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.