Today we started our descent, journeying from the rolling mountain pastures cut by glaciers into the jungle-like forest further down the river’s course. As I write this, I can hear the roar of the nearby torrent making its way over huge house-sized boulders as it cuts its way through then valley.
The top of the valley is very close to Tibet – only a couple of miles over the mountains to the border, and it has a very Tibetan feel about it, even more so because of the large number of refugees who fled here after the Chinese invasion in the fifties. A guide we were talking to the other day said there was a mass exodus at that time, with people taking the mountain pass to set up a new life this side of the peaks. At that point there was extreme poverty here – the higher slopes are not fertile enough for crop growth, and so it’s pretty much just yak farming (and cheese). He explained what a huge impact tourism had made for those living here, with an income for six months a year for lodge owners, who also sell wool products and jewellery to passing trekkers.
The Tibetan feel manifests itself in a number of ways. It goes without saying that there are prayer flags astride every hilltop on the way -as well as those most definitely out of the way, sometimes defying explanation of how someone could climb up so high and stretch a 100m run of flag-laden cord across such a precarious gulley. There are also prayer wheels, releasing the prayer within to the world as they spin – but fantastically, these are water prayer wheels – turning continually as the meltwater flow passes beneath, with some stone constructions holding six spinning wheels alongside each other. The fields are enclosed with Tibetan stone walls, not dissimilar to the dry stone walls of home. And the paths we’ve been taking have a periodic dual carriageway design, with a central reservation formed by mounds of rock surrounded by mani slabs inscribed with what we think are prayers in sanskrit. As with temples, the Buddhist way is to walk clockwise around them – or taking the left hand carriageway as will be familiar to any driver back home. The carriageway effect is all the more heightened by apparent gaps for those making right turns – occasional holes in the central reservation to let you through. No speed cameras or street lights here though!
As we were about to have dinner the night before last, the small lodge bungalow we were in began to shake. After initially putting it down to a strong wind, we soon realised we were experiencing our first earthquake and fled to the grass outside. Fortunately it was pretty gentle where we were – no more than a light wobble for 20 seconds or so. We gather from some people we met yesterday that the epicentre was on the border with India and that it has caused some houses to collapse closer to there – we hope nothing too terrible. We’re entirely cut off here in the mountains so it’ll be a couple of days before we can find out any more – or let people back home know we’re ok. It really makes you reflect on the destructive power of such a thing when you realise it was centred on the other side of the country and we could still clearly feel it where we were. That’s a lot of earth that moved.
We were woken early yesterday morning by the sound of pre-dawn singing from near our lodge. Accompanied by the occasional beating of a drum, the mournful undulating chant was the start of a funeral procession for a woman who had lived in a nearby house. We were told she’d travelled all the way to Kathmandu in the hope of a cure (we’re unsure of what), but had passed away recently back in the valley. We assume locals wouldn’t be able to afford a helicopter to take the sick to hospital, so the three day trek out must have been a huge struggle – we’ve found it challenging enough and we’re both fairly fit and well. As we rose for breakfast at first light, we could see the slow procession snaking its way up the hillside shrouded in the all-too-appropriate gloomy morning mist.
As we followed the river downhill, wide open mountainside made way for close damp jungle, its creepers and soaring trees consuming the bright mountain light and enveloping us in a dank, dripping world of green hues.
The humidity at this level provides for all manner of interesting vegetation – spindly tree branches that have literally tied themselves in a knot (half hitch, I think) because of the rate of growth – and presumably a lucky gust wind; creepers hanging down from the canopy waving in the breeze; and moss and ferns everywhere – not just a carpet of green, but walls of it too. The damp is pervasive enough that ferns have taken root in the bark of all the trees, so each trunk and branch is also decorated with a lighter, softer pattern of green alongside the soaring strength of the tree.
Then there’s the wildlife that moves. We came across a rustling in the undergrowth ahead of us and a couple of small, light brown monkeys quickly made their way up some nearby trees, exchanging glances with us until we moved on down the trail. The backing soundtrack of running water is accompanied by the high
pitched whine of crickets and a melody of bird calls, often little more than occasional chirps, but sometimes a beautifully textured song of call and response – and once or twice in full view, with tiny yellow canary-like birds whistling away above us.
A picture of the jungle would of course not be complete without the bugs. We were warned about leeches, and have been slathering protective oil over our arms and legs each day. Fortunately we’ve made it without finding any unwanted stowaways; a number of others have been less fortunate – and the wiggling worm-like tentacle that I found on my rucksack shoulder strap after lunch the other day certainly made me squirm. Ah, and the spiders! A few of the simple wooden tea-lodges we’ve been staying in have also had room for non-paying guests: spiders the size of a hand, with a good meaty body that appears particularly threatening when silhouetted against the bedside curtains in the morning. Arachnoid avoidance has certainly made for some speedy toilet trips and packing! Just don’t forget to shake out your shoes…