Exploring Pikey Peak
I love the mountains. Perhaps because l was born in the Sierra Nevada of California, or because I’m an avatar of Shiva: as one Sadu type suggested recently — the high country calls to me. Directs my travels. So it was only natural that l would return to the solukhumbu after my sojourn in Kathmandu. With my bike and full compliment of camping gear in search of dirt. Rideable trails that is. Ideally any way. Starting with a loop recommended to Matt and l by our friend Mads, Which we had skipped because Matts knees weren’t up to it in the aftermath of hiking to Gokyo.
There are no trails designed (or maintained) for biking anywhere in this incredibly steep country, so any ride is going to include some unrideable sections — some pushing or carrying. This particular route is one Mads does professionally — with paying guests — so l knew there was some good riding to be had. But those guided trips have a large support team — porters for both bikes and gear. I’m no stranger to carrying my bike, but the approach to PIkey peak was to be my first experience doing it in the himalaya. The trip began uneventfully enough — retracing our route to Ringmou. All rideable (still super steep and muddy in spots) and getting better all the time — in the month or so (l really spent that long in KTM) since we had been on these roads, the road builders had made significant progress in landslide and mud abatement. About 4 days in the clouds which had been following me all the way from the city reached critical mass — and l was treated to one of the heaviest hail-storms l have ever experienced.
The hail wasnt that big, just dense, covering the ground in seconds. I was slogging my way up hill at the time (something like 4500m of elevation gain in this section) overheating in shorts and a thin shirt, but l made a pit stop and put on my rain jacket, with all vents and zips open — one of those frustrating wardrobe challenges unique to bike touring. As I climbed higher, the hail softened and became snow — covering the frozen ruts and rocks in the road. As l crested the pass before Patale and started down the other side l knew l should stop and change. But l was so hot a sweaty l merely zipped up my jacket and started down. Which meant l was quite cold enough to stop by the time l reached the first little tea house before patale. But it was crowded with motorcyclists drunkenly shouting for me to stop — so l didn’t. Coasted through town and promptly crashed (oh yea, there are ice and rocks under there) so with frozen feet and dripping blood l limped into Patale. And huddled next to the smoky cooking fire drinking tea for what turned out to the rest of the day.
The motorcyclists caught up with me, and without so much as bothering to inform me, started riding (crashing) my bike with wild abandon. By the time the innkeeper and l realized what was going on, and he ran out to stop it. They were already riding slowly off on their own vehicles, having torn the straps on one of my pedals, and mangled one of the fancy water bottle cages l have attached to my rear dropouts. Truth be told, though annoyed by uninvited riders breaking my bike, l wasn’t terribly put out by having to sit by the fire and sew my pedal back together. Drinking tea and later roxi with the innkeeper and the regulars at this the village watering hole.
There is a strong drinking culture in nepal, especially among the tibetan descended inhabitants of the high mountains (sherpa, rai, and moung). Several of my companions were making and all day event of drinking toungba. Which is warm barley beer, prepared in an unusual way. The grain is fermented whole, with almost no water, and served by filling a large vessel with fermented grain, which is then topped off with hot water (again and again) and drunk through a straw (some what like a mate bombilla). Now because you can endlessly top off your drink (though it gets weaker and weaker) its and easy beverage to nurse, and lends itself to being an all day occupation (especially when it is cold and dark outside). Some of the drinkers, who came and went (and most definitely included the innkeeper — who was working on two different toungbas alternating them with no discernable pattern or logic) spoke varying amounts of english — having worked as guides or porters. And were of course fascinated with me and my bike, but also, as is common with drunks — especially Nepali ones — eager to have me drink with them.
At this point l’ve whiled away many an evening in smoky huts, drinking various local brews. Cooking over open fires is the norm — and only a few, more upscale establishments, have hoods, chimneys or even vent-holes — so the ceilings are all black and festooned with tar stalactites: this particular lodge had very defined smoke level stain on the untreated interior wood paneling. Fortunately people are generally short around here, and when seated at the low benches and stools favored in this part of the world, their heads are usually below eye watering/throat clogging smoke level. So l found a seat by a window which could be cracked to admit some fresh air, kept my head down — a once I’d finished sewing — made an occupation of nursing beverages. Seemed after all to be the done thing.
Fortunately this particular host was neither pushy, nor inattentive — and did a good job of anticipating/ understanding my desires. I.E. l didn’t want people riding (crashing) my bike, and l wasn’t looking to get wasted, drink alot of different types of alcohol/try to keep up with the local talent — so he helpfully explained to anyone who asked that mixing drinks was a bad idea especially for a weak constitutioned foreigner. So l drank glasses of warm (rapidly cooling) roxi as slowly as l could, while l waited for dinner. Roxi is the most prevalent type of ‘local’ alcohol in Nepal — and while it is most often translated/offered as ‘whine’ it most certainly is not wine.
I eventually found someone (who incidentally made the best roxi l have tasted) to explain (through his english speaking son) the process, and discovered, that is alot more like brandy, or grain alcohol — just inefficiently distilled and un-aged. The ingredients (and flavor) vary regionally — but in my experience is made most often from corn or barley with some fruit or sugar thrown in. It is open fermented (but with yeast added) until it starts bubbling vigorously, then fermented in a closed vessel (l assume that faulty lids operate as a primitive air lock) for at least a fortnight. At which point it is distilled in a coilless water-bath pot-still, which distills so inefficiently, that the resulting liquid can be drunk straight, and is similar in alcohol content to weak wine, or strong beer. Indeed for all their prevalence, alcoholic drinks in nepal are generally quite mild.
This crew had been working hard though, and were drunk enough that making dinner was something of an ordeal, and was served about two hours later than is normal. The late night coupled with the cold (and probably intoxication) meant l slept in, such that by the time l was ready to leave, the sun was out the snow was already beginning to melt. I quickly became closely acquainted with the unfortunate mix of slush, frozen ground, and slippery mud which was to be the theme/curse of my visit to Pikey peak. I slipped and slid, rode and dragged my bike to Taktor at the base of lamjura pass where l knew l was going to have to carry my bike — on the map the contour lines almost touched, and the trail went straight up. I was in the process of choosing a terraced field in which to camp for the night, when a teenage girl with a reasonable command of english (who couldn’t believe that l was going to cook for myself) escorted me to the town ‘hotel.’ Which turned out to be her family residence. Presided over by a passel of teenage girls (l never saw an adult (except for a man about my age who stopped by to buy an liter of roxi). They clearly thought l was crazy, asking over and over again about my lack of footwear, and the weight of my bike. But also fascinating, all of them over-using every english phrase they knew in an attempt communicate/plumb the depths of my mystery.
I was treated as honored guest: given the best spot by the fire, brought endless cups of tea. But more as a member of the family than a client: l ate the same sag bat (rice with watery potato soup) they were having for dinner, and helped the little ones with their english homework. For all the enormous difficulties it faces, and the general scorn Nepali’s have for government schools, they seem to be working — every where l went in the rural hinterlands of this country, a surprising percentage of the youngest generation spoke enough of my language to be helpful. I slept alone in a room with 10 or so beds, indicating that at least occasionally groups of people stay here, with Jesus, Vishnu, Krishna, and various scantily-clad women (from newspapers) adorning the walls. In the morning after more sag bat l rearranged my load and strapped 40kg of bike and gear to may back and started trudging uphill.
It took me 5 hours to go less than 10k and l spent the night in an empty-save-for-me tourist lodge which was about as different as is possible, in a world where everyone eats rice for every meal and cooks over an open fire, from my previous evening. It was just me and the girl who was care taking the place in the off-season, who spent the entirety of my stay on her smartphone, doing what, l’m not entirely sure. I selected my food from a poorly spelled english menu, was refused a 3rd helping of rice, and had to ask for individual cups of tea which were tallied (while she drank pots indiscriminately). In the morning l paid more than 4 times what l had the day before, for less food, and far less hospitality.
It seemed that only 2 people had taken the trail towards Pikey since it snowed, making it some what difficult to find the trail. Fortunately l was following ridges, and it didn’t really matter. My bike is a snow bike, but to ride uphill in the snow, it really helps if its packed, a trail, and you really need some serious knobs on your tyres. So l pushed and dragged my bike up to Pikey peak. The point where it began to differentiate itself from the ridge line. and was faced with a dilemma — l could push on and camp on the summit — in the snow and without the means to cook (l had through a combination of stupidity and carelessness set fire to my entire stove fuel supply a few nights before — along with a mercifully damp hill side and part of my tent and sleeping pad) or skirt around in search of shelter (firewood) or lodging. I had carried my bike all this way to ride down this mountain, but what with the snow and mud it wasn’t clear how rideable it was going to be — so l took the prudent course and spent the night in a one-house-settlement with a grandmother and granddaughter neither of whom spoke a word of english (the girl knew the words cat and rat).
Who never the less showered me with all the hospitality their humble circumstances allowed. A seat by the fire and blanket for the lap mean alot when water in a bucket a few feet away (inside) is freezing. And l reflected as we sat quietly in the fire lit darkness, waiting for dinner (potato pancakes!), that except for her battery powered radio, and the girl’s “angry birds” sweat shirt; we could easily be in the middle ages. The house made out of local materials — dry stacked stone and hand hewn timbers. Plates and cooking utensils forged out of copper and brass and proudly displayed on the wall doing double duty as decoration. Cooking over a open fire on an elevated mud hearth, without the benefit of a chimney — smoke having long since blacked the thatched roof and everything stored in the rafters. Eating food grown and harvested by hand in the stony terraced fields around the house, and stored up against the winter. And me, sitting by the fire with a cat in my lap, interloper from another time/space.
This pair were surprisingly uninterested by my bike. Usually everywhere l go a crowd instantly develops — everyone staring silently, and poking and prodding any part of my effects they can get their hands on. But at the base of Pikey peak, my reality was either too far removed, or they had “seen it all,” but either way it was a pleasant respite from the questions and attention l spend alot of my time accepting. Usually in these isolated regions children run along side me shouting and laughing and calling their friends to see the spectacle. If l stop for even a moment they are squeezing the tires and trying to get a look at my odometer, and endless chorus of voices asking “wat is yor nam” “you are coming?” and its not just the children. Indeed the older men are worse, more persistent, more entitled (like the motorcyclists in Patale) squeezing and hefting and trying to ride my bike.
The attention comes with the territory — and l’ve certainly experienced the aliens-have-landed reaction in all sorts of forms throughout my travels. But here there are some cultural differences here (at least l think thats what it is) that l find particularly unnerving. Mostly the stareing. There seems to be no cultural injunction against unabashed silent staring. Pointing even, and not just kids, its transgenerational. It’s not that l mind being looked at (l don’t especially like it, but l expect it) its just that l don’t like feeling like an object, a non entity. I’m well aware of the language gap, but l’d appreciate it if folks would at least greet me, before staring silently and groping my belongings. Its odd really, because on one hand Nepali people are very friendly outgoing and helpful. But at the same time l’ve had people follow me silently for up to an hour (l was slogging uphill) keeping one pace behind and never once looking me in the eye or speaking.
I much prefer the reaction of a certain peasant farmer type. Bare foot, and gnarled by a lifetime of hard work outside (probably in their 50’s but to me at least, looking much older) they drop their plows (or whatever they’re doing) and run to catch me. And though we have no words in common, they greet me effusively, tell me that the trail is very bad/hard place to take a bike, and then push my bike for/with me for a few hundred yards, before shaking my hand and jogging back to work. It has happened often enough that l can generalize, but it’s not common. I suppose such people and their ways are dying off and being replaced by a raised on tv, stareing generation. Or something like that. In any case one of the reasons l seek out untraveled trails in the mountains, is to get away from people. to immerse myself in what wild places have to offer. And the beauty of being on a little used trail with snow on it is that you get plenty of alone time. The problem was l didn’t get to ride much of it.
The trails here, being ‘natural’ that is created solely by people and animals walking, are for the most part narrow steep and rocky. Even the easy bits are quite technical. Add a mud and snow to that, and the resulting mix is unfortunately unrideable. Even though the ridge has a relatively mellow gradient all the way down. So l rode alot less, and fell alot more than l would have hoped — the trail would have been quite fun in the right conditions l expect. But in the melting snow with a loaded bike it was a bit of a slog, going and coming. So took a few days off in the nice little town of Sallerie enjoying luxuries like hot showers and internet access. Hoping that the trails would dry out a bit. And the next leg of my journey would be easier…