Miles to go before we sleep...

In October 2003, Lin and Rick Singh began an unsupported trek across the Nepal Himalaya. In February 2004, nearly 1000 kilometres later, they completed their journey.

It all began when my husband Rick saw a programme on TV. The documentary covered the story of a man who had spent two years crossing Tibet by praying full length on the ground all the way to Lhasa. The thought of crossing a country on foot (without prostrating ourselves) was very appealing and so an idea was born, although our ‘pilgrimage’ was to be of a different nature. We decided to walk across the Nepal Himalaya, alone and unsupported by porters, to experience the cultural differences between the tribes of Nepal and to witness for ourselves how the present political climate in the country is affecting its people. We would be crossing the more popular tourist trekking routes and also those areas rarely, if ever, receiving foreign visitors.

I met Rick (who is from Darjeeling) in Nepal at the end of 1999, when I visited the west of the country to trek in the Annapurna region. His many years of experience as a guide in the Himalayas later led to our decision to form our own trekking company in the UK, which has enabled us to organise and lead Himalayan charity treks during 2002 and 2003. Through this venture we have raised a considerable sum for both British and Himalayan charities, including the International Porter Protection Group. IPPG were able to utilise these funds to launch their much needed health post at Macchermo in the Everest region last year and we were keen to visit the area during our trek.

Nepal has two trekking seasons when the weather is mainly dry and clear. These are October and November once the monsoon has passed, and March and April before it begins again. We decided to begin in late October, after leading a fund raising group to Annapurna Base Camp. Having planned our route, it became clear that it would be necessary to cross from west to east, beginning at Dhaulagiri and finishing in the Arun Valley to ensure that as far as possible, we would be able to cross the high passes before the weather turned against us. As we were carrying all our own gear, we took only the essentials, which in spite of our ruthless packing, weighed 34 kilos in total. Luckily, we had been able to borrow a good deal of equipment and the most essential item, our Lightwave G1 expedition tent which served us faithfully throughout the trek, had been kindly donated to us by Crux in the UK.

So, having camped the previous night in a friend’s garden in Pokhara, we caught the local bus to Beni on 20th October 2003 to begin our trek. Since 1996, Maoists in Nepal have been waging war against the state. Although thousands have lost their lives on both sides, tourists have never been subject to attack. The Maoists have however, seen fit to extract a ‘donation’ to their cause of various amounts of money, depending upon the nationality of the donor. As a result of the insurgency, bus travel throughout Nepal is disrupted by strikes and by police and army patrols who check for arms and explosives. As usual, our bus stopped every few kilometers, at which point all the passengers collected their bags, goats, children, chickens and other possessions, disembarked, walked through the check post and boarded the bus again. As the majority of the luggage is transported on the roof of the bus, which never received even the most cursory glance, I remained somewhat unconvinced as to the effectiveness of this procedure. That night, spent camping beside the river, was the first of many on which we lay on our backs with our heads out the tent, looking up to see stars of startling brilliance, undimmed by the light of human habitation.

The initial section of our journey took us around the Annapurna Circuit near the border of Tibet, with a side trip to allow us to climb up to the Dhaulagiri Icefall, our official starting point. Most trekkers walk the Circuit in an anticlockwise direction, to allow effective acclimatisation before crossing Thorung La at 5416 metres. Our west to east route necessitated a crossing from the Hindu shrine at Muktinath, where an ascent of 1300 metres must be made in one day, owing to the lack of a water supply on that side of the pass. The Kali Ghandaki valley, between Dhaulagiri and Annapurna One, is the world’s deepest gorge and, is subject to extreme winds. With our faces covered by scarves like two bandits, we spent several days passing mani walls piled with carved prayer stones, each one a work of art. Porters and mule trains carried goods down the valley and trekkers all headed in the opposite direction to us. Each day we would stop by the river to cook noodles for lunch on our stove and snack on apples and boiled eggs bought along the way. In the evening we would find a lodge run by the local Thakali people, often inexplicably with a picture of Tower Bridge on the wall, and eat the Nepali staple meal of dal bhat (lentils and rice) with vegetables. I must confess that if I never see another bowl of noodles, it will be too soon, but I still eat dal bhat every day and I’m not sick of it yet!

The scenery along the border with the kingdom of Mustang is breathtaking. It is wild country, reminiscent of the towering, stark rocks and desert scenery of the western USA. In fact Manang is so much like a town in a Hollywood western, complete with horses galloping up the main street, that you wouldn’t be surprised to see Clint Eastwood striding along in a poncho. Once across Thorung La, we followed the Marsyangdi Valley through forests and Gurung settlements to the greenery of lower altitudes. Main bridges washed away by the monsoon floods had been replaced by hair-raising makeshift ones and it was also necessary to follow many narrow trails across steep landslides. I have a less than perfect sense of balance and find negotiating the landslides to be particularly taxing. Rick strides across confidently, whilst I edge along behind like Bambi on ice.

In Besisahar, our much awaited telephone calls home were abandoned because the Maoists had blown up the communications tower. Instead, we headed for Langtang via Gorkha, site of the ancient palace of Nepali kings. It was harvest time and we experienced rural Nepal in all its glory as families worked in the fields and teams of buffalos ploughed the soil, their owners singing the same haunting melody repeated from village to village. Away from tourist facilities and overlooked by the mighty Ganesh Himal, we ate our daily dal bhat in the kitchens of local families who befriended us in the open welcoming way of Nepalis and questioned us with obvious curiosity as to our venture. We often slept in the loft or on the floor of local homes and school-houses, besieged by goats and chickens. This was particularly true of remote Tamang villages where like Pied Pipers, we attracted a following of children and our presence warranted inspection by the entire population. Our digital camera was a huge hit every time and curiosity would always overcome natural shyness of strangers.

In these rural areas we were able to see the reality behind the ‘Peoples War’ waged by the Maoists. Lodge and shop owners are weary of Maoists eating food and taking supplies without paying and families are frightened because their sons are forcibly recruited to the cause. The Annapurna Conservation Area Project, an organisation which is dedicated to promoting eco friendly tourism and the financing of self help projects for locals in the region has been forced to close it’s rural outposts because of Maoists attacks. As always however, there are two sides to a story. In one village, where buildings were scrawled with anti-royal slogans and graffiti proclaiming ‘Death to Americans’, we stopped to eat with a family whose son had been a Maoist killed by the army. They told us that the strong Maoist presence in their area had driven out the government officials who had previously demanded illegal payments from all the locals. Most Nepalis in rural areas live hand to mouth and deprivation, along with a lack of government stability has led to increased support for the Maoist cause. This village, flying the communist flag, turned out to be one of the friendliest places in which we stayed.

In the context of the above, I was particularly quick to correct local people who pointed at me and loudly pronounced me to be American. One old man, having learned that I was from England and not sent by the evil Mr Bush, told those around him that it would explain why my hair wasn’t blonde!

Before reaching the Langtang Valley, we spent the night in one village which although absolutely filthy - remember that there are no toilets in most rural settlements and often no running water - was full of beautifully carved and decorated houses. One woman, wearing the large traditional Tamang earrings, told us that she had been married at the age of ten and had her first child at twelve. She was concerned for her own daughter, who now at age ten herself, was under pressure from the community to marry.

A few days previously, we had spent time unraveling the complex relationships in one family of a husband, three wives and several children. All seemed to live together harmoniously, although the husband had married the second wife when the first had failed to bear a child. When the second wife also did not produce offspring, he married her sister, at which time all three wives became pregnant! There would seem to be a moral here on the virtue of patience.

From Langtang we headed through pine forests to the sacred lakes at Gosainkund and over Laurabina La to the Sherpa villages of Helambu. We were back on the beaten track here and saw our first tourists for several weeks. The panoramic view of the Himalayas from below Gosainkund allowed us to see nearly all the way to our starting point at Dhaulagiri. At Christmas we took a break to make use of much needed hot showers and laundry facilities in Kathmandu, but in the first week of January we were back on the trail to Everest via the Sherpa villages of Solu Khumbu. The majority of visitors to Everest are on a tight time schedule and therefore fly directly to Lukla, but the trail from Jiri to Namche Bazaar is beautiful and in January necessitates the crossing of a couple of snow covered passes. The famous Thyangboche Monastery in the snow is a truely memorable sight. From Namche, it was thick snow all the way to Kala Pathar for excellent views of Everest, Nuptse, the Khumbu Glacier and Khumbu Icefall. The region has very few visitors in mid winter because of the extreme cold, but we had no hesitation in also visiting the lakes at Gokyo, making use of ice axe and crampons along the way.

The final section of our trek took us over three passes to the Arun Valley, covering ground that was first seen by Nepal’s original western trekker, the legendary Bill Tilman. We encountered several groups of armed Maoists along this trail who, a week later attempted to take over the town of Bhojpur and destroyed all communications to the town. The Arun Valley is one of the most scenic areas of the country. Populated by Sherpa and Rai communities, it receives a fraction of the visitors who flock to the neighbouring Khumbu and the local people were among the most welcoming of the entire trek.

We completed our journey on 21st February 2004 at Legua Ghat, the beginning of the rough road to Hille that leads onward to Kathmandu. After such a large amount of preparation and anticipation, followed by the most amazing trekking experience of a lifetime, we were somewhat disoriented. What did we do before we had to get up in the morning, load our rucksacks and walk the whole day? We racked our brains to remember. Aha! That was the answer . . . . . we went out for a beer!!!

This article was originally published by the British Mountaineering Council’s ‘Summit’ magazine as ‘Pilgrim’s Tale’ in summer 2004.