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A fast-moving duo

By Rob Rowlands

With three Australian doctors, we drove in two tiny taxis from Dharan to Basantapur and started walking late on 8 November. That night, we reached only Panch Pokhari, a cluster of tea houses on a ridge at about 2800m. The air was clear in all directions and the views were stunning; we could see Makalu, Chamlang, and the tip of Everest to the north, and Jannu and Kangchenjunga to the south.

Next day, beyond Chauki, the ridge was an easy stroll. Gupha Pokhari was hosting a district soccer tournament, and there was a traditional Nepali bamboo swing (Ping) left over from the previous week's Tihar festivities. At Gupha, we met a Maoist with a velvet touch who extracted the expected donation. We got away with NRs. 3000 each ($US42) and the doctors with less, perhaps because the Maoists hoped to recruit them.

Hanpang

From just past Gupha the ridge drops precipitously to the Tamur River at 600m, but we took a bypass trail south to the Limbu village of Hangpang at 1400m, where we had installed a solar-powered vaccine fridge in 2000. We wanted the Aussie doctors to see the fridge and to check the electrics. We arrived late, stayed at a nearby house, and early next morning were shown around by the health care workers.

This post has 40-50 visitors each day, so is busy. The vaccine fridge was working, though because of an equipment failure, it was running only during the day. The solar-panel controller had ‘failed safe’, and the full power of the 200 watt panels had boiled the batteries dry. Keeping lead acid batteries topped up is the biggest problem with solar systems in Nepal. We need Lotus Energy to replace the controller as soon as possible.

Our Australian friends left us here and retraced their route to Basantapur and Dharan.

Lelep

We went on to Dobhan, which is under Maoist control, although despite this, the power station appears to be working again. Our 'donation' receipt from Gupha gave us free passage, and we clambered up the marginal trail to Mitlung, arriving just on dark. The spotless tea house there has been expanded into a lodge and has clean toilets and upstairs rooms. The following day we went through Sinuwa. It now has a new school building, possibly funded by DFID ??, but the health post is in ruins. We crossed the Tamur River on the new bridge at Taplethok and arrived in Lelep at dusk.

Next morning, we checked the vaccine fridge. This was our first fridge. We had installed it in Lungthung in 1999, but earlier this year it had been moved to an abandoned KCAP building in Lelep. In the process one of the batteries we had supplied in May 2004 had ‘gone missing’. We sent a recovery party to Lungthung to find the battery, but the attempt was unsuccessful.

Nevertheless, the fridge was working well on its one battery and was well stocked. We installed a new battery and a couple of lights for the healthcare worker. Previously the building had been wired by KCAP, but the Maoists had looted everything, even the copper wire in the plastic conduit.

New lights

The lights we had installed last May in the girls’ dormitory were working fine. But we had installed them in only four of the eight rooms, and all 40 girls were reportedly crowding into these four rooms to take advantage of the lights. We installed a new 50 watt solar panel, a new battery, and lights in the remaining four rooms. We had planned to install lights in the kitchen building as well, but the one large kitchen had been divided into four rooms, each with two clay stoves for use by four-five girls. We hadn’t brought sufficient lights for four more rooms, so we elected to leave this until the next trek.

Folay

We left Lelep late on the morning of 14 November and made good time in reaching Amjilosa by dusk. We crossed yet another new bridge, this one at the north end of the Sokathom camp site. En route, we met a trekking party – the first so far – of three Brits who had come from the south over the Sinion and Mirga La. Next day, we continued up valley through Gepla and arrived in Folay at about 3pm. We dropped off a bucket of Duplo and a play tent at the Folay School and met the new healthcare worker, Tsering Dhonden. The previous worker, Yungdung Dorje, was critically injured in a bus accident earlier this year and now lives in Kathmandu.

No radio

We arrived in Ghunsa just after dark and stayed with Chumea in his lodge by the bridge. The locals all turned up to visit us, and we went by Himali Chungda's house to meet the trekkers there. Jamie McGuinness, a Kiwi trekking guide based in Kathmandu, was there with three clients, as were two Brazilian trekkers who had flown in to Ghunsa.

Thanks to his satellite phone and email, Jamie is able to summon helicopters for medical evacuations if need be, but only when he is there. Otherwise, as neither the police nor KCAP now operate there, Ghunsa has no radio. Rescues require a runner being sent to Taplejung. So much for progress. KSP will be considering providing an HF SSB radio in the future, possibly in cooperation with the Himalayan Rescue Association.

School refurbishment

We were delighted to see that the village was refurbishing the school. The roof was in the process of being primed and painted, and the broken doors and window shutters replaced. One room had a new cement floor. Still, the teachers asked for many items, and we will be working with a Nepalese NGO, REED, and the British Himalayan Trust to provide some of them.

The pre-school program continues to be successful, the job being shared amongst four mothers. The room was well organized and had posters on the walls, though the toothbrushes and hand towels from May 2004 had all gone. We delivered another bucket of Duplo and a play tent to an enthusiastic, though snotty, groups of kids.

Ghunsa clinic

The health clinic was clean and well organized. The healthcare workers job is shared by Pema Chambal Lama and Chitting Dandu. This is supposed to mean that one or the other is always available for emergencies, but this is not always the case.

The maternal healthcare worker, Lemu Pema, has been successful with the birth control program, and only two children were born in Ghunsa this year. She caters to the needs of Folay, Gepla, Amjilosa, and Yangma, as well as Ghunsa.

Maintenance

After paying salaries, we headed down through the golden larch forest to Folay. The pre-school kids there were already using the play tent and Duplo. The wind generator’s mast clamp had broken, leaving the generator dangling on its wiring. We couldn’t repair the clamp, so we removed the generator and put ‘new clamp’ on the list for the next visit.

After eggs and many cups of tea, we did a little maintenance on the solar lighting in the monastery, and donated my old 32 watt flexible solar panel to the studious monk there. Chunduk, the well known, hunchbacked, Tibetan emigre we had known so well, was killed in the same bus accident that had injured Yungdung Dorje. Chunduk’s family treated us to a big lunch, while an enormous Rakshi still held pride of place on the fire.

Gepla

We didn’t leave Folay until 2pm, so reached only Gepla that afternoon. The fields of Gepla are quite extensive and south facing, so have good wheat crops, and there is a water-driven mill in the khola above the village. We stayed in the hotel there, and Phurba and Rob walked up to the new school, 200m above the main trail. This school was the site of yet another accident, when Tumahang, a carpenter from the village of Hellok, fell about 6m from the roof. He was seriously injured and died a month or so later, leaving a widow and seven children. Tumahang had worked on both the Ghunsa and Folay schools and the Lelep girls' dormitory.

Maoists

We had a flight to catch from Suketar on Saturday, so we set off early on the 17th, hoping to get to Chiruwa. But we stopped in Amjilosa for breakfast, and at Tumahang's widow's house below Hellok for tea and photos late afternoon, so we reached only Tamewa, a tea house by yet another bridge to the west bank of the Tamur River. The tea house kitchen was full of people who turned out to be a bunch of Maoists, possibly engaged in a futile attempt to extort donations from the trekkers who had helicoptered past them the day before! They left, noisily, at 5am on 18 November, leaving us alone, thankfully.

As we walked to Taplethok, we met the Folay headmaster, Gonpo, and several others on their way back from Kathmandu. At Taplethok, a major mercantile exchange was in full swing. Huge, 40kg bags of cardamon were being filled, weighed, and tabulated before being carried to Taplejung. Rumours of Maoist extorting their share persist - each bag is worth about US$100.

At Chiruwa we had a good breakfast, but heard a disturbing story of a local teacher who had just that day been released from a four-day abduction by a Maoist teacher. He had been made to walk, at night, without food, pointlessly, to several parts of the district, as punishment for some past deed. It was sobering to be amongst such suffering, just as we thought the Maoists' grip was lessening.

On to Suketar

At the Thiwa Khola bridge we started the long climbing traverse to Suketar. This trail is wide and well maintained trail, and a huge new bridge is being constructed over the Sisne Khola. Near Tagelum we dropped off much appreciated photos from last year with a Brahmin family in the tea house, the pushed on to Jogidanda, where our arrival, again at dusk, was rewarded with beer and surprisingly good dahl baht.

We still had 6km and 400m to go to Suketar for a supposedly 11am flight, so we left early and reached the airport soon after 9am. The Yeti agent berated us good naturedly for being late, but all looked well for our flight out that day. However, a few hours later came the flight-cancelled rumour, and despite the promise of another flight the next morning, we knew our flights out of Kathmandu next day were are risk.

Flight cancelled

Next day, Yeti cancelled its flights for the week, so crestfallen, we made phone calls home, and began our escape by walking the 800m down to Taplejung Bazaar. There we booked a bus for the following morning, then walked the length of the bazaar, greeting several acquaintances from previous treks. Following a big fire, part of the bazaar was being re-built, Terai-style, in 2-3 storey concrete - instark contrast to the remaining low, close-spaced wooden buildings.

We had good seats on the 30 seater bus, but as it left Taplejung we knew our comfort would be compromised by the appalling road conditions and hilarious overcrowding. When we crossed the Kabeli Khola bridge three hours later, I counted 70 people aboard, including 10 on the roof. Clive and I took turns holding a sleepy two-year-old on our knees and everyone jolted along good naturedly at less than 10km/h. The descent from 2000m to a river crossing at 200m took two painful hours, the road ahead only too visible.

Kathmandu again

At Phidim, we still held hopes of getting to Kathmandu the next day, so hired a nice Mahindra jeep and hurtled into the night. After two hours of dust and mud we reached a paved surface and could triple our speed. We spent the night at Rumke, then left at 3.30am on the 22nd for an early flight from Biratnagar, arriving at the airport at 10.30am. Phurbas persuaded Yeti Airlines to put us on its first flight, so after several expired departure times we took off about 3.30pm, but reached Royal Thai Airlines office in Kathmandu's Durbar Marg five minutes after it closed.

Next day, ominous stories of fully-booked flights proved false, and Clive and I both returned to our first-world lives, only 3-4 days late. In my seven trips to Kangchenjunga, this was the first to be disrupted by flights out of Suketar. In Bangkok our taxi hit 100km/h as we headed out for dinner, and we knew the trip was over. The charm of Nepal remains undiminished and despite the Maoists, it is a safe and pleasant travel destination.

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