Sunday, August 1, 2010

Monsoon Trekking: Gosainkund

The trail up to and through the Gosainkund area was by far my favorite part of this trip. We got some stunning views, and the trail itself was a real joy...though Donnie may disagree with me on that last part. When I left off in the last post we had spent the night at the Landslide Hotel, named I guess for the large landslide coming down the valley face on the opposite side of the river. After a good nights sleep and some breakfast the next morning we were ready to go..kind of. Donnie, on top of his cold and bum ankle, was now also experiencing some gastro-intestinal distress. Being the task master I am, I told him it was a mere 6,000 vertical feet to Singh Gompa, a spot I hoped we could have some lunch at before pressing on to Laurabina Yak, where I hoped to spend the night.

Chorten in the Forest North of Singh Gompa

After leaving the guest house we quickly came to the split in the trail with the right path leading to Syrafru Besi and the one on the left heading to Thulo Syrafru, where we were headed. The trail almost immediately became steep, turning to switchbacks. Some Nepal gray langur monkeys played in the trees at the edge of the trail, though they were a bit too shy for pictures. After about a thousand feet or so of climbing the trail leveled off a bit, we passed a seasonal tea shack and rounded the mountain to a suspension bridge. As I was crossing the bridge I was lamenting that we were five days into this trip and I had not seen a single leech....I mean I didn't want to really deal with the things, but to go a whole trek in the monsoons and not even have an opportunity to brag about fending them off and such was disappointing in some strange, possibly masochistic way. Well, as they say be careful what you wish for.

Map Showing Our Route Through the Gosainkund Area

After crossing the bridge I remembered that the trail passed back underneath it, but the actual trail was not immediately apparent. I took a smaller trail directly beside the bridge, through some overgrowth and got back on the main trail where it passed under the bridge we had just gone over. As we continued upward toward Thulo Syrabru Donnie noticed he had a leach on him and advised me I had better check for some myself. This  day I wore compression pants (love and swear by them) and shorts, and thus my lower legs were exposed, which may have made them more vulnerable, but at the same time allowed me to monitor them by quick visual observation for any friendly leeches. I had none on my legs, I did however have a bunch on my sock and shoes. About ten of them all together, two tiger leeches and the rest where the little black ones.

After a short tea break in Thulo Syrafru and consulting the map and book, we headed up to the top of the village past the army post and stupa to the trail that would bring us to Singh Gompa. Now the map we had been using put out by Nepa Maps is for the most part an excellent map, and I have used it for this trek and for the Tamang Heritage Trail trek without issue, but it does a terrible job depicting the trails south of Thulo Syrafru. This is the one place where the Lonely Planet Trekking in the Nepal Himalaya  was worth the weight it took up in my pack, as their map and description where much better. That said we still lost the trail just south of the town after being diverted at a landslide that had removed a swath of switchbacks. We encountered a very strange man herding cows, and he pointed us back toward the correct trail. 

Back on the correct trail we continued to ascend steeply via switchbacks up the ridge. As we had made the mistake of leaving the main trail, we were again punished by leeches, this time I got bit on my back, just above my belt line and found a tiger leech attached to my thumb. This actually felt like getting stuck with a needle full of Novocain, which essentially I guess is what happened. Anyway, with the leeches removed we kept climbing, but it was a bit slow and the slog up hill was taking its toll on Donnie in his reduced state. This day was also our cloudiest and wettest. These are the days that you read about when you look up monsoon trekking, as if they are all like this. 

After finally reaching the village of Foprang Danda the trail finally leveled off and we were walking through some of the largest old growth forests I have ever been in. Most of the trees here had four to six foot diameters, and the constant moisture from clouds left moss and mushrooms in plentiful supply. Mixed with the older forests were plenty of rhododendron and some smaller pines. After another hour of walking we finally reached Singh Gompa for lunch.

Wild Mushrooms Drying at the Hotel Green Hill

Although we had planned on going further, Donnie's various ailments had left him exhausted and so we spent the night in Singh Gompa. The Hotel Green Hill at which we stayed is one of the better guest houses I have stayed at on the trail. The rooms were clean, the whole area was very well maintained and the cooking was some of the best I have had on the trail. The proprietor and his family were also quite friendly and made us feel right at home. For dinner I had a pasta dish with mushrooms that had been gathered from the forest, and it was excellent.

Langtang Lirung Viewed from Above Singh Gompa

That afternoon and evening it rained hard, and by the time we got up in the morning the skies had cleared completely. If the previous day was the kind of monsoon trekking that everyone talks about, days like this one are the ones they always leave out. We headed immediately up the ridge on the trail, and the sky was clear, giving a great view of the valleys below and the mountains above. One thing that is always lost in the photography of the Himalaya is the sheer vertical scope of what you are looking at. While the snow capped mountains are impressive in photos (and in reality), it's much more difficult to capture the depths of the valleys and how impressive that is to experience as well. 

Langtang Region on the Right, Ganesh Himal on the Left

As we continued up the ridge the clouds continued to clear from the high peaks as the morning sun burnt them off. The sky was so clear that morning that not only could we see the mountains of the Langtang and Ganesh Himal regions, but we could see clear to the Annapurna region in the far west. North of us you could clearly see the line that marked the beginning of the Tibetan plateau. I could also clearly see the entire region that made up the Tamang Heritage Trail that Kim and I had done last March.

Trail Leading to Gosainkund

After a short stop at Laurebina Yak, we continued up the ridge toward the Gosainkund lakes. Here the trail left even most of the scrub behind entering a rocky alpine terrain. After getting to the top of the ridge the trail begun to hug the side of the cliff, giving spectacular views of the surrounding streams, water falls and eventually of the lakes themselves. This is not a trail for anyone who is afraid of heights. Although the trail is relatively wide and very well maintained, especially compared to what we had been on the day before, it is still a very long way down.

Long Way Down: Looking over the Edge of the Trail

I was very glad to be doing this trail in this weather and not in any moth where we would have to deal with snow and ice. Additionally the mild temperatures not only made it a really pleasant walk at this altitude, the grasses and flowers added an excellent contrast to the rocky landscapes and blue and white skies. The streams and falls that flowed from the lakes were also quite attractive this time of year, and due to the heavy rains from the night before all were running with vigor still in the late morning.

A Pika Pauses Between Grazing

We also got to see a bit of wild life, with a few large birds flying over head and the occasional Pika darting from under one rock to another nearby. Along the shores of the lakes were very large flocks of sheep, their baying could be heard very loudly as we approached the guest houses that line the lake side. The guy who ran the Hotel Peaceful Lake was clearly sick of listening to them, and was impersonating the sheep's noises when we arrived. As the guy certainly seemed to be entertaining we took a look at the rooms and ended up staying there. As it was not even 11AM and it looked like some clouds might start rolling in we decided to get changed and walk around the lakes a bit before having lunch.

Trident Cairn Near Gosainkund Lake 

Because the Gosainkind lakes are a sacred pilgrimage site to both Hindus and Buddhists it is not uncommon to see pilgrims on the trail. While on our way I stopped and spoke with four Nepali men who were returning from the lakes, and we also passed a group that had come from India to visit the lakes. During the full moon in August thousands of pilgrims flock to these lakes for a period of ten days or so when many of them look to bathe in its holy waters. According to myth the lakes were formed when Shiva pierced the mountains with his trident in search for cold water after drinking some poison. According to the lodge owners I talked to these towns and their guest houses are over run with pilgrims and a few tourists for the festival. Although it sounds interesting and I'm sure it would be some great photos, I'm not sure I could deal with another bus ride up to Dunche.

Gosainkund Lake with the Mountains of Langtang Behind

I spent the better part of the afternoon walking around the lakes, though later in the afternoon it rained off and on. By evening, while dining at the guest house, a full wind and rain storm seemed to blow in, with rain occasionally dripping in from the roof. The winds howled quite loudly and every once in a while you could hear something tumble away outside that had not been secured all that well. By the next morning though the skies had again cleared and we were granted another clear day to begin our trekking.

Crossing Over the Laurebina La

After climbing out by Gosainkund Lake we worked our way up toward the Laurebina La, a pass that would be our highest point on the trek (15,125'), and we crossed a number of smaller lakes. After just a short hike we had reached the pass, which was marked by a chorten and number of prayer flags. From here the trail began immediately to descend, and the trail in most places was also a stream through this section. From this valley that we descended into we could see clear across to the town of Therapati sitting on the saddle on the far ridge, where we planned on finishing the day. As we made our way down toward Phedi we stunmbled upon some Children on the trail, who upon seeing us screamed and cried in real fright and moved up the ridge to get away from us. Usually they ask for a rupee, pen, chocolate or a balloon, but these kids were truly terrified of Donnie and I. I know we hadn't bathed in a few days and we were a bit scruffy, but this was the strangest reaction I have ever had while hiking. In retrospect all I can think is that they were Tibetan children sent over the border to meet up with family in Nepal, possibly they mistook us for police or army that would capture them? Not sure. At the time I was a bit shocked and just put my hands together and gave a light bow while saying "namaste" to try and calm them. They calmed down as soon as they saw us do this and continue by them.

Cross the Bridge or Step in the Water?

The trail through this section, although wet, was fairly simple, all the way to Phedi. From Phedi onward it began to rise and fall along the Eastern edge of the valley wall. Every time the ridge met a waterfall we had to descend several hundred feet to cross it, then climb up and over a protruding  face of rock, only to descend again in order to cross another flow of water. Some of the bridges crossing these smaller streams seemed more dangerous than just getting your feet a bit wet and walking through the stream. When the water flow was strong and plentiful I would cross on the bridges, and though the wood bent quite a bit under my weight and packs weight we were always able to get across safely.

Clouds Move in as we Near Therapati

The waterfalls were really quite impressive, but as we passed our umpteenth one and had to ascend again after crossing by it, their splendor began to wear off a bit. We worked our way along the side of the ridge a while longer, and finally made it to the small settlement of Ghopte, which consists of nothing but a few lodges for trekkers. As it was not even noon we continued onward uphill for a little over another hour and finally reached the now cloud covered village of Therapati. Although we had come down quite a ways, we had also gone back up a bit and Therapati sits high up at 12,000' on the saddle of a ridge. We managed to find the same Hotel I had stopped by for lunch back in 2004 (New Yak Yeti Hotel) and as soon as we settled in for lunch it began to rain outside. We had now entered the Helumbu region.

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