Lunana

Snow leopard!

I saw a snow leopard! I saw a snow leopard! I saw a snow leopard!

Full story when I get back.

Tiger in the forest.

We’ve been walking uphill for eight days now through the remote rhododendron and bamboo forests, occasionally spotting bear and leopard prints as we walk. As we emerged in rain from the forest, above the tree line, we saw huge paw prints in the mud. We thought they were from a large Himalayan bear, but the ponies were scared and when the pony men came by they said, “tiger!”

We have had so many adventures, but communications are difficult. Even our emergency Satphone has failed us. I can send a message now as we are resting at Lunana, a tiny remote village in the shadow of the high white Himalayas, where there is a mobile phone mast. It is seven days walk from here in any direction to the nearest road head.

Ahead of us lie two more high mountain passes, only then will be on our way downhill again. I have some amazing pictures of the mountains, valleys and people of Bhutan and cannot wait to post them, but this will have to wait until I get back.

Bhutan

We flew from Bangkok to Paro, one of the most famous white-knuckle air approaches in the world – although the two American women next to me were talking so hard they were oblivious to the mountain wall about fifteen feet from our port wing tip.

‘Gee, why’s everyone clapping?’ asked one as we touched down.

Since then we have driven for two days over mountain passes draped with prayer flags and reached the Bumthang valley. It’s a landscape of forested hillsides, waterfalls, terraced rice paddies and apple orchards. The guest house where we are catching our breath is set in farmland, and from his own produce the Swiss owner makes soft and hard cheeses, butter, jams, honey, and brews his own weiss bier. We looked in for a tasting at the brewery this afternoon, after visiting the annual Bumthang Tsechu festival at the monastery. Black hat Buddhists danced and masked grotesques waved carved wooden phalluses as local families picnicked on the grass.

I am paring down and packing kit ready for the yak’s back. The camp crew are on their way to meet us at the trail head, and Kesang our guide says that now ‘blessed rainy day’ is past there will be no more monsoon rain.

We’re ready to go!

I hope to put up one or two posts before I leave on the trek, but fragile internet means pictures may have to wait until I get back.

Books and yaks

I am just getting ready to go out to Bhutan. I’ll be away for a month, and for most of that time we’ll be camping and trekking in the Lunana mountains. Luckily we won’t be carrying on our backs everything needed for that length of time – we’ll have some big hairy yaks to do the work. But even a yak has his limits. His maximum load is 30kg, and that will be two trekkers’ bags. So my world for three weeks must weigh no more than 15kg, which isn’t a lot counting in sleeping bag and thermarest, layers of down and other clothing for 0 to 20 degrees, waterproofs and duty-free cognac and essential jars of Clarins. Physical books are out of the question of course, so I have luxuriously stocked up my Kindle with everything I might fancy, from the Lonely Planet Guide to a handful of Georgette Heyers (my lifetime comfort reading). I’m also looking forward to Zadie Smith, Howard Jacobson, Ian MacEwan, Alison Moore, Deborah Levy and Jon Canter. It is a long trip!

I’m also taking my iPod, all loaded and ready to go with every piece of music I own plus about a thousand podcasts. I LOVE lying in the darkness in my tent at night, with the wind gusting or maybe snow patting the fabric overhead, listening to voices. For me, free Radio 4 downloads alone are worth the licence fee. I’ve got everything from the Reith Lectures and In Our Time – excellent insomnia medication and no drug hangover in the morning – to all the New Yorker Fiction I can lay my hands on. Also free to download, these wonderful short stories from the magazine’s archive are chosen and read by present-day writers and afterwards pithily analysed with the magazine’s literary editor. The very opposite of soporific, they really set your brain pinging. If you haven’t come across them yet, I highly recommend.

I’ll have my camera, and there will be lots to photograph. I’m taking my iPad + keyboard too in place of a laptop, in case we find WiFi anywhere and I can write a post. And my mobile phone, although once we get into the wilds east of Thimpu there is no reception at all. Our trek organisers will loan us a satphone for emergency use (We’re using a new company called Guides of Bhutan, set up by my friend Phil Bowen with whom years ago I competed in the Peking to Paris car rally. Read about our adventures in my book Border Crossing…)

You will have noted the potential flaw in these elaborate tecchy arrangements. Yes, power supply for recharging. In camp there will be none.

SO – new gadget! This lovely charger will hang on the back of my rucksack all day, the miniature solar panels soaking up the mountain sunshine as I walk, and at night the battery will revivify my devices as I sleep.

This is the plan, anyway. What could possibly go wrong?

The last stop before Lime Street

In Liverpool yesterday, for lunch with Metal at Edge Hill station. Edge Hill is the world’s oldest passenger railway station still in use, and the arts organisation Metal now hosts a creative programme in the restored station buildings that regularly invites artists to create works to celebrate the area and the local history.

Lunch was fun: we cooked a Kashmiri feast and discussed travel and food and creative inspiration. There will be similar lunches with different artists at the station for the next twelve days – giving a whole new aspect to the old expression ‘to get off at Edge Hill’….
For information and tickets go to:

Olympics PS

Out in the Swiss Alps I walked up the remote Saustal valley, and in the whole day I met only one other person.

As it turned out, I was pretty glad when he appeared.

The map showed a thin ribbon of water winding between two rock ridges, eventually passing a couple of buildings marked as Oberberg. The path in reality was beautiful, climbing past a series of waterfalls and crossing alpine meadows. Oberberg was a huddle of ancient wooden barns – probably unchanged for the last two hundred years. There was no-one to be seen. Only the brown cows, going about their grazing to the low jangle of cowbells. No more pastoral scene could be imagined.

About an hour past the barns I took off my red rucksack and sat down in a sheltered hollow to eat my sandwich and check the map. I slowly became aware that the mellow note of the bells was changing. Looking up, I saw that concentric rings of cows were gathering at the rim of the hollow. There must have been a hundred of them and they were steadily converging. As I stood up they began to run at me, cows and calves together, horned heads lowered and hooves thundering. I’m a country bred girl and I’m not scared of cows, but this was fairly alarming. The bells clanged so loudly I thought that if I wasn’t going to be trampled or gored to death I’d certainly suffer the same fate as the victim in The Nine Tailors. As the first wave reached me the animals began not very gently nudging my hips and my red bag with their horns, snorting hot breath on my lunch. Unwilling to sacrifice it I waved it over their heads, feebly shouting ‘getaway’ and wondering how the Swiss emergency services would respond to a cow/sandwich alert.

Then a hat, and a head beneath it, rose above a rock outcrop. The cowherd had a red rucksack just like mine except that his contained white powder, which he strewed in handfuls on the ground. The herd wheeled away from me. I took the opportunity to nip between him and the rock for protection. The cows licked up the powder, tongues rasping the grass.

‘Salt?’ I gasped. The young man nodded and smiled. ‘I was – ah – nervous.’

‘No need. They are so lovely’. His face was bright with affection. ‘They think you bring them a present’.

We fell into conversation. He told me that he was an agricultural student who was spending the whole summer at the Oberberg barns with only his herd for company, and the occasional hiker. He had a hundred cows to care for, and he knew the face and the foibles of each one. We talked cows and cow-related matters for a few minutes and then he politely asked where I was from.

I told him London, and then remarked that I was here in Saustal but almost everyone else was in London right now.

He looked at me blankly.

‘For the Olympics’, I added.

His sunbrowned forehead puckered a little. ‘Really?’ he said. ‘In London? This week?’

It all depends on where you’re standing.