November 16, 2010
We had 4 days off trail. During two of those days, we endured epic bus journeys. On another, we navigated Nepali bureaucracy.
So this morning, there was no mumbling or groaning or complaining when the alarm went off at six. In fact, we leapt out of our sleeping bags, our feet itching to get on the trail. We packed up, ate Tibetan bread with eggs, slurped piping hot tea, and then got out of town.
At the permit checkpoint, we glanced at the ledger. Yesterday, nearly 30 trekkers had passed in and out of Langtang. That about 150 less than in the Annapurna. We were the first trekkers today.
Crossing a suspension bridge, we looked up at the different valleys. One takes you to the Tamang Heritage Trail, another takes you to Langtang, and the other goes up to the Gosainkund Lakes. We’ll do all of these trails by the time we’re done, but for now, we’re headed to Langtang.
On the other side of the river, old Syraphru Besi looks like a town out of a western filmset.
There’s smoke coming out of the chimneys, chickens and cows in the street, and women coming out of swinging wooden doors with buckets of water that they toss onto the gravel road that runs through the center of town.
We crossed another suspension bridge and began heading up through thick, green undergrowth. The air smelled like wood. There weren’t pines around, so it wasn’t that, but it had the same tangy, woodsy smell. Around us, the trees are starting to change colors, and the whole place is just on the edge of summer and fall.
We felt great. It sounds silly, but for some reason, finding out that Red Wing is a 20 minute drive from Ellsworth and then reading that it was ranked in the top 100 of historical destinations in National Geographic put a whole new spin on things. I started to get excited about going home and exploring it. I’m not even as worried about jobs. I’ve been kicking around the idea of waitressing, and also of getting my masters in Social Work. I’ve got all these new ideas, and I’m not feeling so anxious. The trail helps, too.
We passed through a number of small little villages with guest houses. Each of them sat on the same river, rioting past over enormous bolder the size of buses or buildings. We saw a few trekkers descending from the other direction, but otherwise, not a soul passed us (except for a weird Dutchman. He tried to walk with for a while, but I was so put off by his awkward/competitive vibe that I hardly said a word to him.).
After four and a half hours of hiking, we hit Upper Rimche. Stopping at Hotel Ganesh View, we sat at a picnic table overlooking the valley. We ordered a couple plates of veg chowmein, played a few hands of cards, and just generally marveled at our good fortune. This place rocks.
From Rimche, it was a 20 minute walk to Lama Hotel, the village where most Langtang trekkers stay on their first night. Hoping to avoid the ‘crowds,’ we decided to head on to a lone guest house, about an hour away.
The air started to cool off, and low, misty clouds rolled in and then out again. I stung my hand on a mean set of stinging nettles and had to take a Benadryl, but mostly, it was wonderful. Up ahead, we could see our first glimmers of snowy mountains.
At Riverside Hotel, a small string of rooms sits next to loud, white water. A beautiful red tree hangs over the path. The guest house keeper invited us in, and we took off our packs.
Before we lost the motivation, we ran out and did 60 push-ups and 60 sit-ups. Joshua’s training to be a policing bad-ass, and I don’t need any such excuse. Afterwards, we layered up and sat by the river. For 50 rupees, we ordered a thermos full of hot water, and feeling very thrifty, we added in our own tea bag. We saved 5 dollars. (Tea is more expensive than food here.)
We read, looking up and enjoying the view at the end of every page. At five, our guest house keeper brought out tons of Dal Bhaat, and we ate until we were stuffed. We finished the thermos of tea.
When the light went down over the hills, we moved into the kitchen where the fire under the stove was still burning. It’s warm in here, and the guest house keeping, Ukchi, is very friendly. I’m typing, and Joshua’s reading. In a bit, it’ll be bedtime.
Once I’d finished writing, Ukchi, our guest house keeper, asked to see some of our photos. I showed him our little slide show from the Annapurna. Although he’s never been there, he seemed pleased that it wasn’t too different from his Langtang Valley. He told us that his wife runs a lodge in Langtang while he runs Riverside. They spend the tourist season apart, and his three sons are all in a Kathmandu boarding school. The come home two months a year for the holidays, during Deshain and Deuwali. He seemed lonely, and he told us that life felt hard here.
Like others we’ve spoken to, he’s not impressed with the government.
We talked for a little while, and when the fire started to die out, we all said goodnight. In our sleeping bags, Joshua and I scooted in close to catch each other’s warmth, but it was a long while before we were warm enough to sleep.
November 15, 2010
Have you heard of those gravity simulators? I haven’t personally seen one in action, but I get the impression that you sit in one and then it whips you about and you feel your cheeks flap back towards your ears. Ok. Maybe that’s a bit abstract. Have you ever seen a rock tumbler? They’re the sort of craft novelty that sounds like a really great idea at the time, and I’m sure that there’s someone somewhere who has put this appliance to really great use, but the for the rest of us, once purchased, it sits on the shelf and collects dust.
Well, anyway. Imaging that you’re sitting in a little cockpit, and by whatever method, that cockpit is taken through motions one part gravity simulator and one part rock tumbler. It’s bumpy; it’s bone-jarring; and it’s one hell of a ride. Now, imagine that you are in that little cockpit for 10 hours.
Actually, I’m beginning to think that this metaphor doesn’t really do our bus ride yesterday any justice. A ‘little cockpit’ sounds quite cozy and sterile, and the bus – I assure you – was neither of these things. For a vehicle containing 30 tightly packed seats, there were an astounding number of passengers. Every seat was full, there were people standing in the aisle, the driver’s cab was bursting, and there were over a dozen perched on the roof. I would estimate that there were nearly twice as many passengers as there were seats.
There was some screaming (more on that later), some vomitting, quite a bit of dust, even more exhaust, and the distinct smell of body ordor. It was a bouncing, heaving, breathing mass of humanity that crossed mountains and teetered over the edge of chasms that seemed to fall forever. More than once, our back tire met the loose gravel on the edge of cliff face, and I watched as those little stones fell down, down, down.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. We woke up at 6:15 and quickly scrambled to pack up the last of our things and make it to the dining room for breakfast. After a short wait, our toast, eggs, and tea arrived, and we gobbled it all down. Outside, our taxi driver was already waiting, so we hurried to pay and check our big bags in their storage room.
The taxi ride took less than 10 minutes. Our buses stood in the street, and they already looked full. A bit apprehensive, we double and thrice checked that this bus was, in fact, headed to Syraphru Besi. Judging by nods and gestures, we boarded.
Our tickets said seats 7 and 8, and while Nepali bus rides tend to be life-threatening, chaotic ventures, the Nepali are very serious about people sitting in their proper seats. We sat.
Looking around, there were perhaps eight other Westerners who appeared to be trekking-bound. A few of them had guides, but others seemed to be going it alone, like us. Gradually, the bus became even more packed, and at 7:30 – our estimated time of departure – the bus driver started the engine and began to inch forward. Joshua was shocked. Starting on time is unheard of.
But not so fast. One irrate Nepali man stood over a couple of Westerners two rows ahead of us, telling them that these were his seats, and they need to get out. The money collector got involved, and somehow, he decided that where they needed to be sitting is where we were sitting. We looked behind us. We looked in front. There were no more seats.
Showing the money collector our tickets, we explained that these seats, in fact, were ours. We would not be moving. He disagreed. He told us that we should take ‘those seats.’ By way of explaining ‘those seats,’ he gestured to the back of the bus. There were none. Now, you might think that perhaps this was a large bus and maybe he couldn’t see ‘those seats.’ Maybe he didn’t realize that they were all full.
Nope. This was a tiny-ass bus, and I can most certainly assure you that every bleedin’ passenger could see for his or herself that there were no such seats available. The man was quite clearly trying to screw us over.
In my firmest terms, I politely availed this man of his notion. By now, the situation had escalated. There were people screaming. The man who believed that the two Westerners in front of us had taken his seats unjustly was getting in the woman’s face and gesturing angrily. I took my cues.
‘Do you see seats back there?’ I asked. ‘No, you don’t, because there are no seats back there. You are lying to me, and you know it. I bought tickets. These are mine, you see? We’re not moving.’
I could feel the blood pumping in my ears. I was pissed. Joshua, unsure of what had gotten ahold of me, put a warning hand on my arm. When the man once again tried to tell me to get out of our seats and go back to ‘those seats,’ he restrained me from, as my students would say, ‘clicking out.’ That’s right. I was about to go New Orleans on his ass.
So there was some more screaming and more gesturing. It went on like this for about 30 minutes, and then, when it became clear that our asses were rooted to those bus seats, the bus driver started the bus and made his way out of Kathmandu. The horrible, rotten-toothed money collector man tried once more to tell us to move to ‘those seats.’ I didn’t respond to him; I just gave him my meanest possible mean look. He seemed to get the idea.
It was hostile for a bit, the locals hating the tourists for taking up bus seats and the tourists resenting the locals for feeling like we’re all just money trees and as long as we hand over our rupees, they don’t give a damn what happens to us. It was the start to a fine ride.
A couple of hours later, the bus came to a stop in front of a little road-side cafe. People stumbled off to use the restroom and load up on snacks, but I stayed put. You had better believe I’m not falling for that one. Sure enough, as soon as everyone had disembarked, the Nepali man with double-booked tickets came on the bus, moved the bags from the seats, and deposited his mother and sister. He had been thoroughly awful to the Western couple, screaming and spewing spittle in their faces, but now I felt a little bit bad for him. He had paid for the bus too, and his mother was very, very old. His sister sat on the floor with her face on the seat, clutching her stomach and groaning. It was a bad situation all around.
When everyone came back on the bus, there was surprisingly little fuss. Two people volunteered to sit on the roof, and everyone who insisted on seats had them. I drowsed off and on for hours. The bus bounced over potholes and switchbacks. I took a dramamine.
At one of the stops, I hopped off and purchases a couple of mandarins and some bananas. We ate them slowly, trying to pass the time. It was only noon.
The bus kept going. Below us, the gorge dropped so far down that it went out of sight. The edge of the road crumbled away into nothingness. I tried not to look. When we hit bumps or holes so hard that our butts flew out of our seats, I wondered how the people on the roof were managing to hang on.
At 3, we arrived in Dhunche. Checking in at the permit office, we all stretched our legs for a bit. The air had gotten much cooler since Kathmandu, and everyone took out extra layers.
Back in the bus, we rode for another two hours, stopping to pick up and drop off locals along the way. This part of the road was one of the worst yet, and people began vomiting from motion sickness. I kept my eyes closed. As long as I can pretend to sleep, I’m ok.
About an hour from Syraphru Besi, I started to have that I’m-going-to-absolutely-lose-it-if-I-don’t-get-off-this-godforsaken-bus-very-very-soon feeling. By the time we got to the village, I was already half way out the door. I stumbled out onto solid ground and thanked whatever diety it was that had decided we were fit to live another day. This was our last bus ride in Nepal, and we lived to tell the tale. Now, I can tell you that Lonely Planet tells travelers to use the bus system as little as possible, because there are more bus fatalities here than anywhere else. That was my little secret that I was going to wait to tell you until it was all over, and now it is.
In Syraphru Besi, we found the first guest house, Hotel Peaceful, and immediately dumped our packs. Joshua went to order Dal Bhaat, and I went to go take care of a problem that only a course of anti-biotics can take care of.
The rest of the trekkers seemed to all lodge themselves at Hotel Peaceful too, and within minutes, the place was full. It took them a while to churn out that much Dal Bhaat, so while we waited, we played cards in the candlelight. With frequent power outages, candles are always nearby.
Dal Bhaat was delicious, and we scarfed it all down, barely coming up for air. When it was all said and done, it was nearly 7. We looked around, and no one seemed ready to head off to bed, but we reasoned that it’s trail-time. We led the way.
In our room, we laid out our sleeping bags on one of the narrow twins. It’s funny, because although we technically met and began dating in high school, I wouldn’t call us ‘high school sweethearts.’ We don’t reminisce about the good old days or all the teachers and friends that we had who were the same. Sometimes, we’ll start a story and we’ll realize that the other actually does know who we’re talking about, but it almost always comes as a surprise. We didn’t have the same friends in high school, and although we met on the school bus and we had crushes on each other for a couple of years, we didn’t start dating until the very last semester.
Sometimes though, it’s fun to take out those old stories. We tease each other about what we were thinking and when. We debate who really asked out who. We talked for a while, thinking about old friends that we haven’t seen or heard of in a long time, and then, when our eyes started to close, we learned over, kissed cold noses, and fell asleep.