Trekking High in the Monsoon, and the Shepherds of Lamjung Himal

Features Issue 82 Jul, 2010

Trek in the monsoon? a friend asked before I started out. You’re a masochist! he concluded.

One August, a few years before the national insurgency made remote trekking dodgy, I set out on a monsoon trek into the high mountains of the eastern Annapurnas. My goal was to study the life of Gurung shepherds in the alpine pastures.

A monsoon trek is..., well, wet. It’s a challenge, with flooded trails, bridges out, landslides, mud, mire and leeches. But my notes also describe remarkably verdant forests, and wildlife and birds, spectacular views, and alpine hospitality. Here’s an entry from August 15th:

Walked a lonely ridge top this a.m. through a forest of rhododendron, oak and spruce. Drippy moss hanging down. Little flowers underfoot. Tiny birds flitting through the bushes. And, at one juncture, a strikingly graceful Himalayan pine  marten crossed our path. We had periodic glimpses of the precipitous drop to the east down into the Marsiangdi River gorge and up across to [Himal] Chuli, Manaslu and Peak 29, and west out over the upper Khudi khola and beyond it along the southern flanks of the Annapurna massif.

Then, the gorge fogged in and we had only the western view until, at noon, the inevitable monsoon clouds reached up and rolled over us. We trekked on, swathed in drizzle and mist to a shepherd’s hut, an invitation to stay, a cauldron of hot cow’s milk, and a fire to warm up and dry out by...

The monsoon is a beautiful season, full of promise, and sometimes poetic. The terraced hillsides turn a soft pale green at rice planting time, going golden brown as the paddy ripens. In the highlands, drippy forest trails take one in and out of quiet meadows where cows and water buffalo fatten up on the lush grass. Farther up, in the highest pastures, the landscape is alive with the baaing and bleating of hundreds of sheep and goats, and the barking of dogs. Up there, well above the forest, the peaks seem to lean over to shake off the morning dew each morning at first light.

My monsoon trek was up into the northern wild heights of central Nepal’s Lamjung Distrct. Besides the life of the shepherds I also wanted to see the Hindu festival of Janai Purnima on the full moon day of August. It culminates in a bone-chilling dip into an ice lake at the base of Lamjung Himal. There were also the storied remains of an ancient Gurung village to see in the high forest, well above current settlements. And there is the old salt traders’ route over Namun Pass to Manang District to see. Each objective was conveniently located within a day’s walk of my base camp in the Lamjung kharkas (high pastures).

Approaching the highlands
The Gurungs inhabit a vast hilly region stretching from Ganesh Himal northwest of Kathmandu, westward past Himal Chuli and Manaslu, Lamjung Himal and the Annapurna range, to within sight of Dhaulagiri west of Pokhara. Their ancestors came centuries ago from the north, over the mountain passes from Tibet. Legends tell us that their first village on the south side of the Himalayas was a place called Kohla, at which they hunted and raised livestock. Later, they moved downward into the lower valleys to become farmers. A few, however, still follow the old way of life as highland shepherds, or gothalos, spending many months each year in camps and huts called goths (rhymes with ‘oats’). I wanted to be with the shepherds at the highest point in the annual grazing cycle.

Imagine the landscape of northern Lamjung as a hand splayed out pointing southward, with the mountain peaks at the wrist and the low valleys at the fingertips. The parallel fingers are ridges running southward out of the mountains. Near the fingertips are the Gurung villages with their terraced fields cascading down the steep slopes. The highest villages are at around 6,000 ft. (1800 m.) in elevation, high enough to avoid the stifling heat of summer. In winter, the lower hills and valleys serve well for grazing livestock, but in summer the herdsmen and their sheep seek the lush, cool, high, open pastures for grazing. At the knuckles of the hand, on the forested ridges called leks, are a few scattered meadows, intermediary stops on the annual livestock migration route up each spring and back down each fall.

In the dense forests along the leks, up to 10,000 ft in elevation, mid-way to the high pastures, the Gurungs graze cattle and water buffalo. Beyond that, above timberline near the wrist of that imaginary hand, are the treeless communal sheep pastures, open meadows with broad grassy slopes dotted with shepherds’ huts in the rainy season. From these pastures the surrounding peaks appear touchable, close and crystal clear in the morning sunlight. The highest peak in the Lamjung Himal is 22,382 ft (6822 m.), small compared with others in the Annapurna Range farther west, but impressive when viewed standing directly beneath it in the cold mountain air. It was first summitted in May 1974 by a team of climbers from the British Army stationed in Hong Kong.

Monsoon mountain trails
Monsoon trails pose several problems, all related to food, gear and route planning. We carried several weeks’ provisions, mostly rice. All we could expect to find in the hill villages and shepherd camps was maize flour for gruel. Our personal gear included something each for the intense sun of the mornings, the drenching rains that would roll in daily before noon, and the foggy chill of the evenings. We had tents and umbrellas, ponchos and ample plastic sheeting to cover the porters and their loads.

‘We’ included a young Gurung  research assistant, a Sherpa camp master and two Gurung porter-guides who knew the shepherd routes and trails. Our take-off point was Khudi Bazar in the Marsiangdi river valley, a few miles north of Besisahar, the Lamjung District town.

Trail navigation was hazardous. The paddy fields down low were flooded, muddy and treacherously slippery. Near Khudi we encountered detours, landslides and thigh deep fords across several torrents. Above Khudi we expected better going. Except for the leeches. They attacked us in the wet grass, in the brush, in the rainforest, and even in our dreams, in legion strength.

Against leeches we carried salt and applied it liberally to shoes, socks and pant cuffs. The porters smeared it on their bare legs and feet. Insect repellant also works, but washes off quickly when it rains. I once trekked with a smoker who burned the slimy critters off with lighted cigarettes. We suffered regardless; the leeches slithered through our shoes and socks and up our legs, and down our backs and arms. At trip’s end, a month later, I counted 105 itchy leech bite scars around my ankles!

Trekking high
We began our ascent out of Khudi by climbing the easternmost ridge on the map, Kelambu lek (or Kelambu danda). It took us two hard days trek up to the alpine pastures at about 11,500 ft. (3500 m.). The kharkas have local names, like Ngimlu, Thurdzuk and Khola-phalne. They are located on the south side of Namun Bhanjyang, an 18,241 ft. (5560 m.) foot pass.

In addition to voracious leeches, our route was short on water. Unless you have a local guide who knows campsites with water, the Kelambu route is not recommended. A better way begins at Pokhara, passes through Siklis, a large Gurung village, then ascends the Thaunja danda. This route is relatively more traveled and provides some unobstructed views of Lamjung Himal north across the starkly barren valley of the Madmini-kyupini river. What a great place name! It’s conveniently shortened to Madkyun on some maps, and compares with another delightful place farther east called Kiché-meché.

Once you are in the high pastures there is ample water and good prospects for both snow or rock climbing, if that’s your passion. Lamjung Himal consists of a number of challenging pinnacles, called tsho in Gurung, that can be approached from a base camp near the high ice lake at 16,000 ft. (4880 m.). The British expedition put their base camp there in 1974. The best time to go for climbing is April-May, before the monsoon rains.

Except in late July and August when the highlands are alive with sheep and goats, the Lamjung kharkas are empty, but campsites are many and good. There are several rock shelters, the largest of which has a stone wall attached for added protection. It once housed a custom station, a jagat, where taxes were collected on the rock salt carried down from Tibet and over Namun Pass, for the livestock and for sale in the lower hills. Salt traders used this difficult old route until a few decades ago when a safer trail was blasted out lower down along the Marsiangdi river gorge. That is now the main trail, soon to be jeep track, to and from Manang District. I once met two Nepalis who climbed up the old salt trail from Manang to Namun Pass, a vertical ascent of over 12,000 ft. (3600+ m.). They did it in seven hours, an amazing feat of over 1,700 ft (500+ m.) per hour.

Shepherd life
We stayed at the shepherd camps for several weeks, studying shepherd lifestyle and economy. Their day begins at first sun with the milking of goats and the churning of butter. The morning meal is maize gruel garnished with hot red peppers, washed down with buttermilk and black tea made the Gurung way with peppercorns and salt (the effect is very warming!). The herd boys then take the livestock out to graze the hillsides for most of the day, returning at dusk in drizzle and fog. Others cut firewood on the brush slopes, and collect water, and some may take fresh butter down to the villages and bring back more food supplies, a two-day round trip.

According to tradition, only men and boys stay in the high pastures. There is a taboo against women or girls spending even one night up high, for fear of calamity befalling the herds. As if to remind herders of the rule, there are several places on the trail up through the forest and in the meadows that are inhabited by the powerful spirits of women and men who have died in the highlands. The shepherds are careful to placate those spirits of the dead, thus keeping alive their memory and the taboo against women.

Sheep are raised primarily for wool and goats for meat and, secondarily, milk. Blankets and capes are woven from the sheep wool. Each shepherd chief may have hundreds of sheep and goats in his herd, many of which are entrusted to him in pairs by various villagers. For the services of grazing, sheering and selling the animal byproducts, the shepherd chief is paid in newborn lambs and kids by the villagers.

Becoming a shepherd is a special calling among Gurung village boys. It requires stamina and resourcefulness, and the ability to live rough much of each year. Other boys in the village grow up to become farmers, and some join the army or some other service away from home. Herd boys, however, stay close to home, rarely leaving the mountains. Starting in their pre-teens, they learn the gothalo ways from their elders, both the economy and the cultural beliefs and customs of this rugged lifestyle.

A typical highland shepherd’s hut is made of large bamboo mats laid over arched saplings or limber, thin bamboo poles anchored securely to make a long, low, watertight structure. Each goth sleeps two to four people, has an open fire pit for cooking, heat and light at one end, and a sleeping area and storage space for clothing, tools and equipment at the other. Among each shepherd’s essential supplies are woolen blankets (radi) and sleeveless woolen capes (boku). These garments are made from sheep’s wool sheared by the men and boys, spun by the village women, then shrunk in hot water and kneaded by the men to a felt-like density using their feet. The natural lanolin and tight weave make them warm and waterproof. Cooking utensils and wooden jugs for holding water comprise most of the rest of a gothalo’s paraphernalia. The summer of my sojourn with the shepherds, several of them had old flintlock guns. They were adept at hunting, and at making snares and traps to capture birds and small game for food. Since the inception of the Annapurna Conversation Area Project, however, hunting is forbidden.

Himalayan mountain dogs
We frequently sat nights with shepherds around fires in the goths, drinking liberally of goat’s milk and, sometimes, a little of the rum we brought along. The shepherds inevitably served us fried meat, from livestock killed by leopards. Outside, the big Himalayan mountain dogs roamed the night, barking through the fog at the scent of predators. Every herd has big livestock guardian dogs, some of which are fitted with iron collars with spikes and a bell to protect them from leopards, wolves and wild dogs (dholes).

The dogs are a variety of the so-called ‘mastiffs’ of Tibet, and they are the pride of the gothalos. There are usually four or five mature dogs with a herd of 200 to 500 animals. When strangers come, the dogs reveal their guardian instinct, ferociously. As we approached a shepherd camp we would shout: “Nagi khad-Oh!” (Gurung for “Hold the dogs!”), hoping  someone would come out to protect us. (Nagi is ‘dog’ in the local Gurung dialect.) Most of the dogs were black or black-and-tan, a few were cream colored and several were red-orange. All were large and fearsome when agitated, but when the shepherds introduced us to the dogs we were safe. The shepherds warned us not to cross the pastures alone or unarmed after dark, particularly, for that’s when the dogs are turned loose. And it is they, not we, who rule the night.

One evening we were invited to a shepherd camp far from our own. It promised to be a night of singing, story-telling and drinking strong rice or millet raksi, a Nepalese wine brought up from the villages. We knew that our host had several fine guardian dogs and we wanted to learn more about their role in the livestock economy. A guide came to show us the way across the meadows, past several other goths. Knowing that many dogs would be out, we carried staves and stones. As soon as we left the perimeter of our camp the dogs sounded the alarm. First came their ferocious barking challenge, then they ‘rushed’ us with tails upraised and canine teeth bared. On seeing our staves and rocks they attacked, snarling and snapping angrily.

Within minutes we were encircled by five big dogs, darting in and out menacingly, and creating a din that could be heard for miles. We shouted to a nearby goth for help, but nobody came out. We swung our staves and threw our stones at them. Then, when one dog was hurt and spun away yipping in pain his mates attacked him. With that timely
diversion, we made our escape. A few minutes later we reached our destination, shaken but unhurt from the attack.

After that we enjoyed a grand evening with the shepherds listening to the old songs and
sayings about life in the high pastures, and talk of dogs. Very late, when it was time to depart, we chose a longer but safer route back through the dark along a hill well above the goths. The dogs barked loudly in our direction, but we were far enough off that none came up to find us. I wrote this in my notes the next morning:

By evening the sheep and goats have been herded back from the pastures to camp and the big dogs are turned out to guard them. These shepherds call their dogs bugyu-nagi, which in the Gurung language literally means ‘highland- (or alpine-) dog’… They are not herding dogs in the sense of steering or rounding up their charges (although they are sometimes seen to help), but they are guard dogs. Their sole purpose is protection. The dog’s attention lies beyond the herd to the danger of bears in the forest (on the route up to the high meadows), leopards... (and) strangers… At night, when the dogs are the most active and alert, if a leopard, wolf, buwaso (dhole, or Asiatic wild dog), or human intruder is detected, the darkness comes alive with frenzied barking and snarling, and shepherds shouting.

The gothalos have a song that extols the virtues of the bugyu-nagi. It begins: Thrice in the night our dogs make watch rounds of the kharkas...

Pilgrimage to the ice lake
Two hours’ climb northwest of the kharkas is the sanctuary of the Lamjung ice lake, a ‘milk lake’ or dudh pokhari. The sanctuary is best described as a great open bowl, two or three miles across littered with glacial debris. The peaks rise up impressively at the north.

High Himalayan lakes are sacred to Hindus, and during the annual celebration of Janai Purnima, the full moon festival of August, hardy pilgrims, mostly Brahmins, seek them out as places to bathe in their quest to be both close to the gods and cleansed from sin. It is a strenuous trip up from the lowlands and the icy bath is a shock even for the hardiest souls. Nonetheless, the faithful approach the whole event with a religious fervor that appears to obliterate much of the strain and chill.

On the day before the full moon dozens of pilgrims began arriving in the pastures and the shepherd huts came alive with festive good will. There was feasting that night and the shepherds played their fiddle-like sarangis and sang old songs about love and life in the highlands.

Early the next morning, the pilgrims bundled up and trudged off through the cold pre-dawn darkness to the lake. On our way up we encountered an old Brahmin man and his son, the first to bathe, already coming back down the trail. The elder was shivering and babbling incoherently at us. “He is blessing your holy trek,” his son told us, then confided that the old man was possessed of Mahadev (Lord Shiva) who dwells in the lake.

That year a group of about a dozen teenage Gurung girls and boys also came “to see the festival” and pay their respects at the lake to the goddess Parvati, Shiva’s consort. They made a great odyssey out of it. We joined them hiking up to the sanctuary, struggling to keep up as they raced along jostling and joking with one another. The girls were dressed in traditional Gurung finery displaying much gold and coral jewelry. The boys carried the group’s packs. At the lakeside the girls modestly bathed their arms, feet and hair, while the boys stripped to their shorts and dived in!

After their swim, the boys solemnly washed the girls’ feet from a brass pan, a symbol of honor and respect. Within an hour all the pilgrims, Gurungs and Brahmins alike, had completed their rituals. Their last pious act was to float small leaf dishes filled with flowers, rice, copper coins and smoking incense on the water. On the way back down to the pastures through the bright morning sunlight the girls collected fragrant alpine flowers to wear in their hair and to take back to friends at home. By noon the clouds had rolled in, the rain had started and the pilgrims were gone, out of sight on the trail home.

Village of the ancestors
Our search for the ancient ruins of Kohla, the fabled first village of the Gurungs, took us on a side trip south of the kharkas down in elevation into the upper forest. The exact location was known only to a few shepherds, one of whom was our guide.

There we found the remains of a few house walls and overgrown trails to forgotten destinations. We camped with Gurung cow herders on a bluff overlooking the ruins, and that evening we were regaled with stories expressing great reverence for the past, as if the ghosts of the ancestors were eavesdropping.

During Gurung funerals in the villages the shamans chant and beat their drums while instructing the souls of the departed how to move on out of the world of the living into the world of the dead. The spirit path they must take to the Afterlife passes directly through these ancestral ruins.

Trekking out

At the end of the month our sojourn came to an abrupt anticlimax in an
impenetrable bamboo thicket and dense fog on a high ridge in the rain. We had chosen a little used route out of the pastures and down to Pokhara, via the Rambrong and Karpu dandas. Along the way we had spectacular sunny morning views of Annapurna II and IV and of Machhapuchare, the ‘Fish’s Tail’.

We thought we could trek out without a guide. Mistake. With only a vague notion of our way, we missed an unmarked turnoff and found ourselves standing hours later in billowing clouds at the top of a high cliff. The trail ended abruptly at the edge. We looked about and decided to try going down through a bamboo forest. We were soon entangled in the thicket, fighting for each step of the way, and were eventually forced to retreat with difficulty back up to the ridge top. After some searching we found an animal track and descended only slightly more easily by a series of narrow and exceedingly slippery ledges in the downpour, and the leeches...

Eventually we met a wood cutter who told us we were near Yangjakot village. We pitched camp that night, weary and wet, in a farmer’s field. By noon the next day we reached Pokhara.

Our final descent down from the high kharkas, a drop of almost 9,000 ft (over 2700 m.) was a dramatic change. In two days we were back in the lowlands, slogging through muddy rice paddies. It was sultry and hot and we were drenched in sweat even when we rested in the shade. It was a far cry from the sodden chill of the highlands. We were back in the land of tea shops and taxis, electricity and cold beer, hot showers and real beds.

My notebooks bulged with data, my maps were scribbled over with new place names and the location of unmarked trails, and my memory is still filled with clear visions of the peaks, shepherds and livestock, pilgrims, big dogs, and loathsome leeches. As we descended the last ridge, Lammergaiers and Griffon vultures, those winged guardians of the Himalayan highlands, soared in and out of the clouds over the cliffs.
It was raining when we started out on this trip, it was raining when left the highlands, and it was raining in Pokhara at the end of the trail.