Isolation, altitude, barley porridge and other things

Ghamgadi to Saldang: days 8-20
8-20th September

Camping in the Himalaya.

It’s been a mindbending, knee-jarring, vertigo-inducing, occasionally stomach-churning 12 days of hard walking in an extremely remote part of the world. We have been walking on the very fringes of human civilization and sometimes beyond it in the highly restricted area of Dolpo. It’s been a mixture of remote camping and sleeping in people’s homes. This is one of the hardest sections of the GHT and it has certainly been testing having crossed 5 passes over 4000m and 3 over 5000. We’ve walked from the predominantly Hindu area of Humla and Mugu into the Tibetan Buddhist area of Dolpo and the cultural differences have been fascinating. We have seen only two other Westerners in close to three weeks now and are a very long way from phone reception.

In the middle of nowhere.

After Ghamgadi we said goodbye to Sonia and had a few days of easy walking up a river valley that became progressively narrower and steeper. We were walking quite quickly and soon were ahead of schedule, although this was to change dramatically in a few days time follow a high altitude gastro incident. Soon we entered the Mugu region and the land became much more arid and the hills steeper. Day by day, we saw fewer villages until we left human civilization behind completely.

Our first 5000m pass, Chhyargola Banjyang (5150m)

The easy days soon ended and the walking became extremely difficult, the days long, the weather cold and the altitude real. We had a week of hard isolated camping during which time we crossed 3 passes over 5000m: the Chhyargola Banjyang (5150m), the Yala Pass (5414m) and the Nyingma Gyanzen Pass (5640m). We also crossed an additional 5 passes over 4000m. These passes have meant climbing anywhere from 500 to 2000 vertical metres in a day and descending the same. Some of the trails have been extremely hairy: we have walked along tracks no wider than a footstep clinging to unstable landslides with 2000m drops directly below. Sometimes we have scrambled up shifting moraine fields where our feet have slid with every step. Coupled with minor dizziness from altitude, it’s made for some adrenaline inducing walking. Horizontal distances have also been significant and the days very long as we generally begin walking at 7am and waking by 5.

“Walking on the spine of the world” – Robin Boustead

After our 5600m pass, we had an afternoon walking along “the spine of the world,” a huge broad ridge towering over the snow capped mountains around us. It was one of the most spectacular places any of us have ever stood and prompted feelings of awe all round.

When we eventually arrived back into populated areas we have been walking through some extremely interesting but confrontingly poor towns.
Pho was the first town we arrived in after 6 days of isolation. As we walked into the town with dreams of Dahl Bhat we found it eerily empty, utterly devoid of life except for some unfriendly barking dogs and a solitary goat. The town was the most isolated human community we had ever seen, made up of about 20 very poor mud brick houses clustered together. The only piece of cement was the government installed tap which was not working. Some hours later a single woman and a few scattered children appeared. She cooked us Dahl Bhat and Tibetan tea, a warming beverage made from butter and salt that we initially struggled to consume but now enjoy the calories wholeheartedly. As with many people in this region she spoke only Tibetan so communication was difficult.

Crazy homemade bridges

After Pho we passed through a number of Tibetan villages. The houses are strikingly square shaped with small decorated windows and the edges of the roofs lined with firewood. They are made of dark mud brick and nestle closely together among fields of barley, potatoes and wheat painstaking carved out of the hillsides. All the houses have similar stoves that run on yak dung and hard work. We sit on the floor which is often dirt among the displays of brass pots, dessicated goat meat, Mani Walls and prayer wheels. Sometimes the homeowner gives us the ingredients for Dahl Bhat and allows us to use the stove. We have been very impressed with Pemba and Nerinderah’s ability to cook a delicious dahl or fluffy chapati in these circumstances.

Carving on a Mani Wall.

This 12 day section ended in Saldang, the biggest village yet where we stayed in the fanciest house in the village, owned by a traditional Tibetan medicine man. It was a special time in Saldang as the reincarnated lama had travelled some distance for his annual visit to the region. We walked to the 160 year old monastery hoping to see him perform a Puja ceremony. We were graciously given butter tea but alas things were running on Nepali time and no lama was to be seen. Later that night the lama literally walked under our feet as we sat watching the sunset on the roof. He went to each house individually to bless its inhabitants.

Buddhist temple where we just missed the Lama.

We have struggled to consume enough calories and have now begun adding ghee to everything, from tea to noodles. When we have stayed in local people’s houses we have adopted the local cuisine. This means champa for breakfast which is a sort of porridge made from ground barley. It is mixed with Tibetan tea. If we are in a village for lunch, it will be either boiled potatoes with pickle or Dahl Bhat. Dinner is always Dahl Bhat and we are enjoying the subtle variations between villages. For example sometimes the pickle is made from radish and sometimes we have goat fat in the Dahl, or surprise pieces of offal. Occasionally we have spoilt ourselves with a little of the local brew, ruksi, a spirit made from refined barley. It varies considerably in strength and palatability. We have bulked up our camping meals by adding wild rhubarb which grows in abundance here. Our Nepalese companions were a little surprised to see us cooking it as the custom here is to eat it raw. After several weeks of suspicion that chickens do not exist in Nepal, we were recently informed that unlike hardy 20-something-year-olds, chickens cannot survive above 3500m. In Saldang we purchased some eggs imported from China only to discover they were mostly rotten. We continue to crave eggs and our suspicion remains.

Wild Rhubarb

We have been supplementing our rather calorie-deficient diets with as many biscuits as we can reasonably carry. However our favourite biscuits of all are Chinese army biscuits which can be bought here in local shops. At 4000kj per 200g pack, they have hugely improved our health and happiness. We are now carrying 2kg between us.

Unlimited Dahl Bhat.

We’ve had our fair share of medical misadventures. On the 8th, Nic reacted dramatically to the funny water in Ghamgadi but soon recovered. On the 11th, after a suspect cucumber, Ciara vomited her lunch up including a precious berrocca and museli bar. On the day of our first 5000m pass, Pat was struck by a spectacular bout of gastro on the side of a very steep mountain at 4800m. It took 30 minutes to walk him 100m to our emergency camp. This meant we fell behind by a day. At 5500m, as we summited a major pass, Nic was struck by a sudden blast of cold air which brought on a rather acute case of altitude sickness. Nic very nearly passed out. After some sugar and diamox, he recovered quicky. The next day Nic slipped on a very narrow cliffsidepath and was saved by the quick effort of Pemba, but unfortunately jarred his finger rather badly. A few days later Ciara badly cut several fingers pulling out a rock making camp. Ciara has also struggled to acclimatise properly and has spent several weeks breathing like a goldfish on land.

High altitude celebrations despite medical issues.

This section has sorely tested our improvisational skills as we have suffered a number of significant gear failures. Shortly after Ghamgadi, our water filter gave up completely. Being literally weeks away from anywhere selling water purification tablets, we discovered that a few drops of Betadine in your drinking water works a treat, well so far anyway. It only took about 3 weeks to get over the taste.

We have continued to workshop our MSR stove and have finally got the hang of using kerosene. While it functions, it leaves a greasy black residue over everything it touches including our fingers, our faces, the pots, our cutlery and our bags. It also makes our food smell funny. We have not been enjoying using kerosene.

Mule train carrying roofs.

We have encountered many mule trains but their novelty wore off quickly after we discovered their propensity towards sheer-minded independence. On one memorable night, we accidentally pitched on top of some hay. The mules repeatedly broke down a fence in their enthusiasm to get to us. This resulted in a very poor night’s sleep and a broken tent pole.

The track in some places.

After Saldang we have another week of remote walking to Kagbeni, the start of the Annapurna section. We have three more 5000m passes coming up and a number of river crossings.

Camp Sprawl in the most amazing of places.

2 Comments

  1. LOVED reading this! Wow… what a life changing experience… your parents so proud of you and I am very happy they sent the link.
    “Travel safely” hardly covers my wish for you guys…. Bravo and Brava!!
    Love Leona

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