We’d reached the yak pastures at 4000m (see Dolpo - episode 4
) and decided to explore a little more of Dolpo district, initially returning to the superb raging blueness of the Suli Gad river all set about with giant hemlock and cypress trees. I knew when we’d rejoined the route to Phuksundo because of the quantity of litter. We were also back in amongst selfie-taking, Canon-toting domestic tourists who were as busy photographing colourful yokels as any foreigner. A few were litter-picking. We sauntered through empty villages which would be repopulated by the end of October; some were overgrown with cannabis four metres high – a weed here capitalising on half a year of neglect. The fresh pickle made with ground cannabis seeds was a delicious accompaniment to our rice and daal.
Our surroundings felt increasingly subtropical as various huge butterflies and dragonflies flitted around us and we paused to watch an assemblage of Himalayan griffon vultures, that look so graceful when airborne yet so scraggy and argumentative on the ground.
We followed the Suli Gad to its confluence with the Thuli Bheri heading now for one of several places in Nepal called Tato Paani – hot water. First though we passed a newly renovated two-storey building that announced itself as a hospital. There didn’t seem to be much going on there though and I asked a man sitting outside if the hospital was open. It wasn’t. All the staff were on holiday.
The forest at this altitude (around 2300m) was mostly scented pine and movement on the other side of the river drew my attention to a troop of white langurs and small solitary goat – a ghoral. At first I thought it was sick as its fur was patchy. But then we got the binoculars focussed realised it had picked up masses of adherent seeds – the local ponies and mules were similarly afflicted.
We were now following an ancient route towards Do and decided the spend our next night near the formidable fortress settlement of Jhong (2540m) which once must have controlled trade locally. There were no tea-houses or ‘hotels’ but people told us there was a shop near the top of the ridge at Tarakot (2730m) so we laboured up from the riverside. Here the windows of each home boasted fine woodwork.
By this time, we were into our second week of the trek where washing anything much but our edges felt unnecessary so I was anticipating a long luxurious soak once we reached the hot springs. We heard that the local development committee had spent 4500,000 Nepali Rupees on making the hot springs more beautiful but when we reached Tato Paani the ‘beautification’ had involved a lot of concrete and sadly had driven the hottest source elsewhere. Nevertheless the wash in luke-warm water while listening to the twittering of dozens of birds was a treat.
Our meanderings took us as far as Lassikap and a gompa – a monastic complex – which was completely devoid of people but patrolled by ponies and with maize drying inside the principal building. The artwork on the stupas was very fine and there were two-metre high prayer wheels to turn.
Retracing our route, I was continuing to mix up walking and pony-riding. I was getting the hang of leaning forward on the ascents and lying back on the descents. Just below Jhong, Gora and I started to cross a narrow track over a small landslide and was preparing to lean back as Gora skipped back down onto solid ground again. But his back legs slipped. This was the moment I discovered that waking boots are not the best footwear when riding. Fortunately guide Pemba was just behind, fielded me and Gora so that he didn’t fall any further. The pony was patient while Pemba helped me free my feet from the stirrups and place them on solid ground again. We were no longer hundreds of metres above the river but the fall would have been pretty nasty for both me and Gora had it continued. I walked for the rest of that day.
On our final day, which took us back to Dunai and the airstrip at Juphal, we encountered a string of porters heading for Do carrying pressure cookers, steel plates and an array of other heavy items. I asked one chap how much he was carrying and he said sixty kilograms. The more they carry, the more money they make.
Life in the hills is hard whether you are a porter or a subsistence agriculturalist, even if you are fit, and I found myself contemplating how tough it would be growing old in this environment. That said, we had stayed one night in a temporary shelter owned by a feisty garrulous 75-year-old. She’d had had nine children. Three were working abroad – in Korea, America and Dubai, three lived in Kathmandu and two had stayed in Dolpo. She was rather disapproving of the younger generation of women. She’d had her children at home and didn’t see why the youngsters made such a fuss and ran off to give birth in hospitals. She was unusual in having lost only one child. Her Kathmanduite children, she told us, were constantly nagging her to move into the city, in a home with a roof that didn’t leak and where there was running water inside, but she liked her life, cooking for travellers, selling the alcoholic drinks she made, taking no nonsense from the drunkards who asked for credit. She was her own woman and she was content in her draughty shack.
I’m not made of such sturdy stuff. Back in Kathmandu the hot shower and then slipping into a warm dry soft flea-free bed felt unbelievably delicious and something I’d never give up for long.
The beginning of this trip is described here Pony trekking in Nepal
| Making bhang achhar - fresh pickle with ground cannabis seeds and garlic
| A heavy load
| The gompa at Lassikap was a bit tumbledown but boasted some fine paintings
| A group of porters passed us each carrying around 60kg of metal household goods