Trekking in the Dolpo - Kageni

It rained in the night and the prospects for a Nepalgunj escape didn't look good but here we are in our tent and at last the trek has started. It's been a stressful day though and despite doing nothing but read, play cards and eat for three days, I feel exhausted.

The stress started at 5 o'clock this morning when a scramble alert sent us rushing to the airport. There was a rumour that despite rain in Nepalgunj the skies were clear in mountains and today planes would fly. The airport, however, was shut and although besieged by pilgrims and trekkers showed no sign of activity. After an hour it opened and a disorderly crowd was someone filtered through a whole series of bureaucratic obstacles into the departure lounge. It took forever and as the day got hotter and the cloud over the mountains got thicker the chances of flying out of Nepalgunj declined.

We've been at the airport for 4 hours when a Twin Otter landed and made ready for take-off, it was going to Juphal. We had been promised the first plane but somehow so had a French party and despite Anglo-Russian protests (we've boosted our numbers by befriending three hard-drinking Russians), the French got the plane. Christine went apoplectic and what was left of the entente cordial was now shredded.

As the blood pressure hit a dangerous level a second Twin Otter bounced towards the terminal and this one definitely had our name on it. Within minutes we were airborne.
Airbourne



On the ground at Juphal airport
For me getting airborne is usually marked by a feeling of relief. All the stressful bits have been managed and all I have to do is sit back and enjoy the flight. In Nepal, particularly on the small planes, that feeling of relief just doesn't emerge. These planes have the worst safety record in the world and faced with cloud will in any event turn around and return to Nepalgunj and back to square one. The close proximity of the pilots was slightly reassuring (the common interest in avoiding flying into a mountain) but it wasn't until the plane survived what seemed to me to be a heavy landing (do alarms go off every time a Twin Otter lands) that the stress levels declined.
Bringing in the harvest

After the heat of Nepalgunj, Juphal, 2000m higher was pleasantly cool. Our bags, trays of eggs and a bucket of fresh chicken Bi Bi had bought 3 days ago, were united with the 300kg of kit needed to support 2 people's journey into the Dolpo. In the grounds of pleasant little Tea House just below the airport our expedition: cook, 2 kitchen porters, tent man, pony man, 4 ponies and Bi Bi assembled and prepared for departure. It felt truly bizarre - how could we afford so many staff, how did we get so rich! We felt like a king and queen about start a royal progress; explorers heading into the 'dark continent'; or Edwardian big game hunters looking for tigers.
A welcome from the locals at Sulighat

Despite the huge team and the huge amount of kit we still had to walk to our first night's campsite in the Dolpo. What's more, we had to make good the time we had lost while swanning around in Nepalgunj. Bi Bi suggested changing the schedule with the aim of getting to the famous Phoksundo Lake in three days gaining a day. This meant a five rather than three hour walk on our first day and missing out on a visit to the regional centre at Dunai.

After descending through the multi-tiered hill-side village of Paranga, through a tightly packed series of terraces with crops of millet, buckwheat, corn and sorghum, all awaiting harvest, we arrived at the river and the valley bottom. Initially we followed a dirt road and shared it with pick-up trucks providing a local bus service between Paranga and Dunai.

Instead of continuing east to Dunai we turned north, crossing the river on a suspension bridge, and following a river which we will track all the way to Lake Phoksundo, enter a beautiful green valley full of bamboo, pine and cedar trees. The turn north is defended by the military with trenches, barbed wire, checkpoints and signs warning against taking pictures. Despite the civil war ending 10 years ago, the military sustain a high profile and look ready to step in if democracy gets out of hand.
At the entrance to national park

At Sulighat we enter the Lower Dolpo National Park and Bi Bi disappears into the National Park office to present our permits.

Two hours later, and after a lovely walk in the late afternoon sun we arrive at Kageni where two tents, our tent and a tent for Bi Bi and his brother, have already been pitched in the little garden of a tea house. The woman in charge, beautiful and with an upright posture that makes her seem much taller than she is, welcomes Bi Bi like an old friend.

Our welcome involves hot lemon squash followed 20 minutes or so later by black tea and biscuits. The ritual of Nepalese camp life, familiar to everyone who has ever been on a trek, kicks in.

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