Day 0: Wednesday 12 February 2020
There was a window of opportunity in February, before work obligations in the spring. Covid was just starting its march across the world. Could there be a quick trip to Nepal, as the recorded cases of coronavirus were so far tiny? A convenient short winter trek would be Langtang.
Memory is unreliable. Had I done this trek in January two or three times? I recalled twice ascending Kyanjin Ri (4774m), an outlying peak above the Kyanjin Gompa, the last settlement on the trail. The second of those ascents had been accompanied by chest pains, warning signs of altitude stress on the lungs. The ascent from Langtang Village to Kyanjin Ri is 1344m, which can be too much in a single day, especially as the overall ascent in the Langtang trek is rapid.
I had inflated to three the number of previous visits, a common ego problem: exaggeration! The third unconfirmed occasion was a trip for grade nine students which I had organised but not accompanied. The chest pains on Kyanjin Gompa were during another later school trip. So: this new trek would be the third one up the Langtang Valley.
The trek would be familiar, but could it reveal something? What new vistas would open up after a successful climb of Tsergo Ri (4984m), the peak that dominates the views on the upper part of the valley trek? The students on the earlier trek had been willing to try the peak, but it had been safer not to go up: in January it was snow-covered, not all had suitable boots, and the icy nature of the ascent and descent could be risky. Now, it would be feasible.
No journeys in Nepal can be made without commenting on the state of the roads. Every village wants a new motorable road. But often these are bulldozed in without thought of the likelihood of landslides in the monsoon. I remembered some massive landslides on this road, and the vertiginous mountain-hugging path the road would take. It caused some nervous moments when taking the students up to the start of the trek at Syabrubesi.
Now this road was being improved with the aid of Chinese grants, as it connected with the border and could be used to enhance trade, so we made quite good progress on the widened stretches. But after lunch we came to a long queue of vehicles: a truck heavily laden with cement had got stuck in mud and no one could pass in either direction. After some three hours waiting, I said to Madhu and Bishnu, “Come on, let’s just walk to Dunche. We don’t need to get in to Syabrubesi. And the following day we can go over to U Kyang, the Tamang village.”
It was a gentle walk of about 10 km, and we even got a short lift on the school bus, though we had to get out in order to register at the entrance of the National Park, where rucksacks had to be unpacked. The soldiers were particularly interested in whether we were secreting drones, which are prohibited. The bus had the rules of transport written on a whiteboard at the front, with such recommendations as: Remember, you are on School Bus. Take your seat and do not talk loudly. And finally: The harder you work, the luckier you get. On the path we could see a hardy goat devouring aggressive looking nettles, its leathery tongue lashing the leaves, relishing every bite.
It was a cold, damp evening when we approached Dunche in the last light of day. This town is the starting point for the ascent to the sacred lakes of Gosaikunda, and sees a massive influx of pilgrims trekking up to the abode of Shiva during the festival season in August. But now it was relatively quiet. I think we were the only guests at one of the roadside hotels on the main stretch of the town.