Saturday 29th February
We have a slow start, extending our morning by half an hour. That gives the sun time to reach us. It’s another clear day but it has of course frozen overnight and there is no heating in the room until the sun reaches us. The good news is that once the sun is on us we are instantly warm. We follow the retreating shadow of the mountain at 0800 only to find two boys scrubbing their faces with ice water out on the deck. Their mother, our hostess is kind enough to give us some hot water from her kettle for our ablutions. The boys don’t seem to mind that we have steam and they do not and they furiously scrub at themselves though they remain mostly clothed. Even for Nepalese in the mountains there are clearly limits.
Our frosty night was interrupted by all sorts of disruption. Kids ran down the hall to use the toilet, crashing each step and slamming the slab wooden door. Then mum screeched at them and chased them out. That was two hours after we had put ourselves to bed, revelling in the warmth of our down bags. Then there were the same shouting people and barking and fighting dogs, but fortuitously no bus driver summoning his fares with his horn. Speaking of dogs, the marketing part of my brain thinks a tea house called “The Barking Dog” would be a unique selling point which is ironically ubiquitous. Every village has a barking dog or two and every village also seems to have shared the same marketing copy book, right down to the same menus. Why not a Barking Dog in each village? Despite the cold night we are armed with two heavy duty doonas. In fact each is really a thin kapock mattress which makes for an extra warm but inert night!
After ablutions we sit in the sun and slowly eat breakfast. The view is magnificent and we look down the valley out of which we climbed yesterday. The valley which brought us down from Gatlang is also partially visible. The sky is clear, the sun warm, the food welcome. We enjoy the lingering tempo of our start.
We finally launch at 0930. The track takes us back past the remains of the hot springs, a sorry sight. We are sad for the community which relied on these things for their income and the shut down tea houses are partly a reflection of the abandoned traffic up here. We step up behind the Singh Hotel, another closed tea house. The track is well hidden and we comment to each other that without our local guide it’s unlikely we would have found this track – though I’m sure the locals would have pointed us in the right direction if we asked. So, up behind the Singh Hotel (a sad wooden affair) and into a forest worthy of Tolkien. Ancient. Silent. Moss riven. Deadened footfall. Dark despite the clear sky and bright sun. Full of Ents. And then monkeys. And then we flush two deer. We hear the first though Umesh, up front, catches a glimpse of it. The second was a flash of white as it broke away from us in the rhododendrons and bamboo. The track through the forest is a regular highway for the villagers who graze their cattle here and harvest its timber. We pass a number of sites where deadfall had been expertly milled into posts and rafters and planks. We also cut through a small gully which has been completely logged. Then out onto an open grazing areas with handful of cattle before re-entering the forest. A guide is very handy here. There are any number of paths which lead out of each opening and none are signposted and, together with animal (cattle mainly) trails criss crossing the place it would be easy to get lost. Not an unpleasant place to be lost mind you but you don’t want to be caught out at night if you can help it.
It takes us two hours to reach Brimdang. We come onto it by connecting to a stone wall in the forest and following it out into a clearing of neatly stonewall lined fields which hint at a tidy and pleasant place. But unfortunately Brimdang is a sorry place. Unkept and shattered. The earthquake appears to have knocked the will out of the place which it may well have done. Villagers not only didn’t have the heart to rebuild but they didn’t have the resources. Nonetheless a family has attempted to rebuild a guesthouse and once glass is installed it will be ready to host guests. We take a short break in what much have once been a pleasant little town square but which is now a cross roads of paths with a couple of cleared stone seats, lots of weeds and piles of broken stone and shattered timber, little if any of it moved in the last five years. A dog lies in the sun, hinting by his slow and painful movements that it’s probably his summer. Three locals squat around an open stove and cook up a meal near the renovated guesthouse. They acknowledge our presence on arrival but otherwise ignore us. I guess if they have nothing to offer us by way of hospitality there is no reason to talk – it’s unusual for these mountain folk to be so disconnected. That earthquake may have knocked more than their will to rebuild out of them.
Brimdang is at 2900m but we have a bit climb yet. We start by climbing up a bank behind Brimdang after clambering over piles of fallen stone. Knocked down houses make us wonder where the owners now are. Up the bank and on to a very neat shelf we are surprised by a woman tending two calves. She operates a tidy little guest house beside her own abode and within just a few metres of Brimdang proper we find ourselves in a well kept tableau in marked contrast to where we have just been. We chat with her for a few minutes while she absently caressed the head of a calf. But then she grew impatient and dismissed us. “If you are not going to buy anything I’m taking myself below” (referencing Brimdang lying just below her establishment). In hindsight I wonder if she didn’t see us coming into the village and rushed up to her establishment just in case we presented her some trade.
We push on with our eye on the flags just visible through the trees at the top of the mountain and seemingly a long way off. On our way we encounter our first snow on the trail. There is more to come as we close in on Nagthali but its’ absolutely the last remnants of winter and has mostly vanished from the open slopes above the tree line. The last portion of the walk is in open meadow like hillside. Not steep but a steady climb in the sun which is tempered by a very cool breeze. We touch some sections of mossy forest again and skirt around some ancient copses but we finish out in the open, picking through frozen snow as we bear down on Nagthali which we finally reach at 1345, 3 hours and 15 minutes from Tatopani.
The best business surely has to be had by the first tea house you stumble over on entering a village. It’s likely to be the case here. The Mountain View is open but empty. We carefully enter by stepping over a mound of frozen snow and drop our packs. Umesh flushes out the owner who bustles back from a neighbour’s place and stokes the fire, makes us hot milk tea and cooks us some egg friend rice. Both hit the spot.
As we have emerged from the forest we have been exposed to a much cooler breeze than we had so far. We have also watched carefully the high, thin edged clouds coming in out of the north, clouds that warn of snow. None so far but small hail pellets that rattle off the tin roof, propelled there by the force of the gale now blowing outside. The sun is still mostly out but the washing machine weather is piling a range of elements into the mix. The body of Mt Lantang (7227m) is visible in parts. The sun sparkles its midriff, its head is shrouded in cloud while a band of cloud rolls up the valley towards Tibet and protects her modesty.
Nagthali is not a town per se. There are no streets. No central square. No core point of urban identity. Rather it’s a collection of buildings scattered across an open alpine pasture. They are scattered in a shallow but broad hollow just back from the open rim that opens to the east and north, and under the glowering eye of that ancient mossy forest full of Ents which borders the south and west. Elsewhere it’s open grass across which the wind has its own way. We are at 3260m and are starting to feel the effects of altitude. Despite the chill I’m off to have a poke around.
Its an interesting little place. It’s true that it is scenic. There are some very well situated lodges which appear to have bene original dwellings and have the choice ground and as such as well situated out of the worst of the wind. The remainder appear to be dotted at random across the meadow but I’m sure there is an unseen reason. Three broken plaster Buddhas sit in frozen silence, still on the mantle of the monastery which existed here before the earthquake. Sadly all the timber windows and doorways are scattered about as are the remains of the stone walls. The two central timber columns are still there as if keeping the idols company. A new monastery of wood and iron is nearing completion up near the forest tree line. Like all other buildings there are no obvious tracks to and from it and appears as if it’s been dropped there from outer space. I walk up into the forest behind it and the wind is stripped away. Moss hangs straight down in the gloom and leaves are deep and damp and quiet underfoot. I happily follow random animal trails, randomly turning here and there until it occurs to me that if anything happens to me up here it would take a while before I was found, if at all.
It tries to drop that pellet hail/snow again – the stuff can layer up and create potential avalanches. It’s zero degrees in the shade and even though I’m rugged up I decide to head back to the Mountain View. As I emerge from the forest I bump into Umesh who is having an explore as well and we poke around a few shuttered buildings as we meander back. All these lodges and tea houses are being severely impacted by the tightening of tourist traffic with that virus that was making news as we arrived in Nepal.
We hear a great hammering from inside the dining room and arrive just in time to discover our hostess chopping kindling with a heavy kukri. It’s not long before we are edging back from a very hot stove which is doing a very good job of heating the whole room. We sit and listen to the chatter from the kitchen. We are snug in our warm clothes and heated room sitting on benches in front of thin glass windows which leak cold air through their cracks. We have to pick our view as the tradie who has installed these has been liberal with the silicone and the smeared plastic warps the scene. But we sit and watch Langtang and the mountains to the south east of it melt into peach under the setting sun. We had a go at taking photos of the colour but gave up. They don’t do it justice.