March 1 Sunday.
We have had a deep and still sleep. No barking dogs. Just the calm dark of the mountains. The wind had dropped by 1800. We played cards until 2030, drawn to the radiating heat of the stove but once it had died down the chill crept back and we repaired to our down bags. The last couple of nights we have really appreciated these high end bags. In truth you can walk these tea houses and get by without a bag and manage quite well with what these places supply. We saw a chap do the Annapurna Circuit that way but he had done it multiple times and knew exactly what to expect at each destination. My only concern in these mountains would be the possibility of being caught out at night without accommodation. A down bag is good insurance. Last night we could have raided other rooms for additional doonas. But only because they are trusting people and don’t have anything locked. All the other tea house had locked rooms. Fair enough. So do the hotels back home. The alarms have not been set but the lightening sky woke us at 0600 and we dozed until 0700 when the sun got a leg up over the Lantang ridge. We depart at 0850 after breakfast and arrive at Thurman at 1100. We have dawdled through forests and stopped for a long chat with a priest going the other way. Nagthali it turns out, is holy ground.
We arrive at Thurman at 1110 and depart at 1120 after a cup of tea for some and coke for others.
We step on the suspension bridge below Lingling at 1315, a descent of just under two hours. It could be done much quicker but we have stopped to admire, chat, wonder, take in the views and make the most of being out here. We climb up the other side to our lunch spot which is only 100m up the hill but feels like it takes forever. Looking back across the valley Thuman seems very close and we can pick out features along the track which we have only just passed. Boots and socks off – our feet are smashed from the descent. The day has now clouded over and a stiff breeze chills us as we wait for lunch. A coke is our appetiser.
A clap of thunder and its roll up the valley announced our arrival at the top of the stairs at the PEMA guest house in Briddim. We have been watching the weather gather across Gatlang and roll over the top of Nagthali and have been wondering if it would catch us. We beat it in by seconds. Kavitha believes she has arrived in heaven – no bucket bathing but a genuine hot shower. She has vanished into the shower block (which is shared with family) while I watch our hostess stuff the stove with firewood. I like her approach and I’m sure it will heat us soon but the lively flame of ignition is, right now, a smouldering smoking flicker.
Now I am settled in here I’ll recap the day since most of the above were quick snippets jotted down in brief stops on the way, including our lunch stop. Our lunch was fried rice with egg, together with some sort of local chutney, fresh oranges and the local, sweet pretzel-like bread. We are rice powered up the hill. We have some steep climbing to do but are constantly surprised at the rate at which we ascend. It’s a mind game but we compare the other side of the valley down which we have just come and look at where we are now at. It’s not a precise geometry but we are pleased when we reach parity with the millet thresher’s house.
The descent from Nagthali has been laced with the usual interesting interactions with locals. Our Nagthali host loosened up as we left and handed over his business card. At least this one is a fair representation of what you will get.(Mountain View Nagthali Guest House) I liked the fact that they were happy for us to sit with them in their kitchen. Many do. It does help that there are only two of us. We leave the alpine meadow which, given recent melted snow, is slippery treacherous, and enter the forest below. There is still snow and ice underfoot though hidden by leaf litter so we have to watch our step. But it’s a magical place with the sun filtering through the fern and moss canopy. On the way we encounter a monk travelling with his brother (who is carrying a toddler). He has good English and is clearly glad of the break our conversation affords him. He is running rivers of sweat under his puffy jacket. He explains he is doing a one day pilgrimage to Nagthali. The author of the mantra “OM MANI PADME UM” apparently scripted it at Nagthali hence this pilgrimage. Interestingly he broke the Mani into MA and NI. We also learned that the new building up at Nagthali which clearly left everything else in the shade, was a new monastic retreat. I wonder what the locals really think of that. Will it detract from their livelihoods? I appreciate now, that the destroyed monastery must have damaged the income of those operating guesthouses up there. Its’ not all about foreign tourists is it?! We chat with him for ten minutes or so then move on down the track, eventually breaking out into the alpine meadow above Thuman. We poke around old ruins and find a handful of groves, perhaps used for worship in the not so distant past.
Our little break at Thuman was a real pleasure. The young woman who sold us tea and coke is from Gatlang. She and her son were very engaging. Turns out her husband is a guide and is way doing just that. She remains in Thuman running the guest house which they rent from the owners. We sat in the sun, refreshed ourselves, enjoyed the chat and the cooling breeze and the view given us by a blue day.
The descent through Thuman was a revelation. Ancient buildings remain here, showcasing the best of old woodworking skills. But we are a curiosity too, though of course they are unfailingly polite about it. We pick up a black dog from a young family with whom we have exchanged the usual ‘namastes’ and he follows us down through the village, and out onto the spur below it, home to numerous mani wheels, before eventually giving up and leaving us to it. A new road reaches the town from the valley below. The track cuts across it at the site of a new monastery (being built around a scared tree) and follows the spur which points roughly at Briddim on the other side of the valley. Stupas and mani walls follow the ridges so the track is not hard to miss. We pass a bunch of lads carrying massive timber pieces for the new monastery – or rather they were sitting on them while taking a break. Their headbands betrayed the arduous way they were getting these fittings delivered uphill – but the new road must have eased their way considerably.
We pass a chap threshing millet, the steady thwap, thwap of his flail heralding him long before we saw him. His wife was winnowing his produce. They remain oblivious, or unresponsive to our greetings and those of Umesh so we left them alone, the rhythmic flail fading away as we pitched off up the ridge past some early flowering rhododendrons and then ‘fell’ down the spur into the gorge below. Our toes are hammered and in a rare thing in Nepal we found ourselves wishing for some climbing.
We had departed the tea stop in Thuman in sunshine at 1120 and arrived at the suspension bridge at 1315. So, from Nagthali, four hours of easy, interactive and leisurely walking. I feel our timing is not too bad. It is a pace that allows us to stop and talk to people and to pause and take things in – flowers, insects, plants, animals, old temples, ruined houses, agriculture. To discuss things like slabs of timber carved out of the pine trees in what looks like acts of vandalism. Our guide is less than impressed with these but says the locals do it to extract the resin which they use for treating wounds. Makes sense given it has antiseptic and antibacterial properties.
In Thurman a faint red block on the far side of the valley had been pointed out to us as our lunch time destination. It grows ever bigger and closer but we lose sight of it as we leave the suspension bridge and start up the road. It takes another thirty minutes before it appears and we stop for lunch, dropping our packs with welcome relief.
Fried rice with egg which we take inside – we had started out in the garden with an indolent host cat but a chill wind had sprung up so we sat in the kitchen instead. The cat remained outside sunning itself. We stop for an hour. It’s an excellent break which leaves us feeling ready to tackle the human route to Briddim rather than follow the road.
That means the route is pretty much straight up via a series of stone steps. Up for about one and half hours then levelling out to a ‘Nepalese flat’, following the contours though always inclined upwards until we step around a spur marked by a couple of stupa and see Briddim directly in front of us. Here we discover a slight sting in the plan – a drop of 60m into a little gorge through which the Briddim River crashes via a series of waterfalls. Then back up the other side. The beauty of the spot offsets the loss of the 60m – every meter gained is valued highly and I try not to resent the drop. After we cross the stream the track is now stone steps in many places and fenced in by dry stone walls. It pulls up to Briddim village past fields and streams and we finally land at PEMA guesthouse just on 1730 and moments before the rain lashed. It’s been a big day – out just before 0900 and in just ahead of the storm. I wrap up this log now with some warm ‘mountain tea’ , a tum full of potato momo and a hot shower behind me.
(Had we yielded to the temptation to follow the track via Delphedi there is no way we would have reached this place before dark).
(Again, the 1:25,000 map is not accurate – in this case in regards to the transit to Thuman).
It’s now 2020 and somehow we are still awake! Off to bed. We have decided to stay here an extra night since there is some form of festival here tomorrow. It sounds like a good way to see something more of the Tamang than just passing through their homes ever so briefly – as rewarding as even that is.
Psalm 121 has been in my head all day. “I lift up my eyes to the hills– where does my help come from? My help comes from the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth. indeed, he who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. the sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night.”
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