The Untouched East: Adventures walking the Great Himalayan Trail.

Experience Issue 204 Nov, 2018
Text by Sudin K.C.

Trekking the eastern region has been nothing short of pushing my limits. It has by no means been an easy feat, but as Fred De Vito once said, “But if it doesn’t challenge you, it doesn’t change you.” I always knew that this experience would be the most challenging for me, but I don’t think I truly understood it would also be the most rewarding.

So, the first portion of the trail was intense, and trekking in a dense forest for seven hours a day with very little interaction with anyone but a few shepherds was mentally challenging. Because this region is so remote and inaccessible by road and transport, there are few others venturing this far east. The only interaction would be in the evenings, when I would reach a village or kindly be taken in by a farmer or shepherd living on the hillside, watching their cattle.

Due to the remoteness of the region, taking a flight is the most efficient way to start the trek. The journey began in early September, when I flew to Bhadrapur, then hopped on a seven-hour Jeep ride to Phidim. The following day required another drive to Chyang Thapu; it took an additional five hours to reach this small village that seems to be trapped in time. Tradition and culture are untouched, and the people are hospitable and welcoming, offering food and tea at every opportunity. This location marked the official start of my trek; taking on a side trip to Timbung Pokhari, a holy lake, where people believe in the ‘ask and you shall receive’ philosophy. Getting there is not easy, by any means, but I’m glad I went to ask for safe passage and for the trek to go well—even though my backpack did break shortly after!

In the villages,dahl bhaat was plentiful, corn was a staple, and bamboo sticks, a regular feature. Chhyang, the home-brewed traditional alcohol made from rice, was regularly offered, more so than tea, no matter the hour. Of course, this was not the case everywhere, and the more remote my location was, the more common rice, potatoes, and mohi (buttermilk) became—this is because people survive on whatever they can grow, with little access to markets or villages.

The trail I took had a lot of altitude changes, almost daily, meaning,the temperature changed regularly too. The only consistent factor regarding the weather was the constant rain, which made my trail even harder, because now I was competing with slippery paths, wet feet, and passing through overrun waterfalls and unpredictable landslides.

As I continued on my journey, I came across an ancient tribal people who identify themselves as Kulung Rai, a tribe that actively follows shamanism. For me, this was one of the highlights, because I was able to learn about the ancient tribe and I was surprised to learn that these mysterious men are just regular people, they too need to farm and raise cattle in order to support their families. They were telling me their history and how much they love their culture, but also expressed their concerns about losing their identity. The elders are starting to notice that their grandchildren no longer speak their language or follow any of the old traditions as they do, instead favoring the common tongue and somewhat neglecting their heritage. It was also a nice experience to see people in their cultural attire, which they wear on a daily basis, and not just for festivals. Almost all men have their phengas on, which is like a jacket, made out of sisno, and it’s nearly impossible to see a woman without her bulaki. Witnessing this has helped me to understand the diversity of Nepal and confirms that we are indeed a country rich in heritage and culture, something we have always taken pride in.

This portion of my trek was very insightful. I now know it is crucial to always listen carefully to the local people when it comes to directions, as opposed to just relying on the maps. They live and breathe these lands, and ultimately, they do know best. In some situations, trails would be closed, and I wouldn’t have known had the locals not told me. Saying that, a major lesson was that, while asking about the time needed to reach from point A to B, take into consideration that a local walks three times as fast as you! If they say it’s going to take an hour to get to the next camp, take this with a pinch of salt; it will more likely take three hours for you. Sticks aren’t just for old men, let me stress this! The trail has heaps of down-hills and up-hills, and I really found sticks helped balance the weight of my pack and not put all the pressure on my knees. Finally, take ample snacks with you! There’s no shop corner or mom’s cooking to settle a starving stomach, which will happen. Often.

I definitely did come across some unexpected difficulties. Firstly, I didn’t realize it would rain so heavily, and I found my backpack cover wasn’t sufficient enough to keep my pack dry. I’d suggest putting your clothes and important items, such as cameras, electronics, maps (and underwear!) inside sealable plastic bags first, and then put them inside your backpack. That way, your stuff doesn’t get wet, and also, your bag won’t weigh more; these bags can be reused further along the line. On another note, getting lost was an issue; simple, but true. Despite my ample planning and countless hours mapping my routes, there is often no one to ask for directions, should you take a wrong turn… so you just keep walking… in the wrong direction. .. until you stumble across someone or something (hopefully not a bear or tiger!). On that note, don’t attempt a forest camp-out; the danger of bears and tigers is a very real one.

Next up for me, I’m excited to visit the Sherpa community and spend time at a monastery that houses and teaches more than 400 lamas and nuns in the hills of Junbesi in Solukhumbhu district. I anticipate this portion of my trek to be just as difficult and challenging as the last, but as Aristotle says, “(All) Adventure is worthwhile.”

[Editor's note: Read our interview with Sudin K.C. here to find out why he's making this trip in the first place!]