The Ruby Valley

After some time on the tourist trail we were looking forward to The Ruby Valley, a trail that sees very few if any tourists. The Ruby Valley would take us across the Himalaya to the beginning of Manaslu circuit, another popular trail.

Day 36 started with a steep uphill from Syabrubesi to reach Khondo Bhanjyang. Luckily we’d stocked up on donuts and chocolate bread from the bakery which kept the fires burning.

Leaving Syabrubesi:

The rest of the day was spent following a nice flat road to Gatlang. Rhododendrons and pines framed spectacular mountain views.

We reached Gatlang at midday after 4 hours. Gatlang was a beautiful town full of incredibly friendly Tamang people – a group known for their friendliness, hospitality, hardworking nature, and craftsmanship. Some of the traditional houses, with beautiful ornate patterning around the windows, had withstood the earthquake.

We went to a guesthouse for lunch and a local specialty: ‘Dendo’; cornmeal mash, lentils, nettle soup, and potato curry. The lady came out of the kitchen shortly after taking our order with a sieve and a pair of tongs and went to collect the nettles for the soup – the same rascally nettles that stung my hand so badly a week ago! The nettle soup turned out to be relatively tasteless (and thankfully harmless) bright green sludge. The cornmeal on the other hand did have a suspicious bitter tang to it. We were starving so ate as much of it as we could tolerate.

Back at our guesthouse that evening we were served delicious dal bhat by our incredibly friendly host, who was full of endless smiles and giggles. Her little boy Changba gave us big hugs, and entertained us with his extravagant howling designed to get his mum’s attention.

Mum and little Changba, of ‘Tamang Home’ guesthouse:

As we ate dinner Changba decided it was time for some dancing. He put some music on, jumped up on the seats, and began wiggling his hips and flashing his belly. He made admirable yet hilarious attempts at the Bollywood shoulder thrust.

Little Changba dancing the night away:

On day 37 our plan was to head from Gatlang (2238m) over the Kurpudada pass (3710m) to Somdang (3258m) before going over the Pansang pass (3830m) to Tipling the next day.

Gatlang village (centre) with the Kurpudada pass beyond:

We had a triple breakfast and got a packed lunch of chappati and omelette for lunch as there would be no villages along the way. As we hiked up some stone steps leaving the village a well dressed young man came the other way holding a big bunch of rhododendron leaves with a few bright red flowers poking out. He looked just like he was off to propose to someone. On reflection we realised he was probably going to feed his goats. Ronnie concluded that he must love them.

Prayer flags marking Parvati Lake:

A shepherd ahead on the road:

The trail left the road and went up a stone stepped pathway through a beautiful rhododendron forrest, full of bright red rhododendrons, the trees looked like bouquets of red roses. Moss covered rocks, small streams, and waterfalls bordered the path. After two hours we hit the snowline and the landscape changed to a forrest of burnt pines.

Burnt pines with Langtang in the distance:

The trail continued along the road, which became increasingly covered in snow. After a little while we started sinking knee deep and then hip deep as we walked, and had to take turns to go first to compact the snow.

Sometimes it was easier just to crawl:

We battled on and eventually reached a small clearing where we stopped to eat our chappati and egg. From there we had two options: a) we could take a shortcut trail marked on our OsmAnd app up through a gully to the pass. Or b) follow the road – which, distance wise was about ten times as long. Given the huge depth of snow on the road so far we decided the trail couldn’t be much worse and chose option a). We quickly found ourselves in very deep snow, the path burried beneath. Almost every step had us sinking up to our hips. It took us about 30mins to cover the first 200m. Our movement pattern could be likened to doing the hurdles – a slow, freezing cold, wet, uphill style of hurdles. A couple of times I lost balance causing my second leg to step too close to my first, compacting the snow around it, leaving me totally stuck and having to dig myself out with my pole.

Starting out on the shortcut:

We again did ten minute stints each at the front as going second was much easier. As we trudged on upwards we could very occasionally see the stone steps of the trail peeping out above the snow.

Up, up, and up:

It took another hour to reach the pass, where a thick mist enveloped us. We then took shortcuts following the road down the other side, slipping and sliding our way through the snow, and tobogganing on our bums. After another hour we reached what we thought was Somdang, our destination: a freezing, desolate, snow covered ghost town which included some abandoned wooden huts each with about 3ft of snow on their roof, an old factory of some kind, a snowed in truck, a river and a rectangular wooden building. We panicked thinking the entire village was deserted. As we got closer we saw a couple of windows open on the rectangular wooden building, and some of the padlocks on the doors undone. We opened the doors and looked inside: noone. We called out ‘namaste’ again and again – noone came. We checked the OsmAnd app to make sure we were in the right place and with releif saw that Somdang village proper was a little further on up the river. We continued walking up alongside the river. When we reached Somdang village after a couple of minutes we found it was also buried in snow and totally deserted.

Somdang:

Two buildings had signs outside stating they were lodges but they were padlocked up. We went by building by building, calling ‘namaste’. Our hearts leaped when we saw the door to a small building ajar. The entire building was on a worrying tilt. As we got closer we saw that the door had simply been kicked in. Inside was a sitting area surrounding a wood burning stove. A very old rotting cabbage sat in the corner. We moved on. Ours were the only footprints we could see. We were getting increasingly nervous. We knew we could sleep in the tent if need be, but it would be a cold night with sub-zero temperatures. What we were most worried about was food. We had six packets of minute noodles, 2x 50g dairy milk bars, 300g pasta and a small packet of coconut cookies – about enough calories to get two people through 24 hours, if doing no exercise. To get to Tipling, the next village, we needed to cross another 3800m pass, which would likely take 8 – 10 hours in the snow, and to get back to Gatlang would be a 6 hour hike back over the snowy 3700m pass we’d just hauled ourselves over. Either way we would be hungry. We decided to return to the rectangular wooden building we’d seen further up the river that’d had its windows open and doors unlocked, as it looked the most inhabited. When we reached it we went inside the kitchen room which had a few benches and a fire pit in the corner, the windows were open but still we saw noone. We walked back over the river towards the abandoned truck and found a chicken pen off to the right – a sign of human life. Then we checked the last buildings – two large A-frame buildings surrounded by machinery. Once we’d navigated the snowy path to the front door we found it open, and as we arrived a Nepali man poked his head out, to our releif. He spoke no English. We asked if there was somewhere we could eat and sleep. He told us ‘lodge no’, and then said something in Nepali that sounded hopeful. He led us over to the wooden rectangular building and into the kitchen room we’d just been in. He lit a fire while we took off our sodden shoes and socks, and changed in to dry clothes. He made us cup after cup of sweet black tea which we sipped with immense gratitude. About an hour after we’d arrived a thunderstorm moved in and boomed overhead throwing snow down outside. We felt burdensome forcing ourselves on this man but at the same time were releived to have found shelter, and maybe food. After an hour or two a second man turned up, who also spoke no English. The four of us huddled by the fire in the smokey room as the storm took hold outside. After a further couple of hours another man named Suman Yoshi turned up, who spoke a little English. He told us that one of the lodges had been open yesterday, but the owner had left this morning. He was surprised we hadn’t met him on the trail. Suman advised us to return to Gatlang tomorrow. He told us that noone had been over the Pansang Pass to Tipling for two months due to the deep snow, and that it was ‘too risky for snow slipping’: avalanche. He told us that two tourists had died whilst crossing this pass in recent years due to ‘snow slipping’. We’d read that this pass should be avoided after recent snowfall due to the risk of avalanche. We decided that we were too tired, hungry, and cold to make a decision on what to do, and that we’d decide in the morning when we had fresh brains.

We later learnt that Suman worked for the hydro, and was managing the installation of a new hydro plant. He’d walked to Somdang two months ago when there’d been no snow. He was waiting for the snow to clear before returning to Gatlang. The other two men worked as miners. As night fell we watched as the two men prepared fried potatoes and dal bhat over the fire. It looked like a game of musical pots as they searched for the right temperatures. A small shelf above the fire held the basics: salt, sugar, oil, spice; housed in recycled cans, jars and bottles. We were amused to see the oil for the fried potatoes was housed in a coolant bottle. We wolfed down the food when it was served. Suman then walked us through the snow and ice over to the A-frame building where he showed us into a bedroom – the hydro worker’s quarters, which we gratefully accepted. The thick concrete walls felt secure and warm as the storm continued outside. We crawled into our sleeping bags and thanked our lucky stars we’d found these men here.

Day 38.
We set the alarm for 6am but both woke at about 4.30am fretting about what to do. The thunderstorm continued to rumble overhead. At 6am we summoned the courage to get out of our warm sleeping bags and walk to the front door to check the weather – it was cold and misty, thick snow was falling, and there was at least 5 fresh inches fallen overnight. We went back into our bags and decided we’d check the weather again in an hour to see if it was getting better or worse. We debated what we should do: if we attempted the Pansang Pass to Tipling we would just have enough food to get us there, although we’d arrived hungry. But if we couldn’t make it, we’d have no food left and nowhere to stay. Having been told it was unsafe to go over the Pansang Pass we were sure these men wouldn’t be too pleased to have us back for another night. We hated the idea of returning to Gatlang as the pass the previous day was so difficult and snowy, and returning to Gatlang would mean we’d have to either wait for the snow to melt and before again going over both passes, or we’d have to walk south along a busy dirt road for a week before heading west to bypass the passes and the Ruby Valley entirely. At 7am the snow had become lighter. Suman made us some sweet black tea for breakfast and told us that in one week the lodge and Pansang Pass would likely open, and the road from Gatlang would be cleared of snow by bulldozer to allow his company’s machinery to be brought in. We doubted the latter was even possible. He told us more snow was forecast for today. We decided the most sensible but most frustrating option would be to return to Gatlang, by going back over the Kurpudada Pass. We set off at 8am eating minute noodles for breakfast. We trudged through the snow, following our footprints from the day before.

Leaving Somdang looking back at the wooden building, the miner’s quarters:

The hydro plant, our home for the night:

Hiking out:

We somehow managed to recruit a dog for the hike, who appeared just as we were leaving Somdang. We named her Rose. Rose was an eager yet patient hiking partner. She spent spent a lot of time sitting in the snow, waiting for us as we changed clothing, or stopped to pee.

Rose:

The deeper snow started as as we climbed to the pass, frustrating and exhausting us. We huffed and puffed along, this time following the road rather than taking yesterday’s treacherous shortcut. It started snowing heavily, and it became difficult even to make out the road in amidst the endless white. We eventually reached the pass, marked by prayer flags, and continued down the other side through the burnt pines.

Finally we reached a clearing, below the snowline, and felt a flood of releif at being back within safe walking distance of food and shelter. We treated ourselves to dairy milk chocolate bars which tasted heavenly. We started back down the stone steps, through the red rhododendron forrest where we stopped by a little waterfall to refill Ronnie’s water bottle. I walked ahead and sat down on the steps, feeling a mixture of exhaustion, hunger, and releif. It was there, sitting on the stone steps that Ronnie plucked a red rhododendron from a nearby tree and with it asked me to marry him.

I said yes.

We cried a bit, then a lot, then carried on walking, starving, badly in need of a dal bhat. As we reached the first houses of Gatlang Rose took off in search of food. When we finally reached Tamang Home guesthouse the owner stood out the front waving at us. It felt like coming home. She hurried to the kitchen to make us tea and a pancake and then dal bhat while we washed with a cold bucket. We ate like we’d never eaten.

That night we celebrated with a quiet beer. Also staying at the lodge was a British-Australian man named Agata; and two Australian teachers, Marita and Nicola, with their guide Prem. They were all starting out on a 12 day hike that included The Tamang Heritage Trail followed by Langtang Valley. We decided we’d explore these areas for 12 days and wait for the snow to melt before reattempting the passes. And that’s how we ended up on a 12 day ‘mini break’ hiking in the wrong direction.

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

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