Feathered Aspen


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.


Kyanjin Gompa to Upper Rimche

November 20, 2010

We woke up to another clear, blue sky. We left our curtains open all through the day and night; when you wake up with the sun, there’s no need to block out its light. When I opened my eyes, I could see the glacier in its still ice tumbles, catching and tossing rays.

We packed up, and by 7, we were in the kitchen. Our lovely guest house keeper was cooking again, letting his wife sleep. We ate pancakes and enjoyed the warmth coming from the fire. It’s getting colder, and even our house keeper rubbed his arms brusquely, to ward off the chill.
Before we left, the wife woke up, and once we’d paid, we took turns bowing with our hands pressed together in thanks and Namaste. They went outside to wave us off.

Covering the same trail we took to get here, we made our way down to Langtang and the small trickle of villages that descend from there. The trail seemed sleepier and so did the villages. Few people passed us, and judging from the smoking chimneys, most people were still inside, sitting by the fire.

Ever so gradually, the sun warmed our shoulders enough for us to take off our jackets. Going downhill, we used less energy, and after three hours of hiking, I was surprised to find that we had gone so far. At checkpoints along the way, the soldiers seemed surprised that we had come all the way from Kyanjin Gompa. There were hardly any names in the ledger.

It felt like we had all of Langtang valley to ourselves, and as we walked through fallen leaves and crossed more streams, we felt lucky. Not only are we in a beautiful place uncrowded by tourists, but for the first time, we also have a pretty good idea about our plans for the future. We have plans, and we’re excited about them, and that’s exactly what we wanted from this trip: a beautiful place to walk and talk and think. We wanted to make plans, and we wanted to be excited about them.

I’m going to get a Masters in Social Work. I’m not sure exactly where and when quite yet, but I’ve decided that I’d like to go back to school, and for a while, the jobs I have been most interested in where all in the field of Social Work. Before I start the degree, I’m going to find a job for 40 hours a week. Joshua will go to peace officer training, and I will keep writing. I hope that if I have a job that doesn’t suck up all my emotional energies, I will have plenty of time and motivation to write, and Joshua has promised to hold me to it.

While being a Social Worker or a Police Officer might not be our dream jobs, our dream jobs don’t have paychecks we can count on. We’re still going to do those things: we’ll farm and I’ll write, and we’ll even try to make money at it. But for now, we’re pursuing the next best thing. Jobs that we’ll enjoy and a paycheck on the other end. In exchange, we get a farm and a family and the chance to pay off our debts.

We spent most of our time today just thinking our own thoughts. I’m already planning a schedule where I work, exercise, and write. I’m already carving out space and time. I’m also thinking about going back to school, and I’m excited about it. I’m thinking about all the different places I could work with a degree in Social Work – a hospital, a school, government, therapy… I think I could be interested in any of them.

Joshua’s thinking about baking bread, making cheese, investigating crimes, and shooting ducks (I’m serious; his words, not mine). They’re all good things, and with the sun shining down on the path and the leaves crunching under our feet, we are really, really happy.

For lunch, we stopped at a lodge in Goda Tabela. We ordered the usual – veg chowmein with fried potatoes – and played cards. Our cook’s little boy toddled about in the yard, pulling a cheese-grater behind him with a shoelace. Every once in a while, he’d stop and look at us and shout something in Nepali, then he’d go inside and shout at his mother. It seemed like he was running the place.

After lunch, we walked the last couple of hours to Upper Rimche. We saw a few more trekkers, but even the Lama Hotel – one of the biggest collection of lodges on the Langtang trail – seemed empty. To our left, the river rushed over boulders the size of cars, and even though we admired the view on our way up, we’re still admiring it on the way down.

In Rimche, the Hotel Ganesh was buzzing. Oddly enough, here were all the trekkers that we hadn’t seen all day. We debated for a bit, wondering if we should go back or forward, but ultimately, we decided to stay. There are six other couples here, but none of them are traveling in groups, and hardly any of them speak the same language. We’re just hoping no one snores.

For a while, we sat outside, reading. Hotel Ganesh is on top of a ridge, and it catches a lot of late-afternoon sunlight. I finished The Hobbit in that sort of glow you get when the sun is just setting. Despite myself, I grew to rather like Mr. Baggins by the end, and I closed the pages satisfied.

When the sun went down, we all gathered into the lodge for Dal Bhaat near the fire. It’s warm in here, and Joshua’s reading while I’m writing. See? I’m already carving out the time 🙂

After we eat the Dal Bhaat, we sit and chat with a guy from Germany and another from Holland. Both are in the midst of long trips, and the guy from Holland tells us a little bit about his months in Northern India. Apparently, he’s also done the bus ride from Leh to Manali, but instead of reaching Manali, the bus stopped at the parachute cafe in the middle, and he was stuck there for 6 days. The passes were too snowy, so rather than heading to Manali, they just carted him back to Leh. He made his way south via Kashmir. He was very laid back about it all, and he tells us that he’ll spend days at a time in one place, just wandering around and reading. After hiking Annapurna Base Camp, he stayed for two weeks in Pokhara, just reading, sleeping, and eating. When he went to go pay the bill, they told him he had been there for 9 days, and he was floored. ‘I thought it had been 4!’ he said, laughing.

As Joshua and I headed off to bed, we both agreed that we could never spend 9 days doing nothing, but that we liked the sound of someone who could and not realize it, just the same. Before we fell asleep, Joshua asked, amazed, ‘how did he travel in Northern India and Nepal for almost a year and still retain that pudge?!’

November 19, 2010

Joshua was still grumbling in irritation when the alarm went off. Last night, the Germans had stayed up until late, singing, stomping, clapping, and shouting. Their renditions of Old Country Road and Whatcha Gonna Do With a Drunken Sailor were surprisingly sonorous, but Joshua was unimpressed. Especially when they devolved into humming at the same pitch until everyone’s ears rang and then broke it with loud guffaws and shouts. I believe Joshua’s exact words were, ‘Fuck all the Germans.’

Anyway, we were awake, the sun was shining, and it was time for some retribution. Joshua clomped his boots through the halls and heedlessly (or heedfully?) ran into doors and slammed them. My ear plugs had carried the brunt of the noise, so I went about packing our day bag and going down to breakfast a bit more quietly.

In the kitchen, our pancakes were already steaming on our plates. In a plastic bag, our guest house keeper had wrapped Tibetan bread and boiled eggs with a little satchet of salt. We were ready to go, and the Nepali guides for the Germans came in, telling us that we had chosen a great day to hike Tsergo Ri – the skies are exceptionally clear, and there’s little wind.

We headed out. Following the same path we had taken to Langshisha Kharka, we crossed the river, carefully avoiding ice-slick stepping stones and glacial melt. On the other side, we followed the trail up.

And up and up and up. 1300 meters up, to be exact.

It took us three and a half hours to reach the summit of Tsergo Ri, and during that time, the trail only went up. At first, we were walking behind a group of three hikers. Behind us, two couples were within eyesight. We’d climb and stop, climb and stop, catch up and then split up again.

I could pretend to be humble, but here’s the thing: we dominated Tsergo Ri. Now, you could tell me that this isn’t a competition, and in the end, you’re probably right, but you’d also have to admit that leaving a dozen hardened trekkers in the dust feels pretty damn good. And it does.

An hour an a half from the top, our fellow trekkers began to huff and puff and take longer, more frequent water breaks. We kept plodding along, and within the half hour, we were so far away from the other trekkers, they looked just like little spots of blue and red on the mountain. Victory was made all the sweeter because they were French. And you know how we feel about the French.

After the first two enormous ridges, we came to a field of boulders that we had to pick across. On the other side, the trail pitched up over slippy dirt. The trail devolved into a series of cairns to mark the way, and at the top of one scramble, we met a slope of scree. The wind picked up, and a centimeter of snow dusted everything. One set of footprints led the way.

Thirty minutes from the top, I grew very worried about making our way down. The stones were slick with snow and ice, and the going was very steep. I could see the prayer flags at the top, but I made Joshua stop. We debated whether or not we should continue, but finally, the allure of the top drew us on. Far below, the trekkers we had passed long ago were still resting. We decided to show them how it’s done 🙂

100 meters from the top, the scree turned into an easy, dirt trail. No one was there. Hundreds of prayer flags flapped madly in the wind, and for 360 degrees, mountain peaks rose up to the sky. It was unspeakably beautiful.

On our way down, a woman asked us if the climb was worth it. We nodded emphatically, and then I told her that it was better than Annapurna Sanctuary and Thorung La. It may have even been better than our side trek to Ice Lake. Once she had passed, I almost felt badly for setting her expectations so high. I don’t know if it’s better for everyone, but it was for us.

In a way, Tsergo Ri feels like a defining moment in our travels. Like Annapurna, it was an amphitheater of mountains, but it was wider and we could see for further. The sky was clear, and the prayer flags were particularly beautiful. Up on this peak, all alone, there was no question that this was the best. Behind a couple of boulders, we huddled out of the wind and ate our packed lunch. From our perch, we could see the mountains of Tibet and Langtang. Above us, the sky was impossibly blue. It was perfect.

Forty five minutes later, once we had finished taking photos and eating, other trekkers began to arrive. They seemed just as speechless and we felt, and we quietly nodded and smiled as we headed back down the trail.

Luckily, the trail wasn’t quite as treacherous as we had dreaded. Keeping low to the ground and using my hands, I was able to keep from slipping on the scree. At the bottom, still more trekkers were worried about the way down, and we reassured them that it was worth it, and it wasn’t so bad.

It took a little over two hours to make our way back down. During that time, the clouds started to slowly creep in, and the tops of the mountains were covered. We had arrived at just the right time.

Back at the lodge, I took a shower. It takes a good deal of bravery to get naked and stand under water when it’s this cold outside, and I hadn’t braved it for five days. Thankfully, the solar water heater had done its job, and the water that came out of the spout was steaming hot. I stood under it, dreading having to turn it off.

In our room, I let my hair dry in the sun while we read. Joshua went to go get some tea and came back with a thermos and two rolls of coconut cookies. We nibbled and drank and read until dinner.

Downstairs, the fire was going. The French couple with whom we had ridden to Syraphru Besi had coincidently selected the same lodge, and they were sitting near the fire, reading.

When our Dal Bhaat came, we gobbled it down and then began playing cards. Intrigued, the French couple came over and asked if we would teach them our game. We agreed, and together, we played an open hand. Afterwards, we asked them about their travels.

Cecelia and Victor left France 16 months ago. Arriving in South America, they toured Peru, Bolivia, and Chile for four months and then hopped a plane to San Francisco. There, they rented a car for a couple of months and explored the Grand Canyon, Zion, Bryce Canyon, Moab, Yosemite, Yellowstone, Glacier, Banff, and Vancouver Island, camping the whole time. From Seattle, they flew to New Zealand where they spent a couple months trekking. Next, they went to Australia and then Bali, Lombok, and Malaysia. For a change of pace, they flew to Madagascar and then on to a small, French volcanic island in the middle of the Indian Ocean.

Back in France, they visited family for a couple of weeks, and then it was on to Moscow, where they caught the Trans-Siberian Railway to China. From China, they visited Mongolia, and then they arrived here, in Nepal. They go home just before Christmas.

I asked Cecelia what they plan to do once they get home. ‘Celebrate Christmas,’ she said, smiling and purposely evading my real question. I laughed. What will be doing next? I asked. ‘Celebrate the New Year,’ she said.

Before they left on their travels, they were both engineers living in the south of France near the Alps. Within 15 minutes, they could be in the mountains, and it was less than a three hour train ride to Paris, where they grew up. When they go back, they’re not sure where they’ll end up.
They’ve avoided planning so far.

It was nice chatting with the two of them (even though they were French 🙂 ), and we talked until a little after 8. After a long day of trekking and early morning, we were exhausted, so we wished each other well and went off to bed.


Riverside Hotel to Kyanjin Gompa

November 18, 2010

Today, we walked to Langshisha Kharka. From Kyanjin Gompa, the round trip takes a little less than 8 hours, and by our best rough estimate, covers roughly 25 kilometers. It would be the makings of a killer hike, but fortunately, the trail only ascends 500 meters, and it feels comparatively level. Normally, this hike would give you all the benefits of high alpine scenery without all the strain.

I say normally, because it snowed today. It’s tempting to conclude that we have terrible luck when it comes to our most scenic stretches of trail – Thorung La was in a white out when we reached the top and in Britain, it seemed like every time we came to an overlook, a thick fog would descend – but we have had wonderful luck as well. The day of our Ice Lake side trek was fabulously clear and gorgeous, with full views of the Annapurna range, and when we arrived in Annapurna Base Camp, we could see the whole amphitheater, crowned in blue skies.
So we could say we’re unlucky to be in such a scenic place – and to have hiked to far to get here – and have thick clouds and snow obstruct our views of famous peaks and blue skies, but we also happen to love snow. A lot.

We woke up a little bit before 6:30 and padded downstairs to eat breakfast. Our lovely guest house keeper was cooking our porridge on his wood-burning, clay oven, and we warmed our toes next to the fire. In the corner, his wife was sleeping under a pile of blankets, and when he served us our steaming bowls, he whispered ‘good morning’ so as not to wake her.

After breakfast, we went upstairs to pack a small day bag. Although we had intended to hike up to a high overlook, Tsergo Ri, the sky was overcast and grey. We decided to walk to Langshisha Kharka instead and save Tsergo Ri for tomorrow, hoping it will clear up.

Before we left, we stepped back into the kitchen and asked for some bread to supplement our lunch of yak cheese. Whipping up a small batch of dough, the guest house keeper (must ask his name again) efficiently rolled out three patties and then cooked them over a dry griddle. To finish, he took each disc and set them on the coals until they puffed up and turned golden-brown. Tibetan Bread in less than 10 minutes.

From Kyanjin Gompa, we headed east, higher into the valley. Although the sky was overcast, the clouds hadn’t yet descended. On either side of us, we could see tall, snowy peaks brushing a watery, pale sky. In the valley, a wide river bed sent stones sprawling for yards on either side, and the ice-blue water tumbled past, cutting slow arcs on its way down. Whether it’s the wind or the sound of rushing water, the sound of silence in the Himalaya really sounds like a slow roar.

We crossed a number of streams, skipping and hopping to avoid wetting our toes. On the other side of the stream beds, the vegetation stays low to the ground. Thorny bushes with bright orange and red berries prickle our pant legs and bestow burrs. Yaks graze in the meadows, and although they are enormous, I see a few of them running and leaping over streams. It’s not graceful, but it is a little intimidating to see something so large – with such very large and sharp horns – move with anything resembling speed. In general, they’re fairly peaceful creatures, but a few have caught me looking and snorted while pawing the ground. I cower into Joshua and tell him to walk faster. I don’t know if anyone has ever been gored by a yak, but I really don’t want to wait and find out.

Gradually, the valley becomes more narrow. After a couple hours of hiking, we stop for a little break, and sitting on the ground, looking at a waterfall of ice across the river, we share a piece of still-warm bread and yak cheese. We’re talking about our plans for the future again, and the more I talk about getting a Masters in Social Work, the more I like it. As for Joshua, we talk about whether or not having a grandfather who was a police officer has influenced his decision to pursue peace officer training. At first, he thinks maybe not. He arrived at the decision because he wanted to do something in the public service sector, and he was also attracted to working a job that has variety and gets him out of doors.

But then he keeps thinking and talking, and he remembers listening to stories of his grandpa as a police officer. He has bits and pieces of his old uniforms, and it was always something he felt proud about. I point out that he didn’t really start thinking about becoming a police officer until after this Christmas, when we asked Papa BJ to tell us some of his old stories.

We start talking about family, and we go through our intricate family trees. We count cousins. We wonder what happens when one generation dies and the young generation begins to have their own families. How do Christmases work? When do you stop going to one in favor of another? Neither of us likes the idea of falling out of touch.

For the first time, the trail climbs up. Puffing from the altitude, we make our way over a hill, and on the other side, we can see Langshisha Kharka. It’s just a little cluster of stone-stables and prayer flags, but there’s also a rock. The story is that a lama lost his yak. In search of his yak, he walked all the way up Langtang Valley, and when he arrived at the end – Lashisha Kharka – he found his yak. Whether it was punishment or just time, he decided to kill the yak, and then he layed out the pelt on a large stone to dry. The pelt stained the stone red, and that’s why this valley is named Langtang, lost yak. It’s also why there’s a big red stone in Lashisha Kharka.

Passing a few not-so lost yaks, we walked up past a curve in the river and climbed up on our very own big red stone (not THE big red stone – there’s more than one). We finished the last of our bread and yak cheese, and it began to snow. I braved taking my fingers out of my gloves and snapped a few photos of glaciers and mountain tops peaking out of the clouds.

When we weren’t moving, we got cold pretty quickly, so we started to head back. Along the way, I stopped to take a few photos, but with the snow blowing thicker by the minute, it was too cold to have bare hands for long. We started to sing Christmas songs. I know three or four lines of a bunch of carols, but unfortunately, I don’t seem to know all the lines to any of them. We turned it into a medley of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, Come All Ye Faithful, and Santa’s Comin’ on a Whirlybird. It devolved into a poorly remembered rendition of The Twelve Days of Christmas, and by the tenth day, we just started making things up. Has anyone ever noticed how many birds my true love gave to me?

It snowed hard. We took photos for evidence, and then quickly hunched into our jackets and kept moving. The time passed quickly, and before we knew it, we were less than an hour from Kyanjin Gompa. Looking at the watch, we realized that we had been walking for almost 7 hours, and that whoever said this side trip was 6 hours (Lonely Planet) was full of you know what. We were hungry and getting a bit cold, so we stopped talking and began walking even faster.

Finally, we saw the prayer flags and then the lodges of Kyanjin Gompa. Before we retreated into the lodge, we investigated the village bakery. It was overpriced. We decided to order an early dinner instead. Back in the lodge kitchen, a couple of porters and guides were helping the guest house keepers peel and chop potatoes for curry. The lentils were simmering on the stove, and they were laughing as they cooked. We ordered two dal bhaat for 5 o’clock, and then we went into our room to read and write and pass the time.

After a bit, we ventured out of our quilts and sleeping bags to wait downstairs. The Germans were all huddled around the heater, and I experienced a moments hesitation that they had crowded us out from the heat source. Fortunately, the food came quickly, and it was piled high and steaming hot. After a couple cups of rice, a cup of lentils, and another cup of curried potatoes with cabbage and peas, I was feeling much warmer. After a day in the wind, my cheeks were hot to the touch, and I finally agreed to take my hands out of their pockets for a round of Rummy.
Joshua beat me in Rummy, as usual, but then we played a round of speed. Miraculously, I won. I say miraculously because I’m a hot mess when it comes to speed. Cards are flying all over the place, I’m squealing and squeeking, and I’m incredibly slow. The only explanation I can think of is that Joshua’s brains dribbled out on the trail while we were hiking today. Don’t worry; he’s still as sweet and reliable as ever, he’s just a bit more manageable when it comes to playing games. You might even win once in a while.

November 17, 2010

I felt like I had finally managed to get warm when the alarm went off. Actually, the entire bottom half of my body was still feeling a bit refrigerated, but at least my torso was warm. Judging by the lack of feeling in my nose (which the only exposed part of my body – god bless mummy bags), things weren’t about to get much warmer.

The alarm went off again, and Joshua gracefully slapped his arm over my face, informing me that it was time to get up. Then he poked me and said, ‘you’re like a huge stay puff marshmallow! You must be boiling in there!’

Outside, the sun was up but the valley walls were so steep, there were no direct rays. Instead, the light fits through the peaks and hills, spreading visible rays. I think I’ve talked about this before, and at the risk of repeating myself, I shall just call them blessed-virgin-mary rays.

Anyway, we decided to sit outside. Joshua firmly believes in ‘hardening yourself up.’ It’s a strange logic, but basically, he thinks it’s very important to always be a little bit cold and never use all of your layers. The theory being, what happens once you’ve used all your layers and it gets colder? I’ve told him that he’s an imbecile, but it’s no use. He unzipped his jacket. I cinched in my hood.

Breakfast consisted of porridge and boiled eggs with cups of black tea. Ukchi, our guest house keeper, seemed to agree with Joshua’s theory: he was just wearing a sweater and flip flops. God bless Nepalis.

Later, with our packs on our backs, we began to warm up. The first two or three hours took us through lovely mossy forests with low-lying, gnarly trees. Red berry bushes sprouted in the undergrowth, and yellowed leaves crunched beneath our feet. We crossed a number of waterfalls and a few more small guest houses with chimneys smoking. At a permit checkpoint, we eyed an officer with an enormous gun. He grinned and pointed at the sign in book with the point of his riffle. Nice.

More suddenly than gradually, the vegetation opened up. Up above, mountains stood over dry, mud- and yellow-brown fields. Yaks grazed and wild horses traveled in twos. It’s the high alpine scenery that we love, and we walked on, looking up and smiling. Eventually, the sun rose high enough to light the valley, and with the sun on our backs, we stopped to shed our jackets.

About the same time, a old, toothless Nepali man with a sharpened scythe approached us on the trail. Gesturing with his blade, he asked us for a smoke. We apologized. ‘No smoke,’ we said. Then he pointed at my shoes with his scythe, and was it just me, or did it look like there was blood in the corners of his mouth? We shrugged our shoulders, not knowing exactly what he wanted (but suspecting it was either my shoes or our blood) and walked off quickly.

We climbed up a ways, feeling the altitude. We’ve climbed over 2000 meters in two days, and now we’re at about 3400 meters – about the same elevation as Manang and Ladakh. At the top of the ridge, we could see Langtang in the distance. It looked closer than it really was, though. The trail took us up ridges and down to streams. We bobbed up and down, up and down, and along the way, we passed a number of sunlit guest houses. Each one we passed had a woman in Tibetan dress with marked perseverance: where you come from? Where you go? What you need? Stay! Rest! You need guest house? Where are you staying when you get where you’re going? Stay at my place? My brother’s place? Here, wait, I give you card. Hello? Come back!

After a while, we just said Namaste and plowed on through. We reasoned that they didn’t really want to talk to us, they just wanted us to spend our money at their place (or their brother’s). In some ways, it’s heartbreaking to say no and see the desperation in their eyes, but in others… I don’t know. Maybe I’m naive, but I wonder why they need our rupees so much. They have gardens that provide all their food. They have yaks to give them wool and milk and cheese. They build all their own shelter, and their fuel comes from yak dung and trees. Water flows through the valley, and they have family and friends living around them. They used to be subsistence farmers, eeking out a living in the Himalaya. Now, they seem so desperate for our rupees, and

I’m wondering what’s changed. The gardens are still there and so are the yaks.
But I don’t know the whole story, and I’m sure there’s much more. Most of the Nepalis we’ve talked to have children going to school in Kathmandu or some other far-flung place. There aren’t schools everywhere here, so they have to go away to attend. Husbands are gone for most of the trekking season, running lodges, guiding, or portering, and the families are separated. They need money for transportation, for their childrens’ schooling, for a better life. I guess I just wonder what a better life is. There was good and bad with what they had, but at least there were self-sufficient and they lived together with their families. Now, they’re dependent on tourist rupees and they have to spend most of the year away from the people they love. For what? A cell phone? A bus ride to Kathmandu? I’m even a bit dubious about boarding school. What will a better education do? Draw more people into the city, certainly. What you learn in school is best suited for jobs in offices or classrooms, not your garden or the Himalaya.

And with that, of course, comes all the problems of rural to urban immigration. People who live in the city begin to forget where their food and water comes from. They devalue the work that goes into the production of these things, and their health suffers. The farmers suffer and so does the environment. Even worse, they get locked into a cycle of working to keep things that they never needed before, a mortgage, a car, boarding school, and all the trappings of a professional job. People starve in the city. People beg. They move away from their families, and some of them are left to die on the streets alone.

But enough of death and doom for today. It was lovely, and once we arrived in Langtang, we followed our noses to the Cheese and Bakery Factory behind the Eco Village Lodge. The factory was set up by a charity, and all of the proceeds go towards funding the hydro-electric plant for the village of Langtang. We ordered a cheese and tomato roll as well as a slice of apple pie, and when it came out, it was all toasted and hot. Sitting in the sun, we looked over the valley and savored our snack. It was beyond delicious, and when a batch of yeasty rolls came out of the oven all hot and smelling gorgeous, we gobbled a couple of those down, too. Before we left, we purchased a ball of yak cheese, dipped in wax and hanging from the window from a bow of twine.

From Langtang, it takes about two and a half hours to reach Kyanjin Gompa, the last set of lodges in Langtang Valley. The walk includes a number of long, lovely mani walls, and we stopped to take photos of stupahs framed by mountains. At one point, I hid behind one of the ledges and spooked Joshua. He jumped so high in the air, I couldn’t stop laughing for 20 minutes. He rolled his eyes, good-naturedly.

About an hour out of Kyanjin Gompa, we passed a small lodge and saw KB, the guide who had led the group of Canadians from Vancouver Island on the Circuit. Joshua immediately recognized him and remembered his name. He was leading another gentleman who appeared to be no more enchanted with surroundings than the Canadians had been. We stopped and chatted for a bit, and when his charge seemed to grow irritated, we waved good-bye and charged ahead.

The valley grew wider, and we crossed a number of streams as we went. The river bed sprawled out over the plain, and we picked our way over large stones. Eventually, we caught sight of prayer flags, and around the bend, we found the sprawl of guest houses that is Kyanjin Gompa.

Putting our heads down, we plowed through a series of persistent touts and wandered through until we found the cutest lodge – Nurali Kyanjin Gompa Guest House. The guest house keeper leapt up to show us a window-filled room overlooking the glacier, and for 100 rupees a night, we immediately accepted.

Depositing our packs, we ordered a snack of momos and sat on the sunlit porch, enjoying the view and the last rays of the afternoon.

Just when we were revelling in our good luck at finding such a cute, empty lodge with great food, a herd of German trekkers pulled up. They were all built like you think Germans should be built – like Herrs and Fraus – and they clomped over the floorboards in their heavy hiking boots, speaking loudly in Deutsch.

We refused to be disappointed. They were polite enough, and as long as none of them snore, we’ll get along just fine.

I plodded my way through The Hobbit while Joshua finished All the Pretty Horses. He’s taken to responding to all of my questions with a distinct twang, and he’s expressed an interest in drinking black coffee with egg shells (?!) at the bottom. This morning, he said that he was about to ‘go pay the man what he’s owed.’ Needless to say, he’s man-lovin’ Cormac McCarthy. I’m not man-lovin’ Mr. Tolkein, but I am appreciating certain parallels between the Hobbit’s adventures and our own. Even the descriptions of walking through the Misty Mountains seem eerily familiar.

For dinner, we wandered down into the dining hall. The Germans had congregated by the heater, and naturally, they were well into their cups. We ate our Dal Bhaat, listening to them break into song at odd and frequent intervals, but in general, it was jovial and warming. It’s sort of fitting to have a bunch of Germans singing and drinking, clapping their hands and stomping their feet in a fire-warmed lodge in the Himalaya – right?

After dinner, we pulled out the cards. I trounced Joshua in Rummy, for once, and we gained a little audience. Tashi, a porter for the German group, came to watch, and we invited him to join us in a round. He learned quickly, and he tied with Joshua for 500 in the end. While we played, we asked him a little bit about himself, and he told us that he’s from Tamang Valley. Although he doesn’t look much older than us, he has a wife and three kids, two of which go to school in Kathmandu. He usually serves as a guide, but he knows the guide for this group well and agreed to serve as a porter. He owns a lodge with his wife in Tamang Valley, and she’s there right now, operating it.

Kadar, the guide for the German trekking group, is a little bit like the Energizer bunny. He’s constantly on his feet, retrieving Dal Bhaat or seconds or blankets or water. He’s laughing and singing and asking if there’s anything you need, even to us. He stopped for a bit to chat with us, and he explained that he speaks German and French, he’s been guiding for years, and he’s even been to visit all of his friends in Europe. He had a wonderful time, but it was so different, and when he came home, he had no idea how to explain it to his mother. In the end, he decided not to explain it to her, kind of like how he doesn’t tell her that he climbs mountains. Some things are too hard to explain.

When the Germans were looking particularly pink-cheeked and wasted, they stumbled off to bed, and we turned in, too. Someone did snore, but they were in a room further away from us, and if I tried hard enough, I could imagine that it was a yak breathing or the river running.