I’d been warned about public buses in Nepal before I came. Cramped and crowded, broken seats, everyone coughing up phlegm, spitting on the floor and out the windows, pushing, shoving – an overall barrel of laughs. I was told it’s always worth taking the tourist coaches and up till now that’s what I’d been doing but to get to Shyaphrubesi in Langtang National Park I have to resign myself to the only mode of transport available and to brace myself for a rough 12 hours. The Lantang range of the Himalayas straddles the border with Chinese occupied Tibet and my plan is to spend 10 days walking the ‘Tamang Heritage Trail’ in a loop before walking up the Langtang valley to the foot of the highest peaks in the area. The trekking begins before we even reach our final destination and we have to change buses three times, walking for around 10-20 minutes between each bus due to landslides that have taken out whole sections of the mountainous unpaved road. Luckily someone coming from the other direction gives me his walking stick which he’s finished with – it will serve me well for the whole of the trek. At one point between buses, passengers have to run a gauntlet over a narrow stretch of path clinging to the side of the mountain while large rocks tumble down spontaneously at high speed from above. The locals find this hilarious and I suppose it is if you don’t think about how close to instant death you and others come when running the gauntlet. Everyone gets through alive though and we continue with the epic journey. By the time we arrive I’m absolutely knackered and looking forward to getting out into the hills the next day.
The indigenous Tamang people of the area have a similiar culture and language to close-by Tibet. Unlike most of Nepal (which is Hindu) they are also Buddhists with a rich heritage. Along the way I stay in family-run guesthouses and find they are generally a pleasant welcoming people despite living in a place that sees a continuous stream of foreign trekkers. Aside from the first day when I take a wrong turn and go astray for an hour, I manage to stick to the right path and quickly get over any worries about trekking alone. The weather is continuously overcast but it usually only rains when I’m finished trekking for the day around 2 or 3pm. The terrain is mainly steep forested hills with an abundance of colourful Himalayan butterflies and wild-flowers.
On the third day I arrive at the ancient hillside settlement of Thuman and stay with a local family. The young married couple take me into their rustic kitchen at meal times (I’m the only person staying in their guesthouse) and the scene is one of domestic bliss, with the mother playing with the baby after dinner and the father singing to his wee daughter. Occasionally she brings me her notebook for me to draw little pictures of animals, smiling all the time. I can’t remember the last time I saw such happy kids.
I spend the fourth day trekking to the other side of the valley from Thuman to the village of Briddhim. The guesthouse I’d planned staying in is closed due to a long ceremony being performed that evening for the mother of one of the monks who is sick. The Buddhist monk and his companions there invite me in for a tea anyway and organise another place for me to stay. That evening I go back to the house to see a bit of the ceremony, a trance like recitation of holy texts that goes onto to 5am the next morning. I only stay for an hour before going to my guesthouse for some badly needed sleep. The next day I finish the ‘Tamang Heritage Trail’ by reaching the Langtang Valley. While coming around a bend in the path through the forest in the rain, I come across what looks to me like two large stoat-like creatures. They flee into the undergrowth as soon as they see me and I don’t think much more of them till I reach the guesthouse that evening and recognise the creatures in a wildlife poster on the wall – it turns out they were Red Pandas, a highly endangered species. It takes another couple of days uphill through thick forest to reach Kyangjing Gumpa and my first glimpse of Snow-capped peaks through the cloud-cover. I spend a day there to relax and wonder around the nearby valley before making the two day trek back to Shyaphrubesi.
On the way into Shyaphrubesi I pass some Maoist propaganda painted on a wall. I haven’t seen much evidence of Maoists since I arrived in Nepal even though there are now in government (the Prime minister is a Maoist). Their support mainly comes from the lowlands so it’s a surprise to see evidence of them here in the mountains. For years their insurgants fought a vicious 10 year civil war with the royalists and regular army of Nepal but now that they share power, it seems like they’ve turned into a regular corrupt political party like the rest of them. Horrendous crimes were carried out by both side in the war and there have been attempts to set up a Truth and Reconciliation commission over the years but both resist any serious attempts at bringing the perpetrators of the crimes to justice.
I decide to stay in Shyaphrubesi an extra night as I meet a Polish photographer who’s organising an exhibition in the village. Martushka from Poland has been working with teenagers in the local school for the past few weeks in ways of expressing themselves through photography (the cameras have been donated through a campaign organised by Martushka). The exhibition is a series of photos taken and arranged by the kids in the local school to tell the story of a local folk legend.
While thinking of the long journey back to Kathmandu with total dread, I find out that there are jeeps that also go to the capital for a bit extra than the bus. I jump at the opportunity to get onto one of these jeeps. It’s a positive end to a long and often lonely trek during Nepal’s rainy season. I enjoy trekking and being in nature but the next time I trek, wherever that may be, it won’t be alone.