A New Zealander in Kangchenjunga

For as long as I can remember, and for reasons I have never got to the bottom of, I have always wanted to visit Nepal. At age 12, my ambition was to become New Zealand's High Commissioner in Nepal. This career choice was later abandoned when I learned the position did not exist, although the desire to visit remained strong and grew with each passing year. Finally in 2000, aged 34, I visited the country and trekked the 'Annapurna Circuit' and Annapurna Sanctuary, the circle of himals in central Nepal. Now, aged 35, I am here again and will come back again when things settle down a little. That last reference is, of course, to the Maoist (recently declared 'terrorist') movement which has slowly seeped up the valleys of mid-hill Nepal and is presently at a decisive stage of confrontation with His Majesty's Government, the Nepal Police and — a new entrant — the Royal Nepal Army.

After six years working as a spin doctor for a not particularly well-liked or understood New Zealand Government Department, I was ready for a good holiday. The plan was to arrive mid-September and leave at the end of the year. So I quit my job, sold my office clothes and bought a good sleeping bag and down jacket, bid farewell to my friends and family in New Zealand and headed off to Kathmandu. The destination was the region around the western base of Kangchenjunga, the sprawling Himalayan massif that defines the northeastern edge of Nepal, with Sikkim on the other side and Tibet/China to the north.

Flying in from Bangkok, from 31,000 feet, Kangchenjunga was clearly v isible in the first group of peaks in the march westward of the Himalaya. Backtracking somewhat to Biratnagar, out of the left window of the turboprop, there it was again, larger and up close. The more direct route to the region, via the flattop airstrip of Suketar, had been ruled out because there were no seats available on the Twin Otter. This was why my group was headed for Birantnagar, and on the flight I was mentally preparing myself for the 40-hour bus ride to Taplejung, which we all knew was not going to be pleasant.

Our bus was jam-packed with porters, bags, food and an assortment of trekking paraphernalia, and the seat could be defined as ergonomically deficient. The road felt like an endless sheet of corrugated iron. The bizarre noises coming from mechanically-challenged parts of our bus, the sheer drops down seemingly endless terraced hillsides, and the fingernail width gaps we witnessed between ourselves and other buses we passed all added to the adventure. Around the occasional bend in the precipitous road, we were afforded some spectacular views of Kangchenjunga, most impressively its Jannu face which looks west towards the Nepali midhills.

The bus ride also provided an introduction to the latest in Nepali music. In the last few years, we learned, there has been a revolution in Nepali folk and 'Nepali modern', and the staple Hindi film songs are now being quickly supplanted by local fare. The music was good, but it was being coaxed out of a dying tape deck and some very dodgy speakers. The very busily patterned brown velvet lining of the bus kept me awake and alert, as did the constant need to readjust the way I was sitting to stop parts of me from going dead.

What can be said about the 40-hour bus ride from the plains of Biratnagar to the hilltop former trading post (and now district headquarters) of Taplejung is that it increases your urge to start off on the trek, to get your body moving and away from the discomfort of the ride. And so we alighted in Taplejung, half expecting an applause from the small audience that gathered to watch us unload.

We were greeted warmly by the owner of a very nice hotel run by an ex-British Gurkha who played a mean game of badminton and had cold beer in his fridge. However, there were Maoists about, so we had to sit in a curtained booth inside to drink it. While the drinking was clandestine all right, I wondered what the insurgents would make of the growing collection of bottles outside.

Boring water

The trek up to the above-10,000 feet 'High Himalaya' that is the Kangchenjunga region required first passing through the midhills of Nepal. This region is generally neglected by the tourism literature of Nepal, although this is where the bulk of Nepal's mountain people live and where Nepal's demographic diversity is most evident. The castes and ethnic groups of Nepal populate the midhills, whereas the higher reaches -from Kangchenjunga westward through the Khumbu, Rolwaling, Helambu, Langtang, Manang, all the way to Humla – are inhabited by the Tibetan-speaking Bhutia people or their kin, such as the Sherpa.

And so, here in the approach march to Kangchenjunga, we left the Newar-inhabited outpost of Taplejung to pass through villages inhabited by a sprinkling of Bahun, Chhetri and other caste groups. However, this eastern corner of Nepal is the home ground of the indigenous Limbu people, who together with the Rai make up the Kirat civilisation. This Limbu region beneath Kangchenjunga is divided between Nepal and Sikkim, which lies on the other side of the Shinghalila range, a long ridge that heads down from the high ramparts of Kangchenjunga all the way to near the hill station of Darjeeling.

And so it was the tropical terrain at 6-8000 feet that led us away from Taplejung. On the second day out, we were in Chiruwa, a small but significant centre for the rapidly growing cardamom cash crop industry of this region. Our group, of four trekkers and our two 'trek leaders', was on the lookout for something nice to drink and we had been told we might find something in this village. Trekking is thirsty work in the middle hills and water gets boring after a while. The promise of a soft drink had become more appealing as the afternoon wore on and when we finally hit Chiruwa's stone paved streets and collection of shops I was on the lookout for something sweet and fizzy.

It was disappointing to learn that the Maoist diktat had reached here too, which meant we would probably have to drink hot milk tea instead – the standard glucose fix that keeps locals on the go in the mountain trails. However, dudh-chiya was a far from appealing prospect in the heat, and some fast-talking by one of our experienced trek leaders meant that five minutes later I was crouched behind a closed door, glass in hand and trying to hold back a burp. We were trekking in the time of Maobadi and it was almost certain that this would not be the last of our encounters with their clear and present influence.

The intrepid trekker

Other kinds of tourists may cancel their tickets and stay home in uncertain times, but trekkers are a more intrepid sort, willing to jettison all fear of air travel in the face of aircraft colliding with tall buildings, and despite knowledge that their very destination is infested with bands that take their cue from Chairman Mao's Red Book. The trekker is nothing if not intrepid, and our own band was made up of: Wendy, a 40-year-old Canadian accountant taking a break from her life; Robi[?] 65, a mountain lover, former mining engineer and financial management-type whose view on womens' role in society and their social obligation to produce children fed a number of discussions during the trek; and Kirsteen, a 26-year-old lieutenant in the New Zealand Army, recently returned from a tour in East Timor with an astounding knowledge of guns and an appetite that belied her slim build. That, and our two trek leaders, made up the group, although we occassionally enjoyed the company of some local Tamang porters at different points, including two beautiful young girls named Tsering and Tshering. It is likely that without the Maoists, there would have been more of us.

The main intent of our two trek leaders and trek sirdar seemed to be to ensure that not a single one of us would loose weight on the trek. Inside the low slung yurt-like tent, we consumed enormous quantities of restaurant quality food prepared in a simple kitchen tent by our most able cooks and assistants.

Conservation area

The Kangchenjunga region has been open to trekking since 1989, and trekking companies asked that access be restricted via permit to group travel only so they could make more money. This has kept the area off limits for individual trekkers. Thankfully, however, there is no requirement to have a government liaison officer along, which is mostly a scam created by the authorities to get extra pay for their employees. Over time trekking companies and individuals have been able to bend the rules a little and it was not uncommon to see the occasional individual with a small crew working off a permit with an invisible trekking partner, which made it a 'group'.

The trekking permit is meant to be inspected closely by all manner of authorities along the trail, to ensure at the trekker is what s/he says s/he is and not an intelligence operative or a gun-runner. However, the [en]tire swath of midhilll Nepal that is remote from district headquarters or large towns has now been emptied of administrators and police posts. It became apparent very early on that the Maoist threat would mean our trekking permits would remain quite clear of official stamps, an open invitation for anyone to chart out into unexplored  Himalayan  nooks and crannies.

The police have been on the run these past couple of years, with the Maoists pitting their motivated cadre by the hundreds against police posts manned by untrained policemen with antiquated 303 rifles. While the major attacks had all been west of the Kangchenjunga hills -and all of them away from the popular trekking region such as the Khumbu, Manang and Annapurna- that did not stop the policemen from abandanoning their posts here en masse. Along our trail, all the police station had been boarded up with the men in blue moving down to the relative security offered at the district headquarters in Taplejung with its army garrison for extra comfort.

As it is, the Kangchenjunga area is sparsely trekked compared with the other regions and this year numbers were down further still. Knowledgeable locals had all the reason right as to the reduced numbers of tourists: "Maoists, the Indian Airlines hijacking, the Royal Palace massacre, the World Trade Center" No more than 350 trekkers seemed to have visited the Kangchenjunga region thus far in 2001, as far as I could make out- and it was already late November.

The trek travels through the Kangchenjunga Conservation Area, which was established in 1998 as a joint undertaking of the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation and Worldwide Fund for.Nature (WWF) Nepal. The goal of the conservation area is to protect the natural habitat of the region and promote sustainable development in the area in a similar fashion to what is being done by the Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP). The area covers a number of different ecological zones and focuses also on species conservation, education, reducing waste and building local capacity for conservation.

The aim of just about everybody visiting Kangchenjunga is to visit either the north or south base camps used by mountaineering teams climbing the mountain (8,586m) from the Nepal side. They try to make it to both base camps if time permits. While it may not yet have the "been-there done-that and I have the t-shirt to prove it" mass appeal of the Everest Base camp, the Kangchenjunga area offers quiet trails sans tourists and a sense of what things might have been like in the now popular trekking areas. In so many ways, Kagchenjunga is a perfectly balanced trek reminiscent perhaps of the Annapurna Circuit before roads ate into the beginning and end of the trail. Winding its way through the midhills and onto the high altitude valleys around Khambachen and Lhonak, this trek is one of the last 'undiscovered' major treks of the Nepal Himalaya.

Camping ritual

The warmth of the middle hills and cardamom growing regions soon gives way to larch forests and hill­sides covered in sub-alpine vegetation until finally you reach the high altitude grazing areas and glaciers that can provide such a challenge for trekkers. The altimeter I had bought from an American journalist in Kathmandu, who had been writing about his sister's attempt at Cho Oyu, allowed me to plot our gain in altitude. It felt a little bizarre to be walking through a bamboo forest at an altitude the same as New Zealand's highest mountain (12,349 feet).

Really getting into the trekking groove takes time. Rushing along the trail, some first-time trekkers seem more intent on the day's destination than what they pass through to get there. At Kangchenjunga I willed myself to slow right down, and began to feel almost lazy at times, dragging my poles in the dust, really wishing that some moments just would not end, and often sad to be leaving behind a particular outlook. Walking along a rather narrow path from Khambachen to Lhonak I was moved to tears by the sight of a valley with mountains that rose above in an almost sheer wall, the contrast of an intensely blue sky making the snow seem somehow whiter. How does this happen, that a view can make your eyes water?

Our trip had been billed as exploratory, and with plenty of days to allow for this we were in no rush to move fast. Occasionally we would come across a group storming along trying to squeeze a trip to the north and south base camps into dangerously few days. I felt relieved that we were not under this sort of pressure. Breathlessness, loss of appetite, headaches and lethargy are just some of the side effects of trying to go "too high too fast", and I was not about to destroy the flavour of the trek by any show of bravado.

Camping treks have their own routines and, in our case, also rituals [not] provided regular comedy at the breakfast table. The sound of the stoves being fired in the morning meant Prem, Raju and hot milk coffee were not far away. Warm washing water followed, delivered to tent, and then there was bag packing, tent folding and breakfast outside under yet another cloudless sky and the himals* for company. Our trekking crew worked hard, especially our sirdar, who had to manage the movement of up to 40 loads for nearly 40 days. There were some especially cold nights higher up and we wondered what might come out of the kitchen. Without fail a meal of four or five fancy dishes, including sometimes a chocolate cake, would appear. (*Himal: snow mountain).

Our time exploring the region above Lhonak provided some interesting moments, the mission being to have a close look at an old pass bordering Tibet called the Chabuca La – roughly translated, this means tea place, perhaps the last place to brew up. From a distance, it looked like a steep wall of crumbly rock. Up [se] it looked no different and we wondered how anything or anybody could have ever made it up or down with a load in the days when trans-Himalayan trading took place here. Perhaps the Chabuca La was more accessible before the glaciers receded many years ago, we surmised. I could not make it to the 6000m pass, but my altimeter finally recorded 6220m several days later on a spectacular and windy day, snow blasting off the top of the north side of Kangchenjunga on the opposite side of the valley.

Snow leopard

The most dramatic moment of the trek, for me, was the gift of sighting a snow leopard mother and two cubs. Wildlife biologists in search of this great and elusive creature of the high Himalaya often wait months to be afforded a glimpse, so a snow leopard sighting is not to be shrugged away. Additionally, for an endangered mammal, here was good news – the mother was rearing two of her young. It happened in an area close to the Jannu Base Camp, and our sighting did not require a lot of effort- it seemed to be simply a case of being in the right place at the right time. A good pair of borrowed binoculars helped.

We camped for two nights in that valley knowing that the snow leopards were around. It was a privilege to be in the same place which was theirs, with us simply as visitors. Kangchenjunga affords the trekker such humble thoughts. Each morning the mighty north face of Jannu blocked the sun from our camping spot until almost 10am, the head of the valley a continuous wall of vertical rock, snow and ice. Eventually it was time to head out again, down to the valley the way we had come. Leaving the high Himalaya, it was back down into the midhills and Maoist country.

Some members of our group witnessed a training camp of the insurgents, at Mamangkhe on the south side of the approach to Kangchenjunga. The Maoists came out to check how heavy the loads were and the condition of our porters, which showed concern I thought. The following day, while camped in Lali Kharka, our sirdar spent an hour conducting delicate negotiations with a delegation of Maoists that asked for donations, as well as our binoculars and cameras. They claimed that these were tools that would be used in their training and surveillance work, and he politely refused them.

Eventually, after my obligatory game of badminton with Mabindra, the hotel owner in Taplejung, we were off to Tumlingtar. This is the airstrip by the Arun river, between the Kangchenjunga and Everest/Makalu massifs, a valley so deep it is almost as warm as the Tarai, I found. By the time we arrived in Tumlingtar, we learnt that the Maobadi supremo, Prachanda had broken the four-month long ceasefire with the government. In the airplane back to Kathmandu, we learned about a night of bombs and killing in the hills around Nepal.

The next day, the government announced a state of Emergency.

Now it is time to go home to New Zealand, and to hope that the midhills and High Himalaya of this lovely land can go back to the peace that was its hallmark till just five years ago. When I started on the trek, my hope had been to write an article concluding that trekking in the time of the Maobadi was no problem for tourists. Right now I am not so sure.

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