Leaving Yara, we face 26 miles of walking with 10,000 feet of elevation gain, with only one tea house lodge along the way. Trekkers supported by a full porter team, who are camping out each night, manage this in three days. We’re faced with doing it in two days. A lot of walking, a lot of climbing, and very little air; we’ll reach our high point of 4280 meters, about the height of Mt. Rainier in our backyard at home.
As usual, we start out walking down to a river gorge, then 1000 meters up a gravelly hillside to a plateau. Arriving at the top, Chaim points to a herd of goats, saying, “I know this guy.” He says that a lot; Chaim seems to know half of Mustang.
The goat herder is grizzled, nearly toothless, squinty eyed, and smiling through a crinkly face, creased around his eyes, across his cheeks and forehead. He has a ratty wool watch cap, a shoulder bag, and a looped short rope around his neck.
“Where is he from?” We’re an hour or two into our day’s trek at this point. There has been no building, much less people, during that whole time.
“He come from Yara.”
“What does he do up here?”
“He bring the goat up every day. Some place different every day.”
“How old is he?”
“He say he about, um, let me see, 55.”
“Does he do anything else except herd goats?”
“He been doing this all his life.”
“Does he like his work.”
“He say, Oh Yes, it keep him busy, and he doesn’t deal with people.”
“What does he do for the goats?”
“Sometime, the goat get away, he has to bring them back.”
“How does he do that?”
“He has a sling shot. He throw a rock at goat, the goat come back.”
“Can he show me that. Can he use the sling shot?”
Chaim laughs. There are no stray goats to corral. But the herder points at a rock about 100 meters away. He picks up a small kiwi-size stone, slips it into a pouch in the middle of the rope he takes from his neck, whirls it a few times overhead, and flings. The small projectile arcs away, hitting the target square on with a distant thunk.
Cheryl laughs, smiles, and gets her pictures. Reaching the steep portion of the day’s first La, I forge ahead of our porter, only lightly encumbered by my day pack. I catch up to a Spanish couple we have been yo-yoing with for the past two days. They are camping, and we will part ways with them shortly, as they head off onto the Damodar Kunda Trek, an offshoot of the Annapurna Circuit. They will be walking up into glacier country, peaking at about 5800 meters. A bit jealous of their young adventurous souls and bodies, I wait with them at the La, the morning still calm, while Cheryl catches up.
We start downhill, and soon hit a broad open slope of stones, gravel and scree, across which the trail winds and switchbacks. I check my GPS watch for the elevation and gradient. Heading straight down, it’s 40%, with 25-30% being the incline between switchbacks. When it “flattens” out to 10%, I stop again, seeing first Cheryl, then Chaim, then the porters, who are running down the loose gravel slope, 65 pound packs held in place only by a strap around their necks. I had carefully inched my way down this slope, measuring every step, leaning on my hiking poles, not wanting to have my feet slide out from under me.
Down at the river, the channel has been altered to hug the far side of the bed, allowing an irrigation channel to siphon off the flow onto a plateau just below. Nothing is planted there yet, no sign of farming. Chaim points to the single building up on the bank.
“That a new tea house. People here start to farm, so they have food next year. Now, we eat morning tea and rest.”
And go uphill once again, 800 meters in a couple of miles. By the time we reach the top, the wind has started its afternoon blast. We drop down into the inevitable fluted slot canyon, where the funnel effect has taken full force. Cheryl’s Tyvek jacket, whipping at the sleeves, is plastered to her chest, and her face is hidden from the stinging sand by her ever-present Buff.
Out of the slot, we look down on a broad mile-long plain to the final downhill plunge. I’m in the lead, and while I can clearly see a trail etched across the mesa, finding it at first is problematic, as the goats seem to not have cared where they went, and twenty or more squiggly routes present themselves. At the final drop off down into Tangge, our destination for the night, the prayer flags are especially busy, carrying the wind from the village up the ridge.
When Michel Peissel visited Tangge in the ‘60s, he was swarmed by townsfolk, who wanted to know his opinion of their chorten(s). They were sure they had the best, largest, and most impressive chorten anywhere in Mustang. Knowing that he had visited all the hamlets oin the upper Kali Gandaki basin, they would not let him into town until he admitted that, yes, their was certainly the most impressive. It features a multitude of domes (Peissel claims there were 30 during his visit; I could only count half that many.)
Tangge’s red and white chorten complex anchors the village, which sits just above its fields, hugging the cliff base. Wind has scoured out a natural Mt. Rushmore, with an ominous brooding face staring down across a crumbling ancient dzong, channeling an Easter Island statue.
Our tea house was newly built, on the far end of town. Exploring the ruined dzong, I climb above our lodgings for an evening view. Clouds, dark not fluffy, roam overhead, and it sure does look like snow. Inside, the wood fire warms our transnational crew, Swiss, French, Spanish, and us, along with the Mustangis and Nepali guides and porters. Solar heated hot water awaits for those bold enough to brave the outside shower.
That night, the wind howls up the river canyon, unusual after dark. When we gather for the morning load-out, the snow line has indeed dropped down a lot, and the air has freshened up, the omni-present dust for once not obscuring views.