Slept straight through the night and woke at 6:00, courtesy of my fellow hotel guests. The people of Nepal tend to be early risers, one of the things I most like about the country this far. Went to sleep at 8:00 so that was 10 hours plus the three or four of my nap– I hope it is the altitude, otherwise something is really wrong with me. Definitely plan to take it slow today. Sima, the daughter of the hotel manager was also up and at it early. Yesterday in the car the driver was playing traditional Nepali music though by modern musicians. It was fascinating but will require some diligence to appreciate. In the hotel this morning, some young Nepalis started their day with the Grateful Dead — quite a contrast but somehow fitting. Electricity here is usually off, and the hotel’s backup light system is on the shelf– a trickle charger and a car battery. I’m stiff this morning, feeling my age. These last weeks I’ve questioned these treks, wondering if I’m being selfish or even foolish, but then I look out at these mountains and realize that in a few years I won’t be able to explore them on foot which is the only way to do it. The construction workers, young and old, squat over piles of rubble, picking out bricks and cleaning them with masonry hammers. When they get a good pile, they load them in baskets with shoulder straps and a tump line (a strap that goes across the forehead), squat down and slowly rise, carrying the load to the mason’s building the wall. Leaving Chispani was an easy walk to Pati Bhanjyang along a dirt road. On the road I kept seeing lines of small caterpillars. They looked like little wooly bears nose to tail in a line ten or fifteen long with a leader burrowing through the dust. A Land Rover passed me and offered a ride, but I’m not ready to yellow blaze this one just yet. At Pati I started to go the wrong way, but some men on the hill yelled and pointed the right direction. Turns out the trail was a set of steps going up to a hotel, and then curving around it to go straight up a steep hill. Since much of the rest of the day would be spent climbing, I stopped and had a Coca Cola, the first in at least a decade. It was pretty much the only thing in the window, and I thought a little caffeine would help my head. It was a Saturday so there was a crowd in front of the restaurant part of the hotel (more a counter than a restaurant) and the woman behind the counter overcharged me for the drink. I hiked on out and at some point made a wrong turn and ended up walking a path parallel to the Helambu for a few kilometers taking me through the village of Chipling before rejoining the true path up on a high pass. Altitude for much of the day was around 2400 meters, and I seem to be adjusting fine to it now (which is good as tomorrow will be spent around 3600). My navigational difficulties result from my iPhone GPS program spelling the names of the towns differently than my paper map. The map does not have enough fine grained information to help me decide which way to turn at an intersection which makes the phone valuable, so coordinating information between them requires patience. That’s the price I pay for not using a guide. Clearly it is an unusual choice (everyone is surprised that I am alone) but I so prize my walking solitude.
The entire day smelled of smoke as the farmers are burning off the terraced fields in preparation for spring planting. Some people had finished burning and now were turning their fields with short-handled, heavy hoes. Part of the day was through a bamboo forest, and just outside Chipling a man was splitting bamboo with an axe that had a bit with a lengthened, curved heel tapering to a point. I watched him split for a while, and he then showed me a curved knife similar to a machete he uses to cut the bamboo. Much of the day was hiking through an agricultural countryside. At one point I inadvertently drove some stray cattle back along the road to a village. Unlike in the States or New Zealand (with its almost mythic no. 8 wire), here there are no fences. Most people’s livestock are a cow or two, maybe half dozen goats, and some chickens. They keep them tied, sometimes turning them out to forage. Chickens peck around the yards, but are also kept individually under large baskets. They just plop the basket over them–instant chicken coop. My plan for the day was a short hike to Golphu Bhangyang which the map lists as having several guest houses. Most of the town was rubble, so I pushed on. I’m curious what the villages looked like before the quake. It is easy to see the effect it had on large buildings that are now on the ground, but I wonder how the individual houses were constructed. Today they are mostly wood frames sided with corrugated steel and seem temporary. I slept in corrugated steel huts hiking the Te Araroa. They keep out the wind somewhat, but are very cold. They do not retain heat in winter and are like ovens in the summer–a point confirmed by a woman I spoke with in a village here. Hiking out of Golphu, one of the last houses I passed was a low structure. As I walked by, I saw a counter displaying sodas and candy bars. Through the door were two men sitting at a table eating heaping plates of some dish I did not recognize. I think it was rice, vegetables with eggs mixed in. They motioned me in, and I took my place at the next table sitting across from a very old woman with a deeply lined face and legs as thin as sticks. I asked for tea, and the proprietor went outside with a pot, presumably to get hot water from a open fire. Accompanied by the loud lip-smacking and belching of my dining partners, I had a delightful conversation with the old woman though the only words we shared were Chisipani (my starting point) and Kutumsang (my ending point). The rest of the conversation was her talking and me signaling how I looked forward to sleeping in Kutumsang. The tea room had a dirt floor and the inside of the corrugated steel siding was lined with split bamboo, perhaps the handiwork of my axe-wielding friend. Every one there told me Kutumsang was a two hour walk which turned out to be accurate. Measuring distance here by kilometer makes no sense. You can toil an hour just to walk up a half kilometer’s worth of steps. Near the top of my long climb out of Golphu, I passed what must have been a small village complete with a guest house. It was arresting as all the buildings were now on the ground, and the place was deserted. Eight thousand people died in the quake, but I wonder now how many have been displaced and moved to the city. Most of the fields seem to be well-tended, so there are plenty of people here still working, but I did pass ones that were abandoned near the deserted village and wondered where the people went. There was an eerie silence there, save the rustling of faded prayer flags.
On the map, Kutumsang is a village of some importance, but it too was devastated, so much of the “downtown” is rubble. This morning on leaving Chisipani, I discovered there were several hotels a little further into town which looked more inviting than the one where I stayed, so I made a mental note to walk most of a town before settling on lodging. In Kutumsang, I got to the Namaste Hotel and stopped. There a young woman with a baby welcomed me, we negotiated a price that I hope was generous, and once again I took a nap. That evening I was invited to sit with the family in the only warm room while the mother of the young child made Dal Bhat, clearly the dinner of choice on the Helambu trek. A wood stove is set into the floor in the room, and the baby’s father sat on a pile of rugs on the floor next to the stove keeping the one year old entertained while his mother and grandmother worked on the fire and cooked the meal. The child has one Western toy– a plastic friction powered car that looks like something you would get from a gas station promotion. He played with it, or rather his father played with it as he turned to all the bright colored plastic buckets on the lower shelf– small chaos ensued. Later the grandmother brought in more wood for the fire. Some small pieces were cut from old boards, and she set them up like blocks for the baby to knock down, a gesture accompanied by loud giggles. The mother kept singing “baa baa black sheep, have you any ool?” (she really didn’t need that “w”). It was fascinating watching the meal being prepared. Lots of big teapots and pressure cookers were placed over the holes on the flat top of the wood stove where flames from the fire shot up. She understood the heat and let things cook as if they were on a temperature controlled stovetop. She ground her spices and garlic with a mortar and pestle, scooping the material out deftly with a large silver spoon, one of many beautifully decorated ones which were hanging on the wall. I ate with the family, all the time laughing at the antics of the child. Such warm people, living so well.
T. Hugh Crawford