Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Taplejung to Ghunsa: Shaky journey

Hello again, it has been a while. I am posting this from the vicinity of Mamankhe where Penny and I are slowly emerging from the wilds of Eastern Nepal. We are still two days solid walk from Taplejung but can already taste the samosas and momos, and feel the hard seats on the bones of our buttocks as once there we have over 24 hours of bussing to meet the Stewart family in Nepal. Our journey has been a memorable one, not as delightful as some, but yeah memorable. This is the first installment, how we got there as it were...thanks for the messages about the earthquake, as you can read below we were a little lucky.

Mamankhe - Still some earthquake damage
 As previously blogged we arrived in Taplejung, feeling quite fortuitous, sometime before noon one day. Taplejung is a big town, the district centre of a largely remote mountainous area, its narrow streets hum with desperate commerce. We ate momos in a tidy restaurant enjoying the surprise wifi.
Penny has been acquainting herself with the Nepali health system: a quick tour of Patan hospital, a weeks work in Ilam and now a glance at Taplejung. The busy doctor was running the whole hospital by himself, 30 beds and a throng of out patients. Penny had to be physically restrained from flinging herself into the fray!

Taplejung hospital

The Limbu trail starts from Taplejung and contours well above the Tamur valley floor (the other and quicker way up valley). The idea of the Limbu trail is to showcase the local Limbu culture which seems to consist of harvesting cardamon and drinking Tongba. The former is a lucrative cash crop which now dominates the understory of the forests, the latter is the local tipple which seems to dominate the lives of many of the locals.

Penny couldn't resist a tipple

The Limbu trail has been developed by central government, and does not seem strongly supported locally. A bulldozer has hacked a wide mud path along much of this western stretch which crosses several side valleys. At one point there is a very pleasant Hindu temple. After an afternoons walk we found a bed in Limkin, guesthouses have yet to develop along this part of the trail so you must appeal to the sympathy or commercial instinct of villagers. It was an interesting evening chatting to a local teacher finished off by watching English music videos and discussing the Nepali caste system! TV is the no1 investment  in these communities wherever there is electricity.

Inquisitive kids

Penny and GB Striding Out

Our Limbu hosts - the ladies with traditional jewelry

Our guide GB is proving to be a great guy. We don't usually hire guides but when going to a restricted area in Nepal it is a condition of getting an entry permit. GB has been to Kanchenjunga many times before and is familiar with the project we are helping out with. He also provides us insights into the local culture we would not get otherwise. GB is powered by dahl baaht (lentil soup and rice) twice a day. When he gets this he seems nigh on unbreakable.

From Limkin we had a  6 hour walk to Lelep. We first descended to the main river at the hamlet of Tawa and continued up the true left under an archway proclaiming the boundary of Kanchanjunga Conservation Area. The Tamur river fills the valley floor and we sidled on a rough track to the rough town of Chirwa. Chirwa exists in the bowels of a giant boulder field, most of its wooden shanties incorporate a cave or overhang into their traditional rectangular design. The people here have a reputation for harassing tourists, particularly those that camp at the lovely spot past the northern edge of town. The requesting of "donations" (generally by groups of drunken men) is another Maoist strategy local thugs have adopted for their own ends. At breakfast time things were pretty quiet though and we managed to escape with our noodle soup.

Young girl in Chirwa
 From Chirwa it is a short walk to the settlement of Tapethok where the valley widens a little, here you cross to the river right and continue afresh on a new stone path made by the central government all the  way to Lelep. Cardamon is everywhere through here and we pass a fly camp of some harvesters. Cardamon is not a spice actually used by the locals in their cooking and one asks us if it is actually true that this spice is used in bullets. This local myth has developed because when the pods are drying in the sun they sometimes start exploding. We suggest this hypothesis is probably false.

Lelep is located at a top of a steep rise overlooking the lower valley and two tributarys to the north. The western tributary leads to the famous trading town of Wolangchangola the eastern one to our destination of Ghunsa. Entering Lelep you walk straight into the paved courtyard of the guesthouse and shop, a well constructed monopoly. Lelep is the first village on our route where the Kanchenjunga school project has helped out over the years so we set about checking this out and meeting a few of the local characters.

Kunji Lal, a head wobbling Nepali from far afield is the paramount medic in these parts, overseeing the District Health Post. He works hard but quite possibly makes a bit on the side by selling medicines. Kunji is responsible for everything from vaccinations to contraceptives to blood pressure pills for a cluster of remote villages. On the day we visit Kunji he has spent the night at a difficult birth back down in Tapethok. Like many Nepalis Kunji lives away from his spouse, the demands of work and wider families seem to supersede the nuclear family in Nepal. The same applies to Mahendra, a Brahmin from the Terai who is 2ic of the local high school. He invites us for tea and asks us to pass on a request for solar panels to the Kanchenjunga School Project. Mahendra offers us Chinese biscuits from the Tibet to Wolangchungola trade route. These biscuits sealed in green tins and vacumn packed were meant for the Chinese army but somehow found their way to the yak traders who cross the 6000 metre passes with these biscuits, chinese coke, cigarettes and imitation North Face outdoors gear.It is a great feeling sipping a cold coke that has been transported by yak across the largest mountain range on earth.

We visited the school with Mahendra and met the new woman teacher

 We stayed in Lelep one night and the best part of a morning checking out various things at the health post, gompa, school and girls dormitory, before commiting ourselves to the track up the Ghunsa Khola (river). This sheer canyon is the main access to Ghunsa as well as the north faces of Mt Kanchenjunga and Jannu. It spits out into the Tamur just below Lelep. Down inside the canyon is a hellish place, the river froths unforgivingly, not giving a  second thought to possible eddys. The track searches up and down for a gentle line never finding it. There are several swing bridges in the gorge, on one the remaining slippery planks angle at 20 degrees. At another place we climb on to a sharp spur where a family clings to existence through terraced plots of maize, at another again only wire baskets hold the track firm against the raging river.

The Ghunsa Khola
Pretty solid grade 5
 At last we climb, perhaps five hundred meters above the river and hug a steep grassy slope which extends from river level to us and up another thousand metres to the ridge crest. Slash and burn agriculture has devestated much of this landscape. Looking back down the gorge, high on the far side above the cliffs of the lower Ghunsa Khola there are little homes, burnt trunks and yes fire. Man is an adaptable species.We reach the homely house of Amjilasa which seems a pleasant haven on dusk, but this won't last.

As we sit down to Dahl Baaht with the family in a cozy kitchen everything begins to shake, hard. The pots and mugs and Tongba  barrels sway and squeak. Penny bolts and I follow, the earthquake registers 6.8 and kills hundreds of people in the Taplejung district and the neighbouring Indian province of Sikkim.

Outside the world is falling apart. The cliffs above us have collapsed and dust clouds are rising. The terrible sound of falling rock fills the air. The big boulders bounce like basketballs a deep dribbling. Sparks appear above us where boulders clash. The three of us cower behind a stone wall waiting for ...death, injury, the rush of boulders over our heads, I'm not sure. In the event they fall short or go wide. The biggest in our vicinity ploughed a furrow just past a small hut 50 meters up hill then gets tangled in the low vegetation 20 meters above us.

The big sounds stop and we hug each other, but there is still danger, stray rocks continue to come down and our minds switch quickly to the danger of aftershocks. We evacuate the house, built on bedrock but in a gully, and head 100meters around to the end of a spur where a small bank also gives shelter. We put our tent up and convince the family to join us. There  is soon a tarpaulin tent constructed, and rugs and fire. The night spits with rain but the stars are never far away. The family seems interested in the danger of aftershocks for a start but as the chang (Millet beer) takes effect they stagger off to their beds in the house. We have a long sleepless night, the indignity of mosquitos taking advantage of us in our precarious state. The rocks continue falling but start to ease off about midnight. We sing "Amazing Grace" around the fire, our "geez we are having a really bad day" song. "Thro many dangers, toils and snares we have already come, twas grace that brought us safe this far and grace will lead us home".

A large rock recently at rest - our guesthouse behind

A new slip nearby
 It is amazing how daylight can bring a degree of sanity to a situation. As the hillside gradually lit up we could see the extent of the landslide above us and the slips on the next section of trail. What we could see confirmed our desire to move on, Amjilasa will not be a safe place for a long time. We head towards Gyabla and the nearest phone. I won't say it was fun, the trail is good, except for the cracks, but it sidles through such steep terrain, tottering cliffs rise overhead and below the distant roar of the river. Often there were fresh slips to edge around or jump over. Finally, directly below Gyabla, the track up a steep gut had slipped and we were forced to squirm up the mud with the ever present danger of further slips from above.
Gyabla was in one piece, but the phone was down. At this stage we were imagining villages of squashed Nepalis but the traditional rectangular wooden houses with interlocking joints would prove to hold up well. There are advantages in constructing your homes out of virgin rainforest! We were to find that the majority of buildings damaged were those made of stone, particularly the schools and guesthouses.
Gyabla is on the yak trading route, a shortcut links it to Wolangchungola while upriver are the towns of Ghunsa and Foley. All the people in these parts are of Tibetan origin, either historically or refugees from the Chinese invasion in the 1950s. Many have adopted the last name "sherpa", a naturalised Nepali surname that gives rights distinct from the refugees. We had a good nights sleep in Gyabla digesting the days events and the burnt black lentils.

The Gyabla locals didn't seem too flustered
 From Gyabla we continued up river aiming for the next phone in Ghunsa. The trail as far as Foley was relatively good except for one large slip just before the village that was several hundred meters long and unavoidable. Walking into Foley it was awesome to bump into a couple of kiwis, Rob and Claire, inspired like us by the kiwi history in the area: first the 1950s when Norman Hardie made the first ascent of Kanchenjunga and some subsequent explorations, second the 1970s when a group of Kiwis attempted to climb the sheer north face of Jannu, a story told in Graeme Dingles, "Wall of Shadows"

A couple of nasty little bits of slipped track

Rob and Claire were aborting their planned trip early, worried about rockfall and damage to bridges. We swapped gathered intelligence (collected rumours) about  the earthquake, played the obligatory "do you know.." game to succesfully establish the one degree of separation in the kiwi outdoors community and generally had a good yarn while their porters ate their first dahl baaht of the day.

Walking into Foley it was sobering to see that the rumours of the destruction of the Foley school/health  post / pre school which was built by the Kanchenjunga School Project (KSP) were true. The three room L shaped complex was devastated with the stone walls caved in and kids pictures left flapping in the breeze. We were so fortunate that the earthquake occurred when it did when the children were at home in their wooden houses.
I was reminded of the Kashmir quake several years ago which occured during school time and lost communities a generation. It was only luck that stopped eastern Nepal and the Sikkim  suffering the same fate.

Peering into the classrooms

Lucky no one was in the loo
 The villagers welcomed us with sweet milk tea and petitioned us to take the news of the collapse to the key figures in KSP. We gave an impromptu earthquake safety talk to the village in their carpet making shed and helped with the demolition and salvage of one of the school buildings. We emphasised the importantance of saving as much of the materials as possible to use in any rebuild. There was one new wooden building near the school that was paid for by the Tibetan government in exile so we asked about the rough cost and logistics of this. There are of course philosophical questions around using wood for construction in a protected conservation area ... something perhaps to be worked through later.

Earthquake education
 We ended up staying the night in Foley as it  had started to rain heavily, increasing the danger of the bad landslides in the short distance to Ghunsa. We stayed with a lady whose husband was further up the valley herding yaks. She was a very expressive person and was obviously opening her heart to GB about all sorts of village politics. She is one of the candidates for the vacant pre school teacher role (payed by KSP), as the previous teacher recently died of jaundice and alcohol.  I love the basic design of the Tibetan sitting room/bedroom/kitchen which is arrayed around the low cooking fire with beds/couches around the walls. Kitchenware sits in shelves and spare spaces are filled with barrels of food. In the rafters,cheese, meat and butter are drying while woven pans contain onions, garlic and the like. A Tibetan chef is constantly ladling, various pots of boiling water and particularly the current pot of milky tea which can be served either sweet or salty. It is best when we can hover around the fire as the monsoon mists are proving more chilling than we expected.

The next morning we headed to Ghunsa along the wrecked Folay powerline which connects to the 3 year old Ghunsa hydro scheme. We passed the memorial to 26 people killed in a helicopter accident high in these misty mountains.  They were all conservation leaders from Nepal and around the world who were touring the region to celebrate the change to local management of the Kanchenjunga Conservation Area. Their memorial in a grove of firs now echos to the sound of rockfall.

The main swingbridge to Ghunsa was just missed by a rock the size of a house. We cross it and enter the quiet town with its prayer flags and potato fields. Apart from  the influence of tourism and more lately electricity  Ghunsa still looks similar to the place that Joseph Hooker visited in the 19th century. Tourism has contributed competing guesthouses some with more modern color schemes, electricity has contributed sateillite dishes. You can now watch BBC in Ghunsa. We stroll up to the Selele La guest house run by Tenzin who doubles as the village medic payed by the KSP. Our primary purpose for all this suffering was to get here so Penny could provide some training to Tenzin and the local midwife Lamu, so for the meanwhile, journey complete I guess, high fives and handshakes allround. Now what to do ...


Meg said...

I am so glad you are alive. Three days of not knowing! I hope I never have to feel that again.

Can't wait to see ya! I miss you both heaps, I've been wearing your greenstone Penny in the hope it will keep you safe.

Lots of love as always, and big hugs

Meg xxx

Jamie said...

Thanks Meg,

Its good to be alive, and now back in Kathmandu after a 28 hour bus trip!

Penny thinks it was maybe your sisterly intuition that knew we were in a bit of a tight place.

Take care aye

Jamie and Penny

Kate Pedley said...

So glad also to hear you are ok and thanks for sharing your experience. Keep safe!
xx Kate