It’s been sometime since I wrote the previous episode. Since then, things moved fast and in the most unexpected way. The infection gripped the world, reached the doors of our country, restrictions kicked in. Some of us lost our jobs, many others lost their food & shelter. For me, fortunately enough, it hasn’t bit that hard yet, though I got separated from my mother and daughter, who are now stuck in my home town Kolkata (they went there to spend a vacation of two weeks, now extended to God knows how many days). Many of us have been trying different ways to keep stress at bay. One of the things I tried (which I also do in “normal” times) is to reminisce about my past travels. That goes to an extent to re-live those days literally by calendar dates. I’m doing so, more than ever now in these “restricted” times. So, where did we stop last time? Yes, we spent our first night at Samagaun village.
10th November, 2019
The next morning, we woke up to biting cold, quite expected at this altitude. After all, we were at the village from where the trek to Manaslu Base Camp starts and hence, all the ascents to the peak. The day’s plan was to visit Pungyen Gompa (as the locals call it), a nearby monastery higher on the slopes. It should take us about three hours to reach there, spend some time and another two hours to come back. We assembled at the terrace of the lodge. The sky was still dark. As Niladri prepared the morning tea and started handing out the steaming mugs, our hands trembled even after being wrapped in warm gloves. The mighty Mt Manaslu and its neighbors were supposed to be right in front of us, but darkness concealed them. As we chatted around, a soft light started spreading and the silhouette of the Himalayan ranges started becoming clearer. As the light spread, the ranges started to reclaim their shape and color. All chatting stopped and all pairs of eyes were fixed on the double edged peak of Mt Manaslu, which now started to acquire a tinge of gold.
Our experience in the Himalayas told us that the acts of the drama up on the high mountain slopes will unfold fast, colors will change in the blink of an eye as the Sun readies to gear up for another day’s toil. Nature’s paint brushes changed hands, as if they’ve been handed over to a child, who now started to shower shades of gold over Mt Manaslu and its neighbors. There were many stages of it and all of our cameras captured almost every stage which led to a point when the twin peaks of Manaslu bathed in gold.
We kept shifting our lenses at different zoom levels to get closer or wider angles but were never satisfied. No matter how many snaps I share in this write up (and there are tons of them), I still can’t recreate that magic which has left an indelible mark on us. These are the moments that can justify walking for miles, crossing over landslide zones, all the ups and downs.
The strong winds that keep dashing at these high peaks, often throws up a storm of snow particles around the peak which makes it appear as wearing a scarf around its neck. The scarf too, acquired the shade of gold. All of the residing travelers at the tea house witnessed the event. Groups scattered around their respective tables, having their morning sip of tea or coffee, but their eyes gazed on the mountain.
Loaded with morning views of Mt Manaslu, we ventured out for the day’s hike. Our way went back along the same route we took while reaching Samagaun and after exiting the main residential areas, we entered the fields. The valley was wide open with yaks grazing around. We could see them grazing even at distant places where they appeared as moving black or brown dots, depending on their fur colors. With the sun now fully out, Manaslu dazzled with its snowy slopes and glaciers.
After the fields, we reached a place where there was a school. It was the only school we came across in the entire area we’ve traveled in this part of the region. Students could study up to third or fourth standard, beyond which, Kathmandu was the only available option. Kids played around in the bright sunshine. They were enjoying their hands at volleyball. Some of our members got excited and joined them.
After exiting the school campus, we reached that point which had a diversion towards the route to Pungyen monastery. We started our hike, which was gradual amidst forests to start with. Though it wasn’t steep but we had to take off our jackets (only to put them back on later at higher altitudes) as the sun was weighing heavy and hot on our backs. The trail initially zig-zagged through scattered trees, which started to disappear as we gained height.
The hike started becoming steep as soon as we reached beyond the tree line and the landscape started changing dramatically. Trees transformed to bushes, which too became rare after sometime. The mountain peaks (now well known to us by the virtue of repeated acquaintance with their shapes) increased in their size and stature.
Many other group of travelers headed towards the monastery. We could see them walking or hiking at varying distances from us. As we kept moving up, slopes gained steepness and the glaciers along the mountain slopes gained prominence. The sky was pastel blue.
Suddenly, our guide screamed to draw our attention. I looked back to see him point at a particular direction high up on the slopes on our right. Following that, we saw some moving objects. After a careful glance, we identified them as a grazing herd of Himalayan mountain goats.
It surprised me to some extent, given the fact that there weren’t many bushes around and the grass too was scarce. The trail now became narrow with loosely placed pebbles and boulders taking the place of hard soil. That necessitated some care to prevent skidding. We reached a gate of the monastery. While that got us elated, but that didn’t last long. It turned out to be the lower gate and the actual location of the monastery was further ahead. The glaciers increased in their size.
We finally reached a wide meadow surrounded by mighty Himalayan peaks an almost all sides. Every group of travelers spent sometime in the meadow before moving on further towards the monastery. The entire surface of the region was covered with brownish-yellow grass, dotted with boulders here and there. On every side, just beyond the reach of the meadow, the mountains rose. The place looked like an amphitheater.
Many of the travelers (including our guide and porter) spread out and lied down over the ground to take a deep breadth and relax in the basking sunshine lit meadow. I rotated my head for a full 360 degree only to be awestruck by the views we were presented with. Mt Manaslu stood right before us and presented itself from an entirely different angle than what we saw from Samagaun.
Dhananjoy asked the guide and some of the other members of the group to take his snap in the backdrop of each and every visible mountain peak, with Mt Manaslu getting a special attention. It went to an extent that we started pulling his leg by asking him to give the mountains some respite rather than making them act as backdrops for his snaps!
While having our photo shoots, we took a decision not to move ahead further since the monastery was still far ahead, but the best possible views are available from this meadow and moving any further won’t necessarily imply having any better. It was already 11 AM and the descent would take us another two hours at least. Regardless of how bright the sunshine was, it can be deceiving and it’s advisable to get out of the high reaches before noon as afternoons typically bring bad weather with them. Hence, we turned around and headed down. When we reached the gate of the monastery lower down, we encountered a stream which now flowed right across the trail. It wasn’t there on our way up. Evidently, the rising power of the shining sun has started melting the glaciers higher up and the stream gained momentum. It wasn’t comfortable treading down the steep trails made slippery by the flowing stream. Chances of skidding increased manifold. We had to be careful with our steps, especially at the hairpin bends. I became more conscious keeping a strict vigil on my stepping.
It continued till we reached the vicinity of the treeline, beyond which, the slopes eased out and walking was much more comfortable amidst the trees. After about one and a half hour, we reached the diversion point where the trail met with the main Manaslu circuit and we turned to our left and headed towards the Samagaun village. By that time, many of the peaks got eclipsed by rising clouds from lower reaches, a typical phenomenon in these parts of the Himalayas.
We walked down by the now familiar fields and alleys of the Samagaun village and reached our tea house and were greeted with a pleasant surprise. The day before when we reached Samagaun, we wanted to occupy the rooms besides the terrace, but couldn’t do so. Now, we were being offered the rooms of our choice as some of the travelers left the tea house for their next destination. We had our lunch amidst sunshine on the terrace, the staple Nepalese diet of “Daal Bhaat” (rice, with lentils and vegetables). Ranjan da brought out his jar of pickles and we had an enjoyable lunch. In the afternoon, some of the porters from different groups assembled in an ad-hoc session of Nepalese folk music. Some of them gave magnificent renditions. We were awestruck. These people spend most of their lives carrying heavy loads on their backs for different trekking expeditions up and down these unforgiving trails. But that hasn’t taken down their taste for music which continues to thrive amidst abject poverty. The sun started setting behind the twin peaks of Mt Manaslu firing up the outlines of the peak but we were devoid of the colors which were playing out for certain on the other side of the mountains that weren’t visible from Samagaun. Nevertheless, the fading sunlight painted the entire village, its houses and fields in light crimson. Shadows got longer and the tunes from the Nepalese porters made the evening wonderful. The evening tea got served. After darkness, we headed towards the dining area and brought out our pack of cards, a usual routine that we’ve been following. After dinner, we headed to our respective rooms. Our stay at Samagaun was coming to an end. The next day would take us to Samdo, the next destination. We were briefed by our guide that the walk to Samdo would be short and pleasant and we should reach there before lunch. Samdo is the last destination before Dharamshala, the base of Larke Pass. We were approaching towards culmination of the trek. That gave a sense of eagerness, but at the same time, a tinge of sadness about the impending end of our journey. With that mixed feeling, we subsided under the blankets.