Highest elevation: 12,631 ft (3,850 m)
Lowest elevation: 5,826 ft (1,776 m)
Since we had arrived to Gatlang at dusk, when the cows were literally coming home, we took the next morning to explore its narrow paths lined with wood and stone homes. The gregarious hostess of the Paldor Peak Lodge packed us an awesome lunch to go: chapattis (thick flour tortillas), hard boiled eggs from her chickens, tomatoes, and a hearty spinach-like green locally known as saag picked from her garden moments before.
After a strenuous uphill straight out of town, we were happy to find our way to a rumored cheese factory in order to add to the localvore picnic. With no sign, we identified it by laundry lines of cheese cloths flapping in the breeze like oversized prayer flags. The place billowed smoke from a fire blazing under a huge cauldron of future cheese being constantly stirred by an employee, driving home the point that our proudly-purchased local product consumes a heck of a lot of firewood in a country that is rapidly deforesting.
We continued up, following a switchbacking road and taking shortcut trails between them as the terrain allowed. Two nice men slowed down to pace with us, through basic English we understood that they were on their way to a distant village for work. When we reached a kharka, a meadow used for summertime grazing with basic rock wall shelters, we decided to call it a day. Unfortunately, the water tap installed on the side of the road was completely dry. Quite fortunately, the local guys were there to point us down a path that eventually led to a trickle of water that we never would have found on our own, thus making our camping endeavor feasible. They continued, no doubt at a much faster pace without us, over a pass and down to a village we would reach the next day.
Despite the sun disappearing early and the cold settling in, it felt good to be camping on our own, partially justifying the weight and bulk of the tent. Dinner, on the other hand, was no scrumptious dal bhat. Our attempt to make passable spaghetti was foiled by dumping a dry tomato soup packet on the noodles, which promptly clumped up into goo balls. The stars were amazingly bright and the next morning the sun lit up Langtang Peak, which had been watching over our progress for a couple of weeks now.
Crossing the kharka, a skinny dog with a slight limp appeared out of nowhere and adopted us, following Matt's heels diligently as we huffed our way up to the pass. Just before we crested it, our new friend ditched us and went ahead. While Matt chatted with some porters taking a break, learning that the men were carrying 45 kilos (99 pounds) and the women had 25-30 kilos (55-66 pounds), I found the poor old guy also resting in the sun and filled a ziplock bag with water which he promptly lapped up. After also feeding him a pack of coconut cookies, I expected him to follow us down the other side, but he didn't budge, even when I called him. While it may have been fun to continue our trek with a dog companion, I suppose it would have complicated things a bit in terms of lodging and food.
We descended steeply across road switchbacks much like how we ascended the other side, then followed a dirt road being improved for mining operations to a strip of homes called Somdang. The friendliness of the young man running the Somdang Valley Hotel convinced us to stay there, and his cooking was delicious as well. With a short, mostly downhill day, it was lovely to have a relaxing afternoon sitting in the sun, drinking cardamom tea, and watching toddlers play completely unsupervised, chickens squabble, and two old men painstakingly constructing a stone wall without any form of mortar.
Our rest turned out to be preemptive for our unexpectedly long next day. We hiked up a road that had been abandoned to the whim of landslides due to impassable terrain near the next pass. Here the trail narrowed to a body-width band that clung to the steep cliffy hillside. We knew we had reached the pass when we were hit by the full force of a cold wind. People are not the only entity that use passes as the easiest way through the mountains, weather is just as lazy as we are! The new hotel we had planned on staying at was actually not quite finished and the wind made the prospect of camping seem less than ideal, so we abandoned the idea of a packless day hike up the ridgeline to a viewpoint from the pass. We said farewell to Langtang Peak for good this time, also taking a minute to marvel at the distance we had covered since the trail descending from Gosainkunda to Thulo Saybru was still visible from this vantage point.
It took until dusk to descend more than 5,000 feet on a rough, nearly vertical trail to the town of Laptong. We were beat and my left knee had started to rebel against the big steps down. We had finally left heavily-touristed territory as indicated by the absence of guesthouses. Quite conveniently though, a man with excellent English greeted us as we passed by, introduced himself as Som, and inquired about our plan for lodging, while also offering his home for the night. We hesitated, not sure whether he was just being polite or actually wanted us to stay with him. Once he mentioned he was a teacher and frequently hosted foreign volunteers and the occasional trekker, we decided this would be a cool opportunity and followed him through millet fields to his home.
There was only initial awkwardness, when he surprised his wife and live-in parents by bringing home guests, so there seemed to be a lot of lively discussion and commotion from within the house while we sat alone in the dark courtyard. After our separate room was readied, we were warmly invited in, warned to crouch down for the low porch ceiling and doorways, and served tea as we unpacked. When we were settled in, we went over to the main room where Som's mother presented us with khata, white scarves around the neck to welcome and honor guests. Then we sat on the floor with the rest of the family, watching them prepare dal bhat on an open wood-burning hearth. In between his antics to keep his one-year old happy, Som naturally shared about his life and the village in a way that only a good teacher could.
In the morning, we awoke early with the family and again sat on the floor while watching Som roll out roti (flat bread) and cook it over the open flame of the fire. Coupled with fresh eggs and instant coffee, it was a delicious breakfast. We said goodbye to the family, paid the modest bill for our stay, and followed Som to his school, which begins at 10 o'clock! What a contrast to the beginning of a typical school day in the US; here the teachers and their uniformed students all walk side by side, arriving from above, below, and within the village. We got to peek into some classrooms, all very basic, as the day was getting going. There was also the beginning of a computer lab, but first they have to get the power utility to supply electricity to the school during the day since the town currently only gets electricity at night.
After the wonderfully social, but energy intensive, homestay we got only a short breather on the trail to Tipling before seeking out our next cultural adventure. In Kathmandu, we met a lovely woman named Beni from Tipling who encouraged us to pay a visit to her parents when we passed through. A friend and co-worker of Beni that was visiting home for a week graciously brought us to their home and introduced us. We were welcomed inside by the fire and served tea of course. Even though we said we had eaten recently, Beni's mother and our spontaneous-visit facilitator began preparing lunch for us. The mother left the house for a little while and returned with a pail of milk from the water buffalo in the field below. She boiled it and served it to us, certainly the freshest and creamiest milk we had ever tasted!
Beni's father was also sitting by the fire with a visiting relative all the while. While we noticed that the two of them were jovial, we did not realize the source of this was morning drinking until the cheeriness gave way to snoring naps by the fire. Since the father is the lama of the local gompa, a small Buddhist temple, we had planned on presenting the khata scarves to him, a traditional sign of respect when meeting a lama. Unfortunately, we missed our opportunity by not anticipating that our host would check out for the day before our visit was over! The mother kindly obliged our request to see the gompa (monastery), to which we made a donation to show our gratitude for their hospitality.
We continued on to the large village of Sertun where continuing our day of cultural immersion required some perseverance. Entering at a low corner of the village, we began looking for houses showing signs of a homestay while also asking anyone we saw where we could sleep. Their response was either to stare at us and keep walking, or giggle and run away. We had reached the top of the village with no leads when we bumped into a group of men dressed up as horses and other characters playing various musical instruments. They asked us to take their photo, offered me slices of spicy raw potato, and extended a beer bottle to Matt. He took a big swig and the exclaimed, "That is NOT beer!" Everyone laughed because it was actually local moonshine called raksi (which he detests).
One of the merrymakers, whom we later pieced together was celebrating some sort of Hindu festival, was able to point us in the general direction of a known homestay. It took several more inquires to hone in on the correct house, so we were relieved when we entered the courtyard and were welcomed in by the owner more than an hour after arriving in the town. Our host, who went by D.B., was a retired Gorkha soldier having served in the army in India. He seemed both worldly and at peace with the world, as did his wife. He offered us a tiny side room that seemed rarely used given the presence of two tremendous eight-legged roommates in a corner web. We made an agreement to leave each other alone. Even if we had engaged a catch and release plan, the wall had so many holes between the wooden slats that keeping them out would be futile.
Freed of our packs, we explored the small portion of town that we had not covered while searching for a homestay. We wandered in to a temporary health clinic set up in the local school, where volunteer doctors from Nepal, the US, Canada, and Europe had trekked in to offer their services through a program of Himalaya Health Care. It sounds like a very cool NGO with multi-faceted programs taking on various health challenges in rural Nepal, from promoting smokeless stoves in houses to specialized training for local healthcare providers.
D.B. invited three of the Nepali doctors on the trek over for dinner, so we made conversation with them while trying a new delicacy called beaten rice, basically true to its name: slightly toasted two-dimensional rice that is quite tasty. The raksi was also flowing freely and is always a source of surprise followed by amusement when I partake and Matt does not. Traditional gender roles prescribe that women do not drink while the men make up for it by drinking more than the women's share. Being the last day of work for the volunteers, we could hear from our bed that the party continued late in to the night down at their extensive tent camp below the village.
As we were departing the next morning, D.B. and his wife also presented us with white scarves that we wore down the trail until the were tangled with burrs. Our destination for the day was a riverside hot spring up a side canyon and it was totally worth the extra effort to get there. Although the only flatish spot to set up the tent was full of litter and the remnants of campfires, the pool itself was clean enough and perfectly hot. Unlike the town of Tatopani on the Tamang Heritage Trail, we had the place entirely to ourselves. I was free to wear a bikini! We refrained from skinny dipping just in case some locals decided to pay a visit. We soaked again in the evening, a little bummed that the sky was clouded over until we noticed little lights erratically zooming around. It turns out that fireflies make good substitutes for stars.
Following our camping side trip to the hot springs, we spent the evening at Rachet at a basic hotel where a strange teen with labored, harsh-sounding English was our host while the parents stayed completely behind the scenes. He had an obsession with money, first showing us his small foreign money collection and then inviting himself into our room to pepper us with questions about the cost of our every possession and what our salary was in the States.
On the same hillside, three villages are physically separated by ravines and spiritually separated by religion. We had stopped in the Christian village (a product of decades of intensive missionary work in this region), but wandered through the Hindu village to take a peek at the Buddhist one as well. At the periphery of the Buddhist enclave, a water buffalo had been slaughtered and villagers were gathered round picking up their orders for various parts. Hindus do not consume cows or similar beasts and it is technically illegal to kills cow in Nepal, but other religions occasionally eat water buffalo or yak. On the way back to the hotel, we were invited to sit and watch our host's cousins splitting bamboo to weave into baskets and matts. They even offered us boiled potatoes and toasted soy beans as snacks while we observed. We took our leave as it started to get dark and our host then roped Matt in to playing chess with him for the rest of the evening.
Just before our host ran off to the Believer's Church that Saturday morning, we gifted him a two dollar bill for his money collection. We tried to convey how this is a special bill, but I think the significance was lost on him. Nonetheless, with a neutral facial expression and in a robotic monotone voice, he said, "I am feeling happy."
We were feeling happy too, right up until we arrived in the big town of Lapa and began looking for a local guide. We had been advised by several people that it was quite difficult to find the way to the next village of Yarsa due to a multitude of diverging trails in the forest created by woodcutters and livestock. We had expected to find an English-speaking owner at the only lodge in town, as we had in the guesthouses and homestays of even the smallest villages. Instead, we could not communicate with the owner and even if we could have, he was distracted by intense pain, which we would later learn was likely from kidney stones. Our next strategy was to wander around and hope that some kind English-speaking soul would adopt us and our mission. This strategy had worked well in China, but we had no such luck in Lapa.
At this point, we regretted that we had not asked a friendly lodge owner in the previous town where we had stopped for tea to help us connect with a guide. We even considered leaving Lapa and hiking back to him, but we would have not been able to get there before dark. So we returned to a shop where we were quite surprised to find much-needed bottles of sunscreen and asked the young man running it if he knew the school's English teacher. He agreed to bring the English teacher to meet us later at our lodge. Not knowing if the English teacher would be of much help, we decided to pursue every idea we had in the meanwhile.
Next up was using the shop's phone, which required standing on a rock outcrop where the whole neighborhood could see and hear us, to call a guide we had talked to about this route a few weeks earlier. He had previously mentioned he had friends in Lapa that could guide us, but the phone conversation yielded no specific names, simply the guide telling Shop Kid to find us someone who knew the way. Immediately upon hanging up, Shop Kid pointed to another kid who seemingly appeared out of nowhere, perhaps overhearing the public phone call, and told us he knew the way. We asked how many times he had walked to Yarsa and the response was, "Ten hours." We were clearly up against a language barrier, but the more significant obstacle was our first impression of him based on our Western foreigner biases. His horribly ugly wannabe urban hipster outfit, mullet-rat tail hair cut, bad teeth, and a cheesy Jesus hologram necklace added up to sleazy sketchiness in our minds. Why couldn't adorable Shop Kid, wearing his nice traditional garb, be our guide? As it turns out, the guide we called explained that we should take two people because it would be dangerous for one person to make the return trip by himself. Apparently, there is a formidable fear of "tigers" in the "jungle" we would be crossing through. We didn't know if this was really a legitimate risk factor, but arguing the point seemed like bad strategy when we were already struggling to find one willing-and-able guide. Shop Kid did indeed volunteer to be the second guide, even though it was not clear if he had ever been to Yarsa, but we still didn't trust that Random Sketchy Kid really had been there either.
Not knowing what else to do, and not thrilled with the only option we had, we went back to the hotel just as a group of Indian Christian missionaries arrived. We explained our situation to them and one amazing doctor took us under her wing. She spoke with the hotel owner who offered up his son to be one of our guides and would find someone else to go as well. This seemed like a more reliable option than the random guy we found in town, so we went back down to the shop to cancel our meeting with the English teacher and explain that our guide situation was all taken care of, but thanks for the offer.
After being kindly included in a feast of a dinner that the lodge prepared in honor of the missionaries, we finally got to sit down with the lodge owner and the doctor as a translator to hash out the logistics. He called in our guides to meet with us as well and who should appear but Random Sketchy Kid! Well, that figures. At this late hour of the evening, we were too exhausted to care and just wanted the whole ordeal to be over. However, we did learn that random sketchy guy's sister lives in Yarsa, giving him some credibility that he (probably) knew the way.
The day that we had been anticipating with some trepidation started too early, waking at 5:00am for a simple breakfast that was supposed to be ready at 5:30. The boiled potatoes did not make an appearance until closer to 6:30 at which point I didn't even dare ask about the instant coffee we ordered. While we were waiting for breakfast, our guides showed up with backpacks of the same size that a first grader would proudly wear to their first day of school. This was only a problem because we had made an agreement the night before that they would carry half of our weight, since we doubted we could make the ten hour push before dark with our full packs. While the ever-helpful doctor encouraged them to fill empty rice sacks with our belongings and carry them in the Nepali style of the namlo, a headband strapped to the load, they declined this option. Not about to let them off the hook so easily, we used our extra webbing straps and carabiners to attach as many items as we could to the wee lil' backpacks. Their packs looked like a jumble of chaos by the time we were finished, and we still had to reclaim some of their designated items to put back in our own packs.
We finally set off at 7:00am, only an hour later than we had planned, but quite timely for Nepal standards. The first couple of hours were a little awkward as none of us really made an effort to talk. After a cookie break, we all started to warm up to each other a bit. We had to practice saying their names, something along the lines Lou Baha, previously referred to as Random Sketchy Kid, and Gaine, whose name we could unfortunately remember better because it is pronounced the same as the first two syllables of gynecologist. While we referred to them as kids when talking about them to each other, we learned that they were both married with kids, not at all unusual for late teens in Nepal. Lou Baha was actually quite friendly, and with a better command of the English language, he has the potential to be a good guide. He instantly picked up on Matt's interest of place names and shared what we could see, although sadly the allegedly amazing views of the Ganesh Himal range were completely obscured with low clouds. He also took the initiative to share the names of edible berries as we ate them off the trees. Areas of improvement would be not taking us through "shortcuts" in the thick of burrs and sticker plants, and refraining from throwing rocks at wildlife that we would actually like to see, such as monkeys.
Over the course of the day, we found the trail much easier to follow than we had been led to believe, so we were continually questioning whether our guides were even necessary. However, Lou Baha did indeed direct us off a beaten path and through a meadow to another trail heading to Yarsa, explaining that the trail we had been following went to a village way out of our way. There was no way we would have found that turn off on our own. We were pleasantly surprised to meet another American couple thru-hiking the GHT without a guide. They helped validate our decision when they shared that they had spent half of a day looking for the right trail from Yarsa to the point where we crossed paths with them.
On the final uphill push in the eleventh hour of hiking, it seemed our Nepali buddies were more worn out than we were, confirming our growing suspicion that these guys rarely carry heavy loads (and certainly not with the namlo) or walk long distances. We passed most of Yarsa to get to Lou Baha's sisters house, where we were warmly welcomed and given a room with thick rugs (and the obligatory giant spider) attached to a small Christian church, as the sister's husband is a pastor. We joined the crew in the kitchen and were surprised to be questioned, "Do you drink beer? Do you eat meat?" We answered in the affirmative, not realizing that by saying yes, we would be the only ones consuming these things while the others looked on. We did enjoy the first and only bottles of beer on our entire trek, Tuborg, brewed under license in Nepal, as well as rehydrated dried buffalo meat with delicious spices that was chewy but flavorful.
The next morning, breakfast was equally hearty, consisting of fresh baked chapatti, omelets, and a bean and potato curry, along with some milk tea. We sat out on their porch and watched the daily routine of Yarsa unfold below us. After packing up, we paid our teenage "guides" a generous pre-determined fee based on their return trip to Lapa. Expecting to cover our costs, and if money was refused we were prepared to make an equivalent donation to the church, we asked the husband what we owed for our stay. He responded with a sum that was more than four times higher than our other homestays in the same region and twice as much as our most expensive stay in touristy Langtang.
At first we thought that Lou Baha had mistranslated and added and extra zero to the fee. Unfortunately, that was not the case, so we asked for an itemized invoice of what we had falsely assumed was informal hospitality. By doing this, our bill was reduced to only a slightly less ridiculous amount even considering the additional cost of beer and meat. We were still quite offended by the bait-and-switch nature of our stay in a home, rather than a business, in a town that has no guesthouses. All of the positivity of our experience instantly evaporated in the shock of being taken advantage of. Nonetheless, we paid and departed with minimal politeness and great haste, but the rest of the day was tainted with a feeling of frustration. More than just the financial impact, the lasting hurt was a loss of trust in the wonderful world of homestays that we had discovered. Unlike during our previous experiences in the Ganesh Himal region, it would now be difficult to accept an offer of hospitality without hashing out the specifics of economics in advance. In contrast, with Som we were inspired to make a donation to his education-oriented NGO since our stay was quite inexpensive. With D.B., our tab was so modest that we actually insisted on paying more.
Despite ending on a sour note, our time in the Ganesh Himal was perhaps our most vividly memorable of the trek thus far. It is a region as of yet minimally tourist-oriented, but one that may very well be on the verge of popularity as the next trekking frontier. As the widespread efforts of Christian missionaries demonstrate, the area is both remote and simultaneously shaped by outside influences. Roads already provide access to the region's fringes, such as Gatlang and Somdang, but will surely push into new territory with each passing year. Whatever the future of the Ganesh Himal may be, change seems both inevitable and eminent.