The combination of a upper respiratory infection, being out of shape, and altitude changes made for a short hiking day. I took a car from the center of Kathmandu to Sunjarijal, a small town out on the edge of the big city’s sprawl. It was a national holiday, and the traffic was bumper to bumper the whole way out, my driver zigging in and out of his lane. Actually “bumper to bumper” sounds much more orderly than it was. There were lines at the gas pumps, hundreds of motorcycles filling the street looking like the start of a long distance race. There was garbage being burned in the gutters, and even a dead cow on the side of the road along with a number of live ones lying in the gutters on top the garbage–quite the scene. The Helambu Trek is in the northeastern part of the Kathmandu Valley, an area hit very hard by last year’s earthquake. I was grateful to be outside the city finally, though it does go on for miles. The trail today was up through the Shivapuri Nagarjun National Park starting out around 1200 meters and topping out at 2430 before descending down into Chisipani (that is 7972 feet which is a good bit higher than all the East Coast mountains). The path was not so much a nature trail as it was the path that people living in these mountains use to get around. It passes through a number of settlements which are primarily subsistence farming, growing winter wheat and then corn on terraced hillsides. Many goats and some cows are tethered by the buildings, most now eating corn stalks or forage cut from beech trees. After the first long set of steps, I was stopped at a military installation to buy the permit to hike an Eco center. It was a little intimidating at first since the soldiers carried automatic weapons and frowned the way you would expect them to. I talked to several and all were surprised I was hiking without a guide. They asked if I had children (a very common question) and soon one young man wanted to come along. We all laughed a bit stumbling through language. After the ticket agent finished his mid-morning meal, I got my pass which was immediately checked by the military man I had just finished talking to. The nature preserve is supposed to have leopards, monkeys, Ghoral, Himalayan Black Bear, and wild boar. Listening intently and watching carefully, the only thing I heard was a large animal moving through the jungle at a pace more closely resembling a domestic farm animal. On my way out of the park I did see a cow in the woods chewing beech leaves. The forest included oak and rhododendron, so parts resembled the “green tunnel” of the Appalachian Trail. In Mulkharka, a small village, I sat for a while at a “tea room” front porch. It was a stone building with a lot of packaged drinks in the window and some plastic chairs out under the porch. Across the way a woman was boiling water in a huge kettle over an open fire to wash clothes. The proprietor of the tea room, who only spoke Nepalese, was cooking over an open fire in the front yard. Her cousin, who lives in the city, was visiting for the holiday, and we talked about the many dialects spoken across the country. A handsome young man whose phone would go off occasionally but still he seemed right at home in this distant place. Like the others, he asked why I walked alone. I told him I liked the solitude, and he said “solitude makes for thinking.” By noon, after climbing what my phone said were 250 floors, I was unusually exhausted and found myself taking breaks every couple kilometers. The last two into Chisipani were downhill, but I was still feeling it. The town has several large masonry hotels but the earthquake hit hard, completely destroying several of them. Two were still intact, but had moved off their foundations and were sitting crooked in a field.
I went to the Hotel Annapurna Mountain View–Annapurna was nowhere to be seen given the smoke and haze. The proprietor, a nice 22 year old man with a beautiful 2 year old daughter named Sima, showed me to my room which was bare concrete with a few very hard beds– exactly what I expected. I got out my sleeping bag, put my sleeping mat down and immediately fell asleep from mid-afternoon until six. They called me for dinner — Dal Bhat (Nepalese lentil curry)– and brought many extra helpings. After a quiet meal I went straight back to bed. This altitude is kicking my ass.
T. Hugh Crawford