Greetings from the sunny banks of the Karnali River and a small village called Thumkot Khola. As I mentioned in my voice dispatch last night, we have been having a wonderful time, enjoying the spectacular scenery, friendly people, and good walking under clear skies…We've gotten lucky!
Let me take a little time to fill you in on the happenings since Kathmandu. As planned, we flew on the 1st from Kathmandu to Nepalgunj in the heart of the Terai – the southern jungle region of Nepal. I thought I knew what hot and humid meant after visiting Bangkok and other Southeast Asian places…But, nothing in my experience compares to the oppressive heat of the Terai. A remarkable beauty, however, percolates through the haze. We stayed the night at the Hotel Batika, a beautiful place with a much welcomed amenity: air conditioning. We all took some time out to walk the streets of the city and get a feel for its character, which is one of peace and tranquility often found in the tropics. But, time was scarce, and the next morning we headed to the airport early for our flight to Simikot.
As with many mountain flights in Nepal, the short hop to Simikot aboard a Twin Otter can test your nerves a bit. While the pilots are excellent and accidents rare, the civil aviation standards of Nepal catch you by surprise if it is your first time: broken seatbelts, cockpit door open to see the pilot reading today's Gorkapatra, emergency exit not quite fully closed, smoking man pumping aviation fuel into the plane…all of this grabs and holds your attention. But, once airborne, most fears fade into the distance as the stunning countryside of Nepal opens up below. Lush green carpets of rice paddies transition into the jagged, forested hills of the Mahabarat (Middle Hills) Range and, behind, the sparkling white massifs of the Great Himalaya jut skyward. Gazing at that view, it is easy to understand the thinking behind the Vedic saying: "In a hundred thousand ages of the gods, I cannot tell you of the glory of the Himalaya. As the dew is dried up by the morning sun, so are the sins of man at the sight of the Himalaya."
OK, enough rambling: Simikot. A small dirt airstrip, tilted uphill ever so slightly, surrounded by mountains leading to valleys leading to mountains. Simikot is the gateway to Humla, and an important trading center on the route between Nepal and Tibet. Once we landed, organized our gear, and were treated to a wonderful lunch by our Sherpa team, we began our first day's walk into the hills. (Our Sherpa team, by the way, made the ultimate sacrifice by spending 6 days stranded in Nepalgunj waiting to fly to Simikot. Panuru and Karma Rita, not wanting to be bored, bought a badminton set and have been playing religiously on the trail every day!) We followed a gentle trail up the Karnali River valley past glowing fields of vivid yellow mustard seed and small villages perched above the raging river, making camp after 3 hours at Darapari.
On the morning of the 3rd, we awoke to another beautiful day and a short walk up valley to Danda Kermi. While the walk was short, we had a welcome surprise above town: an amazing sulfur hot spring. Now, I have seen lots of hot springs in the Southwest, the Himalaya, and elsewhere, but nothing ever like this. Spring in this case is a misnomer: The Kermi Hot Springs are more of a river than anything else. Steaming water courses down the mountainside, slowing slightly in small pools built by the locals, and leaving a vivid coloring on all rock it touches. But, easy to get to? No. We had to fight through the most evil stinging nettle bushes in the hot, humid, post-monsoon afternoon. But, it was well worth it. The springs were just the right temperature, soothing our feet and offering spectacular views of the Humla region.
Yesterday was another relatively short day from Danda Kermi to Yalbang. While the walking was beautiful and entertaining, we also found ourselves eyeing the myriad of giant boulders dotting the surrounding hillsides, and Kirk, Stuart, and I could not resist the temptation. We all had a great time finding fun routes on virgin problems along the mighty Karnali, the best of which was a 60 foot overhanging traverse culminating in dusty, manky, guano covered rock that crumbled in your hands. Fortunately, David and Cynthia had more sense that the three of us, and refrained from our bouldering escapades.
As always, the Karnali has been our friend and an irresistible temptation for all concerned. It is still hot and humid in Humla, the monsoon heat fighting stubbornly against the coming autumn. So, each day, covered in sweat and dust, we find quiet pools along the turquoise river and soak our heads and feet in the cooling waters. And, if someone is brave enough, a full dunk au naturel is a shocking although refreshing event.
Today we awoke early at Yalbang to visit the Yalbang Gompa, the largest gompa (monastery) in Humla – home to 80 monks – in the hopes of seeing the morning puja. Panuru and his younger brother, Mingma, accompanied us. Panuru had a bag full of prayer flags for our expedition puja, and Mingma was there as our resident expert on the icons and symbols and history of what we would see: Mingma was a monk for 5 years at Thyangboche Monastery in Khumbu before becoming a climbing Sherpa in 2001. But, alas, the puja was not to happen: the head of the monastery, Pema, informed us that it was picnic day for the monks, which meant they spent the night before watching TV until 1:00 AM and today were sleeping in before playing volleyball and badminton. Kind of monk recess, I guess! Hey, everyone needs a break, even on the road to enlightenment. And, while we missed the puja, we were happy to see vermillion robed monks spiking volleyballs like Holly McPeak.
When we returned to Yalbang to head up valley, we were greeted by the local school teacher, a kind man with a deferential demeanor and a wide smile. He invited us into the school, an impressive one for this poor region of Nepal. Unfortunately, however, the Maoists have been using the Yalbang school as a regional headquarters for several years, taking most of the supplies and completely disrupting classes. And, to make it worse, the government knew they were there and would launch attacks against the Maoists, creating intense firefights in this beautiful place. It was hard to believe as we gazed out on the tranquil surroundings with nothing but a smile to be seen for miles. I can only hope and wish with all my heart that the fragile ceasefire holds and peace holds in Nepal.
I am now writing from Thumkot Khola and a beautiful meadow camp. Yak trains pass by regularly, bringing rice and grain north to Tibet or returning with salt for trade in the lowlands. It is a true clashing of centuries…the stone age to the 21st century…I am sitting, writing on my Compaq laptop after downloading today's shots from my Nikon while a wrinkled, elderly Tibetan gazes in wonder. I can only imagine what he sees and thinks. Our worlds are centuries apart, and yet have come together on the banks of this river. I smile at him, and he smiles back. "Namaste" I say, hands clasped together. "I salute the god which dwells within you." Maybe we aren't that different after all…