Thursday, September 29, 2011


So we had arrived in Ghunsa, somewhat shaken and nerves a little frayed. As we inspected the school and health post buildings (which had come through ok) we heard and saw across the valley another massive rock fall above the Foley to Ghunsa track. Hurtling boulders, trees snapped like matchsticks, ringing silence. Ghunsa largely avoided too much earthquake damage, some non structural stone walls fell down as did a couple of wooden houses that strayed from the time honoured rectangular design.

Ghunsa with waterfalls behind

Minor damage to the health post - but building badly shaken up

Fresh slip and rockfall in progress!
In Ghunsa there was finally a working phone, though only for several hours a day (the problem with solar in the monsoon) and villagers from around the place were queueing to check on family in the wider district. We got a quick message through to the trekking agency which we hoped would be forwarded through our families to let them know we are ok. We debated whether the earthquake would have made the NZ news and decided that it was unlikely during the excitement of the Rugby World Cup.

Not sure what Penny was thinking aboutt
 Penny then proceeded to get stuck into teaching the healthcare worker Tenzin and midwife Lamu some new skills.Tenzin had previously learnt how to put casts on fractures and we managed to put this to the test with a little boy we found in a potato field with a suspected broken foot. His mother had fallen on him during the earthquake, the only quake casualty we found, although we were told there were at least 20 yak deaths up the valley.
Penny might write about the rest of her teaching sometime, but from what I gathered it was focused on the childbirth and early childhood areas. She found a willing audience as a village women had died of complications during the past year (this after the previous KSP team were assured this never happened ). The baby survived 6 months feed largely on chang.

Potato Field Medicine

Tenzin and family at the cooking fire
 While Penny was teaching GB and I amused ourselves with a couple of daytrips. The first was to Dudh Pokhari (a lake) east of Ghunsa. An easy trail (hang a left where the water race drops into the hydro scheme pipe) leads up valley following old lateral moraines  for about 3 hours to the lower of the lakes shown on the map. As it was misty the highlight was probably the tea stop in the Yak herders hut. Like many in the valley this family lived a simple life but were doing ok for themselves. They made cheese and yak butter to sell in Taplejung and had sufficent money to educate their children. Two of their sons were trainee monks down in Dharamsala. We found plenty of other people who had studied in Kathmandu or India.

Dudh Pokhari
 The second day trip was more ambitious, an attempt to shortcut west to the Nango La, the pass between Foley and Olangchungola. We left early and headed up to a lookout point decorated with prayer flags. It was a clearish morning and we could even see some parts of mountains (in these mists lie 7000 metre monsters). We kept on following our noses upwards past a couple of pretty lakes. At this stage I took my eye off the ball a little and climbed a small peak (5267) which only served to freak GB out and prevent further exploration of more likely routes. This chunk of mountain is definitely worth a look and is free of rockfall. The views on a clear day would be amazing, unfortunately for us they quickly deteriorated into thick mist. Other highlights though before I forget were the musk deer, blue sheep and various quail like birds, pretty cool to see some wildlife.

Himalayan Herbfields

Towards the end of our stay in Ghunsa we thought we would head up valley to possibly reach the north base camp for Kanchenjunga (the 3rd highest mountain in the world). Penny was able to come too as Tenzin was intending to be out of town for a couple of days. In the event we only got as far as Kambachen, half a day up valley, before we heard that a missing bridge was going to prevent us going much further. The trail to Kambachen was easy apart from a very nasty slip on the true right opposite the terminal moraine of the Jannu glacier. This slip which starts 1000 meters or so up comes down in three chutes, a triple barrelled shotgun. Kambachen itself has been devastated by the earthquake, of twenty dwellings there was only one I  would have slept in.

Sign pointing to broken bridge

Don't build your house in a yak field

 We stayed in Kambachen for an afternoon and morning hoping to get a glimpse of the "Wall of Shadows", the famous north face of Jannu which rises another few thousand metres up behind the bitter chilly mists of Kambachen. No luck there but our stay wasn't all bad, we had good company including the yak herders son back from study in Bangalore for the Desai festival and most surprisingly great food. The Dahl Baaht was embellished by yak curd (yoghurt) and a water cress like vegetable, yummy, while the milk tea was the hottest sweetest creamiest concoction you could imagine ... like it had just been churned by a practised yak herder in a small hut high in the Himalayas!

Making butter

Khe Sahn with Blue Sheep horns

GB eyes up the bad slip

 So that's about that, tune in next time for the return journey. Penny, GB and Jamie traverse the Mirgin La in sleet, have a clear day at Kanchenjunga South base camp and make it safely back to Taplejung (hopefully).

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Taplejung to Ghunsa: Shaky journey

Hello again, it has been a while. I am posting this from the vicinity of Mamankhe where Penny and I are slowly emerging from the wilds of Eastern Nepal. We are still two days solid walk from Taplejung but can already taste the samosas and momos, and feel the hard seats on the bones of our buttocks as once there we have over 24 hours of bussing to meet the Stewart family in Nepal. Our journey has been a memorable one, not as delightful as some, but yeah memorable. This is the first installment, how we got there as it were...thanks for the messages about the earthquake, as you can read below we were a little lucky.

Mamankhe - Still some earthquake damage
 As previously blogged we arrived in Taplejung, feeling quite fortuitous, sometime before noon one day. Taplejung is a big town, the district centre of a largely remote mountainous area, its narrow streets hum with desperate commerce. We ate momos in a tidy restaurant enjoying the surprise wifi.
Penny has been acquainting herself with the Nepali health system: a quick tour of Patan hospital, a weeks work in Ilam and now a glance at Taplejung. The busy doctor was running the whole hospital by himself, 30 beds and a throng of out patients. Penny had to be physically restrained from flinging herself into the fray!

Taplejung hospital

The Limbu trail starts from Taplejung and contours well above the Tamur valley floor (the other and quicker way up valley). The idea of the Limbu trail is to showcase the local Limbu culture which seems to consist of harvesting cardamon and drinking Tongba. The former is a lucrative cash crop which now dominates the understory of the forests, the latter is the local tipple which seems to dominate the lives of many of the locals.

Penny couldn't resist a tipple

The Limbu trail has been developed by central government, and does not seem strongly supported locally. A bulldozer has hacked a wide mud path along much of this western stretch which crosses several side valleys. At one point there is a very pleasant Hindu temple. After an afternoons walk we found a bed in Limkin, guesthouses have yet to develop along this part of the trail so you must appeal to the sympathy or commercial instinct of villagers. It was an interesting evening chatting to a local teacher finished off by watching English music videos and discussing the Nepali caste system! TV is the no1 investment  in these communities wherever there is electricity.

Inquisitive kids

Penny and GB Striding Out

Our Limbu hosts - the ladies with traditional jewelry

Our guide GB is proving to be a great guy. We don't usually hire guides but when going to a restricted area in Nepal it is a condition of getting an entry permit. GB has been to Kanchenjunga many times before and is familiar with the project we are helping out with. He also provides us insights into the local culture we would not get otherwise. GB is powered by dahl baaht (lentil soup and rice) twice a day. When he gets this he seems nigh on unbreakable.

From Limkin we had a  6 hour walk to Lelep. We first descended to the main river at the hamlet of Tawa and continued up the true left under an archway proclaiming the boundary of Kanchanjunga Conservation Area. The Tamur river fills the valley floor and we sidled on a rough track to the rough town of Chirwa. Chirwa exists in the bowels of a giant boulder field, most of its wooden shanties incorporate a cave or overhang into their traditional rectangular design. The people here have a reputation for harassing tourists, particularly those that camp at the lovely spot past the northern edge of town. The requesting of "donations" (generally by groups of drunken men) is another Maoist strategy local thugs have adopted for their own ends. At breakfast time things were pretty quiet though and we managed to escape with our noodle soup.

Young girl in Chirwa
 From Chirwa it is a short walk to the settlement of Tapethok where the valley widens a little, here you cross to the river right and continue afresh on a new stone path made by the central government all the  way to Lelep. Cardamon is everywhere through here and we pass a fly camp of some harvesters. Cardamon is not a spice actually used by the locals in their cooking and one asks us if it is actually true that this spice is used in bullets. This local myth has developed because when the pods are drying in the sun they sometimes start exploding. We suggest this hypothesis is probably false.

Lelep is located at a top of a steep rise overlooking the lower valley and two tributarys to the north. The western tributary leads to the famous trading town of Wolangchangola the eastern one to our destination of Ghunsa. Entering Lelep you walk straight into the paved courtyard of the guesthouse and shop, a well constructed monopoly. Lelep is the first village on our route where the Kanchenjunga school project has helped out over the years so we set about checking this out and meeting a few of the local characters.

Kunji Lal, a head wobbling Nepali from far afield is the paramount medic in these parts, overseeing the District Health Post. He works hard but quite possibly makes a bit on the side by selling medicines. Kunji is responsible for everything from vaccinations to contraceptives to blood pressure pills for a cluster of remote villages. On the day we visit Kunji he has spent the night at a difficult birth back down in Tapethok. Like many Nepalis Kunji lives away from his spouse, the demands of work and wider families seem to supersede the nuclear family in Nepal. The same applies to Mahendra, a Brahmin from the Terai who is 2ic of the local high school. He invites us for tea and asks us to pass on a request for solar panels to the Kanchenjunga School Project. Mahendra offers us Chinese biscuits from the Tibet to Wolangchungola trade route. These biscuits sealed in green tins and vacumn packed were meant for the Chinese army but somehow found their way to the yak traders who cross the 6000 metre passes with these biscuits, chinese coke, cigarettes and imitation North Face outdoors gear.It is a great feeling sipping a cold coke that has been transported by yak across the largest mountain range on earth.

We visited the school with Mahendra and met the new woman teacher

 We stayed in Lelep one night and the best part of a morning checking out various things at the health post, gompa, school and girls dormitory, before commiting ourselves to the track up the Ghunsa Khola (river). This sheer canyon is the main access to Ghunsa as well as the north faces of Mt Kanchenjunga and Jannu. It spits out into the Tamur just below Lelep. Down inside the canyon is a hellish place, the river froths unforgivingly, not giving a  second thought to possible eddys. The track searches up and down for a gentle line never finding it. There are several swing bridges in the gorge, on one the remaining slippery planks angle at 20 degrees. At another place we climb on to a sharp spur where a family clings to existence through terraced plots of maize, at another again only wire baskets hold the track firm against the raging river.

The Ghunsa Khola
Pretty solid grade 5
 At last we climb, perhaps five hundred meters above the river and hug a steep grassy slope which extends from river level to us and up another thousand metres to the ridge crest. Slash and burn agriculture has devestated much of this landscape. Looking back down the gorge, high on the far side above the cliffs of the lower Ghunsa Khola there are little homes, burnt trunks and yes fire. Man is an adaptable species.We reach the homely house of Amjilasa which seems a pleasant haven on dusk, but this won't last.

As we sit down to Dahl Baaht with the family in a cozy kitchen everything begins to shake, hard. The pots and mugs and Tongba  barrels sway and squeak. Penny bolts and I follow, the earthquake registers 6.8 and kills hundreds of people in the Taplejung district and the neighbouring Indian province of Sikkim.

Outside the world is falling apart. The cliffs above us have collapsed and dust clouds are rising. The terrible sound of falling rock fills the air. The big boulders bounce like basketballs a deep dribbling. Sparks appear above us where boulders clash. The three of us cower behind a stone wall waiting for ...death, injury, the rush of boulders over our heads, I'm not sure. In the event they fall short or go wide. The biggest in our vicinity ploughed a furrow just past a small hut 50 meters up hill then gets tangled in the low vegetation 20 meters above us.

The big sounds stop and we hug each other, but there is still danger, stray rocks continue to come down and our minds switch quickly to the danger of aftershocks. We evacuate the house, built on bedrock but in a gully, and head 100meters around to the end of a spur where a small bank also gives shelter. We put our tent up and convince the family to join us. There  is soon a tarpaulin tent constructed, and rugs and fire. The night spits with rain but the stars are never far away. The family seems interested in the danger of aftershocks for a start but as the chang (Millet beer) takes effect they stagger off to their beds in the house. We have a long sleepless night, the indignity of mosquitos taking advantage of us in our precarious state. The rocks continue falling but start to ease off about midnight. We sing "Amazing Grace" around the fire, our "geez we are having a really bad day" song. "Thro many dangers, toils and snares we have already come, twas grace that brought us safe this far and grace will lead us home".

A large rock recently at rest - our guesthouse behind

A new slip nearby
 It is amazing how daylight can bring a degree of sanity to a situation. As the hillside gradually lit up we could see the extent of the landslide above us and the slips on the next section of trail. What we could see confirmed our desire to move on, Amjilasa will not be a safe place for a long time. We head towards Gyabla and the nearest phone. I won't say it was fun, the trail is good, except for the cracks, but it sidles through such steep terrain, tottering cliffs rise overhead and below the distant roar of the river. Often there were fresh slips to edge around or jump over. Finally, directly below Gyabla, the track up a steep gut had slipped and we were forced to squirm up the mud with the ever present danger of further slips from above.
Gyabla was in one piece, but the phone was down. At this stage we were imagining villages of squashed Nepalis but the traditional rectangular wooden houses with interlocking joints would prove to hold up well. There are advantages in constructing your homes out of virgin rainforest! We were to find that the majority of buildings damaged were those made of stone, particularly the schools and guesthouses.
Gyabla is on the yak trading route, a shortcut links it to Wolangchungola while upriver are the towns of Ghunsa and Foley. All the people in these parts are of Tibetan origin, either historically or refugees from the Chinese invasion in the 1950s. Many have adopted the last name "sherpa", a naturalised Nepali surname that gives rights distinct from the refugees. We had a good nights sleep in Gyabla digesting the days events and the burnt black lentils.

The Gyabla locals didn't seem too flustered
 From Gyabla we continued up river aiming for the next phone in Ghunsa. The trail as far as Foley was relatively good except for one large slip just before the village that was several hundred meters long and unavoidable. Walking into Foley it was awesome to bump into a couple of kiwis, Rob and Claire, inspired like us by the kiwi history in the area: first the 1950s when Norman Hardie made the first ascent of Kanchenjunga and some subsequent explorations, second the 1970s when a group of Kiwis attempted to climb the sheer north face of Jannu, a story told in Graeme Dingles, "Wall of Shadows"

A couple of nasty little bits of slipped track

Rob and Claire were aborting their planned trip early, worried about rockfall and damage to bridges. We swapped gathered intelligence (collected rumours) about  the earthquake, played the obligatory "do you know.." game to succesfully establish the one degree of separation in the kiwi outdoors community and generally had a good yarn while their porters ate their first dahl baaht of the day.

Walking into Foley it was sobering to see that the rumours of the destruction of the Foley school/health  post / pre school which was built by the Kanchenjunga School Project (KSP) were true. The three room L shaped complex was devastated with the stone walls caved in and kids pictures left flapping in the breeze. We were so fortunate that the earthquake occurred when it did when the children were at home in their wooden houses.
I was reminded of the Kashmir quake several years ago which occured during school time and lost communities a generation. It was only luck that stopped eastern Nepal and the Sikkim  suffering the same fate.

Peering into the classrooms

Lucky no one was in the loo
 The villagers welcomed us with sweet milk tea and petitioned us to take the news of the collapse to the key figures in KSP. We gave an impromptu earthquake safety talk to the village in their carpet making shed and helped with the demolition and salvage of one of the school buildings. We emphasised the importantance of saving as much of the materials as possible to use in any rebuild. There was one new wooden building near the school that was paid for by the Tibetan government in exile so we asked about the rough cost and logistics of this. There are of course philosophical questions around using wood for construction in a protected conservation area ... something perhaps to be worked through later.

Earthquake education
 We ended up staying the night in Foley as it  had started to rain heavily, increasing the danger of the bad landslides in the short distance to Ghunsa. We stayed with a lady whose husband was further up the valley herding yaks. She was a very expressive person and was obviously opening her heart to GB about all sorts of village politics. She is one of the candidates for the vacant pre school teacher role (payed by KSP), as the previous teacher recently died of jaundice and alcohol.  I love the basic design of the Tibetan sitting room/bedroom/kitchen which is arrayed around the low cooking fire with beds/couches around the walls. Kitchenware sits in shelves and spare spaces are filled with barrels of food. In the rafters,cheese, meat and butter are drying while woven pans contain onions, garlic and the like. A Tibetan chef is constantly ladling, various pots of boiling water and particularly the current pot of milky tea which can be served either sweet or salty. It is best when we can hover around the fire as the monsoon mists are proving more chilling than we expected.

The next morning we headed to Ghunsa along the wrecked Folay powerline which connects to the 3 year old Ghunsa hydro scheme. We passed the memorial to 26 people killed in a helicopter accident high in these misty mountains.  They were all conservation leaders from Nepal and around the world who were touring the region to celebrate the change to local management of the Kanchenjunga Conservation Area. Their memorial in a grove of firs now echos to the sound of rockfall.

The main swingbridge to Ghunsa was just missed by a rock the size of a house. We cross it and enter the quiet town with its prayer flags and potato fields. Apart from  the influence of tourism and more lately electricity  Ghunsa still looks similar to the place that Joseph Hooker visited in the 19th century. Tourism has contributed competing guesthouses some with more modern color schemes, electricity has contributed sateillite dishes. You can now watch BBC in Ghunsa. We stroll up to the Selele La guest house run by Tenzin who doubles as the village medic payed by the KSP. Our primary purpose for all this suffering was to get here so Penny could provide some training to Tenzin and the local midwife Lamu, so for the meanwhile, journey complete I guess, high fives and handshakes allround. Now what to do ...

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Somewhere above Phidim

Quite a surreal day today. I am writing this from a Nepali bedroom plastered with Bollywood stars. I feel a little bad as Penny and I have displaced the households daughter and deaf sister from their cozy little room.

We arrived here well after dark after quite a journey. We woke early in Ilam only to find that there was a "strk" and all public transport was shut down for the day. I'm ok with legitimate industrial action, but this seems more about which criminal gang will control the roads in this part of Nepal, and take the biggest cut of various smuggling enterprises. Since the Maoists developed the strategy many Nepali groups use strikes to further there own interests.

We eventually found a driver willing to test the strike and headed out of Ilam with "tourist" number plates whipped up at the local computer shop. It was all good until the misty hilltop shanghai of Dewrali where we were stopped by a reasonably friendly crowd of men who nevertheless took our drivers keys. The ring leader was a drunk little fat guy in a stripy shirt, who paraded around all delighted like, a fun day out. Our driver and skinny guy his helper very carefully and diplomatically tried to get the keys back while we waited,trying to follow what was going on and watching the young men of the village gamble around a carom board where they play a game sort of like alleys but with flat disks that they slide across a floured wooden surface.

When stripy shirt and skinny guy drove off with the keys we decided to start walking. We had already heard the Nepali 2011 year of the tourist slogan, "Guest is God" changed slightly to "Guest is King" and weren't keen to hang around until they got drunker.

Wandering along we passed skinny guy heading back up the road with the key after about twenty minutes. We then passed through another illfavoured shanghai called something like "rakzi" which is the local moonshine. Soon after we were picked up by the van squeeling to a halt.

We thought this was the end of our troubles, and it certainly was until Phidim, 30km of fast tarseal through tortuous hills that would have taken an eternity to walk. However, when we reached Phidim we discovered the strike applied here to. Dammit. And we still didn't know how long the strike would last. The local jeep extortionists were asking more than 2 plane flights into where we were going so we ate then began walking again.

This was Pennys introduction to the scale of the Nepali landscape. Down down down to a tributary of the Tamur river then up, up, up towards the town of Gorpata. We tramped largely on local track, but was it hot and humid! Various locals walked with us for pieces, on the way home from school or work. And we walked well into dark trying to find a guesthouse until we stumbled across this hospitable house. The young man who has spent many years in Qatar lives here with his wife, children, sister and mother. They serve us dahl baht, which we eat with our right hands. They stare like we are aliens zapped into their living room. Nepalis are experts at eating with their hands, my rice seems to slip through my fingers. A great day which could have been a disaster.

Happy postscript: we have made it to Taplejung! From the friendly house we combed through rice paddies for 15 minutes to the road and 30 seconds later there was a jeep that has brought us through the vast foothills to this large bazaar town. The road was much improved from its reputation, just odd sections of mud. The landscape continues to amaze with the morning mist hanging in the valleys making the green ridges look like something from Avatar. After brunch we head off into the mist heading quickly beyond the reach of jeeps, then perhaps even beyond the reach of internet.

Take care out there.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011


I just got back from Sandakphu on the Nepali/Indian border. A great couple of days walking there and back, staying overnight on the top of the hill at about 3500 metres. Just photos for now, while I have access to a good computer in Ilam, writing will follow.

The mission started from Deurali, a one dog town, just 1km along the road from Mir Pokhari which we had visited earlier in the week. Just 1000 metres climb to this point!

From Deurali you hang the first right and head under the white banner. Follow the jeep track tending slightly downhill and follow this for around 10km to "Mamajewa". The landscape slowly gets more jungly, with some impressive swing bridges and curious locals.

From "Mamajewa" you have two options, the simple one which I took is to head straight up valley, check with the locals that you are still heading to Sandakphu. The track steepens and the valley narrows. The obvious track ends at a wooden bridge bedecked with Tibetan flags. I continued up the valley to the right and sheltered from the monsoon rains with this old couple who made me a big steaming mug of sweet milk tea. The other option is to head to Gurula...but beware for the locals to understand this you must pronounce it Guru LA (as in Los Angeles)

From where I took shelter in the head of the valley follow up the valley to the right. You will soon enter ancient rain forest with great mossy trees. As you climb you will be able to look back and see the rocky lower slopes of Sandakphu. Climb about 400m altitude and you will gain a ridge where there is a house and small clearing. Hang a left and follow up a well made stony road. You are now in full on fair dinkum rhododendron forest. Best visited in March.

If you follow up the road and tend left you will eventually hit the main ridge that leads down to Darjeeling in India (almost all tourists come from this side). Almost immediately here you will also see the small Tibetan village of Kali Pokhari, with its namesake lake, small lodges and neighbouring Indian border post. The top of Sandakphu and the multi-tiered Nepali hotel is all too visible from here, 700-800 vertical metres up into the sky to your left. The Indian jeep track is well made though and in places (like past this stupa) there are shortcuts for you to take. After a very solid 9 hours I arrived just on dusk.

The Nepali guesthouse is fantastic. Good people, good food, good prices...and then in the morning what a view. Even though the clouds obscured much of the Himalaya I saw the top of Makalu and giant shards of Kanchanjunga. The Indians have a military company stationed up here, and they must do a good job scaring of Nepali timber poachers. The forest on one side of the ridge is almost unrecognisable from the other. It is an amazing feeling to watch the sunrise over the rolling hills of the Sikkim.

After a big day to get here, and not much sleep, I headed off early. In the sunrise Ilam glinted on the tip of a spur, far far below. I wandered off along the tops, checking out the viewpoints and gazing along the ridge between India and Nepal that leads to Kanchenjunga. After only 500 metres there is a small house, and just now yak head peering west. You drop off the spur here, quite steeply at first passing a small temple under a cliff to your left.

I was heading to Gurula, and then on to Chinntapu, the second highest hill in the area at 3200. Heading down to Gurula there is a muddy jeep track on the ridge. I managed to skirt the largest knob on the ridge by taking a much older path on the southern side. This passes through some pleasant jungle and stream, with a few small ups and downs. It is still used by locals as the wrappings on the ground show. Gurula is a two horse town in a low saddle. The locals were very intrigued to see me.

From Gurula things got a little bit more comical. First I tried to slip behind Chinntapu, taking a beautiful track off to the right of the ridge. I found a little village,a football field and a little troop of people making planks out of ancient rainforest but no way to Ilam. I then headed up Chinntapu and my foot trail up a small spur soon turned into a full on bush bash through dense bamboo and rose on steep slopes...until eventually I found the top in thick fog. This is me on the top.

I still wanted to make a round trip of it, and I had heard you could get to Deurali via Chinntapu without having to retreat through "mamajewa". There was no track leading that way from the top of Chinntapu so I headed back down to the west until I found a small side track, should I/shouldn't I, prudence lost and I headed down here. At one point there was a sign (above) which I hoped said Deurali...but as I soon ended up in the mist at eerie shine on a lofty knob I suspect not. Just near this sign though there is a smaller path that leads steeply down to the right. I took this and followed it grimly in the bucketing rain for several kilometres. This path would be easy to lose, don't! At one point I ended up on a flat grassy spur and the track didn't continue on the far side. I searched around and finally did well to find the track I had come in on. Backtracking 100 metres I found a small junction I had missed...phew! From here the track descended steeply to a saddle on the ridge and then onwards sidling on the right side of the ridge heading down, probably still at least ten kilometres to Deurali but plenty of locals to ask.

Only the two hour walk down to go, with a stop for a sweet coffee at Mir Pokhari, it was a lovely evening in Nepal, sunlit people laughing, kids playing and tea fields glowing. I stumbled along in a bit of a trance, a sure sign of a good couple of days.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Around Ilam

From the Danfe guesthouse where we are holed up in the middle of the Ilam tea plantations the sound of the school next door is deafening, but hey there are worse sounds than excited kids.

This morning, after a relaxing breakfast, I wandered past the school and followed a road off the edge of the Ilam spur. The road descended through terraced rice paddies and groves of bamboo for a couple of kilometers, losing perhaps 600m in height.

The first landmark was a giant, ancient, tree, perhaps a fig but my botany is limited. 3 old men sat on the seat below it looking down the valley.  The river was roaring below. Size wise it reminded me of the bigger Tararua rivers and made me yearn for a tube.

Just past the big tree there is an archway signifying entrance to the Shred Seti Devi temple. I take this, having heard of the possibility of monkeys in the jungle. I found this one spooky, especially when I descended an old hewn stone stairway covered with creepers to find myself at the mouth of a cave where worn old flags flapped in the breeze of a waterfall. I enjoyed the forest though, and the spot, overlooking a bend of the river. Descending a single track that sidles down from the temple I also found a lively group of birds, slow in flight, with stocky  brown bodies but the funniest fuzzy white mohawk heads.

I worked my way down the left bank of the river, sometimes climbing high to stay on the track. At one spot I passed a couple of young fellas enjoying swimming at another an old man crouched on a stone in the river scrubbing his clothes. The old man had a small workshop on the river bed where he sorted or broke up stones to the same size. The butterflys were attracted to this place, yellow and orange specimens fell like leaves from trees. The bigger black type charged around more certainly.

From the track at one stage I could see the tea gardens, far far above. It was much hotter down low and I was pouring with sweat. The next house reached was notable as it had a prime spot in a cluster of fruit trees and m two ponds sitting in front of it. Soon after this was a road which I followed up and around to the spur below Ilam.

Passing time was easy, munching almonds and looking for viewpoints of the gorge below. At one point I was surprised as a goanna like creature rushed from my path, at another my shared desperation with the grasshopper stuck inside my shirt would have been amusing for any onlookers.

Overall a great half day mission from Ilam to check out the local surroundings and I am getting plenty of ideas for the last few days we have before we set off towards Kanchenjunga again.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Mai Pokhari

Yesterday we trekked from Ilam to the holy lake of Mai Pokhari. The Nepali weekend is Saturday, so we made the most of it, setting off early from the town square after a breakfast of "puddie and alle" (fried bread and curried potato)with milk tea.

We had a full jeep, Dr Colin, Dr Hannah; and her partner Tom who is teaching some English at local schools. Tom had made the acquaintance of a couple of young Nepalis, Cecile and Sandip, who were also keen for a day out.

The jeep part of our trip was short, just ten minutes (maybe 3km). Before we were dropped at a small village (Kibilati bazaar) just before the road to Taplejung finally crosses the Ilam spur and starts sidling around the next valley. The route to Mai Pokhari leads up this spur. Just follow the jeep track (you can drive all the way) and look for tracks that cut the corners. At one stage we followed the town water supply pipe straight up, another time the power lines. Cecile introduced us to the ginger and cardamon plants, my spice botany is sadly lacking. I tried to explain that we get all our spices dried and in small boxes. These are the most lucrative crops for local people as the tea plantations are controlled by big corporates and government.

It took us about 3 hours at a slow pace to reach the lake. A sign at the lake shows it is designated as a wetland reserve (RAMSAR even) which is pretty cool, and apparently there are "warty newts", though we didn't see any. The immediate lake surrounds are forested and there is a good track around it for a short stroll. Don't get your hopes up for a pure piece of nature, this is still a bit low in the foothills...and this is a popular religious site

And just a few photos of the local people of Ilam...this place if full of people! I am writing this from my breakfast shop watching the market day slowly crank up. My adventure plans for today are to descend to the valley north of Ilam where apparently there is a temple with monkeys. Then wander down the river to a confluence and another temple...I will let you know how it goes...