day. We stopped for lunch in a small village around 2pm. The veggie fried rice was heaping and hot and delicious and I filled my first bottle of water with village water and a purification tablet. Which takes guts when said guts had been expelling themselves from you violently all morning! But, so far so good! There was some major construction going on further up the path as they were working on extending the road path to the next village, which meant we could either take a two hour detour around it (all steeply uphill), or wait until 5pm when the work was done for the day and finish our trek a bit later in the day. We decided to wait it out and spent an extra two hours in the village over lunch just hanging out. I went to take a photo of the most glorious looking rooster I’d ever seen when a little girl no more than three struck up an in-depth conversation with me in Nepali. I listened to her ramble away and nodded and smiled and encouraged her to continue with her story. She taught me how to say chicken and marvelled at my purple hair. I pointed to her crumbling purple crocs and said, ‘Same colour!’.
‘Same?’ She repeated, ‘Same same same!’ (In retrospect I probably should have said purple, as she now probably thinks same means purple… duh!).
She put a bindi on my forehead for me, presumably all the while telling me about it. She saw me take a photo of the rooster and asked me (again, I presumed so through her gestures) to take her photo. She immediately put her hand beneath her chin and smiled perfectly. Someone’s done this before! She was heartbreakingly adorable, the highlight of my extended lunch break. Travis and I took a brief walk through the village and watched the chaos of a mother goat frantically searching for her bleating kid (who had snuck inside someone’s house, the owner of which was trying tirelessly to remove said babe with a stick banging on the corrugated metal walls and lots of yelling), a pack mule ambling past, a rooster crowing, and a handful of school children fresh out of class parading down past us, chatting animatedly. It was wonderful, chaotic pandemonium at its best!
We continued on around 4:30 and came to the detour. We ended up needing to back track a bit and go down by the river, taking a detour of sorts after all. A man in military uniform stopped us and had us wait for 15 minutes by the river. He handed us each a hard hat when it was time to move on and we walked along the river over the large boulders, always looking up to ensure nothing was about to fall down on our heads from the construction above. It was rather comical looking, all of our yellow heads bobbing along river side with our packs. We came to a rather sketchy part in the path that cut upwards in loose sand and then steeply down. A man was basically digging the path as we came along and we thought ‘how nice!’. However it turns out it wasn’t for us – his mule train was coming in hot behind us! But, we made it over the trembling ground, as it disintegrated with each step falling into the river below us. Inevitably we got caught up behind another mule caravan, slowing our pace as we came at last into camp in Khorlabesi. It was a long and eventful first day, having traversed all types of terrain in hot weather, and we were pretty spent. The sun had just set as we arrived and we all decided to have freezing cold but wonderful showers. Damn it felt good to get clean after that dusty car ride and a long hot day trekking! I changed into some very warm and very clean clothes and went down for supper – a steaming pile of veggie fried rice yet again. I wasn’t hungry, mostly due to being so tired, but I tried to force it down. In bed by 9, I hoped I would sleep a wee bit better this night. Until tomorrow…
March 8, 2018: Day 3
Khorlabesi to Jagat
Altitude gain: 440m
I awoke at 6am. The bed was just a foam mat on a board, unbearably stiff. My arms kept falling asleep, the curse of the side sleeper. It was not a good night for me and I barely slept at all. Poor Jan is still really sick and can’t keep a thing down -er – in! I feel awful for her, I thought for sure she would want to stay back a day to hopefully recover, but she is a trooper and after breakfast we packed up and hit the road around 9am – we are seriously late starters! Once again, the last ones to leave! It was nice and cool before the sun reached over the mountains so we enjoyed the brief reprieve from the heat while we could. Yet another detour met us ahead and we had to scale half way up the mountain and then back down again. It was a bit treacherous at times and a hell of workout first thing in the morning! We came into the sun and the butterflies came out and hugged the little purple flowers. The river became larger and louder and even more beautiful as it cut deeper into the Himalayas. We passed more mule caravans than I would have ever thought possible today – hundreds and hundreds of mules, those poor, hardworking beasts. But these villages need supplies somehow and without a road, this was the only way. The packmules brought supplies, but that wasn’t all they brought…The acrid stench of their urine, the heaping piles of manuere we had to maneuver around along with the millions of flies those piles attracted… I would be dreaming of the sound of buzzing flies and those wretched smells.An elderly woman carries an infant on her back, barefoot over the trail.
Of course, it was easy to forget about what we were stepping over and through because the scenery today was breathtaking! After the detour we stopped for a short trail break and the inevitable happened – a bush poo for poor sick Jan. It was the start of an agonizingly long morning for Jan, who had to make 10 emergency stops along the trail; she was so ill! How she kept going, being so weak and unable to keep any nutrition inside her was a miraculous feat. Her struggle brought to mind my Salkantay trek through the Andes in Peru. No sleep, altitude sickness, diarrhea, sun stroke and a vicious cold all in a mere five days…! The mind and body are capable of some amazing feats, let me tell you! Anyway, to top it all off, poor Jan sat her butt right into some stinging nettle – ouch ! As if she weren’t uncomfortable enough, now she had to deal with an awful, itchy burning sensation plaguing her behind as she walked. But of course, she took it like a champ and laughed it off as always! Honestly, I think if I were her I would be telling my team to just leave me behind and go on without me, that I was a lost cause. She has got some serious strength and will power! So off we went, all rather sluggishly today, finding it a rather slow day. We weren’t hungry at the lunch stop so we skipped it and kept going and stopped further ahead at a rather drab place for lunch which was a mistake. It took over an hour to get plain rice (for Jan) and vegetable fried rice – which turned out to just be white rice with garlic and egg in it…I suppose garlic counts as vegetables! But I did also indulge in an orange Fanta which was glorious, and it better have been for 230 Rupees (3 CAD, ouch!).
As we waited for our lunch, the wind picked up and clouds rolled in and it began to look quite threatening up on the towering ridges surrounding us. Soon it began to spit rain so we geared ourselves up in our waterproofs. After our blah lunch we set off. My walking poles wouldn’t fit under the rain cover of my bag so I figured now was as good a time as any to start using them! It was frustrating at first because we were picking our way over rockslides and boulders, but after about a half hour or so those disappeared and I began to find my groove. With the cooler weather, the suns blaze hidden away behind the storm clouds, I had this incredible burst of energy! I felt like I could run the trail or at least walk it for 8 more hours! It’s lucky I had the burst because we did have another solid three hours ahead of us. I couldn’t be stopped! I kept finding myself so far ahead, effortlessly, and would wait for the group to catch up (let’s remember that Jan was deathly ill, so I am making this out to sound more impressive than it was!). Good lord it was like they put speed on my rice.. or maybe it was the Fanta…! Or the cooler weather… or the walking poles… Or a really great combination of everything! Anyway I really enjoyed the hike that afternoon. The rain abated, but it stayed cool and overcast. Our surroundings just kept becoming more and more beautiful. The mountains towered around us on all sides like walls as we followed the path of the river Buri Gandaki Nadi. The dreary skies added a gloomy feeling to the valley, only improving its splendour. We crossed several bridges and poor Jan slipped on one in the rain, tripped up by her walking poles. Yet as always, she simply got up, brushed it off, laughed it off and kept on going with a shiny new bruise to add to her days collection of misfortunes. She was being hit with challenge after challenge and yet nothing could keep her down. A new rock walk – a bridge like structure that hugs the side of a cliff face – allowed us to bypass the river bed below, a massive improvement to the Manaslu trek since the earthquake in 2015 which hit this area especially hard. In high season, the huge river bed to our left flooded with the swelling river making it impossible to pass in monsoon season. But now this trail would be accessible year round.
On we pushed, snaking alongside the river valley on our cliff side bridge, admiring how gorgeous our surroundings were. Soon after, we reached our destination of Jagat at 6pm. I felt it in my legs today, but what a great day of trekking! Jan deserves a medal – no, a trophy – for getting through it! Oh! I forgot- we saw a baby goat today! I mean a baby goat- so fresh that momma’s afterbirth was still trailing behind her (and she was eating it…!). The kid could hardly stand on her shaky wobbling little legs, it was so precious!
Passing through the villages and small settlements is becoming one of my favourite parts of this trek. To see how people live in this valley, in these mountains, is such a privilege. The children are of course my favourite, with their vivacious personalities and greetings of ‘Namaste’, hands pressed together, gently bowing, as you pass through. And the goats and chickens and cows and mules and pigs – so many animals, so many noises! It’s impossible to describe. I find myself so short on words – perhaps they will come later when I’ve had time to really digest it all. Its hard to believe we are only on day 2 of 14 in our trek (day 1 was the drive so doesn’t count as trekking). Tomorrow will be another seven hour day of walking, and the next day as well, but then we only have a few of hours walking each day for the next couple of days, as we will be heading into the higher altitudes. I can’t wait until I get my first real glimpse of the big peaks, all snowy and majestic! I really wish we could do another trek afterwards in the Everest region – the Goyko Lakes trek. But alas, there isn’t enough time. Damn us for booking our Japan flight already! If we had just a few more days we could make it work! But hopefully we can find another trek in the Pokhara region. Alas, sleep is calling, and I must go! For tomorrow, the mountains will be calling, and I shall indeed go.