Getting a flight to Rara was easy because we had a big group. There are no scheduled flights to the lake – the airline only flies when it has at least 8 people for the 9-person plane. The airline will combine groups of people together and coordinate with them to find a date that works for all. It’s a logistical fustercluck, but our group was 8-people (me, Kelly, Meg, Nena, Top, Kusum, and Pemba, our Nepali friend, who also served as our guide), so it was easy.
Flying over Surkhet was incredible – rice patties look incredible from the air. Looking down on the buildings of a city gives you a strong sense of space. Its amazing how little of this valley is actually taken up by buildings and how much remains farmland.
Flying into the Himilayas was, yes indeed, uniquely stunning. We had a perfectly clear day, and could quite easily see into Tibet. We also flew right over the road that we would, a week later, take for 18 hours to get back to Surkhet. The flight was only 40 minutes, and my face was pressed so close to my window I continually had to back away and wipe the fog from it. The pilot’s console beeped in a nightmarish sound every 5 minutes. After the fourth time, I realized it was a sonar sensor detecting when land passed by closer than a “safe” distance. That is prone to happening when you’re flying at low altitude over mountains.
Landing was freaky. The runway of the airport was made from gravel and ended with a cliff (better make sure you stop in time). I sat on the right side of the plane against the slope, and I watched as trees went from 100 feet off our wings, to 80, to 50, and closer until they were only 30 feet off the edge of the wings. Such is the experience of landing at an underused “airport” on the side of a mountain. Of course, there was no other way to do it, and the landing was as smooth as it could have been.
Then commenced a beautiful, 2-hour walk through cedar and pine forests to the lake. We had packed a LOT of food, so some of the girls hired a few porters to carry the excess luggage. My bag had weighed in at a hefty 70 pounds at the airport (absurd, I know, but the only food available up there was the ubiquitous dal-bhat), so I gave up my tent and bag of flour (to make a loaf of bread which was never made). Still, I powered my way ahead of the group after an hour just so I could put the damn thing down. Jamie was there having already been away for a week up in Humla. He hadn’t quite gone feral yet but might have been close. He had trekked for 11 hours the day before, and 10 the day before that, and had gotten in after dark. We weren’t sure he was even alive (especially since the Annapurna blizzards happened while he was trekking alone), so it was a great relief to see him.
The lake was stunning, but I’ll let the pictures do the talking. The rules/regulations set up there was a bit odd – no fishing, no swimming, no boating if you are a foreigner, no camp fires (we broke this rule), and no camping outside of the designated area. We had to camp inside a fenced in zone, and one morning we woke up to find a group of cows wandering around our tents! The park entrance fee for Nepalis was 45 Rupees. For us foreigners, it was 3,000. Small discrepancy there. But, I feel pretty confident the lake will be preserved for a while yet.
We spent our days there doing yoga, playing cards or Heads Up (great iPhone app), throwing sticks at walnut trees, or walking around the lake and gawking at the view. On our last day, Jamie, Pemba, and I walked up to a mountain at 12,000 feet called Murma overlooking the lake. Jamie’s stomach had started to rebel (and still is a week later) and he almost had to quit on me, but when we neared the top and he glanced at the view he got a second wind. This was the view from the top:
Also, I brought passionfruit up with us. Nothing has ever tasted so good.
The trek leaving held four of us – me, Kelly, Jamie, and Pemba. The first day was tough. Five hours in, we started zigzagging our way up a steep mountain, playing a game involving naming the world’s countries by saying a country that shared a first or last letter with the first or last letter of the previously said country. Complicated as that may sound, we named well over a hundred countries before stopping at the top of the slope to wait for Pemba. “We made it to the pass!” we told him as he approached. “No… I don’t think so,” was his reply. How right he was. We walked for another 15 minutes on flat ground and I jokingly pointed up to a point up high, 500 meters above us and said “Oh I bet we’re going up there.” How right I was. It was brutal, and rewarding because of how brutal it was. The pass that day was Ghurchi Lagna, at 11,500 feet. At the top, a fellow strode up on a horse that was dripping with sweat. He was unimpressed with us and trotted down the other side after allowing me to take this single photograph:
We slept that night in a stone house that was typical of the region. Well-made homes from stone are all over the area, and many of them have no mortar – neither clay nor cement – at all. The insides are all from wood, and this keeps the wind from rushing through the cracks in the stone. They are warm at night and beautiful to look at. I had two massive plates of dal-bhat and beer to go with it, and we all went to bed around 8 pm.
Day two was long and great. Riddles, cliff transversing, walking through beautiful marijuana fields, baby cows, and an accidental 30 minute walk down the wrong path, and an hour before sunset we finally found ourselves up at over 12,000 feet looking down at Jumla and the nearest spot to find a bed, Chere, where we didn’t arrive until after dark. Just 30 minutes before sunset and halfway down the 1,200 foot drop, we passed this group of donkeys heading up, hours away from the nearest bed. It gets very, very cold at that altitude at night. I’m not sure what their game plan was:
The next day we set out late, though I had woken up around 6:30 and done a quick walk to a temple up from the house, followed by a passionfruit breakfast. The walk down into Jumla valley was supposed to take 2 hours, but we got sidetracked by a company-parched English woman named Carole who burst from her house and exclaimed “WHITE PEOPLE!!” She had been in Jumla alone for 2 weeks with 2 years left as a volunteer, and might have been thinking what in the shit she had gotten herself into. We chatted and took the tea she gave us, exchanged info, and tried to give her some of our leftover goodies – chocolate, some passionfruit (it’s a commodity), peanut butter, and a thing of cheese. She didn’t take the chocolate or peanut butter. We continued into Jumla village, which turned out to be an amalgamation of some of the most beautiful homes I’ve ever seen. Huge, four story homes of meticulous stone- and wood-work. Here are some photos:
The irony, though, was that there was a clearly recent trend of putting cement plaster over the stonework. Some homes even had fake brick-patterns carved into the plaster.
We gorged ourselves that night, and headed out to Kalikot on the roof of a us the next morning. Having arrived in Sera Bara (the nearest road town to Oda, our destination) only 1.5 hours before sunset, we headed right out. Again, though, we didn’t get in until darkness. We stayed at Karan’s house. Karan is the co-founder of Odakids, an organization started by John, a previous Kopila Fellow. He spoiled us the whole time with noodles, tasty sauces, fried breakfasts, and meat.
The next day unveiled this view:
The next few days were spent exploring the village and surroundings, playing with the local kids, and generally being lazy. Very little walking. Top and almost half the kids in the hostel come from the village or nearby, so a lot of them were up for the holidays (which are now ended). The holiday this time was Bailee, where sisters anoint their brothers with Tika and groups of friends and dancers wander from house to house at all hours of the day (and night) chanting a rhyming Nepali song, rotating around a central rhymer/“rapper”, and then break out in explosive dance after a few minutes in the hope they’ll be rewarded with a nice purse by the owner of the house in front of which they refuse to leave. Here are a few random photos from the visit:
Oda is as much about the huge boulders as the houses. Each is gathered, in groups around the giant amphitheater of the valley, concavely leveling out into a massive helicopter pad of smooth terraces. 500 feet beyond this flat section is a steep drop 500 feet down into an angry river. The place is very isolated, and I think it will always be this way. Building a road to Oda would be a hugely unprofitable venture, not to mention almost impossible. But other developments can happen – John and Karan are building a new medical clinic for the public up there, and were donated land to put the clinic right in the center of the amphitheater, right in the center of it all. 30 minutes before leaving to return to Surkhet, I took the 20 minutes hike up to the Oda temple and soaked up this view:
Coming back was relatively boring. Our driver was four hours late to pick us up, so we only drove 2 hours the first day before spending the night in the HUGE (sarcasm) capital of the Kalikot district, Manma. The whole city is built on a slope (that took an hour to drive to the bottom of), and at night you can’t tell where the stars end and the city lights begin. The hotel we stayed in was an absurd labyrinth of buildings that had been built, completed, and joined with other buildings so that patios, windows, and random stairways wound their way through the whole complex. The next day, we left in the dark at 5 am. The road was excessively rougher and bumpier, and we averaged around 10 km/hour all the way back to Surkhet, arriving 9 hours later.
And that was the trip! Here are some other media that couldn’t find their way in before.