Last weekend, the Mourne Mountain Marathon was staged back home in Ireland. I have run the race 3 times. But seeing that I’m currently out of the country, I decided to hold my own 2 day mountain marathon here in Nepal instead.
I had always wanted to run along the Helambu trail, the track that heads straight out of Kathmandu and heads north towards the Himalayas. The plan was to run out for 5-6 hours, sleep wherever I ended up, and to run back the next day.
I packed my bag with what I needed for 2 days on the trail – some trail food, wet gear and extra clothes, sleeping bag, some first aid stuff, map and compass. Fortunately I knew that I could stay the night at any of the many teahouses along the way. That meant I didn’t have to bring a tent or extra food, reducing the weight of my bag.
On Saturday morning, I got a taxi to Sundarijal and started my run from there. Though when I say run, there wasn’t much running for the first 2 hours, what with the hike straight up and over Shivarpuri National Park to Chisopani. The hike was through some great forest though, with very few tourists and only occasional Nepalis walking between villages and portering fodder or stone. (I’d have taken lots of photos of the great views and unique cultural moments, but I had forgotten to bring my camera).
I reached Chisopani in under 2 hours. The hiking guidebook told me that it should take 3-4 hours and should be the totality of Day 1 of my hike. Unperturbed by their underestimation, I called into a small shop for some water. Laying my map and compass on the table, the shop owner’s children found great amusement at the swiveling needle inside. I tried to show how it told me which direction to go in, but my non-existent Nepali meant that they remained none the wiser. Putting Nuun rehydration tablets into the water caused further consternation. It was only when they figured it must be a way to make ‘juice’ that they were less perturbed by the fizzling tablet inside.
Continuing north, I reached Pati Bhanjang in 20 minutes, a small village at the col between two hills. I chose to take the stream path from Chisopani rather than the main jeep road, a steep and slippery alternative as it turned out. The terrain sent my legs sliding all over the place, nearly ripping my hamstring as I braced myself several times for a fall. The monsoon wet weather had made most of the trails into skating rinks, and instead of gaining time on descents, I slowed to a geriatric pace going downhill in case I slid and fell. I didn’t want to get injured, especially as I was on the trail on my own.
From Pati Bhanjang, I didn’t realize the climb would be so steep and unrelenting up to Chipling. The map I was using was a 1:125000 and it was layered in colours and symbols. I had to stop and study it really carefully if I was to get any sort of information. In the end, all I could gain from it was that I was going in the right general direction. This I supplemented with asking Nepalis on the trail where the next village was.
Once at Chipling, an urgent bottle of water was in order. It cost 100 Rupees, 5 times that of Kathmandu, such is the price of carrying such liquid up all that way. From then on, I decided water planning was necessary to save me from wasting rupees. I opted to use 1 litre iodine tablets for the rest of the journey, even though the purification process would mean waiting 30 minutes before I could drink.
I had aimed to reach Gul Bhanjang and stay the night there. However when I looked at my watch, it was still early… only 4pm. I had covered 20km, 1500 metres of climb and been on the move for 4.5 hours. Instead I stopped in to a teahouse for a huge mug of tea and a packet of coconut biscuits. An elderly gentleman, the owner of the tea shop, sat with me as I munched and drank.
“Where have you come from?” he asked me.
“Ahhhh, very far, very far”. I couldn’t help feeling a sense of pride that I had covered in less than 5 hours what the guide books said should take 2 days. However I was starting to doubt my original plan of running back the next day to Kathmandu. I still wanted to explore new trails, especially when I had come out this far into the mountains.
“Come with me”, the man said as he walked out the back door of the teashop’s courtyard. He brought me through a maize field and pointed out over the valley that stretched behind his place.
“You go to Timbu or Malamchi Bazaar,” he said, pointing east. “Get bus from there. Only 4 hours back to Kathmandu”.
I thanked the man for the tea and biscuits and suggested Day 2 route choice. Running on, I eventually stopped at Kutumsang just as the day’s monsoon rains began to break. I stayed in the first place I found, a small hotel with clean sheets, a warm bucket shower, more mugs of tea, a place to charge my mobile phone and lots of rice and lentils. With the onset of rain and night fall, the temperatures dropped sharply, and I snuggled into sleeping bag under the blankets that came with the teahouse stay.
I woke at 6am to heavenly visions of the Himalayas. I took in the snow peaks bursting through the cotton wool clouds framed within a blue and pink streaky sky. After pancakes, omelettes and more mugs of tea, I was on the trail by 7.30am. After a night of map studying, I decided to head east towards Timbu and then south towards Malamchi for the bus home. The trail was initially hard to find, 2 farmers in the end having to direct me through their paddy fields to find the missing track.
The trail contoured around the valley and I could see the mountains I had climbed the previous day. It passed through thick forest and crossed rivers swollen from the previous night’s monsoon rain. The stones and mud were slick so I took a steady pace. After 5 kilometres of these secluded trails, I emerged at a series of villages that ringed the valley’s sides.
It was only when I needed to descend to the river off the ridge that the day became pear shaped. The trail dead-ended in a school courtyard, when the map specifically said the path would cut down to the river and would stop in a place called Hindi. Despite asking many locals for the right way, they all sent me down to Ichwok and in the totally wrong direction. I tried to get back to Hindi, heading north, finding and losing paths as I went, ending up knee deep in paddy fields and fighting my way through overgrown paths. As soon as I hit the jeep road running beside the river I’d already covered 15km and it was 11.30am. I’d heard there was one bus leaving at noon. It was time to abandon my plan, run south towards Melamchi, and try to catch that bus.
I eventually reached Kiul where a young fella told me to stop. He told me the bus was coming and that it was better to catch it there. So I called it a day, ordered some tea at a kiosk and waited for it to come. I’d hardly drunk half the mug before the bus arrived and I abandoned the cuppa to get me back to Kathmandu.
It was a long old ride, on terrible roads cratered with holes alongside a scary-flowing river in flood. But the ride and the route got me to be in a part of the country that I hadn’t already seen. I arrived back to Kathmandu at 5pm, suffering more from the bus ride than the two days of back-pack running. I also came home to see the Mourne Mountain Marathon results online. It looked like there were many mispunches on Day 1, and Day 2 saw a number of teams bail. Must have been terrible weather to have such a results sheet.
So maybe I did choose the better option of doing my own solo mountain marathon in Nepal. Better weather, better food, better views. Only next time I should check my map properly and not always believe the directions the locals give.
Day 1 Route can be found here.
Day 2 Route can be found here.