LOST AND FEARING IN HELAMBU
That morning I started with a long, steep climb out of Kutumsang. Wood smoke scorched my nostrils and scrawny hens flapped out of my path as I walked through the village. An old man, his life mapped by the lines of his face, sat on the step of his stone house, spinning a prayer wheel and mumbling incantations, oblivious to my presence. As I gained height the prickly oak woodland was replaced by huge rhododendron and blue pine trees. How beautiful this must be when the rhododendron is in bloom.
Think of walking in the Himalayas and what springs to mind? Everest, ice and snow, altitude sickness, danger or even death. It may surprise many to learn that it is possible to walk in the Himalayas without experiencing any of these. That is not to say that everyone can manage it. Certainly you need to be fairly fit, since it is far removed from a Sunday stroll in the park. If you can handle the peaks of the Lake District then you should be okay.
The Helambu trek is a circuit taking as little as five days or as long as you can spare. In relation to other treks in Nepal it is low level, but I should stress that this is relative. The highest point of the walk is Tharepati at 3490m, compared with Ben Nevis, the highest peak in Britain, at 1343m. Despite being a low level walk it provides truly spectacular views of the higher, snow-capped peaks of the Jugal Himal. It also offers a diverse range of scenery from steeply incised river valleys covered in woodland to stark, vertical rock faces looking monochromatic in the evening sun, to the giant, snow-capped summits shimmering pink in the dawn light, standing guard over the mystical kingdom of Tibet. However, the real pleasure of this walk lies in its people and their culture. This is Sherpa country, the cousins of the now famous Sherpas of the Khumbu (Everest) area and I gained a fascinating insight into the lives of these hardy people.
There are a number of options when considering how to tackle the route. You can camp or stay very cheaply in lodges (less than £1/night); hire a porter to carry your pack or carry it yourself; use a guide book to find your way or hire a guide; go as an independent trekker or as part of a commercial group. I chose to go independently and alone, and to stay in lodges.
The trek begins at Sundarijal which can be reached by bus or taxi, 15 minutes from Kathmandu. The trail first ascends many steps to reach a small reservoir. From here the path goes through oak woodland. In places the footpath has become like a steep sided gorge, some 10 feet deep where monsoon rains have gouged it out. The woodland soon recedes to reveal the small village of Pati Bhanjyang set on a saddle amidst an open landscape of terraced fields and dry grassland. Many people end their first day here but I chose to continue to Chipling (2170m). Having set off from Sundarijal at 10.30, I arrived in Chipling at 16.00 and took a basic but quite adequate room at the Chipling Guest House for the princely sum of NR30. I dined, as I did every night, on daal bhat (curry, rice, lentils and pickle) which cost around NR50 for as much as I could eat. Daal bhat is what most Nepalese eat but it is by no means the only food available. Many of these lodges have astounding menus including Nepali interpretations of Mexican, Indian, Italian, Tibetan and European dishes.
After a good night’s sleep I set off and was immediately faced with a steep climb through a treeless landscape to the saddle at 2470m. I walked to the sound of the woodcutters' axes ringing through the valley - an obvious reminder of the impact that the population has on the environment, a situation exacerbated by ever-increasing pressures from trekking.
The pass was still covered in woodland, but as I passed down the other side the trees gave way to open pasture and the village of Gul Bhanjyang. On the way I passed two Chortens (Buddhist shrine) with their colourful prayer flags flapping in the stiff, cool breeze. Off in the distance I could see a farmer ploughing a field using an ox.
One thing I quickly learnt about trekking in the Himalayas is that there is very little walking on the flat. The concept of contouring obviously didn’t make it to Nepal. Again I was walking steeply up. Two thirds up the hill I stopped at the Dragon Lodge for a soda which I drank while watching a grandmother weave using a complicated assortment of thin bamboo sticks and brightly coloured yarns. I was fascinated.
On reaching the pass at 2620m the path emerged from woodland into meadowland and descended to Kutumsang, the Jugal Himal growing ever larger with each and every step. The temperature dropped with the setting sun and I was glad I’d packed my down jacket. I spent a very pleasant evening in the company of two brothers, sat around their stove at Sagamatha lodge.
The next morning started with an exhausting ascent, after which I dropped down to the little village of Mangengoth that consists of two lodges and an army checkpoint where my trekking permit was checked. I carried on to the junction of paths on the saddle, turning left to Tharepati. On the way I passed a small woman carrying a huge bundle of grass on her back. I greeted her with a “Namaste, Didi” which she obviously found very funny. I arrived at Tharepati tired and sore after walking for 10 hours (minus numerous photo stops). I shared a stove with the lodge owner and two Tibetans who were taking some newly acquired cattle over the Gosainkund pass to Dhunche. Although Tharepati offered superb views of the Jugal Himal it was very cold and at one point snow fell, so I took some quick photos in the evening light and then retired to the warmth of the lodge.
I departed at 07.00 intending to walk to Melamchigaon (2530m). If I’d read my guidebook correctly I would have taken the new route starting at the northern end of Tharepati. Unfortunately I did not. Instead I retraced my route of the previous day to the junction of paths and took the left fork. This took me through deep woodland where the path was often obscured by leaves or was indistinguishable from a myriad of animal tracks. I crossed a huge landslide, over 150m wide, and then the path ended completely. I met an old man carrying a khukri knife in each hand. With a keen-edged blade he pointed towards Melamchigaon far off in the distance. Much nearer was Tarke Gyang (2743m) which was to be tomorrow’s destination but I decided to change my plans. This was turning into quite an adventure. Although nearer, getting to Tarke Gyang involved ploughing my way through a pathless woodland, descending a steep valley, crossing two rivers and then climbing 600m. At one point I walked through a small village of half a dozen huts. Obviously they were not used to seeing white people because the children screamed and ran to their weaving mothers who eyed me with blatant suspicion. I quickened my pace for fear of being chased by their knife-wielding men-folk, and tried to avoid any more human encounters for that day. I had done two days walking in just one day. I arrived in Tarke Gyang after almost 10 hours continuous walking, exhausted, miserable and in need of a change of fortune.
I walked into the first lodge I came to and the Gods smiled on me. I was greeted by a charming young Sherpa girl called Pema. She showed me to my room and then invited me to sit with her brothers and sisters by the stove. Pema made me hot drinks and potatoes and then cooked curry and rice for me and the rest of her family. She also cheerfully answered all my prying questions. I could have stayed there long into the night but eventually hauled myself off to bed. These were such friendly people that I decided to spend the next night there too. It snowed for much of the next day and was very cold. These people are so hardy that Pema’s brother was washed naked in the snow while I huddled fully clothed by the stove. By the end of the day I felt I had been adopted as part of the family.
The next day I felt compelled to leave Yangri Danda guest house and said my goodbyes before heading down the valley. I soon descended from the land of the Buddhist Sherpas into the more fertile lands of the Hindu Nepalese where rice is the main crop. My intention had been to spend the night at Talamarang, but this proved to be a loud and dirty place so I carried on along a dirt road to Malemchi Pul Bazar. I arrived at 15.23, 23 minutes after the last bus to Kathmandu had left. I ended up spending the night Malemchi Pul Bazar; not an enjoyable experience. At 06.00 I caught the first bus back to Kathmandu for NR40. What takes a taxi 40 minutes took a very crowded bus over 4 hours, an unfortunate end to what had been a very enjoyable trek.