My Bahini’s Kanchenjunga

Preface

Bahini means younger sister in Nepali.  It’s used as an affectionate nickname. Jenny, professionally known as Dr. Janita Gurung, is my bahini.  She is the sister of my dear friend, Jwalant, and daughter of Anita and Dinesh Gurung, originally from Sikkim but now residents of Kathmandu for decades.  Dinesh founded Crystal Mountain Treks (http://www.crystalmountaintreks.com) in 1990 having been a Gurkha soldier and later working closely with Colonel Jimmy Roberts, a Brit and outdoor adventure visionary, credited with introducing the term and activity called “trekking.”  Jenny and her younger brother, Jwalant, grew up trekking Himalaya trails, traipsing behind Dinesh through villages full of marigolds, rhododendron forests, and shaky, improvised suspension bridges.  Years later Jenny worked for the World Wildlife Fund (WWF Nepal), spending lots of time directing conservation and community development programs in Nepal’s far eastern Kangenjunga region, location of the world’s third-highest peakKangenjunga in many ways is Jenny’s second home.  Her deep love for the villagers, commitment to Kangenjunga’s nature conservation, biodiversity, and wise development of its habitat and cultural treasures, convinced me to add this trek, led by Jenny, to my bucket list.  In 2010, I was able to scratch Kanchenjunga, a 28-day trek, off my list.  The article below was written shortly after my return.  (All photos by C. Weatherford unless otherwise credited).

 

 Late afternoon approach to Kangbachen village.  A waning full moon rises in sky, upper left.

Late afternoon approach to Kangbachen village.  A waning full moon rises in sky, upper left.

As we turned the corner on the high narrow trail, the village of Kangbachen came into view below us.  It was twilight and a waning full moon rose over Jannu Himal’s monumental summit.

Kangbachen, a small, sprawling Sherpa settlement at 4150 meters (13,612 feet) was dotted with bright-colored trekkers’ tents.  Assistant guide, Khadak Rokaya, spotted our camp site and turned to us with a broad smile and thumbs up.  We were almost “home.”  

It took over two weeks of dedicated trekking to reach this point.  All worth it, we thought, and our attention now turned to our camp’s comforts.  We knew it wouldn’t be long before our remarkable cook (“chef” would be more accurate), Thulo Saila Rai and his assistants, greeted us with Nepali tea and sugar cookies, and later that evening with an appetizer of soup and popcorn “croutons” followed by steamy plates of dal baht made from locally grown vegetables—mitho chha!, “good food!”  

 Porter carrying doko (pack basket) with camping supplies and trekkers’ duffles. We were many days away from our turn-around point high in the Kanchenjunga Conservation Area

Porter carrying doko (pack basket) with camping supplies and trekkers’ duffles. We were many days away from our turn-around point high in the Kanchenjunga Conservation Area

 Jenny and Khadak enjoying soup appetizer with popcorn “croutons.”

Jenny and Khadak enjoying soup appetizer with popcorn “croutons.”

 Day hike from our Kangbachen camp with guide Lal Bahadur upward to Jannu Himal.  Photo by Janita Gurung.

Day hike from our Kangbachen camp with guide Lal Bahadur upward to Jannu Himal.  Photo by Janita Gurung.

 Jenny and Kangbachen villager gather Seabuckthorn berries to make nutritious juice. we took a day hike up the hillside for a closer look at Jannu Himal and picked Seabuckthorn berries later pulverized into tangy juice.

Jenny and Kangbachen villager gather Seabuckthorn berries to make nutritious juice. we took a day hike up the hillside for a closer look at Jannu Himal and picked Seabuckthorn berries later pulverized into tangy juice.

Getting to Kangbachen was a major victory.  We had left Kathmandu more than two weeks before.  Every day since then was filled with unique experiences unlike those from half a dozen previous Himalaya treks I’d undertaken.  New landscapes, ethnic groups, and wildlife.  Endurance was key on this 28 plus-day trek. 

Kangbachen is a long day of trekking from the village of Ghunsa in the Kanchenjunga Conservation Area had been strenuous but deeply gratifying. The climb from Ghunsa is gradual, amidst lush, diverse forests, with stunning views of the Ghunsa Khola’s rapids thundering though the valley below.  As we walked through abundant rhododendron, oak, birch, fir and maple forests, Jenny Gurung, an environmental mountain scientist and my “faculty” guide for this adventure-culture-education trek, identified plants and explained each’s medicinal or economic relevance to the long-time residents of Nepal's remote northeast corner.  Khadak, also an environmental scientist, peered down the steep cliff, examining the tumultuous flow of the Ghunsa Khosa for its hydroelectricity-generating potential. An adventure travel consultant eager to expand my wildlife knowledge, I craned my neck looking for unique birds in what Jenny and I agreed was an “enchanted forest.”  Flocks of Himalayan Swifts darted frantically in the blue sky above.  A Lost Horizon, Nepali style!

Then came the landslide.  Stopped in our tracks, our laughter and conversation suddenly ceased.  Always keen to take calculated risks—part of adventure travel, afterall—we assessed the danger and slowly moved forward.  After an hour of gingerly stepping (and sliding) across the massive slope littered with tottering boulders, fallen trees and other debris, we turned the corner to see Ghunsa, a virtual metropolis in the wilderness, promising Internet and sat phone connections to family and friends.  Our minds lingered on landscapes of arresting beauty, filling our minds with the wonderment of new images and sounds, all grist for dinner chatter that evening.  Our aching muscles would ensure a deep, satisfying sleep.  Another glorious day of trekking in Kanchenjunga!

 

 Trail across landslide, near Kangbachen village. 

Trail across landslide, near Kangbachen village. 

Jenny says it best:  Kanchenjunga is beyond adventure.  Each day brings unexpected geographic encounters as well as cultural treasures.  We experienced first-hand the impressive success of a community-operated child care center in the village of Hellok, handsomely built and painted Limbu homesteads, modest thatched dwellings on narrow, carefully cultivated hillside terraces, handcrafted, rickety bamboo bridges enabling traffic to cross the many streams and rivers, and nearly vertical log-paved paths up cliff faces. 

 Jenny crossing bridge with the ease of a Kanchenjunga trekking pro that she is. 

Jenny crossing bridge with the ease of a Kanchenjunga trekking pro that she is. 

 Definitely one of the scariest paths on the Kanchenjunga trek.  I remember thinking, “these logs don’t seem to be anchored.”

Definitely one of the scariest paths on the Kanchenjunga trek.  I remember thinking, “these logs don’t seem to be anchored.”

 River trails are “ankle-biters”—slippery, rugged, often overflowing from monsoon rains. 

River trails are “ankle-biters”—slippery, rugged, often overflowing from monsoon rains. 

 Bridge destroyed by flooding and landslide.

Bridge destroyed by flooding and landslide.

It’s not uncommon to find oneself on a trail along a river or in a rice field that simply disappears.  Taking detours up the mountainside to avoid flooded river trails can be tricky.  No surprise, when Jenny and I detoured, we got very lost.  But getting lost is part of the fun, and finding your way back to the main route invites cheerful encounters with locals, who offer milk tea and happily permit photo opportunities.  Such wanderings expand and enrich an otherwise routine 6- to 7-hour day to a highly memorable 12-hour feat.  Khadak and the porters took the river trail, but they too slogged for 12 hours to reach our modest lodge in Mitlung.  Rejoining Khadak well after dark at a modest lodge, our duffels miraculously arrived by bedtime, thanks to our porters’ monumental efforts to carry them along rocky, overflowing river banks, the only alternative to the detour Jenny and I took. 

 Taking a detour Jenny and I lost our way.  We were rescued by a friendly family who served us chai before directing back to a familiar trail.

Taking a detour Jenny and I lost our way.  We were rescued by a friendly family who served us chai before directing back to a familiar trail.

During a simple dinner of ramen soup, we talked about what to expect in the upcoming days.  This led to a poignant moment for Jenny when she recalled a tragic helicopter crash that occurred near Ghunsa in 2006, killing 24 people including four of Jenny’s Nepali World Wildlife Fund colleagues.   We would pass the monument and crash site.  Jenny was a WWF Nepal Kanchenjunga Area Director at the time.  I relived my gratitude in 2006 upon hearing from the Gurungs that Jenny had not been on that fateful flight.

A good night’s rest energized our spirits and put spring back in our steps.  Onward!  Kanchenjunga’s magic prevailed.  Its remote, pristine beauty and cultural uniqueness—ethnic groups include Rai, Limbu, Tamang, Jirel, Thakali, Magar, Gurung and Sherpa—have yet to be fully tapped as tourist destinations.  While Nepal’s trekking hot spots in the Annapurna and Khumba regions draw tens of thousands of tourists and trekkers during the peak season in October and November, Kanchenjunga sees less than 500 foreign visitors annually. 

Just getting to the Kanchenjunga Conservation Area Project can require days of walking.  Our camping itinerary started near Basantapur, arriving after a flight from Kathmandu to Biratnagar and then a 5-hour drive to our trekking trail head.  We marveled at the spectacular view of the Everest and Makalu, hard to recognize from the northeastern perspective, en route to Gupha Pokhari.  Deep ruts and muddy roads foretold a lingering monsoon season.  On the morning we were scheduled to leave Gupha Pokhari village, the sky opened with vengeance and we were forced to temporarily suspend our trek, move out of flooded tents and into tea lodges for the better part of a week.

 

 Heavy monsoon rains leave roads and trails scarred with ruts. 

Heavy monsoon rains leave roads and trails scarred with ruts. 

 Monsoon conditions continued well into October, flooding our camp and marooning us in Gupha Pokhari for several days. 

Monsoon conditions continued well into October, flooding our camp and marooning us in Gupha Pokhari for several days. 

When finally the sun reappeared and rain-soaked trails once again became passable, our trek resumed.  The first stretch was a long descent on a deliciously treacherous trail, dominated by slick roots (only adventurous trekkers can appreciate such a challenge!).  Jenny and I slipped and fell a total of eight times going down the slope.  Wet weather followed by bright sun suited the region’s insects, arachnids, and predatory leeches.  Even buttoned up clothing and close monitoring won’t keep these pesky bloodsuckers from finding their way into boots, under cuffs, and inside trousers lowered for potty breaks.  The spider webs were enormous glistening creations, attached midway up the rhododendrons stretching across trails within a trekker’s reach.  The spindly oversized creatures frequently seen on the webs kept us alert and inspired way more photos than could ever be shared. 

 Chubby leech after “lunching” on my arm.

Chubby leech after “lunching” on my arm.

 Some of the four-inch spiders were missing legs.  

Some of the four-inch spiders were missing legs.  

In the coming days, we camped at a lovely “resort” property near Dobhan, a bustling commercial center.  Reaching Dobhan finally put us on the Kanchenjunga trekking map.  From there we basically followed the Tamor and Ghunsa rivers north to Ghunsa, Kangbachen and ultimately to base camp at Pang Pema—the goal of our strongest team members.

Back in Ghunsa, Jenny spread out our map to show me the more strenuous Sele La route.  Five high passes (up to 4640 meters) are often crossed in a single day.  Still another variation goes from Taplejung through Tapethok up to Walangchung Gola looping back over the Nango La pass to Ghunsa.   Whatever route is taken, the unexpected flora and fauna, culturally distinct inhabitants, and incomparable landscape guarantee a thrilling experience and explain why even veteran trekkers say, “Your haven’t trekked until you go to Kanchenjunga!” 

Although we hoped to include the Walangchung Gola extension to our trek, days lost from the monsoons made this impossible.  Our 28-day itinerary forced us to head to Taplejung after a few delightful days in Kangbachen.  We left open our mode of transportation from Taplejung back to the Biratnagar airport, a minimum 17-hour drive.  We briefly considered flying from Taplejung/Suketar airfield (airport would be a generous term), however, flights are notoriously unreliable and at best arrive and depart once or twice a week.  Canceled flights are common—especially discouraging since getting to the landing strip is a two-hour ascent by foot, with duffels and packs.  After a day hanging around Taplejung trying to hire a 4WD and driver, we opted for a very crowded bus leaving the next morning.  The bus wound its way down largely unpaved, bumpy mountain roads to Ilam.  Ilam is a veritable metropolis with hot showers and internet (sort of)!  

My eastern Nepal cultural experience was far from over.  I watched with admiration and wonder as Jenny negotiated with drivers of private, for-hire car services. The first  unexpectedly decided he couldn’t finish the trip as agreed after all.  Never missing a beat, Jenny found us another to complete the trip.  It’s still unclear to me how much the unplanned shifts were due to car trouble or personal issues.  In any event, we arrived in Biratnagar and the airport with plenty of time to have lunch before boarding a sleek modern jet for perhaps the smoothest, most serene, truly wondrous flight of all my travels.  The dusky view of the Himalaya south-facing flanks lasted for only forty minutes—it seemed eternal and vividly persists in my mind's eye to this day.  

 Exquisite, unforgettable view out the airplane window of the Himalaya flight from Biratnagar to Kathmandu, Nepal.

Exquisite, unforgettable view out the airplane window of the Himalaya flight from Biratnagar to Kathmandu, Nepal.

References:

Bremer-Kamp, Cherie.  (1987).  Living on the Edge:  Winter Ascent of Kanchenjunga.  Layton, Utah:  Gibbs M. Smith, Inc.

Crystal Mountain Treks.  History – http://www.crystalmountaintreks.com/history.

History of Trekking – HikeNepal.com – http://www.hikenepal.com/trekking/history.php.

Kanchenjunga Trek Information – http://kanchenjungatrek.org.

n.a.  Nepal helicopter crash:  no survivors found – https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2006/sep/25/conservationandendangeredspecies.internationalnews1

Thapa, Manjushree. (2009).  The Boy from Siklis:  The Life and Times of Chandra Gurung.  New Dehli, India:  Penguin Books.