The Manaslu Diaries: Days 7-9

March 12, 2018: Day 7
Lhogaon to Samagaon
Altitude: 3530m
Distance: 11km
Hours: 3
Elevation gain: 350m

Finally! I slept better last night – nearly a whole five hours! It’s freezing cold at this altitude, but once I was in my sleeping bag for an hour it was nice and toasty. I awoke at 6:20am and packed and went for breakfast. The view this morning was spectacular! We didn’t have much time to enjoy it however as the clouds rolled in fast.

We set off around 8:30am behind the rest of the trekkers – ‘Team Take our Time’ is what we should have called ourselves! Always last! But what rush are we in? The trek today was beautiful with some snowy patches and lots of ups and down. We stopped at the monastery just outside of Lhogaon which was peaceful, yet bustling with monks going about their work on the place as it was undergoing major construction. We passed a long string of monks on the steep zigzag path up through the forest, all carrying huge pieces of wood slung across their shoulders to aid in the building. I struggled enough climbing that hill with my pack, I couldn’t imagine having a huge piece of wood across my shoulders! Our tea stop was in Shayla, a very pretty spot with excellent views despite the clouds. A woman in traditional clothing came down the trail through the village carrying her traditional woven basket hooked on her shoulders… with a 45” TV strapped to the top of it…! The juxtaposition between old and modern is so strange and wonderful to see. The sun beat down on us again during our tea break reflecting off the snowy peaks all around, blinding us. We only had one more hour to go until we reached Samagaon, and the trek went quickly. It was our shortest trek day yet and by far the easiest. The clouds had come in and covered Manaslu (which we were very close to now), so sadly we couldn’t see the big daddy. But the surroundings were spectacular nonetheless. Sadly the sun disappeared behind the clouds as they rolled in, which wasn’t ideal for my cold ass since this place was considerably cooler. I soon began to freeze up as small snow flakes began to fall. We went for a short walk around the village to look for leg warmers for me which I had seen in the last village and was sure would be available in the next – alas – there were none here! I should have bought them when I had the chance, but I didn’t and now I am stuck with cold legs! I am extremely worried about freezing these next few days as we go higher and it gets even colder. I am so ill prepared, what was I thinking!? I know how easily I get cold, and what a wimp I am in cold temperatures. I should have brought a down filled one piece snow suit! Such a rookie to this mountain trekking thing! I think I assumed there would be heating of some sorts, likely through wood stoves at the tea houses, but wood is sparse the higher you go and so is not sustainable up here.

Walking through the village allowed us to get an insight into what life is like all the way up here, so far removed from the rest of civilization. The only connection to the rest of the world is the hiking path we walked here on. There isn’t a road for nearly a week by foot. It felt like stepping back in time hundreds of years, before cars and all the modern comforts we enjoy. Houses were built from rock and mud, the only sign of the modern world were the bright blue corrugated metal roofs, a new addition since the 2015 earthquake. The damage from that quake was so substantial that over 9000 people died and over double that number were injured. With a magnitude of 7.8, it rocked the Gorkha region, where Manaslu lies, and devastated the land and villages here.

Unfortunately, Nepal didn’t even have proper building regulations implemented until 2004 and this was really only enforced in the urban areas (though even here they were not strongly enforced), not the rural areas where these villages lie – and yet it is estimated that 90% of the damage was in these rural areas! The government since has provided each home owner whose house was destroyed a sum of money along with the agreement that construction would be earthquake resistant. But here in lies the problem. The sum of money is no where near even half of what would be needed to reconstruct their homes, let alone make them earth quake resistant. There is a massive gap in money, engineering knowledge and access to the needed resources for the people in these villages to properly and safely rebuild to withstand another earthquake. The isolated nature of these villages – days away from the only poor roads around, snowed in entirely for half of the year, mules as the only way to transport supplies – makes this task nearly impossible without an exceptionally heavy financial burden. As I’ve already mentioned, people have to carve 2×4’s by hand. They have to crush rock by hand. And so when the rural areas of this region were decimated, they were largely left with very limited resources to rebuild their lives and their homes.

One of the benefits of trekking tourism is that it brings a lot of money into these small villages that would otherwise have no extra income, and allows for the possibility of roads to connect them. But tourism in third world countries is always a double edged sword and brings it’s share of negative impacts as well. If you’re trekking in Nepal, read and adhere to the many signs posted on your trek that outline the guidelines and expectations for trekkers. Don’t burn firewood. Don’t hand out treats to the children. Take as much of your garbage with you as you can (think batteries). Use a refillable water bottle and purification tabs instead of buying bottled water that has to be brought in on mules. Respect your guides and porters and help take care of them. This is their income (Bhim gave every penny he earned to his parents) and it does not afford them the luxury of buying trekking shoes, or other necessities needed on the mountain. Leave any gear with them you really don’t need after our trek (on the day of the pass, Bhim didn’t have any gloves. It was -15C and freezing in the pre dawn. I gave him an extra pair I had and ensured he kept them at the end of the trek. We also left him our trekking poles and made sure he got sunscreen and had sunglasses to protect himself). While trekking tourism can help bring extra income to the villages, and eventually connect them with roads, it does usually come with other side effects, often on the environment and local people. So do your part to help ease that footprint in any way – trek responsibly, trek sustainably.

As we walked through Samagaon, I watched a constant flow of the local Himalayan yak filing through it on their way home. Massive horns protrude from their large hairy heads with fat bodies siting atop short stumpy legs and lovely long fur clinging to their ample bodies. I saw a local toddler squat down on the side of the road, drop her drawers and take a poo…! Oh the things you see! In my travels I can’t keep track of the amount of times I have seen children drop drawers in the middle of anywhere for a pee or a poo! When you gotta go… you gotta go! The stone houses had chickens pecking around for food and mules tied up in lean to stalls. The alley ways were a muddy mess from the snow melt, and a small stream ran through where ladies perched on a small bridge to do laundry in the freezing water. One small shop stocked all the trekking goods which could be taken in in a single glance. Children ran around with their rosy cheeks and perpetually runny noses with the chickens and yaks. Village life was simple life.

After the defeat of no leg warmers, we decided to keep walking in order to try and keep warm and so headed up towards the monastery on the hill. It was a brief ten minute walk uphill but I could definitely feel the altitude and my chest was huffing and puffing as I gasped for breath. To our luck, there happened to be a Lama visiting the monastery who would be giving a lesson inside, so we sat around outside waiting for his arrival along with a large crowd of locals and monks. Two at a time, the monks began to blow into large conch shells and the deep howl reverberated off the mountains, the long call lasting a minute or more. It was to call anyone who wished to hear the lesson to come, as soon the visiting Lama arrived and everyone piled into the monastery to sit on the floor, including Jan and one of the Aussie’s that was on the trek. Travis and Bhim and I waited outside as it was absolutely packed inside! The Lama was speaking Tibetan so even Bhim was lost as to what was going on in the lesson and couldn’t tell us anything. Once folks were settled, the Lama began chanting and everyone joined in. He then began his lesson while the monks handed around a case with smoking incense. The room began to get rather smokey so the monks passed it out to Bhim and said something to him in Tibetan. I looked at him and he looked at me, both of us absolutely baffled. He shrugged his shoulders and then took the urn towards this outdoor oven, hesitated momentarily, looking around nervously and then dumped the smoking incense into it, then handed it back to the monks inside who looked at it and Bhim confusedly and shrugged in turn. Bhim and I stifled our laughter and had to walk away from the monastery because we couldn’t stop laughing about what just happened and had no idea what was going on! Maybe he wasn’t supposed to dump it all out?! We’ll never know.

We wandered around outside and I watched a small white dog climb up on to the roof of one of the low level house structures and perch to happily look out at the world, his domain. I watched the crows caw and play and questioned whether they were ravens with their strange puffy heads and beaks, and all the while the light flakes of snow swirled in the frigid air. Bhim disappeared into the monastery kitchen and I found Travis back near the entrance with Jan who had come out. We were ready to head back down so I went to fetch Bhim in the kitchen. It was so dark inside I could hardly see him in there so I called out and he popped up from a squat on the floor and gestured for me to come in and join them. I called the others and we all went in. A low fire in the ground was burning with a massive iron vat over it. Smoke drifted up into the rafters and filtered out through the gaps. Three men huddled around a phone propped up playing a Bollywood movie that they were all totally engrossed in. We flocked gratefully to the fire for warmth, looking at it hungrily, as if we’d never seen fire before. We had been so cold for so many days now, fire seemed like a gift from the gods. We squatted down, hands outstretched eagerly to soak up the heat. One of the men, the monastery cook, asked if we would like some milk tea which we all gratefully said yes to. He grabbed a large metal tea pot off the coals, swirled it around and took four cups down and filled each with steaming milk tea. It was the absolute best we have had since being in Nepal.

As I was squatting by the fire, sipping my milk tea prepared by the Monastery cook, I marvelled at the moment. One of the fellows was a monk in maroon robes, one was the cook and the other was wonderfully out of place – he had his hair in an afro, an old bleach job still visible on his ends. He wore a ball cap that read ‘dope’, a plaid shirt and heavy, gaudy jewelry. This made them quite the motley crew! And then of course Bhim, the young porter and us three Canadian trekkers, freezing up in the Himalayas, gratefully accepting the generosity of the cook and his tea and fire. He offered us Tibetan tea afterwards- which we had not had yet on tour trek. It’s a salty buttery tea – it was very strange and tasted like soup broth rather than tea- which plays a trick on your mind when you’re expecting something sweet or bitter and you get the salty buttery broth instead! It was Bhim’s first time trying it too and he loved it! Because of the the butter, it has a high caloric content and is often drunk in the Himalayas as a form of nutrition and is always offered to guests.

We thanked them kindly after we had warmed our hands and toes sufficiently, finished our tea and left the trio to their movie on the four inch screen that they were so captivated by.

Now I sit in the frigid dining room trying to keep warm, dreaming of that fire, wearing every single piece of clothing I own with a sleeping bag draped over me! This is without a doubt the coldest I have been on the trek. I just cannot seem to get warm. Trav, Bhim and Jan are paying cards, and others play dice, while I sit here and write, blowing on my fingers to keep them warm as we wait for dinner.

March 13, 2018: Day 8
Samagaon Rest Day – Side trip to Punygen Gompa Monastery
Altitude: 3550m (Samagoan) 4100m (monastery)
Distance: 14km
Hours: 5
Elevation gain: 450m

Yet another sleepless night…Chalk it up I suppose. My guts were bothering me all night and I kept thinking that perhaps the tea from the monastery that we drank was what was making me sick (even though it was clearly boiled!). With that idea stuck in my head I got paranoid about it, and then I started to get worried that maybe I was feeling the effects of the altitude and feeling sick because of that (an Aussie girl on the trek was throwing up from the altitude). This all contributed to me not sleeping at all. I got out of my sleeping bag around 6:30am and headed out on to the large platform on the second level of the tea house which gives perfect views of the mountains. I was afforded my first epic up close sighting of Manaslu as the sun shone down brightly reflecting off the snow, early enough that the clouds had not rolled in.

I drank a bunch of water to hopefully flush out whatever was irking my gut. Even though it was our rest day, we figured it best to keep to the same schedule so I went for breakfast and we chatted about our side trip that we had planned for today – a visit to Pungyen Gompa monastery. We back trekked for a half hour or so outside the town, followed by the sweet dog we had met the previous day upon our arrival. A pretty caramel coloured thing full of energy and desperate for some pets and rubs from anyone willing, this wiley thing followed us on our trek out of town. We had assumed he belonged to someone at the tea house we were staying at because he was hanging out in the courtyard all the time, but we never found out who this sweetheart belonged to. In truth I think it’s because he belonged to the mountains. He was a trekker, a master of himself.

We trekked three more hours all uphill, steep and beautiful, and a challenge in the thin air up here. Not to mention that whole not sleeping thing! But I just took the trek slowly, and eventually we got there – there was no rush. Most people who were staying in the village were making this same trek today. Some chose to stay behind and rest, but many decided to trek up – it’s beneficial to acclimatize by trekking higher and then returning a bit lower as a day trip, so I wanted to make sure that I did this, even on no sleep. As usual, we were the last ones to leave the tea house so we had the trail all to ourselves aside from passing a few folks on their way back down. And all the while, the dog followed along with us, perhaps because I had been giving him some good loving and belly rubs this morning! I asked Tek if the dog had a name, and he responded, “Maybe”. So naturally, we dubbed our new friend Maybe. His amber coat was thick and he looked like a mix of a chow chow with a retriever. He was a devilish little rascal and while he kept close to our heels, whenever we came near the yaks, he took off after them to terrorize them. He just wanted to play so badly! But the huge horned beasts wanted none of it! They kept charging at him when he got to close with his nips and barks. The little trouble maker!

Up, up, up we went, and slowly the mountains revealed themselves to us more and more. But it wasn’t until we reached the very top, a huge grassy plateau, that it was all revealed. Behind us the huge range of mountains spread out like a wall. To our left the white crusted peaks of peak 29 and his brethren spread out in all their glory. To our right a snowless treeless beast shot up like a cliff, and straight ahead, in all its brilliant white glory stood Manaslu, all 8153 metres of his majestic might.

We were quite literally surrounded on every side by mammoth peaks – the great Himalayas. The uphill trek had flattened out into this expansive plateau at the top, a sanctuary of sorts as they say in the mountain world. From this vantage point we were able to take in the spectacular 360 degree panoramic view of the greats. I had lingered back from from our crew, Tek, Bhim, Travis, and Jan – taking photos of the yaks, and so I summited the last ridge before the plateau all by myself, with not another human in sight, and it quite literally took my breath and words away. Unabashedly, I admit that tears filled my eyes. How can one even begin to attempt to put into words the glory, the greatness, the majesty – the inconceivable size and beauty – that are the Himalayas? Few sights in my life have brought tears to my eyes like that. I was trying to understand what those tears meant. I felt happy, exceptionally happy. I felt like the world was speaking to me from her very core, her heart, through these, the tallest reaches of her hands. The beauty was overwhelming. To feel so small and insignificant, and yet to feel so honoured to stand at the feet of giants and have them cradle you in their eminence… it was a spiritual experience.

After coming out of the daze of my private revelry, I found the others, who were all in the same sort of trance, silently admiring the greatness before and all around us. We gawked together and then tried to express our awe, unsuccessfully, stumbling over our words, our tongues muted into reverence. After bathing in that first impression, we pushed on across the plateau towards the monastery which sat at the very foot of Manaslu, tucked away behind a small hill that would act as an avalanche barrier. It was uninhabited at the time, likely due to the season. Standing at the foot of Manaslu was powerful. The whole place was powerful. It seemed unfathomable to build anything this high, this remote. 4000 metres. So high, so challenging to get to and yet so close to the heavens. The air was perfectly silent. The mountains sheltered us from all sound. Yet tiny wisps of clouds raced across the top of the ragged peak of Manaslu as if a torrent of wind raged above us, unbeknownst to our ears. The sapphire sky was aglow with the dazzling sunshine. The gods must have been looking down on us because we had absolutely perfect weather. The brightly coloured prayer flags of the monastery flapped gently in the whisper breeze, starkly contrasted against the white walls of snow all around us. The old stones of the monastery stacked upon themselves to make this tiny temple, this tiny offering of devotion at the base of a giant to watch over it. It was ghostly and abandoned up here, and yet you could feel a power, a divination hanging about in the air. It was an intimate feeling, to be here; you felt stripped naked, like the mountain knew all your secrets- how could you ever hide anything from something so mighty?

Time sadly didn’t stand still here and we had to begin making our way back down to the village. It felt sacrilegious to leave. My heart felt heavy as I turned my back on the monastery and began the hike over the crusty snow. I couldn’t stop looking back. I tried to fill my soul with the feeling of this place as fully as I could, I swore fiercely to myself that I would never forget this feeling, forget the power, the peace of this place.

We filled our water bottles in the icy stream that trickled down from the mountain and headed home. My head began to pound. All the excitement, the endorphins were plummeting now that I had to leave what I felt was as close to nirvana as I would ever get. I was crashing hard. The lack of sleep, the altitude and my brain chemicals all crashing down at once. Talk about a comedown! How could anything top this day? I don’t think it can… but we will see as the trek is only half over and we haven’t even reached our highest point! Tomorrow we go to 3800m to Samdo village, and the following day to Dharmasala at 4400m sleeping in tents, and then… the climax of it all – the pass at 5100m!

March 14, 2018: Day 9
Samagaon to Samdo
Altitude: 3700m
Distance: 7.5km
Hours: 3
Elevation gain: 150m (plus a 3km side trek with a gain of an additional 300m)

Last night was the best sleep I have had yet!!! I was exhausted after our trek up to the monastery, my head ached and I couldn’t stay awake, so I tried to nap, but was unsuccessful. Instead I joined the others in the tea room for dinner and cards and writing and went to bed early and actually slept! And by early, I mean earlier than normal, since we usually go to bed at 9! This morning I was up at 6:30am and felt so refreshed. It was going to be a good day!

We set off last, as usual just before 9am. Guess who followed us? Maybe, the trekking dog! The trail was easy, mostly flat, and a mere three hours. But my pinched nerve in my back was absolutely killing me! It felt like someone had stabbed a knife into my back and left it there. I had to unhook my right shoulder from my pack strap to take some weight off and then eventually put my pack on my front, it was just far too painful on my back. The last 45 minutes was all uphill and I struggled. A lot. When we arrived I was utterly spent. Nothing left in me at all. I felt sick from the pain in my back. We went right to the lunch room to order and I felt terrible. Sick, woozy, dizzy, and weak. I immediately feared it was altitude sickness beginning. Thinking this was the case and fearing I would have to turn back or not being able to continue and ruin the trek for our crew, I ended up having a small panic attack. I tried to get my lunch down amid the nausea and dizziness, rode it out the way I have ridden out my panic attacks me whole life, but it was torture. I decided to needed to go for a walk, I needed to get out of there. Being in the cramped lunch room was making me feel even more panicked – I was terrified I was going to throw up or pass out in front of everyone and so I finally escaped with Travis. Immediately it helped. We walked through the small village, and kept walking for over two hours all over this beautiful area, taking in the spectacular views all around us. We made it up to 4030 metres and I felt a thousand times better; I had so much energy! I was even upside down doing headstands looking at the panoramic views from a whole new perspective at 4000m. It made me realize of course that earlier it was not altitude making me feel sick, but one of my usual panic attacks. I was having such anxiety about how high we were, about not being able to do it, that I freaked. Hopefully I don’t have any more of those, talk about an awful place to have a panic attack!

The solo hike with Travis was all the medicine I needed to get over my anxieties . It was also nice to have time alone with him and connect up there. So far we were always with others on this trek; it’s pretty hard to find private time on the trail. We got so many amazing views and photos and videos, including one in slow motion where I was going into a headstand, and a bee came buzzing into the frame! It was magical!

And now we are playing cards after dinner waiting for dessert – rice pudding and popcorn, what a treat! The tea house is packed – there are only two in town, and you can hear the nervous excitement in the air as all of us who have been trekking for 9 days now get ready to trek up to 4400m tomorrow and spend the night in tents – and then – the apex of it all- cross the pass at 5100 metres – and then come back down to 3700m – a monstrous acsent and descent for one day. I am nervous but also super excited. It’s going to be challenging. Especially with this damn pinched nerve that has now become excruciating. I have taped one of my precious hot pads (that I was saving for my cold hands) to the area on my back in hopes that it will help a little. I was also able to use a bit of muscle cream from one of the other trekkers, Brendan. I think this will surely be the hardest physical feat I have ever accomplished. And now, my anxiety thinks this would be a perfect time to list all the ailments I’ve had on this trek so far:

Diarrhea…Constipation…Pinched nerve…Insomnia…Asthma…Anxiety…Panic attacks…

What better things to think about right before I try to fall asleep?!

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