Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Himalayan Holiday - Trek Day 4

We went to bed with optimism fuelled by the starry night sky. It turned out to be false hope. The first light revealed thick cloud, strong winds, and a few snow flakes. There was a postcard pinned on the common room wall showing what we could have seen. It did look spectacular, but you can't rely on the weather in the mountains. With nothing much to see we finished our breakfast (more porridge) and bade farewell to the English couple who were returning back along the ridge by Land Rover.

Since we are on the highest piece of land in West Bengal the only way is down. We are heading to the village of Rimbick down in the valley. We were initially told that it would be a 14 kilometre walk, but our guides inform us that it will be 21 kilometres. San is worried. At least it is all downhill, but our guides say they prefer heading up - downhill strains the calves much more.

Before heading down I have to present myself at a final Indian army checkpoint. The guard is happy to inform me that England are out of the cricket world cup. I reply that they lasted rather longer than India. He laughs. Fortunately only the very top of the mountain is in the foul weather. We are soon below the cloudbase where the wind stops, and we have a reasonable view of the surroundings. Apart from the copious quantities of bamboo, the grassy slopes look rather European. Our guides spot a deer, but it leaps into the bamboo before we respond to their calls.

We pass an Indian group, but shortly afterwards a lone 'Aunty' powers past us in her flip-flops. Soon we hear the crack of thunder - is this why she has broken away from her group? Rain and hail follow. The larger stones give quite a sting when they hit. The path is getting muddier, and by this time we have overtaken flip-flop woman. San on the other hand has found a hitherto unexpected turn of speed in response to the inclement weather, and is rushing down the mountain at such a rate that it is hard to keep up.

We make it to a tiny village before the storm truly breaks. We find shelter in the house of John's sister's mother-in-law. There is another cat keeping warm by the stove; this time San joins it to dry up. There is also a dog, but it is getting wet outdoors. We have a nice meal - including cocktail sausages! We also have some local rice based brew; not the best source of alcohol I've tried. First the hail, then the rain, lashes down. It will stop and you can see clouds form at the base of the hill and rise up. Then it starts again. Meanwhile San thinks she can see a fly on my neck. I swat it an she says it's still there. Puzzled I rub my fingers along my neck, and feel what must be a tick. We call John over and he pulls it off. He proudly states that it is still alive as he chucks it outside. Being a Buddhist he won't kill any animal. I had seen this earlier when he flicked a caterpillar off the footpath lest anyone following trod on it.

The rain stopped again and it was time to leave. The guides said it would remain dry, but I decided to put on my fluorescent orange waterproof trousers. It turned out to be unnecessary as the guides were right of course. The village was at the head of the valley, so the gradient levelled out, and the vegetation became lush. We passed waterfalls, wild orchids and Alpine, or should that be Himalayan, strawberries. We also passed some ponies carrying supplies up the valley; even the Land Rover's wouldn't make it up these narrow paths.

We crossed the river at a suspension bridge populated with many camera snapping tourists. After that the last stretch towards Rimbick was comparatively tedious. We did pass some houses with beautiful gardens, but the scenery couldn't compare with the higher altitudes, and we were getting tired. Eventually we reached Rimbick at 5:30pm. The accommodation was better than the summit, but still fairly basic, as was the food. The ambience was not helped by the fact the two yappy dogs were tied up in the restaurant area. After dinner we realised the guides were right about downhill causing the most pain as we hobbled down the steps to our bedroom. At least it wasn't freezing any more, and tomorrow we would be a little closer to civilisation.



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