Feathered Aspen


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Syraphru Besi to Deursagang to Laurebina Yak to Gosaikunda

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.


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Rimche to Briddim to Nagthali

November 22, 2010

We arrived in Nagthali at 3 PM. The clouds had settled over the pass, so there was no view to be seen, but judging from the names of all the lodges – Hotel Good View, Nagthali Top View Point, Nagthali All View – it will be spectacular once the mist clears.

As it should be. We climbed over 1700 meters to get here.

From Briddim, we walked an hour and a half down hill to the river. The whole way, we could see Thuman directly across the valley, just a couple hundred meters above Briddim. If we could have flown, it would have taken less than 10 minutes. As it was, we had to walk all the way down to the river, Bhote Koshi Nadi, and then all the way back up.

It took an hour an a half to climb the switchbacks up to Thuman, and after lunch, it took another two and a half hours of climbing to reach Nagthali. By the time we saw the lodges of Nagthali, we were more than ready to sit down and rest.

Before we left, Pemba and Kami made us a breakfast of Tibetan bread and fried eggs. As we ate, Pemba and Kami were drinking a milky, steamy liquid from bowls, like cafe au lait. When they saw us eyeing their bowls, they told us that it was Tibetan tea and asked us if we would like to try it. We agreed, and they poured us small cups.

It was the same sort of tea that the monks had served us at the Dalai Lama seminar; it was salty, and the milk and butter that they had used created a little film of grease at the top. I swallowed it down, trying not to taste it. Afterwards, it was all I could do not to shudder.
Pemba and Kami seemed proud of us for drinking the Tibetan tea, and once we were finished, they sat with us and we settled the bill. Pemba took out a notebook and began writing down the meals, drinks, and room in Nepali. He wrote the prices down in Nepali, too, but at first, we didn’t realize that. Instead, we were looking at 900, 800, 900, and so on, thinking, holy shit, we’ve just broken the bank. We forgot that Nepali numbers look similar but have completely different denominations, thank god. In the end, the bill came out to 1060 rupees (that’s 15 dollars for four meals and a room), and we were much relieved.

Packing up the last of our things, we said goodbye to Pemba and Kami and began to head out. Pemba stopped us, asking us to come inside one last time. He wanted our e-mail, and we gave it to him. He told us that he’d like us to e-mail him when we get back to the USA, and we shouldn’t worry that he can’t read English; he’ll get his friend to read it for him. Then, he held out his hand a showed us a few friendship bracelets that Kami had woven. He asked us to choose two, and then he tied them on our wrists.

Walking out of the Red Panda compound, we turned around, took one last photo, and waved goodbye. Pemba stood at the door of his kitchen until we were out of sight.

As we walked, we agreed that Briddim was a wonderful start to our Tamang Heritage trek. Already, the trail and the people we’ve met have been much different, and we feel lucky to experience Tibetan-Nepali village life in a place that has had so few tourists come through.
We descended. We climbed. Just before noon, we arrived in Thuman, and taking out one of the business cards Pemba had given us, we headed for the Buddha Guest House. With a table sitting overlooking the valley and a brightly painted guest house, it was a lovely point, and we ordered the usual chowmein and potatoes. Joshua took out the cards, and we continued 5000, looking out at the mountains of Tibet and in the distance, the peaks of Langtang. Clouds began to flirt with the peaks, and the air in the valley was thick with mist or dust, we’re not sure which. Our cook came out and asked us where we were planning to spend the night. When we told him that we were interested in hiking up to Tatopani, he shook his head. ‘No good,’ he said. ‘Too far, and bad weather. Need stop in Nagthali to see view. Weather no good today. You see tomorrow morning.’
We asked him how far was too far. He said that it would take five hours to reach Tatopani and three hours to get to Nagthali.

Nagthali it is. We ate our chowmein and potatoes, served to us by a woman with the largest earrings we’ve ever seen, and when we finished, we paid. Our cook walked us out to the trail and gave us directions to Nagthali. We began to climb.

We were silent most of the way, and by the time we reached the misty forests, the temperature had fallen drastically. We climbed and climbed, never stopping, and then finally, we saw buildings through the mists. The first lodge that we came across, although lovely, was deserted. A little nervous, we kept hiking. A few minutes later, we met a Nepali couple coming down the trail with their backpacks on. They asked us if we were staying in Nagthali, and when we answered in the affirmative, they turned around and walked back with us.

At their lodge, Nagthali All View, they showed us to one of their rooms. Large with simple wooden walls, it is one of the most pleasant rooms we’ve stayed in thus far. The whole place sits high on a hill in a clearing, and it’s painted a cheery white and yellow. We’re doubly lucky to have run into the couple, because Gyurme and Nima had actually just finished closing up the lodge for the season. They were headed home when we ran into them.

Shedding our packs, we donned all of our extra layers. It may be mid-afternoon, but already, it’s freezing. In the kitchen, we sat next to the fire with Gyurme and Nima, and they gave us a huge thermos full of hot water. I took out the computer to write and got much the same response I’ve gotten so far – awe. The Nepalis that I’ve met on trail are all amazed by laptops, and it’s common for me to have an audience as I’m writing. I’ve taken to showing them pictures, because I know they can’t read what I’m writing, and it must be very dull to look over my shoulder and watch letters race across the screen.

So I showed Gyurme and Nima my slideshow of the Annapurna, and Gyurme, in particular, seemed thrilled to see all the places that he’s heard of. When I said Annapurna II or Manang or Machupucchre, he excitedly repeated the words and then explained them to Nima, who doesn’t understand as much English.

I showed them a couple pictures of the house in New Orleans that we used to live in, and that set off a series of questions about our family. Are we married? How many brothers and sisters do you have? How many children do you have?

Gurmu and Nima told us that they have three children, two girls and one boy, and all of them are going to boarding school. Telling us their names, they explained that lamas choose the names for children once they are born, and almost all Tibetan children have names associated with the day of the week that they were born. I wrote them down as they told us: Sunday is Nima. Monday is Douwah. Tuesday is Mingmar. Wednesday is Lakbah. Thursday is Purba. Friday is Pasang. Saturday is Pemba.

Although it didn’t seem possible, the thick mist that greeted us when we arrived has now partially cleared, and when Gurmu came back from gathering more firewood, he told us to come outside. To the East, we can see the mountains of Langtang. To the South, we can see the pass we will take to Gosaikund. To the North, we can see the mountains of Tibet, and to the West, we can see still more white peaks. For 360 degrees, we can see mountains. It’s gorgeous.

Gurmu tells us that tomorrow we can walk up to a view point, and from there, we will be able to see villages in Tibet. He says it’s much better than Poon Hill, and we already believe him.

While I write, Gyurme talks to Joshua, telling him about Nagthali and the road that’s being built to Tibet. Apparently, it’s the Chinese who are funding the road building, but he doesn’t seem to fussed about it. He tells Joshua that Nagthali means ‘Snake Hill,’ and Joshua nervously looks into the bushes. ‘Snakes?’ he asks, just to make sure. Gurmu nods emphatically.

Joshua takes out the camera and takes photos of the gorgeous view. Gyurme asks me if I’m writing an e-mail to my family, and I try to explain what a blog is. He gets excited, thinking that I have a website, and then he asks Joshua to take a picture of him and Nima in front of his guest house. He wants us to post the picture on our website. We agree.

Both Gyurme and Nima are wonderful, and they follow us around, being perfect hosts. On just our second night of the Tamang trek, we’ve already met some incredible people and seen more of Nepali village life than we’ve seen in two months.

Back in the kitchen, we sit by the fire, reading, writing, and talking to Gyurme. Nima is shifting pots and pans over the fire and stirring something that smells delicious. After a while, she takes out pappadam and carefully fries it over oil until it crisps and hardens. Then, she serves us heaping plates of rice, dahl, vegetable curry, and fried greens. Gyurme proudly tells us that it’s all local, and then he points to the rice. ‘Tamang rice,’ he says.

It’s amazing. The rice is the best I’ve ever had. It’s shaped a little differently – a bit rounder and a little irregular – but it’s got a flavor all of its own. The dahl is full of lentils and spices. The curry is savory and rich. The greens were just picked from the garden, and we tell them over and over again how delicious and wonderful it is. It’s the best dahl bat in Nepal.

Nima serves herself and Gyurme heaping plates, and they eat, picking up the rice and beans with the fingers of their right hand. Afterwards, they sit and watch the fire, belching quietly. We’re all full, and we’re sleepy in that way you get when you’ve just eaten really well. We sit for a while longer, watching the flames, and then we all say goodnight.

November 21, 2010

Thankfully, no one snored. We slept soundly through the night, despite the thin walls, and in the morning, we packed up before breakfast at 7. In the dining room, we both ate pancakes, and once we had finished, we paid and headed back on the trail.

From Upper Rimche, you can either head back the way you came to Syraphru Besi or you can head up along the ridge to Sherpagaun. The trail heading to Sherpagaun connects with the Tamang Heritage Trail, and it affords trekkers a closer look at Tamang culture and landscape.

Although it’s not as high altitude as some other treks, it’s less traveled, and in the Lonely Planet, it’s compared to Langtang ’20 years ago.’ The trek takes us the closest we’ve been to Tibet yet, and we hope to spend three to four nights in the traditional villages along the way. The trail opened within the past 5 years as a part of a program to stimulate economic growth in rural regions, and we’re intrigued to see a place that’s less commercialized and more genuine.

From Rimche, it took a little less than two hours to reach Sherpagaun. The trail follows a steep ridge, and just inches from the path the mountain drops off into nothing. The views are stunning, but it is a bit nerve wracking, especially when stones that have dislodged by your feet go tumbling down, down, down.

In Sherpagaun, we ran a gauntlet of lodge and restaurant proprietors. ‘Eat here!’ ‘Where you going?’ ‘You stay at my brother’s lodge!’ ‘Tea? Rest?’ One woman even cleverly gave us a gift to bring to her brother in Briddim. She wrapped up two carrots in a plastic bag, handed them to us, and then told us to give them to the owner of ‘Briddim number 3.’ We reluctantly agreed.

We kept walking through the village, and on the other side, we began to climb again. We took our time, stopping frequently to look out over the valley. We talked a little bit, but mostly, we were preoccupied by the steep trail and its lovely views. After about an hour, we encountered our first pair of trekkers. They asked us if we were going to Briddim, and when we said that we were, they recommended the Red Panda Homestay, saying that the people were very friendly, the food was good, and prices were cheap. We like these sort of recommendations, so we resolved to find the Red Panda when we arrived in Briddim.

Two hours after Sherpagaun, we finally reached Kyanjim. Tashi, one of the porters that we had met in Kyanjin Gompa, had asked us to seek out his lodge, so we kept our eyes peeled for Small Star Guest House. When I found the sign, we were so hungry, we didn’t stop to assess. We sat down right away.

Unfortunately, it was one of the shabbiest restaurants in the village. The table was rickety and covered with a grubby table cloth. Roosters were pecking around our feet and calling wildly. Instead of a view, dirty clothes were draped over a line. The kitchen was dark and mysterious, and I felt nervous ordering even our usual chowmein and potatoes.

When Joshua went over to the kitchen to order, an older woman dressed in traditional Tibetan clothing began to strip. At first, I wasn’t sure what she was doing, and then, once a breast popped out, I thought there might be something a bit odd going on. She walked up to Joshua with both breasts hanging out and stood very close. A gentleman, Joshua played ignorant and avoided looking at her. The woman who took his order looked at the woman but didn’t say anything.

The whole exchange left me confused. Was this woman crazy? Is this culturally acceptable? What about all the signs that compel trekkers to dress modestly? Do tatas not count?

The bare-breasted woman walked off to the garden to pick the vegetables for our veggie chowmein, and Joshua suggested that we begin an epic game of Rummy 5000 (instead of 500). We agreed that the winner gets to name our next pet, and now that we’re playing for keeps, I started trouncing Joshua.

Fortunately, our food came out looking fairly normal, and we ate it all. Afterwards, we paid, and already, the prices are much lower.

Just before we left, a man walked up to us and asked us where we were intending to stay in Briddim. Luckily, we had an answer. ‘We’re staying with a friend,’ we said, hoping that might deter him. ‘Who?’ he asked, not detered in the least. We told him that we were staying at the Red Panda. ‘I’m Red Panda!’ he said, smiling but confused. We laughed and explained that we had met a couple of trekkers who had recommended his homestay. He smiled wider. ‘Yes, you stay with friend.’

When we loaded our backpacks onto our backs and headed for Briddim, the owner of Red Panda followed us. Deducing that we had acquired a guide, we struck up a conversation with him. First, names. His is Pemba, and he and his family are Tamang. Once, a long time ago, they were Tibetan, but now, they are Tamang.

Pemba is missing one of his front teeth, but he has a wonderful smile. He was wearing a Michael Jackson t-shirt under a jacket, and on his head, he had a jaunty wide-billed trucker’s cap. He told us that his wife cooks well, and judging from the rare little belly bulging beneath Michael Jackson’s peace sign, this is true.

On our way to Briddim, we passed a few other Nepali, and although we couldn’t understand what Pemba was saying to them, we joked that it was something like, ‘these guys are mine. Hands off.’ At one point, Pemba dropped behind and we thought we had lost him, but he came running up a couple of minutes later with a tree over his shoulder. Casually, he pointed at the correct path over a landslide, and I couldn’t help but laugh. He made it seem as though he was carrying no weight at all, but the tree had to have been almost 15 feet long and very heavy. Pemba looked confused when I started laughing, so I imitated him carrying a tree as if it were as light as a feather, and he laughed too.

Eventually, we came to Briddim. Of the 45 houses in the village, 23 are homestays. We followed Pemba down the path to his home at the bottom of the village. The Red Panda was a series of four or five homes with gardens surrounding the compound. In the courtyard, chickens and children were running about and playing. Women were washing dishes under a spigot, and another older woman was weaving on a loom. Besides a sign that said, ‘Red Panda,’ there was nothing to indicate that this was a place to seek shelter and food.

Leading us up a ladder, Pemba showed us a small room on the second floor of their barn. With two beds, this is were we’ll sleep the night. We thanked him and took off our packs to rest. A little while later, Pemba knocked on the door and handed us two cups of sweet tea.

Drinking our tea, we looked out over the compound, watching everyone at work. On the roof, vegetables and chilies were drying in the sun. On the porch of another home, one woman was carefully picking through another woman’s scalp. A half naked baby toddled between them, leaning against the rails. In the kitchens, men and women were chopping vegetables for dal bhaat, and the chimneys were smoking from the stove fires.

Before we left to go explore the village, we checked in the kitchen to tell Pemba where we were going. Sitting by the fire, he urged us to come inside. We took off our shoes, and once we were inside, Pemba introduced us to his wife, Kami. Kami is wearing traditional Tibetan dress, and around her waist, she has a golden belt that looks a little bit like a key-hole. Right away, she begins laughing and smiling, and this is mainly how we communicate with one another. Neither Pemba nor Kami speak much English, but it doesn’t seem to matter. They’re welcoming and smiling, and they’re lovely.

In the village, we walk by dozens of homes just like Pemba and Kami’s. In the courtyards, women in lovely Tibetan dresses and shawls are busy sweeping or setting out things to dry. Dogs are curled up on the steps, sleeping, and the whole place has this wonderful lived in feel. Everyone presses their hands together to say Namaste, and a couple people ask us where we are ‘living.’ When we say Red Panda, they nod their heads and shout back into their homes. It’s a small town; everybody knows everybody’s business.

We walk up to the gompa. Prayer flags and a mani wall line the courtyard, and a man lets us inside the temple. We look inside at the altar and lovely paintings, and when he gestures to the donation box, we step forward to stuff in 100 rupees.

Back at Red Panda, we sit outside and read until the light goes down. Once it’s dark, we join Pemba, Kami, and Pemba’s mother, Nima, in the kitchen. Kami is stirring up the dal bhaat while she sits cross-legged in front of the fire, and she tells us that it’s almost ready. Pemba sits down with us at the table, and he takes out photos of his two children. Both of them are at school in Dhunche, and he tells us that it’s very expensive – 3,000 rupees a month (almost an entire Nepali salary). We thank him for showing us the photos, and then Kami calls him over to serve us our dal bhaat.

They watch us while we eat, sitting by the fire. Kami offers us seconds of everything, including her special chili sauce, and once we’ve cleaned our plates, she serves first Pemba, then Nami, and finally, herself. We feel a bit uncomfortable, but they’re still smiling and laughing, so we just roll with it. When everyone’s done, Kami makes us sweet tea.

Before we go to bed, we thank both Pemba and Kami. They’ve been wonderful, and we feel so honored to have been welcomed into their home. Kami laughs her beautiful laugh, and I notice small tattoos on her face, just like the tattoos I saw on Tashi’s sister, the woman who cooked us lunch. I point to my own forehead and chin, and then I point to her face. ‘Tattoos?’ I say. Then, I pull up my sleeve and point at my tattoo. She laughs and nods her head. She tries out the word, ‘tattoo,’ and Pemba nods, smiling too.

In bed, we listen to the sound of a bell tied around a horse’s neck. Chickens are scratching at the wood on the porch, and far away, we hear chanting. We fall asleep to the sounds of Briddim.


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Kathmandu to Syaphru Besi to Riverside Hotel

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.