It is said that the Rolwaling is a mirror of the Khumbu 40 years ago, before the people there abandoned most of their traditional activities and developed everything for tourism. I’m not sure about that, but the Rolwaling is a fast-changing region that was hit hard by the earthquake. It is also inhabited by Sherpa people. The Rolwaling valley presented a dramatic drop from the white peaks and desolate glaciers surrounding Tashi Labsta to the lush and green environment around Simi. In a 4 days’ walk our surroundings changed from having trouble finding water because everything was frozen to houses surrounded by rice fields and banana trees. We barely met other trekkers along the way.
After the pass we rested for a day in Na, the oldest village up in the mountains. Traditional stone Sherpa houses still stand there, surrounded by stone walls where the yaks are kept. Most of them are empty: fewer people live in Na now than they did before. Some still return during summer to graze their yaks there, though even then there are less people in the village than before.
Na does still have a working gompa. We arrived in the village a day before we expected so we decided to take a day off there. Marylene and PJ headed for the gompa during the afternoon and got their very own puja up there from the two resident llamas. They were gone for so long that I got worried after dark and set out with a guide to look for them. I had stayed behind at the teahouse, content just to sit in the yard and needing some time with my own thoughts after the pass.
I liked Na. It was a look into how life in the mountains had once been. The trail heading down from it looked old, lined by old stone walls and an old gate into the village underneath the gompa. A vile wind blew the morning we left, dust was swirling in the air above the glacier and clouds were headed that way. We stood and looked at it, still in disbelief of our own luck.
Our way was nice and sunny, down the beautiful valley of the Rolwaling khola. After two hours we reached the town of Beding, the largest settlement in the area. Some of it had been rebuilt after the earthquake: the gompa there was all new and colourful roofs stood out between the old stone houses. Beding too though, was an empty place and most of the houses were locked.
White shiny peaks towered over the village and remained visible as we entered into pine trees. A forest was a welcome sight, we had not been surrounding by green and the things that live in it since we had left Lukla almost 3 weeks ago. Birds were whistling and butterflies flew by. In the forest we encountered ghost villages, where destroyed houses had been abandoned after the earthquake. We were moving closer to its epicentre now and the damage it had done became increasingly visible.
The Rolwaling area and Gaurishankar reserve are cut in two by a river. We were told that West of the river, there is very little left. The old villages with their impressive stupas that once made that area into a cultural trek lay in piles of rubble. The villages are still under construction. Worse even, the the trails and forests have been bulldozed and blasted for crude dusty roads snaking everywhere. Based on what other trekkers told us we decided to go no further than Gongar and take a bus from there to Kathmandu. That way we could spend our time on more pristine tracks before the snows fall. Winter is coming.
The eastern part of the hike was very much worth it. The forest became greener and greener as we went down. Deciduous trees appeared, their leaves had started colouring brown and fell to the ground. The river that ran through the valley had a colour so bright blue that it was almost surreal: we frequently stopped to look at it, it was as if we were walking in a cartoon with exaggerated colours. The air became warmer fast and it didn’t take long until we were without jackets. A cosy little teahouse was our shelter for the night, dropping below 3000m for the first time in over 20 days.
On the second day, the trail climbed high above the river. Birds sang all through morning and butterflies were flying around. It felt so peaceful, the forest and its sounds of life, sounds we had not heard in a long time. The forest became more jungle-like with evergreens and vines entering the growth on the hills. There were some gigantic and old trees on that trail. It was nice to go down now: I always like seeing green again after the desolation of the high mountains. The warmth on our bodies and the extra oxygen in the air, those too were more than welcome changes.
After a while the trail dropped back down towards the river and we had lunch in Simi. From the prayer flags above Simi we had a beautiful view over the peak itself, Gaurishankar. This little town was a great place, high up on the hillside. I wished we could have stayed here, we all wished that. But the bus to Kathmandu left from the road 700m below at 06.00 in he morning, so it made more sense to go on and sleep there. The teahouse where we had lunch had a scale and we were all dead curious about how much our packs weighed. Without water but with a little bit of food left, I was at 15,5, PJ at 16,5 and Marylene at 17. It would be good to reach Kathmandu and leave all the mountaineering gear behind: the carabiners, figure eights, harnesses and ice axes. In addition I also had a broken ereader and the book I found in Lukla on the horticultural expedition that took the same route as we did at the start. The prospect that all of our weight was about to go down was good.
As we made our way down through rice fields, banana trees and flowers there was so much to smell. We had not been this low since Num, at the start of the Makalu Base Camp Trek, and it’s easy to forget that this lush, green and warm Nepal exists too.
After many stairs down to the bridge over the river we finally came to the road. That was a rude awakening with society. We had not come across a road since October 4th in Num. In the village a hydropower project brought about a great deal of noise and – to our sadness – pollutants that ran straight into the river. I don’t know why we have to be so greedy as humans, why we don’t take care of the natural things surrounding us, because we need them in the end.
The next morning a long and dusty bus ride brought us back to Kathmandu and that announced the end of round one. Now we will prepare for round two of the GHT, extend our visa, get new permits and switch our maps. We left the highest mountains and the most difficult passes behind us. Though it’s been a hard road and at times a dangerous one, plagued by cancelled plans, bad weather at the start, detours, illness and injury I am proud that we have all seen it through and walked the lot of it. If this was the end of the journey I’d be satisfied, but it is only a break to begin afresh in a couple of days.
It’s a crazy country, but we have all come to love Nepal, its mountains and most of all its people who are always smiling, always friendly and always eager to help. It’s amazing how much they can accomplish with how little they have: entire villages are build and rebuild where there is no road access, all the materials are carried in. Teahouses are capable of producing an entire menu for tourists, based on rice, noodles and potato dishes, but they manage to do that without running water and often with solar powered electricity. When PJ and I were guiding in Lapland last winter we were in the same situation and we only cooked for max 15 people at a time which we thought was not easy, and they all ate the same dish. I have a lot of respect for that and I’m grateful for the hot food we are served. Without it, this would be a mission impossible.
Total ascent: 24340 m
Total descent: 25740 m
Distance covered: 397 km
Number of showers during round 1: 1