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Sunday, 21 July 2019

Dudhkunda-Pikey Cultural Trail

Dudhkunda-Pikey Cultural Trail 
by Maddy Fowler

The slow pace of the trek suited the slow pace of life in the Solukhumbu. Innumerable cups of tea—milk tea, Sherpa/Tibetan (salt) tea, hot lemon, fresh mint tea, local (barley flour) wine, local (wheat and corn) chhaang (beer), Mustang coffee (mostly alcohol)—made more plentiful by the Sherpa custom of topping up the cup after one had their first sip. Many heated arguments appeared to involve the host wanting to pour just one more cup and the local visitor vehemently refusing, but eventually relenting. I spent long afternoons, as the teahouses became more and more “off the beaten”, watching an endless procession of pots and kettles rotating across the open clay hearth in the kitchen (come dining, come bedroom). A kettle for tatopani (hot water), a pot to brew tea leaves, a kettle to make milk tea or Sherpa tea, a special kettle for heating nak milk, a pressure pot for bhat (rice), a pot for potatoes, tsampa porridge, dal (lentils), flasks for storing water and tea. 

Making Sherpa tea with Jengmu 

The aim of this second trip to Nepal was to see whether, by going solo, I could somehow get closer to the culture. I think this was possible, but I will always be a tourist, a Westerner, a foreigner—served first, and often separate to the family. The last ‘Westerner’ I saw was on the streets of Thamel, the tourist district of Kathmandu, at 6am as I embarked on the almost 9-hour drive to Patle, the gateway to the Solukhumbu. It was 15 days until I saw a foreigner again—in fact the single other foreign trekker seen on the entire trek (I glimpsed one Western man at each of the two monasteries we visited during the trek). Yet I was by no means the only guest at the teahouses. Locals were travelling, too, from nearby villages and from further afield, like the construction (road) workers from Kathmandu at Patle; a couple on a motorbike heading down the dirt road at Jhapre; a young man with a chainsaw, stopped for a drink and to drop off fresh vegetables (leafy greens and spring onions) at Pikey Base Camp; a man with two kukri (knives) who shared his homegrown and homemade popcorn with us; a man and teenage boy arriving in a hail storm at Jasmane Bhanjyang with a mule loaded with bottled water; a Buddhist driver, keen to share the news of a newly reincarnated lama; four Hindu women in colourful sari’s descending Pikey on route to Salleri; five Hindu men escaping wet weather with a cup of tea and noodle soup; four friends from Kathmandu, sporting beards and man-buns, Indian/American-educated, experiencing the lives of their rural countrymen; an 81-year-old man walking up a mountainside to visit his daughter; and four men wielding kukri’s matching pace with us on our ascent into the forest. 

Tea houses, Sherpa homes and yak kharka’s (pastures) were also resplendent with characters: a cow herder, turned teahouse owner, who loves his pug; a five-month old baby, rocked in a basket on its mother’s back, one day after arriving at the cow kharka where it would spend the next three months; an elderly teahouse owner, no longer up to the task; a teenage boy poring over our map of Jiri-Pikey-Everest; a four-year-old boy undertaking kung fu moves on the floor of the kitchen/dining/bedroom/cheese-drying business; a father and son in fierce competition over the carrom board on a wet afternoon; a new family living far above the village; an elderly man with two walking sticks, preparing to defend his crops against bears; a school boy flying over the high-jump bar, landing on his back on the overturned soil that served as a mat; young monks at the monastery going swimming in their pool on a hot afternoon; an elderly local woman who moved to the monastery to live out her days under their care; a boy in Class 4 doing his homework surrounded by his grandparents, aunts and uncles; a deaf woman and her sister discussing, in sign language, the stranger with an outrageous hairstyle in their midst at their yak kharka; a young Nepali man sporting a mohawk ponytail and red gumboots, clearing yak dung with his bare hands at the yak kharka; and seven young monks prostrating repeatedly on the monastery floor. 

Big moments: glimpses of snowy peaks on the ascent of Pikey I & II, especially Numbur (Shorong Yul Lha, 6,959m), a frequent—although often unseen—presence throughout the trek; accompanying Jengmu and her daughter to herd the naks home for the night; three women, alone at the yak kharka, unable to communicate, but enjoying sharing tea and a fire in the evening; going to the homes of Sherpa families; the over-the-top reception at Shree Pike School; punctuated small moments: eating wild strawberries; a woman grinding corn on a water mill; licking the honey from a rhododendron flower; seeing a Himalayan rat; smelling the high altitude rhododendron flower, used in puja; eating Sherpa stew; gifts of dried nak cheese; warm nak milk; escaping into a building during a heavy shower, only to find it occupied by students at the Buddhist school engrossed in a Bollywood soap; a Mars Bar on a gruelling ascent; a woman carrying a baby yak home, to encourage its mother to follow; a guide posing as a teahouse owner, when the owners are away; keeping a fire going outside with my porter as more rain threatened; taking in the sunrise across snowy peaks and waiting patiently for its first warm rays to hit the valley. 

Views of Numbur from Pikey 

Sunrise at Saharsbeni 

Of course, with the increasingly popular nickname of YakMad, it would be remiss of me to recount this trek without referral to the incumbent species. Arriving at one of Nima Sherpa’s summer nak kharka’s, Jengmu, his wife, greeted me. Many cups of Sherpa tea later, we joined Jengmu’s daughter and together ascended into the cloud to bring the herd of naks home for the night. Gentle ‘encouragement’, involving tossing rocks or dung at wayward animals gradually saw the naks safely down, although it wasn’t a quick process and I feel for Jengmu and her family who must do this daily in all weathers. After staying at this pasture for one month, the caravan will move to higher pastures on Pikey for June–August, before returning again in September to this intermediate plot. 

Jengmu and her daughter 

Nepal’s early monsoon does not meet my expectations. Above 3,000m is a damp cold, pervading the afternoons and evenings and leading to sweaty sleeping bags and condensation on windows come dawn. It does not rain every day; but clouds persistently result in foggy walking. The umbrella I bought following advice served its purpose, but all advice on leech repelling remedies went unheeded as I only sighted two of the critters. I am no stranger to thunderstorms, having grown-up in Queensland, yet the sound of thunder rolling around the foot hills of the mighty Himalaya is remarkable! The foliage changes with the altitude. First is forests of Himalayan Pine and pink rhododendron, beautiful on hot, sunny days and even more atmospheric on damp, foggy days. Above this is a band of the white Himalayan rhododendron and higher still is the low-growing, aromatic rhododendron, used for puja, made stumpy by their exposure to strong winds on the barren hilltops. For these altitudes are not classed as ‘peaks’ a term reserved for only those summits which see year-round snow, usually above 6,000m. 

Himalayan Pine

The high-altitude rhododendron flowers used for puja 

Completing this route could take far fewer days, and at times the waiting is frustrating. I should have brought more books. One was definitely not enough, although it has given birth to this literary exploit—a last resort. To be a lone ‘Westerner’, unable to communicate for such a long time, is challenging and uncomfortable, but is also a hugely privileged and rewarding experience. It would never have been possible without Sherpa Bros., and my guide, Babu Sherpa. It is a rare occurrence for a trekker to have the opportunity to visit the home of their guide. Babu escorted me to not only his home, but also the home of Sherpa Bros., Loding. The 2015 earthquake destroyed the house of Babu and his father, and it was only recently, after four years, that his father has been able to move in to his partly completed new house. Babu showed me the land that he owned and painted a vivid picture of the guest house he hopes to open on it one day. The home of Furba and Pemba Sherpa was also damaged in the quake. After three years living in another house in the village, they returned one year ago to a temporary building adjacent to the reconstruction site of their home. Loding is a lush and fertile village, sprawled across both hillsides of a steep valley. The produce grown ensures that fresh, just-picked ingredients make up many meals—an organic lifestyle much older than Western fads. 

My guide, Babu Sherpa 

Babu's father's new house high above Loding
‘Roads built in the Solukhumbu two years ago are now dirt tracks zigzagging through the valleys and hills, connecting Sherpa villages. These new networks bring a plethora of benefits to locals, many of whom seek to take advantage of increased traffic by establishing tea houses on route. But these roads will undoubtedly make the region less attractive to foreign tourists. Leaving the tea houses behind, we ascended through the forest above the Mopung Valley, beginning the three-day trek to Dudh Kund. Little did I know, nine hours later I’d be doing a ‘bush wee’ on a hillside in horizontal sleet (needs must) and fearing my tent might collapse under the weight of the snow. After the snowstorm passed, I emerged into a magical world.  

View of Numbur after the storm 

Camping at the Tosa nak kharka 

That magical evening was the exception to the rhythm of the Dudh Kund trail. Early mornings were crisp and clear, yet by mid-morning the monsoon brought cloud and fog to high altitudes. Whether it heralded rain or not, our arrival at camp each day occurred with no perception of the mountains which must surround us in their grandeur. Upon reaching Dudh Kund in the typical fog a moonscape confronted me. The fine, powdery silt—which gives the lake its name, Milk Lake—formed steep dunes and huge boulders loomed out of the misty shadows. Tide lines attested to the lakes’ low levels during the early monsoon, while other areas of cracking mudflats were reminiscent of some ocean shores. 

Arriving at Dudh Kund in the cloud 

Babu roused me at 6pm, “Maddy, you can see the lake.” I emerged, camera in hand, and quickly started towards a short knoll to get the best views. I continued above the knoll in an effort to photograph the tents, dwarfed by a massive face of black rock. Quite unexpectedly, I had reached a sheer escarpment of loose, crumbling rock, the edge of a glacier—the Dudh Kund Glacier. While Numbur was still shrouded in cloud, the views of Dudh Kund, the glacier, Kalo Pokhari (Black Lake) and down the valley from which we had come were astounding. It is these unanticipated views that make the long afternoon waits worthwhile. As Alastair Humphreys said ‘I like my tourism to be solitary, unexpected and with a sense of fortunate discovery’. 

Looking down the Dudh Kund Glacier

The top of the Dudh Kund Glacier on Numbur 

Of all the places I have been in Nepal, it is at Dudh Kund that I have most keenly felt the volatile nature of the ground. Boulders perched on precipices, receding glaciers and scree slopes are all visual signs, mirrored in the dark by rock and ice falls shaking the night. As Babu has surmised, within a few decades the fragile cusp of dune separating Dudh Kund from the Dudh Kund Glacier will collapse, forever changing the landscape.  

The devastation felt by the unfulfilled promise of WIFI is disproportionate to its needs. The slow march back to civilisation comes with a ‘real’ bed, variety menu and a form of indoor toilet at the first tea house, but the electricity which is down meant no WIFI. And so it continued, to a tea house with lukewarm solar shower and electricity—with a TV set to a Korean channel. But still, no WIFI. Finally, the creature comforts of Kathmandu were in sight. 

Final night of the trek at Phaplu