November 27, 2010
When we woke up this morning, we were warm, even though we could see our breaths in great white puffs. Braving the cold, we set about packing up and went downstairs for another breakfast of eggs and bread.
Just as we were finishing eating, one of the other trekkers went to pay. The woman behind the counter apologized for acting oddly and explained that yesterday morning, after all the other trekkers had left, five Nepali boys who had stayed the night had come up to her with their large knives and threatened to kill her if she didn’t hand over all of her money.
It was a startling story to hear, especially in a place where the people are so peaceful, and the woman was obviously very shaken. It also explained why there had been a bunch of military men roaming the place yesterday.
Feeling a bit subdued and thinking about the many thousands of rupees we carry in our pockets, we set off on the trail. The climb from Laurebina Yak to Gosaikunda ascends 500 meters in just under two hours, but with the spectacular views all around us, we hardly noticed the gain in elevation.
Gradually, the landscape grew more and more barren, and up above, the pass rose up, rocky and dusted in snow. Past a stupah strewn with prayer flags, we made our way over a ridge, and before us, we saw the first sparkling, still lake of Gosaikunda.
Gosaikunda is a series of blue alpine lakes high in the mountains. It’s a site of religious pilgrimage for Hindus and Buddhists alike, but most of the mythology that surrounds the lakes is Hindu. It’s said that the rock that emerges from the center of the main lake is Shiva’s head.
In Gosaikunda, there are four lodges, but this late in the season, they participate in a daily rotation. With limited supply, they’re able to keep their prices high, and they all benefit. Today, the rotation has trekkers at Hotel Lakeside, and we had our pick of the first room.
Putting on an extra layer, we grabbed our books and headed out to the shoreline to admire the water and the stretch of close peaks that rise up behind it. I started Holy Cow, and with every page turn, I looked up to see the sunlight reflecting off the water. Just past the lodges, there are a few simpler, stone lodges, as well as a temple. These lodges are for pilgrims – often sadhus – who come to the lake to bathe or meditate. Right now, people are buzzing with the news of a new Bubbah, a Hindi holy man who has been here for the past four months. This yogi has been meditating for months on end, sitting out in the frigid cold, practically naked. At night, he goes into the lodge and sleeps under a thin blanket, but he wears hardly anything at all, and he barely eats. He does not take money from trekkers or pilgrims, but he will, occasionally, accept rice for food. At night, the temperature plumets between negative 10 and 20 degrees celcius, and during the day, it’s not unusual for the temperature to hover around zero. Nepalis and pilgrims are excited, because they think this man is the real deal, a real yogi. How else could you explain his ability to withstand extremely cold temperatures and so little food for such a long time?
The yogi talks to some of the trekkers, Nepalis, and pilgrims, and he says that he doesn’t know how much longer he will stay here. During one of his meditations, he built a stone wall as a form of prayer. He’s not sure how long his next meditation will take him.
Today, one of the military men came to visit the yogi. They are concerned because the lodges will close in six weeks. They don’t want the man to be left alone up here, because if he dies, the lodge owners will be held responsible. The yogi says that if he dies, it’s his problem, not the lodge owners. They seem to be at an empass.
After an hour or so of sitting by the lake and reading, I started to feel pretty crappy. I had a throbbing headache, and the joints in my legs and my arms and neck were aching. We walked back to the lodge, and Joshua put me in my sleeping bag with lots of blankets on top to try and get me warm. He force-fed me a bottle of water and a couple of ibuprofen. I lay there, shivering and feeling absolutely miserable for a half hour, and then Joshua filled up a water bottle with hot water, and I sat it on my belly and fell asleep.
When I woke up, the ibuprofen must have kicked in, and I felt better. We ate a sub-par lunch of noodle soup and fried potatoes (how can THAT go wrong, you might ask), and then, we filled our water bottles, unearthed the camera, and went slowly walking around the lakes.
It’s beautiful here, and as we walked, we stopped to take photos and point out even more beautiful vistas. We talked about All the Pretty Horses for almost two hours, trying to figure out what Alfonsa really wanted, what Alejandra really wanted. We tried to figure out why John Grady loved horses so much, and what he sacrificed to break them. It’s that good of a book. We talked and talked and talked about it, and it didn’t feel forced, like a report or a discussion. We were just wondering and thinking, and we talked about our favorite lines, the truest scenes.
We started to walk back, and Joshua asked me to explain the finer points of waxing cross country skis. Over by the temple, the yogi looked at us and waved, smiling. Joshua wondered if that’s allowed when you’re meditating.
Back at the lodge, we drank tea while I caught up on my writing and Joshua read. Other trekkers started wandering inside as the temperature fell, and now we’re sitting in the dining room, huddling together for warmth.
For dinner, Joshua and I forwent dal bhat in favor of something that’s hard to screw up, veg chowmein. In this high altitude lodges, most of the food is pretty bad, and although the dal is usually pretty good, it isn’t always. In the end, our clever alternative doesn’t really pay off. Somehow, they were even able to screw up veg chowmein.
Sitting by the illicit wood-burning fire, we chat with the other trekkers. A couple from a small Island off the southern coast of England tell us about their travels. The man has a homey voice and a quick laugh, and I love hearing about their trip on the Trans-Siberian railway, their stint in Southeast Asia, and their treks in Nepal, a long time ago.
Although it’s warm by the fire, we all decide to head off to bed. The walls are paper-thin here, so it feels a bit like a dorm. As we’re all bundling into bed, we can hear everyone else doing the same. It would be nice to cuddle close on a night as cold as this, but it’s another room with narrow beds. Joshua piles three blankets on top of my sleeping bag to compensate.
November 26, 2010
In the morning, we ordered more Tibetan bread and fried eggs. We ate them slowly, looking out at the mountains lit up in the soft, early light. After we had packed up, we said goodbye to Dorje and his wife and set out on the trail, continuing up switchbacks.
From Deursagang to Foprang, we climbed nearly 700 meters in less than an hour. We didn’t talk much, because we were panting most of the way. Also, something hadn’t quite agreed with us the day before, and our bellies were feeling a bit bloated and sore.
In Foprang, we stopped for a moment to admire the view of the Ganesh Himal and the mountains of Tibet to the east. After a couple of photos, we continued on our way.
The walk from Foprang to Sing Gompa climbs 100 meters in a little over an hour. After so many meters ascent, the path the rounded this ridge was positively relaxing. All around us, evergreens rustled, and we admired the glimpses of mountains between the trees.
In Sing Gompa, we stopped at one of the guest houses for a cup of tea and coconut biscuits. We’ve begun another game of 5000, and Joshua has regained his groove and his confidence: he’s already beating me by 300 points.
From Sing Gompa, we climbed for a couple of hours, emerging from the evergreens and picking our way over dry, stony ground surrounded by brush. This area is a red panda sanctuary, so we kept our eyes peeled for something red and furry. I saw another one of those badgery looking guys, and we half wondered if maybe red pandas aren’t red at all. Maybe they’re tan and have black faces.
A little after noon, we came to a couple of guest houses. Today’s a short day of hiking, so even though we had only been walking for three hours, we stopped and ordered a couple bowls of soup and Tibetan bread (and in case you’re wondering, it was cheaper than the man’s lunch from yesterday).
We started playing another hand of cards, and the German trekker we had seen in Nagthali a few days ago came walking up. Recognizing us, he sat down at our table, and we chatted about the Tamang trek and where we’re headed next. Apparently, Floriano had taken the trail from Thuman to Timure, and from there, he had walked all the way up to the Tibetan border. We expressed envy, and he assured us that there hadn’t been much to see, just a bunch of Chinese with large weapons.
After lunch, the three of us walked up to Laurebina Yak. Although it wouldn’t be difficult to make our way to Gosaikunda tonight, the views from Laurebina are supposed to be incredible. As we climbed the last few hundred meters, we chatted about the Annapurna, which all of us had done, and we asked Flor a little bit about living and going to school in Austria.
In Laurebina Yak, we stayed at Hotel Mount View Rest, a larger guest house overlooking a panorama of peaks and the subcontinent to the south. It was one of the most spectacular vistas yet, and in the distance, we could even see the Annapurna range and the swooping tip of Machapucchre. Ganesh Himal was enormous and snowy on the horizon, and we could see even more of the Tibetan Mountains. To the east, Langtang rose up and up, and we sat outside, layered in all of our warmest clothing, admiring the gorgeous view.
When the sun began to set, it edged the subcontinental horizon in bright orange. Thin, low clouds below glowed pink and blue, and the mountains morphed into different, gorgeous creatures as the sky behind them turned first blue, then pink, then purple. When the sun was gone, it got even colder, and we went inside to sit by the fire.
While Joshua started The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, I tore my way through the back half of All the Pretty Horses. It’s amazing, and I’m a convert. For those of you who thought that I could never love a male author (including myself), you’re wrong. McCarthy is a god among men.
When the Dal Bhaat came out, we ate at a table with Flor. The food was awful, but we tried to ignore it by telling funny travel stories. Apparently, when Flor was 20, he and his buddies took a VW bus from Germany to Egypt and then on to Morocco. While they were in the desert of Morocco, one of his friends stepped on a scorpion, and they drove like maniacs to the nearest town for help. There, the men told his friend that they were going to slit open the bottom of his foot with a dirty knife to let all the poison flow out. Fortunately, they took a risk and drove like hell to the next village, where the method for treating a scorpion sting is an injection by sterlized hypodermic needle.
Back by the fire, we continued reading, and after a bit, a flustered Westerner and four Nepalis blew in the door. Ruddy from wind and cold, they slumped in chairs in front of the fire. The Westerner had stayed in Gosaikunda the night before, and on his way down to Sing Gompa, he had lost his wallet with his passport, visa, airline tickets, and lots of cash. Frantic, he had recruited a few Nepalis to help him walk up and down the trail to find his missing belongings.
They climbed back up to Gosaikunda, and thankfully, a Nepali man had found the wallet on a stupah and turned it in to one of the guest houses. The man was so relieved, he hardly noticed the bitter cold and his thousand meter descent, ascent, and then descent again. Everyone around the fire talked about good karma and the wonderful Nepali man who had passed up a year’s salary in rupees to be honest.
After a while, we crawled into bed and piled blankets on top of us to ward off the cold. We left the curtains open so we could see the stars, and within minutes, Joshua was sleeping. I stayed up late, finishing All the Pretty Horses, and when I closed the last page, I had tears leaking out of my eyes. The ending was lonely, so I curled up next to Joshua, stuck my face in his shoulder, and fell asleep.
November 25, 2010
We woke up and ate a breakfast of Tibetan bread and fried eggs in the dining room. An older German man came up to us and asked us about where we had been trekking and if we had any suggestions for a day trek. He had come to Nepal to hike in the Gokyo-Everest region, and he had given himself a bit of cushion time at the end, because he had taken the somewhat unreliable flight into and out of Lukla. His month of trekking had gone without a hitch, and he had found himself with a few extra days in Kathmandu. Not knowing much about Langtang (or the bus ride it takes to get here), he bought a ticket to Syraphru Besi, thinking it would be a good place to do day hikes.
It’s too bad that someone hadn’t told him about the Tamang Heritage trek or that you can even do Langtang in four days. Instead, he did a lot of dusty road walking to more modern villages near Syraphru. We recommended that he hike in the direction of Gatlang. The trail climbs quite quickly, and within a couple of hours, you have spectacular views of the Ganesh Himal, mountains in Tibet, and even the back of Langtang. The view is beautiful, but you do end up cutting through a road of dusty switchbacks.
While we were talking to the German man, two Nepalis walked in. Both of us did a double take when we recognized Pemba, and we exclaimed loudly and excitedly when we saw him. Looking a bit shy and embarrassed, he walked up to us and gave us two-handed handshakes, bowing gently as he did so. The German man took in the exchange, perplexed. ‘You seem to be quite familiar with the Nepalis,’ he said, and I’m not sure if he meant it as a compliment or not.
After the German left to go on his hike, we walked up to Pemba again and said hello. Apparently, some members of his family own the Buddha Guest House, and he’s here to visit them before he makes his way up to Dunche to visit his kids in school. He seemed a bit flustered by all of our attention, so wished him well and headed out to find internet.
The dial-up internet cost three rupees a minute. It was also painfully slow. It took nearly an hour to post my blogs, and afterwards, we blitzed Minnesota and Wisconsin Masters of Social Work websites, trying to figure out if I need to take the GRE (I don’t), when the application deadlines are (Mid-December to early January), and how much it costs (too much, se la vie).
After 90 minutes, we paid the proprietor nearly 300 rupees, and he could barely keep from laughing. We probably just paid his rent.
Back at the guest house, we packed up, paid, and headed out. Walking in the same direction that we followed just ten days ago, we came to the army check point and then crossed the suspension bridge. On the other side, we climbed through old Syraphru Besi, crossed another suspension bridge, and then made our way up Langtang Valley. After about an hour, we came to the turn off to Thulu Syraphru, and we began to climb in earnest.
In the internet cafe, we had written down the essay prompts for my application, and as we walked, we tried to figure out what social workers do and ‘how they work towards a just society.’ I have to be honest; I already felt stumped. What’s a just society? What’s justice? What does a just society look like, and what DO social workers do? I tried to think of all the social workers I’ve heard of or encountered. They work in schools, in hospitals, and in the court system. They act as case workers and facilitators. They can be counselors or managers. They work in immigration, and they’re active in child advocacy and human rights. I suspect the better question might be: what don’t social workers do?
As for a ‘just society,’ I’m absolutely flummoxed. Do just societies exist? Is the United States a just society that just doesn’t operate that well? It’s been a long time since I thought about justice, and I’m just not sure how I feel about it anymore. It’s a nice idea and certainly preferable, but when and where does it occur?
It dawns on me that my cynicism and apathy are just a not-so-clever camoflauge for laziness.
We climb through bamboo and over waterfalls. We climb up steps and steps and steps, and finally, we can see the other side of the valley. In the bamboo, hundreds of lovely birds rustle about, and every once in a while, they dart across our path, with their long, colorful tailfeathers.
After just under three hours of hiking, the trees part and we can see Thulu Syraphru. The village climbs up the steep hillside, and at the bottom, villagers are harvesting their fields. At the base of the village, a man calls out to us, wondering where we’ve come from and where we are going. We tell him, and he asks us if we might like to come and have lunch. Feeling adventurous, we agree and climb the stairs to his two-story, wooden home.
The man gestures towards a couple of wicker stools on his balcony, and we sit, looking out over the valley. We ask what there is to eat, and he tells us that he’ll make veg noodle soup with Tibetan bread. It sounds good to us, and we agree without asking the price.
This is not a restaurant, and there is no table, but we finish our game of 5000 on the balcony floor. I was winning for most of the game, but in the very last hand, when I’m nearly 200 points in the lead, Joshua pulls out an astounding series of runs and sets, and he beats me by 100 points. I’m almost relieved. He’s been a total sour-puss ever since he started losing, and I was worried that he might plunge into a deep depression if I won so epic a card game.
As it was, he gloated, and I made sad, shocked faces, and he gloated some more. He asked me to describe the last hand, play by play, in my blog, but I thought I might spare you and just give you the salient details.
After my big loss, I poked my head into the kitchen to ask where the bathroom was. The man shook his head. ‘No toilet,’ he said. I walked back to the fields, hoping to find a bit of privacy. I thought I had, but in mid-squat, I looked up to a field of small, brown monkeys looking up at me. When it became obvious that I wasn’t about to tell them to get lost, they continued their harvest robbery, digging for carrots and potatoes.
Back on the balcony, the man served us our simple meal of soup and bread, and we ate it happily, congratulating ourselves on stepping out of our box and having a lunch adventure. The man sat next to us. He lit a cigarette and told us about a marriage taking place in the village tonight. Apparently, it’s tradition for the woman’s family to walk to the village of the man’s family. In this wedding, the woman and her family are from Helambu, and the wedding party walked for nearly a week to reach Thulu Syraphru. A Nepali wedding is very expensive, the man explained, the man’s family has to pay for the woman’s family and their travel expenses. The woman’s earrings are also very expensive.
We nodded sympathetically, but the man was pretty sure that we had no idea what he was talking about. ‘You don’t know,’ he said. ‘Very expensive. Not like you.’
Dude. If you only knew.
When we had finished eating, we asked him how much we should pay him. He narrowed his eyes. ‘650 rupees,’ he said. Joshua and I looked at each other. Joshua pulled out his wallet and picked out rupees. ‘I only have 550 rupees,’ he said. The man looked at us. ‘No, I think you have more.’
Joshua went into our other wallet and fished out a 1000 rupee bill. The man gave us change. We left.
In a restaurant, two noodle soups and two pieces of Tibetan bread would cost between 400 and maybe 500 rupees. Usually, we order chowmein and fried potatoes, more expensive dishes, and the total has yet to come out over 600 rupees. On the balcony of some man’s house, we just ate the most expensive lunch in Langtang Valley.
Both of us were a bit put off. It’s not the money. In the end, we spent maybe a dollar or two more than we would have spent in a nicer restaurant in the village. We were irritated because we had purposely gone out of our way to trust this man, sitting on his balcony which was obviously not a restaurant, and not asking him how much he would charge us. We took a leap of faith in trusting him, and he took advantage of us. What’s worse, he knew that we had been hiking in Langtang for a week and a half, so he knew that we would know that he was dramatically overcharging us.
Whatever. We tried to shrug it off. Walking up through the village, three small boys in their school uniforms blocked our path and demanded money, sweets, school pens. Joshua pretend growled and stomped his way through, and the little boys thought it was hilarious. They followed us the whole way up the village, blocking our path and giggling as we growled and stomped up to them. By the end, they were laughing so hard, they were hanging on to our pant legs to keep standing upright.
At the top of Thulu Syraphru, we passed a gompa and a chorten, and then we began climbing switchbacks up to Deursagang. After an hour of climbing and a few hundred meters ascent, we arrived at Hotel Lovely Morning View, and small, wooden guest house overlooking Langtang Valley. In the distance, we could see the Ganesh Himal peaks, and it really was a lovely view.
We ordered a thermos of tea, and sitting in a dining room surrounded by windows, we sat, drinking. While Joshua finished Holy Cow, I started tapping out some of my essay ideas for the Social Work application. The proprietors, a smiley, kind couple, came upstairs to admire the laptop. On the wall, there was a picture of the man holding a red panda. I remarked, amazed, and he smiled shyly, explaining that he is a local guide, and he is an expert in Langtang wildlife. He asked us if we had seen any wildlife on our trek, and we told him that we had seen a couple of animals that looked like some sort of ferret or badger, much larger than a squirrel, but with a black face. The man’s English was fairly good, but this description was beyond him, and he shrugged his shoulders, smiling. A little later, he brought up a bird identification guide, and I flipped through, showing him some of the birds we’ve seen.
For dinner, we ate Dal Bhaat again. Outside, the sun had set, and we stayed up a little while longer, reading and writing. Finally, we went to bed.