Day 4: Ghorepani to Khibang: Down, Down and Down some more (8 hours, 1,050m elevation loss
With our rest day over, we left Ghorepani after numerous goodbyes between Austin and his gaggle of friends, including Rihanna, the girl about his age whose father is a Gurkha in the British Army. She’ll be joining him in London in a few months’ time, and she and Austin formed a special bond. He even gave her some of his lego as a parting gift, and I’m sure their fast friendship won’t soon be forgotten.
The trail started off well enough — a newly laid stone path led us down out of Ghorepani, and into a shady bamboo and rhodedendron forest. However, almost as soon as we hit the forest, the trail broke up into a rocky jagged path that made downward progression challenging, and very hard on the feet. Very.
To make matters even more challenging, something in that forest had set off my allergies, and even after two zyrtec, I was sneezing, my nose and eyes running uncontrollably, and I had a splitting headache. There is no quitting on the trail, and that goes for when you don’t feel well either. You only have your own two feet to get you somewhere, and there are truly no other options. I kept on.
We were now on a less popular trail, and there were fewer places to stop and rest along the way. The redeeming feature of this part of the trail is the gorgeous white peaks of the Annapurnas were visible every single step of the way. It’s like they were up there, looming high in the sky, cheering us on as we went further down into their valleys.
Our map showed a village called Khibang just a few hours outside of Tatopani that had accommodation, and we were aiming for there to break up the long walk down.
After walking for hours, we arrived to the settlement just as the sun was beginning to sink behind the mountains, but with no visible signs pointing toward any sort of accommodation, we looked at each other and decided to continue further, hoping to make it to the next village before dark.
But the locals weren’t having it. As we descended down the road, we heard shouts, and turned around to see a Nepali family waving us back from their balcony. When we went up to see what all the fuss was about, they convinced us to stay with them…in their home stay – a modest room, warm company, and an amazing meal.
We had known that in places on the trail, a home stay would be our only option for accommodation, and we were very much looking forward to staying with local families, learning more about how they live, and what makes up this culture we were coming to love. But in my condition, with my nose running uncontrollably and a splitting headache, I wasn’t feeling very up to it. But, like I said, it was our only option, and I’m so very happy we took it.
There was very little English spoken, but we were treated like honoured guests. The whole family pitched in to make us welcome. There was the grandfather, who dutifully chased the chickens away from the little stone ledge where the long low house that everyone lived in was perched. He put the chickens in the chicken house out of the way, and that’s the last we saw of grandpa until it was time to go.
There was the crazy old grandma who laughed, smiled, stuck out her tongue, made jokes only she got, and welcomed us with an open heart and a wide smile, milling around causing havoc everywhere she went.
Austin bonded with the curious 6 year old boy with mischief in his eyes – seeing a certain kinship in one another, the two became fast friends.
Running the show was the crazy old lady’s daughter in law, the current mother of the house. She was a tiny woman, beautiful, with a bright smile and no English. She couldn’t have been much older than me, but years of subsistence living had clearly taken their toll in the deep lines of her weather tanned face. Despite her MIL hovering around every turn, she ran the place, and welcomed us into her home, her family, and into her kitchen.
We spent the first hour or so figuring one another out, figuring out what we were supposed to be doing, and staring at the sunset that had lit up the surrounding peaks, including Annapurna II in bright fiery shads of orange, red and maroon. It took our breath away, and Mark and I sat in awe, sipping tea that had found it’s way into our hands. Within minutes, the fire was gone, and the peaks were white again, slowly fading away as the night sky closed in around them.
The little mom kept following us around with a bench to sit on. If we sat on the stone ledge that ran along their low stone house, she moved it there for us. If we sat on the narrow wooden porch off the front of our cabin, she moved it there for us. We weren’t sure what to do, but we decided we should probably either stop moving, or bring the bench with us!
Neighbours came out to say hello and gawk at the visitors. We were the attraction, not the other way around! This was a Magar village, just one of the many native peoples of Nepal. The women were dressed in colourful fabrics, wound around their waist into a long, straight skirt, and tied up with a sash. They wore fleeces and cardigans on top, and I noticed that each one had shiny red beaded necklaces and bracelets — something I’d notice on traditionally dressed women in other parts of our trek as well.
After a little while, a young woman appeared, who looked to be in her early 20’s, and dressed like every other early 20’s girl in the world. She spoke perfect English, and began to share the hosting duties with her mother…the tiny little woman who was busy making us feel at home.
The girl was the bridge between modern and traditional — Nepali and Magar, East and West, local and tourist. She was attending university in Pokhara, and home for the festivals surrounding Diwali.
As the sun set, and the night became cooler, we were invited into their kitchen- a low ceilinged hut at the far end of the long stone house. Even I had to stoop to enter the doorway, and I had to let my eyes adjust to the dim lighting from the single bulb in the middle of the room. The wooden walls were stained black from years and years of wood fires keeping that kitchen alive, and small wooden shelves held all of the spices, brass dishes and cook pots needed to keep a family fed.
The mother squatted next to the little stove on the floor, and peeled smoked garlic, chopped onions, sliced chills, and ground them all together with aromatic spices in a hand carved wooden mortar with a stone pestle. Imagine the decades of flavour that are in that mortar and pestle.
The next morning, we saw strips of drying buffalo hung on racks over the little stove, catching whatever smoke was to come out of it. It looked a lot like jerky, and we told them about how my family makes dried, smoked meat in Texas as well. Although it wasn’t ready yet — another two weeks of smoking and drying would do it, they fried a bit up for us with chilli, garlic, and onion so we could have a taste. Despite being incredibly chewy, it was delicious, and an obvious source of protein for the coming winter months.
It’s hard to put into words the warmth and honour we felt sitting in that little kitchen. The family didn’t eat with us — I wished they had. I felt as though we had been invited into an inner sanctum. The womb of traditional Nepal.
We were allowed to see something personal and genuine – not a show for tourists, but to be guests in a home– within a culture that treats guests as though they are gods.
Atithi Devo Bhava
In Hindu culture, there is a phrase “Atithi Devo Bhava” It essentially equates guests with gods, and it is Nepali culture to treat their guests as though they are gods. We were invited to be a part of something personal and genuine. We were humbled by the kindness, warmth and generosity we were shown – we strangers in their home. That night, sitting with the family in that kitchen under a full blanket of stars, with the Annapurnas standing guard over all of us — was a night I’ll never forget. It’s the night we were gods.
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