Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Monsoon Trekking: Helumbu

At the beginning of these posts I advised that these blog posts are a retelling of my experience, and should not nescisarily be used as an itinerary. When talking about the route we took through Helumbu, I really mean it; both because we took a few wrong turns and because we squeezed it all into one epic 31 mile day with my GPS unit telling me that we had near 6,500' of elevation gain and over 13,000' of elevation lost. I think some of the mistakes we made should be somewhat informative to other hikers and act as a warning to not make the same dumb mistakes.

I passed through this section of trail before back in 04', but unfortunately the more interesting villages of Melamchigaon and Tarke Ghyang were not on our itinerary. Our route took us over only half of the Helumbu Circuit, starting at Therapati and heading south to Sundarijal and on to Kathamndu.

Another Clear Morning; Hills as Seen from Therapati

Another clear morning greeted us, and for some reason that morning nothing on the menu really appealed to either one of us and we settled for just some lemon tea and decided that we could stop possibly in Khutumsang for a late breakfast or early lunch. The morning was a bit on the cool side, but again the skies were clear and it looked to be another great day for trekking. Our plan for today was to do a double days hike and make for Chisopani, a village just on the outskirts of Shivapuri National Park, and only about four hours from Sundarijal. My plan was still to walk all the way back to my front door. I figured it was just over five miles from Sundarijal to Boudha and then only two and a half miles from Boudha to my apartment. 

Fog Surrounds a Stupa just South of Khutumsang

The weather stayed decent through the early morning as we passed through the village of Magin Goth, and then passed the Hotel Green View on its outskirts. I recalled that I had stayed here after coming up from Chisopani back in 2004, and it was at this point that the thought occurred to me that we could possibly make it all the way to Kathmandu today.The clear skies soon started to dissipate as the sun warmed the valleys and clouds started to rise up from below us at first, and then surrounded us.  By the time we reached the village of Khutumsang it was raining. It was just before 10:30 in the morning when we strolled into the village, and after a quick look at the map, it was clear that Donnie and I were thinking the same thing; Khatmandu isn't out of the question if we can get to Chisopani at a decent time.

Map Showing our path Through the Heumbu Region

In places this trail had become horrendous. It was so washed out that you were navigating criss crossing ravines that were at times over six feet deep. Often you tried to stay above them, but then you would occasionally find yourself separated from the trail which was frustratingly on the other side of the small canyon that had formed in the middle of the trail. Now that we were entering the middle hills there were also many more trails, as there are plenty of villages in this area, unlike the two previous regions we had just hiked through.

A ways south of Khutumsang before we reached Gul Bhanyang we lost the trail for the first time. We were on a switchback that was heading west, and we seemed to have missed the part where it switched back, and we followed a minor trail about three quarters of a mile out of our way. We consulted a number of locals who kept pointing us down the trail. Getting impatient with some cows who refused to go by me I moved to pass them on the trail, this unfortunately started a small stampede of the four cows who turned and ran toward the girl who had been herding them. Feeling like a total jerk I tried to apologize to the girl and then had the nerve to ask if Chisopani was down this trail. She shrugged a bit and tried to tell us something, feeling a little sheepish we moved on and asked some more people as we passed them and after consulting my Garmin unit a bit we got headed south east and eventually joined back up with the main trail, just in time to pass through the village of Gul Bhanyang.

The Terraced Farmland of the Middle Hills

There is a remarkable difference in the feel of the villages of the mountains and those of the middle hills, especially between those Hindu villages and Buddhist ones. It may be completely my perception but I have always felt more welcomed in the Buddhist villages. After passing through Gul Bhanyang the trail turned into a road and started to climb for quite some time, passing through the outer section of Chipling, and then the trail descended to Chipling proper. It was about 1:30 when we reached Chipling, and you could make out Chisopani on the far ridge. To get there we would have to descend to Pati Bhanjyang, which looked incredibly far below us from Chipling. 

Road Passing Through the Middle Hills

After descending all the way down and crossing over to the other ridge we started the climb up to Chisopani. I had so far this day felt really strong, but this last ascent, especially the steepest parts just before the town, took their toll on me. Donnie's ankle was bothering him still and he was not 100% either. We were separated for a moment as I got a bit ahead but after a few minutes we found each other and took a quick rest in Chisopani. It was a little after 3:30PM at this point so we had been hiking for eight hours with no long breaks and only lemon tea for breakfast. I busted out my Kit-Kat I had left and Donnie and I split it, we also purchased some juice from a vendor and filled up a bit on water. As we were doing this thunder rumbled to our west and the skies, which had cleared, began to be filled with some menacing clouds.

Now any normal people would have called it a day. We were hungry, tired, and if we set out for Sundarijal we would reach it just before dark. The problem was that we had started talking about going to Irish Pub in Kathmandu and getting a Guinness Burger. See, most places on the trails don't serve meat, and Donnie and I don't seem to be any good at being vegetarians. We also had not showered really in a number of days, and the idea of ending the day with a good burger and in my own bed was enough to propel us quickly out of Chisopani and back on to the trail.

Wrong Turn: Don't Stay on the Road!

So I'm not 100% sure where we went wrong, but I think it was immediately outside of Chisopani. You see there is a road that goes all the way around Shivapuri National Park and there is a trail that apparently cuts right through the center of it. We stayed on the road the whole way. Of course we thought we were headed due south, and I never noticed anything on my Garmin because I was in too much of a hurry and the threatening thunder storm delivered on its promise, dropping a good amount of rain on us as we walked. Again the rain was not unpleasent due to the climate, but it did make the puddles a bit bigger and my feet, which had been wet most of the day, now had dirt and small rocks under them that were tearing at my skin. Still there wasn't much time to stop because we needed to be out of the park by night fall. So we kept moving over the road, which for most of the ways was thankfully close to flat with the occasional rise and more commonly a gentle slope downward. As we closed in on a little after 6PM I was starting to think it odd that we hadn't come up and over the valley rim, and it was at this time that we bumped into a couple of European tourists that had a guide with them. 

I walked up to them and asked if Sundarijal was just over the hill, and they all looked at me funny. I knew immediately something wasn't good. Donnie was getting quite tired, and I was about ready for this day to be over, but the look on these peoples faces told me I had some walking to do. "Your going to Sundarijal?" the guide asked, "Sundarijal is back the way you came, this goes to Nagarkot." I immediately realized where we were and what had happened. Looking at a nearby sign that indicated that Sundarijal was 11KM to the west, I let a string of expletives fly from my mouth. Worse, it was still 10 KM to Nagarkot, and though I wouldn't have considered it, it was 12 KM back to Chisopani. We were literally stuck in the middle of Nowhere with less than an hour of daylight left and over two hours of walking in either direction. The Europeans were apparently at some home-stay just down the hill. Instead of trying to be helpful, the guide tried to show off to his European clients why you need a guide in Nepal. F U pal. In all my hikes this was my first serious detour off the trail, and if we hadn't left at such a late hour it wouldn't have been that big of a deal. He also proceeded to tell us that there was no way to Sundarijal from where we were, which was a lie, as I knew we were on the road that goes all around the park, and eventually meets back up with the trail we missed. 

Looking at the options open to us I decided that it was still best to make for Sundarijal. Nagarkot was a little closer, but not by any meaningful amount, and it would be more expensive to get transportation from there back to Kathmandu. So we picked up the pace as much as we could, Donnie picked off a couple of leeches that had found him and we made for Sundarijal. As the sky had cleared a bit we were able to get sunlight until about half past seven and then the headlamps came out. Donnie checked his cell phone to make sure he had a signal, and indeed he did. Good to know. We continued down the road in the dark and at this point we had both run out of water and had been walking for some thirteen hours with nothing but half a kit-kat, lemon tea and some juice. At one point we passed by what was either a monastery or a wedding bash, but there were horns and drums and people talking, it was coming from a hill up above us, and it was a little creepy to be honest. 

Eventually we rounded a corner and you could see the lights that lit the homes lining the trail area down to Sundarijal. When we finally made it there, the guest houses beside the trail were closed, it was about 9PM at this point. I was ready to just make south for the town, but Doniie wanted water, and in the most pathetic voice he could muster he shook the gate a bit and said "Hello....Namaste......Pani??" A woman looked out the window and then came and let us in. We got some more water, juice and feasted on some coconut crunchies. I gave Kim a quick call to let her know I was going to try and gt home tonight and tell her our particular situation. She laughed at us, I guess I was laughing at us too. After thanking the woman for her help and hospitality we started down the concrete steps to Sundarijal, past the damn and through the military post. 

Finally on arrival in the bus park area we roused the attention of the locals. Yes we wanted to go to Kathmandu tonight. Yes we were willing to pay taxi price. I was exhausted, Donnie was bleeding from another leech bite on his arm. We agreed to a price of 2,000 RS to charter a bus to Kathmandu. Yes it was pricey, but it was 9:30PM  and we just wanted to get back. I was a little disappointed not to be walking to my door, but another eight miles or so at this time of night and in this condition were out of the question. A small group of Nepali guys hopped on the bus, excited at the prospect of a night out on the town in Kathmandu with their sudden windfall of cash. By 10PM I was dropped off on Durbar Marg, and Donnie and I agreed that the burger we had dreamed of all day would in fact have to wait until tomorrow. I met up with Kim just north of the palace museum, and she laughed a bit at me. It was good to be home.


  1. I was laughing because I was thanking Buddha, Vishnu and Jesus that I didn't go on this trip. hee hee


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