The good news was that Gina and Jonathan's tent had not been swept off the peak where it was pitched in the night. The hilarious news was that we all looked as if we had botox injections all night. Bloated and puffy with limbs and faces feeling the effects of the altitude. The bad news was that Ravi announced cheerily at breakfast that this was our hardest day yet with at least seven hours of walking.
Palatuna however was not shitty - it was totally breathtakingly stunning and we woke up to the sun and unimaginable vistas.
Today we were climbing to our highest peak, some 4,200 metres. The uphills were continuous, we crossed river beds, beds of screed, areas where the recent monsoon had caused massive landslides and we walked along the sides of unstable mountains with very little to hang onto. Along the way bear paw marks and fresh scat so they were definitely walking where we were walking ! We saw wild goat and watched lamerger eagles soaring above us.
Bear Paw Big !
Fresh bear scat
C's boot - all of 35 years old, clearly had had enough and the sole slipped off on an uphill. It was the perfect Ray Mear's moment as Jonathan took out his survival kit and duck taped his sole to his boot until the porters arrived with the rucksacks.
There were 7 of them and the youngest was a boy of 16 Anil, who on this particular morning took his trousers off to dry off and walked in his underpants with a great load on his back. These porters ran down these mountains and ran up them with no change of pace, no change of clothing and no sign of discomfort. Most of them wore chappals, open flip flops. They wore most of their clothes all of the time and must have thought it so funny that we stopped all the time, be it for water, to take our jackets off, to put our thermals on and catch our breath and boy did we have to do that a lot !
At the highest peak of Surani we did a puja to the gods and gave an offering to the little shrine built into the mountain.Jonathan disappeared up a promontory and Gina and I caught our collective breaths and hoped he didn't slip off either side. I have enlarged the picture so you can see him as a speck in the distance.
A well earned break on Surani
A kinder path around a mountain
Ravi, never one to mince his words, described the walk ahead as "mostly downhill but with some up bits and not so good bits". True to his word there were loads of all of that and we walked along edges that we needed to hang onto. Screed that saw me losing my balance twice. Edges where I had to use all four limbs to carry on. At one point where we had all stopped to help each other over a very challenging rock face the rock that Gina was hanging on to just came away in her hand and she fell back. Luckily Ravi was able to catch her in time. We rounded that corner to be faced with several hundred sheep and goats that were disturbed by our presence and came hurtling down the mountain at us.
Seeing the camp site at a distance was some comfort but altitude sickness and nausea had already set in for some of the group. We had the next morning off deservedly I thought, while C explored a glacier higher up and Gina washed her hair in the freezing cold water of the stream by our camp. We wanted to keep moving so we agreed to start at lunch and head to a new campsite in the evening.
Anil with the precious blue box - see further down
Some of the river crossings
I struggle with downhill at the best of times but this was relentless and very muddy and slippy. There were deep channels that were formed of the path and the plants sometimes reached to my shoulder. At other times it was open pastures but with gullys of wet sloppy mud and an unbelievable amount of cow poo. I hung onto my stick and thank god Jonathan came to my help everytime there was a big step down. However our path was slow and difficult and I was growing very weary. Ravi indicated that it was not far to a river and once we had crossed the river the camp site would not be too far on the opposite side.What he didn't mention is that the river was a torrent, we edged our way across wooden planks with flagstones positioned on top and got to the other side to see that we had to climb a whole mountain - I kid you not - it was straight up for an hour at the end of a very hard day's walk and we were walking in the rapidly fading light. I was determined to make it to the top where a very wet boggy forest clearing was waiting for us. They set the tents up in the dark and it started to rain heavily.
We crawled into our tents and lay down exhausted, too tired to eat or wash. It rained all night and this time it was Ravi who spent the night awake thinking the little pond that we were camping by would have flooded our tents. Gina and Jonathan were flooded and a lot of their clothes and possessions were wet and damp so we waited for the rain to subside and I just hoped to god that the way we came up would not be the way we came down.
A very damp dawn
Just about smiling
It was worse. While the start of the walk was through pastures, the rest was through woods with stones, roots which were muddy and slippy. And I guess I forgot to mention - it had started raining heavily again so we were walking in a torrential downpour.It did not matter as half way down we came across a camp of Gujjar pastoralists and everything immediately came into perspective. They live under a tarpaulin and sleep in the hay. There are women and children in camp while the men tend the buffalo herds and they were cheery and rosie cheeked and beautiful so we had NO cause to complain. Our life was a bed of roses compared to theirs. We chatted and took pictures with them and they warmed up some of their thick and delicious buffalo milk for us to drink.
The Gujjars - a pastoralist nomadic tribe
The afternoon, our final walk was meant to be a lighter version of all the above but actually I was no longer expecting anything better - my feet are sore from all the downhill and the paths of stone are jarring and uneven. We walked solidly for perhaps three and a half hours and turned back to look at how far we had come down the mountain.Very far !The last bit was on tarmac as we rounded a flowing river and went to the little village of Ghangnani famous for its hot springs. That night - a bed in a hotel ( the tents being too wet for us to stay in ) and a dip in the hot springs which come out of the mountain burning hot. So hot we couldn't stay in it but unbelievably soothing on all those aching muscles. Our first wash in seven days.
We returned to Barsu, our starting point, by jeep the following day, where we thought the dilapidated Indian guest house with its power cuts and cobwebs, its lack of water that morning and its dirty sheets was the ultimate in luxury.We spent the afternoon drinking chai with all the women in the village. In the evening a final meal cooked by our wonderful two young men Yesbeer and Lokesh with Gina and I participating in a cooking session since one of the undisputed highlights of this journey were the wonderful meals we were served out of this magic blue box.
The village children at the Mandir and swinging from the bell
The magic Blue box
This Himalayan eggs were to die for ..well you know what I mean, we didn't really want to die and were dead hungry and they tasted like the heavens we had come ever so close to.
Yesbeer and Lokesh were our cooks for our Himalayan adventure and food never tasted so good. This was our absolute favourite from the week.
3 eggs + one egg white
12 small waxy potatoes
Veg stock powder/ chaat masala / subji powder
Salt and pepper
Hard boil the eggs and peel. Boil and then peel the potatoes - mash well and add GM, salt and pepper and spices to taste. Fry the mustard seeds in a tbsp oil, add the potato mix and cook while stirring well for 2 minutes so that all the potato is coated with the mustard seeds.
Cool the potato and then mould round the eggs. Coat in corn flour and then egg white beaten slightly.
Fry in more oil for about 2 minutes and then allow to cool before cutting in half. Should be crispy on the outside, with a soft inner potato filling and a lovely egg in the middle.
Heaven on the Himalayas.