‘Undho Undho jaada hun’, said the young shepherd who was in his early 20’s, after he shared his Pilot cigarette and had a few chat with us. We didn’t ask his name, but did ask how many sheep he had. He said that those weren’t his sheep and that he doesn’t plan to stay in Mugu for long. He wants to be like a man from his village who drives a bus in Surkhet. ‘Surkhet dreams’ for Mugalis, ‘American dreams’ for Kathmanduites. We exchanged smiles and moved on, following the path that he had told us to take.
In Nepali, ‘undho’ means downwards. We followed the path he told us to take. We walked down the hill for a bit but were soon faced with the ‘right or left?’ dilemma. ‘If nothing’s going right, take left’ was what somebody wrote on the internet. We soon realized that it was supposed to be a metaphor. Taking left was a bad decision. We soon found ourselves in the middle of the dark, cold jungle at 6:30 in the evening, with no one around to hear us scream ‘Dai, koi hununcha?’ …We were LOST.
We had already travelled for 2 days on a bus, from Surkhet to Nagmaghat, Jumla; 2 hours on a ‘Swaraz’ pick-up truck from Nagmaghat to Gothijyula; and had walked for 7 hours from Gothijyula to get to that place in Mugu. The road we took from Surkhet to Nagmaghat wasn’t the best of the roads, but that was all we had. The fact that the road was featured in Nat Geo’s World’s Deadliest Journeys didn’t occur to us as a surprise. It was thrilling looking down the window and looking at the wheels roll on a narrow road with just few inches of breathing space. Given the fact that the mighty, ruthless Karnali was flowing right down, ‘thrill’ would be an understatement- one would call it a rip-roaring, hair-raising, blood curdling, deadly experience that one got away with. Contrary to how we perceive those narrow, bumpy, deadly roads, the locals could complain less- they feel more connected to each other than they had ever done.
The mishaps and inconvenience that we had to face were nothing but a “part” of the daily ritual of Kalikotes and Jumlees. Putting ourselves in their shoes for that one time wasn’t too much to ask from ourselves.
We had time to contemplate their deprived lives because well, we were lost and had nowhere to go. We were already astonished by what we had seen so far; even though that was just the trailer of the actual Mugu. After a tiring full day walk, we would reach Rara lake, our final destination- if we survived the night that is. We spent the night in the jungle, under a little shed made of wooden planks, made for sheep during rain. We lit the fire which calmed our nerves a bit. “Wild animals don’t come near the fire” was the generally accepted theory, which had yet to be proven. The cold was intense and the earth was our bed. We couldn’t go out of the shed in the night because we had heard too many ghost stories in our lives. We were scared, really scared. To further support our belief in ghosts, there was an old shirt and a pair of trousers lying inside the shed. It could be anyone’s, a traveler like us for whom it was surplus to requirement, or a traveler like us whose clothes was surplus to requirement to the those ghosts.
The fire kept our front warm but our back was cannoned by the bitter chill of the Mugu wind. As the night grew darker and the cold got colder, we had to divert our petrified mind…so we started talking. We talked about everything, from politics to astronomy, football to movies, lunar phases, unicorns and all. We talked about relationships too, but that made us more petrified.
With no water to drink, we didn’t eat the packet of biscuits we had, thinking that would make us thirstier. Empty stomach was least of our problems though. I had never waited for anyone so desperately as I waited for the sun to come and show us the way.That was the longest night of our lives, and may be the most unforgettable one.
The morning came, eventually, and we breathed a sigh of relief, although breathing was a bit difficult given that we had inhaled a sky full of smoke of the firewood. We even hugged each other and laughed, we could laugh now. Morning light showed us the trails but we still didn’t know where to go. So, we went back to the way we came from. After walking for an hour and a half, we heard the most beautiful sound. I would be lying if I said that wasn’t the most pleasant sound I had ever heard. The ‘tungdung tungdung’ of the bells on mules, was coming towards us. We were relieved to finally find where to go and we thanked god for mules and bells.
On our way, we saw a herd of 20-30 sheep led by a dog. The gothaalo walked behind them with 2 newborn baby sheep in his hands and gave us a cheeky smile showing the newborns. The dog had a little bell around his neck and so did some of the sheep. They were making their way to the grazing field which was about 3 hours from that place. That split second eye contact I had with a few sheep made me feel connected to them. I continued to walk, hoping that those sheep wouldn’t encounter a bear on the way.
We found the house we should have found the night before. It was a one room house, and just one man lived there, offering food and shelter to the travelers. Hearing our story of the night before, he felt sorry for us and told us that he would have come down to the jungle to find us if he knew that we were coming. My two other friends slept there for an hour, while I chatted with him. He was a pretty chill guy. He gave us rice and lamb meat to eat- it was like a gentle neck massage to our taste buds.
After walking for few more hours and climbing a steep hill, we reached a place called ‘Chuchemaara’, which was about 4,000 meters above sea level. We could see the panoramic view of Kanjirowa mountain range, Humla, Jumla and even Dolpa. Far across, we could spot a magnificent shimmering oasis-like thing. It was Rara lake.
I felt like a globetrotter who just discovered a heaven of utter bliss. The ambience was just so magical. I suddenly forgot how to blink- like someone had just put a spell on me. It was like seeing Aphrodite, the Goddess of love and beauty.
Rara is not just another lake. It’s blue-er than the sky and larger than life. It’s guarded by thunderous mountains, and has wealth of secrets hidden inside it. It’s as clear as its conscience. Rara is a treat to every senses in the human body – the sight, the feel and the smell of it will make you proud of yourself that you made it to this place. Heaven is a myth, Rara is real.
We stayed at the only hotel available near Rara Lake, the ‘Danfe hotel’ which offered us a cozy place to slumber and fairly good delicacies to fill ourselves. Next day, we walked our way towards Talcha Airport. It took us 4 hours to reach there. The trail was pretty straight- it was under “cycling route” plan. Later that evening, we reached Talcha. We stayed at a small hotel where we were offered ‘Kodo ko raksi’, alcohol made from millet. We raised our steel cups and toasted to the most memorable travel event of our lives.
Mugu is mystifying. It’s 0% ‘Touristy’ but 100% ‘place to be’. We all are searching for paradise, overlooking the Zion that is right beneath our eyes.