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Up the Hill To Gatlang

June 20, 2020

Tamang Heritage Trail

Thursday 27th

The town starts to wake about 0630 with a rising murmur of conversation. Workers on construction sites. People moving up into the mountains, others coming down out of them. A dog has barked right through the night but is now quiet – no doubt tuckered out from his nocturnal carousing. Remaining under the doona I peek through the curtain to uncover a clear sky but I have to crane my neck since the mountain ridge above us blocks out so much sky. We stay in our bed under the weight of a couple of doonas and don’t rush anywhere. Actually rushing would be problematic given the double bed mostly fills the whole room and entering and leaving it requires some negotiation and careful manoeuvring into the narrow space between it and the wall. It’s pushed up hard on the other wall so there is one way in which is the same way out. The buses announce their 0700 departure with their musical horns and so we are eventually prodded out of bed. As we do so the sun starts its march down into the shadow of the valley where Syrabrubesi sits, turning dun into gold. The tops of some mountains are dusted with fresh snow, no doubt delivered under yesterdays cloud cap. 

We amble downstairs. The plan is to start when we start though in the mountains you never want to really start late and need to give yourself as much time as possible should anything go awry or the weather change unexpectedly. Experience tells me that the weather will change fast here if it changes at all. Umesh is already up and his pack is packed and tucked beside him. He’s had his breakfast and he is tapping away on WhatsApp. I assume it is to his wife who he has left behind for this trip. Although she is a trekker he tells us, there are some toddlers to mind. The ubiquitous sweet tea washes down the muesli which is already swimming in hot milk.  The dining area is chilly and the main street is still in shadow so we are rugged up as we eat. 

We pay our bill and drift out into the street to mingle with school students and workers. The occasional foreigner sits out in front of various tea houses but we all carefully ignore each other. I guess we all want this place to ourselves. I know I do. The road tracks north but we soon switch back on ourselves and then do that again. Over and over as we wind our way up into the sun. Children jink and play as they get ready for school. The young ones, faces burnished, uniforms pressed and hair pressed head downhill. The older ones head up to the high school which sits high above the town. We are struck by the fact that groups of girls pass us on the way to school but there are few boys. Some pass us on the backs of motor bikes, driven up the hill by parents. We give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they have been busy in the family business before school starts at 1000. We are entertained by a trio of girls who are clearly in no rush to get to school and who wander up the track with us taking their own sweet time, pausing happily to have their pictures taken with Kavitha. We follow them up some ‘short cut’ tracks but the climb still seems to take for ever. A teacher, clutching her books and hair slightly out of place is rushed past us on the back of a motorbike – it’s not just the girls who are late.

The switchbacks lift us in gorgeous sunshine but through a cool breeze to 727m and at 1110 precisely we arrive at the saddle in which sits a half repaired series of buildings but only one which is functioning as a shop. We could have pressed up here more quickly but we are here for the views and the experience, not to set any records. And experience it was at this lunch stop. It’s unlikely the proprietor has had any customers up until now so her supplies are limited. But two minute noodles with an egg cracked into them never tasted so good. We purchase Coca Cola and some biscuits from her as well, not because we were hungry but it put a little bit of trade across her counter. Even while we sat out of the wind young men rode past on motorbikes ignoring her shop. With new roads and motorbikes they were only minutes from home after all. Why would they need to stop? While we ate she sat in the open doorway spinning wool, not paying any attention to us but lost in her thoughts. Not that we felt unwelcome. On the contrary, there was a sense of being in her home and she was comfortable with our presence. Such is the attraction of walking in this country. They open their homes and embrace you. Its hospitality at its most human and infectious. 

We reluctantly get moving and step into the cold wind and say our goodbyes to our hostess, hoping in our hearts that she gets more trade but suspecting commerce is going to be very light. The road from here on to Gatlang is kinder than the rapid ascent we have moved up this morning. It is always ascending but it’s a more gentle following of the contour. We step over the ridge and take the view of a different valley before being lost in the gentle swish of a pine forest, on the lee of the mountain and out of the wind. But we are out of the sun now as well so its cooler than this morning. We pass a woman and her partner on the track, near a tiny village, he cutting timber and watching her as she bends over and leans on a stone wall. She is clearly distressed and after we are a good three hundred metres of so up the track we hear her cry out, the agony clear. We take our access to health care for granted. Umesh assures us she has access to a doctor but we wonder if there wasn’t something we could have done. It’s a sobering moment in the day. 

More light is the engagement with a young boy who is miles from home (which ultimately appears to be Gatlang). He appears out of the forest at a fast jog and skip, just after we have passed the distressed woman. He’s armed with a large hoop made out of a section of black polythene pipe and he adroitly taps it up the road all the while keeping half an eye on us. Despite entreaties by  Umesh he keeps his distance and runs ahead of us then waits for us to catch up. We finally connect when in an idle moment he picks up a stick and whacks the hollow steel tube of a power pole up ahead. I am walking past one at the same time so pick up a stick and whack it. His head snaps around, has a look, grins and runs to the next power pole and whacks it three times. At the next power pole I come across I pick up a stone and whack the pole three times. He grins and skips off, game on. From that point on he would tap a varied number of taps in different rhythms on his pole before running on to the next while I would mimic his lead. Every now and then he would lapse so I would initiate and he would snap back to attention, mimic my offering and then take over again. 

The track pulls around the mountain until we are in sun again but the day is closing. Two girls loft impossible loads of cut timber onto their backs all the while chatting and laughing to each other, and giggling at something Umesh threw out. Then they ran off much to our surprise. That timber suggested no one should be striding let alone running. Our destination is well in view now but as with all destinations in the Himalayas what can appear close can also be very deceiving and we have some walking to do all the while watching the village creep slowly closer. We started at 1245 from our lunch stop and four hours later we are greeted by a strong of cattle and goats making their own way out of the forest down to their overnight accommodation. Their docile plod overtakes us and we watch them peel off into the yard of a small farm where they are greeted by their owners and directed to water and food. The sun has dropped below the ridge as we descend a gentle slope into town. People are drifting back up the track, perhaps to the scattering of houses the might constitute to the outer suburbs of the village. Kavitha is startled by a young girl who rushes up to her and gifts her a clutch of dried flowers. It’s a beautiful welcome. 

All the tea houses which we referenced from other travel reports are closed. Gatlang has few enough places of accommodation as it is and the virus has limited travel and so the usual places have locked their doors. As we move along the street we check a couple of hapless looking places and enter one but depart at the urging of Umesh. He later tells us that the place smelled bad and even though he had stayed there before he didn’t want to stop there without checking other options. We felt bad for the young woman who clearly had her hopes up the moment we stepped over the threshold, only to have them dashed as we left. A little further along and in the middle of town is a newish looking construction with a banner hanging from the roof announcing Hotel Zappa.

Hotel Zappa also appears closed but there is a phone number on the front of the building. Umesh rings it but I decide to simply knock on the front door. A woman who is on the phone opens the door – and hangs up from talking to Umesh. Srijana Tamang is our hostess and she shows us through what is clearly a 90% completely building just lacking the finishing touches. She shows us to a room which is large and airy and which sports an en-suite, though given the window lacks glass it is a very cool throne room indeed. 

We are sitting on the roof with some milky tea and I’m catching up on this diary. Above us a man urges cattle backwards and forwards with a ‘huht’ ‘huht’ ‘huht’ over a terrace as they drag a wooden plough. Behind them a woman throws seed from a bag. If I lift my eyes a fraction I can see snow in the trees. It explains why the breeze is so cool. We finish the milky tea and add some extra layers before we head out in the gloaming and explore the main street. Muddy track really. Another little girl throws herself at Kavitha. She is part of a throng of kids standing around playing hop scotch marked out in the dirt. The town is shutting down. The kids are near a group of adults sitting under lamps, taking and laughing and drinking tea. Hens dodge roosters, all squawking and carrying on. Kids play in fires they have lit, while others crouch around a stream. Cattle move into their stalls as if under remote control by someone unseen. A woman chases off a goat which is trying to eat the foliage she is carrying – a moving feast! A small boy carrying grass endures the same challenge by the persistent animal. Everyone is rugged up and the smallest kids peek out from under two or three layers of clothes. 

By the time we get up past the new school building (this place was seriously damaged by the 2015 earthquake) it is dark so we turn around and retrace our steps. It seems that the only people in the street are playing kids. But even those are being whistled inside. A few light spots of rain but the rolling cloud does not seem to threaten any more. 

Hotel Zappa on the outside but Hotel Zeppa on the inside is one year old. It is a concrete two story construct which is well fitted out but there is clearly some finishing off to be done. But being concrete means it is quite a cool place and there is no heating apart from in the kitchen. Breath turns to vapour in there but it is still the warmest place in the house. Sanjana is in there with her 16 month old son and she is cooking dinner for us when we return from our exploration of the main street. We all sit in the kitchen while she works around us making dinner. She has offered up a splash of clear coloured liquor made from millet but which has a strong hint of formaldehyde – based on my ‘pickled eel’ experience. We may have a dreadful headache tomorrow!

Sanjana’s brother appears and he has taken over some of the cooking while Sanjana attends to the baby. He has very passable English and explains the millet drink (mountain juice) recipe – no formaldehyde.  Another woman, who we never quite get a fix on, has appeared with her kids and the kitchen becomes a boisterous and noisy place. Tibetan grass is being added to the dish underway on the stove. What the heck is that, we wonder. No idea but we go with it – we are assured it’s an expensive delicacy. It is as advertised – grass. The girls fuss over Kavitha and get her to try on a felt hat the local women wear. They may have wanted to sell it to us but we only realise that afterwards. It is far too small and there is lots of hilarity as they press down Kavithas hair to try and convince it to stay on her head.   

We finally repair upstairs to bed after an evening of family conversation in a warm kitchen. Zeppa is named after grandma, making this a very special place. The family, which has extensive links down into the plains of India have funded this as a family investment for some of those living in this part of the world. We are warmed by more than just millet liquor – by the knowledge that we have been hosted by a family thinking about how best to care for, and invest in the lives of those less well off than the rest. And the warmth is nicely complemented by the heavy quilts which press us in to the mattress. We sleep deep and long.

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One Response to “Up the Hill To Gatlang”

  1. Tamang Heritage Trail – Up to Tatopani : PickledEel on September 1st, 2020 16:51

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