23.09.2011 - 11.11.2011
After the somewhat vulgar tone of my last blog entry on toilets, I thought I'd balance things out with a little insight into another important topic - washing. Keeping yourself and your gear clean while trekking is a running battle against mud, sweat, grime and dust (and in my case, soup spillages too). If, as they say, cleanliness is next to godliness, then trekking in the Himalayas is like shaking hands with the devil.
Things start promisingly in Kathmandu, where the supermarket shelves in Thamel are stocked with miniature bottles of L'Oreal this and Pantene that. So, no complaints about the range of toiletries on offer; the only question is when will you actually be able to use them?
One place name we always look out for on the map is Tatopani, which indicates a thermal spring (the name literally means "hot water"). Locals come to bathe in the thermal pools or shower under the hot taps. We came across one on our third day of trekking, but we were still in the humid foothills at that stage and a cold shower would have been more appealing.
On our camping trek in the Tsum Valley, we usually stayed near a village or a gompa, which meant a cold tap was the only means of washing. Elsewhere, rivers and streams were also available if we were feeling particularly brave or desperate. My first experience of washing in a river was at Soti Khola on our second night's camp. The sight of me stripped to my boxers going for a full-body immersion in the river must have been the most exciting thing to happen in the village for a long time, judging from the crowd of hecklers gathered on a footbridge above me.
The most scenic natural bathing spot we found was definitely at Chhokangparo. Just above the village a waterfall plunges off the mountainside into a deep pool, and then down a series of cascades. We figured this must be the place to wash judging by the number of locals doing the same thing. We climbed to the top of the cascades to find a private spot, so close to the waterfall that it was possible to have a bath and a shower at the same time. Nevertheless, we still attracted the attention of the local kids, who were fascinated by our legs. They'd never seen any as white as mine or as hairy as Jen's.
On our lodge-based trek, the washing facilities were not necessarily any better because the lodges round Manaslu and in the Nar-Phu Valley are fewer in number and more basic than on the well-established trails. In Lho, a sizeable village on the east side of Manaslu, we had to wash in a public tap outside the lodge watched by an interested gaggle of spectators. At Bimthang we fought over the only tap with a group of ponies.
At Phu, the piped water supply was blocked and all the taps in the village were out of action. We had a choice of three rivers to wash in, all the same shade of chocolate brown. Needless to say, we drew the line at this. The following day, we descended to a beautiful campsite at Junam, desperate for a wash. The only choice was a nearby stream which was absolutely freezing. Looking up, we could see the glacier which fed the stream - but on a sunny afternoon we soon warmed up again.
On these less-frequented trekking routes, one of the favourite topics on conversation amongst fellow trekkers is when the next hot shower is likely to be. It becomes something of an obsession. In our case, we knew there was a good chance of a hot shower at Dharapani or Koto on the Annapurna Circuit, three weeks into our trek. The shower at Dharapani disappointed, never getting above lukewarm. Koto would be the last chance for another week, and the anticipation was almost too much to bear. "Hot and cold shower" proclaimed the sign outside the Snowland Lodge, carefully worded to cover all possibilities. What came out of the shower head was a cold dribble. My heart sank, and I hurried to wash myself as quickly as I could. Suddenly, after a couple of minutes, the shower spurted into life and sprayed me with a gushing torrent of streaming hot water. Oh, the ecstasy! To celebrate, I poured a generous dollop of shampoo from my Tresemme bottle (carried all the way from Boots at Manchester Airport) and lathered up.
When it comes to washing clothes, the mantra is little and often. Pants and socks are in constant rotation, but can be pushed to a few days' use at a stretch. In Sikkim, we really stretched the acceptability of Coolmax and cotton! Tops and trousers are usually sniffed first thing each morning, but we invariably end up putting on what we wore the day before - and the day before that, and the day before that.... Handkerchiefs need to be regularly de-snotted under a tap.
For the first time in the Himalayas, I decided to take a leaf out of the locals' book and buy a bar of soap. What a superb investment this turned out to be. It can be carried with you at all times, and takes the place of shampoo, shower gel, hand gel and travel wash. In honour of the fetishistic practices of ultralight backpackers, I even shaved the corners off my bar with my penknife so it would fit inside the smallest soap dish I could find. However, I'm still carrying that Tresemme bottle, ever hopeful of the next hot shower.