Ruby Valley (North Dhading) Status Update

Ruby Valley Status Report                                       10 May 2015

Information in this report was provided by Kul Bahadur Gurung, President of Ganesh Himal Tourism Development Committee as well as second vice-president of TAAN. After the earthquake, 15 young men from the community were dispatched on foot with satellite phone and visited remote villages to get this info. Also, where phone calls were possible (e.g. to Lapagaon) local villagers provided the information.

Please note that these figures are estimates as per the locals and the recce survey teams. Figures provided are for percentage of houses that are not habitable. This includes houses that are fully or partially collapsed, plus houses that are badly cracked making them dangerous to live in.

Figures are provided for 4 of the Ruby Valley VDC’s, namely Jharlang, Tipling, Shertung and Lapa. The VDC of Ri is on the other side of the valley and accessed by a different road. We do not have stats for Ri VDC.

Jarlang VDC

Name of village Original Number of houses Percent uninhabitable comment
Jharlang village 275 75%
Ungul 325 65%
Chyamthali 29 75%
Akthali 252 65%
Percho 10 90%

Tipling VDC

Name of village Original Number of houses Percent uninhabitable comment
Yanjo 30 30%
Lingjo 150 80%
Lapdung 75 75%
Tulo Gaon 110 90%
Sanu Gaon 85 90%
Kami gaun 18 95% Dalit village, blacksmiths
Phyang 49 95%

Shertung VDC

Name of village Original Number of houses Percent uninhabitable comment
Shertung village 685 75% 45% badly damaged, 30% cracked
Kharsha 75 95% Mostly collapsed
Chalice 85 100% 75% collapsed, 25% cracked
Hindung 95 100% A few days ago there was a landslide which killed another person (total  7 victims now) and destroyed the rest of the houses
Aui 60 85%
Boran 165 85%
Triveni 6 Unsure
Sarkhuni 25 ? 75%, quicker to fix due to construction type 75% damaged. These houses are made of bamboo and were therefore only ‘lightly damaged’


Lapa VDC

Name of village Original Number of houses Percent uninhabitable comment
Khading 165 85%
Lapagaon 325 75%
Kupchet 95 75%
Lapchet 49 85%
Kapurgaun 45 65%
Rachyet 38 90%
Tirigaon 52 90% This village is known for its previous landslide. It has had further landslides after the earthquake
Neber 69 90% School collapsed


Road and path access to Ruby Valley; GHTDC coordinated Road Fixing project

The VDC’s of Jharlang, Shertung, Tipling and Lapa are usually accessed by a jeep track which starts near Dhading Besi and ends near Jharlang. This is usually a 4h30min bumpy drive. The road is not currently in use due to 3 areas of bad damage.  Furthermore, there is damage to the foot path (mule track) between Jarlang and Boran (in Shertung VDC).

Road fixing has been identified as an absolute priority, as supplies could then be taken up to Jharlang and further distributed by local porter and mules. There is apparently a lot of stock of relief supplies (food and tarps) from various NGO’s that is stuck in storage in Dhading Besi waiting to be distributed. As soon as the road is fixed, traditional transport in the form of jeep, mule and porter can be utilized. There are mules and porters available in the 4 VDC’s who will be able to be employed for this purpose.

GHTDC have taken it upon themselves to coordinate the fixing of the road and hope to be able to recover costs from donors. They have employed 50 local workers from the 4 VDC’s above the damaged road at Rs 1,000 per day each. Each VDC committee has selected workers for this effort. These men will travel on foot to the damaged areas. They will be provided with helmets and pairs of steel-based shoes (purchased by GHTDC).

UPDATE 11 May 2015 The DDC (District Development Committee for Ruby Valley has agreed to pay the costs of labour for road fixing initiative.

The road fixing teams will be headed up by 5 team leaders from Kathmandu, each with satellite phones. They will also keep an eye on security issues. There are coordinators in KTM and in Dhading Besi, also coordinating with the VDC committees for this project.   Road construction materials have already been purchased.

Road fixing is estimated to take between 4 and 7 days. One day is lost for workers to travel on foot to the damaged areas.

Initial budget of USD 5000 has been set aside for this road fixing project.

Further information

Households have been able to dig out some food supplies from under rubble, but often contaminated with dirt.

Through various personal donations, tarps and some other supplies have already been delivered to the 4 VDC’s although more supplies are needed. Another helicopter drop of tarps is arranged with the army helicopters from Kathmandu for today and tomorrow.  This has largely been coordinated by Kul Bahadur Gurung.

Himalayan HealthCare is a very active American NGO responsible for schools and clinics in the area. They are running and effective MASH unit (field hospital) at Shertung and are seeing many patients from around the VDC’s. They are also providing tarps and rice and have coordinated helicopter drops.

Metal roofing from before the earthquake is not easy to reuse due to damage.  GHTDC is considering options for methods of home reconstruction so as to be more earthquake resistant in the future. They will seek information advice from other NGO’s for reconstruction. Certain villages might actually be rebuilt in slightly a different location.

Local trekking companies are helping out in their own villages.

Kadoorie (partner of Gurkha Welfare Trust) needs to be contacted to ask for assistance with water supply and sanitation in the area. They have also supplied roofing and built bridges in the area previously. Collaboration is needed with Kadorie for longer term rebuilding.

SAMARTH is another NGO that was previously very active in the Ruby Valley area and might be able to contribute towards redevelopment in the area too.

The government earthquake relief funds are also coming through for all 4 VDC’s, with allotments of Rs 10,000 per household for collapsed homes and Rs 5,000 for other households.

For further information, please contact Kul Bahadur Gurung at or email him at

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Ruby Valley; a call for your help

Two weeks ago today, I was sitting in a cafe in Kathmandu, sipping my americano and checking weather reports for our trekking groups in the mountains. When I felt the earth begin to move, I had absolutely no idea just how significant this earthquake was going to be. I slapped the lid down on my laptop and crawled under the table, holding on to the metal cross bars, praying. It went on for a long time, the shaking and tilting of the concrete below me, my knees bruising from the impact of the ground. I could hear people screaming and running; bricks falling.

So much has happened in the past two weeks. I could tell you my story, but that is not important now. Perhaps there will be time for that later; maybe next year. For now, there are more important messages to be shared. People are suffering and there is much to be done.

Just a few weeks ago, Roland and I did a trek through the beautiful Ganesh Himal Ruby Valley. We camped a few times, but mostly slept at home-stays along the way. We were shown incredible hospitality. Villagers were friendly and had easy smiles. We were given locally made buffalo curd, gifts of boiled eggs and garlands of rhododendron flowers. The whole village of Neber, man, women and child, spontaneously got together to dance for us. Their village is so remote that they seldom see trekkers, let alone have visitors over to stay. We were welcomed warmly and left with promises to return.

Fond farewells in Neber village

Fond farewells in Neber village. Our assistant guide on the left, Milan Gurung, is from the village of Khading. Across the other side of the valley is the remote village of Hindung.

Milan's mother grinding dal in Khading village.

Milan’s mother grinding dal in Khading village.

Milan's nephew peeking into the room where Roland and I slept that night.

Milan’s nephew peeking into the room where Roland and I slept that night.

After the earthquake, we searched for information from the villages where we had trekked: Khading, Lapchet, Dunchet, Rachyet, Timladauda, Tirigaon, Neber and Chalice. We had taken photo’s across the valleys of the distant villages of Hindung and Lapagaon. No news was to be found. These villages are so remote, that they are not even mentioned on Google maps. Due to the far distance from the nearest road-head and the fact that the sky-phone system was damaged, it took time for information to filter through. We knew things were bad in this northern area of Dhading District. But what to do? Ke garne?

Children in a village above Lapchet

Children in a village above Lapchet

In Lapchet village

In Lapchet village

Between Khading an Lapchet, on the other side of the valley from Lapagaon

Between Khading and Lapchet, on the other side of the valley from Lapagaon

Looking down on Lapchet village

Looking down to Lapchet village before the earthquake

A few days ago, by serendipity perhaps, we came across a local newsprint (The Daily Namaste!) lying around in our guesthouse, its front page declaring “Ruby Valley Homeless”. As I read the article, I cried: “The scenery is still there, but the wonderful little villages that dotted the mountainsides now lie in ruins”. As I read on, a spark of hope filtered through. There was a phone number for Kul Bahadur Gurung, president of the Ganesh Himal Tourism Development Committee (GHTDC). Needless to say, we called him.

Roland relaxing at our home-stay in Rachyat

Roland relaxing at our home-stay in Rachyat

A baby peeking out of the door somewhere between Chalice and the jeep track.

A baby peeking out of the door somewhere between Chalice and the jeep track.

One of the most encouraging things about this earthquake, is to see how the local Nepali community has pulled together to do everything they can to help places far and wide. Kul Gurung is among them. We discovered that we had actually slept in his home-stay in his home village of Chalice a few weeks ago. Seeing photo’s of it now leaves me cold. Had the earthquake hit during the night we were there, I might not be here to tell this story today. But Kul is not only trying to help his own village. He is concerned about the whole Ruby Valley, the 5 VDC’s of Shertung, Lapa, Tipling, Ri and Jharlang. Kul has been intimately involved in the development of the whole region through his position as Chairperson of GHTDC. We were impressed to learn too, that the new bridge that we had crossed on our way into the northern Dhading district, was Kul’s initiative through TAAN (Trekking Agencies’ Association of Nepal).

A little boy sitting on a rooftop watching us walk by

A little boy sitting on a rooftop watching us walk by

A lady surprised to see us trekking in the area, shyly greets us with a Namaste

A lady surprised to see us trekking in the area, shyly greets us with a Namaste!

Today, Kul is out in the field, taking rice, salt, oil, some lentils and tarps out to villages near Nuwakot. He is keen to get help to Ruby Valley as soon as possible too, but this is a monumentally difficult task in the current circumstances, considering that there are no roads leading to the villages and the nearest jeep track is also badly damaged. Supplies are usually carried in by mule and by porter. But now the nearest road head is even further away. He is already making plans though, but needs financial support.

A mule dropping off rice in Chalise village.

This photo was taken before the earthquake outside our homestay in Chalice village.  The mule train was dropping off rice in Chalice.

A typical house, before the earthquake

A typical house, before the earthquake

Since meeting with Kul in Kathmandu over the past couple of days, Roland and I have decided to support the GHTDC as much as we can as they strive to bring immediate relief to the villages of the Ruby Valley in the form of food and shelter, and in the longer term dedicate themselves to the redevelopment of the whole community. Already, methods of rebuilding village homes is being discussed. Right now, they need monetary support. Not tomorrow, but today. As monsoon looms, homeless villagers are yet to receive shelter. Food is scarce and hopes are low.

Roland and I slept a night in this building in Chalise village before the earthquake. Photo credit: Kul Gurung

Roland and I slept a night in this building in Chalise village before the earthquake. Photo credit: Kul Gurung

Photo credit: Kul Gurung

Photo credit: Kul Gurung

To donate to GHTDC’s earthquake relief initiative, please contact Kul Gurung here:

Roland and I also hope to run a camping trek in the Ganesh Himal in Spring next year, in order to bring much needed revenue into this area. We will stay in close contact with the GHTDC team through the coming months and hope to assist where possible with rebuilding the Ruby Valley.

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Beautiful, Brave, Proud

Beautiful, Brave, Proud

Women with Tattooed faces, Chin State, Burma (Myanmar)


The Hill Stations of Mindat and Kampalat in the Chin State of Myanmar are an unlikely blend of British order and tribal tradition. Linear hedgerows try unsuccessfully to contain a culture which has laced neighbouring hills for centuries gone by.




I chuckled when a local lady originally from the Uppriu tribe, told us that in her mother tongue the name for the neatly trimmed hedge plants means “foreigner’s wife”. It conjures up images of hours spent clipping the unruly into submission; for it is a strange place, the Chin state, where Christianity neighbours Animism and wooden churches dot the hills between houses proudly adorned by skulls from previous hunting forays.



They had a beautiful garden, the Uppriu ladies; a mixture of crop plants and flowers, colourful and abundant, exploding beyond a strip of hedge that had escaped getting its trim. We sat with mother and daughter inside their wooden home, chatting about the past and life around Kampalat. The daughter spoke Burmese, so through translation we heard how her elderly mother had had her face tattooed many decades ago. Unlike other tribes who used combinations of dots and stripes, this one blackened faces completely in a smooth layer from hairline to jawline, sparing only the lips. Yes, eyelids were included.

Uppriu lady smiling

From dawn till dusk she endured the pain, barely a teenager, but determined to follow the rite of passage that generations of her ancestors had before her. It took two weeks for the swelling to subside; two weeks before she could see clearly again. But she emerged thereafter a strong young woman, proud and eligible as a future bride.

Ngagah/ Panga lady with pipe

It seemed that none of the older women we met held resentment for their permanent tattoos. However, none of their daughters appeared disappointed to have missed out on the tradition themselves either. It is rare to see a woman below 50 years of age with tattoos on her face, as the traditional practice was banned more than 40 years ago.

Yinduu couple

There are a number of legends around why the Chin tribes started to tattoo their daughters’ faces. The one I liked best was told to us by an elderly Yin Duu gentleman who was clearly very proud and loving of his tattoo-faced wife. He was tall and gentle, his wife petite and shy. He told us how in the 15th century, kings and princes were despicably greedy when it came to women. They were known to take 4 or 5 each for themselves on a day. Chin women were extremely beautiful, protected by the remoteness of their mountains and streams. But one day, whilst travelling down a nearby river the king noticed strands of long black hair wash up against his boat. Realising that they must come from a beautiful woman, he became determined to find her and take her for himself. He followed tributaries upstream until his search took him to the hills where the Chin women bathed. Taking as he pleased, the tribes became desperate to put an end to his marauding. They started to tattoo their girls’ faces in an attempt to make them ugly so that he would lose interest and go elsewhere.

Mouin lady at the market

The invasion of kings may long be over, but the Chin state now faces an invasion of an entirely different kind; an intruder in the form of development. Tentacle roads are already groping their way deep into the hills, clinging with determination to the forested slopes. Already some hills have lost their innocence, unclothed and left bare, stripped of their vegetation. In the end, the bulldozer always wins. Sticky tar and plastic bags will inevitably follow.

Broad roads to the world of education and outside jobs hold much promise, but I always find myself asking, “do they really bring improvement?” We measure in money, but money is not the only unit of prosperity. Individuals may benefit, but with time community decays. The scaffolding of extended family and neighbours becomes weakened as the young move away, enticed into hard labour jobs by the lure of money. But money brought home creates disparity. With whom should it be shared? How far does fiscal responsibility extend, for the scaffolding of community has already lost its stability.


I felt a deep sense of discomfort driving down a newly built road to the little village of Pan Au near Mindat. As a tourist, I felt as if I, too, were an invader; an outsider curious to discover what still lay hidden in these lush green hills. Until recently, this cluster of Mouin tribal homes set on plunging slopes was only reachable on foot. As we drove, we passed a woman carrying her farming tools in a doka-like basket strapped across her forehead. Stopping to offer her a lift, we fell into conversation. Seeing our unfamiliar faces, she asked us with hope if we perhaps had news of her two sons. They worked in a foreign country and to her, since we were foreign, the chances must be good that we had met them. The world beyond Mindat remained an unknown to her; a bigger village with more people, perhaps. As she smiled shyly, the curly lines of her facial tattoos disappeared into the furrows of her cheeks. “Please send my greetings to my sons when you see them,” she requested as we said our goodbyes.


A little way down the hill, we arrived at the village. First stop, the new school. One big classroom catered for the whole range of children of different ages. Neatly clustered into grades, each group was busy with a different task. One was learning about the English letter D, laboriously practicing forming its shape in repetitive pencil lines across workbook pages. Each child had their own light blue satchel with Unicef logo, a strange contrast to the traditionally woven shoulder-strap bags. Across Myanmar we came across a number of remote schools with the same blue Unicef satchels. Some keen young scholars were still so little that they looked as if they might topple over, unbalanced by their satchels’ weight.


A few hundred meters further downhill, we came across a grandfather teaching his little 4 year old grandson how to use a miniature bow and arrow. Hunting is still a means of food provision in the Chin hills and many houses have impressive displays of skulls adorning their front walls. The Mouin are well known locally for their hunting skills. They are also traditionally Animists. When animals are slaughtered, the sacrificial ritual is carried out on symbolically engraved wooden posts. At the top of each post is a V-shaped crook to hold the neck steady, ready for the guillotine.



Mouin woman with pipe

The ubiquitous T-shirt may have edged its way into the Chin Hills, but women still smoke their pipes, crops are still tended in traditional ways and colourful woven cloth still distinguish one tribal group from another.


In the past, distinct facial tattoos were a tribal dividing feature. Now the boundaries seem a lot less distinct. The cheeks of younger women are now adorned with Thanaka instead, a yellow paste from the bark of a tree, used widely across Myanmar for its cosmetic and skin protective properties.

Younger woman with Thanaka and pipe

Towns such as Mindat and Kampalat are home to a mixture of descendants of many different tribes. Town borders are expanding to encompass surrounding villages, brought into proximity physically by roads, and socially by projects and schools. But deeper into the hills where footpaths are the only connection, tribal life continues.

We were fortunate to meet women of Yin Duu, Daai, Ngagah (Panga), Makkan, Uppriu and Mouin tribes in the Chin State. Tattooed or not, they are beautiful women. Beautiful, brave and proud.


This trip was part of an exploratory journey with The Mountain Company 

Thanks go to Mutu Suresh, our guide who introduced us in a very sensitive way into the homes of many. The best advice I can give when visiting people’s homes, is to put your camera away at first. Spend time instead discovering through translation a rich culture that is bound to change in years to come. Don’t be a spectator in someone’s home.

Mouin woman in Pan Au

According to Wikipaedia, “Animism encompasses the belief that there is no separation between the spiritual and physical (or material) world, and souls or spirits exist, not only in humans, but also in some other animals, plants, rocks, geographic features such as mountains or rivers, or other entities of the natural environment, including thunder, wind, and shadows.”


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Along the tracks of a Snow Leopard; Kashmir, India

To say that the previous day was long is an understatement. We had trekked over a high pass (Ghans Galli; 4414m) onto a glacier riddled with crevasses and covered in snow.  There were no detailed maps to pre-warn us of the harshness of the terrain. A few squiggly lines linking villages was the best that we had, together with the knowledge of local herders who would not usually dare to walk these paths at this time of year.

It was the end of October and we were deep in Kashmir, tickling the Kishtwar district, a long-disputed area between India and Pakistan.  Our Urdu-speaking porters and guides were villagers from Pannikher, officially in India; however they referred to Srinagar as “Islamabad”, a clear reminder that governmental boundaries and local opinion were not necessarily one and the same.

We eventually set up camp that night at around 10 p.m. on a shallow, frozen tarn. It was the only bit of flat area around.  Even with a foam mat underneath, my Thermarest on top and Jamie’s thick, expedition down sleeping bag, I could feel the cold of the ice creeping through my bones. The hiss of the stove and crunching of our cook’s footsteps in the snow at dawn was a welcome and much appreciated sound!

And what a glorious morning it was! The skies, threatening with clouds the previous night, had cleared to a serene blue, leaving me almost wondering if I had imagined the previous 24 hours… It was an absolutely perfect day!

Glancing back at the glacier, I felt lightness in my footsteps as we turned our backs on the night that had passed, renewed with awe at the stupendous terrain before us. The valley opened up like a massive chasm, steep walls soaring above and the glacial river meandering carefree in ribbon-loops below. I felt very small; insignificant, yet completely at peace with my place in this Universe. It was perfect.

“Stop” said Robin, jolting me out of my reverie. He was pointing at something on the muddy path alongside his footprints. “Now guess what that is!” he said with a grin on his face. An unmistakable kitty-cat paw print was etched in the ground, clear as day! I felt my heart jump up a notch. For years I have wanted to see a leopard in the wild. With Africa in my blood, big cats have been a passion since childhood. I’ve seen lions strolling lazily through bushveld, witnessed a cheetah jumping out onto the road a few meters from the car and more recently, seen a caracal nestled in long grass, pretending to ignore our admiring gaze. But leopards, of any shape or form, are my very favourite cat of all! I had yet to see one…

We hiked onward down the valley path, her paw prints and the stripe-marks of her balancing tail taunting us along the way. She was ahead of us, perhaps by a day.  That night we slept in the warm comfort of a herder’s hut, memories of the previous night far, far away. A bear paw-print spotted at dusk became the focus of our imaginations; but the story-telling and fanciful dreams could not hold us long as we sank into slumber in the safe confines of our smoky abode.

Again we awoke to perfect conditions, happy and carefree with the promise of yet another magnificent day. Lower down, nearing the confluence of the Bagau and Humpet valleys, the terrain opened up into welcoming plains. Not long after setting off, we came across our leopard’s tracks, this time together with those of a herd of antelope, meandering over the snowy ground. We crossed the river, feet freezing white in the icy chill, turning tingling pink on the other side. Again we met up with the tracks; the leopard following the antelope and us following her. All the way down the valley, our trails criss-crossed. For a full day and a half we shared a path. We never got to see her, but we knew that she was there, perhaps looking down on us from the ridge above…

I have yet to see a leopard. Perhaps one of these days…

I was privileged to join Robin Boustead, Percy Fernandez and Toni Wilson on an exploratory trek for the GHT (Great Himalaya Trail) in India during October 2011. This is an excerpt from those beautiful times. To view satellite imagery of the area that we trekked, go to The yellow SpotWalla markers numbered 36-39 indicate the location of the story above. 

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Independent trekking in Nepal

Sagarmatha National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, described as “an exceptional area with dramatic mountains, glaciers and deep valleys, dominated by Mount Everest, the highest peak in the world (8,848 m).” I fell in love with the Everest Region on my first trip there as an independent trekker in May 2007. Still hoping to spot a snow leopard but always guaranteed a cheerful smile from a passing Sherpa, this place has kept me coming back time and again. Initially I came as a visitor, but now I walk the hills and valleys as a friend, looking forward to catching up on a bit of gossip at the next teahouse stop.

To quote UNESCO, “What makes the concept of World Heritage exceptional is its universal application. World Heritage sites belong to all the peoples of the world, irrespective of the territory on which they are located.” Since my first visit to the Everest Region, I have felt as if I am returning to a place that is home.

I am a traveller; ‘home’ for me is where I feel I belong; where I can walk freely and just be me. I am writing this blog today in response to the Nepal Ministry of Home Affairs’ policy decision supported by TAAN (Trekking Agencies’ Association of Nepal), mandating that all trekkers in Nepal must, as of September, be accompanied by either a guide or a porter.

Effectively, what they are doing is to take away a part of my universal home. Think of it this way: if you wanted to visit a friend in your neighbouring town, how would you feel if you were forced to be accompanied to your destination by an outsider? Many porters and guides are not Sherpa and are thus also visitors to the Everest region. Being forced to have a chaperone (and perhaps one who is even less at home here than myself) is not only senseless but also an immense invasion of my privacy. You are taking away my autonomy and with it my sense of belonging here.

I do not walk the hills and valleys of Nepal with a rigid agenda. I’ve taken detours on quieter paths to avoid the madness of trekking season crowds, spent extra nights in villages to attend an unexpected puja or rest a painful knee, or conversely, done 3 days trekking in a single day because I was well acclimatised, fit and in the mood to keep going onward. I could not have done all of this had I been forced to take someone along with me. My sense of freedom in the mountains of Nepal is what keeps me coming back to trek here again and again. TAAN, you are taking away my freedom. I will no longer have the pleasure of standing on a high ridge with cool mist creeping up around my scarf, immense peaks looming up above me, alone but at peace and with a sense of completeness. This is my meditation and the healing of my soul. You want to stick another person into the picture? You will succeed in changing a deeply personal experience into a commercial, escorted trudge-about.

I understand the concerns around safety following the recent murder of a young woman in the Langtang region. But is removal of choice of trekking style across the whole country a solution to the problem? It is all about choice. As a single woman, I would not feel safe in Langtang on my own and would therefore not choose to trek there independently. However, there are many other areas in the Himalaya where once weighing up relative risks, I would still choose to trek alone or just with a friend.

Mountaineering on one’s own undoubtedly carries a relatively higher degree of risk than being with a group. In fact, doing almost anything in life anywhere in the world by oneself is arguably a riskier business. Driving a car in the streets at night without a companion probably marginally increases my chances of being hijacked. But as a single woman, were I to live by this fear I would never be able to venture beyond the front doors of my home. It is all about weighing up what you feel comfortable with, being rational and reasonable about it and ensuring that when you do decide to engage in an activity that is relatively ‘risky’, that you accept personal responsibility for that choice and do not drag anyone else into the equation without them being able to make an equally personal, well-educated decision as to their involvement in it.

When it comes to the mountains, there are always dangers, from slippery slopes to ugly muggers. Ironically, I have been held up at gunpoint whilst rock-climbing with a friend in the mountains in South Africa before. Having a gun cocked in your face, an active bullet in the chamber only a finger-flex away from that split-second trajectory between your life and your death, is enough to make you very selective about where you feel safe to trek or climb in the future. This happened to me in September 2006, and frankly, TAAN, it would not have made a stitch of a difference had I had a porter or a guide there with me. I think that your decision is misguided and only serves to take away personal choice. You will lose many a true mountaineer, explorer and adventurer to a place that till now has been a part of our universal heritage.

Each of the photos that follows was taken while hiking completely on my own in the Everest Region. I have wandered many other paths in the good company of friends, and some with wonderful porters and guides (whom I am very grateful to have had with us on those chosen occasions) , but for the purpose of this blog I have selected only photos which reflect times spent completely on my own. Please excuse all the self portraits; they are merely there to emphasize the point.

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Dog on a Glacier

I’m not quite sure how far along the track Benny joined us. She was a carefree waif, trotting along with her tail held high and a smile on her face. She neither asked us to join in, nor demanded anything from us. She was simply there; happy to be a part of the group, even if just floating through for a while. I don’t remember a whine or a whimper. It was as if she knew her choice and would bear the consequences; a true mountain dog, content despite the difficulties of her environment.

She definitely didn’t feel the effects of the altitude! Off she would bound after our climbing guides hopping along the rocks of the moraine. Light-footed on the snow, she would be way ahead of us, her bare paws surprisingly unperturbed by the cold. And it was cold out there! We were in the shade on the Thyangbo glacier, at around 4500m altitude, west of Thame in the Everest region.

I don’t think she expected us to stop for so many hours. We were working on our mountaineering skills, hauling each other in simulated crevasse rescues, building snow caves and snow belays, and practicing ice-climbing up a glacier wall. She lay down on the snow, watching us with interest, but cooling down rapidly with the inactivity of a curious observer.

Raksha and Mingma quickly became her custodians, finding her a mat to lie on and keeping her sheltered with our additional warm clothes. At night, back at camp, she would sleep in the vestibule of their tent, protected from the jaws of prowling beasts. We were in the land of snow leopards and yetis… Raksha was taking no chances!

She accompanied us down to Thame a few days later, happily settling on the front doorstep of our lodge. We left her there as we descended to Namche Bazaar, hoping she would choose the quiet, safe village as her new home.

We were not sure what happened to Benny, but yesterday, there was a story in the Nepali Times about a dog who has joined the legendary Apa and Dawa Sherpa on their latest expedition along the Great Himalaya Trail. She joined them near Apa’s home village, Thame! Like them, we also speculated whether or not she was the dog seen at Camp 2 (+/- 6500m) on Everest last year. She joined us in November. Mingma was sure she was one and the same…

Why the name Benny? Well, it was the product of playful banter with our Ozzie friend, Ben! Apa and Dawa Sherpa’s companion is called Setuk. Could Setuk and Benny be the same dog? Well, have a look at the photo’s and tell us what you think! Their story and photo’s are at the following link:

Thanks Mingma for the new photo’s for this story! We wish Apa and Dawa Sherpa and Setuk a fantastic journey!

Addendum: This story was published in the Nepali Times on 20 April 2012. Read what happened next with Benny/ Setuk here:

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Banteay Chhmar

I was lying in bed in the dark early hours of this morning, unable to sleep. Restless and achy, I landed up in email conversation with my friend Ade on the other side of the world. It was nice to have his cheerful daylight messages to take my mind off things.

Ade is on his way to Cambodia and mentioned that he wanted to visit a newly restored temple complex there. Intrigued, I asked him about it and he sent me this link:

I idly clicked on it and started reading. Next thing, I was bolt upright in bed, searching through my old Cambodia photo albums. Banteay Chhmar! I’ve been there! It was 2007, just after the area was cleared of landmines. Few Westerners had set foot there before. Finding our way was quite a story! This one is for you, Ade:

It had been a long morning. We’d crossed from Thailand into Cambodia at Poipet, the infamous border town which smells of dodginess and corruption. A border official had already tried to con us each out of an extra 200 Baht visa fee and it had taken a lot of stubbornness and sitting around waiting before he lost interest and returned our passports. The rest of the border-crossers were on their way to Siem Reap on the “scam bus” as it was known, but Emma and I had other plans.

Emma loves anything to do with temples. The older and more derelict, the better! She had read somewhere of Banteay Chhmar, a pile of ancient stones abandoned in the jungle. She  was determined to get there and take a look for herself. I was still suffering the blissful brainlessness induced by weeks of beaches in Thailand, so was happy to go along with whatever plans.

In retrospect we were perhaps a little naïve and definitely more than a little brazen! We donned out backpacks and walked out onto the street, asking the way to Sisophon. A tourist policeman stopped us, motioning that he knew where we must go. He ushered us to the bus station and almost convinced us to board one, but we figured out just in time that it was a “scam bus” leaving for Siem Reap. When he realised that we were adamant about Sisophon, he insisted that we take one of his taxis, at a highly inflated price of course! We were having none of it, so headed off down the road again, thumbs stuck out to hitch a ride. We were offered a lift within minutes, but from out of nowhere, the policeman appeared again and a lot of animated discussion in Khmer ensued. The driver, who had been happy at our agreed price, grumbled and drove off instead.

We carried on walking, trying to catch a ride, our policeman companion riding loops around us in an attempt to herd us back to the bus station. On we walked, bartering with drivers along the way. He would ride off a bit, we would negotiate a lift and next minute he’d reappear, pushing up the price again. Irritating mosquito! He wanted his kickback and wasn’t going to let us go without it! Exasperated, we sat down at a roadside stall and hoped that he would go away. We were in no hurry, so after a while he got impatient and seemed to disappear. By this time everyone in the vicinity knew where we wanted to go. Whispered prices hung in the air and the stall owner motioned for us to wait.

A little later, a pick-up truck pulled up alongside the stall. Within seconds and without any questions, we were squished into a small spot of open seat, backpacks and all. It was a tight squeeze, but we were on our way! We made it down the bumpy road to Sisophon, packed in the vehicle like a tin of sardines, while fresh fish slid around on the load-bed behind us.

We arrived in Sisophon, a backwater town, only to realise that Banteay Chhmar was nowhere nearby. We were the only non-Cambodians around. We had come this far; it didn’t make sense to turn around. A friendly pair of youths on motorbikes who could speak a smattering of English offered to help us out. On we hopped, each sitting behind, with our backpacks up front between our drivers’ knees . They took us to the local market where pickup trucks were being loaded for trips, going in the direction of Banteay Chhmar.

We were met with stares, plenty of smiles and offerings of morsels such as roasted crickets. Our scooter drivers acted as our translators, negotiating a good deal on our behalf. This time we settled for places on the back of a relatively empty looking pickup truck. With little verbal communication possible, it was hard to know what we were settling for… Three hours later, it was piled up high with us perched on top; six adults and a child.

We bumped along miles of dirt road, taking turns holding the little boy. Afraid he might bounce right off, I held him close, nestled in my arms. At times, he dropped off to sleep, rocked by the motion of our swaying load. I felt quite stable, sitting in an old car tyre.We arrived at an insignificant looking cluster of houses. No sign of a temple here! They ushered us off the truck and nodded encouragingly that we were at the right place. Feeling lost and deserted, we were relieved when another pair of young men arrived on motorbikes, just as before in Sisophon! They carried our bags and became our guides, taking us to the hidden treasures of Banteay Chhmar.

Banteay Chhmar… Not just a pile of rubble. A magnificent relic with a palpable spirit, held in the arms of the jungle.



                    Having been encaptured by the mystery of Banteay Chhmar, we had not yet contemplated the night ahead. It was evening time and we still wanted to get to Siem Reap. Back to reality and the practicalities of travel! There were no hotels or guesthouses anywhere nearby. Our local guides called the only taxi in the vicinity and after much discussion, we understood that he was only allowed to travel certain sections of road. “I want to take you but I can get into big trouble” is what he explained. He could take us as far as Sisophon, but from there we would have to negotiate further.

Understanding our worries of escalating fares, he decided to help us with an onward journey plan. “You cannot be seen by the tourist police, otherwise my taxi friend in Sisophon can’t take you to Siem Reap for a good price.” Having had the experience of Poipet earlier that day, we by this time understood exactly what he meant.

He took us to Sisophon along the bumpy dirt road. From there, we were literally smuggled from one taxi to another, avoiding the vulture-like tourist police eyes. We whizzed off to Siem Reap along the asphalt highway, fluorescent tubes of cricket traps lighting the nighttime skies.

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