DW at Cubang pass

Close Calls: Two Near-Death Experiences in a Single Day in ‘Dangerous’ Rukum

From Nishel Dhor to Kakri via Taka Shera

(Click on the photo to enlarge.)

Waking up in Nishel Dhor: On rare occasions, when I retire early, around 8:30 or 9 pm, I find myself waking before the alarm even has a chance to sound. This particular morning was one of those instances, a result of an early and restful slumber. However, I allowed myself to linger in bed until 6:15 am, contemplating the day that lay ahead and indulging in thoughts of trivial matters. These moments of duality, caught between the urge to rise and embark on the journey, and the allure of remaining enveloped in the comfort of my bed, are oddly satisfying. It is a self-imposed struggle between the call to press forward and the yearning to drift back into the realm of dreams, all while the sun slowly emerges on the horizon.

Hunger strikes: As I rose from my slumber, I settled the bill with the lady, the owner of the hotel, who was already busy cleaning dishes with warm water. Upon my request, she brewed a cup of tea for me, and I grabbed a packet of noodles, stuffing it into my backpack’s side pocket. As the morning progressed, hunger, thirst, and a sense of unease crept in, especially on my solitary trek through the dense jungle, devoid of human presence but filled with unsettling noises that merged into a single eerie symphony. It was during these moments that I realized the true value of those subpar noodles, especially manufactured by profit-driven companies for remote areas where even a slight difference in price matters more than quality. Quality took a backseat in such contexts, ranking a distant third in priority. The second concern, if you’re curious, revolved around the accessibility of the noodle itself, emphasizing the scarcity of resources in these remote regions.

Three hours: Prior to embarking on my journey from Nishel Dhor, where I had spent the night, everyone had warned me about the jungle I had to traverse before reaching the next village, where they assured me I could find sustenance. Mentally prepared, I commenced my walk at 6:37 am, expecting three hours of uninterrupted trekking through the dense wilderness. Occasionally, tired of the solitary march amidst towering, old trees, I yearned for a human presence—even if it were hostile. At a point where the trail diverged into two equally compelling paths, I faced the familiar dilemma of decision-making. Trusting my instincts, I chose the trail that descended downhill. As it turned out, my intuition served me well.

Civilization: An overwhelming sense of relief and belonging washed over me when I caught sight of signs of civilization—the cultivated fields on the other side of a hill, separated by a deep gorge where a river flowed, indifferent to my mental state. According to my rough estimation, it would take at least two hours to reach those fields. There were no houses on that side of the hill, only treacherous slopes, except for those few plots of land where human hands had recently toiled. I reassured myself, “I’m not far from a human settlement now.” I had officially entered Rukum, leaving Baglung behind in the forest.

A woman and three girls: Well, to be completely honest, I crossed paths with a woman while walking through the jungle, roughly an hour into my trek. We didn’t exchange any words, but our eyes met briefly, before we continued on our separate ways. She was an elderly lady, carrying a small bag on her back, with a strap resting on her forehead. Her attire caught my attention – the traditional Gado worn by Magar women in this region. It’s a garment primarily seen in rural areas, worn by women and girls who haven’t experienced city life.

As I reached a point where I could see cultivated fields across the river, I encountered three Magar girls. Their unique eyes and the distinctive attire, as I mentioned earlier, immediately identified them as Magar. They were carrying baskets filled contents that remained a mystery to me.

Imaginations: The presence of a functional tap, firmly cemented and flowing with water, confirmed my assumption that I had successfully navigated through the jungle and was on the verge of entering a human settlement. Overwhelmed by thirst, I paused to drink water to my heart’s content. Retrieving the noodle packet I had previously opened, I consumed its less-than-appetizing contents with a peculiar satisfaction. Earlier, during a stop at a Chautari overlooking the river, I had indulged in this meal. On the other side of the Chautari, a barren hilltop extended, offering ample open space. It provided the perfect canvas for my mind to wander into realms of imagination—an endeavor that often accompanies a solitary walk, where even the slightest movement, such as that of a bird, causes a surge of anticipation and triggers goosebumps. Engaging with these imaginative musings became an integral part of my journey.

people and places of rukum
Dev Bahadur Budhathoki of Rukumkot in the village of Tak Shera, Rukum. To learn more about him, read the story linked below. In the photo, his wife is seen busy brewing raksi. Refer to the blog post for further details.

(Read the Kantipur story here: गाउँमा शान्तिको लामो सास (रुकुम-रोल्पा एक्स्प्रेस-२)

Raksi: The human settlement I encountered, the first village of Rukum bordering Baglung, proved to be disappointing—no place to have lunch, no shops in sight. After another half-hour of walking, I stumbled upon a shop, but it only had biscuits that tasted like rubber, hardly satisfying for a hungry traveler. The shopkeeper’s wife was in the kitchen, and I inquired from outside if she could prepare a meal for me. There was no response. Curiosity getting the better of me, I peered inside and repeated my question. In response, she pointed to a large pot simmering over the fire, saying, “I’m brewing raksi, and it will take another two hours before it’s ready.” Wishing her luck, I continued my descent. I had the opportunity to interview and photograph her husband (as seen above).

Tak Shera village of Rukum
Tak Shera village of Rukum
Tak Shera village of Rukum
Tak Shera village of Rukum
Creeper is killed
Refer to the blog post for the story behind this dead snake.
Hemraj Pun
Hemraj Pun of Kol village in Rukum. He killed the creeper. To learn more about him, read the story in Nepali provided in the link in this blog.
Hemraj Pun of Kol village in Rukum. He killed the creeper. Read about him in Nepali in the link given below.
Hemraj Pun
The precipitous slope near Kol village
The steep slope near Kol village offering a breathtaking view of the Sani Bheri river.
The precipitous slope near Kol village overlooking Sani Bheri river. This is where DW got slipped.
This is the exact spot where I had a near slip.
Sheep near Cubang, Rukum
Sheep grazing near Cubang, Rukum
Shepherd near Cubang, Rukum
Shepherd near Cubang, Rukum

Changing plans: My initial plan was to reach Taka Shera village and spend the evening there. However, when I arrived around 2 pm, my plans swiftly shifted as I engaged in conversations with locals, grasping a better understanding of the geography, distances, and travel times. This is how one navigates in areas beyond the Lonely Planet’s grasp—no maps, no reliable trail information readily available. Instead, I rely on the guidance of the people I meet along the way, constantly asking them about the trails and the terrain ahead. Based on the information I gathered, I made a decision to head towards Thawang, as I learned that the famed Rolpali village was in close proximity to Kakri village, just a couple of hours away from Taka Shera. Yet, at that moment, I found myself uncertain of my ultimate destination. I remained open to all possibilities as they unfolded. Someone suggested that I stop at a small village called Cubang, which served as the starting point for traversing the hill leading to Kakri.

Encounter with a Horse Rider: Departing from Taka Shera, where I had an engaging conversation with a Maoist running a small grocery shop and bought three packets of juice and a biscuit, much to his delight, I ascended a hill with the thought of finding a place to enjoy a cooked meal. Suddenly, the distant sound of bells echoed behind me, instantly recognizable. I turned around to find a man riding a horse, steadily approaching me. As he dismounted and initiated a conversation, he inquired about my origin and destination. At first glance, I mistook him for a policeman from Taka Shera village, but I was mistaken. He had a captivating story to share, and I listened intently, asking questions along the way. In the midst of his narrative, he ended up saving my life while sacrificing another.

A Brush with Danger: It was during this journey that I experienced a near-death encounter. For the first time on my trip, I slipped. The trail was far from ordinary—it presented a challenging and precarious path. The loose pebbles made descending particularly treacherous. With one misstep, I would have tumbled down the steep hill and reached the Sano Bheri River (also known as Uttar Ganga) a kilometer below, through an uncontrollable roll. It was the same river I had effortlessly crossed in the Dhorpatan valley when it was calmer, divided into multiple streams. However, as I slipped, the man I had met earlier acted swiftly, catching my luggage that had already tilted towards the edge of the slope. It was a truly terrifying experience.

The Death of a Creeper: Resuming my journey with heightened caution, I took a few steps forward when suddenly the man shouted, “Sarpa, sir!” Before I could even spot the snake, he had already struck it with a stone. Swiftly, he retrieved my camera from my luggage and captured the scene— the lifeless serpent being lifted with a stick and hurled into the air at a 75-degree angle, descending towards the river, landing on a rock several meters below the trail.

“Was it necessary to kill it?” I asked, curious about his rapid action against the approximately one-meter-long snake.

“It wasn’t necessary, but since we encountered it and it was relatively easy to eliminate, I chose to do so,” he replied matter-of-factly.

Although intrigued by his prompt response, I refrained from delving further into the matter. We continued our walk and conversation for the next ten minutes. Eventually, the time came to bid farewell, and we parted ways after exchanging our contact information, as per his request. He carried a Sky CDMA cell phone that had signal reception even at his home.

After a short walk, I encountered a shepherd along the way. He tended to a flock of 300 sheep, each valued at Rs 5000. Jokingly, I remarked, “So you have Rs 1500000 spread out across these fields.” He responded with a smile, and I continued on my path.

Arriving at Cubang, I experienced a mix of pleasure and disappointment. It was a chilly location nestled in the lap of a towering hill, adorned with dense forests. It boasted a handful of houses, bustling with animals and people who were diligently working on their fields. I couldn’t help but think that a small stream would have perfected the ambiance.

However, my excitement waned as I discovered that two hotels in Cubang were closed and locked up. Not willing to wait and take chances, I glanced at the time—it was almost 4 o’clock. Based on the popular estimates I gathered from numerous individuals along the way, I deduced that if I maintained my pace, I could reach the summit, known as Dhuri, by 5 pm. According to what I was told, it would take another hour to descend to Kakri. By 6 pm, just before darkness set in, I could reach Kakri. The weather was ideal, and I relished walking at this altitude. The fact that the trail cut through dense jungle didn’t concern me much.

Remarkably, I reached the pass at 4:50,

During my ascent, immediately after leaving Cubang, I encountered two boys, with the older one around 14 years old. Seeking guidance, I asked him which trail to follow, as there were two paths branching off from the pass. The boy directed me to take the one that veered towards the right.

"Dhuri" aka top of Cubang hill where DW got lost
“Dhuri” aka top of Cubang hill (pass) where I was lost
people and places of rukum
The Cubang pass
Facing Cubang, the pass
Facing Cubang, the pass
Travel is indeed an unforgettable moment
A Chautari at the Cubang pass.
DW at Cubang pass
At the Cubang Pass: This occurred before I took a wrong turn and found myself lost in the jungle for about half an hour.
Cubang pass
Cubang pass.
Cubang pass
Three trail options lay before me: the right path led to Lukum, the left path disappeared into the jungle without a clear destination, and the middle path, descending downward, would take me to Kakri, my intended destination. However, I made a mistake and took the wrong trail, leading me astray for a while with no clear direction.
Beautiful jungle at Cubang pass, Rukum
Color of Cubang, Rukum

Lost and Rediscovered: At the dhuri, I stood faced with three paths to choose from. The left trail led to Lukum, a destination I had no intention of visiting, while the middle trail descended directly downward. I confidently opted for the right trail which passed through a field and alongside an abandoned hut, walking for a minute while feeling a mix of suspicion and excitement. Initially, I felt confident in my decision, bolstered by the unexpected signal reception on my cell phone from the Nepal Telecom tower in Thawang village, Rolpa. I eagerly attempted to make two important calls—one to someone in Rukum and the other to an individual outside of Nepal. Unfortunately, my attempts were thwarted by the weak signal, possibly hindered by the presence of clouds. Nevertheless, I kept walking while dialing the numbers. The trail gradually became narrower, with freshly scattered leaves indicating minimal human foot traffic. As I continued, the sounds of grazing sheep echoed from a distant pasture situated above the hill. However, an unsettling feeling enveloped me as I surveyed the hill before me. Its dark, rocky lower side and the steep grass-covered slope presented a formidable obstacle, even for sheep. The dense jungle, the mysterious chorus of insects and birds, and the growing realization that I may have chosen the wrong path instilled a genuine sense of fear. Adding to the urgency was the timing of the day, with darkness looming only half an hour away. Was I in serious trouble? To backtrack and return to the point where the path diverged into three trails would require at least 20 minutes.

In a desperate attempt to seek help, I whistled loudly, but there was no response. “Oh daju!!!” I shouted, hoping that a shepherd atop the intimidating hill would hear my plea. Unfortunately, there was no shepherd in sight. Taking a few more steps forward, I noticed that the trail was actually ascending, confirming my earlier suspicions. Kakri was not up this path but down.

Below me ley a dense jungle. I noticed a small hut covered with blue zinc plates by the roadside. A glimmer of hope ignited within me. I whistled again, followed by a desperate scream: “Oh daju!”

After a few attempts, a woman emerged from the hut, followed by a man. I quickly asked them, “Is this the correct way to Kakri?”

Initially, I couldn’t comprehend his response, so I asked again.

I heard him say no.

The man’s reply came faintly, barely audible. While I stood somewhere in the middle of the hill, with the hut located near its base. The distance separating us was approximately a kilometer or perhaps 500 meters in terms of aerial distance. It was clear that reaching the hut without returning to the point where the trail split into three was impossible. From what I gathered, the man at the hut indicated that I should have taken the middle trail, the one that descended directly downward. My instincts had failed me, or perhaps the boy I encountered earlier had confused me, if not intentionally misled me. Regardless, I had lost precious time, approximately 40 minutes, and time was slipping away rapidly.

Eventually, I came across the road under construction, which aimed to connect Kakri to Tak Shera via Kol village. Relief washed over me as I finally reached the hut, and I called out to the man who emerged to receive my heartfelt thanks up close.

The original trail, intended for both humans and horses (mulbato), had suffered damage due to the ongoing road construction designed for cars and buses. Seeking assurance, I inquired about the condition of the trail ahead. The man assured me that although sections of the old trail were destroyed, small paths had been created alongside the road to compensate for the damage.

A brush with death, once again: Later, I would curse myself and deeply regret choosing this route instead of taking the Lukum trail. In fact, I questioned the entire purpose of this trip. Who willingly risks their life in a jungle, especially by venturing onto a trail that doesn’t even exist? Unfortunately, I had no other option but to navigate treacherous slopes created by careless construction workers who had obliterated the old trail without bothering to create a new one for travelers before making the road usable.

Four points along the way were incredibly perilous, two of them being utterly terrifying. While crossing one of those two points, particularly the first one, I must confess that I encountered death in its most chilling proximity. The road abruptly ended, giving way to what appeared to be a landslide about three meters wide and God only knows how many meters deep. My estimate puts it at over a kilometer in depth, providing a fatal drop for anyone who fell. There were no trees to block a falling person. I knew this wasn’t a natural landslide but a negligent oversight left behind by the construction workers.

An acrobatic feat: So, how did I manage to traverse it? There was barely any foothold, and the few spots that could be considered were littered with loose pebbles and dry soil. As I attempted to place my left foot first (since the hill was on my right, making it impossible to lead with my right leg), it slipped on the loose soil and stones. Desperate, I had to “cling” to whatever remained in that perilous spot — the unstable stones and soil. There were no bushes or plants to aid me. Instead, I resorted to transferring my body weight onto my hands, an acrobatic feat or perhaps a desperate instinct for survival or plain luck, and leaped across, momentarily planting my left foot on a precarious point before swiftly moving it to another unstable foothold.

Visualizing death in action: I had never witnessed death so closely before, not even during the recent earthquake. Unlike the earthquake, at this “landslide point,” I could actually visualise death in action. For a few seconds, I stood frozen, watching stones and soil cascade downward due to my movements. As I sweated and desperately tried to find a stable foothold for my left leg, unsuccessfully grasping at a small piece of land with both hands, I could vividly imagine myself tumbling down, rolling countless times, and crashing onto the ground, perhaps colliding with boulders along the way. It was a horrifying scene to think about. I had not come all this way to the ridge just to die, especially not by falling off a road that was being constructed to make people’s lives easier.

Celebrating survival: Miraculously, I managed to navigate that death trap. I celebrated life with a surge of relief, though my body trembled with lingering fear. I didn’t pause; I kept walking, maybe even running a few meters before finding my usual pace. My heart raced hard. I was furious with those who were excavating the road, subjecting walkers to such life-threatening challenges. I remembered the boy who had advised me to take the trail that veered right as I ascended from Cubang. He had mentioned the difficulty of the trail to Kakri due to the ongoing roadwork, but his assessment seemed too mild. In reality, there were points where there was no trail at all. He should have used stronger words to describe the situation and discourage me from taking that route. He didn’t. (Indeed, I had attempted a different route, but that didn’t prove any better. Perhaps, I pondered as I struggled to regain my composure, I should have taken the Lukum route.) He gave me the impression that the trail would be challenging to walk, compared to the wider road, which should have been a much easier path.

However, my momentary celebration came to a halt when I encountered another treacherous path. The wider road abruptly ended at a corner, giving way to an incredibly narrow trail that ascended uphill for a short distance before descending. I could barely make out the path. Although it wasn’t as dangerous as the previous one, as I could at least place my feet, what brought immense comfort was the sight of other people coming from the opposite direction who had successfully traversed this trail. Is this the path I must take? I asked an old man. He affirmed that it was. I expressed my astonishment, asking if he could see people walking on the same trail from the opposite direction. He simply replied, “Can’t you see people coming from the other direction walking on that trail?”

The treacherous Monkey Trail: This particular trail resembled what villagers commonly refer to as the Monkey Trail—a path meant for monkeys, certainly not their human descendants. However, I had no alternative but to proceed. I treaded cautiously, fully aware of the challenges that lay ahead. At one point, the construction workers had left a massive rock partially shattered, obstructing the path and forcing walkers to maneuver with their bodies angled. This rock had the potential to push individuals towards the ridge, especially those burdened with luggage or carrying a child. I was astounded to witness a woman carrying a child navigating her way across that treacherous spot.

When I approached the rock, a moment of tension hung in the air. Three individuals were approaching from the opposite direction, and one among them seemed intoxicated. That was my impression. He graciously allowed me to pass on his right side, which faced the edge of the trail. He suggested, “Okay, jump here and go from this side.” However, there was barely any space available. Reluctant to take any unnecessary risks, I halted and firmly requested him to back off slightly, creating a bit of room for me to safely jump across. After a few seconds filled with anxiety, he complied and moved back. I made my leap, or rather, a careful crawl, and successfully landed on the other side.

I cannot recall ever traversing such a challenging path before.

Arriving at the ‘Hutel’: As dusk settled, I continued walking along the road, aware of the encroaching darkness. Sensing the possibility of encountering more treacherous paths on the other side of the hill, I decided it was time to find a place to rest. I stumbled upon a small hut where a man was preparing a meal. I approached him, inquiring about nearby accommodations. He gestured towards a house on the next hill, about half a kilometer away, situated by the roadside. “That’s a hotel,” he stated.

However, it turned out that the place was frequented by construction workers and project officials for snacking rather than a traditional hotel. It was actually a residence belonging to a family, with the head of the household working as a laborer on the road project. I asked if I could stay overnight, to which he kindly agreed. I felt a tremendous sense of relief as I didn’t want to continue walking. I had already spent 12 hours on my feet (with only about 2 hours of rest in total).

My hosts roasted corn for themselves and me. I enjoyed one poleko makai, finding it quite tasty, and decided to have another while a meal was being prepared. 

Engaging in conversation, the man, who identified as a Dalit (commonly referred to as the so-called untouchable), shared his story of returning from Qatar due to the unbearable heat, which had taken a toll on his health. He recounted his experiences of being caught amidst the conflict during the Maoist insurgency. Pressured by the Maoists to join their guerrilla force, he resisted and ultimately fled, sacrificing the completion of his education in the process. On a journey to Rasuwa for employment at a hydroelectric power plant as an alternative to joining the Maoist army, he was detained and beaten by the state army simply based on his origin from Rukum district, falsely assuming him to be a Maoist sympathizer.
Together, we enjoyed a wholesome meal of rice and karkala curry. The flavors satisfied my hunger, filling me with contentment. Eventually, it was time to retire for the night. The couple cleared their bed (khat), placed fresh bedding on it, and insisted that I sleep there while they, along with their son and an elderly woman, slept on the floor. The entire house consisted of one small room. Despite feeling somewhat awkward, my exhaustion overshadowed any discomfort. I settled onto the bed, and before I knew it, it was already the dawn of a new day. (This part was added later!)