Day 8: Tatopani – Ghorepani

The much dreaded 6000 foot ascent is today. Everyone we met in Tatopani yesterday, who are doing the trek in the opposite direction to ours, gave us a lot of hype about the Ghorepani – Tatopani section. There was a European woman who was getting out of the hot springs as we were getting in. She caught hold of Nitya and described in a pretty accent, and in great detail, some “dangerous” section of the trek, where there was a very narrow path, and steep cliffs below and an unclimbable slope above. Poor thing was terrified from that experience, and peeved that her partner (needless to say a man), showed no empathy. She was glad to be able to talk to someone – anyone who’ll listen and make sympathetic noises. What she did not realise, and what I knew with a sinking feeling, is that this description was just the wrong sort of input to give Nitya of all people – as it is, she is terrified of narrow paths and scree-filled slopes and could have done without the additional fuel…

Nitya starts the day imagining various possibilities for this narrow dangerous section. Throughout today she keeps looking for it, and speculates whether it was the one we just did, or is it ahead. I keep making encouraging noises and assure her that I’ll hold her hand through difficult times , though it turns out that this is not necessary J.

We’ve got packing our rucksacks down to a fine art. It has rained quite heavily through the night, forcing us to pack our wet clothes as they are. MShah and Kanaks don’t have anymore dry and clean clothes. I have a couple of things but that’s because I’ve been rationing and recycling early in the trek. The BA of course has used a greedy algorithm for clothes selection every morning, so she’s run out of clean T-Shirts. Today she’s wearing one of the new T-Shirts she bought yesterday. (How can you even think of wearing the same T-Shirt, for two days in a row?!)

One of our porters claims to have fever, and manages to get Shishir to carry one of the rucksacks. I am impressed with the quiet ability of Shishir to carry the sack on the toughest day of the hike. Perhaps it isn’t the toughest thing he’s done, but anyway. If he had any heated exchanges with the porter, we never came to know of it – professionally and internally managed.

We gather at our lodge restaurant for a quick chai. Having decided on an early start, we manage to get started more or less on time. I spot a T-Shirt shop displaying kids’ size T-Shirts, and dive in for a quick purchase for Akash. While this transaction is going on, the others assume I have gone ahead, and leave. There is a moment of panic for me when I realise what they must’ve thought. I rush down the path barely confirming whether it is the right path, and it takes some five minutes for me to see them in the distance. Some wild shouting and waving follows. I am back with the brood.

I take a chance and wear my sandals for the ascent today, however, I’m wearing socks as well (warm feet taking precedence over style). Almost as soon as we reach the town limit, we have to walk though some gutterish stream… signs of a civilized town. I am not enjoying this one bit. One sock gets wet, yuck, yuck, yuck. Anyway I get rid of the socks after 30 mins of warm up. The trail follows the river bed again. It’s worth mentioning that throughout the trek the BA has been remarking how clean the trails are: no plastic bags, or any other junk thrown about. I have been pulling her leg about her condescension – “Oh the natives have learnt about cleanliness”. But the vicinity of Tatopani gives a small glimpse of how littered a trail can actually be, and I appreciate better the cleanliness elsewhere on the trail.

Now we’re climbing out of the river bed, through a bridge where we cling to the slopes and let a mule train pass, then up through a small sleepy settlement. Now the trail is steep – all stone steps. Till here we are more or less together. Nitya and I take off up these steps, enjoying the early morning air, the tree lined path, and bird sounds. We catch glimpses of a couple who were staying at our lodge, just ahead of us. I can see MShah a little below, at the next lower turn of the steps. Kanaks and Shishir are well below MShah. Nitya admits that her left knee is acting up, has kind of given in twice. I give her a pink knee brace which I have brought along for just such occassions. I stop here and there to take pictures with my non-digital camera. We reach the top of the steps after about 30 mins of climbing. We’re panting, sweat streaming down our faces, but feeling fit and pleased with ourselves. We briefly meet up with the couple ahead of us – they’ve stopped here for a bit. The steps have given way to a regular trail winding up. They continue on, and we stop to wait for the others. After maybe 10 mins, we get restless and want to keep our momentum – so we decide to walk on till we reach the village for breakfast. Nitya’s knee is doing great now, and she is very thrilled at the difference the knee brace is making to her day.

We enter a village, where the villagers ask us “Ghorepani?” and point to a path skirting the village to the left. We go along this past the village for a bit, and come to a fork. We wait till someone comes along and confirms that the “aup” one is the correct path. By now, we’ve been separated from the others for more than 30 mins. Although Nits thinks we should keep going, I decide we’ve got to wait – so we park on the trail, still without really worrying. It’s a quiet sunny morning. A large brown butterfly explores some flowers near Nitya. She is sitting quite still and the butterfly sits on her leg. The contrast is good against her black track pants, so I try to get close in for a picture. I miss my SLR for a good close up, but do what I can, keeping a safe distance. The butterfly is aimlessly crawling along her track pant, in no hurry to leave. Eventually it crawls up to her arm and sits on her arm too. I’m impressed at Nitya’s “bravery” because I don’t like the feeling of tiny little feet or wings like a butterfly’s on my bare skin. I must admit my antics and sound effects when trying to avoid butterflies, can be amusing at first and irritating to those who’ve seen it many times. Later she’s in splits about my butterfly-phobia – “the brave conquerer of donkeys, mules, and cows, is afraid of butterflies!”.

Another couple passes us, and I ask them if they saw our friends – two girls and a guide, as they came up. Unexpectedly, they say no. I begin wondering whether they even understand English, so I ask them once again, slowly with lots of gesturing – one tall girl, one short girl, how could they have missed seeing them? They are adamant that they saw nobody. At this point we realize something has gone wrong. According to us, the possibility of an alternate path is very very unlikely, the steps were clear to the top… besides didn’t we meet the other two couples going up, and didn’t the villagers confirm the way to Ghorepani? So we conclude that one of them has got hurt and for some reason they can’t even send word through Shishir. I do a 20 min sortee to the top of the steps where we came from, shout out “Manisha” a few times, with no result. We wait undecided for another 10 mins, then Nits does the 20 mins round trip to the top of the steps. We feel that if they are indeed hurt, then it would not be right for us to keep going to Ghorepani, without even checking on what happened. So we decide to turn back, and in the worst case, go back to Tatopani, and do this trek tomorrow.

Together we do the now familiar 10 min walk down to the top of the steps. As we are beginning to descend the steps we see Shishir running up with a very tense expression on his face. His shirt is soaked through with sweat, he has no backpack. He looks relieved to see us, and signals for us to turn around and keep going upwards! We are quite bewildered. Nitya offers him water and wee ask him to sit for a couple of minutes to catch his breath, then we ask him what happened. Even now we are under the impression that something drastic has happened to the others… so imagine our surprise when we hear they are at about 30 mins climb from where we are, waiting for us at the breakfast stop! Slowly the bewilderment gives way to irritation as we had done a good pace and were waiting for them, we were now some two hours behind schedule after a good start. Apparently there was a correct path that veered off to the left from the steps. In retrospect, Nitya had noticed this path, but I had waved it aside, saying there could be many such paths to villages and things. What surprises us is that the others when they came to the correct path, had not noticed us just ahead on the wrong path… anyway, such is the nature of these confusions. For the first time on the trip, I see Nits completely out of sorts and irritated. Normally quick to fly off the handle, I take the unusual role of pacifier here. We’re now following an alternate path to meet up with the others. It’s all uphill through a forest. We walk quickly keeping pace with Shishir, and come to the place where the two paths meet, just below the breakfast village. We look up and see MShah and Kanaks waving furiously at us. Shishir is telling us we should place our orders for breakfast with him so he can run up and expedite the process. He says we must all have porridge, “like a same”, so that it can be faster. Pacifier role or not, I rebel at the idea of oats porridge, and am ready to start a mutiny.

I step into the little shack where the other two are waiting. Dramatics. Kanaks has an ironic smile on her face. MShah has a thunder cloud on her face. I ask her to move up on the bench, she gets up to let me sit. I flop on the bench focusing on my heavy breathing. Nitya walks in. I don’t remember how but we all start talking at the same time, heated words are exchanged, and again I find myself in the role of peacemaker. Kanaks has stayed out of the heated exchanges. Oh we had a bit of an audience for our dramatics. Anyway it was short-lived – although we don’t exactly kiss and make up, a silent truce reigns over breakfast. Shishir wisely chooses not to sit with us for breakfast J. The oats porridge arrives and I show my rebellion towards it. Can’t remember what else was there, but I do eat something. We note that Shishir is a nervous wreck, although he doesn’t say much – he’s pretty sure he’ll be herding us up the hillside well into the night. However, we are unanimous in our determination to reach Ghorepani – what’s a setback of a couple of hours for us?! I guess in our different ways, we’re all thinking the same thing: “We’ll show this young ass what we’re made of.”

Now we have several plans: B, C, and D discussed upfront, so even if we do separate again we all meet at Ghorepani, with intermediate village names memorized. But of course nothing like this happens twice in a day. We set off at a brisk pace aided by the path starting out to be slightly downhill here. At the same time a Nepali woman and boy of about 7 years have also set off down the path. We keep pace for a long time through today. A drunk or mentally affected man is following them, catching up and falling behind intermittently. The man tries to make a conversation with me, and for once I am not keen on talking to a stranger. Nitya presumes it’s the husband (and father of the little boy respectively) and we have a healthy argument about the multiple assumptions J. Nitya interestingly assumed at Tatopani that Peter and Sandra were husband and wife, but I thought they might not be. Nits even made a comment to them about their (future) children together, at which I internally cringed and then argued with her later.

The next village Ghara is one and a half hours away. Nitya and I are walking ahead again, yapping as usual. The path is not steep – it is beautiful, gentle (truly li’l bit aup and li’l bit down), with a view over a deep basin surrounded by tall hills on all sides. We are on the side of one of the tall hills, with the basin to our left. Its sunny but there’s promise of rain as well. Nits and I are enjoying the walk, feeling healthy and fit, in general in good form. I feel more in touch with the hills than I’ve felt in a long time. I think walking in sandals helps J. A large Eurpoean group is walking more or less with us, we try not to keep pace with them. Finally at a bend we stop to let them pass. I notice that many of the women are wearing short shorts. I am feeling hot in my synthetic quick drying pants… so I ignore the guide books’ advice and zip off the bottom part of my pants, and walk the rest of the way in shorts.

We reach Ghara and sit on a wall opposite a house. Under a communal tap, there are bottles of Fanta and Pepsi and stuff in a wide bucket filled with cool water – local inexpensive refridgeration. Nits has been wanting a Fanta for a while. By the time the Fanta comes, Kanaks and MShah and Shishir heave into view. Nitya has been complaining about her new T-Shirt not absorbing sweat. When the others hear this, they critically look her over and pass rude comments and we all giggle hysterically. Poor Shishir doesn’t know where to look. We are back to our usual spirits. Kanaks wonders how I’ve lost the bottom part of my pants – ever the diplomat, she tentatively asks me if I had more covering my legs, or did I start out in shorts. The Fanta and photo stop is longer than intended, but we are happy.

It turns out that Ghara itself is a big sprawl. Houses of Ghara are spread over the hillside for about 30 mins of our walking time. Shishir tells me that post is delivered on foot in these parts, once every day or two (no mule post). Now we come to expect a 30-45 mins traverse across each village we pass. Finally we clear Ghara, and on towards the next village Sikha, which is supposed to be our lunch stop. The little boy and woman are still in our vicinity, the boy trotting along, doing monkey stuff like little boys everywhere. Nitya notices he’s about Varun’s age and starts freshly missing her family.

At a couple of places along the route, especially where there are steep steps, I challenge Nits to run up the steps – and she actually does it! Once she challenges me, and I uncharacteristically manage to run up. We get to Sikha in due course and see our porters stopped for lunch at the preferred stop. Nits and I feel like keeping the momentum, so we tell them and carry on. After almost an hours’ walking, I am just starting up some steps, when Nitya gently but firmly stops me saying we must have lunch here. We stop at a restaurant right there, sit at a table in the open, looking at the usual menu. A light drizzle begins but we just wear rain proofs and continue to sit there. It’s a well tended garden and lawn. In fact a gardener is pottering about removing weeds, trimming hedges and fussing with the borders. A man comes to take our order, we ask him what’s quick and good. He says fried rice, which we haven’t had till now on the trip. So we order a plate to share. By now the others reach here, and it turns out they too haven’t had lunch. It has also started to rain a bit more persistently. We move to a covered shack. Our fried rice has arrived, we dive into it hungrily. It is the most delicious fried rice I’ve eaten, or so it seems. When the others ask for the same, the man says now roti sabji would be quicker – I guess cooked rice is over. So they make do with the usual. The sabji is the usual, made of aaloo and saag but I like it here. MShah makes a face at me – “You do seem to like all kinds of bland shit!” We have noticed that we don’t agree on many food tastes.

After lunch, Nitya and I take off together again. Yesterday at Tatopani, the BA bought a local plastic poncho for the rain. Her jacket from California is too thick for this kind of warm weather rain. While she could have chosen any color, she chose pink. I mention this because it assumes great significance today, and defines several events of the evening and night. Back to the present. We are climbing steadily in the rain chatting comfortably. Around all these villages, there are cows pottering about the trails here and there. This is a cause of constant tension for Nits. She truly believes the cows will charge at her because she’s wearing a pink poncho!! Her logic is pink is close to red, bulls charge at red, and hence cows must charge at pink J. I am wearing a pinkish rain jacket, and I too get scolded for this choice. She sees a local woman coming in the opposite direction wearing a green poncho and she is seriously tempted to exchange her poncho. We’ve ascended about 3000 feet now. Her imagination is getting worse with height gain. At some points after Sikha, when she sees a cow in the distance, rain or no rain, she takes off her poncho and gives it to me to carry (so that the cow can charge at me and leave her alone). In trying to hold the poncho comfortably, I crinkle and crackle the damn thing and attract more attention. There’s a buffalo and its calf standing a little way from the trail. The calf is wary of us, and goes and hides behind its mother. The mother looks at us warily, we look at it warily. Nitya is walking crab-like, quickly dropping behind or darting ahead of me, so as to always keep me between any bovine and herself. All the time she’s prattling about friendship and bravery to make me feel good about this whole thing. She’s not above pointing out that I use her comb on the trip as I’ve forgotten mine J.

The trail is partly stone steps and partly plain dirt track. The steps are very comfortable for my stride, but Nits finds them too shallow – she’s complaining that she can’t take them two at a time, yet one step is too short for her stride. I am gleeful that for once there are steps that suit me better than someone taller. Chitre is our next target village. I ask a man how far to Chitre, he looks us up and down and says one and a half hours. I tell him “one and a half for you, how much for us?” He gallantly says “You both look strong, one and a half for you also” and smiles. It thrills me to hear this, after several days of hearing Shishir’s “It’s 5 ‘haours’ for me, maybe 8 for you”. We walk it quite comfortably in approximately the time he has told us.

We suddenly notice we are in a Rhododendron forest, although we’ve missed the flowering season by a couple of weeks. I have always wanted to walk through Rhododendron forests. When I had asked Shishir about the nature of the Ghorepani trek he had mentioned the Rhododendrons, and also kept saying “we’ll go through many blaizes” – which I initially did not understand: “blazes?? is he saying we’ll go to blazes?” Later it struck me he meant “villages”. I get scolded by Nits for not pointing out various flora when I notice them – when she notices them and tells me in excitement, I say “yeah, I saw that sometime back”, much to her irritation J. We notice that we are much closer to the snow mountains, we see one across a nearby valley, half shrouded in clouds. Nitya has never trekked up so close to the snow mountains and her feeling of accomplishment and joy are contagious. Dhaulagiri is completely hidden by the clouds – we know it must be behind us (faaar away of course) as we climb.

Chitre… I think we’re almost at Ghorepani! I have been estimating our ascent – I think we’ve done about 4500’. But according to the map at Chitre, we’ve done only 3500’, 2500’ yet to go. So not almost there… I am feeling the effect of the relatively quick ascent – a mildly heavy head. MShah and Kanaks are doing good speed, blisters and all. They are about 5 mins behind us at Chitre. We stop for chai at a large low ceilinged wooden structure lodge. I have sweet hot chocolate as the weather is very hot-chocolatey – raining outside, overcast skies, I am damp and cold, still in my shorts and sandals. The weather has gradually changed from shorts to woollies and ear muffs, but I don’t feel like getting the pant legs also wet just for the remaining hour and a half or so. I go up to the mezanine floor for the loo, and see the small dark empty rooms along the corridor. It looks gloomy in the evening light and I am thankful that we’re not staying here.

One of the girls opens the door of the lodge and shoos the chickens before I feel safe to step out. My phobia extends from cockroaches to butterflies to chicken to any living thing that flies – especially things that can suddenly and unpredictably flap at you. Moronic things, in their fear fly at you rather than away from you. As we step out into the rain, I realize I need to wear a warm layer. With a wary eye on the chicken, I stand under the narrow shelter above the door, and perform the complex transaction of wearing my fleece jacket under my rain jacket.

We’re off on the last leg of the journey towards Ghorepani. Another hour and a half and we will be at Ghorepani. The closest snow mountain to our left looms larger and larger. The last half hour is all steps. We plod up and up and up. I hear MShah somewhere close behind, cursing but plodding steadily as well. I totter over the last big step… and see the first house of Ghorepani! Yesssss! But it’s not done till we reach our designated lodge – our porters have stood one of the rucksacks outside (waterproofed sufficiently) to flag a stop for us.

We gratefully step into a warm cozy lodge with a welcoming central hearth – a sort of metal cylindrical chimney over a coal fire. There are tables and benches around the large wooden room. When we walk in, there’s a bespectacled Chinese boy of about 21 years, with his porter, eating his dinner. The Chinese boy says he’s walked all the way from China, but we are not able to communicate much – either he is very hungry and can’t be bothered with a conversation, or doesn’t understand enough English. I sit next to the porter by the fire. He is quite chatty and friendly. I am sick of my wet sandals, so I borrow his slippers (which are 3 sizes too large for me), to go to the loo. Nitya is quite amused by this – she can’t imagine ever borrowing a stranger’s slippers for any reason J. She has come a long way from her prim “ickiness” for toilets that are less than gleaming, for food that is cooked under less than perfect sanitary conditions, for strange men rifling through her rucksack. By the end of the trek she even drinks the local water and beer J.

One by one the others trickle in – MShah about 10 mins after us, then Shishir faithfully staying with Kanaks almost all the way, comes in about 15 mins after MShah, and finally Kanaks, about 10 mins after Shishir. We have had lots of hot chocolate, and warmed ourselves at the fire by now. We cheer for Kanaks, who I am guessing, has done the last steps section out of sheer will power. Shishir is pleased as punch, and extremely relieved that we’re indeed here at Ghorepani. After everyone is reasonably warmed up inside and out, we discover that this lodge has no attached baths – which has become an obsession for us. So we walk across to the next lodge which also has a similar dining area, with central hearth, and most importantly, rooms with attached bath. It has a long dingy corridor along which the rooms are. It is as gloomy and depressing as the one at Chitre, but atleast we are at our final destination for the day! The walls between the rooms seem to be made of plywood and I wonder if Nits and I are going to keep the others up with our usual chatting.

It’s about 7:30 pm – about 12 hours since we started this morning. There’s no power today as well, so we carry candles to our room and get out of the wet things. I have dry clothes to change into, but Nitya doesn’t. Her clothes were not packed in plastic bags thoroughly. I don’t show too much sympathy for her cold and shivering state – “why did you have to take off that poncho each time for a bloody cow and get drenched in the process?” She may be cold and miserable, but the program manager in her is ticking. She makes a couple of her famous notes to herself – “no red, not even remotely red colored clothes or gear on treks”, “always pack items within rucksack in plastic bags”. But for now, she wears her thermal pants which are dry and borrows my (Rohit’s) tatty old black T-Shirt. Fashion-conscious madame refuses to step out in this attire. I tell her nobody will even look at her. Somehow I get the impression this was not the right thing to say J. We have got a double bed today instead of the usual two single beds. We get into our respective sleeping bags to warm up a bit, and end up taking a  short nap. At different times, Shishir and MShah come to check on us, and we refuse dinner. But in a short while, it’s too tempting to go to the dining room with the fire.

Kanaks and MShah are having whisky. I decline, and instead have a series of hot chocolates. Various pieces of clothing are drying by the fire, and everyone in the lodge is huddled around it. Our porters and Shishir are conversing softly in Nepali with the boys running the lodge. I have a great idea for Nitya – to step out of the room draped in her red fleece sleeping bag liner. She’s happy with this compromise solution, sets out some of her clothes to dry, and parks by the fire. I find a spot on a bench by the fire, and toast myself there the entire evening. Its cold and dark outside, it’s lovely to be sitting by the fire in candlelight. MShah is reading at a table by the candlelight. Kanaks is just sipping her drink and contemplative. We’re all satisfied and happy – we eventually get around to a desultory conversation and songs. Sometime that evening, MShah has a brainwave of cutting short the trek by a day and having an extra “relaxing holiday” day in Pokhara – we unanimously agree. Shishir works out a different route to descend, so we’re due to go to Ulleri and Thikedhunga tomorrow instead of Tadopani. I have more hot chocolate, and a cheese toast for dinner. No one wants to move from the warmth of the fire. It is a long time before we turn in for the night.

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