Api to Jumla: A truly magical mystery trek
In this final extract from his inspirational memoirs about trekking in the Himalaya, Abode of the Gods, Kev Reynolds recalls a trek with a very real sense of mystery from Api to Jumla in Nepal’s Farthest West.
For three days and nights we make our way to Nepal’s Farthest West on a succession of battered, garlanded, dust-engulfed, smoke-belching buses – horns blaring, music screeching; locals throwing up out of the windows; livestock and baggage; and at least 30 passengers at a time perched on the roof. It’s a nightmare of a journey, with the vehicles becoming more crowded the further west we travel. On one of these buses, Kirken and Chombe are crammed into the driver’s cab, which they share with no less than 15 other passengers, while I and the rest of his crew whom Kirken has brought along to act as porters are wedged inside the main seating area. No sooner are we squeezed aboard than an urgent tugging at my leg tells me I’m actually standing on an old man squatting on the floor. Shortly after, at a bend in the road, I’m aware that Mila has no physical connection with the vehicle at all, and is outside, hanging on to Dorje, who clings to the open door. Thrusting an arm through the opening I grab Mila’s wrist, and we remain like that for the next 20 minutes.
It’s the most dangerous 20 minutes I have ever spent in the Himalaya – and we’re still only on a road in the foothills.
At a three-way junction we wait for several hours in a dusty village for the next bus to come along. This is hot, low-lying country, but a line of shapely snow peaks forms the northern horizon; with the Indian border not all that far away, we speculate that what we gaze on could be Trisul, Nanda Devi, Api and Nampa.
Api, a shapely 7000 metre mountain towering over the India–Nepal–Tibet border, is where we’re headed, for Kirken has a plan which goes beyond our original intention simply to trek to Saipal. Instead of making a direct approach from the south via the Seti or Karnali river valleys, we aim to work our way to it from the west – as far west as we can go in Nepal – and then, after reaching Saipal, we’ll continue heading east until we come to Jumla, where we’d ended our trek across Dolpo 16 months ago. ‘That way we fill all gaps,’ he said. And who could argue with the logic in that?
This is not a commercial venture. Kirken and I will cover all costs equally, and the five members of his team who volunteered to join us to carry the loads have agreed to do so for porters’ wages and the adventure of the unknown. We’ve no idea how long it will take. Nor are there any guarantees that we’ll make it all the way, but we carry food for three weeks, and when that runs out we hope to buy more from any villages we come to. In truth, we travel with little more than a wish and a prayer...
It’s good to be on the move once more, on a journey full of unknowns. Chewing sticks of sugar cane as we walk, we cross numerous tributaries and pass through villages where locals stand and stare, for white faces are rare in this far corner of Nepal; there are no other trekkers, and it’s clear that my presence brings novelty to their day. Long processions of laden goats and sheep bully past, hundreds to a flock, and squeeze between drystone walls. Dribbling by the trail, buffalo with bulging eyes flare their nostrils and shake their heads to disrupt the flies that taunt them. The smell of livestock is ever present; it’s carried by shepherd and goat herder from one side of the mountains to the other. No doubt we smell of livestock too.
It’s hot, and we pour sweat as we follow the trail high above the Chamliya’s gorge. We’re all desperate for shade; the temperature has settled at 36 degrees, there’s not even a breeze, we’ve run out of water and every step is a challenge.
But suddenly we top a high point and there, several days ahead, a great wall of rock appears, plastered with snow and ice and crowned with a bank of cloud. ‘Api’, says Gunasham, and for a moment I forget the pounding of my heart and heaving lungs as I absorb the vision. Then the cloud bank sinks and Api disappears.
The trail slopes downhill to a lonely teahouse, where we crowd inside to avoid the sun. A thick stew of ginger and cinnamon tea bubbles under an evil-looking froth, but it tastes like nectar when mixed with milk and enough sugar to destroy all the enamel on my teeth. The boys help themselves to endless jugs of cold water filled from a spring, but like me Kirken chooses tea and slurps the hot sweet liquid while chatting with two women standing outside. Both wear nose jewellery, extravagant earrings, and bangles on their wrists; their heads are covered in richly coloured scarves, one scarlet, the other mauve; their saris are summer pink; one wears flip-flops, and the other well-worn trainers. Their voices are shrill as cicadas, and they laugh a lot. Gathering the moment, I fill the well of memory.
The gorge is incredibly deep. In Dolpo I thought the Tarap gorges were narrow, but the Chamliya’s is something else. So narrow, in places it’s little more than a slice ripped through the land, and on both banks of the silver thread of water snow-free mountains erupt in crag and unbelievably steep slopes of grass. When I see two women cutting hay I find it hard to imagine how they maintain a foothold. There is no level ground, and teetering along the west side of the gorge our trail becomes the ultimate helter-skelter route that punishes anyone carrying a heavy load. Our boys are burdened with huge loads – even with Gunasham taking a share – and my heart goes out to them. And yet the moment we stop for a rest, their eyes flash and laughter echoes across the valley. They have my admiration. It’s a privilege to travel with them...
We sense mountains we cannot see, stumble through drifts of old winter snow, and disturb pheasants spooked by our approach. Suddenly Kirken lifts my spirits by pointing out the pug marks of a snow leopard. Having studied this most elusive of Himalayan animals, he knows what to look for, and we follow its trail until the snow drifts run out. Somewhere in the gloom there may be eyes upon us.
At well over 3000 metres my legs feel heavy this morning. Snow flurries thicken and settle on the damp ground. We continue nevertheless and come to a viewpoint overlooking a small ravine, across which there’s a great basin of pasture and woodland backed by a mountain wall whose lower slopes are all that’s visible. Could this be Api? I study the map, take a compass bearing and convince myself that it is...
A year ago Api did not feature at all in my plans, but once Kirken and I began to discuss our journey to and beyond Saipal, this bastion of Nepal’s Farthest West took on an identity of its own. It became a symbolic starting point for our adventure, although in truth that adventure began many days ago, so this is almost a diversion. It’s not as though we have any ambition to climb the damn thing, but having come this far it would be rewarding simply to see it close to.
Not much chance of that today, though.
But as Kirken and I discuss what to do next, the snowfall eases, a vague patch of blue appears through a tear in the clouds, and mountains whose shapes have been hidden until now begin to show themselves. To the southeast Kapchuli (I think it must be) bursts through the mist to reveal a multi-summited ridge, while above us the shape we’d almost convinced ourselves to be Api shows that it’s not – for a much bigger, more impressive peak rises behind and to the right of it. Through a dance of the seven veils a wall of rock and ice is displayed, soaring up and up to a seemingly level summit ridge. There’s only one mountain it could possibly be.
So that is Api!..
The valley is the key to our route to the Seti River – a lush green swathe, well watered and full of promise. What’s more, it provides easy walking through a terraced land dotted with small settlements and sliced with tributaries. In one we pass a man fishing with a net; on the bank of another we come across a cremation site with two forgotten human skulls not yet picked clean. Our pace quickens as we pass.
One morning we come face to face with a smart-looking official carrying an umbrella, accompanied by two heavily laden porters and a colleague with a briefcase.
‘Good morning, sir! I am the chief of police of this district. Let me greet you.’ He takes my hand and holds it in his for a minute or more, his face beaming, beads of perspiration on his forehead. ‘I am going to Darchula,’ he tells me. ‘It is a very important town; on the border with India, you know.’
He’s uninterested in who we are, where we’ve been or where we’re going, but is delighted to have an opportunity to speak to me in English.
‘You may take my photograph,’ he says, and stands to attention when I focus the camera...
At least we know where we are now, and in anticipation gaze northeast to where Saipal ought to be. Yet despite being 7000 metres high, it’s concealed, like Api and Nampa on our walk-in from Gukuleswar, by an intrusive barrier of snow-free mountains, although Kirken and I remain optimistic that it will show itself in due course...
We break away from the Seti River to pick up our eastward trend, accompanied for a while by a trader from Humla carrying half a dozen fish hanging from a stick. Gabbling in a dialect containing no sounds remotely familiar to me, I’m impressed once more by Kirken’s ability to communicate with strangers in so many different languages and dialects. And it’s as well that he can, for the cross-country route we’ve chosen does not exactly correspond with its depiction on our map, so we rely on local information gathered along the way. I think of it as oral cartography.
Day by day we tramp across lekhs running with streams. Rhododendrons splash the hills with blooms that range from pure white to lemon yellow and the deepest of reds. We mount one pass after another and look down on terraces that fan across the hills, the rich greenery of young millet interrupted by the brilliant scarlet of women bent double at work in the fields. Buffalo complain in the heat of midday; there comes the far-off laughter of children; night-time is disturbed by the yapping of jackals.
And despite the pain in my chest, the fever that will not leave me, and the constant hacking that almost makes me gag, I could wish for no more than this – this drifting through a poorly mapped land with six willing companions, only one of whom I can properly converse with. For ours is a journey full of unknowns, and that very real sense of mystery adds to its appeal.
Kev Reynolds is a freelance writer, photojournalist and lecturer. A prolific compiler of guidebooks, his first title for Cicerone Press (Walks & Climbs in the Pyrenees) appeared in 1978; he has since produced many more titles for the same publisher, with others in the pipeline. A member of the Outdoor Writers' Guild, the Alpine Club and Austrian Alpine Club, his passion for mountains and the countryside remains undiminished after a lifetime's activity, and he regularly travels throughout Britain to share that enthusiasm through his lectures.View Articles and Books by Kev Reynolds