“Hello sister! My house; no house. My husband; no husband. You very, very rich. Hello sister!” Says the mad woman at the window. There's something almost comic about the insane that makes them seem far less sinister than the desperate. Still, while we sit for an incredibly uncomfortable amount of time waiting for traffic lights to change, the message is the same: I want your money.We're on our way to Pokhara in the centre of Nepal, having left Tiger Tops at 5am. The next part of our journey will take us into the mountains. We pick up our guides in the city, then drive another hour into the sky before we get ready to set off.
“This isn't really trekking though, is it?” Asks Wee Mo shortly after we leave Nayapul, our starting point. “Well I think so,” I offer. “Maybe not – just walking I guess, or maybe hiking. Still, when people ask, we'll say it was trekking. Trekking in the Himalayas.”Our first pause is a distressing one. A couple beg with their child, who has some very obvious wounds on his arms and wrists. They look like burns and the wee bastard must only be about three. Though we don't say anything, we're both filled with the dread that the parents may somehow be responsible for the scars. We walk on.
The thing about Nepal, though – it's absolutely teeming with kids. Most of them seem to be under 10 and they're so numerous, I wonder if the government had some kind of ill-conceived breeding programme at the turn of the millennium. They're unbelievably cute, though – and friendly too. Not to mention good for pictures.
The two guys with us are an odd couple: Dawa, our guide, and the seemingly mute Minbhadur, who has lashed our backpacks together, thrown them over his skinny 51-year-old shoulders and is already sauntering off over the horizon. He wears nothing more than a pair of beaten leather loafers on his feet. We look at our sturdy boots and smile.
As we've only got three days and don't do much hiking, we've organised a tailored “comfortable” trek towards the village of Ghandruk. It's early afternoon and already the peaks towards which we are heading are covered in cloud. Nepal has reliable seasons throughout the year but locals say that this afternoon occlusion is equally dependable. Still, while the peaks are shrouded, it's a nice day and the views up the valley are nonetheless gorgeous. It's such a nice day, in fact, that before long we've had to stop to take off our top layers to cool down.The dirt path into the hills is well used by dozens of locals heading to and from their homes. Many have sacks of rocks and other raw materials strapped round their heads, but uniformly offer a cheery “Namaste” as we pass. Most of the small shack-based shops have an English speaker to help sell water or energy-laden chocolate bars and to my pleasant surprise, there are occasional rubbish bins attached to telegraph poles. This is all good. I like this.
We've been walking up a gentle incline for an hour, sweating lightly in the afternoon sun, when we reach the start of The Stairs. Initially, the craggy slate steps don't seem to stretch too far, and while we both quickly feel our quads burning, it's nothing out of the ordinary.
But every time we turn another corner, there's just another stramash of stone. Then another. They quickly become demoralising and we soon start to get a little testy with each other. I offer to carry Wee Mo's bag; she refuses. I call her stubborn; she calls me a nag. When she accidentally sits on a stinging nettle, neither of us expect to see the funny side for at least a couple of days. And still the stairs come, more and more. The light sweat has turned into a graceless torrent. “Namaste,” sounds like a piss take. The price of water from the shops seems to be increasing with the elevation too. I'm not sure if I like this after all. Seeing that we are toiling, Dawa suggests a break.The 44-year-old comes from the Everest region and so can rightfully lay claim to the name Sherpa.
He's been doing this for 20 years and has met people from all over the world. He has two children back in Kathmandu and can't honestly say he enjoys living in the polluted city. But that's where Dolpa Treks is based and so must he be. His wife runs a little shop to support the family while he guides trekkers around his country. This is important, as when he's not working, he doesn't get a wage.
“When is your next group arriving?” I ask.
“Not for about two months.” He replies with a half-smile.
We head off again. Short, affable and utterly unstoppable, Dawa walks ahead with feet slightly splayed, happy to answer questions (“Do you think we could be suffering from altitude sickness?” “No.”) as we continue on our slog. One thing about Dawa, he never lies. Never exaggerates for our benefit; the distance we have to go is never shortened to con us into thinking we are closer than we actually are. For example: having been told we're half an hour from our next stop, we make a vessel-rupturing effort until we grind to our next standstill.
“How far now?” I pant, tongue lolling slightly.
“About 25 minutes,” replies Dawa.
Minbhadur, meanwhile, remains permanently illusive. Every time we reach some new horizon, there he is sitting on a wall, our bags at his feet, a crooked smile on his face. I'm not sure if the Nepalese do smug, but this feels like the tortoise and the hare, where the hare is the unrelenting victor.
On and on the stairs climb, past a sign that reads there are 12,000 steps between our starting point and Ghandruk, our destination (we have 4,252 to go). Occasionally the path flattens for a few hundred magnificent metres and once in a while, we even make small descents which by this stage feel completely alien. Then the light fails and just when it seems that all hope is lost, it starts to rain. Wee Mo is on the brink of tears. I think I am too. We've made it to the edge of Ghandruk, but our lodgings are conveniently at the village's highest peak.
We're tired and wet when we check into Gurung Cottage, but more than anything we're grateful. After a quick, quiet dinner, we're in our room. The hot water is on the blink and it's so cold we can see our breath in the air. Still, after putting on layers of dry clothes, we fall asleep within seconds.