With a stressful night of purchasing last minute supplies, saying hasty goodbyes, and packing and repacking our gear behind us, Stefje and I reported to the bus station to set off for Salleri. I was frightened to learn that the jeep we were going to be trapped in for the next 12 hours was supposed to sit four people in the back row, giving us little more than a pair of trapped chickens. Sure enough, I was soon engaged in a hip and shoulder squirming match with my fellow passengers as we all vied for an extra inch of breathing room.
Despite the cramped interior, we soon escaped from the dusty bowl of Kathmandu and vast panoramas appeared. We snaked alongside a river which was framed on either side by huge mountains stretching skywards. The water was slow and grey, with wide alluvial valleys and huge deposits of scree. It seemed to bow beneath the power of the mountains, at times performing hairpin turns to find the only way through narrow valleys.
Murky waters and barren hillsides led the way, but the land nearest the river jumped out in verdant greens, signaling our arrival in Nepal’s rural farming villages. Small wooden houses dotted the terraced fields, but few trees were in sight as they were mostly harvested for buildings and firewood.
A common sight throughout the day was women lurching downhill with impossible large caches of wood strapped to their backs or balanced atop their heads, as they now must go further afield to find fuel. For hours and hours we enjoyed spectacular views from our cramped confines and became instant celebrities whenever we stepped outside and became the only Westerners in sight.
For lunch we stopped in a roadside town that featured tin-roofed hovels and mounds of trash alongside every street. As buses, jeeps, trucks and tractors all converged on one horribly bumpy curving section just outside of town, everything was brought to a standstill. Residents enjoyed the free entertainment right outside the doorstep, but it took an immense amount of yelling, cajoling, and gesturing from half a dozen men to free the rat’s nest of motors.
As the afternoon began our elevation rose. A quick cat nap that began with a few droplets of midday sweat ended in a shudder, as I awoke to find us submerged in a cloud. When the views cleared, the mountains were even higher, the river roared softly far below, and thick groves of trees dotted the hillside. The air here was fresh, cool and pure, far removed from the smog of Kathmandu. The smells of pine trees were further enhanced by a few droplets of rain which made the incense even more pungent.
However, just a few minutes from our destination we plowed straight into a thunderstorm. Suddenly hail flew through the windows, sidewalks morphed into rivers, and every turn was so barraged with muddy run-off that we were scared of being swept away.
Thankfully we made it safely to Salleri, where we just had to sprint 50 feet to find a guesthouse that offered shelter from the biblical downpour, steaming plates of dal bhat, and that legendary rural Nepali hospitality that made us feel immensely comfortable after a rough day of travel.
Day 1: Salleri to Nunthala
As if to make up for the previous day’s weather, a soft morning glow graced the hillsides as we departed from Salleri and officially began 19 days of walking. At more than 2500 meters (8200 feet) in altitude, it took just a few minutes of walking until our fingers and toes started tingling. We paused to let the blood flow catch up with our bodies, taking in sweeping views of terraced hillsides and broad wooded valleys all funneling deep into a river that roared below.
Even though the dirt trail we traversed was wide enough for a jeep, only pedestrians on the way to the Saturday market crossed our path each one greeting us with a hearty “Namaste!”, the ultimate Nepali greeting.
The houses here were few and far between, each one set amidst land flat enough to be cultivated by the enterprising and independent people. Mostly the landscape roared in hues of green, grey and brown, but stretches of color were visible. A few bunches of bright red flowers appeared in pockets, but the real winner was great wide field of purple dandelion-like flowers which proliferated with impressive fertility.
The trail continued steadily upwards, carving through mountainsides and probing deeper into the nascent Himalaya. Clouds began to appear overhead, blocking distant views and leaving us to wonder what might lie ahead. Without clues to speculate on, we could do nothing more than step one foot in front of the other and breathe in deep gulps of pure mountain air.
As we passed through one of the final outposts of civilization, three children less than 4 year old greeted us with reckless glee, their ruddy faces grinning from eat to ear. Despite muddy clothes and a desolate existence, they were clearly beyond pleased with out presence and a tropical reminder to simply enjoy life as it is.
With the last few houses fading away the need for firewood and wooden planks disappeared, leaving us with that perfect smell of a thick grove of trees. The great pine spires stood as sentinels on either side of the trail ranging to 100 feet high as they led us on the way.
In the forest, the sounds of the mountains whittled away to the bear necessities. Swish. Thunk. Chirp. Whoosh. Ahhhhhh.
Every time I thought I heard a car’s motor rumbling in the distance, it was merely a fresh cool breeze coming down off the mountaintops. The idyllic setting put us at the mercy of the elements, and soon enough Mother Nature took over. A light drizzle turned into a steady shower, but thankfully we reached the village of Ringmo before the worst of the rain hit.
We were welcomed into a cozy wooden room and provided with a portable coal furnace to heat up up while the matriarch prepared a warm lunch. After two hours of drinking tea, chatting with a precocious 11 year old girl and carefully watching the weather, we set off once more.
The trail now narrowed to a rocky path hemmed in by stone walls, leading us through people’s backyards and much higher up the mountainside.
This shortcut then crossed the jeep track a few more times before we were officially engulfed by clouds. Amidst this mystical setting we uncovered an ancient monastery shrouded by the weather, then passed through an archway lined with bells which marked the beginning of our descent.
The environment here thrives due to the near constant precipitation. Moss clings to rocks and tree trunks and ferns sprout out of the fertile soil at every turn. Slippery rocks and obscured views made us feel like we had stumbled from the highlands into the rainforest.
On any straightaways the path disappeared into the oncoming clouds, but we luckily stayed dry through a long and technical descent. When the clouds finally parted for a few moments at a time, magical views of pine groves unveiled themselves.
6 hours of walking after our departure, our knees were starting to squeak and our legs ache, but it was still another hour until we reached the town of Nunthala, accompanied by calming streams that flowed perpendicular across our path.
As we paused for a moment to wolf down a granola bar which would sustain us for the final stretch, the clouds overhead finally began to part.
While I sat transfixed by the quiet lives of the villagers and their bountiful plot of land perched in the steep hills, Stefje had her sights set further afield. In the distance she noticed that the mountains we were heading toward was quickly dwarfed by a previously unseen range of snow-capped peaks beyond it, giving us just a glimpse of their spectacular summits as a warning of what was to come.
Day 2: Nunthala to Bupsa
Our second day on the trail started out with the clouds hugging the mountains, the icy peaks of yesterday long since shrouded. The trail headed downhill in a muddy and rocky mess; there was no telling the mud from the donkey poop as we trudged forwards.
With such a treacherous slope we had to decide between enjoying the views and turning an ankle, so we kept our necks craned directly downwards. But when we did sneak a glimpse up, we were graced by the presence of a steep and uninhabited mountain which contrasted with the villages and terraces right next to us. In the distance, rocks slides cut through the cliffs like scars across the mountain’s cheeks.
The way was paved with numerous signs of life. Young kids walked to and fro on their way to school and women strained under the weight of huge baskets of firewood.
Eventually we entered a forest with groves of thin, mossy trees and all sounds of villagers faded away, replaced by the singing of fluttering birds. Yet in the distance we could eventually catch snippets of high-pitched children’s shrieks. Soon we came upon the culprits: a pair of muddy-faced snot-drenched kids younger than 5 were collecting leaves in large wicker baskets.
Oddly, the foliage of the forest felt more like fall than springs. Shades of red, orange and brown were present in the canopy, while beneath our feet leaves crunched and our noses filled with smells that seemed to go better with October than April.
More than 3 hours of descent spread out across 2 days brought us to the lowest point of the trail. A questionable suspension bridge hung across emerald green waters, the torrents flowing violently under our feet.
As we stood atop the bridge, the thought crossed my mind that this water was on a much grander Himalayan journey than myself, from the glacier of some unknown peak to the sandy deposits of the Indian Ocean.
The altitude shifted and soon so too did the flora. We began the day’s first uphill slog in the presence of banana trees, millet, and wild rhododendron flowers, beautiful additions to the already lovely landscape.
By mid-afternoon Stefje and I were both dying for a few mouthfuls of air not containing the trail’s constant companion, donkey poo. We got our wish in Jubhing, a quaint village sporting clean stone pathways, stone terraced farmland, and predictable stone houses.
Every single one followed the regional style: white plastered exteriors, blue roofs and blue doors and windows. We hit the village right as the first rays of sunshine penetrated the clouds an a number of streams ran right across our path, so we took the opportunity for a quick icy wash.
Meanwhile, gorgeous scenes of the Himalayan countryside unfolded. White butterflies darted in and out of sight, fertile green and yellow fields rolled down to the river, and small children greeted us with broad toothy smiles.
From here the trail ran directly uphill to our next scheduled pitstop of Kharikola. Far removed from the beginning glow of our first day, my problems now were two fold. First off, every step was an uphill strain, moving from one steep switchback to the next. Second, we began to share the trail with huge packs of donkeys. Noticeable from far away because of the bells on the lead animal, the mangy creatures kicked up mud, reeked horribly, and were accompanied by cranky men violently snapping sticks at them.
We had to pull over and let giant calvacades of 40 or 50 of the mongrels pass. Yet finally we reached the top, collapsing in a sweaty heap and lounging in the sun while waiting for lunch. We decided to push on to the next village in the afternoon sun, beginning again with another downhill headed for a river crossing.
Strong heat sent droplets of sweat down my forehead. We stripped away layers. The air here was crisp and full of life. It took a solid half hour just to cross through the town of Kharihola, which lacked a center but made up for it with verdant terraces stretching both above and below.
Within the hour we crossed another river and then the morning's rhythm returned. This final push was also uphill and also accompanied by far too many donkeys. A few times I made the grave mistake of peering upwards to see where the jingling bells were coming from; I was punished with glimpses of a trail that seemed impossible steep.
Despite the troubles, we were rewarded with increasingly wonderful views of Kharihola behind us. With great relief, we eventually made it to the mountaintop town of Bupsa. Even though it was only 3pm, it felt like we had been walking for far too long and were more than happy to unload our packs and relax. Our timing could not have been better. While we posted up inside to play a Nepali board game with two Sherpas that collectively had been to the summit of Everest NINE times, the wind started howling and clouds encroached.
Soon enough rain was coming in buckets, followed soon after by shockingly bright lightning strikes. All we could do was express the utmost gratitude that we were no longer on the trail and curl up with another cup of tea. Just as suddenly as the violent storm came it was off again, leaving us with the clearest night sky so far. I gazed upwards until growing dizzy, the grandeur of the stars entrancing me in a state of bliss.