Friday, May 23, 2014

Mustang Trek, Day 6...High Passes and Flying Tigers

"Going up a gentle rise, we reached a path where stood a pile of stones, each of them thrown there by a grateful traveler to thank and glorify the gods of war who haunt such high and lonely places. In thanksgiving, with my own prayers, I tossed another stone onto the heap."...Michel Peissel, "Mustang, The Forbidden Kingdom", 1967

Mustang Trek Day 6...Lo Monthang to Ghemi, 16 miles, 3000 feet climbing, high point of trek, 14,000 feet. 

We got an early start at 7:15, with just Ron, Nance, me, KB and one of the porters, Norbin. Sheila is quite sick with nausea and Trina's knee is sore, so they, along with Nirajan and the other porter took a jeep to our next town, Ghemi. We would be on a foot path all day today, so no trucks!

Leaving Lo, we went out of town and I saw a large two story structure under construction. Oh nice, I thought, a new school. But no, said KB, this is to be a 5 star hotel!!  Well, bye bye Mustang. This place will never be the same with hordes of 5 star type tourists coming up here in their jeeps and helicopters. I'm so glad I came when I did.

We continued up the long, wide valley full of large boulders and the occasional goat herd, their bells ringing quietly throughout the valley. A large vulture, much like our turkey vultures back home, circled overhead. Don't look at us, I told him, we're tired, but not that tired. The trail wound around the hill until we reached our first pass of the day, 13,400 feet. But looking across the valley, we saw another pass, even higher. So on we marched, higher and higher. The beautiful mountains rose to our right, dark clouds looming. I saw a couple of snow flakes, but soon the clouds receded and we had sunshine again. Up, up, up we went until we finally got to the pass. Of course there was the ubiquitous stone pile on top and we all added one. My altimeter read 14,000 feet. KB said this would be our highest point. What's the name of this pass, I asked him. "I dunno", he said. Okay then, IDunno pass. Or in Tibetan, "Idunno-La". 

"It was like a vision of the Grand Canyon, without cactus or water, painted in vivid colors. For miles around, as far as I could see, there was not a single blade of grass, a tree, or a bush. All was one bullied expanse of desolation combining the horrors of desert and high, arid mountains, of barrenness and cold"...Michel Piessel, "Mustang, The Forbidden Kingdom", 1967

We leave Lo Monthang...

We hiked through a wide valley, strewn with large boulders, which, thousands of years ago, had tumbled down from the high peaks. 

First pass of the day, Panga-La, 13,400 feet...

It was here we saw a caravan of horses, maybe 7 of them, carrying provisions for trekkers who are camping. Wow, must be one large group. Then, behind we saw three very tired and none-to-happy looking trekkers walking up with their two guides. Amazing how much stuff they needed for camping!

Highest point of the trek, 14,000 feet...

So now we went down into another valley, then up again to another pass. Then it was down a very steep path, around 1000 feet, which was a very difficult descent. Rocks were everywhere and it was easy to slip. Thank goodness for trekking poles!   We got to the bottom, crossed an old wooden bridge, and then hiked up to the ancient monastery of Ghar Gompa. Here we met our friends Sheila, Trina and Nirajin, traveling by jeep. 

Ghar Gompa is by far the oldest monastery in the region, over 1300 years old.  In fact, it is the oldest active monastery in all of Nepal. It is dedicated to Guru Rimpoche, who, legend says, rode his tiger all over Mustang, establishing monasteries where he had defeated various demons. There are several rooms, some with three dimensional paintings of the all the Tibetan Buddhist iconography. In the lower room are beautiful statues, one of Guru Rimpoche that legend says he made himself. I lit a butter lamp for Amy in this old and very beautiful place. 

Our porter, Norbin, by some very old mani wheels, worn down from centuries of turning. 

Now we were off again, straight up another large mountain. By now the wind was up and would be with us the rest of the day. As opposed to the way up here, with the wind at our backs (which was bad enough), now we were headed right into it. By the time we got to the top, it was blowing a good 50 or 60 miles an hour. At times it was hard just to stand up!!

Ron and KB...

Now it was down another steep path to our lunch destination, the small town of Dahkmar.  This valley was incredible. It seems that each time we would go over a pass into the next valley, the landscape would totally change. The prior valley had looked like the Eastern Sierra, fields of large boulders, mountains rising steeply to the sky. Now, we were in a totally different place, just the other side of a pass!  Here, it was more like Bryce Canyon, with amazing rock formations in vivid red, orange and grey. But there were also many man made caves dotting the cliffs. 

We walked through the small village and found a little tea house. By now it was 2 in the afternoon and we were exhausted, wind worn and famished!  We had a quick lunch of noodle soup and were off again, trudging through the amazing landscape with towering cliffs, fields of horses and the occasional chorten. At one point we saw a woman with a big basket on her back, picking up horse manure for the fire. Much of the cooking fire here is made with manure as there is so little wood. 

"I would never think of smoking in a house or in a monastery, which is 'very sinful'. As for whistling in a house, this is also very shocking - as ghosts will come"...Michel Peissel, "Mustang, The Forbidden Kingdom", 1967

Up another pass we went and there it was, down in the valley, our beautiful destination of Ghemi. Just one more quick descent to the river, over an old bridge, then up to the town and we had made it. I went to my room, laid down, and was quickly out like a light! 

After a couple hour snooze, we all met in the kitchen for drinks and dinner. We started with three orders of popcorn (a wonderful surprise snack here) and beer. The lady of the house was churning yak butter the Tibetan way; in a tall, narrow wooden churner. We all got to try it, most of us getting yak milk on the floor and on our clothes. Even the lady spilled a bunch on her dress, mostly because she kept staring at our handsome guide, Nirajan, and lost concentration. Tonight would be dahl bat night, the ubiquitous meal loved by all Nepalis. We all loved it, except for poor Sheila, who took one bite and headed for the bathroom. Sheila is still quite sick, but bless her heart, she's trying as hard as she can and won't give up. 

Churning the yak butter...

Our guides and porters. 

A word about our new friends, Ron and Sheila Burgess. When you go on a trek like this and there are other people coming, you just hope you will get along with each other. Well, we really lucked out with Ron and Sheila. Ron is an orthopedic surgeon (hand doctor, actually) in Lexington, Kentucky. He's of Dutch stock and originally from Michigan. He's 62 years old, a great guy and in really good shape. When he wasn't ill on the trek, he would often be the first up the pass. When he was sick for a few days, you would hardly know it, as he never complained. I mostly knew it because he was very quiet and when we had lunch in Ghemi on Day 3, he ran out in the middle of lunch to the inn's garden and barfed. But within 1/2 hour of this, he was up and trekking to a 13,000 foot pass. Now that's something. 

Ron trying on a Nepali hat...

Then there is Ron's wife, Sheila. Sheila is originally from Alabama, wears a big "A" on her hat and at first she kept saying, "Roll Tide!" all the time. She was aghast that I had absolutely no idea what that meant, but she soon filled me in. At home, Sheila is a housewife who has raised four children, all now grown and off on their own. She is a member of the Junior League and once when talking at dinner, mentioned about going out in her "ball gown".  When I just looked at her and said, "Ball gown?" in my rather snarky, sarcastic way, she said, "Yes, you know, when you go to your charity events".  Oh yeah, those, Nance mentioned, when we party with George Schultz and Walter Shorenstein (San Francisco elite, for those of you who don't know). But although Sheila is comfortable with Junior Leaguers and in ball gowns, she is just as comfortable trudging up 13,000foot mountain passes in a place as remote as Mustang. The most amazing thing was that she was sick from Day 3 to Day 8 and only one of those days did she skip the trek and take a jeep. It was amazing seeing her so determined to do the trek and not quit. 

Ron and Sheila...

We were all in bed by 8:00, as tomorrow we would leave at 7:00. I went to sleep with the full moon lighting the mountains outside my window and a goat herd walking by, their bells echoing through the valley.  I dreamt of high, snow covered mountains, riding my tiger over them, as Guru Rimpoche had done over 1500 years ago. 

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