Sunday, 11 October 2009

Manaslu Part Two: The Walk in

It’s fair to say that the thought of getting into a Nepalese military helicopter was never exactly going to be the highlight of the expedition for me. In fact- the thought was bloody terrifying!

Thankfully, i learned upon arrival that two of the expedition team were going to walk the 80 or so miles into base camp- i immediately started begging to join them.

‘It’s not going to be nice’ they said: ‘leeches, floods, landslides, bed bugs, intense heat- are you sure you’re up for it?’

Considering i had just learnt that our original helicopter had crashed into another helicopter a few days before, it was more a matter of life preservation rather than preferred choice...

Thankfully Emma, one of the girls on the expedition, agreed straight away to ‘walking in’- so there we had it, a team of four: two blondes and two men in their sixties, the only western people we would see for six days.

The guys were right- on the very first day i was violently sick out of the side of a truck and found a puncture hole on my calf where a leech had obviously had its fill... my trouser leg was covered in blood (bizarrely i never noticed it!).

That first night in a tea house in a little village called Arughat i tried Daal Baht for the first time- the lentil and rice meal served with whatever vegetables were lying around- pretty spicy! I couldn’t stomach it. ‘This is as good as it’s going to get’ i was told.

It was dark outside but i could just imagine the wild that surrounded us, what was to come?! I was both excited and scared that first night in the flea ridden pit i was told was a bed. For the first time in months, sleep came easily.

I awoke to the rabid barks of a crazed dog, and gently the hustle and bustle of the street outside became clear. I sat up and looked out of the window with bleary morning eyes- it was like looking at a scene from the past:

A ramshackle of wooden buildings practically held together by a few rusty old nails lined a dirt street bustling with women in bright saris and kids in crisp white school uniforms. Beyond this one row of dwellings was wild jungle, almost creeping up and swallowing this little village whole. It was dense, brimming with all kinds of fauna and most likely all kinds of insects, monkeys and snakes, eurgh!

The entire walk was like taking a trek in the past- electricity was primitive if non-existent. Donkeys replaced cars and there was no machinery to be seen- the hundreds of rice fields we walked through were tended to by the hands of beautiful petite women in brightly coloured saris. We stayed every night in mostly wooden tea houses, where bed time was around 7.30- just after sun down. Toilets were holes in the ground and food was the same every day: an omelette and chapatti (Nepalese style tortilla), lunch a boiled egg and biscuits and dinner the famous Daal Baht, which changed as we moved through different provinces of the Himalayan foothills.

Day after day we walked through the most spectacular luscious valley, with waterfalls thundering down all around us into this huge raging river that looked so cool and refreshing i was tempted to risk death by jumping in most days.

Sometimes we trekked through dense jungle and forest; other times crumbling river paths- one of which Emma nearly fell off of onto about a 10 metre drop.

On about the third day, we noticed a green plant growing along the foot path- marijuana. The bloody stuff was everywhere for about two days- two days of walking through pot fields!!

As we moved further up the valleys the culture and the weather changed. Nearing the Tibetan border, we found that the people began to look and dress different. The Tibetan people are a distinctive race- with plump faces and high cheekbones. They also dressed differently from the sari swathed Nepalese, in heavy woollen tunics with leather belts adorned with silver trinkets- i thought they looked like warriors.

The land too had changed, gone were the bright green rice fields cut like steps into the foothills- the river which before was wide and flat with a large flood plain had now become more treacherous- sometimes having to cut through gorges the closer we got to its source in the mountains- it was not adequate enough up here to sustain large paddy fields. Now the land was becoming more overgrown so (for some reason?!) instead of rice, corn fields had begun to spring up.

The weather changed with the land, one of my best memories from the walk was after a miserable morning walking through mud and rain- i finally got to the village where we were to stop for lunch- i was all alone and absolutely starving.

I found an umbrella outside a door and knew that my friends were in that little house, tucked away from the rain- i stepped into a dark wooden hut to find a log fire burning in the middle of the floor, and around it was Emma and Henry, tucking into a tin of liver pate and crackers for lunch-it was a scene straight from the 1950’s.

I sat down on the creaking floor boards and (trying not to choke on the smoke) warmed my hands at the fire, ‘cracker?’ Henry offered- i took it and munched hungrily and can remember thinking that i was in absolute heaven.

Going to the toilet on the walk in is not something to be desired. The tea houses where we stayed offered a wooden shack with a hole in the floor, which offered some privacy. If you could time your *ahem* ‘daily movement’ to the evening when we arrived at our village for the night then you were laughing. But, if like us your bowels were taking time to get used to the food then often you would need to ‘go’ in the middle of the day- mid trek!

Faced with this problem one would have to separate oneself from the group as much as possible- this could mean running on a bit to give yourself a few minutes before a sweaty white face would come bumbling around the corner to see you mid-squat. If you were lucky you could rush off into the bush and hide behind a marijuana plant to do your business.

I got caught short quite literally one time when i thought i was miles ahead of the group and so loosely disguised myself by a boulder- though i was essentially in full view once you walked past it. Suddenly i looked up to see our Sherpa Namgel speed walking towards me ‘F**K!!’ I was a rabbit in headlights- i completely froze- one hand holding an umbrella in front of me to hide my dignity, the other a packet of wet wipes.

I must have looked a total fool squatting with my trousers around my ankles whilst holding a tartan umbrella with a look of utter terror on my face.

Somehow Namgel didn’t look slightly to his right and so completely missed this spectacle- if he’d of looked up he would have had the fright of his life! He carried on walking totally undisturbed... i took that as a lucky escape and made sure i chose better hiding places in future!

One of the most prominent things i noticed was the depletion of wealth and living standards as we moved further into the foothills and finally into the mountains. In some cases this was incredibly alarming and heartbreaking- for instance, the children who i saw in Arughat in crisp white uniforms were a far cry from the children that surrounded us and chatted to us later on.

These kids were dressed in tatty clothes, sometimes rags, sometimes naked. The school uniforms were not washed and gleaming and neatly worn but ragged and dirty. The adults too were suffering from all kinds of problems: alcoholism and dental problems being the most prevalent (to the eye).

One baby girl we saw was covered in sores which her mother lovingly tended to- but she had no proper medicine, we hoped that Rob, a doctor on our trip who was a few days behind us, would be able to treat her. She was such a lovely baby who had to fight off the family chickens as they tried to steal her only toy- a dead crab found in the river. Still, she was a happy and her mother was incredibly loving.

I say all this, and it sounds terrible- but really the people were proud and made livings and were welcoming and happy to see us. They simply live a different life- a rural life in the Himalayas where life hasn’t changed in a hundred years- if not a thousand.

Most things about these people’s rural life i could deal with (for the week at least!), but biting spiders, cockroaches, rats and rock throwing monkeys were not exactly highlights! There was some serious ‘manning up’ that had to be done on this walk, and poor Emma and me had to do most of it as we always seemed to pick the place to sleep with the most creepy crawlies!

One night Emma and i retired to our room which was bizarrely decorated with posters of Batista from WWF- that tacky wrestling show. Emma immediately spotted a huge spider beneath my bed which sent my knees jittering straight away as i HATE spiders. Still, God’s creature and all that so we left it and i jumped into bed- only to find another huge spider right above my head! ARGH!

To top it all off this huge THING with wings (a flying cockroach maybe?) flew right at us through the hole in the wall which was supposed to be a window but without any glass. Emma- the murderer- killed the bloody thing by stamping on it a hundred times before it finally gave up the ghost.

‘That’s it!’ i shrieked! ‘Turn the light off! What we can’t see can’t hurt us!’ Emma gave me one last look and we braced ourselves as the light went out. With no glass in the window frame it felt like we were sleeping right there amongst the jungle- the roar of insects filled the night.

Thankfully i was exhausted and slept ‘til dawn- though i couldn’t help but notice that the spider above my head was gone in the morning. I later found out that that particular species has a nasty bite and a penchant for human flesh- nice!

After nearly a week of living on chapattis, boiled eggs/ potatoes with salt (delicious!) and Daal Baht, i had lost a bit of weight and was longing for the food we had been told would be waiting for us in base camp.

On the final day of walking my body somehow knew that the end was nigh- my toe nails became incredibly painful and felt like they were falling off (common), my dodgey knee was playing up and i even had signs of shin splints. But this place wouldn’t give up without a fight- the last day pelted with rain like nothing else, and the path turned to a thick sludge- absolutely bloody miserable.

Finally, i came over the crest of a hill and a huge river plain spread out before me- through the fog in the distance i could spy Sama Goan- our base village before heading onto the mountain- it meant cooked food, a shower and no more walking through pissing rain (not for a few days anyway!).

It was then that i became ‘stalked’ by a young Tibetan woman who laughed at my trainers (caked in mud with two massive holes) but wouldn’t leave my side. At first i thought i was in her way- but every time i stopped- she stopped. She would grin at me and nod me to carry on. This went on for perhaps a mile, and when other locals past she would say something to them, point to my shoes and laugh- they would laugh too. It wasn’t a nice experience being openly laughed at!

Later i found out that Dave was also shadowed by another woman as he entered Sama Goan, this is apparently common: bandits are prevalent in the area, nomad lads from across the border in Tibet or perhaps young porters who had travelled from Arughat, perhaps just the locals themselves. Young women, any women, were simply not safe to walk the plains on their own- a tall white girl (me 5ft 7 and her 5ft) would have seemed liked protection.

It was worrying to hear- suddenly i felt conscious of my own safety as i had spent much of the trek wondering on ahead or alone, as you do in a group going at your own pace, but then i thought of the local women who often have no choice but to walk alone- i wondered how many of them had been attacked and what happened to them where they were caught. It didn’t really bare thinking about; i hoped that the women got back home again safe.

For me- i was safe. I had made it to Sama Goan after a 70 mile walk. We now had less than 10 miles to go before reaching base camp at 4800m (the height of Mont Blanc!), and were currently at 3800m. We settled down to an amazing meal of soup and spam and vegetables and chips!

It had been the most amazing journey but i had little time to reflect, before even 7.30 my head had hit the pillow- i had to get my rest: 70 miles down and an 8000m peak to go!


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