Into the Kali Gandaki, and the reality of the road

Yesterday we walked to Jomson and then today a short walk to Marpha. What a contrast already to the first part of our trek up the Marshyangdi Valley to Manang and then over Thurong La pass. We saw signs of road building, but nothing like we encountered as we walked down from Muktinath into the Kali Gandaki Valley. Tractors pulling trailers carrying local people, motorbikes … not a lot as yet, but enough to disturb the peace and solitude of walking.

Descending from Muktinath to Pokhara
Descending from Muktinath to Pokhara
In the Kali Gandaki, it will never be this peaceful again
In the Kali Gandaki, it will never be this peaceful again
The road, cutting through the fields of Marpha. This is a clear example of the impact of what my mate Dave calls “straight line thinking”
The road, cutting through the fields of Marpha. This is a clear example of the impact of what my mate Dave calls “straight line thinking”

In Marpha Village we met with Mr Bhakti Hirachan.  We walked above Marpha to a spot with a commanding view of the village and Kali Gandaki river, where we stopped for a while.  He talked about the issues they’re faced with, as well as the positive things they are doing. While they are observing changes with climate, the biggest issue at present is the development of the road. Mr Bhakti has been opposed to the road and still is. He believes it will create more environmental problems.  I agree with him.

“Currently I don’t see big environmental issues but I am worried for the future because of the road construction that is taking place here. Once the highway is completed, there will be many buses plying the road and creating bigger environmental problem. Then I think the condition will be very very bad.” Mr. Bhakti Hirachan, Hotel Owner and Social Worker
“Currently I don’t see big environmental issues but I am worried for the future because of the road construction that is taking place here. Once the highway is completed, there will be many buses plying the road and creating bigger environmental problem. Then I think the condition will be very very bad.” Mr. Bhakti Hirachan, Hotel Owner and Social Worker

I offered to write my reflections for him, which included the following:

Of far greater importance than the road in the Annapurna region is the need for reafforestation. If I consider the needs for:

1)      environmental protection

2)      sustainable fuel supplies

3)      water resources protection

4)      natural beauty protection

5)      sustainable local economies

6)      social well-being

then I find far more reasons to be funding reafforestation rather than road building.  All of the above matter hugely in developing resilient communities in the face of climate change and other issues.

Marpha Village is a beautiful place, and has a very strong community.

“We have a very powerful women’s group called the Mothers’ Group and also a Youth Group who have been instrumental in promoting and implementing environmental management practices. The Mothers’ Group has been crucial in promoting planting of deforested areas, waste management and safe drinking water. The Youth group has been the effective voice in encouraging young people to be actively involved in the community work, preserving the environment and culture.” Mr. Bhakti Hirachan

They have worked as a community to protect their unique environment. How they cope with the challenges and changes that the road brings remains to be seen.

Thorong La Pass

Karma and I barely slept. The altitude and cold, dry air were affecting my breathing and I was concerned about Lena. Karma was worrying about Lena all through the night. About 4.10am I had Karma outside my door. We went and checked on Lena. She was feeling OK, no more headaches or vomiting. The decision was to get up and go.

I can barely put in words the challenge of this day. The long, slow, 1000m climb to Thorong La Pass (over 5400m); the sense of relief and emotion when we reached the top; the sheer guts and determination from Lena; the incredible strength of Ali, who at 13 years old has to be one of the youngest foreigners ever to do this crossing … who Karma originally didn’t believe could do it when he heard her age, but he did believe when he saw what good walkers both girls are. And for me, an end to any doubt I had about my ability to do this at 48 years old and completing something I had originally been drawn to 24 years ago.

An indescribable feeling to reach Thorong La Pass at 5416m
An indescribable feeling to reach Thorong La Pass at 5416m
All downhill now, a long 1600m descent to Muktinath. What an incredible sense of relief and accomplishment!
All downhill now, a long 1600m descent to Muktinath. What an incredible sense of relief and accomplishment!

Clear thinking at 4500m in the Himalayas

Early morning in Manang, a long day ahead to reach Thorong Phedi
Early morning in Manang, a long day ahead to reach Thorong Phedi
Looking back towards Manang and the Annapurna Himal
Looking back towards Manang and the Annapurna Himal
Seven hours and a 1000m climb to Thorong Phedi
Seven hours and a 1000m climb to Thorong Phedi

This day literally became the high point of the journey for me. At 4500m altitude, in the middle of the Himilayas I met a straight talking Nepali/Tibetan man, Michung Gurung, owner of the Thorong Base Camp Lodge and Manang farmer. I had been told about this person by Bhim, the ACAP ranger in Manang. But it had been a long, hard day, and I was feeling the cold and altitude as well as needing to be with the girls, particularly with Lena who had a bit of a headache (a high altitude effect). While the girls went to bed I noticed this man outside my room, lighting a small fire and beginning a small ceremony for the Gods. This was Michung Gurung, the lodge owner and person Bhim had told me I should talk to. This man spoke good English and had plenty to say. After all the challenges of the last two months, after the incredible challenges since we began trekking… here I was high in the Himalayas talking to a man who was worth listening to. We went into his living quarters, next to my room. It was dark, but there was just enough light from the battery powered fluorescent light to film. I filmed about 8 minutes of interview at 4500m. This is a voice that many people need to hear … a straight talking man who says that the hope for the world lies in people putting an end to greed, an end to spending money on weapons and wars. If we turned this money to reafforestation everywhere then we might have a chance of restoring ecological balance and health to the world and of turning things around. The big problem, says Michung Gurung, is that there is too much talking in the world and not enough doing. His view is that we need to put money and resources into the hands of the doers who can provide real leadership for positive change.

“I think that people who has money, I think they should work from inside, you know, from the heart, not from the mouth then the solution will be solved. From the mouth it doesn’t work.” Michun Gurung
“I think that people who has money, I think they should work from inside, you know, from the heart, not from the mouth then the solution will be solved. From the mouth it doesn’t work.” Michun Gurung

Farmer perspectives from Manang

A good day! Ali had slept well and no more diarrhoea or nose bleeds! We were all able to appreciate the stunning mountain scenery here and also meet and film interviews with some local people. Bhim, the ACAP conservation officer was very good. He accompanied us down to some local fields where we filmed people at work and briefly interviewed a local farmer.

“Right now he is saying he is working in the farm, he’s spending his life on the farm and he’s saying that he’s seeing the glacier of Gangapurna Lake is decreasing year by year but he has not any concern whether the glacier is decreasing or increasing, nothing for him. He is a typical farmer. There are many farmers like this living in this village. He’s not well educated and he’s concerned with his living only, not for environment, not for other things.”

“I have nothing to ask and no opinion. We are the workers of the farm. And I am happy with the way things are.” Local farmer, Manang
“I have nothing to ask and no opinion. We are the workers of the farm. And I am happy with the way things are.” Local farmer, Manang

We then walked over to Gangapurna lake. This lake has formed over the last 20 years or so from the melting of the Gangapurna glacier.

Gangapurna glacier and lake. The latter has formed over the last 20 years with melting of the glacier
Gangapurna glacier and lake. The latter has formed over the last 20 years with melting of the glacier

After lunch we met with Sonam Chhiring Ghale and Sonam Chhiring Gurung, both farmers and lodge owners. These are both smart farmers, who talked about more erratic rainfall patterns over the last 20 years, which have resulted in an irrigation scheme supported by ACAP. Big issues are declining snow levels and loss of forest cover. They can’t control the loss of snow and the melting of the Gangapurna glacier but there is potential to manage forest cover. However this requires support to introduce fencing to control animals that presently free-range and to protect trees that are planted.

Sonam Chhiring Gurung, local farmer and owner of Manang Hotel, at home with his wife. He and Sonam Chhiring Ghale talked about higher temperatures, more erratic rainfall patterns, less snow and loss of forest cover
Sonam Chhiring Gurung, local farmer and owner of Manang Hotel, at home with his wife. He and Sonam Chhiring Ghale talked about higher temperatures, more erratic rainfall patterns, less snow and loss of forest cover

“When I was 10 or 12 years old the lake near the Gangapurna Glacier was very small, the glacier was a massive chunk of ice. But now everything is gone. The lake has enlarged massively. The receding of the glacier is progressing leaving the bare rocks behind.” Sonam Gurung

“Of course we understand that the entire earth is warming up. We know from what we have observed from Kathmandu. The increase in traffic has resulted in the formation of the smog in the atmosphere. When we were small the atmosphere of Pokhara was smog free, but just within a span of 10-12 years we see the change. The same polluted air will travel to the high mountain places. The dark smokes that we see coming here in the evening is that very smog from low land. It is this polluted air of the lowland that has melted the snow. We need to plant the trees and see how we can protect our environment. That’s what we need to do.” Sonam Ghale

To Manang, the call of the mountains

The challenges of the journey continued with Ali having diarrhoea in the night and again in the morning! This was a concern as from now on we were getting into seriously higher altitudes, where altitude sickness is a real risk. Ali was incredibly strong today, making it to Manang despite everything. I feel the sheer, almost indescribable, majesty of the mountains we were now among and the incredible power of nature we were feeling had a real strengthening effect on Ali. Despite all challenges of illness so far it was hard not to feel this power and energy around us. The biggest concern was when she started having nose bleeds just short of Manang. Number one priority when we got to Manang was to get on top of her diarrhoea, which we managed to do. Thank goodness tomorrow was a rest day! Time for Ali to recover and also for us to adjust more to the altitude.

En route to Manang, a day when Lena was inspired to write a poem
En route to Manang, a day when Lena was inspired to write a poem

While Ali and Lena rested I went down the road to the Manang District HQ of ACAP, where I met Bhim Prasad Upadhyay, conservation officer. We arranged to meet again with his manager next morning.

What a stunning place, with the Annapurna Himal spread out above us!
What a stunning place, with the Annapurna Himal spread out above us!

The mountains are calling

By Lena Kenny

The snowy mountains-

lonely, lofty heights;

they are calling.

Pine trees and their falling needles-

their smell is drawing me in.

To walk, and remember days gone past.

That whistling wind is so familiar.

See- the drifting wind catching

the snow up

to curl and twist in the air.

My feet are following a path

that has been trodden before-

by another set of feet,

on a different day.

Cliffs, mountains, trees.

I am smaller than them all.

So small…

Will they remember me walking past?

I am so small,

and yet…so big!

And the butterflies are still dancing,

and the wheat is still swaying,

the wind still whispers in my ear,

and my feet,

they are still tredding along that well

trodden path,

that leads to the mountains,

those mountains, they are calling…

Interview at Chame

I was better today, but still a bit weak. We walked down to the local Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP) office where we met Sherjung Gurung, the local conservation assistant. At short notice Sherjung managed to call in Tashi Dhindu Lama, Chairman of the Forest Management sub-committee in Chame. He talked about declining snow levels and the importance of forest conservation. He saw good and bad things with less snow. Less snow and higher temperatures means more crops can be grown and more grass for grazing. But bare rock is not good, it makes the mountain gods unhappy, it makes those local people who respect and understand their environment unhappy.

“I don’t think less snowfall means good, because what would become of these mountains if there is no snow? The name ‘Himal’ (mountain) will have no meanings if they lose snows, the name will be lost in future. Also most of the foreigners from all over the place appreciate these snowcapped mountains and for us also they are the symbols of good fortune. But if these mountains have no snow cover then the very essence of these mountains will be lost. We will be heartbroken if such things happen.” Tashi Dhindu Lama, Chairman of the Forest Management sub-committee in Chame
“I don’t think less snowfall means good, because what would become of these mountains if there is no snow? The name ‘Himal’ (mountain) will have no meanings if they lose snows, the name will be lost in future. Also most of the foreigners from all over the place appreciate these snowcapped mountains and for us also they are the symbols of good fortune. But if these mountains have no snow cover then the very essence of these mountains will be lost. We will be heartbroken if such things happen.” Tashi Dhindu Lama, Chairman of the Forest Management sub-committee in Chame

They’re doing their best to protect the forest but the pressures are great. This interview inspired me and gave me real confidence that all the challenges of this journey so far would be worth the effort. I felt much better as we walked from Chame in the morning sunshine, with pine forest around us and stunning mountains above. We reached lower Pisang in good time.

Every day we saw tree cutting activity for firewood

A tough day to Chame

Just as the girls were right, I came down with diarrhoea! I thought it had been tough until now, supporting the girls and hoping at some point I would make a few more connections to do more filming. But this was my toughest day as I drew on my reserves to get to Chame. I collapsed into bed when we got there.

Clearing forest to build a road that doesn't make sense
Clearing forest to build a road that doesn't make sense