The last few days have been eventful to say the least. Our goal was to reach Phalut, a small guesthouse on the top of a mountain at 3500m, on the border with India. From Phalut we would then turn around and start walking westward across the length of Nepal to the western border. Getting to Phalut was an emotional rollercoaster: exhausting, terrifying, frustrating, thrilling. A start that hopefully hardened us up for the rest of the trip.
We started with a 15hr overnight bus from Kathmandu to Birtamode, which left an hour and a half late, as we would come to realise is pretty standard in Nepal. At first we went at a snails pace due to Kathmandu traffic, however this quickly escalated into a terrifying high speed ride, mostly spent on the wrong side of the road whilst overtaking other vehicles. We tried to distract ourselves by watching the Bollywood thriller blaring from the TV above, which only made me want to spew, and which only added to our sombre mood as all the characters were shot dead one by one. We tried to sleep but couldn’t as we were bounced around like peanuts and periodically thrown forwards as the brakes went on.
Finally we arrived at Birtamode at 8am, exhausted. After a quick breakfast we were on a jeep to Tapelejung, slightly closer to the border. Jeeps serve as public transport vehicles in most rural areas of Nepal due to the terrible roads. They seat 9 people however generally carry around 15 people, plus a few on the back or the roof if required. All come carefully decorated with fluro fur and fake flowers, and pump out Nepali music at full blast. It took 8hrs to reach Tapelejung, Ronnie had a little old lady balanced in his knee for a good part of the trip, who let out a little chuckle every now and then at her good fortune. We wriggled and bounced our way to Tapelejung through some beautiful hill villages. In Tapelejung we stayed at a lovely family run hotel, where we were grateful for a bed and a hot shower. The family were absolutely lovely and had long conversations with us in broken English. To our amusement the wife named our balance bags (packs worn on the front to balance our load) our ‘Himalayan babies’.
In the morning we got a jeep to Ganesh Chowk, from which we would get another jeep to Chyanthapu, from which we would walk to Phalut on the border. We arrived in Ganesh Chowk at 11.30am and were told there would be a jeep to Chyanthapu at 12pm, then 1pm, then 3pm. We ended up waiting 4hrs for a jeep by which time we thought we would be staying the night in Ganesh Chowk.
During our time at the ‘jeep stop’ we were able to witness Nepali village life:
- Countless people filling buckets at the communal village tap opposite
- One woman doing her washing, hanging it out, and watering the adjacent road every hour or so to contain the dust kicked up by passing jeeps
- A goat ‘bahhh-ing’ at us at it went by in a rickshaw
- A little boy dropped off from a jeep only to promptly vomit right at Ronnie’s feet
While we waited, a heap of people came past and asked us ‘where you going?’, then ‘ahhh Chyantapu, 5 minutes, coming’. Apparently all jeeps are only 5 minutes away. Finally at about 4pm a jeep came who told us they were going to the town just before Chyanthapu. We negotiated to pay double the original fare if they took us all the way to Chyanthapu.
The jeep ride was on tarmac for 5km then quickly became a rocky potholed dirt track, at which time the driver turned to us and said: ‘its dancing from now on’. The road was so bumpy that my merino bra was just not adequate, and I spent most of the trip arms crossed over my chest, dreaming of a sports bra. We drove through villages and rice terraces, up and down ridiculously steep hills, and couldn’t help but thinking we must be mad to want to walk up these.
Eventually we arrived in Chyanthapu and were shown to a local family’s homestay. We were served a tiny portion of chow mein for dinner, satiated but nowhere near full. It seemed rude to ask for more so we decided to make do as is. We sat at the table for another hour doing sudoku whilst the man of the house banged around in the kitchen cooking dinner for his family. But then to our suprise he served the food to us! – a huge plate of thali: a mound of rice, three different types of veg, potato curry, chicken curry with gravy, chicken curry without gravy, dal. It was so delicious but we filled up so quickly after having already eaten. We then had to try to say/mime no thank you when he came back to offer more for every separate dish – Ronnie unsuccessfully trying to mime being full by drawing a line across his neck – the poor man looking confused. We ate as much as we physically could to try to show our appreciation and breathed a sigh of relief when the meal was over. But as soon as our plates were taken away we were served two Nepali donuts each! We were ready to vomit by the time we got through them. We thanked the man profusely before hurrying upstairs to bed before he could serve us anymore.
Ronnie, our brilliant chef, his sister in law and wife.
The next day we started walking, aiming for Phalut, 8hrs away. We walked through cardamom and ginger plantations, crossed questionable suspension and bamboo bridges, and at times caught glimpses of a snowy peak in the distance that was Phalut – our destination. Every local we passed told us ‘Phalut, very far, very far’, adding to our anxiety.
We first got lost after about an hour, and found ourselves wandering up trails between terraced rice fields, asking locals for the way to Phalut, all of whom just pointed up. But when we went up we found a myriad of trails to choose from. We eventually pieced the way together after asking local after local, each of them incredibly kind and friendly in showing us the right way, in amongst just so many trails. After another 2hrs we were lost again after choosing to follow the most well trodden path, which after 30mins we decided wasn’t going in the right direction. We traced our way back and headed out on another path going in the correct direction, jubilant! However this path quickly disappeared and was replaced by what looked like animal tracks, which we followed for a short time before finding ourselves in the middle of the forrest with no idea what to do. Just as panic started to set in we heard some noise not to far away which got closer and closer until a middle aged Nepali farmer, with yellow gumboots and a small knife tied around his waist appeared through the bamboo. We later named him ‘Bruce’ as his name was too hard to pronounce let alone remember. With some miming and some broken Nepali we told him where we wanted to go. He started heading off up the hill, not following a trail, and waved at us to follow. Follow we did, thinking that he would take us to the trail and off he would go. 2hrs later Bruce had walked us all the way to Lem Pokhari, a shrine by a lake that was on our route and far further than we had ever imagined. Along the way Bruce led us confidently across countless trail junctions that we would never have been able to negotiate on our own. We felt guilty that he was walking so far with us but at the same time didn’t want him to leave us. Periodically he turned around and grinned at our tired puffing faces, and then carried on walking, hands behind his back like he was taking a Sunday stroll. We reached Lem Pokhari after 8hrs (the time we were supposed to take to reach Phalut), 2hrs before night fall, and seeing the snowy path ahead decided it would be foolish to keep going. We bid Bruce goodbye, gave him some money and food and thanked him profusely for his help. We set up camp, had a miserable dinner of floury dehydrated potato and went to bed at 6pm, freezing, wondering how on earth we would make it to Phalut or back to Chyanthapu on our own tomorrow.
After a freezing night we were up at 6.15am for more dehydrated potato for breakfast. We took far too long to get ready and didn’t set off till 8am. We felt incredibly anxious about the walk ahead – Bruce along with another few locals we had met had told us there was snow knee deep on the trail to Phalut. We decided we would continue up the trail for 2hrs and if we hadn’t reached Phalut or there was too much snow we would turn back as were running out of food and it would take another day to get back to Chyanthapu. To add to the fun, I discovered that I had been bitten by a tick on my belly. We tried to pull it out with tweezers unsuccessfully – it’s mouth remained buried in my skin and just would not come out. Even more upsetting, it sat right where my pack belt sits. We decided we would get going and address this later.
The trail was well trodden and easy to follow thank God. We had a couple of minor moments of panic feeling like the trail was going in the wrong direction but continued on. After setting off there was almost immediately snow at the side of the trail, and then ice and snow on the trail, getting deeper. With a steep trail and a shear drop on one side this made our path treacherous. We became even more nervous when the clouds rolled in and it started snowing, heavier and heavier, causing the visibility to deteriorate. We lacked energy, our potato breakfast was not enough and we scoffed jerky and dried mango to try to keep energy levels up. We considered turning back multiple times. When it reached 10am, our turn around time, we felt we must be close to the top and decided to give ourselves 30mins more. After a little while we caught a glimpse of a building high up in the distance, with a power line going to it which looked promising. We decided we would turn around there. We battled on and luckily at about 10.30am we reached the building, which it turned out marked the Indian border. We were absolutely ecstatic. We knew there was a guest house at Phalut, 1km from here, provided it was open.
We marched on confidently through the snow and were over the moon when we came across a sturdy guest house, and within it, Naazi Sherpa, a happy and friendly soul who walked around the place singing at the top of his voice. He showed us to a room, and made us tea, dal, potatos rice and egg. An angel sent from above. We were so happy and relieved we couldn’t stop smiling.
Ronnie had a wash using a chux cloth and water from a mostly frozen bucket. I chose to be smelly and warm.
We then spent about 2hrs trying to dig the tick’s mouth from my belly with a needle and tweezers, it was not enjoyable, and was very upsetting when couldn’t get it all out. We are now in our sleeping bags in our room as I write this, the temperature must be sub-zero, any water around the place is frozen. There is a thunder storm going on outside and it is blowing a gale, hailing and snowing. There seem to be a lot of holes in the guesthouse so there is snow coming in everywhere, giving a white dusting to everything, including the toilet.
Hopefully the snow won’t cover the tracks we were planning to follow tomorrow. Tomorrow we will head off early with the aim of returning to Chyantapu – heading west – in the right direction for the first time.
Please consider sponsoring us by donating to PHASE Nepal (www.phasenepal.org): an NGO that improves healthcare, education, and livelihood opportunities for disadvantaged populations in remote and resource-poor Himalayan mountain villages. Any donations can be made (with many thanks) via the following link: https://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/fundraiser-display/showROFundraiserPage?userUrl=AndrewWands&pageUrl=1