By Ravi Shankar
Seared into my mind’s eye, is an image that crops up every time I think of Dhampus, a hilly village situated at a height of between 1600m to 1900m in Nepal. I recall a rainy day with clouds blanketing the surrounding hills and a young chap strumming a guitar and singing a Nepalese folk song in a restaurant.
Dhampus is drenched in rain during the monsoon but most of the water flows down quickly and there is water scarcity during the summer. The views of the Annapurnas and Machapuchhare to the north are spectacular. The Australian Base Camp is nearby and is a popular trek with foreigners. The base camp used to be a herding place for cows, goats and buffaloes and was called thulo kharka (big pasture). The mountain view and the peace and quiet attracted Austrians who used to camp here for a few days during the 1980s. The locals found the word Austrian hard to pronounce and the camp was termed the ‘Australian’ camp.
The village is mainly inhabited by Gurungs who are one of the many hill tribes who form the famous Gorkha soldiers. The village sprawls over ridges and the houses are spread apart. There are stone paved streets in the center of the village with houses on both sides. The village is one of the entry points to the Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP) and in early 2000 had five or six lodges.
Carrying a change of clothes in our day bags, two packets of Wai-wai (a Nepalese noodle brand), a bottle of water and two packets of biscuits, we were at last in the village of Dhampus near Pokhara, Nepal with a group of medical students and their two community medicine preceptors. We visited the subhealth post in the village and the students obtained first-hand insights into the working of the Nepalese primary healthcare system. We were now waiting for lunch to be prepared at one of the many restaurants in the village.
The climb to the village of Dhampus starts right from Phedi (the base of the hill in Nepali) on the Baglung highway. The climb was initially very steep and on stone staircases. The terrain was rocky but gradually became more fertile. Bamboo groves were in evidence with scattered houses and a few rhododendron trees (Lali guraans in Nepali). There were shops selling cold drinks and snacks along the trail. The main lodges and the houses are situated at the top of the ridge. An attraction for many is Thongba. This is a drink made from fermented millet. The grains are served in a container. You add hot water, wait for a few minutes, and then slurp it through a straw.
We soon reached the settlement of Pothana. The settlement consists of a few lodges run by people of Tibetan descent. Many Tibetans migrated to Nepal as refugees in the 1950s and 60s and settled around Pokhara. There is a large Tibetan refugee camp on the Baglung highway.
While we were waiting for Nepalese chiya (tea) after our lunch, it started raining. The students were scurrying down the hillside to get to the waiting college buses at Phedi. You can climb down in about forty-five minutes to an hour but this is hard on the knees. However, some of us were determined to continue our overnight hike. The rain was testing our resolve. Eventually, we set off along the ridge. The hills were shrouded in mist. A few water buffaloes were climbing the ridges and probably getting back to the shelter of their homes. The buffalo is an adaptable animal. The ones raised in the plains of India cannot climb hills, but the Nepalese ones do so with ease.
We were drenched and cold. We decided to have cups of Nepalese tea and warm up. The tea in Nepalese trekking lodges is often served in steel mugs. They may use milk powder or milk from the local buffaloes if available. The milk is usually burnt slightly giving a distinct taste that may not be to everyone’s liking. The rain stopped and we decided to continue.
We soon regretted our decision. The rains started again with renewed vigour. The light was also beginning to fade. It was thundering around us, and we lost our way. On top of that, we were assaulted by bloodsucking leeches. I had encountered these creatures earlier at the Eravikulam national park in Kerala. But that is another story.
We were now getting scared. The trail was not evident. We eventually met a farmer and asked him the way to the village of Landruk. At that time our knowledge of Nepali was rudimentary, and we communicated through actions. He volunteered to show us the trail in return for a small fee.
We continued along the main trail to the village of Landruk but darkness was falling fast. The trail was uphill, muddy, and slippery, and the leeches gave us little respite. Eventually, we saw the light of a lodge on top of a hill. We reached the settlement of Deurali at 2300 m. Deurali means a pass in Nepali. This small settlement had no electricity. We were sweaty, dirty, and wet. The leech-bites were oozing blood. The next hour was spent carefully examining our legs and removing the leeches by applying salt to the wounds. Luckily Nepalese leeches are smaller than the ones in India and the wounds do not bleed so long.
We dined on rice, lentil curry, green vegetables and dried meat and settled in for the night. The darkness was absolute once the lamps were extinguished. I had never previously experienced this level of darkness. The rain continued to drum through the night. The dawn was cloudy, and we could see hills in every direction. The Himals to the north were blanketed in clouds. The lodge had some sel roti (a Nepalese specialty resembling a doughnut) prepared the previous day and we had these for breakfast along with an omelette and chiya (Nepalese tea).
I later did the trek to Landruk and beyond in better weather. Someone once said that weather can make or break a trek. I wholeheartedly agree. The views of the Annapurnas from the trail are spectacular. The forests are green and dense, and the trail is mostly broad and easy to walk on. Landruk has several excellent lodges to spend the night. You can continue down and cross the Modi Khola and then join and climb the main trail to the village of Ghandruk. I have spent a few New Year’s Eve in the lodges of Dhampus. The village is a day hike from Pokhara and the mountain views on a clear day are spectacular. A night hike like the first one I had with leeches and rain is, of course, different in many ways from a day one.
Longer hikes of between a week to two weeks are an enjoyable activity and provide you with a different perspective on life. As roads penetrate ever deeper into the hills, hike trails have become shorter. Today mobile connections are available nearly everywhere. During the early 2000s however, going on a long hike meant being out of contact with the outside world. You stayed in basic lodges and ate simple food. You carried what you required in your rucksack and obtain other necessities at lodges. You realise how much extra baggage all of us carry during our lives. A hike is a step back to a simpler gentler time. I have met several people doing hikes after completing their military service, finishing university, after a breakup, or while contemplating what to do next. You climb stone staircases, cross suspension bridges, crawl through landslides and make way for mule trains. The lack of vehicles makes for a quieter world. As the chaotic voices of the outer world begin to fade, you become more attuned to your inner voices and begin to listen to your soul!
Dr. P Ravi Shankar is a faculty member at the IMU Centre for Education (ICE), International Medical University, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He enjoys traveling and is a creative writer and photographer.
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL
Click here to access the Borderless anthology, Monalisa No Longer Smiles
Click here to access Monalisa No Longer Smiles on Kindle Amazon International