In Pokhara, it was a mission getting the permits for the Dolpo, Mugu and Humla Regions. We lost a lot of time with an agency that didn't know much about the West, and in the end I had to go back to Kathmandu to get everything sorted. Thanks to the efficiency of the Mac Trek & Expedition agency in Kathmandu, we had the precious papers in hand quickly and on December 30, we left Pokhara for the final leg of our journey.
A local bus ride took us to the town of Beni, the starting point of the Guerrilla Trek that follows the tracks used by the Maoists during the civil war that devastated Nepal from 1996 to 2006.
Because of the permits issue, the break we took in Pokhara was too long. Consequently, my legs felt stiff and my backpack way too heavy. But nevertheless, it felf good to finally be on the move again. It was pleasantly warm, the beautiful river Myadgi Khola reflected the greenness of rice fields, bamboo thickets and banana trees, in a quiet atmosphere. Our New Year's Eve in a tiny teahouse in the homey village of Dharapani felt like another slice of Himalayan Magic: we stood facing a large field of bright yellow mustard plants, watching the near full moon rise over the lower hills. To the North, the high, rocky peaks of the Dhaulagiri Himal gleamed in the sunset light, the clouds turning a soft pink in the pastel blue sky. The owner of the teahouse then served us a delicious dal bhat with fresh pumpkin soup. There could be no better place to celebrate the change of the year!
In that section, most villages we passed seemed like ghost towns. Locked houses, silent streets: people were gone for the winter. They would return in a few months for the warmer season. A handful of people only would stay to look after the cattle. By the time we reached the village of Dhorpatan, we were exhausted and hungry. Inquiries to local people about the way to Dunai and into Dolpo were of not much help. We got various answers: some said there was too much snow, others that the path was clear. But one word came back, invariably: cold. We decided to try and see for ourselves, an escape route being available on the way.
So from Dhorpatan, we climbed the strenuous Phalgune Pass, offering a sweeping view over the Dhaulagiri Himal and other white giants. Our night of camping at Thankur was by far the coldest we experienced on the GHT. My sleeping bag is rated at a -12 for comfort. Despite that and many layers of wool, I was cold and barely slept. In the morning, our tents were frozen stiff. My legs ached from staying tensed during the whole night. Jamie MacGuiness had generously lent us a satellite phone so we could receive the weather forecast sent by a few friends: "Extreme cold weather warning" sent Patrick, "Dunai, - 13°C" sent Fred. Dunai is at 2140m. With an average of 0,6°C lost every 100m of altitude gain, we would face temperatures as low as -24°C at our next camps above 4000m. We didn't need to talk about it for too long: if we wanted to finish this trek successfully, a change of itinerary was imperative to get to lower and warmer grounds.
Thus we veered West, following a route that few Westerners ever take along the Sani Bheri River. It was a rich and interesting cultural experience. We stayed in a couple of homestay, in friendly villages such as Pelma or Maikot, or camped by the river. The cold, not as extreme as at higher altitude, was still intense at night, forcing us to stay in our tents from sunset at 6pm, to the start of our walk the next day at around 8am. I never thought I would enjoy sitting/lying down in a small tent for over 12 hours at a time, but our bodies needed to recover, and sleep was more than needed. Our detour eventually brought us to Musikot, a larger town where our arrival was intently followed and made awkward by stares and laughter.
From there, it was a hectic and rather painful two days jeep ride to reach Tribeni, the start of the next section that would bring us back on the GHT. We had to give up on Doplo. Going there meant walking backwards for a few days, and that without any certainty that there would be anyone in Ringmo, the village by Phoksumdo Lake (we learnt later that the village was then empty), as the deserted villages in the Dhorpatan Region suggested. Moreover, our physical and psychological fatigue allowed us only enough energy to focus on one thing: finishing this Trail.
That section was a gem of a walk. The deep green-blue Bheri Nadi River snaked through a dry, barren landscape scattered with pine trees and the occasional cactus. Many small villages were dispersed along the way. People stared at us with incredulity. The many undulations, short but steep, were subtle leg-killers. Surviving only on the food we carried (instant noodles and biscuits), as there was nothing in the villages we passed, we were in a constant state of hunger. In a narrow, and pleasantly more verdant canyon, we were disconcerted to see that a road was ruthlessly being cut through this pristine landscape. A road that we followed then all the way to Jumla.
In Jumla, the decision became final: we would finish the GHT in Simikot, and not in Hilsa which is the true end on the border. Going to Hilsa would have added 6 more days to the Trek, plus another 6 to walk back from there to Simikot. The weather forecast predicted some snow, and again, was there anyone left in Hilsa? We rested in Jumla for two days, eating as much as we could, sleeping a lot as well.