Of the Ruby Valley track I had no knowledge, and no expectations. It was just a link between Langtang and Manaslu, a walk that needed to be walked to stitch the regions together. It soon became clear that there is much more to the Ruby Valley than that. Again we were taken by surprise as this walk through Tamang people’s land was stunning in many ways. It was hard, too. In seven days we covered 100km which involved over 11000 vertical meters.
One of the reasons we had low expectations was because this section involved a lot of roadwalk. On our way out of Syabru Besi we were stopped by a friendly man on a motorbike. He pointed a track out to us a little ways back that wound its way straight up the hill rather than around, as the road did. To reach it we backtracked for about 20 minutes but thanks to him we saved hours of walking on a dusty, windy road.
The track rejoined the road on a minor pass and then became unavoidable for the rest of the day into Gatlang. There was hardly any traffic on the road so it was alright. Some creepy guy had been stalking us for a few hours, stopping whenever we would and staring but not talking, always way too close to Marylene and me. PJ had to play the big man for once and put himself in between to keep him at bay. We finally chased him off in the afternoon by declaring that we really had to pee and needed privacy.
All along the road, Langtang Lirung towered high and lonely as the queen of mountains. Though not one of the 8000-ers she is highest mountain in the Langtang range, and a mighty one too. To the north of Langtang Lirung we could see into Tibet where other white giants towered. Ahead, the hillsides were terraced deeply into the valley and somewhere in all of that we found the village of Gatlang.
This area is inhabited by Tamangs, a traditional people. All through Helambu and Langtang we noticed the traditional dress on men and women both. They seem proud, amicable and hospitable in spite of the many earthquake ruins they live in. Gatlang was different from any other village we’d seen though. Time there seems to have stopped a long time ago. While we approached the village, people were harvesting and stocking grains and hay for winter, all done without machinery.
Marylene and I went for a walk through the village and felt ourselves thrown back in time. We walked in between old stone houses with sleet roofs and carved windows and doors, a living space above and storage and cattle space below. Along the way, two women offered us some boiled potatoes with a spicy dip that made my tongue burn for 20 minutes. While the villagers were harvesting and herding their yaks and goats we witnessed something of true mountain life in Nepal. We have not been in a village more authentic than Gatlang.
A cold spell persisted for a few days and even down at 2200 meters it was good to have warm thermals and a down jacket. The next day we had a big climb to another pass, 1500 meters up. An unmapped track saved us the bulk of the roadwalk again. The sun was not shining that day and it was freezing up there. When we reached Somdang at 3200m it was time to unpack the new insulated pants I bought in Kathmandu. Somdang was tiny and seemed very poor, yet we found a rusty little guest house there where we had some of the best dal bhat found in Nepal. A trekking group we had passed on the way up set up their tents at the same place, some of them looking sick and and exhausted.
Another pass lay ahead the next day. Pasang Pass was the most beautiful one of this track, with open views to Langtang Lirung, Manaslu, Annapurna, Dhalaugiri and even the mountains beyond. We walked on pace with the porters of the group, who seemed to find that quite amusing. They were nice guys who – to our opinion – had way too much load on their backs. Once we needed to cross a landslide area and scramble under some fallen trees. One porter nearly fell off the mountain as his load slipped away from him on the steep slope while trying to squeeze between a tree and a rock. The tents and tables were on their way to smash Marylene and PJ so I instinctively stuck my arms out and managed to hold it until the porter got up again. The whole lot must have weighed about 50kg. After that, my backpack didn’t feel so heavy anymore.
After a nice sunny break on the pass we made a long descent to Tipling, where we thought we’d find the final teahouse before camping our way to the Manaslu circuit. The villages were all nice, authentic, charming, but not Tipling. It was a strange village with a queer feeling about it. A gang of children followed us around shouting ‘namaste’ and ‘chocolate’ or ‘pencil’ which was funny at first but became a bit too much after an hour. A guy showed us to a little backroom and another opened his shed for us to sleep. If we were going to sleep on the ground we could just as well pitch our tents we figured, so we did not stay in the village.
We found a place close to the river, hidden from the track in an unused terraced field. PJ still had spare noodles enough to feed himself and Marylene while I emptied my own stash. There was no store in Tipling. It was a really comfortable night in the end. We got the camp ready just before dark and sat outside for a while to cook and eat. Our food even stayed warm until the last bit of it. It had been a long time since we’d camped so comfortably: the last time was back in the late summer days of September, just before we set off on the cursed ridge. Ever since it had rained or froze double digits so we’d be asleep at 5. We had almost forgotten the joy of tenting.
Just to be sure that we wouldn’t upset anyone we left early the next morning. Sertun did have a few small shops to our relief, where we could stock up for the final two days in the Ruby Valley. This part had no facilities so we had to be self sufficient to Machhakhola on the Manaslu circuit. Whereas Tipling let us down, Sertun handsomely made up for that.
We started chatting with a shop owner called Aashman, who offered us morning tea and cookies. He showed us around his house and helped us find everything we needed. We pitied that we hadn’t made it there the evening before to spend the night. He explained to us that with their technique of carrying loads strapped on their heads people can take up to 80 kilos. He was short though, so he could only carry 65. He told us about his dreams of building a stone house and working in Europe. Before we left he offered us some fresh greens from his garden, the best gift anyone could give us. He didn’t want us to pay for anything except the cookies from his shop and at first refused to take the extra money we offered. We had to explain that he had helped us and now we wanted to help him on his way to his stone house so in the end, he accepted.
After a lunch break in Borang we disappeared into the forest, on trails that were not on the map, looking for the trails that were but did not exist. Sometimes we wondered if Robin had been walking on phantom tracks in his days. In the forest we found another hidden campsite on a terrace above the trail, where we eagerly munched on our noodles made ten times better with the greens. Some of the forest existed barely of deciduous trees. The fallen leaves covering the soil smelled of home. It made us talk of Christmas and our families, of what we would be doing if we were there, of all the little traditions and habits that every family has. I missed home at that time, PJ did too. But we had set ourselves on this mission and now we had to finish it, Christmas or no. It looks like we’ll be having a break in Pokhara at that time, so at least we can eat.
The abundance of height meters and uninterrupted long days of walking started to take their toll. Marylene was still bad in her stomach, I still had some issues too. Another set of passes awaited us when we set out in the morning, another climb of more than 1000 meters, another day of phantom trails and trails that were not mapped. We knew this day and the next would be messy. The hardest part of this day though was to get out of the last village before the passes, Lapagaon. We lost a lot of time going up and down different tracks there until an old lady almost literally took us by the hand and led us up the right hill to show us the right track. It was big, too our surprise, because we heard and read it was small, so we kept a close eye on the GPS to make sure the path didn’t suddenly turn the wrong way and we’d be deceived. To our even bigger surprise, it did not.
“And we climb, and we climb, and we climb” PJ uttered. The climb did seem endless that day. Instant noodles and cheap biscuits don’t give you the energy you need to sustain several days like that. Stair came after stair, until we finally reached the top of the first pass. From there and on to the second pass we passed a group of people carrying big pillars for a house. Some were 5 meters long. One was resting on a tree, waiting to be carried up. We tried to lift it and barely could. It was a day where I really felt for self-pity, but seeing those guys with the big pillars on their shoulders made me feel ashamed for that. Yet it was good to get to camp that night. On top of the second pass Marylene was completely done. She was set on having a fire that night up on the Kharka. PJ got excited about it too. Then the lighter broke, there were too little matches, the kindling didn’t catch. Even food couldn’t lighten the mood anymore for them. Silently, everyone went to bed.
I thought I noticed it was cold in the night, but it couldn’t be, we were below 3000m so not that high. Yet in the morning both tents were frozen stiff, white under a cover of frost. We ate our noodles dry, packed up and headed down, down to Machhakhola for food and a night in a comfortable bed. And then suddenly the big trail stopped, split in two small jungle paths, and left us walking around for hours trying to find a bridge in the valley below. It was messy: the little goat path became a neck-breaking descent at times and it was hard to make sure where we were going in the jungle. I figured it must be used and lead somewhere, otherwise it would have been overgrown. Much later, while already on the Annapurna circuit, we met a porter whose home village is not far from there. ‘Sometimes tigers and bears pass there. Not always, but when you meet them, is little problem’. We looked at each other and all burst out laughing. I thought about shepherds using the trail, not tigers and bears. It didn’t surprise me at all to be honest, but I was rather glad to not know about it at the time.
I was tired at that point, hungry as hell, and this day I was over it. I just wanted to get to that town, eat and relax. I soon realised it wasn’t going to be that way. The 2 kilometres down to be bridge took us four hours and led us there in a big loop, we saw from the opposite side. When we finally reached the cursed thing we realised we might not make it, but passed by a little food stall all the same to not waste time in the hopes that we would. By the time we climbed up from the river to a town called Yarsa – which we’d passed twice on the opposite side – it was pretty clear that we wouldn’t. Unless the pink line on the map that was our route and had not existed for days suddenly became reality now, we’d get stranded in Kashigaon.
So it happened. The guidebook writes “do NOT ascend to Kashigaon” but we never saw another way. We unpacked our Nepali phrasebook to try our luck. There WAS a place to stay in town. Our tents were soaked from the frost and we were out of food so anything would do. We sat at the door waiting for the owner for a long time, just as we wondered in the evening whether or not there would be dinner. When it came I was up in seventh heaven, and I ate it like a wolf, so much so that even Marylene the hyena a.k.a the bottomless pit had to laugh. We got three servings of dal bhat that night, and the owner looked at us with big eyes but an amused smile as he came back and asked if we needed a fourth.
One of the villagers had showed us the shortest way to Machhakhola in the afternoon, a new track that we never would have spotted ourselves but saved us the trouble of going up and around the hill to then go straight down again. After two hours we were almost down by the river, though I became a bit nervous without a bridge in sight. The only bridge on the map was 2,5 km to the north of us. As the turquoise flow grew bigger it was clear that it could not be forded at all, so I hoped and reasoned that a big track like this would not lead to a dead end. After one of the last corners a bridge appeared and I was rarely happier to see one. Now we were back on a tourist circuit, bound for teahouses and food, for the high Larkye pass a few days away. I munched on long dreamed of fried potatoes and fried eggs in Machhakhola while our tents dried on the sunlit roof.