Highest elevation: 10,646 ft (3,245 m)
Lowest elevation: 7,333 ft (2,235 m)
With our full packs back on, we returned to our more traditional slower pace as we climbed up the side of the wide valley mouth and around its side into to a new drainage. We stopped pretty early in the day, considering our late start, at the lodge owned by a guide we had met in Kangin Gompa. We didn't mind having an excuse for a short day though. We were the only guests at the lodge in Khangjim, a village that did not seem to get many trekkers spending the night. His wife was a sweet shy woman who seemed to mainly look after his brother who had a definitive love for the raksi (local moonshine). He may have actually driven her slightly crazy because she would echo, in sing-song voice, certain random words she would hear us say while wandering around.
The next day we paced with a nice man leading a horse down to Lingling to buy supplies. This village along the river has road access that makes goods both more abundant and cheaper, many imported from China across a border that only locals can access for trade. Although we normally only ate snacks for lunch, he effectively convinced us to stop for lunch at his brother's place along the way. It soon became apparent why when the brother eagerly shared his tough situation with us. His wife was pregnant with twins and doctors had prescribed a hospital stay of a month prior to delivery in Kathmandu, claiming that the common practice of home birth is too risky in her case. As tenants of the land that he runs his simple restaurant on, the scale of the medical bills he was facing is astronomical. He begged us to stay the night with his family to generate more income with more meals, but being still quite early in the day we decided to continue on and opted to give an equivalent donation instead. Upon receiving the extra money, rather than expressing gratitude, he immediately asked us to sponsor his unborn children's education, the same request his horseman brother had made to us for his children already going to school. We are aware that it is a widespread perception among Nepalis that all foreign travelers are ridiculously rich and indeed we are well off compared to almost all people in this country. Still it was a bit disheartening to give what we could, especially carrying a limited supply of cash that had to last for more than two months, and have that only raise the expectation for more.
Due to the day's interactions, we renamed this section of the trek the Tamang Charity Trail, but approaching Thuman that evening we began to understand why it is called the Tamang Heritage Trail. Following a series of chortens (Buddhist stupas) up a ridgeline, we watched women harvesting millet from the golden terraces and carrying it home in bamboo dokos (woven baskets) attached to a strap across their foreheads called a namlo. We also passed by a 10-year-old girl carrying her baby sister in a bamboo woven cradle with the same method.
The Tamang people are one of the largest ethnic groups in the country, or castes as they are more commonly known by in Nepal. Their culture has many Tibetan aspects and one theory is that their ancestors were horse traders from Tibet who settled in Nepal.
After claiming a room at the Buddha Guesthouse, we wandered through the maze of narrow paths among traditional two-story wooden houses where livestock occupy the bottom level and a ladder provides access to the second. Intricately carved wooden windows block more light than they let in, so residents often soak up the sun on their porch when it is shining, and huddle around a wood stove in one dark all-purpose room when it is not. The stove has no chimney so smoke finds its way out first through the rafters, then a slate roof where crops, such as beans, are inevitably spread out to dry on it.
About an hour up a steep hill above Thuman, we greeted two old men resting on the side of the trail. One made gestures of asking for something and then revealed a very swollen and stiff hand. The skin between his fingers had split from the swelling and the deep cracks had become infected. There was nothing in our first aid kit that could fix this problem as he clearly needed to get to a hospital. We offered a packet of antibiotic ointment, which he carefully applied to the wounds under a great deal of pain. We were so curious as to the cause of this injury that was absolutely nauseating to look at, but they did not speak a lick of a English and unfortunately we could not speak the lingua franca of Nepali (if they even did themselves) and certainly not the language of their caste. They gestured gratitude for the ointment and we started up the hill again. We were surprised to see them following behind us since we were headed up to more remote and basic villages and going down the valley led to bigger towns with medical facilities. At this point, we gestured that they should go down, pointing to the cross on our first aid kit and looking up the words for doctor and hospital in our little, and thus far unused, Nepali dictionary. This seemed to have no effect on them as they just smiled and continued behind us. Everyday we always met many people on the trail, whether trekkers with guides or locals, so it just figures that for the couple of hours we hiked near the two old men, we did not see a single person to help us with communication.
We kept trudging up the steep hill when they paused so the injured man could soak his hand in a cold stream, assuming we would see them pass by when we reached the next village of Nagthali. There we hoped to have someone to translate for us and learn their plan. If he was not going to a doctor for lack of money, we would have sponsored his medical costs, but without knowing his situation or intentions it did not make sense to just hand him a bunch of money without any explanation. While eating lunch, we kept our eyes peeled for the duo coming up the hill, but we never saw them arrive. I began to feel very sad and regretted that we did not stay with them until finding a translator. We will never know the cause or the consequences of his injury, but I can't help assuming the worst.
Both the couple expecting twins and this old man were emotionally impactful examples of the scary reality the vast majority of Nepalis face when a health issue arises or an accident occurs. Of course, so many Americans can relate to their predicaments with years of criminally expensive health care and a system that protects corporations more than people. Obamacare may not be perfect, but we'll take it any day over the physical and financial inaccessibility of medical care for the people in Nepal.
From Nagthali, we had planned to take a side trip and camp at a viewpoint of several ranges of mountains, many of the peaks across the border in Tibet. However, over the course of lunch, the clouds rolled in and the day went from warm to chilly and windy. It seemed a little silly to camp on top of a cold, windy hill with no view, so we picked the most brightly colored lodge in town and relaxed for the rest of the day, venturing no further than the simple Buddhist temple next door.
We got an earlyish start (for us) the next morning to hike to the viewpoint, even though some low-lying clouds made the trip appear to be just as silly as the day before. Our persistence paid off when we hiked through an enchanted forest and then above the clouds to a 180 degree vista of mountains in a perfectly clear backdrop.
After lunch back at our lodge, we continued down the other side of the pass for a couple thousand feet to Tatopani, which means hot water, appropriately named for its public hot spring. After choosing a lodge based on its advertisement for Nepali organic coffee, a reputation for excellent food, and a sunny marigold-filled yard in which to enjoy these culinary delights, we found out just how public the hot spring really is. The concrete pools were segregated by men, women, and family, with changing rooms that no one seemed to use on either end. Instead, everyone seemed to use the stadium-like bench seating to change. The women would spend literally ten to twenty minutes delayering under their outer layer, eventually approaching the pools in a sarong wrapped around them like a bath towel. On the other hand, the men would simply strip down to their skivvies in a second and jump in. Lacking a sarong, I made a modest attempt at modesty by wearing a tshirt over my bikini, but upon further observation it seems that I focused on covering up the wrong half of my body. The sarongs didn't always stay in place, shall we say, so we got flashed many more boobies than if the women had been wearing skimpy swimsuits. We also noticed that the thin cotton fabric of the sarongs tended to cling to every curve and crevasse of the body when exiting the water, ultimately making them much more revealing of sensitive areas than your standard swimsuit. Perhaps that is why the spectator seating overlooking the pools was always full!
Besides being thoroughly fascinated with the bathing attire, we also were intrigued by people drinking the opaque orange iron-rich water and filling up bottles to go. This tatopani attracts people from near and far for its healing properties and apparently ingesting some directly can only enhance the effects, although we refrained from doing so ourselves. It also occurred to us that the old man we had met a few days earlier may have been on his way to Tatopani for some miraculous healing of his injured hand.
We visited the hot spring three separate times during our two days there. With almost a full moon above, I thought a night soak would be a lovely idea, expecting it to be less crowded. Of course, it was actually more crowded, complete with night watchmen shining bright flashlights in the pools to enforce the gender segregation.
After resting up in Tatopani, we moved on to another traditional village reminiscent of Thuman called Gatlang, which was our last stop on the Tamang Heritage Trail. Along the way, the only incident of note was almost getting trampled by mating cows. The male mounted the female as they were trotting down the trail that we were heading up. She was not pleased, so she took off running straight at me with the male still on top. I jumped off the trail just in time, luckily into a nice flat field, rather than off the typical brushy and rocky ledge that we were usually hiking along. I guess you never know what will give you a little adrenaline rush when exploring Nepal!