We sleep the sleep of the dead. I am in bed by 8.30pm and don’t wake until 4am. But from that point on our slumber is disrupted by barking dogs and rousing roosters, but after 6am especially by the bus driver announcing every ten minutes or so his imminent 7am departure on his musical horn. It gets less musical each time he uses it. But we can’t complain. We are warm under a couple of very heavy doonas. There are folk out there from 4am on who are heading out to collect firewood we were told last evening. They take a break at 10. I watch the vapour from my breath condense in our room and I’m glad I’m not on the firewood roster. We doze despite the noise.
The sun peeks over the ridge to our east (naturally) and highlights the smoke leeching out from all the roofs below us. We take breakfast on the rooftop where the sun is instantly hot. The cattle are back on the terraces above us responding to the urging of their owners. Roosters crow. Kids yell. People stand in the middle of the street with the air of being stunned. Still. Calm. Silent while they soak up the heat from the sun and revive from a cold night. If they have to move its with deliberate and slow motion. A ‘holy man’ in his saffron and red and swinging his brass pots moves from house to house but seems to do poor trade. Too early? Too cheery? Too religious for this serious time of the day when the sun is getting all the worship? Sparrows under every eave and on the end of every rafter chirp away. Clothes are hung out. Animals graze. Dogs sleep. Hens scratch. The chap in the middle of the street slowly blinks.
We depart our hosts at 0915 though five minutes in I release I had forgotten to get a photo of the hotel. I clamber back up the hill and am soon out of breath. Hotel Zeppa named after grandma has been an oasis and we have been much blessed by their hospitality. We wind down through the town, our progress naturally slow as we greet people, chat (or at least Umesh does) and check the work being done even now after the earthquake. Kavitha had wondered at the lack of chimneys and especially given the amount of firewood being collected. This morning we watched smoke seeping out from under so many eaves. Clearly there are fires inside but the places fill up with smoke and there is no structured way out such as a chimney. We pause as we meander down stone pathways between stone walled houses (trying not to peer into lace decorated windows as we pass) and greet a cheery group of women who look like they are getting ready for a wedding. Their knapsacks are full of moonshine bottled in Sprite bottles. They are very chirpy and we suspect they have started into the liquor already. We elect to take a shorter route down through the terraces and we had not been descending long before we were overtaken by those girls in their high chatter and clearly keen to get down the hill to their wedding. Two of them peel off and in an impromptu move join us just as Umesh is taking a photo of us. Photobombed by the matriarchs. They are in high spirits indeed.
We make Chilime (chill-lu-may) in two hours, check the map, consult with locals and are pointed at the track to Tatopani. The track spears off to the right jafter a stupa on the left and just ahead of a small colourful shack on the right where we stop for lunch.
It’s now 1845 and I’m sitting in a Tee shirt in front of a fire, armed with a cup of hot sweet tea. A hot bucket bath has transformed me though my aching shoulders could use a hot shower. No complaints however, as we have had an excellent day. We departed our lunch spot and entertainment and stepped off the suspension bridge precisely at 1pm. An hour later we arrived at the beautifully appointed and immaculately kept Cherka Hotel. Umesh has suggested we stop here and we would no doubt enjoy it but we are feeling good and want to get to Tatopani. Make as much altitude as you can in good weather is not a bad maxim. The owner of Cherka has excellent English and does not appear put out that we are moving on. She tells us she has been building up the establishment over a ten year period and as trekkers come and go she has been able to expand. Germans, French and ‘Hollanders’ frequent her hotel. She also tells us that what we have done in an hour takes her twenty minutes. She predicts, good humouredly that Tatopani is 3.5 hours away for us. We don’t disagree. We continue ‘straight up’ in the hot sun. Fortunately someone has left the fridge door open and a very chill breeze is a helpful counterpoint to the sun. Sun screen is a must!
We come onto the village of Gonggang (locals pronounced it Gong Gong) very quickly. There are home stay options here too but we press on up to the road to Tatopani which, from the suspension bridge in the valley below seemed impossibly high above us. We stop in a small village not marked on the map call Gomboling. It sits immediately below the road and also offers tea house accommodation. We stop for fifteen minutes in what passes as a ‘town square’ and buy bread and Coke. The bread is sweet and the Coke gives us the sugar the haul up here demands. As we depart we spot a loom made from ‘borrowed’ materials including recycled electricity power pole ceramic insulators!
We step onto the road and are contemplating a ‘short cut’ apparent from the stairs in front of us but some chaps cutting rock nearby warn us off (it apparently takes us away from Tatopani) so we head up the long way – by road. We still have 400m to gain but it’s a more gentle incline than walking up the face of the mountain which we have just been doing. However it is certainly not ‘flat’ as out hostess at Cherka suggested. There is a ‘Nepalese flat’ however, and we buy the argument having had our head down as we ploughed straight up from the river below. However we do take other shortcuts which wipe out some of the zig zag ascents by road and these shortcuts always pay dividends. They usually follow routes used prior to the road being cut into the mountainside and are the preferred walking routes of the locals. Roads are for vehicles after all. Shortcuts mean we are interacting with shepherds and people tending their gardens and crops or just sitting in the sun as we wind our way through terraces or forest. One young lad declares to his mother hoeing grain on a terrace that she can stay there, he’s going to climb with the foreigners. He is all of six or seven. He plugs away with us for a hundred metres or so then is suddenly absent. These shortcuts are a vastly superior option to the road.
We finally arrive in Tatopani two hours and thirty seven minutes after departing Cherka and the gloomy 3.5 hour forecast. We have taken a 15 minute break in there so I’m happy with that time. And we have moved at our own slow ‘alpine’ pace which means we have both feeling pretty good even though the big hand has moved well past seven.
We are at the ‘Natural Hot Spring Hotel’, a clapboard affair after the fashion we became used to at Manang and beyond on the Annapurna Circuit. But the place gets cosy once the kitchen fire is restoked and the fire in the dining room is lit. We have been spoiled so far by large rooms. These are quite tiny. But there is power and light and we are out of the chill of the mountain air.
Umesh presses ‘Mountain Tea’ on to us. The same booze all those girls were rushing down to Chimle with. It would strip paint but we oblige. If we go blind check this stuff as a probable cause. The wok in the kitchen sizzles, the mountain tea warms the tract, the fire crackles and the pink has finally faded from behind the mountains to the west. All is well in this little part of Tatopani.
p.s. I need to produce some proper ‘profiles’ of this track. We lost 727m then gained 840m. Mind you sometimes ignorance is bliss.