Great Himalaya Trail, Trails

Lost in the West, part II: the way to Dunai that turned into the way to Jumla

Musikot was not a very touristy place, by the stares of it. We thought hardly any tourists come here at all: there were no signs in English and everywhere we went we gathered a crowd of followers. “What are they doing? What are they buying?”, the followers would ask each other. We wandered around aimlessly until we found one lady who could speak English. She brought us to a place she called a hotel. In reality it was a house with a spare room, though we were more than happy with it. The lady was more than happy to host us, too: in the evening the family made a photo shoot with us, and promised they’d frame the picture on the wall.

There was a way back into Dolpo from Musikot. It required a couple of jeeps, but the way existed. We showed up full of hope at the ticket counter at 6.30 the following morning for a place to Aathbiskot. The jeep was supposed to leave at 07.00, but by 09.30 we were still not out of town and getting frustrated. Normally in Nepal, a jeep takes 12, which is already a tight fit. When the car finally started driving there were 20 people inside or hanging around it. We picked up more on the way. At the peak we were 27.

It was early afternoon when we reached Aathbiskot. A mob of people literally surrounded us upon arrival. After the overcrowded jeep it just became too much. I’m sure they were nice and wanted to help us but I could not take it anymore. We needed to cross the river on foot to then take another jeep to Tallu, so we did that as fast as we could. This jeep carried 17 people, one hanging on the outside. His name was Ganesh. He was nice and wanted to talk, but I was burned. Luckily he understood and soon I could sit in silence.

By late afternoon we reached Tallu. We had no aspirations to continue that day: by that point we were all wondering if it wouldn’t have been worth suffering the cold rather than the jeeps. Ganesh helped us to find a place to sleep: a little shack built out of metal plates. No matter how basic it was, once again it was great: our host here, Sing, was even happier than the previous one, and the dal bhat ranks high amongst my top 5 in Nepal. That shack felt really safe, somehow. I had the best sleep in days.

Sing and Ganesh woke us up in the morning: they had cooked us up a great breakfast before setting us off on our final jeep ride to Tribeni. The night before we figured out that Ganesh was out to marry either one of us girls, so after I mentioned that I was married to PJ he was all on Marylene. Meanwhile Sing kept mentioning how happy he was. “I’m so happy to have met you! So happy!” We could only laugh. Even the final 3,5 hours in the jeep didn’t seem so bad anymore. By now, we’d gotten used to being 18 in a car. Plus some chickens.

During those two days in the jeep it became painfully clear how poor this area is. Most people live in makeshift metal shacks, stone houses are few and those standing are much more basic and much smaller than those in the east. Everything and everyone is covered in dust. And yet, they smile. It is a rare thing to hear a Nepali complain, and even when they do they still do it with a smile. These people have so little, yet they want to share everything with us. In Europe, we are scared of the stranger. They want to steal our things, our jobs, our cars. Yet these people who are confined to their immediate surroundings for most of their lives, they welcome the strangers with open arms. We can learn a lot from them.

The closer we got to Dunai, the further it went. In Musikot they were sure we would reach Dunai by nightfall. In Aathbiskot it was 4 more hours of jeep to Tribeni, and then a 7-8 hour walk. 3 hours later we were in Tallu, from where it was first 2,5 hours to Tribeni, then 3 to 4, and a 2 day walk to Dunai. Though we made progress towards it, Dunai still felt far away, and the Phoksundo lake with it.

For all of us, Phoksundo was not only an integral part of the trail: it was one of its highlights. The main reason we wanted to get to Dunai was to be able to make a small detour to the lake. As Dunai grew farther away, that detour grew larger: 2 days to town and then another 2,5 to the lake, one way, in the wrong direction. Phoksundo now lay east of us, while Jumla was only 4,5 days northwest. If we would make the detour Jumla was at least 11 days away. In addition we were not even sure that there would still be people in Ringmo, the village on the lakeshore. Ringmo lies at 3600m. Based on what we’d seen before, it was doubtful. Long after we made our decision, we learned that the village was empty.

We held up for a long time that we would make the side trip, but by the time we reached Tribeni we had to admit to ourselves that it was too much. All of us were truly shattered, never before have I felt this tired. With at least another 3 weeks of walking ahead of us in conditions that are harder than we anticipated, we need to direct all of our energy to going west, to our ultimate end goal, to Hilsa. It hurt that we’d miss it, but we all rather skipped the lake than skipping the end. None of us had the strength or the willpower left to move for that long in the wrong direction.

When I come back, Phoksundo and Dolpo will be the first thing I do. For now, I am getting ready for it to be over. I know it sounds bad, and it’s a hard thing to admit. I know too that I will have great memories of it and that I will miss it. But just now I am broken, ready to go home.

We were all sick again by Tribeni: we all had the shits, PJ was puking, and rather inconveniently we were out of toilet paper. The plan was to pick up a new stash in Dunai, but Dunai proved an illusion in our plans, so we made do with baby wipes. Even though we arrived in Tribeni early in the afternoon, we didn’t walk. PJ slept through the rest of the day. Marylene and I wrote, listened to music, and fixed all broken water bottles and a broken filter. It was a quiet day. We all needed that.

Maybe our plans fall apart, we don’t go the way we intended to go or not even on trails that are part of the GHT, but no one can blame us for going down without a proper fight. We set out again the next morning, for Jumla.

In two days we could reconnect with the main trail between Dunai and Jumla. We walked through a dramatic river valley, where it seemed they had not seen a trekker before. The stares we got here did not speak of curiosity, but rather of confusion and suspicion. A few people wondered if we had lost our way and did not know that Dolpo lay behind us. It got better once we hit the main route again: by then they also realised that we were headed towards Jumla. In some villages up the hills the villagers were too excited and busy pulling up electricity lines to pay us a lot of mind anyway.

For two nights we found quiet camping spots, and welcomed the silence after those hectic days. The day we climbed out of the river valley and up the hillside to Ogrena was a hard one for me. It was a long and weary climb. I’d been struggling from the start in Tribeni, the gain in altitude was hard on me. By the end of it I wasn’t the only one struggling though. Marylene was broken too. Only PJ pumped on, determined to get past the village to make the morrow shorter. We all got there in the end. Camp was made on an outcrop of the hill, overlooking the snowy ridges of Sisne and Him Chuli to the south, and an unknown dramatic peak rising to the east. Dark clouds circled around it.

The lonely peak and the black clouds made for a stunning sunset. Over the sat phone we received word that it was snowing to the northeast of us. We should be fine, though, and that was good since we were heading up to 3900m again. I was spent, but got up all the same to walk back a bit and make photos. I have never seen a sunset quite like that one: the cloud formations drew a pattern of deep red lines around the peak, while its face stood out bright red against the deep shadows of dusk. “It almost looks doomed”, I thought, and felt slightly uneasy about this unusual spectacle. I was on my way back to camp when I noticed the wildfire.

During the day we saw a plume of smoke rising from that mountainside. It was tiny though, nothing concerning, not much bigger than smoke rising from a chimney. By now, an entire ridgeline was ablaze. We could see it creeping down into the valley, the same valley we had walked through mere hours ago. The flames were high. As we stood there watching it, ash started falling from the sky.

I found it all rather disquieting, Marylene too. PJ only said: “It’s far away, it won’t come here.” I found that equally ignorant as saying altitude sickness only occurs at 7000m, it made me angry. The fire was a few km away and across the valley, but wildfires can travel at speeds of more than 100km/h if the circumstances allow. Currently the wind was blowing it away from us, yet winds can turn, and it could be upon us quickly through those bone-dry pine woods. Three more, though smaller, fires were burning much closer to us. When darkness settled it only became more distressing: the southern horizon was an orange gloom of smoke and bursting flame. I set an alarm 3 hours later to make sure it didn’t approach. Sleep came hard.

I hoped the cold would smother it, the cold of Nepali winter nights. At midnight my hopes proved founded: the glow was gone, only some smouldering and smoke remained. I slept through until morning. By then, the world felt safe and secure again. We shook the ash off our tents and set out for the pass, a continuation of the long and weary climb. The views were still great, though. From the top we could see all the way out to Saipal Himal, one of the highest mountains in the west, and the Himal surrounding Hilsa. Once over the pass the way to Jumla lay open for sure. This time around we would actually reach our goal.

Unfortunate for the scenery, the whole way out to Jumla was on a dirt road. It was a small road, granted, and it did make the walking a lot easier. I was dead. Exhaustion had crept into my veins and ran into my blood itself. I really longed for a break, but there was no comfortable place to stay until Jumla. My ankle became a bother again. I have a tendency to twist it when I get tired, but since I was tired all the time it happened a lot. I fell badly on the way down from the pass. With a constant bad stomach I don’t dare to take much ibuprofen, but rely on an elastic bandage and some Voltaren.

We found another great camping spot that night: out in the woods with no one around, on a nice flat grassy spot right by the river. Such spots have been rare: usually one of the 3 elements is missing. Temperatures had been milder for a few days, but now it was bitter cold again. Hunger started to strike badly, and it was hard to find the courage to get up in the morning. Marylene shot off like a spear, determined to push through to Jumla.

It was a beautiful day again though. We crossed another minor pass, bordered by a large and hidden valley that must hold most of the flat ground to be found in Nepal north of the terai. The walk up through the gorge had been so cold, but the valley was sunny and warm. We sat there for a while, warming our frozen limbs. By the top, the fire had left Marylene. We passed a small guesthouse around 2 PM and called it quits there. It wasn’t much, but a roof sheltered us from the wind and there was dal bhat for dinner. The night of sleep was warm and comfortable.

A chilly morning walk brought us to Jumla. In the shops along the road we found our favourite cookies and munched on them in the early morning sun. Jumla was a maze of small streets and shops. We’d heard about a nice hotel close to the airport, though it took a while to locate it. We couldn’t even find the airport in the maze. When we did it offered so much more than we anticipated. Kanjinrowa was really a hotel, not just a teahouse, with enclosed bathrooms, real beds with mattresses and pillows. After 17 days of pushing and pushing, this was a place we did not even dare to dream of, an unexpected refuge of luxury.

From here we have two weeks left to the finish. We knew that if we would make it here, we can make it all the way. Here begins the homerun.

“Shadows settle on the place that you’ve left
Our minds are troubled by the emptiness
Forget the middle, it’s a waste of time
From the perfect start
To the finish line”

Total ascent: 55340m
Total descent: 52840m
Total distance: 1079km


1 thought on “Lost in the West, part II: the way to Dunai that turned into the way to Jumla”

  1. Hi GHT hickers, wat een verhaal opnieuw, met opnieuw belevenissen!!
    Zal jullie geest tot rust komen wanneer jullie die grote finish bereiken??
    My God, al die voorbije weken doorzetten doorzetten doorzetten, ontberen onberen ontberen. Hoe houden jullie dat vol, waar halen jullie die energie vandaan? Ik denk niet dat ik zou kunnen opbrengen wat jullie doen….is enkel weggelegd voor ex.treem mensen met een doorzetting, only the 3 of you!!
    En onkanks alles lees ik tussen de regels zo al bijna nieuwe plannen……
    Hou vol daar buiten, de finish nadert… misschien ontwikkelen jullie voeten in deze laatste dagen wel vleugels 😉 of toveren de brokkige rotsige, stofferige routes zich om tot rollende tapijten ….1ding is zeker, jullie hebben een méér dan buitengewone prestatie geleverd, het is er één bui.ten. categorie. Jullie hebben zich constant overtroffen, wij buigen diep ……
    Take care !

    Liked by 1 person

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