This section of the trek would take us along the Guerilla Trek through Dhorpatan Hunting Reserve, an area that was formerly a Maoist stronghold, and that is now famous for blue sheep and yarsagumba. Blue sheep, which are not actually sheep, nor blue, can be hunted in this area for huge fees. Yarsagumba is a caterpillar fungus that can be found in meadows above 3000m, and that is sold to the Chinese for ever increasing prices as an aphrodisiac. Thousands of Nepali descend on the mountains from the beginning of May each year to search for yarsagumba, which is often their main source of income. They stay for months on end in large encampments, in rudimentary tents and shelters.
We knew little about this section other than it was high, remote, beautiful, and rarely visited by tourists. The only foreigner we saw was a French man who we found behind an enormous camera in one of the yarsagumba camps, scouting for a documentary.
Day 74 was hard work. We spent the day walking in the heat and humidity down a dirt road with jeeps, trucks, buses, cars and tractors kicking up clouds of dust around us. The valley we walked along was a beautiful green, and hummed with insects.
The heat quickly wore us down. We relied on Steven Fry’s friendly and melodic voice on his Great Leap Years podcast to provide the entertainment we needed to reach Darbang.
In Darbang we were shown to a strange spare room in the corner of a half constructed bank, which had a terrible pooey pong about it. With aching bodies and rain clouds coming in we took it, too tired to look for something else.
Day 75 was equally hard work. We started with a sweaty climb to the beautiful village of Dharapani, which was filled with orange and white mudbrick houses and surrounded by green terraces.
Wheat was in full harvest, and tarps covered in grains littered the ground, drying in the sun. My feet were giving me grief and felt unusually sore. We had to stop every hour or so to take the weight off and give them a breather.
The day finished with a 45 minute thigh burning climb to ‘Raj Hotel’, a small homestay in Mareni. The longer days were starting to take their toll and that evening we caught ourselves lapsing back into our old habits of spending ridiculous amounts of time simply staring at the wall with exhaustion.
Raj hotel:Day 76 started with a steep 1000m
climb to Jalja La (3400m) through a pink and purple rhododendron forrest.
My legs and feet were still giving me grief, they felt strange and painful, almost like they weren’t getting enough oxygen. We again had to rest regularly to get some releif.
The views from Jalja La were framed by pink, red, and purple rhododendrons.
From the pass we walked through a clearing full of yellow wildflowers and lady birds to reach a river where we cooked a packet of ramen that we’d bought in Tatopani a few days earlier. It was firey hot and turned our lips orange.
The next three hours were probably the hardest of the entire trip for me. The trail was easy, a gradual downhill, but my legs and feet were in total agony. I couldn’t work out what was going wrong. I couldn’t remember ever having legs this painful before. It was the first time I’d ever felt like I might not make it to the next town. After many many rest breaks and a few tears, we finally hobbled into Chenntung where we found Hotel Satkur, a beautiful little mud cottage that was impeccably clean and tidy and run by a lovely older couple who were incredibly warm and gentle. They sat us down on a yak skin rug and made us tea, then showed us to a mud floored room that had a little door opening out onto their paddock.
I spent the rest of the afternoon in bed under two thick blankets, feeling sorry for myself.
On day 77 we had Tibetan tsampa for breakfast, a kind of porridge made from roasted barley flour mixed with yak butter tea. It tasted a lot like cookie dough, delicious.
Leaving Hotel Satkur:
I loosened my waist strap before we set out, and bingo! My legs felt normal again. I felt stupid for not having tried this sooner. All I can assume is that I’d had it so tight it was somehow affecting my circulation… What a muppet I am.
Passing through Dhorpatan valley and into the rhododendron filled hills beyond:
That afternoon we came across a few mud houses just before the start of the long climb to Thakur.
We decided to call it a day. We found a lady in the doorway of one of the houses who agreed to cook us dal bhat for dinner.
Down by the creek below her house we found a beautiful campsite, surrounded by pink rhododendrons.
On day 78 we woke up to a freezing morning. Everything was frozen: the fly, the inner, the clothes we’d washed and hung the night before. Rigour mortis had begun in my socks, which were able to stand up on their own.
Breakfast stop before starting the climb:
We headed up the hill through pink, then purple rhododendrons. As we climbed higher and higher the landscape became more and more barren.
At around 4000m we crossed a pass which allowed us spectacular views over into the next valley and peaks beyond.
We reached Thakur that afternoon where we stayed with a lady called Sapana, along with her two grandsons who we hung out with for most of the afternoon. While we lay in a paddock having a nap they came and abruptly sat right in front of us, quiet and staring. We started a conversation in Nepali, asking them questions using our phrasebook, which quickly turned into a Nepali lesson.
We showed them our old Annapurna map and pretended to fly and land helicopters and planes between the helicopter pads and airports for a while before they got bored and began chasing each other around the field with the map, mostly with their bare bums hanging out as both their trousers had lost the elastic in the waist band. They clearly loved each other so much, it was very sweet. A little while later they ran off up the hill and came back with two bunches of purples rhododendron flowers for us.
We had some noodles for breakfast and bought another 24 packets to add to our collection, as we would be camping in a few days.
Breakfast with Sapana and the boys:
When we reached the next town Pelma we passed a man from Kathmandu who spoke English and told us that the local hotel was closed as everyone had gone into the mountains to collect yarsagumba. Not even a restaurant was open. He kindly offered for us to stay with his family. He told us the next village Tatopani had a hotel but it was ‘80% likely’ that they’d also left for yarsagumba. We weren’t ready to stop for the night so decided we’d try Tatopani. We headed down to a small shop to stock up on yet more noodles – some for lunch and some extra for dinner that night in case the hotel in Tatopani wasn’t open. We’d now reached peak noodle – a total of 32 packets; the menu was looking grim. We also bought some eggs which we tried to poach in noodle broth for lunch. This seemed like a good idea until in went an egg that was off…. We hurriedly scooped it out as best we could. Should be fine right?
In the afternoon we went the wrong way to Tatopani. We were pointed to a trail on the other side of the valley, but when we reached it, we were told by an older lady that it was way too ‘o-kalo’ and ‘gah-hro’ – steep and dangerous. After much deliberation we decided to have a look at it and see how bad it was. The lady reluctantly showed us to the start of the trail. Man was it sketchy. There was a shear drop on one side down many hundreds of metres to the river below. At one point the trail became little more than about 10cm wide. I had a bit of a panick attack and convinced myself I was going to trip and go face first off the cliff. After a lot of deep breathing and distraction tactics we reached the next section where I was horrified to find the trail went down the side of the cliff. I went on my bum.
The cliff trail we came down:
We reached Tatopani, which consisted of only two houses at around 4pm. A lady agreed to let us camp in her front yard and feed us dal bhat that night. We spent the afternoon soaking and washing at the nearby hot springs – a tap and a small concrete pool. We ate our dal bhat in her kitchen which had a dirt floor covered in reed mats with a fire pit in the middle. There was no electricity so little shards of lit wood were placed on a mantel causing fire light to dance round the walls.
Leaving our homestay:
We hiked up a ways then along through the villages of Him and Guibang, then a steep 1000m climb through pink rhododendrons to reach Dhule (3400m).
Dhule was a hive of activity with many groups of Nepalis on their way into the mountains for yarsagumba. There were a number of guesthouses full of people, bags of camping equipment, and speakers with Nepali music pumping. Donkeys and horses littered the surrounding hills. It felt like a festival.
We spent the afternoon napping in the sun then sitting on a little balcony watching a courageous chicken jump between the rooftops.
Balcony beers with 007 in the background:
On day 81 we woke exhausted. The night had been filled with the sound of horses neighing, people shouting, and donkey bells ringing. At one point someone poked a torch through the gap in the roof in our room that woke us sending blazing light in our faces. Before we left we were called to assist a young man who’d cut a big gash in his hand whilst chopping wood. We played doctor as best we could, slathering it in Betadine and dressings, and suggested he go to the local health post for stitches.
We were accompanied by a number of Nepalis as we made our way higher into the mountains. The wealthy rode horses whilst others had a stack of belongings loaded into a basket strapped to their head.
We reached Sen Khola campsite and made noodles for lunch before climbing a steep uphill to reach Pupal Phedi, the first yarsagumba encampment, full of colourful tents.
We continued up and across a snowy Panidal La pass (4500m). Ronnie was so intent on getting a photo of the reflections in this frozen creek that he ended up falling in up to his knees into the icy water beneath, much to my amusement. What a plonker.
We reached Purbang (4000m), an abandoned yarsagumba encampment, at 4pm after 7 hours of walking. It looked a bit like the apocalypse; rubbish and debris littered the ground, and an old decrepit Ferris wheel stood eerily at its centre.
We set up camp and had yet more noodles for dinner.
Day 82 was a big day – 24km, 500m ascent, 2500m descent, and Jang La pass (4500m). Our boots were frozen solid when we woke up, and took a long time to defrost before we could get them on. We reached Jang La pass (4500m) after two hours. Beautiful purple wildflowers covered the ground.
Reaching Jang La:
We tobogganed on our bums down the other side:
Passing more purple wildflowers:
After still more noodles for lunch we somehow managed to navigate our way through a leafy forrest to Dunai, relying solely on our 7 year old trail notes as the trail wasn’t marked on our maps. We limped into town feeling drunk with fatigue, miserable and grumpy, and collapsed into a basic room at The Blue Sheep Inn.
Dunai marked the beginning of Dolpo district, and the start of the trail that would take us to Phoksundo Lake, said to be the most beautiful lake in Nepal.
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