In every journey there is some sense of pilgrimage. The journey is both physical, with its hardships and trials, and metaphorical where we delve into a deeper self. To journey we have to leave the comforts of home and break from familiar routine, exposing ourselves to challenges and stimulation. In October 2015 I trekked to Kanchenjunga North Base Camp with my two sons Sam and William who are both in their mid thirties. Afterwards I read more about Tibetan philosophy, particularly the Tantric form of Buddhism initiated by Padmasambhava in the eighth century. Tantra is Sanskrit for thread or that which joins together. Practitioners aim to overcome the sense of separation that stems from a belief in the autonomous self. What fascinated me is the extent to which Tantric philosophy relates to the land. Padmasambhava described hidden idyllic lands which could only be reached through intense meditation and pilgrimage. These places, or beyul, are seen as both real and metaphorical, entered through increasingly secret layers, and have been sought by yogis and lamas ever since.
I am not a Buddhist, but there is something in this which resonates with me, something about overcoming some of that separation between myself and the land. This is not just for inner reasons but also because I firmly believe that this present gulf in our society between people and land is the cause of so much of our increasing environmental catastrophe. We have lost the spiritual connection, the thread which binds us to our source and sustenance, and it is hurting. At the same time, I also wanted to slide a hand down that family thread towards my two sons to find a closer connection.
Our tea-house trek was organised very efficiently by Saugat and Pradeep in Kathmandu, who engaged a guide and porter. They had been very good to deal with through their lovely website www.kanchenjungatrek.com. We flew from Kathmandu to Baradnapur in the far south east and from there were taken on a crazy eight hour jeep ride to Taplejung high on a ridge at the end of the road. Once we left the plains the route was nothing less than 400 kms of continuous tight bends.
Finally, after all the preparation and uncertainties of travel, we find ourselves walking down the single narrow street of Taplejung, with its medieval press of shops, and heading out on our trek. I don’t think any of us feel certain we will reach the ultimate base camp destination. For now our goal is Ghunsa, an administrative village about 2/3rds of the way up. To start with we have to manage a steep drop of nearly 1000m to the valley floor, hardly the most encouraging way to begin! I am worried about wearing my knees out straight away and make good use of two walking poles. None of us have done enough training and this start is a bit of a shock to our systems. At Mitlung we hang out on a long new swing bridge over the raging Tamur river, similarly suspended between past and the unknown trail ahead. In the newly finished tea house I hear banging while I wash — William bumped his head on a low lintel so they simply removed it. A Nepalese traveller stubs his fag out on the recently painted table — an hour later it is repainted.
Our guide and porter are both called Narayan so the smaller guide becomes Narayan Bai (little) and the porter Narayan Dai (big). Sam loves to draw and once started is immediately surrounded by an admiring crowd of kids. Narayan Bai talks about the trail ahead — it is “Nepalese flat” which means lots of ups and downs. He sings a Sherpa song ‘reston piriri’ sometimes up, sometimes down. At one point, high on the hillside, the narrow path comes around a corner straight into a huge yellow digger, slowly rusting while it waits for fuel. The newly cut track descends to Siwan where police check our permits. Sam and William spot a pamplemousse tree with big round fruit like we used to love in Tahiti, and soon we are devouring its welcome pink freshness. We climb high again to Tawa where we have lunch. Nearby there is a wedding and we pass many young people incongruously dressed up in smart clothes, lipstick and hair gel. It is hot and later Sam spots a walled off pool on a side stream way below a swing bridge, so we scramble down for a welcome swim. Soon after we arrive in Chirwa, a small riverside village squeezed between huge boulders. After the usual dal bhat dinner we are asleep on our plank beds by 830pm.
It rained in the night and remains humid while we walk past rice paddies and arrowroot plantations. The crop gets good money so sadly rice is removed to grow it. We pass large open ovens where it is dried. In Taplethok there is another police check, then we cross to the right bank of the river and onto a lovely path made from large stone paving slabs. It meanders under a canopy of alder past arrowroot bushes, before climbing to Phabiyung where we have a lunch of noodles. Later we take a short cut below Lelep dropping down to the confluence of the Tamur and Ghunsa rivers. We cross the Tamur and follow the Ghunsa north-eastwards. It is too far to Amjilosa so we stop early at Sukethum. William is not well and, after removing a fat leech from his ankle, goes straight to bed to kill a fever. Sam does yoga to help a strained back and I wander down to the river where there is an old swing bridge. After dinner Sam and I try tongba the local mildly alcoholic drink made from fermented millet and hot water. It is sucked through a wooden straw from a large wooden jug. We are persuaded to eat ‘nepalese style’ with our hands.
More rain makes us worried about leeches, Sam in particular, especially after one dropped onto his leg in the toilet. We call this next leg ‘the valley of the leeches’ and end up stopping often to scrape them off our boots before they can get stuck in. Poor William is struggling with diarrhoea. The path criss-crosses the river on new bridges. Two years ago when Narayan Bai last came here there were only the rusty old ones. Deep in the gorge the narrow path is built up against cliffs while the river rages alongside — there would be no surviving if you fell in here. We stop for lunch in a small village but there is no-one around so we eat dry packet noodles. William disappears to the toilet. Later we are tired but the path is unrelenting and veers up steeply until it eventually reaches the hill-side grazing village of Amjilosa. An old lady pulls plastic rice sacks apart and twists it into rope. William is better and eats one of the best dal bhats yet — chhurpi yak cheeses hang from the ceiling.
The path climbs out of the village but soon starts on a long descent back down to the river. We pass a large group of Germans who have over 30 porters carrying all their gear. I ask the leader to try and stop the porters from throwing their rubbish on the ground. The litter on the trail is appalling and a sad reflection on the contemporary Nepali attitude to the environment. If they want more tourists here they will have to stop this disgusting habit. Another long steep climb leads to Gyabla where we stop for the night. The tea houses are still being built by an itinerant team of carpenters. The larch or hemlock planks are cut by a team of sawmillers in pit mills in the forest, one man above one below, working the long tapering handsaw. On the grass at Gyabla the carpenters work these rough planks with hand planes, surrounded by an enormous pile of shavings. We are becoming more relaxed, easing into the nomadic rhythms of walking, and sit in the warm afternoon sun discussing families and children, listening to the swish of wood shavings and munching on delicious apples from a nearby tree. We are physically better and William is “glad to have his body back.”
For the first time the morning air is clear and we are excited to get our first glimpse of a real snow topped mountain up the valley. Narayan Bai is dismissive — that is just a “peak”! A mountain has to be over at least 6000m. William and I swap the lead, he easing downhill to protect his knee but striding ahead up hill. I am going well and loving it. The vegetation is changing, now we are amongst conifers and rhododendrons, with ferns and lichen hanging in curtains. We pass a “pig gate” through which no pork can pass as we enter Tibetan culture. Phole is a lovely alpine Tibetan village with low blackened houses and dzo, or yak/cow cross cattle, lying around. Every house has a line of prayer flags fluttering in the wind. We pass a mill race leading to a water wheel that turns a prayer wheel — mechanised prayer that leaves people free to do other things! Finally we reach Ghunsa, a larger version of Phole. We lie in the sun and stretch and Sam draws while we wait for a wonderful lunch of macaroni (yak) cheese. There is a satellite phone and the outside world crashes in on us with the news that a a savage hurricane has blitzed Long Island in the Bahamas where William lives. For now the island is shut off and William has to wait to hear more but his house is ok. We rush off to have a hot shower! Ghunsa is ringed by high precipitous “peaks” and as soon as the sun disappears behind them the temperature plummets.
A heavy frost. When we get up in the night to pee there is no moon but the starlight is so bright we can see clearly. We start early while the shadows in the valley are still dark. Crossing a side stream I hop onto a boulder which I can’t see is covered in a thin film of clear ice. Feet in the air I spin into the stream in what Sam described as the perfect Captain Haddock sprawl. Narayan Dai hoots with laughter for ages. Narayan Bai stands in the freezing water helping each of us cross the log bridge which is also ice-rimed. We hurry up the valley until we come to a patch of sunlight where I can change. The path rises through the last of the trees until we come to a moraine at the end of a glacier falling from the amazing Mount Jannu. She is like a vast eagle, wings outspread, her sheer northern face in shadow but glowing a warm honey colour under the ice. Kambuchen is another group of low black Tibetan houses on a meadow by a river.
We stay with a brother and sister couple who run the best of all the tea houses we stayed in. The menu included the amazing choices of spaghetti bolognese or macaroni cheese. My room has paper flowers and old photos of the area.
As we leave the owner of the tea house gives me his business card. The path follows the valley which then opens out onto more grassy meadows between rocky moraine stretches. As we walk we gaze in awe at the slowly unfolding line of mountains, their icy peaks glistening in the harsh sunlight. We pass some gravel flats of rivers coming down from the Tibetan border not far to the north, and arrive at Lonak, our last village, originally built for summer grazing. At first it seems idyllic with groups of porters lying around in the sunshine. But savage cold creeps in the moment the sun disappears. The buildings are rudimentary: Sam describes them as fences with roofs. Ours has the cookhouse right next to our room and smoke drifts over and through the wall. William’s free diving career requires perfect lungs and he finally has to politely demand they put the fire out. There are no toilets which is outrageous given the 50 or so people staying here. We make use of the Germans’ loo tent over a hole.
As we set off clouds roll up the valley heralding a weather change. We were so lucky that it all cleared just when we needed it. The steep rocky descents on ball-bearing stones are hard and slippery. Both my and William’s left knee is overworked after yesterday and complaining. Sam and I are feeling a cold coming on which immediately affects our uphill performance. It makes us appreciate how hard it must have been for William with his recurring diarrhoea. Below the moraine the steepness eases and it is a pleasant walk through larch and rhododendrons. But Ghunsa is not the same this time round — there is no warm sun with thick cloud hanging below the mountains. We curl up in our beds trying to get warm.
We decide to take another day off for damage control while it rains. We had hoped to return by a different route crossing the Sele-le pass after Ghunsa into another valley system further east. But this rain will be falling as snow up there and in the mist there will be no views. The mountains are directing us back down the way we came up. We decide to make a side trip up to a temple on Pathibara peak. Narayan Bai has difficulty with our changing plans saying Nepalese like to have a plan and stick to it. This is ironic given they are a mountain people and, as he says repeatedly, mountains are unpredictable like women. But we love our Narayans — Bai is so caring, always asking us how we are, and Dai has an impish sense of humour. We wash clothes and William finally makes contact with the Bahamas.
It is still cloudy and in the gaps we see snow higher up and are glad not to be up there. We farewell the lovely Tibetan couple and Gunga and set off down. At Phole we look around the gompa which is in a much better state than the one at Ghunsa: polished floor boards and a riot of colour. Narayan Bai shows us an array of 108 candle lights, a number sacred to Buddhists. William says no there are only 104 in a 13 x 8 grid but Narayan won’t believe him. We visit the lovely weaving lady and William buys some mats. She invites us into her beautiful old house for tea. She also gives us cubes of chhurpi yak cheese to chew as we walk, but we find them tasteless like rind. It is only 1230 when we arrive at Gyabla but we have plenty of time so we stop. The carpenters and their shavings have disappeared. We climb up to the village high above the teahouse and gaze down the valley. There is another group of trekkers from the same company and we have a singing and dancing party along with lots oftongba.
In a long day we push right past Amjilosa, where we stop for lunch, on down the gorge to Lelep above the confluence of the Ghunsa and Tamur rivers. Loud thunderclaps echo around the hills as we enter leech valley, but only a few large drops fall and Sam didn’t need to wrap up against the leeches. William spots a troupe of monkeys falling around in the trees on the other side of the river. Lelep is a larger village spread out among fields of brilliant green millet and buckwheat with commanding views back up the two valleys. Tamarillo (tree tomato) and guava trees surround our tea house.
We breakfast in a lovely courtyard under a bougainvillea tree that could be in Corsica or Italy. A young girl shells a large pile of arrowroot before, we are assured, going off to school. The walk down the valley to Taplehok is one of the prettiest we have seen. The carefully paved path sets off from under an arched bower of flowering creepers, and passes colourful houses and terraced paddies. After lunch at Taplehok, we follow a narrower, rougher track to Chirwa.
William starts off as porter carrying our large bag but after ten minutes uphill respectfully hands it back to Narayan Dai. Not long after we leave our outward path and fork left, climbing up the east side of the valley. Our goal is the solitary high peak to our left called Pathibhara where there is a Hindu temple and great views back to Kanchenjunga, but it is a daunting 2500 metres above us. We contour along the valley through a network of villages and sometimes on a rough jeep track. We are getting hungry but nobody wants to cook us lunch. Finally Narayan Bai persuades a lone woman to do this — she lives surrounded by an idyllic, almost English, flower garden shared with cats, rabbits, bees, goats and buffalo. It takes a while for her to light her fire and cook the rice but we are happy to sit in the sun nibbling soy beans from their pods. Later as we walk the rough road around to Mayam heavy black clouds gather above us and and rain pours on the upper slopes. In the distance we can see Taplejung and below us the valley we walked up.
A long unrelenting climb straight up the steep side of the valley. Only noodle soup for breakfast and 1500m to go to lunch! There is no direct path and Narayan Bai often stops to ask locals the way. William reads off the percentage of the climb we have done from his altimeter. Higher up we leave the scattered houses and enter forest. Sometime the path is a narrow gut eroded deep into the hillside, its surface hard greasy clay. Eventually it deteriorates into meandering animal tracks but we have seen a village over to the right on the ridge which we head for. Here we join the trail to the temple and suddenly we are amongst crowds of pilgrims, often in family groups. Stalls are full of trinkets and junk food. We follow the steep rocky steps up to Phedi where we stop for the night. It is a quite different experience being amongst so many people, especially as we are the only foreigners. Massive clouds billow below us. At night a kid goat, destined for sacrifice, bleats and we all three dream of freeing it.
We get up at 4am so that we can arrive on the top in time to see the dawn. It is a gut-busting climb of 550 metres on an empty stomach in the dark up steep steps. We thread through the stream of people which seems to have been going all night. When we finally get to the top the eastern horizon is a band of light and we watch it slowly expand. Again we are very lucky with the weather as all the clouds have gone. We can see the full Kanchenjunga massif and realise how much higher it is than anything else. Over to the left Makalu catches the pink sun before we do – and is that the tip of Everest behind it? It is a wonderful finale to see all this in a way we never had from down below. We trace our route through the valleys all the way round the back of Kanchenjunga.
Below us in the temple compound very different rites are occurring, including the sacrifice of young goats which we find very distasteful. William unties one kid and, in a valiant but futile bid, tries to lead it to safety. He is caught at the gate by Narayan Bai who sternly leads it back. Our knees are hardened now and survive the demanding descent to Phedi and a welcome breakfast. Then it is a long walk out along the ridge and finally back to Taplejung. The last steep descent from the nascent runway at Suketar is just too much for my knee and I hobble home, William not much better, 13 hours after starting. But we are elated to have made it and celebrate with hot showers and a dinner of anything but dal bhat! I discovered later that I shed 7 kg and Sam and William lost about 5kg!
Rebecca Solnit wrote: “I like walking because it is slow, and I suspect that the mind, like the feet, works at about three miles an hour.” For 18 days we left behind the physical speed of cars and the relentless pace of digital communication (and even the speed of coffee!). Our days were measured by the rhythm of footfall and our nights by epic dreams. Our eyes proceeded our feet rock by rock, and when we stopped they soared to the impossibly high peaks around us. Our ears were filled with the roar of the river, now near, now far — or higher up with the weight of mountain silence. Sam talked of the right — and rite — of passage, of the nomadic existence of inbetween-ness, the myriad connections that are denied by our compartmentalised urban lives. We are used to human scale landscapes, which are physically accessible. But the Himalayas’ ice-fluted pinnacles so far above defy human passage. They are the realm of gods and goddesses . . . and our wildest imaginations. They allow us to dream and fill our lives with the magic so lacking in cities. They touched our spirit and nothing will ever be the same again.