November 24, 2010
This morning, we had another breakfast of Tibetan bread and fried eggs. Afterwards, we finished packing up and headed out on the trail.
From Tatopani, you can follow the trail a number of directions. There’s a path to Syraphru Besi, another to Goljung, and another to Chilime. Intending to spend our night at Gatlang, we headed for Chilime.
Gatlang is the largest Tamang village and also the furthest west on the Tamang trek. Although our guide book doesn’t really suggest a specific itinerary for the Tamang trek, we assumed that it was a natural place to stop for the night from looking at the map. To get there, you pass through Chilime and then work your way up into another valley. In this way, the first two hours of the trek are down hill, and the last two are uphill.
For the first time on our treks, we got a bit lost. Although the trail has been fairly easy to navigate by maps and signs until now, the trail out of Tatopani has a number of unlabeled junctures and side trails. Thankfully, you’re never far from people, and if you ask, anyone can point out the correct trail to whichever village you’re headed.
The sun came out, and our long sleeves were much too hot. Changing into our shorts and pushing up our long sleeves, we slathered on yet another layer of sunscreen. It’s been five days since we were in a place where we could shower, and we’re feeling pretty grimy – especially after our questionably clean hot spring experience last night.
As we passed, the Tamang people were harvesting their fields. With baskets strapped to their backs and scythes in their hands, they skillfully sorted wheat, millet, rice, and chilies. Even small children helped – or at least enjoyed napping nearby in the sun. We said Namaste when we walked by, and almost everyone looked up with a smile and a Namaste of their own.
Crossing the river, we walked by Chilime and around chortens and mani walls. We talked about All the Pretty Horses and about coffee and what makes a cowboy and the souls of horses. It’s nice to read and like the same book.
Past another village, we turned up another valley. We passed our first trekker of the day coming in the other direction. She looked sweaty and miserable, and she asked if the trail ahead was mostly up or down. We broke the news to her gently.
It took another couple of hours to climb to Gatlang. Passing through more terraced fields, we watched still more farmers harvesting their crops and herding cows. It seemed like we could hear the bleating of small goats from every home we passed.
Finally, we arrived in Gatlang. One of the very first buildings was a community lodge, and although it looked quite nice from the outside, the rooms were filled with too many beds, and it looked a bit dirty. Overall, I wasn’t too impressed, and I told Joshua that I’d rather see what else they had to offer in the village.
It took us 20 minutes to walk up to the road. Gatlang is huge, but unlike the other larger villages we’ve seen, it still has all cobblestone pathways with no motorized vehicles or electricity. The place is entirely uncommercialized, and everywhere you look, there are homes and gardens with chickens and livestock living on the first floor. Above, the kitchens and bedrooms are walled in with lovely, ornate wooden windows.
We walked and walked, but there were no lodges. By the road, we saw our fist lodge, but it was in the midst of construction, and when we walked inside, the rooms were half-done and dirty. I didn’t like the look of it.
We ordered lunch from the half-finished lodge, and while we waited, we looked at the map. We asked the proprietor how long he thought it would take to get to Syraphru Besi. He looked dubious. ‘Four hours,’ he said.
We debated the merits of pushing on. It would be two by the time we left Gatlang, and if it took us four hours to get to Syraphru, it would be six by the time we walked into town. It might be dark. On the up side, there would be a shower and a lodge with clean rooms. Tomorrow, we could use the internet. We didn’t particularly feel like hanging out for the rest of the afternoon in this construction site.
We decided to do it. Our food came, and a trekker and his guide arrived and took a room. Sitting at the table next to us, the trekker introduced himself. He’s from Hawaii, and he loves it. Apparently, Maui was voted the 13th best micro-climate in the world. Rent’s expensive though; he pays 2100 dollars a month, which is a lot for someone who’s never had a real job. He paints t-shirts and sells old rock and roll posters for living. It takes him three or four hours to paint his t-shirts, and he usually ends up selling them in the parking lots of concerts that he goes to.
Within the first five minutes of conversation, we discovered that he had had a nasty strain of E.coli lodged up his ureter in Kathmandu, and he considered the Grateful Dead to be the greatest rock band of all time. ‘Minnesota’s cold, isn’t it?’ he said. Next, he told us that the oil companies of America are trying to turn New Orleans into Atlantic City ‘with lots of casinos and a weird vibe,’ but he hasn’t been there ‘since it was trashed.’
Joshua is pretty funny when he’s irritated. He gets this grimace on his face that I’m pretty sure he thinks is a smile but is actually a grimace, and he tries to casually exit the conversation, but instead, he’s not casual at all and really very obvious. Right around the time our Hawaiian friend started talking about watching Humpback whales mating and eating all raw foods, Joshua abruptly stood up and went to go pay. We left quickly, leaving Mr. Maui looking a little forlorn.
I asked Joshua what had irritated him so much about Mr. Maui. He couldn’t put his finger on it, but in the end, we took a line out of All the Pretty Horses. The vaqueros hate it when people have all sorts of opinions about things that they really know very little about. Cowboys respect people who know a lot about a little and leave the opinions to everyone else. Joshua fancies himself a cowboy 🙂 (For the record, I’d have to say I’d agree with the vaqueros.)
We set out of Gatlang at a cruise. Following the road, we walked fast as our shadows grew longer and longer. We passed packs of children that shouted Namaste and then demanded money, gifts, or school pens. Some of them ran after us for a long while, having spied a pen sticking out of Joshua’s bag.
We passed Goljung after a couple of hours, but we decided to press on, and at the switchbacks down to Syraphru Besi, we took the small side path that descended down stone stairs.
In the end, it took us about three hours to walk from Gatlang to Syraphru Besi. It was still light when we walked into town, and finding the Buddha Guest House, we were taken to a clean room. At the end of the hall, the proprietor showed us the shower with an electric water heater. Just what we needed.
Shedding my pack, I headed straight for the shower. It was hot, and I soaped and shampooed myself twice over. Downstairs, Joshua had ordered two dal bhat with extra pappadam, and we played cards while we waited. When the food came, it was sublime. The dal had cilantro in it, and the kindly cook served seconds of the fried greens, my favorite dal bhaat side.
We played a few more hands of Rummy 5000. We’re coming up to 4000, and although I’ve been winning since the first hand, Joshua’s finally caught up to me. It was touch and go for a while, but he’s trying out a few new strategies, and they seem to be working out. Things are back to normal, and I’m losing again 🙂
It’s late now, and Joshua’s been sleeping for a couple of hours while I’ve been writing. I’m hoping to post everything I’ve written in the past couple of weeks tomorrow, so I’ve stayed up late finishing. Lots of love to the friends and fam at home -E
November 23, 2010
For breakfast, we sat in front of the fire, watching Nima roll out Tibetan bread and then fry them in a dry skillet. Gyurme fussed with the wood, creating a space for the bread to sit on the coals, and one at a time, Nima would deftly drop the fried pieces until they puffed and browned.
To fry the eggs, Nima first whisked them into small cups. Warming a skillet with a generous coating of oil over the flames, she dropped the egg inside, tilting the skillet until it spread into a disc, and then flipping the disc with a twist of her wrist on the skillet handle. As she worked, Gyurme hovered and tried to help, moving things or trying to hand her implements. Irritated, she swatted at his hand and pushed him to the side with her hips. Finally, he sat down in front of the fire and stuck his hands directly into the flames, warming them.
The eggs were still hot, when Nima tossed them onto the puffed pieces of Tibetan bread. The oil and salt from the eggs flavored the dry pieces of bread, and their heat put off an appealing steam. We ate them with our fingers.
Creating a cup of Tibetan tea required an even more exotic process. Using a long metal cylinder fitted with a rope to carry on their backs like a quiver for arrows, Nima emptied a small bowl of water that had been infused with dark, brown, and apparently re-used herbs into a funnel over the cylinder. Next, she threw in a couple small pats of butter, two cups of milk, a generous toss of salt, and a thermos-full of steaming water.
From here, Gyurme took over. Using a long wooden plunger, he stepped on the rope fixed to the cylinder, placed the opening of the cylinder between his knees, and then started pumping the plunger. Steam rose out of the cylinder, and the plunger made an industrious sound. Beads of sweat worked their way over Gyurme’s brow.
Nima plucked four chipped porcelain cups from her shelves, and Gyurme poured a healthy portion into each. They handed two to us, beaming, and kept the other two for themselves.
So, for the second day in a row, I choked down Tibetan tea. I don’t know if it was because I watched the whole process or if it’s because Nima made it (and everything she touches turns to gold) or if it just grows on you, but it wasn’t quite as bad as I remembered. It was almost palatable. Nima and Gyurme watched to make sure we drank every last drop. When we had finished, Gyurme seemed exceptionally proud of us and said, ‘Tibetan tea makes you very strong,’ he flexed his biceps to demonstrate, ‘it gives you gastric problems, too!’
One of the most amazing things about the whole Tibetan tea process was the cylinder-quiver. Yesterday, when we had seen them walking away from Nagthali, ready to close up and go home, they had two things with them. Gyurme had a small backpack, and Nima had the cylinder-quiver. They’re not about to spend a day without their Tibetan tea.
After breakfast, we began our hike up to the lookout point where you can see Tibet. It was a lovely hike, but we didn’t get our hopes up. When we woke up, the clouds had been thick over the mountains, and they showed no signs of letting up. After an hour of hiking through rhododendron forests that have been browned by fall, flakes of snow began to drift onto our shoulders. We continued to climb up into more forests where the gnarled trunks and branches were covered with moss like some pre-historic monsters or woodland creatures. The snow fell harder.
By the time we reached the third hill and the end of the trail, the snow was falling so hard, we could barely see twenty feet in front of us, much less Tibet. The snow was sticking to the path and trees, our shoulders and hats. It was a shame, because I’m sure we would have been able to see a spectacular view of mountains and Tibet, but it was wintry and wonderful just the same. We sang christmas songs again.
On our way down, we count ourselves lucky. Here we are, in the middle of the Himalaya, and we’re all alone. We’re hiking a trail that’s been open for just four years, and we’re getting a chance to meet Nepalis who have lived, cooked, and worked here for generations. We’re learning their names, and we’re eating their food. All around us, the landscape is spectacular. Some day, not too long from now, Nagthali will probably look and feel a lot like Ghorepani, and this hike up to the Tibet viewpoint might even look a lot like Poon Hill. But for now, it’s just us and Gyurme and Nami, and we feel like we’ve stumbled upon an incredible secret.
After three hours, their little white and yellow lodge comes into view. Nami is outside, standing with her arms crossed over her chest and looking out towards the Langtang mountains. Down the hill and over a distance, two small figures are sitting next to a prayer flag. She tells me one of them is Gyurme.
Joshua and I pack up our things and move them to the picnic table outside the kitchen. Although the clouds had seemed impenetrable just half an hour ago, the sun has broken through, and we can see some of the Langtang mountains peaking out. It’s just before 11, and Joshua goes off to the bathroom. Nima walks over to me and asks, ‘lunch?’ I try to tell her that we’d like lunch between 11:30 and noon, but this proves to be very difficult. Nima walks inside to get their little battery-run clock and comes back outside. She points at it and then she points at me. I try to show her 11:30. I point at the minute hand and then make a noise as though I’m dragging it around to the number 6. Nima looks at me, confused.
After a couple of minutes of trying to talk to each other, we give up and look back at the mountains. I’ve closed my hand into a loose fist, and it’s lying next to the little clock on the table. Nima raises her hand and I see her debate whether or not to pull it back, but in the end, she pats the top of my fist with her palm. Then she picks up the clock and walks back into the kitchen.
Joshua comes back a couple of minutes later, and we take out our books to read. I’ve just started All the Pretty Horses, and I have to say that I’m enjoying it every bit as much as Joshua did. I guess it’s not just a boy thing. McCarthy’s dialogue is perfect and hilarious, and during some scenes, I’m laughing so hard, I’m snorting. In honor of some of the best lines, we’ve begun asking each other ‘where’d you get that gun?’ and the other responds, ‘at the gettin’ place.’
A little after 11, we figure it’s time to order lunch. Joshua walks inside to order a couple veg fried rice, and he walks out a couple minutes later, having had none of the communication problems Nima and I had. As we wait, we continue to read. I stop Joshua every few minutes or so to repeat some of the dialogue.
In the kitchen, we hear Nima chopping. She dumps something into the frying pan, and it sizzles. After a bit, she brings out a couple of plates, and the rice is the same as it was the night before, and unlike so many of our other lunches, it requires no additional spices. By now, Nima’s cooking has risen to epic heights. She can do no wrong.
As we’re finishing our lunch, Gyurme walks up from his lookout. He nods a Namaste at us, but he heads first for his wife. They don’t touch, but they stand close to one another, talking. Nima’s shoulders seem to relax when he is near. Once he’s talked to Nima, he walks over to us and asks us about our hike this morning. We tell him that Tibet was hidden, but that it was still a lovely hike, and he nods his head. He laughs when we tell him it snowed a ton.
Nima and Gyurme head into the kitchen, and we hear them eating. We read our books for a few more pages, and then Joshua goes inside to pay. Nima and Gyurme ask him if he’ll wait for them to finish eating. They’d like to say goodbye.
Once they’ve finished, they walk out to us and Joshua settles the bill. We take a few more photos of the lodge to post on-line, and Nima hovers around, making sure that we’ve gotten the best angles. When we put on our packs, Gyurme tells us to follow him, and we all do, including Nima. Up on the hill, we walk over to the very edge, and he points out Tatopani, far below. The top lodge is his brother’s, he says. Nima touches my arm and points to the south. ‘Gatlang,’ she says. I nod. She moves her hand a little to the east. ‘Goljung,’ she says. I nod again. Then she tugs my arm. When she starts walking, I follow her. She looks to make sure I’m right behind, and as we walk, I notice how much taller I am. Her flip flops slap at her heels as we walk along.
A little ways away, on the south side of the hill, she comes to a prayer flag and beneath it, an exposed bit of rock. She points at three small depressions that look vaguely like footprints. ‘Buddha’s foot,’ she says, and then she sits right on top of the rock, with her feet tucked under her. She points at three more villages. ‘Dunche, Thulu Syraphru, Syraphru Besi,’ she says.
Gyurme and Joshua come up behind us, and just like Nima, Gyurme tells Joshua about the Buddha’s footprints. Gyurme sits down next to Nima on the rock on the edge of the steep hillside, and we thank them for their hospitality. Nima tells us to come again when we have a family. Gyurme tells us to not forget about the photos on the website. We tell him we won’t forget.
They point out our path to Tatopani, and as we walk away, we wave goodbye. They stay seated on the Buddha’s rock, waving back at us and looking out at the mountains to the west.
The trail from Nagthali to Tatopani is downhill, and we spend the first hour picking our way down a steep slope. Without trees to block our view, we can see Chilime, Gatlang, Goljung, and Syraphru Besi in the distance. The clouds have cleared, and the sun has even come out. Up above, the snowy mountains emerge.
In Brimdang, we loose the path at a gompa, and then we find it again. A pack of enormous grey and white monkeys gallop off into the trees just feet in front of us, and we stand, gaping at these enormous creatures, hanging from the trees. Their tails have to be almost four feet long, and they’re all looking at us, curious.
Brimdang is a small collection of wooden homes with terraced fields. A couple of women in the traditional Tamang top-hat and dress are sitting in their front yard, sorting grain. They bow deeply when we say Namaste. On the other side of town, a dozen or more cows are coming up the path, and a couple of herders in their woolen tunics and enormous Gorkha knifes tucked into their belts are tapping their rumps with bamboo switches. We come to a stand-off on the edge of a rice terrace, and although I’m terrified of their pointy, long horns, they’re actually more terrified of us. They look at us, and then they look at the fence into the field next to them. Much to the dismay of the herders, they decide to walk right through the fence.
Inside the field, two small children are running and jumping into stacks of hay. The little girl is a bit older, but she can’t be more than seven. When the herders yell at the cows, she takes matters into her own hands. She runs up in front of the big bull and stares him down, yelling. Then she picks up a little stone and chucks it right between the bull’s horns. He backs up and goes out the fence, leading a little entourage behind him.
It takes another hour from Brimdang to reach Tatopani, and as we walk, we talk about the jobs we’ve had. Joshua started out at Taco Bell, held a brief stint at Menards, and then moved on to Davannis, where he made pizzas and then delivered them. He worked from the time he was 14, and he worked all the way through the school year, too. In college, he worked at the gym and then at the school cafeteria. In the summers, he worked for conferences.
Of course, I’ve heard all of these stories before, but still, it’s fun to total them all up and compare our experiences. I started working when I was 14 too. I bussed tables and filled drinks at Key’s Cafe and Bakery the first summer, and the next, I was a receptionist at Great Clips, sorting bills, sweeping hair, and folding laundry. In the summer after I went to England, I worked at the Turkey Drumstick stand at the state fair, accumulating layers of grease and grit all over my skin, and then the next year, I worked the night shift at Fed Ex, sorting irregular packages. In college, I never stayed in one place for long, and I worked a series of office jobs – stuffing envelopes in Admissions, doing odd-jobs in Alumni Giving, and totaling figures in Accounting. In the summers, I worked for Fed Ex and another office job at Walden, and then with conferences. The last year of school, I gave speeches and rallied idealists to work in our country’s poorest schools, and in the Spring, I worked for a Montessori center, running after toddlers and wiping up their poo.
After a while, we could see the buildings of Tatopani through the trees, and before long, we were walking by three steaming pools, filled with Indian and Nepali men and women. At the back, carved fountains spouted hot water that smelled of sulfur, and behind the pools, dozens of prayer flags were strung over the source of the hot spring.
We passed the hot spring, and down below, we found Pilgrim’s Guest House, a large, well-kept, and completely empty lodge. The owner came out of his kitchen as we walked up, and when we asked if he had a room, he took us up to one on the second floor with lots of windows and a view of the valley. He told us it was ours for a hundred rupees a night. Done.
Changing into boxers and t-shirts, we gathered our towels and flip flops and walked to the hot spring. The three square-shaped pools were each filled with murky, brownish water, and a thin sheen of what looked like oil coated the water like skin. We got in.
For an hour, we sat in the hot water, enjoying the warmth and steam. In the pool next to ours, a dozen women were lounging, wearing red sarongs that bared their shoulders but covered them to their knees. On their heads, they’d wrapped up their hair in plastic bags. Some of the women were Buddhist nuns, and their closely shaved hair and red bathing robes seemed out of place in the steam.
The men in our pool and the pool to the other side had hairstyles that we’ve seen on some of the saddhus – a close crop with a tuft of hair at the crown in the back. They have a piece of string tied under their armpit like a shoulder bag with no bag and another tied around their waist.
After a while, two very old Tamang women approached the pools. Dressed in their traditional long wrap dress, woolen tunic, top hat, and fabric belts, they took their time de-layering. Although our guide book had warned us to dress modestly at the pools, it seemed like maybe it wasn’t as big of a deal as they had thought. These two very old, very wrinkled women were completely topless, and they wrapped their impossibly long braids around their heads like a crown before they walked into the water and stood under the fountains.
We’d been in the pools for a long while before another Westerner came in. A New Zealander with a guide, he got in and sat next to us, asking us about our trek so far and telling us a little bit about his job as a care giver and his studies in Organic Farming.
The steam went to our heads, and once we had been in the pool for about an hour, we were ready to head back to the lodge. Saying goodbye to the New Zealander, we wrapped up in our towels and walked to our room. After we had changed into some dry clothes, we ordered dal bhat and sat in the dining room, reading and playing cards.
The sun set, and after a little bit, our food came. It wasn’t as good as Nima’s, but it was still pretty tasty. After a few hands of Rummy 5000, Joshua stopped having fun. It seems that, after a good six years of learning how to play, I now know how to win, and I do so with alarming frequency. It’s making my husband cranky.