After a day of rehydrating and recovering, we left in the sunshine to find a new home downhill. The surrounding snow-capped peaks looked brilliant in the blue sky. Our energy was much higher than it was the previous couple of days, likely because the end was near and the hikes were getting shorter.
As we descended, the views only grew more spectacular. We eventually crossed the tree line again and began to see foliage, bugs, and flowers again. One of the most awe-inspiring experiences of the trek was walking through a rhododendron forest. The purple-pink flowers were in full bloom, and they delicately complemented our view of the always exquisite mountains. We zig-zagged our way down the mountain until we reached a meadow bearing nothing but a small cairn. There, we stopped for pictures. Vipul and Ally both put a rhododendron in their hats.
We then descended further into meadows lined with paths for sheep and cattle. Gaurav and Vipul instructed our leaders to search for a campsite in a meadow with two large trees, and we eventually spotted an area fitting this description in the distance. However, Vipul remained at the rest stop, encouraging us to proceed ahead and choose the campsite on our own. We soon reached the meadow and determined it was flat enough to be a campsite, but we needed to find water. Down the hill was a large flock of sheep and some men working on a trail, so we assumed there had to be some sort of stream or well nearby. Taking initiative, Hannah spotted the shepherd and approached him, using limited Hindi to ask for directions to water. The exchange was unfruitful, but eventually the shepherd walked up the hill and pointed more clearly to a stream hiding behind some rocks. Hannah and I excitedly grabbed a water drum and filled it.
When we returned, the shepherd was still awkwardly standing next to our group. We still needed permission to pitch our tents, so eventually Lilly decided to sketch a tent in her notebook and show it to the shepherd. I am still not sure whether the shepherd understood, but he nodded agreeably when Mitch took out his tent. He also wrote something in the notebook and smiled at the mountains Lilly had drawn. When we showed the notebook to our guides, they told us the words could translate to “you can stay here” or “we have goat.” Given the discrepancy between these two phrases, I assumed Gaurav and Vipul were either not telling us something or that offering sheep was a way of extending hospitality. Overall, I was still not concerned because of the consistent kindness the shepherds and villages had shown us throughout the trip.
Elated to have flat ground for sleeping again, we pitched our tents and prepared dinner. At the tail end of the trek, we had very little flour left, so our baking days were over. Anita and I settled for spaghetti with tomato sauce and onions. The pasta was filling, but it was starting to get old. I was nonetheless excited to have leftovers.
That night, I had a fun conversation with Chris, Simon, and Thomas in their tent dubbed “Wall Street” (finance buffs, I suppose). We talked about school, jobs, our experience on the trek, places we wanted to visit in the world, and so much more. I will always cherish those late night chats, and I am extremely grateful to make such great friends on this trek. I am looking forward to hanging out with them when we return to Pittsburgh next year.
I again slept well on my inflatable air mattress, and I awoke the next day (a rest day) to cook rice flakes with instruction from Gaurav. The rice flakes would have been tasteless if I had cooked them, but Gaurav has a way with spices that elevates food in the backcountry. The secret: add double the normal amount of garlic powder, onion powder, salt, pepper, basil, and oregano to pretty much every meal. Well, that is my approach; Gaurav is a bit more seasoned. We constantly tell him that he should start a cooking show.
Cooking most certainly did not end at breakfast. On the menu for the evening was the lamb we purchased from the shepherd the previous night. When Gaurav asked if we wanted to contribute money for a lamb, we all eagerly assented. I had not eaten meat in over a week, and farm-raised lamb sounded like a delicacy. All the instructors asked of us was that we offer our assistance in the cooking process, which we also agreed to provide. So, after breakfast, we divided tasks and devoted the day to dinner preparation.
The group split in half. Some of us would walk to the village and purchase onions, mustard oil, garlic, and a large pot; the others would stay at the campsite and help prepare the lamb. I chose to visit the village with Anita, Simon, and Alex—not because I was not afraid of seeing the lamb slaughtered and skinned, but because I wanted to see the town.
The walk to the village was a steep downhill hike on a rocky trail. Moving without my heavy backpack felt great, though. In about twenty minutes, we arrived in the village with Govin, who left us under the shade of a building to search for a shop. In the interim, we sat and observed the houses and people around us. The buildings largely had stone roofs and wooden beams; some houses had green, red, or blue paint. While older women carried baskets on their backs along steep dirt paths, younger men wore Adidas jackets and rode motorcycles. The village was a fascinating collision of ancient and contemporary life.
Soon enough, a crowd of people gathered to watch us and take pictures with their phones. We had gotten rather used to the attention; Americans are a novelty, especially in remote villages. Despite our inability to converse with the locals, I did not feel terribly uncomfortable, mostly because I never sensed any hostility or displeasure. We were greeted with smiles and kind gestures at every turn.
After talking with several people, Govin found a store and led us to it. We stepped inside a small musty room with strings of snack bags, some produce, and a scale that looked hundreds of years old. We used our broken Hindi (and clarifying words from Govin) to ask for onions and rice, which the shopkeeper measured using his scale. Meanwhile, a kind gentleman who was already in the store tried to communicate with us. He had trouble speaking (in Hindi and in English), so he used animated gestures to convey his thoughts. After recognizing that we were backpacking, he gave a charming impression of a hiker with imaginary hiking poles.
We then filled our bags with the ingredients and then began our return hike. When leaving the village, I tried asking some children what their names were—one understood, but the rest either giggled or stared at me blankly. I had a better idea why the children might have been laughing at me when two women pointed at my backpack and revealed that onions were falling out of an open pocket. I smiled and thanked them profusely.
The hike back to camp was not nearly as pleasant. However, I did not mind the workout, and we soon arrived with the groceries. I crashed under the shade of a tree with some chocolate biscuits we bought in the village—they were some of the best biscuits I have ever had. Then, some of the folks who stayed at the campsite found me and related the events of the past couple of hours.
Half of the group collected firewood for a large campfire, and the other half helped handle the lamb. Ally was quite determined to kill the lamb and was given the opportunity to do so, but she balked when the lamb was tied up and the guides suddenly urged her to kill it. So, Gaurav seized the knife and did it himself. Raju took a quite memorable photo of the group staring at the decapitated lamb in alarm.
Next, the guides cleaned and skinned the lamb with help from Tommy. I was told this process took quite a while. Once the campfire was lit, the guides transferred the meat to a large pot (I am not sure where they procured it) and slow-cooked the lamb for the next three hours. The pot also contained a curry with cumin and turmeric.
At around 5:00 PM, the lamb was ready. First, Gaurav offered a fry bake filled with organs to anyone interested. I gladly accepted the offer and thoroughly enjoyed the flavors. Each piece of meat was different, and I struggled to identify any organ besides what I think was the liver (I recognized the tough, dry texture). Then, each group filled their pot with meat and distributed servings over rice. I must have had three helpings—the meat was tender and delicious. Some people were concerned about how the meat would affect their bowel movements, but I was too enamored with the flavor to care. I was lucky to save leftovers in my lunch pail.
After cleaning our dishes and feeding the bones to the shepherd dogs, we gathered around the campfire and told scary stories. Vipul even joined in the fun, telling a Himalayan legend of a witch who haunts the area around an abandoned mine where her family died in a mine collapse. I reveled in the heat of the fire, even though the night was not as chilly due to the lower altitude. Before snuggling into my sleeping bag, I gazed at the stars and rued the approaching end of my ability to see them.
In the morning, I arose at the time specified in the debrief, but the other tents were struggling to get moving (which I understood completely). Determined to use the rest of our flour, I began cooking pancakes—I only needed to a quick refresher of the ingredients from Gaurav. Without much trouble and with some help from Anita, I made enough pancakes to feed other groups as well. The pancakes probably needed more cinnamon and some peanut butter, but I was proud of the texture.
Once we wrapped up breakfast, distributed the ashes from the campfire, and packed our bags, we departed for a new village called Phitari. None of the guides accompanied us, and we were told to unite at the village temple. Fortunately, the hike was relatively short and easy. We spotted the temple without needing to communicate extensively with anyone in the fields ahead of the village.
When we arrived at the village, a large group of schoolchildren immediately stopped their game to investigate. Smiling and laughing, they ran up to us and touched our feet (a sign of respect). I used Hindi to learn several of their names. After introductions, we walked into the village and put our packs down. Chris and Mitch joined the cricket game, eliciting laughs (we were not the most skilled).
Eventually, Gaurav and Vipul found their way to the village and led us to the town hall, where we dropped our backpacks and rested. Gaurav told us that the village was conducting a ceremony celebrating their ancestors, the Pandavas, who fled to the Himalayas after a great war recounted in the Hindu legend Mahabharata. The story holds that the holy mountain Swargarohini (visible in some of my photos, I believe) is a stairway to heaven that only the eldest Pandava brother was able to ascend. The ceremony invites the spirit of the Pandavas to enter a chosen set of villagers.
Raju offered to walk us through town before the ceremony, and we passed through paths and alleyways full of families, dogs, and cattle. Our tour led us to the ceremony grounds, where we watched intently from the shade. The proceedings involved drums, dancing, singing, and offerings. The villagers initially seemed uncomfortable with our presence, but our guides assured us that they were insisting we have food and accommodation instead of urging us to leave. I felt honored to witness such an ancient and meaningful tradition for this remarkable community.
After the ceremony, we returned to the town hall for lunch. Most of the group promptly scattered to search for candies in shops. Anita, Thomas, and I decided to stay in the town hall and ask Gaurav more questions about the Hindu religion and the beliefs of this village. In addition to basics of Hinduism, we learned the village temple was dedicated to Shiva (the Destroyer) and that many Himalayan temples honor him.
Once the group returned with goodies and sat for a while longer, we forged ahead to our final campsite. However, within five minutes of leaving the townhall, we found ourselves in the middle of a brutal hailstorm. I must admit that I was quite frustrated with my inability to control the elements in that moment. However, the group worked well to navigate down the mountain and outlast the hail, rain, and thunder.
We soon spotted a river (either the Supin or one of its tributaries) and began searching for a meadow across a bridge per instruction from Vipul and Gaurav. At length, we reached a small meadow with a temple at the confluence of two rivers. According to Gaurav, confluences are holy to Hindus. The weather was still overcast and rain still seemed possible, so we pitched our tents. The forceful rush of the rivers mixed with the cloudy skies to produce a brooding, mysterious atmosphere.
As if nature wanted to remind us that we were not yet out of the woods, the skies opened and a downpour started. Our group reasoned that we had a choice: cook in the rain in the light, or cook in the rain in the dark. So, Ally and I got soaked cooking elbow noodles with soy balls. However, we were immensely grateful to have full stomachs, as other groups did not attempt cooking until the storm got worse. We quickly nestled our gear under our tent and began hibernating for the night at 7:00 PM.
To stay up longer, we talked for a few hours about life, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Unfortunately, that night was my worst night of sleep so far. The meadow was littered with sheep, who at one point charged the boys who tried cooking later in the evening when the thunderstorm intensified (they quickly retreated into their tent). The sheep did eventually settle down, but the horses did not. The bells on their collars jingled the entire night, and I always felt like the sound was immediately outside the tent and that our gear and food were in danger. Apparently, horses never sleep.
When I exited the tent at 3:00 AM to pee, I discovered that the jingling noise was ten yards away (a relief). Less comforting was the army of lambs staring at me with eyes that reflected back in the light of my head lamp. I quite literally had no idea where I could go to relieve myself. Eventually, I scurried around the crowds of sheep and found a spot on the side of the hill. I will never forget the chill that ran up my spine.
Even though the night was my least restful, I got around six solid hours of sleep, which was still great. Moreover, any fatigue was overridden by my excitement to return to civilization. I did not even put in my contacts that morning, sick of finding dirt particles on my fingers after trying three times to wash my hands. We could not wait to shower and relax.
After Vipul shared our final reading of the trek (“If” by Rudyard Kipling, a poem which his father and my father both read to us), we piled into Jeeps bound for a hotel. Hearing Hindi music in the car and watching the river fade away felt like the end credits scene to a move. However, my fond feelings were quickly overtaken by the nausea-inducing mountain roads, and within five minutes I was plotting how to vomit if the need seized me.
Mercifully, the ride ended after around forty-five minutes. We eagerly checked into our rooms and showered, enjoying the thrill of running water and clean sheets. Look out for Part 4 to learn about the rest of my journey home!