12th November, 2019
Sleep eluded me for a greater part of the night and it was only towards the morning, I was starting to get some sleep. My mind was preoccupied with the thoughts about crossing Larkya La. It is the pinnacle of this journey. Treading on slopes laden with snow keeps playing on my mind. I recalled a similar experience about crossing the Cho La, the pass we had to cross to reach the Gokyo region from the Everest base camp trail. I had some tough time dealing with the fresh snow and even developed a limited form of high altitude sickness. But I had excellent support from our guide & the porters. They were more experienced than the support staff we had this time. Another cause of concern was availability (or rather, potential scarcity) of blankets at Dharamsala. There’s only one tea house. The capacity of accommodation was much less than any other place in this route. We did have our own sleeping bags, and might need to fall back to them in case blankets weren’t available. It’s crucial to have some sleep because the next day, we need to embark on our ascent in the dark hours of the night (no later than 4 AM). It’s crucial to cross the pass before the solar rays gain power and the ice starts to melt.
Just beyond Samdo, the trail was level and walking was easy. It went along the slopes of the mountains, caving in and out following the edges. Samdo and its tea houses were still visible even after covering a long distance. After sometime we reached the junction from where, one track turned north towards the Tibetan border. and we continued westwards. There were many tea houses at this place. The place was called Larkya bazar. Many travelers who stayed there last night, were now preparing to start their journey. Beyond Larkya bazar, the trail started to move up the slopes. To the left of the route, the steep mountain walls dived straight into the glacial bed. A huge river of ice and snow stared at us. The surface of it was white due to fresh deposit of snow at some places, dark at others due to a cover of boulders. It was the birthplace of the river Budhi Gandaki.
Fortunately for us, clouds stayed clear. We spent sometime in sunshine in a valley. Manaslu wasn’t visible anymore. In fact, it went out of our views midway through the route from Samagaun to Samdo. It won’t be visible until we reach Bimthang after our descent from Larkya La. Herds of mules kept coming from both directions and we kept our vigil. I hoped we’d see less of them after Samdo, but I was wrong.
They are the lifelines in these areas as they keep the supply lines running. The same responsibilities get carried out by yaks in the Everest region. Yaks are present in these regions too, but they’re not used to ferry loads, they’re mainly herded for milk, fur and meat. On the contrary, mules don’t get used at all in the Everest region. In fact one seldom gets to see them there. Herds of yaks are a measure of wealth and relative prosperity in these remote villages primarily inhabited by people of Tibetan origin, whose predecessors came down from the North fleeing their homes during Chinese invasion of Tibet.
We kept crossing the bends and finally reached one, beyond which started a long stretched landslide area. Beyond that stretch, the tea houses of Dharamsala were faintly visible. We spent sometime to breathe and drink some water. The water, which was lukewarm when we filled our bottles at Samdo, now turned cold. But for some reason, warm water doesn’t help to quench my thirst. So, I felt satisfied even though the water was very cold. It was to have its effect on my throat for the remainder of the journey. The first symptoms of it started at night at Dharamsala.
After some rest, I took a concentrated look at the stretch ahead. The initial section was a narrow trail of loose dust and pebbles, followed by another stretch of boulder heaps fed by landslides from the upper reaches of the mountain. Many small streams of water permeated through the loosely held heaps to cross over the trail and disappear down the slopes on the left. Some parts of the trail had a fence in an attempt to arrest the slides. But they appeared to be more of mental satisfaction than anything more concrete. After all these sections, the landslide zone ended and relatively safer track continued to the tea houses of Dharamsala. I started my walk along the trail, trying to control my momentum down the dusty slopes. I then continued over the boulder heaps, at times casting a glance on the high slopes to the right and finally reached its end to breathe a sigh of relief. We plodded ahead over the gentle slopes to reach the tea houses.
Our porters kept our bags outside. We waited for sometime expecting allotment of our rooms. We were finally allotted one room for all four of us. The room was just about comfortable for all of us to sleep. The entire floor was covered by a thick mattress spread over stones, somewhat leveled. Our bags had to be kept along the sides and the shoes & slippers occupied the space between the mattress and the door. We stuffed the shoes, our walking sticks, water bottles and small backpacks in that narrow space between the mattress and the door. No matter how crammed the space might sound, it’s very pleasing, considering the circumstances. We were at the base of a mountain pass and there was a mattress to sleep on. That’s good enough and what more can we ask for? They’ll provide blankets too, at a charge of 200 Nepalese rupees. Most of us spread our wet clothes to dry them up, hung up our shoes and put on the slippers to free our toes and headed for the dining space. There was a single toilet a few steps ahead downhill. The day was pleasantly warm.
The dining space was a small room just enough for about 10 people to dine. We enjoyed our usual lunch of the Nepalese staple “dal bhaat” accompanied by the chilly pickle from Ranjan da. Thanks to the clear weather, the room bathed in bright sunlight which helped to buoy the mood.
Just outside the kitchen and dining space, towering mountains encircled the place as if we stood on an amphitheater guarded by the mountains.
After lunch, we lied down in the sun to bask ourselves till it lasted. Contrary to my expectations from a distance, the bed wasn’t grassy, but rocky and the edges of the stones didn’t make for a comfortable sleep. I kept tossing around hoping to find a balance between the underlying pointed rocks, but finally gave up. I spent rest of the time sitting while others had a comfortable nap covering their face from the sun by their hats.
The mountains formed a wall in front of us. Ice falls came down their slopes to meet the glacier at their base. Beyond the tea houses, multiple tracks went up the slopes and one of them must be the route that should take us to Larkya La. This was our last night in the Gorkha district. After crossing the pass, we’d enter Manang, an important district of Nepal’s Annapurna region. Larkya La also marks an end of the Manaslu Conservation Area and the beginning of the Annapurna Conservation Area. That’s the reason one requires two permits for these two conservation area projects to cover this trail. Dharapani, the final destination of this journey, is also an important junction, where the Manaslu circuit trail meets the other famous route, the Annapurna Circuit trail.
I envied the other members of the group, who were enjoying a comfortable nap in the warm sun, lying down along the slopes. sometime later, I turned my focus around the surrounding mountains and right behind us, along the slopes, many trekkers from other groups enjoyed their hikes to the top. I identified the German couple among them. They seemed to exploit the most of their presence in the Himalayas. As I might have cited before in this series, they toured the Lang Tang region of Nepal, before turning their attention to the Manaslu Circuit and they’ve been traveling in Nepal for almost a month. As the evening advanced, the shadows of the mountains elongated and the sun lost its grip on the day’s proceedings. The cold winds, as if waiting for their turn, started to blow. In some of the distant valleys, visible from where we sat, we could see yaks grazing around. The fading sun did little to distract them.
From sometime during the afternoon, I started to feel a slight pain in my throat while swallowing food and water. I didn’t give much importance, but it started to increase with passing time. I soon realized that my act of gulping down sips of cold water (apparently to quench my thirst properly) started to have its impact. It made me a tad nervous as I knew from prior experience, it would only aggravate by every passing hour.
It was declared from the kitchen, that dinner was to be served at 6.30 PM (instead of 7, as had been the norm in the tea houses down under). The reason was obvious. No one prefers to stay awake late as most of the travelers (and hence, the support staff at the tea house) would rouse early in the wee hours of the night to start off for the hike to Larkya La. I realized that I forgot to collect some of my clothes (spread out for drying) before darkness and the lost moisture reclaimed their place. I wrapped them up and forced them down at the bottom of my backpack. Chances of wearing them again in this journey became remote.
After dinner, we brushed our teeth (to save time for this act in the morning) – a practice I started since Namrung (thanks to Dhananjoy’s advice). For that we had to walk down the slope to reach near the toilet which had a water pipe fixed up nearby on a rock. During the day, we saw water coming out of it relentlessly, but now, the stream was thin. A quick glance on the ground with our head torches told the story. The stream of water on the ground have started to freeze. Chances of having running water in the next morning were out of question. We subsided into our rooms and started packing up our backpacks and getting things ready for the morrow. Our guide made an appearance to give us an outline for the next day’s travel. We’d have to start no later than 4 AM. Head torches would be crucial. Though the kitchen staff usually gets ready, but we’d not waste anytime for breakfast and first meal of the day would be the lunch at the first halt just after descent from the pass on the other side. Since it was going to be a long gap, we prepared small packets of dry fruits and biscuits to carry along with us. The idea was to munch them at regular intervals in small amounts to keep not just hunger, but also high altitude sickness at bay. Some chocolate bars also made their way into the packs. Sugar, as they say, generates more energy. Our guide also warned us to keep sipping water at regular intervals, not just during the travel but also throughout the night to keep our blood circulations normal at these altitudes. The blankets were warm, but we went in with our thermal inner-wares. I must say, it was comfortable under the circumstances. I thanked the Nepalese people for their humongous efforts to keep the trail well oiled and running even under adverse conditions. Sleeping on a bed, under a warm blanket at an altitude of 4450 m, was a big ask and it’s only possible in a country like Nepal. My throat caused more pain and I gulped down a tablet of Paracetamol as a caution. Larkya La loomed in my mind and possibly others’ too.