Section 13. Mugu to Humla Off Piste
5 July. Mugugoan to Takya Khola Lake. 18 km. 7.5 hours. 1070m up. 170m down. The horseman we hired was supposed to show at the very lax hour of 0800. I was not comfortable with that as it was a long day and I was getting frustrated by frequent stops. In the end the horseman arrived at 0830, with not one but three horses. Two looked old and a bit skinny and the third was a foal of one of the skinny ones. It seemed the horseman was using this opportunity to take all up to the lush high pastures of Takya Khola and leave them there for the summer. He was using his thin foam mattress and his sleeping bag as padding for the horse. I did not care for him. He looked a rough diamond with broken teeth and the shiny inflated nose of a heavy drinker, and he smoked, and he had a stone in his hand to lob at the horses to hurry them along. There was none of the gentleness and panache which Khonjok had.
I took a few photos of the village as we headed out and it seemed many of the older houses were destined to collapse sideways soon like a pack of cards. Outside the village were wandered across close cropped and green pastures passing many chortens and a few mani walls. There were chortens everywhere around this village. Then we passed into the lush wide U shaped valley where there were pastures and sections of forest. It was mostly spruce along here initially’ but as we ascended they gave way to other trees. I reached the old village of Mugu, Purano Mugu, after about an hour and a half. Here the torrent split and it was easy to bridge with two old log cantilever bridges. It was drizzling a bit so I stopped under some birch and ate my snacks.
I was ahead of the others who seemed to be dithering a bit of late and waited for them. I saw the horses and foals I passed in the meadow before the bridge running, and then I saw the horseman chasing them. He even ran across the smaller of the two channels of the Mugu Karnali when the horses and foals crossed it. He was up to his thighs in his futile chase. The others appeared first and then the horseman. Bharat had been chatting with him and apparently he had 15 horses and many had foals. When he appeared he had only succeeded in getting a stallion, and an additional horse and it’s foal. As we when up the valley I came across horses everywhere, but there were no yak as there was last time. It took me a good two hours to walk up the valley past two or three large pastures, which had a tent bhatti as each one. At the penultimate I noticed a raksi still beside the tent and hoped no one would be tempted. I stopped at the last bhatti for the others to catch up but after half an hour there was no sign so I continued up the valley to its confluence with the torrent of the Takya Khola. I crossed this foaming torrent on a two log bridge and found a sheltered grassy spot to snooze on while the others arrived. I was thankful there were no leeches as I feared there would be.
After an hour, at 1400, Santos arrived, but there were no signs of the others. Santos headed up the track to Tibet insisting it was the way as the bhatti owner had told him. I doubted myself and followed him for 10 minutes until it was clear this was not the way up the spur on the north side of the Takya Khola I went up 11 years ago. I returned annoyed I had wasted energy following the impulsive Santos to find the others arriving. They seemed to be looking for a campsite. I was angry now and charged down to them asking Bharat what on earth was going on. I told them they were slow and we still had 4 hours left and it was time to get a move on.
Unknown to me the horseman had switched the load from the skinny horse mother to the stockier horse mother. While the stallion had disappeared from the group. As they were crossing the two log bridge over the torrent of the Takya Khola one of the foals had accidently knocked the other off the logs into the edge of the torrent. The mother, who was now carrying the load was fretting at the side of the torrent. Bharat and Dawa jumped into the water and rescued the foal and guided it, and the mother, across the bridge and were just taking stock when angry me arrived. Bharat said he had not seen the horseman since the last bhatti. I suspected he was in there for a drink, so insisted we carry on up the path I knew and not waste more time
It was a steep climb for about 300-350 metres which took a good hour. After that it traversed the steep hillside for another hour to eventually reach the upper part of the Takya Khola, which was essentially a hanging valley. I was worried about the foals on some of the sections as the path seemed very small and unused. To my dismay I saw a good path on the west side of the torrent and this came up diagonally from the last bhatti. It must have been new and the path I was on abandoned one. In the distance I could hear Dawa and Santos whooping and hollering to encourage the horse and foals up. The faint path, after it had finished climbing and traversing the hill, now descended slightly to the bottom of the boulder strewn valley to meet the foaming torrent again. I waited here for them and they arrived after 15 minutes.
What surprised me was that Santos was leading the load carrier with its foal following. Then Dawa and Bharat were shouting at the other two horses and foal. The foals seemed to manage very well through the boulders. When they stopped where I was the horses gorged themselves on the grass, while the foals started to suckle. I told them it was just an hour to the lake and set off. They followed driving and pulling the horses up. There was no sign of the horseman. Either he assumed we took the new path and was looking for us on that, or he was still in the bhatti drinking raksi. The others had to lead the horses across meadows and through occasional boulder fields. It was quite slow for them. I waited here and there and noticed some new wild flowers, white primroses and two varieties of the small fritillary, one purple and one yellow.
I got to a tricky boulder field, where a large rock jutted out into the river, and wondered how the horses would manage. It was raining now and the boulder fields were slippery and the grassy areas wet. Across the river on the west side was a large yarsagumba encampment with 25 conical tents. I carried on in the drizzle and wind towards the lake. Just before it I found a good place to camp and waited for the others. They arrived after 15 minutes, but without the horses or the baggage on the horse. Apparently at the tricky bit 10 minutes back the load carrying horse had wrenched the rope out of Dawa’s hand and had crossed the torrent at a wide shallow point. Its foal and the other two horses, and second foal followed suit. They felt they could not cross their so ascended looking for a crossing point to go back and retrieve the baggage, which is where they met me at the campsite. Across the river from me was another yarsagumba camp with about 25 conical tents.
Dawa and Santos crossed the river thigh deep and returned on the west bank to the lower yarsagumba camp. There they luckily managed to catch the horse and untie the luggage. They just left the 3 horses and 2 foals there as they were now more trouble than they were worth. They left the horseman’s sleeping bag and mattress on the horse as these were now soaking. They tied the rope up and left them content in the wet grassy meadow for the owner to find. I suspect he either had bad news and had to return to Mugugoan or was getting drunk in the bhatti. Dawa and Santos returned upstream with the baggage and then waded the freezing torrent again in thigh deep water. We set up camp at once as we were all miserable and wet, and dusk was arriving. As usual Ramesh had to brave the elements to cook us a meal while I typed and Santos slept. It was quite a day and I am not really sure what to make of the situation with the horseman and his horses. I guess we will leave here tomorrow and it is up to him to find us if he want paid for one of the two days we employed him for. Eventually we got cosy in our sleeping bags in the tent while the rain battered the ripstop nylon flysheet.
6 July. Takya Khola Lake to Takekharka. 21 km. 7 hours. 650m up. 900m down. It was drizzling in the morning but we managed to persuade Santos to get up at 0530 for the teas. We packed the soaking tent and set off in out waterproofs at 0700. My feet were soaked within minutes due to the water on the grass and shrubs so it made very little difference if I waded streams later in the day. We got to the north end of the lake, but going up the east side across wet grass and going through boulder fields was not quick and we all looked at the path on the other side. The boulders were covered in lichen, especially the yellow “geographical” lichen and were slippery. At the far end of the lake the pathless route climbed more grassy slopes and boulder fields to gain a long flat meadow some 3 km long, which must have been a lake now filled with silt. It would have been delightful walking usually but for now it was flooded in places and we had to pick out way round the east side and up and over a couple of spurs. The last time I came here we just walked straight over the meadow which was lush with wild flowers and full of grazing horses. Talking of horses there was no sign of the horseman and he never got reimbursed for yesterday.
The meadow pretty much ended at the foot of the pass. We paused here for a snack before the climb. The sun was making a valiant effort to break up the mist but the latter was stubborn. As we climbed it slowly cleared and there were even patches of blue sky. It took just over an hour from the valley to reach the top. The route we chose went straight up the slope where the grass was short and there were gravel deposits, then we traversed eastwards climbing above some crags to reach the modest pass at about 5020m. There were few chortens, and no prayer flags, but there was a great view down the meadow we walked up, with its lazy river meandering slowly across the wet pasture. There was also a good view north east to a high pass over to Tibet, just 2 km away. We relaxed at the top for half an hour and then started the descent.
There was still a lot of snow on the north side of the pass, but for once the gradient was gentle. Shallow enough for me to sit on a sheet of plastic and slide down for a few minutes. However Santos, always ready to try something, put his whole baggage on a sheet of plastic, then sat astride it and set off, whooping as he hurtled down the slope. He went past me looking like he was on a snow scoter with a huge grin. At the bottom of the excitement the slope eased off even more and we had to descend on foot. We headed west the whole time as we descended to try and keep to grassy slopes and avoid a boulder field below the pass which would inevitably had been slippery. I found a nice grassy spur to head down all the way to the valley floor where the infant Take Khola was already a big stream. We just managed to hop across stones without getting our feet wetter to reach the north side. The promise of fine weather however was disappearing again and the blue patches of sky had vanished and the mist was descending.
I seemed to remember there was a path on the north side but it must have been lower down as the was none here. Instead we had a line of springs which made the north side quite boggy. I just sloshed through but the others went higher to avoid the soggy ground. The valley was shallow and open, wide and U-shaped. It was generally grassy but there was the odd boulder field. Wild flowers were thriving with many varieties, but it was the yellow and purple snake head fritillaries which excited me as I had not seen them in the wild before. The Take Khola stream slowly descended passing from sluggish sandy bits to a more lively shallow descent over small stones. It was a lovely valley and it was a shame the weather was not kind to us. Towards the end of the section before the Paththarchhage Khola side stream there was a lovely km across a shallow grassy slope to reach the tributary. I was worried about its size but it was easy to wade. It drained a largish area to the north up a remote valley full of jagged peaks in the Khangla Himal on the Tibet border. I am sure many of the peaks are unclimbed. To the south was a turquoise lake at the mouth of a valley which led up to a possible pass over to the large flooded meadow in Takya Khola were we were this morning.
Below Paththarchhage Khola the path quickly developed and we passed a herd of 10 horses who must have helped create it. The Take Khola also grew very quickly, and as the valley narrowed and the stream went into a slot it looked impassable. The path now started to descent more quickly but the valley remained verdant. I rounded one spur and suddenly came across a herd of Chauri cattle. As the path continued down I saw about 100 of them. I can’t remember Chauri before just lots of sheep and goats. The Chauri were grazing right up the hillside on the rockier slopes as well as the meadows above the stream. We passed a very small lake of clear water and then I spied the Takechaur pastures down below where we were heading. It still looked as idyllic as I remembered. 10 minutes later we were arriving but there was a huge flock of sheep and goats on our previous campsite.
I suggested to Bharat we go and introduce ourselves and tell them we camped here 11 years ago. They were enthusiastic and said it was no problem to camp where we wanted. There were about 6 herding units here and another 2 up the side valley to the north. They did not have tents or tarpaulins, but their shelters were a wall of stones and the roof were birch branches covered with slabs of birch bark. The bark is waterproof and easily peeled from the nearby trees in 2 foot by 2 foot sheets and laid on the branches. It was a simple home for the summer months. All the camps were from the village of Nepka some 10 hours walk down the valley. As we put the tent up people came from all the stone and birch shelters to look what we were doing and to chat to us.
When I was in Nepka 11 years ago I took a group picture of some 20 children who had gathered to see me. I had this picture on my phone and showed it now to those who gathered to see me. The picture caused much excitement and everyone was pointing to people saying “that’s my brother” or “look at Rasu”. Then everybody wanted their picture taken in case I came back in another 11 years. Everyone over the age of 50 seemed to be smoking a chillum local tobacco and wanted to pose with it.
Bharat and the others bought a goat for 6000 rupees from one of the 6 herders and it was soon dispatched beside the river and cleaned down there ready for the pot. The herder who sold it had 500 animals all together, and it seemed the other herders had about 200 each so there were about 1500 animals gathered here each night, some were in the birch woods across the river and others sheltered in the boulders above the 6 shelters.
I was so glad that everything was as I remembered it here. There were no yarsagumba collectors and their accompanying bhattis. Even the shelters with their birch bark roofs remained the same. The only addition seemed to be the Chauri cattle. These herders were following a transhumance pattern which nearly all our forefathers, for hundreds of generations did, until perhaps 5-10 generations ago. It is in our cultural DNA to do so. While we have become disenfranchised from the land and these annual migrations the old ways remain just below the surface and the industrial and commercial eras have not erased them so far. It is heartening to know some people still practice this simple, nourishing lifestyle. It was a joy to be with them for the evening seeing their daily tasks and activities like spinning wool and collecting their animals into the vicinity of the shelters before nightfall. I also heard from some of them that the route I wanted to take up the Musyang Khola stream, over the Okhale Lek pass and down the Lurupya Khola river to Simikot was feasible and people from Nepka sometimes walk it.
7 July. Takekharka to Musyang. 32km. 10.5 hour. 310m up. 1770m down. We set off quite late as we lingered in the charka, chatting with the shepherds and paid for the goat, when we eventually went it was nearly 0800, which agitated me a bit as I knew we had a long way to go. We set off down the slope past “whatisthis” the nickname we gave to the Kieth Richards of the charka, a wizened, hunched old man with a wry smile and constantly puffing on his chillum. We made our way down to Jhulenchaur, the first meadow which was quite flooded with the excess water this year. The river meandered slowly across the flat pasture and we frequently had to avoid small ponds and channels. At the end of this meadow the now river started to plunge down a slope so that it was essentially a white frothing torrent. By now the birch trees were firmly established on the south side and probably would be on the north side too had they not been felled to provide pasture, but many copses remained.
It took surprisingly long to go down past a couple of charka, still milling with sheep and goats even at this time of day, to reach the loveliest meadow of them all at Bholbihanchaur, perhaps 3 hours from Takechaur. The path was quite rocky and covered in tree roots as we had entered the Silver Fir forest. The smell of resin was reassuring and being back in the thick forest again was like being back in the safety of the womb. This meadow had large glades and copses of fir. The tributary was large and there was an old cantilever log and stone bridge across it, which might have been the same structure as 11 years ago. When the others arrived they showed me the kerosene stove. It was broken beyond repair as a weld had broken and punctured the fuel container which needs to be pressurized. It was discarded under some boulders to rust away. We would now have to cook on firewood until Simikot and this would slow us down.
From Bholbihanchaur meadow the path dropped down past another couple of meadows, full of knee high wild flowers, to enter an huge gorge. We met a man on the way up with a mule and he said it was 4 hours to our destination but I knew it was about 6. Nepalis always underestimate time and exaggerate their own speed. Once in the gorge the path undulated up and mostly down as it had to cross spurs. Looking up I could see the walls rising high above me, often with high overhangs where chunks of rocks had peeled off long ago. The walls of the gorge in some places are nearly 1000 metres high. Down in the bottom of it the raging river tumbled down a continual set of rapids which on each side different forests exist. On the north side south-facing slopes the firs give was to a mixed forest with a lot of oak while on the south side north-facing slopes firs persisted.
At Kachyapu people were getting quite tired. I told them it was 4 km, about an hour and a half, to the next big tributary, the Niliga Khola, and set off to reach it myself. It was a long way as the path was slow and it took nearly 2 hours. But on reaching it the valley widened out and there were some nice meadows again. The others arrived soon afterwards and were tired. I explained to them that we could walk a km to the next meadow at Lepchachaur and see how that looked, if it was nice we could camp there, if not we would have to carry on the Galagnachaur, our original destination. We set of and immediately passed through some lovely campsites, with long ungrazed grass and flowers to reach Lepchachaur. There was a herders shelter hare but it was surrounded by goat droppings and the rest of the meadow was sloping and stony. Not really ideal for camping. Across the river through were some great spots but they were inaccessible.
So we headed off to Galagnachaur about an hour away. The porters were tired but were quite stoic, and refused to complain. After 10 minutes we came to a newish bridge across the huge torrent to the south side and great campsites. I was very tempted as we had water, firewood from the pine trees and a grassy underfloor. However the bridge looked rickety and if it collapsed whoever was on it would be washed down the torrent to their death. Also if the river rose and swept it way we would be stuck and probably need to be rescued, so we continued.
Galagnachaur arrived much quicker that I imagined. Bharat said “nothing changed”. It was a sloping meadow which had been terraced and was now either growing buckwheat, or was a riot of weeds and cannabis. There were some shelters but they were rather dirty with animal dung. The one we staying in 11 years ago had collapsed. Ramesh found a mediocre campsite near a shelter he could cook in but I did not care for it. I liked the look of one at the bottom of the meadow on a spur above the torrent. Dawa wanted to carry on. I said there should be something in half and hour’ not looking at my previous notes from 11 years ago
The half hour option was terrible. I apologized to the others and said we would probably now have to carry on to Musyang, the other side of a huge buttress. I said, and hoped, it would take an hour as it was already 1800. I set off first at a pace hoping to find something soon but wanting to get to Musyang in the light. As it happened there was nothing at all as the boiling river entered another gorge around the rock prow. The path was also difficult with plenty of ups and downs. The river was a white slot in an otherwise green, lush, forested gorge. I walked fast but the light was fading and I was feeling more and more guilty. At last in the last light around 2000, some two hours after I left the others I came to a damp flat area beside the raging river. It was covered in dock leaves but it would do. Just then it started to drizzle which quickly turned to heavy rain. I sheltered under a tree in the wet dark hoping to see head torches.
It took half n hour for the first lights to appear and then out of the rain 4 bedraggled figures appeared. We put the tent up in a muted silence and I could feel I was not popular. We all piled in and it was obvious that a wood fire was impossible. We ate a snack and then everyone went into their sleeping bags. The rain was very heavy and it almost felt tempestuous. I was a little worried about the river level as we were just 1.5 metres above it and it was a violent torrent of foaming water 30 metres wide. We all feel asleep quite quickly as the rain really battered the flysheet, and inside everything was quickly becoming clammy. Morale was low. About an hour later Dawa was sitting up shouting “Pani, pani” (water, water). I was frightened as I thought the river was coming up and into the tent. However it was just a nightmare and it lightened the mood. It would go down along with Santos’s “Baloo, baloo” (bear, bear) nightmare. Just after there was a tremendous thunderclap and I thought it was a landslide, but it was not. It was a wild night and I was glad went I woke and it was just a drizzle with larger drops off the overhanging trees
8 July. Musyang to Nepka. 12 km. 5 hours. 470m up. 740m down. Ramesh was up early but returned to the tent saying it was impossible to start a fire. I said we should head down to Musyang where there were agricultural shelters and a large stream, and we should find wood there. So we packed up under the dripping trees and headed downriver. I thought we were a good half hour away, but after a few minutes we arrived. There was indeed wood in one of the shelters and we got a fire going on the banks of the Musyang Khola tributary. Ramesh cooked a dhalbat while I looked for a path up the Musyang khola, which I had read was a route, and wanted a more exciting finish to the GHT than a gentle walk up the Humla Karnali which I had done 11 years before.
I found the path on the west side of the stream. It was very faint initially as it went through small fields of buckwheat and tobacco with rustic grass roofed shelters among them, but as it went up the hillside it was more obvious but overgrown with vicious nettles and angelica. I returned with the news which was received with complete apathy. Perhaps they were hoping I would not find it and they could have an easier walk to Nepka or even Piplan. I felt vindicated however as a few locals had said there was no path.
Santos served the meal while Ramesh rested. Santos then started to cooked the meat from the goat which was left over. Indeed there was quite a pile of it left and they were hoping for some last night but I scuppered that with my extra long day in search for a campsite. The sun was out and most of the sky was blue so we put out wet clothing, mostly socks out to dry. By 1000 all the meals were eaten and the washing up done and we were ready to set off. The mood was still muted. We went up to the shelters found the path and set off. In the glades it was overgrown but in the woods it was wide and well constructed. Ha! I felt, do you believe me now doubters. We climbed past some huge firs and deciduous trees and then back into glades. The nettles even stung me through my trousers which I had on specifically for them. We passed a collection of small shelters used for herding and the path got a bit smaller. The porters were having to push through the odd overhanging branches. Then we passed another collection of shelters by a kharka and the path got even smaller. It crossed a old landslide area in which it vanished but appeared again on the other side. As we continued my heart sank. We had not even climbed from 2600 to 2900 when the path became difficult to follow. I reckoned we would have to climb to about 3500 to be out of the thicker vegetation and into the fir and birch woods. We got to an area where someone was making shingles for roofing and the path reappeared again but soon it was back to landslides and windfalls making out progress very difficult. Before long all trace of any path had long vanished and we were in thick scrubby jungle. I had to heave and push to get through the branches, but the porters were finding it impossible. Still on thin ice after yesterday’s route march into the dark I had to admit defeat and agree to return. The mood lightened.
The descent took an hour. Together with the ascent it was 3-4 hours wasted on a side trip. We would go to Nepka and try another route. The route locals had said was the one they used. The descent to Nepka was easy and took just 90 minutes from Musyang. The trees on the north very largely deciduous now but on the southside there were conifers galore. The firs were now the Western variety of the Silver Fir, taller and more slender sometimes reaching 60 metres. There were also many Spruce, all with drooping branches and branchlets so had they been dogs they would have been Afghans.
Further down we came across scattered fields of millet beside the path, protected from domestic herbivores with loose rock walls or branches. These fields got more and more plentiful until we reached a bowl by the Nepka Khola which was covered in them. There were about 20 shelters here, all two storey with animals or storage below, and their fodder or bedding stored above under the apex of the grass roof. The route from manure to field was an easy one. Around all the shelters and each side of the path were tall and bushy cannabis plants, just producing their seeds, smelling pungent and oozing oil. It would have been easy to make hash from them by rolling the ends of the branches in the palm of ones hands some 10-20 times and then by vigorously rubbing ones palms together until a matchstick size of residue forms. All the plants growing here were weeds and clumps of them were pulled up where obstructing doors of lanes between the shelters. Just beyond the shelters I saw a snake in the sun but it quickly disappeared between the stones of a terraced field as I approached. Then suddenly I was walking into Nepka, a village with about 60-70 houses.
I have been to Nepka 11 years ago when walking down the Take Khola previously. Then I took a photo of some 20 children on a rooftop. As I approached some people I brought the phone out and showed it to them. Immediately there was a crowd and much excitement. When It got large I saw someone beckoning me up to a rooftop op a very high log ladder. I went up and he spread a carpet our for me. Some from the persistent crowd followed but most stayed below. One man from the school association wanted it transferred to his phone which I did. It proved useful as he later gave us permission to camp at the school for a fee.
When the others arrived we headed off there and found a nice pergola under which we could just pitch the tent. Ramesh was feeling grim so he went straight in to the damp inner and climbed into his damp sleeping bag. Having the tent under the pergola meant things could dry out at last. Soon the kids started to arrive to see us and before long there was 40 of them. Once the novelty had wore off they started playing in the yard. Occasionally they would climb onto the Pergola but Santos would bark at them and they would flee back to the yard. All in all they were a really well behaved, curious bunch who wanted to practice their English on me. They were all about 5-8. Then some teenagers arrived but they were hardly interested. Instead they commandeered the yard and put up a volley ball net and 8 of them started playing what must be Nepal’s national sport. I discovered a classroom which was open and had a bench and long desk. It was perfect for doing the blog. The younger kids tried to come in but I blocked the door with a desk and growled at anyone who came past it and they respectfully retreated.
As I finished it started to pour, battering of the corrugated roof. Tomorrow we will try a second route over to Lurupya Khola which will take two days. It goes up from here to some summer pastures and kharkas and then over a pass before the descent. The pass has a junction of paths and we will hopefully take a guide from the kharka to make sure we get the right descent. It will be exciting for Bharat and myself as it is the only part of the last 2 sections we have not done yet.
9 July. Nepka to Rakalchaur. 12km. 6,5 hours. 1690m up. 190m down. It was grey and drizzling when we woke but thanks to the pergola the tent was dry. Santos was up to make a fire under the eaves of the school for tea and breakfast. I discovered there was still a plastic bag of goat meat in a sack which had been leaking. It stank so I made Ramesh put it at the bottom of his basket so it would not sully a holdall. We set off through the village. It had no toilets and the fields and side of the path seemed to substitute. In the village itself the lanes were ankle deep in mud and animal dung which had been shovelled out from the lowest floor of the houses where some of the animals overnighted. The wet climate of Humla during the monsoon season does not help but the village was very dirty. It was better than 11 years ago before a layer of cobbles had been added to the lane. That time it was twice as deep. At the far end of Nepka was a stream which seemed to double as a toilet. There was a path beside it down under many apricot trees to a bridge. Here I met the man from the school association and gave him the 2000 rupees for camping in the school. He also gave us instructions on how to find the route to the kharka before the pass over to Lurupya Khola.
We set off and went a good km to the split in the path, the lower one going to Piplan and the smaller upper one to the kharka. However after walking this path for a good km it ended up at some fields and a house. I returned to the junction and Bharat followed. I could see this was going to be a difficult day and with the slower start and the false path we had already wasted 3 hours. So I sent Bharat back to Nepka to ask the helpful man on the school association for a local guide. A good hour later he returned with the helpful man and also a young lad who had been playing volley ball at the school last night. The young lad would accompany us to the kharka and show us the way.
When I showed my picture of the kids at Takechaur a few day ago one of the people pointed to a teenage girl and said she had just fallen into the river a few days ago and died. She was now 25 and I thought what a shame. It now transpired she was the wife of the nice man on the school association and a mother of 3. He was very stoic about it said he was really thankful for the old photo. I got his Facebook name and promised to send him more if I had them. Previously he had been a commander in Nepal’s Maoist army over a decade ago and had taken severance pay from it.
The path it turned out forked off the one to the single house but nobody saw it. So we returned up to the house but turned off half way there. It was already midday and the promise of nice weather had disappeared. I set off at a good pace and was soon ahead. However there was a wealth of new plants to see and photo, including two stunning lilies. The path was quite steep as it went up a rib on the hillside. After a good hour it came to a few shelters and some terraces of corn, which was just ripening. The trees up to here were quite sparse and just consisted of Bhutan pines and some oak. It was mainly grass and wild flowers. The weather limited the views down the valley, but I could occasionally see to Piplan and it looked like there was a road up that valley, which was 10 km away. Looking up Take Khola valley you could see the deep U shaped valley which must have had some glaciation long ago. Now it was green and lush and the swollen Take Khola River was a wide silver ribbon on the valley floor.
From the shelters by the corn field the path continued to climb relentlessly. It followed the same spur but this was now covered in oaks. Their leaf litter covered the track. There was another set of plants i had not seen before so I was busy with the camera. The others were far back and the speedy Santos seemed to be struggling. On and on the path climbed for a second 500 metres until it reached the top of the oak forest and all I could see ahead was bare grassland. A few grouse type birds broke cover above me a glided down into the mists and I heard a cuckoo close by, and then saw it fly off looking like a small hawk. The local guide, Suprendra, caught up with me at the top edge of the forest, as he was possibly frustrated but the others speed. It was good having him along as he was carrying the tent and he gave me confidence we were on the right path.
The last 500m took us across grassland with many plantain type plants like the dockweed. There seemed to thrive where goats gather. The path crossed the rib into a new gully and then went up another rib to reach a collection of herders huts. They were all small and compact with stone walls and large shingle planks for the roof. They had an area set aside for living with a fireplace on the floor and a small area for calves to shelter in overnight to encourage their Chauri mothers to produce milk. The path detoured through these 5-6 shelters and then went back into the gully between the ribs to climb into the mist where I could see horses, Chauri cattle and goats. There were yet more wildflowers here, thriving in the monsoon. Soon I smelt smoke and then saw people on the hill above looking down at me.
I went up to the hill and met about 10 of the herders. There were a friendly bunch from the village of Pali near Piplan. I could not tell their caste at all but guessed Tamang or Chettri. One of the ladies offered me a cup of Moi. It was whey which was being made into yoghurt. It was refreshing. I held my own in Nepali for about 10 minutes before I had used up all my words and the awkward silence set in. Just then the others appeared out of the mist and took over. They all looked tired and Santos was ill with an upset stomach. I had already been shown a hillock which was good for camping but it was now obscured by mist. I led the way to it and we out up the tent. Santos and I went in, me to write and Santos to sleep. The other 4 went back to the herders huts as it was raining and they were offered the chance to cook in them and buy some expensive firewood. The weather was miserable as nightfall came with heavy rain. I expected the last of the goat was being cooked and hoped someone would bring me my meal when they returned around 2100. I asked Bharat to see if he could get a guide for 0700 from the herders as the next section could be tricky in the mist.
10 July. Rakalchaur to Cave 2km south of Lurupya Khola. 13 km. 6,5 hours. 630m up. 940m down. The mist had cleared in the morning but it was damp and overcast. We packed up the tent by seven and went down to one of the herders shelters where Ramesh was making us tea using the expensive firewood. The shelter was made entirely of stone, with boulders for the walls and slabs for the roof, except for the roof beams. The entrance was tiny and I had to crawl to get in. Once inside it was cramped but cosy. There was a fire in the centre with a three legged pot stand and rugs and skins on the floor. There was enough room for about 8 to sit or 4 to sleep on the floor. Our host, a 50 something man, was also to be our guide for the day. After tea and tsampa we set off around 0800 just as the mist was returning.
This pass, which has no single name is used by a few people in Nepka to go to Simikot, however it is notoriously misty and the route is faint and convoluted. We were advised a local guide is essential and someone from the kharka is the best bet as few people from Nepka are familiar with it. we started around 4100 metres and followed the grassy hillsides for a good hour. En route we passed the guide’s sheep and he made some great whistles to round them up from a distance. To the east was the Nepka Khola stream which tumbled down to Nepka but it was too steep to come up hence the route via the kharka.
After an hour our guide plucked a few tufts of grass and picked up a flat stone the size of an outstretched hand. I did not see what he did with the grass but he put the stone on the nape of his neck almost in the hood of his jacket. We then crested a small rise and there was a magnificent small lake clear in colour with a sapphire tint. It was surrounded by grassy slopes and snow fields and then by misty rock faces leading up to unseen peaks. Our guide then approached a cairn on the waters edge, took off his shoes and respectfully walked towards the cairn. He took the stone from the nape of his neck and laid it at the foot of the cairn. He then walked backwards for the 10 metres to his shoes, put them on and continued to walk backwards, again plucking some grass. I asked about the cairn and it was in fact a shrine to Shiva. I assumed the whole puja was thanking Shiva for the bountiful grass this year and asking for good grass in the future.
After the lake the route became more faint and erratic and there were frequent boulder fields. I made heavy work of these and the others overtook me. The mist was thick enough now to be drizzle. I had a slight orientation as to where I was just due to the small roar of the Nepka Khola stream, otherwise I would have been lost. A local guide here really was essential. The boulder fields were soon interspersed with snow fields, all of which were at quite a manageable gradient even with soft shoes. Santos was still feeling weak and had diarrhoea, probably after an apricot someone gave him yesterday which could have been picked up from the dirty river bank in Nepka. Dawa somehow managed to take his load also leaving him with the bare minimum. Only an athlete of Dawa’s fortitude could have managed what I estimated to be a 40 kg load. Ramesh, as usual also helped, leaving Santos with about 5 kg.
After about 3 hours we seemed to circle round the fan which was the headwaters of the Nepka Khola stream crossing snowfields and slippery boulder fields. Then we made a short traversing climb until we reached the pass at about 4650m. There were no cairns, chortens, prayer flags or any other fanfare. Through the mist I could see the way down and it looked steep and snowy. At first instance I was worried but then I could see a route until the mist obscured it. I paid the guide for the wood and use of the kitchen in his shelter 1700 rupees and another 2000 rupees for the guiding. He said he was hoping for more. Bharat said he though another 1000 was due and I did not quibble. He had provided a great service and I thought the going rate was 1500 rupees for the day. We shook hands and he watched us as we descended into the mist.
It was just a steep descent down a rib for 30 metres to reach a steep snow field. However the snow was soft and easy to smash ones heels into to make a step. Then I saw the snowfield was in fact concave and descended some 200 metres into a bowl. I started going faster and was almost jogging down the slope until I slipped. I slid, almost on my bare bum as my loose shorts rode up for some 40 metres until the slope eased and I could stop. There after I could resume my speedy descent down another 100m to the bottom of the bowl. The others were following but Santos and Dawa had slippery shoes and were cautious. We had reached the bottom of a bowl with a jagged cirque of rocky peaks around it. The only chink in the cirque was the pass we came through. On the map it was called Chhetuma Lek, but no one local recognized the name. There was a tongue of snow which continued down for about another 100 vertical metres and it was great to follow it to its end in a collection of small flat meadows, which briefly had a rare patch of sun of them.
From here it was a good hour down beside a growing stream which crashed down slopes of rocky grassland. We could see a flock of sheep much further down and a couple of people. We continued our rough descent down the uneven hillside, careful not to slip on the stones. I though I was going fast but looked round once to see all 4 following closely behind me, very much at home on the boulders. Further down the valley I could see the main valley we were heading for in which the Lurupya Khola flowed. We were eager to get to it, cross the log bridge to the north side to gain the path and then blast down it for 10 km to reach the fleshpots of Dojan. As we neared the herd of sheep we realized it was a kharka so we went to ask directions. 4 shepherds came out to greet us, 3 spinning wool and one smoking tobacco in a chillum.
The news we got was not good. The bridge spanning the Lurupya Khola had been washed away and there was no way across the stream. In fact it was not a stream but a “Karnali”, a large river really. The only option for us was to force out way through the jungle of birch trees growing out of boulders fields on the steep south side of the river for some 7 km until we got to the next bridge. I knew this would take all day and we would be lucky to make a km an hour. Furthermore there was no more camping until this bridge at the collection of shelters, also called Lurupya. It seems the information we received, both from Nepka and the kharka was wrong and outdated. Indeed the 4 shepherds said no one had come over the pass this year so far. We were stuck really. Either 7 km of difficult jungle or return the way we came! The shepherds said our best option was to continue for another half hour to a large cave and spend the night there and then make an early start to fight our way through the jungle of birch tomorrow.
Despondently we went on down the valley in the drizzle and found the cave camp at the bottom of a buttress. There was wood and water nearby but the cave was much smaller that we thought. It was more of a slight, but very high overhang extending some 10 metres. If there was any southerly wind it would blown the rain onto the two platforms which could really only sleep 3-4 people each. The upper one was a bit smaller but had a good seat to write at. The others gave me the option and I took the upper while they took the lower, which had a nice fireplace come cooking area but the sleeping area was more exposed to the elements and half of it was already damp from drips. They explained they could use the two small tarpaulins we had, in a typically stoic Nepali way. In the upper platform I also saw a small stash on a rock which included a tarpaulin and an old blanket covered in sheep’s wools, which I could use in an emergency. It belonged to the shepherds. They arrived well before dusk and went to the lower platform to chat to the others. We were probably the first people they had seen this summer after coming over another pass from their village of Rodikot. As the others cooked and chatted I did the “office” while mist slowly drifted up the valley.
11 July. Cave 2km south Lurupya Khola to Kumlit Jula. 23 km. 10.5 hours. 540m up. 2070m down. The smoke from the fire below drifted up and at 0500 and I knew breakfast was under way. I had a remarkably good night in the cave despite the fact it drizzled all night. The others in the cave below had to cover the bottoms of their sleeping bags with a tarpaulin to prevent the drizzle soaking them. The two shepherds sleeping above me got up first and went down to the fire, then I went down. There was a lot of chatting and I was a bit frustrated but we were still ready to go at 0700. Bharat approached sheepishly and I knew I had been asked to contribute to the firewood used. It was 600 rupees but then there was a kitchen charge also which was 400 rupees for essentially the side of the cave wall which they claimed ownership. Still the information they had given up was invaluable.
We started heading down the small path which pretty much went on top of the boulders for a half a km and then it entered the first of the birch trees. As it did it became more defined. It fell quickly through the trees heading down to the to the Lurupya Khola river. As it descended the vegetation became thicker and thicker but it was still manageable. I thought the very rough path would go straight down to this river where the bridge had been washed away but it tended to the west for a good km or two before it reached the river. All the time the drizzle continued to fall and the vegetation was soaking us. My shoes were wet in no time and my hands were earthy with all the mossy trees and branches I was grabbing to save myself slipping down the often muddy slope. When we got to the place where the remains of the log and stone cantilever bridge was I expected the path to stop, but it continued albeit in a much fainter version.
We took it in turns to route find with Bharat and myself usually at the front, the others having their big loads usually followed letting the leaders make the mistakes and walk back. Bharat had an special talent for spotting where the very faint path went, even when I thought it had vanished. A cut branch here or a pile of ruffled leaves was all he had to go by and it was lucky there had been some one here this season. Our progress was very slow, at perhaps a km an hour. From the map I could work out which ridge descending down to the main valley we had to reach before we got to the bridge. After a couple of hours of slogging through the wet dripping jungle it seemed we seemed to be no nearer. I was now soaking wet and covered in mud and leaves. Bharat joked with the others it was like commando training and that was probably not far from the truth. Some of the slopes were very steep and I often looked over at the tip of a fir just 10 metres away and then realized it was a 50 metre tree.
We got to an boulder which had a large overhang under which people had been camping recently. The others thought they were wild garlic collectors. We lit a small fire in their fire pit and ate our lunch snacks. It was so still the smoke hung in the air over the river like a ball of thick fog. The drizzle still continued after lunch. I took up the lead now for a good hour and was often ahead of the others who could easily follow my clumsy trail, “Like a buffalo” said Ramesh. We all slipped and fell. I had a lucky escape with a rock, my shoulder taking the impact rather than my head, and Ramesh crashed down on his ribs and was winded for a good few minutes. Santos still had his diarrhoea so we were a sorry bunch when we reached a small powerful stream we had to wade across. Even Bharat kept his boots on. Some of the route finding was very difficult and I thought I had lost the path numerous times.
Once, when I could see no sign of the path I looked down at the river and thought I could see some logs across to a large boulder in the middle of the torrent. I back tracked and could see that people had walked from the path towards the logs spanning half the river. When the others arrived we went to investigate. It was indeed a bridge, or two bridges to be precise. One from the south bank to a massive boulder and the other from the boulder to the north bank. They were both rickety, especially the first which was broken and just consisted of three logs. A fall would have been fatal. Eventually we were all across and up on the main path on the north side. We were saved after slogging through the jungle for over 5 hours.
It still took us 3 hours to walk down the muddy path to the confluence with the Chuwa Khola, and even bigger torrent. The 7-8 km took us through mixed forest with 3 of Nepal’s 5 main conifers, namely Fir, Spruce and Pine, only Hemlock and Deodar were missing. We passed some shepherds with a large flock of goats. They were also used for transport and the kharka had lots of small saddle bags stacked up which the goats carried. As the path descended to the confluence the trees on the north side virtually vanished, probably cut or burnt over the decades by shepherds wanting to improve the grazing. In the south side though across the inaccessible torrent the conifers flourished.
We questioned the shepherds about a local shop in Dojam or even a hotel. All our stuff was wet or at the minimum claggy. A night in the tent was feasible but would have been miserable and any firewood we found wet. They said Dojam just had a little shop but 40 minutes downstream at Kumlit Jula was a hotel. They advised us to take the path on the south side of the river, crossing at Syala at the confluence of the two violent rivers. We did this on another log bridge. As usual the 40 minutes turned out to be nearly two hours and we climbed and descended the very undulating path. We also failed to take a small fork down to the right and climbed for another 20 minutes before we realized our mistake. In the meantime it was just a short climb to Dojan where we would have met a well constructed path which slowly descended all the way to the hotel. It was bad information these shepherds gave us and the north route would have been far simpler and easier.
The hotel was quite rustic but the Lama host and his wife were very friendly and welcoming. We all enjoyed hanging up out wet clothes in the dusk and then went into the warm kitchen for a huge dalbhat and omelette. It was luxury to have the warmth of the kitchen and the ability to spread out. Our little adventure off piste was over and now it was just an easy well used path to Simikot some 4 hours away.
12 July. Kumlit Jula to Simikot. 13km. 5 hours. 1010m up. 430m down. It was nice to sleep indoors after a week in the tent. Even in the rustic room I could hear the rain when I woke smashing onto the tin roof. It was also nice not to wander off in the morning to find a secluded boulder, as there was the luxury of a squat toilet downstairs in a cramped small damp room. After breakfast the host, who suggested we go via Baragaon rather than Karpunath, showed us the path to take after walking us to the edge of the hamlet past a few watermills. By now the weather was misty but at least the rain had stopped.
We set off up the track to Baragaon and passed many groups of women, over 60 women in all and few men on the way down. I assumed they were going to the fields around Kumlit Jula each side of the river. These fields looked fertile and were green and lush with millet and corn. It would explain why there were so many water mills in Kumlit Jula, which must be a satellite of Baragaon. It took an hour to reach Baragaon up the well-made and busy path. Unfortunately the whole village was in mist which was a shame as it was a very large traditional village full of character and would have been a photo bonanza. Even in the mist is was full of intrigue.
The first thing one noticed was the mud. Or rather mud come animal dung. It was up to 10 centimetres in the lanes. Under the mud was a layer of cobble sized stones otherwise I dare say it would be shin deep if not more. The mud came from the earth trampled by thousands of feet and hooves in the midst of the monsoon rains. The dung came from the ground floor of the houses where the animals spent the night in a dark, dingy, cellar type room whose floor was lined with leaves. I think most of this was taken out to the fields as manure. Inevitably some would be shovelled out or overflowed into the lane. In addition when the small cattle and goats were taken out to graze each day they would lay a pat or two in the lanes. There was also a fair amount of mule traffic, bringing goods to the small shops and they would also add to the dung in the lanes. I was stepping carefully in my boots, but Santos whose boots had finally fallen to pieces had borrowed Dawa’s sandals. Santos and Ramesh were convinced the population of Baragaon also used their lanes as a toilet, and I saw some evidence too, and this further added to Santos’s anguish.
I became confused quarter way through the village as to the path, and a teacher on his way to school directed me up some steps to a roof top. The path then went along the roofs of about 20 houses and past a Hindu Temple sited on one roof. Where there was a gap between houses it was bridged with rough planks. Below I could see the ooze in the lane. It seemed the rooftops was the social area and there were meeting everywhere. Men smoked tobacco in chillums and looked at me as I gingerly walked past. Women were generally busy but a few also smoked chillums. On one rooftop a lady had set up a seamstress business with sewing machine. I had to look where I was going because there were so many pipes poking out through the roof from stoves below. When the rooftops finished I was directed towards a log ladder and climbed it to start another series of rooftops and then again up another ladder and more roof tops until I descended to the muddy lanes again to find a way out of the west side of the village on the path to Simikot.
As we left the village we passed lots of the small cattle which were heading out of town to graze on weeds and bushes also the paths edge and on land too steep or poor to cultivate. They were a feeble and timid looking variety of cattle, with many of the adults being barely a metre high. Even the bulls looked like they might fall over if you gave them a good shove. The path climbed up to a ridge where there were great views in most directions across and up the valleys. Small medieval hamlets, surrounded by bright green terraces, clung to hillsides all around and were only revealed when the mist cleared. Down in the valleys the two major rivers of the area, the Humla Karnali and the Kharpu Karnali, which we had partly followed, met at the important Kharpunath Hindu temple far below.
The path now descended through the mist into the small side valley with the hamlet of Hildum. It passed above this huddle of 10 houses and then started a long 500 metre climb up the west side of the valley. I was now dog tired and had to pace myself up the hill. The others were far behind and I could see them coming down the path to Hildum. We were all tired, wet and fed up with the weather. At the top of the climb was another smaller but disheartening climb until I reached the edge of Simikot and a large sign saying it was a “Open Defaecation Free Zone” and something in Nepali presumably saying Open Defecators will be fined. The wide lane here was muddy even though there were few animals. I walked through the main street with the rain starting again. It was much busier now than 11 years ago with double the number of houses and shops, even the runway was now covered in tarmac.
I spied a cluster of new hotels at the far end of town and headed for them. The Bijay looked nice but was expensive. As I left it I bumped into an American and Brazilian staying there for the summer while they flew Indians on helicopters between Simikot and Hilsa en route to Mount Kailash. They convinced me it was the best and most reasonable in town so I humbly returned and checked it. I got two rooms on the roof for us with great views and drying options if the rain stopped. There were some Indians staying here, stranded by the weather, hoping to fly to Hilsa soon. I ate a delicious set meal with them and then spoke to Fiona after a month of silence. There was no hot water due to the sun’s absence so I had a bucket shower and managed to shave. For the second time this trip it was a month between washes. As I went downstairs the head of the Army in Humla District dropped in. He had done his officer training at Sandhurst and spoke excellent English. We chatted for about 10 minutes. He had an unpronounceable name but said just call me Nish. Later in the evening we saw the news and it seemed the whole of Nepal was getting battered by monsoon rains with severe problems elsewhere and massive flooding, so with out constant drizzle and mists we have got off quite lightly. The hotel was comfortable and it would be a great place for us all to recover before we start the final Section 14. Limi. Which should take 10 days.
Section 13. Mugu to Humla Off Piste had been a hard section. The official GHT goes down to Mugu Karnali River from Shilenchaura Kharka for 3 days to Gamghadi and then spends about 5 days heading north, eventually up the Humla Karnali to Simikot. I have walked all of it before and it is a beautiful area but it is really in the hill region, or Pahar, rather than the mountain region, or Himal. The area is developing quite quickly and roads are branching out from Gamghadi and Humla. I had walked the most of my alternative from Mugugaon over the Takya Lek pass and then down the Take Khola to Nepka and indeed on to Piplan, which is all in the true spirit of the GHT to go as high as possible. I wanted to further enhance this by heading over from the Take Khola to the Lurupya Khola over one of the near 5000m passes. However the information was sketchy and it seemed the only route available was the one we took and the Musyang Khola one was a false lead. Even the one we took was full of false information. The route up was fine, the route finding to the pass was very difficult and a local guide from the kharka was also essential. The descent to the cave was reasonably easy but the section from the cave to the rickety bridge over the Lurupya Khola, although only about 7-8 km is very difficult and will test even the most patient porter. Unless the bridge further up the Lurupya Khola is rebuilt I could not really recommend this route to anyone but the hardiest, most adventurous trekking groups, especially in the monsoon season. The descent from Nepka to Piplan and then up to Simikot is the best. In retrospect though it had been fun and the 5 of us are already reminiscing.
Section 13. Mugu to Humla Off Piste. 8 Days. 144 Km. 58,5 Hours. 6370m up. 7210m down.