Really? Okay, fragrance might be overdoing it a bit. But this is a major trading route and we are on Highway Number 1 through the Tal Valley. Actually it’s the only highway. We are passed by teams of mules loaded with all manner of tightly strapped down goods. At one point we get caught behind a mule train as they ascend stairs to get around a bluff overhanging the Marsyangdi River. But they move quickly around the track and cross a suspension bridge in front of us before vanishing out of sight, Their frequent passing (pun alert) of course means that, as you have your head down slaving up this or that slope or set of stairs, your head barely a metre off the sun baked granite the aroma of fresh droppings fills the nostrils. It’s not completely unpleasant – just as well they don’t use pigs is all I can think as I tread through a wall of it. But Sarah declares she can’t stand the stuff. I guess it is not the usual obstacle or decoration on the way to the bus stop in Sydney.
I woke this morning to a clear day. Cloud swirled around the tallest peaks but we are so far down in this gorge the sun won’t be down here for a while yet. Chamje sits on a precipice above the river. The rainforest is so dense we can’t see the river but its constant thunder has filled our ears all night. Not distractingly so and in fact it probably lulled us to sleep. Not that we really needed too much prompting to get our heads down. We have walked beside thundering water for a couple of days now so we are starting to get used to it. It’s part of the background noise. Not so the 4X4 which started up its muffler challenged engine at 6am, revs like crazy then shuts down. I think he was simply warming the thing up. Was bored? Or just fired it up for our benefit. I’m not sure. But he is second only to the mule train that went though beneath our window with their clanging bells at 5am.
We leave Chamje a little behind planned time and ascend to the head of the valley. It’s something of an Eden that we walk though, marked by acres of marijuana which creates no end of amusement. We work our way along the river bank and make our way north to the head of the valley, climb a stiff climb beside a serious looking waterfall which thunders and churns through its boulder race beside us. We stop for a break half way up and buy Fanta and Coke from a woman who has a shanty of a stall under a huge rock. We haul up to the top of the ridge and the first hint that we might be leaving Lamjung appears on the skyline – a sentry box surrounded by barbed wire. An Army/Police post marks the new district of Manang that we have entered. I am puzzled at the security but Ellen asks me later why there are hammers and sickles painted on a rock face and I am reminded of the Maoist problem here. Well spotted, that girl. We step through a portal beside the police post, a gateway that declares we are now in Manang District. Behind the razor wire three soldiers rest their chins on folded arms on a stone wall and watch us gather for a photo, faff around and then get going again.
We have come into a more placid and serene place. The river is released from its boulder fences and sweeps across an open silted up series of bends which the locals have taken advantage of. Under towering mountains Tal residents have planted out this fertile area in corn and beans. We stop for a lemon-tea break. The sun is hot and I lie on a stone fence and dry out a little. We leave and step across a burbling brook fed by one of those violently flung waterfalls that rumbles and growls at us from its green wall but we barely pay it any attention. Magnificent waterfalls? As Alex would say “so mainstream” (serious pun alert).
The valley closes in again into a tight gorge with massive rock slides and fissures and whole sections of hill that have crashed into the river. It all looks unstable but there are workers high above us on the other side, cutting and drilling and shifting rock. I am amazed at their efforts. I hope they know their rock or some of them are in for some serious hurt. I am somewhat startled by the jackhammers that work away on rock shelves directly above another team doing the same thing. No hard hats here.
The rain has stayed away and the sun beats down on us. I discover the pack has pulled down my t-shirt and I am burned before I know it. I drag out my cheap umbrella, bought for a dollar in Kathmandu, and it keeps the sun off until the wind turns it inside out. We plug up the road, switching back and forth as we gain height. It’s a long haul and a test of our mental stamina as we climb false crest after false crest. We finally stop at the Dorchester. Here we are reliably informed we are at 6070 feet – higher than Kosciusko. Everyone is pleased with the news. I sight conifers on a far spur and are now in Tibetan influenced culture, and the whole scene has changed markedly from that through which we were walking yesterday let alone three days ago. We move back across to the west wall of the gorge and the sun bakes us. The wind rips at my el cheapo umbrella and tears it apart.
The climb out from lunch was surprisingly easy. We are all a bit suspicious of “a little bit of up and a little bit of down” from our Kokoda expedition and when a Nepali describes a walk as gentle we are suspicious too. But we are pleasantly surprised at the first leg to the ACAP post which takes us half an hour. We are told we had another half hour to Bagarchap from there but all assumed an hour. But hey, it was thirty minutes after all. And a slightly entertaining leg at that. After passing the ACAP checkpoint we were followed by high school students heading home who engaged us in some giggling banter. After they fell behind we were joined by wiry little porters carrying loads on their heads. No giggling banter from them. Can’t figure why!
We follow a team of mules into Bagarchap. By now we have gotten familiar with handling them on the track. The primary rule is to stay close to the top side of the road – mules can get it in their heads to rub up against humans to relieve an itch (We watched two of them last night give their nethers a darn good scrub on a concrete wall). If you are near a precipice (and there have been lots of those) they can knock you over. We also steer clear of their hindquarters since the last thing we need is a kicking from one of these things. If I thought I was being too cautious about them my care was validated by a number of Nepalese who I have seen refuse to walk between the rear end of a mule and fence or building until the mule has moved on.
We are now at just over 7000 feet. The evening is decidedly cooler. The thermal pants are broken out as we settle into our rather quaint tea house. The cool evening is underscored by a thick fog that rolls in on last light, catching me out on the track with two of those ornery mules. I want to walk back over a small bridge, they want to walk in the opposite direction and stand on the other bank waiting for me to move. We have a Mexican standoff (I suppose that is appropriate given we are dealing with mules here) for five minutes or so. I sit on a stone wall and wait to see if they will ford the stream and leave the bridge to me but they are more patient than I, putting their heads down to graze among the marijuana. I give up and stomp across the bridge and they jump out of the way. I should have taken the troll approach right at the beginning.
This town too is a ghost town but it is a little disconcerting for the knowledge that it was pretty much wiped off the map by a landslide a few years ago, the slip taking some trekkers to an early and convenient grave. The forest has healed the scar. Mostly. But I learn our accommodation is built on the rubble of the old slip. I wonder with some unease what the geology looks like under me. I think I prefer some solid rock thanks.
The evening’s dinner is a little lackluster. We are tired. There are some sore ankles and various aches and pains. And the dining hall is chilly. All of these things prompt us off to bed early. I lie awake for a long time then drift off to the sound of an owl. Or possibly two. The patter of rain wakes me after midnight but it dies away and my uncurtained window reveals the fog blanket remains when I prop myself up to have a look. A mule train clops past. Do those guys ever sleep? Or are they out there sowing their breadcrumbs just for us to follow on the morrow? I’m sure it’s some mule drivers idea of a joke. I hope Sarah appreciates it when she sidesteps it all tomorrow. Today. Whenever. Back to sleep.