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Kangchenjunga Trek - Day 15, Mirgin La to Ghunsa

The efforts of the previous day were telling on my knees as we continued crossing the Mirgin La down to our next destination - Ghunsa. There was a cold icy wind blowing but at least the sun was up again and the prospect of fine weather looked set to hold for today's trek.

We followed a similar pattern to yesterday of climbing and ascending over the final few passes before entering the tree line; a sure sign that we were loosing altitude and getting into the next valley. We had seen one of the villages from the hillside, it looked interesting from a height as there appeared to be monastery there. But it will have to wait as it will be another week before we get to it on our return from Pang Pema. I was a bit worried at one stage because my left knee gave way on a couple of occasions and it made the going slow on the steep descent down the wooded slopes. The woods then became large rhododendron bushes which covered the hillside, they must be glorious in the spring.

As I walked along I managed to get into quite a long conversation with Tenzi, the Sirdar and discovered that he was thirty seven years old. I was fascinated to learn that he originated from the Khumbu region (as did most sherpas) and had learnt mountaineering at a school in the Annapurna region. He had accompanied a number of expeditions on major climbs and had even summited some peaks over 8000m. Tenzi frequently wore an Austrian looking hat and the reason became clear when I further discovered that he had friends there who had invited him over to climb in the Alps.

Eventually we emerged from the shrubs and had our first sight of Ghunsa nestled between the imposing mountainous slopes which punched into the clouds above. The village was a collection of large dark wooden buildings with stone Ghunsa Villageboulders to hold the roof down in the high winds that sweep through the valley. The buildings were very distinct from the villages we had seen in the previous valley, far more rustic, and less prosperous. On the edge of the village, on raised ground beyond the river, stood a reddish stone coloured Buddhist ghompa with a yellow roof, whilst nearer to the centre was a whitewashed circular looking building; a smaller ghompa Strings of prayer flags cascaded from the centre of the whitewashed building like a catherine wheel. A central path, which appeared to be made of a series of rocks, cut a swathe through the centre of the village, leading the eye up to the slopes beyond. One of the group told me that the village looked very much unchanged from a picture he had seen in a book written in the early fifties.

Shortly afterwards a group of local women came by collecting firewood. This was the first group of people we had seen for six days, their high cheekbones, narrower eyes, rosy cheeks and general more yellow complexion reminded me that we were now much nearer to Tibet, which was only a few miles away. The people in this region are largely refugees from there who had settled in this valley.

I tried to engage them with some banter using my limited Nepalese.. They laughed and laughed and I thought I had really struck up a good rapport. The reality was that having done my washing that morning I had quite forgotten about the bits I had fastened to my rucsac to dry in the sunshine and fresh air as I walked. There, pinned at each corner and spread across the top of my rucsac like a flag were my underpants!

As we entered the village proper, we passed the local school, and I saw that they had a solar heated shower which could be rented. Continuing across the stony pathway, which incidentally was very uneven and so nearly everyone, locals included walked along the hard earth alongside, we came to our campsite for the day. It was only mid day but after the exertion of the last few days I was looking forward to the rest and the possibility of taking a shower. The tents were pitched in the grounds of one of the lodges and I discovered that the owner held the key for the showers, but unfortunately was not around. I had wanted to take the shower whilst the air temperature was still reasonably warm, I knew that once the sun light went, the air temperature would drop rapidly and I didn't want to get cold. Once the body core temperature gets chilled it's hard to warm up again and so I decided to leave it. I settled for getting a hot bowl of water from the kitchen crew and treated myself to a good wash and a shave.

Feeling a little refreshed, I went with some of the others to have a look around Ghunsa itself. One of the objectives for the afternoon was to see if I could buy a blanket to go over the sleeping bag. I had experienced some cold at night despite the fact that the bag was made of goose down and I was concerned, that from here on, we would be climbing up to our highest point in the trek . I recalled those horror stories which I had heard from other trekkers we had met about the extremely cold temperatures we could expect, so the quest was on. I didn't buy a blanket at the first place I found as I thought it was over priced, moving on I was guided by one of our sherpas to another small shop. The owner , who also must have managed a lodge, got a blanket from one of the balconies where a number were draped out in the sun. It wasn't particularly nice looking, and I thought it had been used before, but the price was right and so I made my purchase. I didn't think there was really going to be a lot of choice and it would at least meet the need and in any case at the end of the day I would probably give it away to one of the porters . I did wonder if this is a regular cycle and would the blanket finish up here again waiting for another trekker to come along.

Returning to camp I deposited my purchase and went off to have a look around the village. I was disappointed to find that the person who could have given us access to the Ghompa was away in the next village, and that the white ghompa was in fact just a large solid mass. The clouds by now had swooped in and the air temperature was dropping fast and so I returned to camp for the afternoon tea and biscuits. In the mess tent there was much excitement amongst some of the group who discovered that the lodge owner would be able to supply Thomba for them. This is a local brew made from millet and served in large wooden cylinders. The millet is crushed , put in a holder over which hot water is poured, and then drunk through long wooden straws. The bonus tonight was that the villagers had offered to lay on a demonstration of local dancing in exchange for a donation towards the village funds which would be used for projects to improve the place; the hot showers at the school was another such enterprise.

Although there were some lamps the lodge interior was quite dark . Once my eyes adjusted to the gloom I saw that the walls appeared to papered with sheets from newspapers and magazines. Tables and wooden benches were placed around the walls and in one corner of the room was a large stove on which numerous pots were bubbling away. We sat on one side whilst in the other corner our porter crew, still wearing their yellow waterproofs, congregated. Just to their right almost indiscernible in the dark was a blanket under which were the lodge owners children and three pairs of bright eyes would occasionally peep at the visitors.

Soon the thomba was being served much to the appreciation of those who had not had a beer for some time; it looked interesting and I quite fancied trying it myself but I wasn't sure of the hygiene of the wooden straws. Having got this far without stomach rot, I wasn't taking chances. Also on the tables was a glass of clear liquid, rackshi (moonshine), a distilled sprit and popular local drink. Again I declined as I had heard it can be extremely powerful stuff.

The dancing was demonstrated by four or five of the local women standing in a line and singing whilst they did a series of shuffles and stamps. The song and dance was rhythmic and they were enjoying themselves. Our porters were soon accompanying them by clapping in time and before long our resident percussionists, in the shape of one Janni and the head cook Padam joined in by playing the two small drums they had brought on trek with them. It was really very good and everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves.

The thomba seemed to be being relished by our group and top ups were being handed out by lifting the lid to the wooden casket and pouring hot water over the millet. I watched in amazement as I saw the women in the lodge lifting the pots straight off the hot stove without any means of protection for their hands.

One of the trek crew dancingAfter a while some of our trekking crew began to join in with the dancing. I was to discover throughout the trek that they would sing and dance at the drop of a hat. The menfolk seemed to take the lead now whilst the Tibetan women bowed out, Serke who had been teaching me the folk songs, proved to be quite an expert as he wheeled and strutted to the whistles and claps of the Nepalese crew. He was joined shortly later by Janni who was equally adept, though perhaps more flamboyant, I didn't realise you could swivel your hips in so many directions with out dislocation. Now the dancing appeared to be freestyle with much waving of the arms in the air and more swivelling of the hips. The accompanying songs seemed familiar, and then I remembered the nights during the Diwali festival when I had been kept awake by the singing and dancing. I didn't realise that we had our own cabaret with us.

When the song became Resam Pi RI Ri (the song I had been learning the chorus to) the Nepalese crew aided by Sirki and Janni immediately started shouting 'Resam, Resam' (my new found nickname) and made a beeline for me and I found myself being dragged up to dance. Once again reputation was at stake so forgetting inhibition (difficult without the influence of thomba and rakshi) I think I managed to do a passable impression of what I had just seen, as I sat down to some applause.

Now the trek crew wanted us to get up and sing. It's at these moments you realise that we don't have much of a tradition in community singing and deciding firstly if anyone actually knew a song, and secondly something we could sing collectively was proving quite difficult. Reaching to the very depths of our knowledge we eventually went for something with visual interest and chose - 'we're climbing up sunshine mountain', complete with all the movements. It seemed to do the trick and there was much laughter when we did the puffing sounds to accompany 'where the cold winds blow'. For our second act we went for something the likes of which Ghunsa had never seen before - the Hokey Cokey. Reputation held, at least in part, we retired while the going was good and could only listen in wonderment as the trek crew continued to regale us with their endless repertoire.

We left the lodge at about eleven thirty, which after the normal bed time of between eight to nine was a positive late night. Ironically it was Saturday evening and I smiled at having experienced the Nepalese weekend. What a pleasant evening it had been.

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