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Kanchenjunga Magic & Tengkoma
Their private expedition of October/November 2000
by Bob Rosenbaum
After 30 years of backpacking in the Sierras and Cascades, it's time to see the big mountains of Nepal. Twelve years ago I lived in India, with the Himalayas seemingly near; prudence, though, and my wife's entreaties dictated not bringing our 5 and 9 year old daughters on a high-altitude trek. As per the bargain my wife and I reached at the time, I am now finally departing for Nepal as a 50th birthday present for myself.
The last six months I've been reading maps, exploring routes, buying supplies, and checking out possible trekking outfits. As a long-time backpacker, the ultra-luxurious package treks don't hold much appeal; as someone who lived in India and knows the difficulties of organizing logistics in that part of the world, the ultra-cheap Nepalese trekking agencies might involve negotiating more of a challenge than I care to assume. So I've corresponded with several smaller, independent trekking outfits run by Westerners who specialize in the Himalayas. I've been most impressed with my interactions with Jamie McGuinness, a New Zealander who not only has authored several trekking guides on the region but who has been living in Nepal for the past 10 years or so and seems to be more interested in the Nepalese people, mountains, and society than in making huge amounts of money from trek-tourists. He has a great web site, his books provide honest, clear appraisals of the regions. His messages over e-mail and once over the phone were informative, thoughtful, good-natured; he seems to have the knack of being knowledgeable without pompous, competent in an open, easy-going way.
Jamie has agreed to arrange a trek for myself and the three friends I've recruited for this adventure. Wes Lamb has been a friend, work colleague, and running companion since the early 1980s. He's got a dry sense of humor, a mid-Westerner's tolerance for suffering, and an itch to see the Himalayas even though he'd rather be sleeping in a hotel bed than in a sleeping bag. (He says he got a better sense of what the trek will be like when he learned, from my suggestion of equipment to bring, that a thermarest inflatable pad would be an upgrade). Bob Peltier I've known less long, since I've been studying qi gong, where he's an assistant teacher with more experience than myself. Bob also has a quiet, unflappable manner which should go well in a travelling companion, and it will be fun doing qigong together on the roof of the world. Both Bob and Wes are older than I by 8-9 years, in less good shape, and somewhat concerned about the rigors of altitude and the trek. Our fourth member, Clem, in contrast is about 8 years younger than I and probably in the best shape of any of us. Clem recently came back from a motorcycle tour of Vietnam he undertook with a friend. I've known Clem a little less time than Wes, meeting him also through work.
After much research and advice from Jamie, I've decided to go trekking in the Kanchenjunga region, which Jamie says has only been open to trekkers for the last 12 years and has not yet been overly developed in the way the Annapurna and Everest regions have been. Kanchenjunga is the 3rd highest peak in the world, and nearby is a 6000 meter peak we'll be able to attempt to summit, since it doesn't require technical climbing skills. Jamie went on this trek last year, and I've read an account by one of the trek participants which makes it sound just right for my friends and I. While I might like something with a bit more snow, ice, and technical glacier work, two of my friends are not so keen on such things; also, the alternatives tend to be either more crowded (e.g. Mera peak) or more dangerous (e.g. the Trashi Labtsa out of Rowaling). So this seems a good choice. Jamie won't be able to come himself - he'll be leading a trek around Manaslu - but at our request to provide a Western leader, he's been able to have his friend Joel Shone come with us. Joel was on the trek to Kanchenjunga last year and has a lot of experience in the Himalayas himself, though he does less technical climbing than Jamie (who has summited some 8000 meter peaks).
So after years of anticipation and months of preparation, it's finally time to depart. I'll be meeting Bob P in Oakland; we'll fly down to LA, meet Wes, get a flight to Bangkok, and from there to Kathmandu where Clem will meet us a day later.
Judi drives me to the airport. She's been tremendously supportive of the whole venture - my mooning over photos of the Himalaya, obsessing over the equipment, arranging to take care of things while I'm gone. She finally joined me for a backpacking trip this summer, and enjoyed it. I wish she were coming with me - but it doesn't make sense to leave our teenage daughter alone for a month (though our daughter disagrees!). And Judi did get to make her own 50th-birthday voyage to Africa last year.
Send-off at the airport was uneventful. Checked my duffel bag through all the way to Kathmandu - hope it makes it (it did). Wearing my boots (broken in over the last 6 months - don't want to lose them) and carrying my bamboo hiking stick which has accompanied me on all my backpacks over the last 30 years. Bob P and I say goodbye to our wives, board the plane, and head off. Arriving in LAX - a cesspool of an airport - we hike from our arrival gate to the international terminal, and discover LAX is not meant for pedestrians. But we manage to check in, do a set of qigong on a patio outside. Within the terminal we run into Clem (who's on a different flight) and rendezvous with Wes.
Flight to Bangkok is LONG - 16 hours, via Tokyo. Wes and I sit next to each other, alternately doze, watch Jackie Chan film, read. Bob's on another aisle. We're thankful to arrive, but also exhausted. We need to go through immigration and customs in order to get to the airport hotel, where we'll say for our 12-hour layover overnight. In the process of finding our way and dealing with long lines late at night (or whatever time it is), by the time we arrive at the airport hotel I realize I've left my precious hiking stick back in the terminal. So I retrace my steps through the hot, humid airport corridors and proclaim my predicament in the almost-deserted back offices. A helpful, courteous Thai airport employee informs me I can't go back through into the restricted area to search for my stick, but volunteers to try for me (though she's skeptical about finding it). After 30 minutes of tired waiting, during which I try (with some success) to detach from my desire for my old friend the bamboo, she comes back triumphantly bearing the stick. Smiles and bows all around. Back over the ramp to the hotel, a very pleasant room, and bed in a room shared with Bob.
Day 2: Bangkok-Kathmandu
The Thai hotel has a sumptuous buffet: English/Japanese/Thai food, in nice hotel atmosphere with lush plants outside conservatory type windows. Back to the airport, through immigration, back on the plane, completely full just as the last plane was (and every plane we take on this trip). It's under three hours to Kathmandu, and about halfway there we begin to get mountain views. The sky is clear and cloudless, and although we are probably flying around 30000 feet, the mountains are not far below us. The next hour is a matter of staring through the window: first at the Kanchenjunga massif, which I recognize from photos... then, continuing west, more snow-capped peaks come into view until I recognize the bare pyramid of Everest, and exciting moment. Everest is rather grim in its massiveness and its absence of snow; still far away but impressive by how its bulk outweighs the intervening distance.
We land in Kathmandu, and are happy to see snow-capped peaks are visible even from the valley - or at least from this point in the valley. Long lines at the airport to get our Nepal visa, change money: all the time I'm wondering whether the arrangements will work, will someone from Explore Himalaya be there to meet us? My Indian experiences don't lead me to be sanguine. But no - once through the formalities, there's Joel and representatives from Explore Himalaya to greet us with marigold leis - a little tacky, but I guess traditional - load our bags onto a van, and whisk us off to Kathmandu. As we drive through the streets of Kathmandu, it looks a great deal like India, with its dust, its bustle, its open-air shops and lively clashes of sounds and colors. On closer inspection, though, it's a bit cleaner; there are few (if any) cows wandering the streets; while the familiar yellow and black motor rickshaws are present, there's a wider variety of cars on the road (rather than just the Ambassador); in general it seems a bit less overwhelming and a bit more prosperous than the typical Indian city.
We arrive at the Hotel Dynasty, very pleasant "old British Empire" type setting on a back street of Thamel. Thamel is the tourist quarter, always noisy late into the night, but the hotel manages to be quiet even though it's only a couple of blocks away from the main drag. It has carved wooden balconies, marble floors, basic but clean accommodations. After giving us a chance to get our bearings, Joel takes us for lunch around the block to Kilroy's. Joel is fun to be with but definitely hyper - he's got lots of things to organize, and he hates being in Kathmandu and is eager to be out on the trail. He's a mine of information about trekking, Nepalese and Indian experiences, books and movies. More on him in a bit.
Joel tells us there are only a few restaurants in Kathmandu we can be sure to eat with impunity, Kilroy's being one of them. The price of the restaurant, or its presence in a fancy hotel, is not insurance of its hygiene. Kilroy's is a Kathmandu fixture, with a courtyard garden, an upstairs patio, an open kitchen. It serves mostly American type luncheon fare but also a few local dishes, and Joel treats us to our first dal bhaat - sort of like a less elaborate Indian thali, basically a mound of rice, a little bit of dal, some curried vegetables. It's excellent, which is fortunate, because we're basically going to be living on it for the next 3-4 weeks.
Joel has errands to run, so he whisks us off to accompany him on his walk through the streets of Kathmandu, meanwhile taking us to a picturesque (and lesser-known) square which is a favorite of his, then on to the main square, Durbar square, where he leaves us to wander around at will. Katmandu is much like a south Indian city, with all the usual assaults on the senses, but a bit less crowded, a bit gentler. Also, many of the shops are displaying - in addition to the usual pots and pans and foodstuffs and clothing -- trekking gear (much of it shoddy, but some of it top-notch). In general, fewer beggars and peddlers and less aggressive than in India. However, Bob and Wes make the mistake of paying attention to them, evincing interest in their wares and their tales, and soon are pursued by a hoard. I try to coach Bob and Wes on how to handle the situation, but they are intent, it seems to me, on examining every curio peddler in Durbar square. So I wander up some temple steps, quite steep, and get a sunset view of the snow peaks of the Langtang Himal. At the bottom of the steps is a pseudo-saddhu, offering to pose with tourists for pictures. Wandering back through the twilight, I almost get lost, but manage to stumble my way back to Kilroy's and, from there, to the hotel. Joel takes us out for dinner that night to the heart of Thamel which is almost as brightly lit as the Ginza and twice as crowded with bookstores, hot bread shops, trinket shops, postcards, prayer wheel sellers, and so forth. We go up a flight of stairs to "Over the Rainbow" where I have a great macaroni and cheese, better than we get in the States (costing maybe $2?). Joel meets some trekking acquaintances, and we all chat a bit - Martin had been over to Dhaulagiri recently, had some close calls, is about to set off for Langtang. This happens again and again, wherever Joel goes he meets someone he's trekked with, or talked about trekking with - there's a community of perennial, if peripatetic, trekkers who just keep coming back to Kathmandu to re-supply and set right out again all over the country, and the talk is always about trekking, people encountered, trail conditions, etc. This may sound boring but you quickly feel part of the fraternity and it's all very friendly and communal.
It's been a full day: bed, because we'll be up early tomorrow to take the Everest flight.
Day 3: mountain flight and Kathmandu
Up early, back out to the airport - we're getting to know this route well - to take the morning sightseeing flight to Everest. The day is clear, so after a short wait the 4 of us join another 10 or 11 tourists (elderly Germans) and pile into a small Beechcraft twin-engined plane. We all have window seats, and are excited. The flight is spectacular - not just Everest, but the approach flying over smaller (20,000 foot) peaks which are heavily glaciated. We fly close enough to be able to look down into the crevasses of these peaks; after that Everest is almost an anticlimax (we can't fly too close to Everest, because of the tricky winds and its location on the international border with Tibet). The Himalayas are obviously a young range, incredibly steep, with precipitous hills and deep valleys leading up to the main body of peaks.
By the time we get back, it's lunchtime. Back to Kilroy's - conveniently located next to the hotel. Then Joel takes us to Shona's, just a block or so away, to get outfitted for the trek. Shona is a knowledgeable, teasing Nepali woman who, with her British-Australian partner has been outfitting groups for years, including major climbing expeditions. Their shop - a small alcove in the row upon rows of small shops in the 'bazaar' of Thamel -- is incredibly crowded with gear, used and new, some of which they make themselves. (The gear they make is first-rate and much cheaper than in the US). Also, because there are no copyrights honored in Nepal, much of the gear bears "trademarks" such as North Face, Mountain Hardwear, etc.; some of it has their own label. The shop is also incredibly crowded with trekkers looking to rent, buy, and borrow gear. Shona jokes and teases with all of them, shrewdly assessing their needs (and capabilities). Joel insists on our renting plastic boots, even though Jamie has reported we probably won't need them as there isn't much snow up where we're going: but Joel is more interested in the warmth the boots will provide. The boots and ice axes are all included in the trek fee; Joel asks Shona if she wants a deposit but she says Jamie's name is enough - but warns us to make sure we bring everything back, because while she likes Jamie, she doesn't like him enough to have him laboring next to her in her shop for days on end to work off a debt! We also pick up some down booties -- $11 and an extra neoprene pee bottle for those cold nights in the tents.
We go our separate ways to take in the sights of Kathmandu. I walk back to the "unnamed" square that's Joel's favorite (he says if it gets commercialized, he'll stop living in Kathmandu). While there I run into a young boy who was there the day before. "Hello sir! You from US? Ask me to name a state capitol!" He knows them all. Very personable. I ask why he isn't in the school (which is there on the square, the classroom sounds floating dropping down from the second story open windows). Then he asks for a favor, very apologetically: could I buy some milk powder for his baby sister? He seems quite sincere, though when I decide this is a good thing to do, I begin to get suspicious when he steers me to a particular shop, passing several others along the way. Though I begin to wonder if it's a scam, nonetheless, I pay the 500 or so rupees; this seems expensive to me, but rather harmless. At the end of it I feel I've been "taken," but as Joel points out later, when I ask (and he confirms) that it is a scam (the boy just returns the mild powder to the shopkeeper, who can resell it several times) - so, I've spent around $10. It goes back into the local economy, none of the people involved are rich, and at least the street kid gets a cut of it. Joel got taken in by it once, it's a relatively new scam for the area.
Back to the hotel, to meet Clem who has arrived on his flight from Japan. He's a bit jet-lagged but ready to go sight-seeing, so we walk out through the streets of Kathmandu: past gompas and consecrated scraggly trees (a dab of red powder on the bark, a few marigold petals, and presto! - a shrine, in the middle of the street), hawkers of cheap Indian hangings, expensive Kashmiri scarves, down "meat alley" with its stripped carcasses hanging from ceilings of cramped stalls. We stop to pick up a few postcards at a stationery store, and the proprietor engages us in conversation, presses some free postcards on us, and wishes us a good trek.
It's getting late in the afternoon. We then wind our way back to the Himalayas Explorer Club, right across from Kilroy's: Joel is giving a slide show talk to benefit the HEC. The HEC has a number of program going, ranging from collecting spare gear to provide to porters, to sponsoring English teachers in the villages. We're served milk tea in a small room with about 20 others, as Joel shows his pictures of the Himalayas from the far West - a sere Tibetan landscape straddling India and Nepal and Pakistan, where you can walk for days over high deserts with the far mountains never appearing to get much closer until you're right on top of them -- to the far East, where we'll be going. Makalu in particular looks severe. Joel hurries over his slides of Kanchenjunga, so as not to anticipate our trek. Then convivial chatting with trekkers from a variety of countries, all excited at where they've been or we're they're off to - Joel helpful to all of them with advice, connections, stories.
Off to dinner at Fire and Ice, an Italian/pizza restaurant in Thamel. I am shocked to discover the pizza is arguably the best I've had, including in New York, Italy (not to mention the lame attempts in the Bay Area). The proprietor, it turns out, is an Italian expatriate who brought her pizza oven with her. Joel knows the waiters and proprietress, and is pleased to find the beer is cold (a requirement for him). After dinner, we explore the Thamel area, a cross between Bangalore's Brigade Road and Times Square. Tourists from all over the world, young people travelling for a year, older ex-hippies: bright lights, souvenirs, restaurants, "hot bread" shops (pastries, meat pies, etc. to nourish scroungers on a budget: after 10pm everything is half-price). Joel shows us Pilgrim's, a great bookstore for anything having to do with Nepal and the Himalaya. Since there's no copyright, the books are often pirated reproductions, which makes them considerably cheaper than at home. One very positive side of these reproductions: books which are otherwise out of print [and out of copyright] are available here.
Clem and I need to change some money, so we stop at a little storefront operation to do so. While changing money, one of the clerks notices my Qigong T-shirt, and asks me about it. In his broken English, he tells me he has been studying Tai Chi and someone at his school has just recently started teaching some qigong; we chat a bit and he asks me to demonstrate. So I wind up doing a qigong set on the cramped linoleum floor of the moneychanging shop, with the clerks (and passersby) an attentive audience. Much good-will on all sides.
Back to the hotel - get all packed up, figure out a few things to leave behind. Tomorrow we fly off to Biratnagar, en route to the start of our trek.
Day 4: Kathmandu-Biratnagar
Up early in the morning for a nice long meditation. Then Bob and I go out to the hotel's front patio to do qigong. Some porters, or possibly just luggage boys for another group, occupy their time while waiting by watching our antics; passing school children are particularly curious, while the doorman is bemused (and chases some onlookers away, when they block the narrow dirt street). Once we go in to breakfast, we find that the flight has been delayed, so we have a few hours. A good time to study the Mountain and Waters sutra, go get a camera battery, and window shop.
We walk down the street with Joel to a Japanese tea shop, where I introduce Joel, Bob, and Wes to the pleasures of rice balls sour plums and green tea. It's odd to talk Japanese in the midst of an Indian type environment, but the food is pleasant and the small shop quiet, a nice respite from the noisy street. Back to the hotel. On the way I stop by a shop recommended by Bob to order some T-shirts. Bob had ordered some custom-made T-shirts and was pleased with both the work and the price. I order a dozen for the folks back home: some with Buddha eyes, some with dragons. All will be made in this shop on their battered old sewing machine, for about $4 to $5 apiece. The proprietor is friendly, courteous, and competent. I pay a deposit in advance for goods I'll be picking up in 3 to 4 weeks, post-trek; my prior experience in India makes me wonder whether they'll actually be ready, or of any quality, but things seem to work better here. (In fact, on our return, when I passed by the shop on the way to the hotel the proprietor recognized me, and called out to me the shirts were ready and I could come pick them up at my leisure. And the quality was excellent).
Around the corner, back to the hotel, everyone's waiting. The van's loaded, let's get to the airport. Now, it feels the adventure begins its next beginning. The airport, of course, is swarming: it's the domestic terminal during the trekking season. There is some confusion about luggage: it seems Bob P and Wes have brought so much that Explore Himalaya has to buy another two seats on the plane to accommodate it. (The plane, a twin-engine 18-seater, has limited carrying capacity so they have to be careful about such things). This means making further arrangements with the folks in Biratnagar for the next leg. But it's all worked out, with no particular bother to us (though I feel a little guilty about the hassle it causes Joel and company). Once baggage is checked, we're ushered through "security" - one line for men, one for women, into a curtained alcove where a guard speaks pleasantly to us and waves us through. Then a long wait in the terminal, until finally we board our plane. The plane isn't much bigger than the sightseeing plane we took to Everest, and we're crammed in, carrying our plastics and daypack. My beloved hiking stick, veteran of all my hikes, is stowed below (though the plane's luggage compartment isn't much bigger than some minivans). The Twin Otter plane has 3 narrow seats across, supporting struts run to the wing and there is no door to the cockpit. This is a work plane, not a luxury liner.
The flight itself is spectacular: constant views of the Himalaya, first of the Everest region, then the long ridge to Makalu, and Kanchenjunga's massif looming ahead. After about an hour of views, we start turning away from the mountains and the terrain alters, becoming as level as any plain in the Midwest, but with the kind of green seen only in tropical climes. The Terai. We land at Biratnagar and immediately feel the heat and humidity, despite it's being early November. The land is flat, flat, flat, and right next to the landing field are grazing animals and women harvesting. We're met at the airport by the hotel people, but they're a vehicle short: Joel will need to piggyback behind the driver of a motorbike. We pass thatched huts and grazing fields by the airport, and plunge into Northern India: women walking with bundles on their shoulders and heads, cows wandering in the streets, men chatting on street corners, dirty shacks clustered together, beeping cars wildly driven. In fact, we're only 10-15 miles from the Indian border here.
We make it to the hotel, which is a typical Indian hotel (not the luxury kind, the one Indians go to). That is, it's somewhat dingy but perfectly acceptable: though it is a disappointment the air conditioning doesn't work. It has standard Indian toilet, shower with its own water heater, ceiling fans. There's nothing much to see in the town, and this is malaria country so avoiding mosquitoes is wise. So we rendezvous in the lobby for a late afternoon snack which, once ordered, takes forever to arrive. (It seems the management doesn't want us eating and drinking in the lobby, but are too polite to tell us). While we wait, I scan the English-language papers: there's an article on the "hee-hee club," which advocates the power of laughter for improving health (Martin Seligman would approve). Another article waxes ironically nostalgic over the "Amby" (the Ambassador, the only car available in India for a long time, now supplanted). Once the snacks arrive (after we move into the restaurant), they're excellent Indian food, as is the supper.
Back up to the hot room. A clerk comes by, and with mysterious ministrations over electrical converters and switches, the air conditioning springs to life. I have some trouble sleeping though: perhaps it's excitement at the prospect of finally shouldering a daypack and taking off on the trek tomorrow.
Day 5: Biratnagar-Suketar
After a restless night, I'm up by 5:15 to meditate. Afterwards, I enjoyed turning on the Indian-style water heater and having an Indian-style "shower" (pouring hot water over myself from a bucket; water leaves via a drain in the floor, near the toilet). We have a somewhat soggy English style breakfast, and Joel introduces us to Marmite - an English yeast extract bread spread which is an acquired taste.
Back again to the airport; on the way I think I catch a glimpse of white mountains across the flat green fields. So once we've been deposited at the airport and have a while to wait, I walk back along the road, past bicycle rickshaws and early morning laborers: around a bend is a classic scene of shacks, tropical farmland, grazing animals, and - in the distance - the ghostly white shape of Kanchenjunga.
Returning to the airport, I'm somewhat anxious: I forgot to tell people I was going off, and a half hour has gone by. I should have plenty of time, still, before the plane, but suppose the flight has been pre-poned (as is sometimes the custom in India)? Not to worry: there's still plenty of time to wait. Bob P. is doing qigong warm-up exercises out in front of the terminal (a small, weathered, one-story stucco building); a crew of bicycle rickshaw drivers and waiting passengers has gathered to watch the strange proceedings. I join Bob, and we do first-second-first set of qigong: very satisfying. At the end of the qigong, one onlooker approaches us politely to ask: "Excuse me, sirs, one question: Was that prayer? Or exercise?" (We laugh, and I answer: "both."). Meanwhile Joel, Clem and Wes have been vastly amused by the spectacle.
Once again we take off in an 18-seater, twin-engine prop plane. We're flying to Suketar, and spectacular views - first of the Terai, then deep valleys, then views of Makalu, Kanchenjunga. Landing offers a bit of excitement: the Suketar "airstrip" is a narrow, unpaved, flat (but bumpy) field perched on top of a mountain, with a sheer drop at the end of the runway. We land without incident, though, and it's exciting to feel perched up high with winds blowing scattered clouds across neighboring peaks. There are views even from the landing field of peaks with touches of snow: nothing huge, but still it feels we're on top, in the mountains at last. We'll discover, where we are is not a "mountain" by Himalayan standards. In fact, it's only about 6600 feet high, but with its steep drop-offs, its views of distant peaks, its chilly wind setting the adjoining gompa's prayer flags to fluttering, and its lack of anything higher in the immediate vicinity, it feels high to us. Also, I'd been worried it would be hot at the beginning of the trek, but the wind from the mountains is brisk enough I put on my fleece, feeling refreshed after Biratnagar's humidity. .
There are lots of people lining the field, far too many to be welcoming 18 people or saying goodbye to another 18. It turns out the daily landing is a major source of entertainment for the village, so most of them turn out to watch. We'll see some of the reason for this on our return. For right now, it's good to get off the plane, and it's time for introductions.
Joel spies a sherpa he knows [Tenzin Gyatso, who was climbing sherpa for the 1999 Kanchenjunga Magic] and has been on trek with; he won't be coming with us, but has been immortalized in Krakauer's "Into Thin Air" as "the Sherpa who fell into a crevasse." He welcomes Joel with a big smile and laugh; Joel introduces us. Then we meet Dawa Gyalgen, who will be our climbing Sherpa. Dawa is a moderately short, dark-skinned Sherpa with a relaxed manner and a wide, bright, winning smile. We later learn from Joel how lucky we are to have him: Dawa has summited Everest, and we wouldn't normally be able to afford his services. However, he would like to see the Kanchenjunga area, since he's never trekked there (though he was briefly helicoptered in once to help with a rescue).
I'll get to know Dawa a bit over the course of the trek, and his presence turns out to be one of the best parts of the experience. He's always cheerful, and his philosophy seems to be: if things are good, laugh a lot; if there are problems, laugh a lot; and if it's in-between, just poke around a bit to indulge your curiosity and things will probably tilt one way or another. On the trail he's incredibly fit and strong, but also relaxed and casual; you never feel compelled to perform to keep up with him or impress him, and he has the knack of being attentive without being intrusive. He will shepherd us along the trail, going at our pace without a hint of impatience, leaving plenty of time to look under a bush for herbs or to stop by a trailside house and hop in, Sherpa-fashion, for a spontaneous visit. Sometimes he will need to go on ahead, and then we see his incredible strength and agility; he can go along the trail at least three times faster than we can.
Dawa has a wide sense of acceptance, and a nondiscriminatory manner which allows him to pitch a tent, brew tea, or lead a climb with equal dedication and good cheer. It's a little odd to have someone so competent as he serving us tea or chapattis - it feels we should be serving him - but his obvious sense that nobody is better or worse than anybody else brings a sense of harmony to all our interactions. (Joel does mention, though, that Sherpas tend to form opinions about you according to how well you take care of your things: something Mel has mentioned as important to Zen practice). Dawa is about 32, married, with children he has attending school in Kathmandu and family in his Khumbu village. He also has lived as a monk for 3 years or so, and remains quite religious: later on we'll have a number of enjoyable conversations about Buddhism, despite his limited English and my non-existent Nepali.
Dawa's village, it turns out, shares a market with a neighboring village which is the home of our Sirdar, Ram Kaji. As Sirdar, Ram Kaji is actually in charge of the expedition. Explore Himalaya (the Nepalese group which Joel and Jamie are associated with) give Ram Kaji a certain amount of money, and with that he hires a cook, kitchen crew, and porters; negotiates their salaries; supervises their work; determines how many people will be needed for each stage of the trek; where we'll stop for lunch each day and where we'll camp at night. He is possibly the most courteous man I've ever met, and also one of the most competent. He is able to get the best out of his crew, maintaining high standards while also watching over their health and welfare. In our country, he'd make a terrific administrator. He also has an unobtrusive, sly way of managing us, soliciting our suggestions but easily guiding them so they fit the needs of the whole group. As most sirdars, he started as a porter and worked his way up, and is now one of the most respected sirdars around. Unlike many, he attends scrupulously to our group's impact on the environment; during the trek, he occasionally lectures other sirdars who have left trash lying around when they broke camp. There sometimes can be tension between Sirdar and climbing Sherpa; on our trek Ram Kaji and Dawa get along very well (they've been friends from before this), and the general crew morale is very high. We're very fortunate. Ram Kaji's one regret is his illiteracy; like Dawa, he is educating his children in Kathmandu, but he is also sponsoring an education project in his home village to increase both native language and English literacy. (Joel will be working with him in this regard. Joel, who supports himself in England as a teacher, is putting together an English-language reader for Nepalese with illustrations and stories about each of the various regions of Nepal, so students can read about their own region).
Ram Kaji and Dawa are holding cups
It takes a while to get our crew organized, so we lounge around and chat with a few of the Europeans who are returning from trek. They all say there is very little snow up in Pangpema; some of them had very cloudy weather though, with limited visibility. Some are reluctant to leave; others are looking forward to hot showers and clean clothes.
We have lunch in the "teahouse" by the landing strip. The teahouse is a two-story wood structure with a few small rooms for trekkers upstairs, and some tables, chairs, and a cooking hearth on the ground floor. The smiling woman proprietor serves up beer to Joel, Wes, and Clem, probably our last for a while. Her teahouse was the scene of the big beer bash at the end of Joel's last Kanchenjunga trip, and she remembers him well! Lunch is served by our crew, our first meal cooked by them, and it's quite good.
At last, it's time to set off. I am initially dismayed to hear we will not be following the route Joel took last year, to Patibhara, which stays on the ridge top and offers some views of the peaks. It turns out that last year the group lost their way and wound up having a terrible time scrambling through muddy landslides and unpleasant terrain, and Joel is not anxious to repeat the experience (especially since we have no information about the trail conditions that way). The alternate, more commonly used trail, leads down. I'm not happy about losing altitude, but we'd have to do so anyway after Patibhara (both routes basically go to the same spot). Getting lost doesn't seem like a good way to start the trek, though. We look at the map together, and I'm introduced to my first fact of Nepalese trekking: most maps aren't very accurate. It's not completely clear where we're going - we're not taking the most commonly used trail, which does directly down to the river, but instead winding through the hills to a schoolhouse where we'll be able to camp in its yard for the night. As far as we can tell, this will be in what the map calls Jogidanda. (The alternate, more traveled route goes through Phurumba and Mitlung).
In any case, we're off. We'll be descending about 1200 or 1500 feet to our first campsite, and I confess to the backpacker's aversion to losing altitude you know you'll have to regain. It turns out I better get used to this. The hike takes us first through a little village, then through lush forest and terraced fields, then again through forest thick with underbrush of ferns and stands of thick, dense bamboo. We pass through a few "villages," which is the name given to a cluster of two or three farmhouses clustered together. Every once in a while there's a view of a distant, snowy (but minor) peak. It's gorgeous, but also a bit tiring negotiating the steepness after days of plane trips and inactivity. As we lose elevation, it gets much warmer and humid in the forest groves; we're all soon sweating heavily. Joel hasn't been this way before, and assures us that our campsite is "just a little further"... then makes the same assurance 30 minutes and an hour later. We also will get used to this! In retrospect, it was just a teensy hike, and nothing much for a first day. But it does give us a sense that we're not going to be ambling along level, easy trails.
It's a short hike, by Himalayan standards, only about 3 to 4 hours. However, even though Clem, Wes, Bob and I have all tried to get in shape before the trek, none of us have been doing 3 hours of hiking. In addition, though the map says the trail is basically losing altitude, we discover another basic truth of hiking in the Himalaya, namely: you don't get anywhere going constantly up or constantly down. All hiking involves gains and losses of altitude: you go up 700 feet, then down 700 feet, then up 500 feet, then down 300 feet, as you contour around and through the steep terrain. The trail is alternately rocky and muddy, rarely graded. This is a trail which has evolved from use, communicating between villages, not from technological planning. (In the Sierras, many of the trails were old mule train tracks or serviced mines; here they came from people walking village to village).
Before we get seriously tired, though, toward the late afternoon we arrive at the schoolyard. The schoolhouse itself - a very plain, white-washed two-story structure with bare exterior and interior walls, no electricity and open squares for windows - is empty at this time of day. Some schoolboys still linger, though, and they flock around Bob P., who befriends them as they share their English books and he reads to them. The site itself overlooks steep hills leading down to the river far below, with terraced landscapes and a few farmhouses situated picturesquely about. We have a nice view across a wide valley to a small mountain perhaps as tall as Mt Diablo (maybe 3000 feet from the riverbed) a few miles from us. Joel points out a landslide on the hill, across a defile, and says we'll be crossing it tomorrow morning. Since this involves dropping down a considerable ways, then contouring around a mountain (or "hill," as Dawa would call it), then going back up a considerable ways, I can't believe it. The map shows us going down to the river and following the river upstream; why don't we just drop down to the river and follow it? I will learn (as I mentioned) that a) Nepalese maps aren't accurate b) you always go severely up, then down, then up, then around, then down, then up on trails in this area.
Meanwhile, our crew is setting up camp for the first time. There's a brown 3-person VE-25 North Face tent for Bob P and myself, a similar if somewhat newer maroon Ferrino Design tent for Wes and Clem. Dawa and Joel each have their own, smaller tents. Meanwhile the crew is digging a trench and setting up a green toilet tent for us, and a nice large tent which fits a table and five chairs for meals. The dining table is crowded with jars of relishes, hot pickles and sauces (including Druk, a green Nepalese spicy sauce which will become my staple). The kitchen crew has carried a huge 3-burner kerosene stove, at least four feet long and 20 inches wide, along with pots, pans, pressure cookers, utensils, etc. For someone used to backpacking like me, this is considerable luxury (not to mention the luxury of having our duffels carried by porters, while we carry only daypacks). Supper turns out to be a luxury too, a delicious dal bhaat (rice, daal, curried vegetables, soup, spicy relish called achaar), accompanied tonight by a freshly killed and stewed chicken and, for dessert, banana pie baked in a pot. And of course, at the end of dinner, there is hot tea, as well as hot water and hot milk. Wes is more than pleasantly surprised - he comments that he'd expected porridge and gruel, mostly. The dal bhaat is better than Kilroy's, and at our request it will be our mainstay dinner (as well as the crew's) throughout the trek. Before dinner, I read a quotation from Dogen's Mountains and Waters sutra:
Because mountains are high and broad, the way of riding the
clouds is always reached in the mountains;
We'll make a tradition of having a Dogen quote, or one provided by Joel or Wes or Bob or Clem, at the start of each dinner.
After dinner I write in my journal, sitting in candlelight at the dinner table in our tall blue mess tent. I hear some Nepalese singing in the near distance: our crew perhaps, or some villagers, or a mixture of the two. Time for bed, and I'm pleased to find there's adequate room in the tent for Bob and I, with our stuff in the vestibule. It's warm enough so that my sleeping bag liner is sufficient without the bag itself. A Thermarest air mattress I've brought placed on top of the blue ensolite pad provided makes for a very comfortable rest. My last thoughts before sleep: Judi (my wife) would love this perfect mixture of hiking with only a daypack, beautiful scenery, good companions, and not-too-severe-not-too-fancy food and shelter.
Day 6: Trek to Chirwa (4000 ft)
After a good night's sleep we are awakened around 7 am by members of the kitchen crew offering us "bed tea" at our tent vestibule. The routine is to get up, have tea in your tent, shortly followed by an offer of warm wash water (which we'll rarely take advantage of, once we get higher up: it's too cold in the morning to bare your skin to the elements). Then we pack up our gear into our duffels so the porters (who've already breakfasted) can head off toward the next camp while we have our breakfast. The idea is for them to arrive ahead of us so they can have camp set up by the time we get there. Sometimes this will work, sometimes not, depending on the difficulty of the terrain.
This being the first day we do this, we're not quite into the routine, and porters are standing around waiting for us to be finished. Then there's a shakedown period where they adjust the loads to be distributed equally, and vie for the easiest loads to carry. Ram Kaji supervises all efficiently. The porters carry burdensome loads, probably 80 pounds or so, consisting of two of our heavy duffels, kitchen equipment, tents, huge sacks of rice, etc., held in a basket carried on their backs, aided by a headband looped around the load and their forehead. The porters will go in spurts, moving quickly past us, then resting every 15 to 20 minutes or so; on parts of the trail there are stone or wooden benches where they can rest their loads. Other times they will take their walking crook and prop it under the load. It's hard work for men and boys ranging from 12 years old to about 45, and humbling to see how well they serve us with their labor. We're fortunate in that all the crew get along with each other - and with us - very well; Joel tells us this is somewhat unusual on treks, but not when Ram Kaji is the sirdar.
While all this is going on, I walk away from the camp a bit to empty my pee bottle (bought in Kathmandu from Shona's) from the previous evening, then leave it on the ground while I go take pictures. When I get back, it's gone: Joel thinks a villager has probably taken it, with its bright plastic holder. I just hope they sterilize it before using (unlikely).
We head to the mess tent and the head kitchen boy, Prem, serves us breakfast. Prem is probably in his late teens or early twenties, apprenticing to the cook. He serves out oatmeal, eggs (a potato omelet), toast, sometimes supplemented by Spam and chapatis; once we get hiking, we find ourselves eating very large breakfasts, often eating all I've mentioned plus peanut butter and jelly chapati sandwiches. There's always tea, hot water for chocolate or ovaltine or coffee, hot milk. (My standard breakfast drink: hot milk, ovaltine (actually, the British equivalent Joel introduces us to), a little instant coffee mixed together.
The kitchen crew clears and cleans for us - talk about luxury! - and it's time to pack up our daypacks and set off. Today we'll be losing around 3000 feet; on the map it looks like such a trivial, gradual descent that I anticipate it won't be enough of a hike. I still can't believe Joel is right, and that we'll be going up that mountain across the way. I am prepared, once we arrive at our camp, to argue we should go further, perhaps even an extra stage.
What I quickly discover is that the previous day was not an anomaly. After a very short traverse past farmhouses, we indeed head down through dense vegetation, and are soon hot and sweaty. After a bit we come to our first Nepalese bridge: wooden planks suspended from cables, with an occasional plank or two missing. Very picturesque as it bends and snakes from one side of the mini-gorge to the other; very surprising to find as you cross that it sways: not only side to side, but also up and down in a sinusoidal motion. Furthermore, if someone else steps on the bridge while you're crossing, their rhythm creates motion waves which interfere with yours, and you get interference effects. Keeping your footing takes a bit of a knack; once you have the knack, it's rather fun (and I'll soon be aping Dawa by running and stomping across the bridges and laughing). Initially, though, it's a bit disorienting.
It's dark at the bottom of the mini-gorges, with bright blue sky and green hills above us. Pretty soon we start going steeply up - and up - and up. Yes, uphill on that mountain and across the bare avalanche chute (which is stable). Then around the hill, down and down, up and up. The trail is rough, with stones and slippery mud designed to twist ankles, and steep "steps" which climb and descend at ladder-like angles which have the virtue of being brutally direct and making you appreciate Sierra switchbacks. The rough "steps" are not deep enough for Western feet, and make going down in some ways more difficult than climbing up; we have to pick our way carefully to avoid slipping and falling. Tilman, in Nepal Himalaya, has a good description:
On the map each day's march looked pitifully short. But in such country there is no monotony. Up to the ridge ahead or down to the next river there is always something to go for and something fresh to see. Let the saddle-sore cyclist caper joyfully across the flat, but for the man on foot, the more broken the country the better. He sees not whither he must go nor whence he has come; neither far enough ahead, nor behind, to modify his cheerful estimate of the distance run or to be done.
[But] however reasonable and true such ideas are to a man seated in a chair, they take on a different hue when the same man is 'bummelling' along the tracks of Nepal. Witness the notes made of one march: 'up a steep narrow track, like walking in a sewer, 500 stone steps up to Samri - no view - 2000 ft. down - hellish steep and rough track - porters slow - no view - no bananas - no raksi.'
Actually we have things considerably better than this, in that we do have the pleasure of occasional views from a hilltop down to the curving river below; of terraced fields; of farmhouses with the fall harvest strung beneath the eaves of the roof; of little children herding jauri (a hybrid ox/yak blend); a young girl in colorful native dress carrying a metal jug to fetch water from a small stream emerging from a bamboo spout in the verdant, dripping hillside.
Still, we're all grateful to reach our lunchtime stopping place. We cross one more bridge and arrive at a small village, then head downhill to a stream where the crew have set up a big blue tarp for us to lunch on. Above us is the suspension bridge we just crossed: we can see other porters and local dwellers scurrying across to its sway, with the bright hills and blue sky behind. Near our campsite is a shack which contains a water-powered mill; oxen graze through. An ideal spot, though it's in the sun and we're hot. Do we dare take off our boots and wade? It's worth the effort, though the water's very cold. Lunch is sumptuous with a fresh coleslaw, hot sandwiches to use up the bread (tuna burgers?), curried vegetables. Too much to eat in such heat.
We take a nice long rest. I'm no longer thinking of tacking on an extra stage; we all view the afternoon hike with some apprehension, since our feet are hurting and we're already soaked with sweat. I've noticed most of the Nepalese seem to expend much less effort than we are while hiking in the hills, so during the next three to four hours' hike I try an experiment: a kind of hiking meditation where I purposely do not look at my feet, but keep my eyes on the terrain about six or seven feet ahead. Instead of picking my way by sight, I try trusting my feet to find a way, and letting my body's weight "spread out" onto the ground in a kind of mutual interplay of earth and soles until there is a kind of benediction to it. This is much more pleasant, though it leads me to go considerably slower and fall behind the others a bit. Interesting how even out here, some part of me is keeping track of where I am in the queue...pride/worry at how fit am I compared to others will gradually drop away over the course of the trek, but it's interesting to view their remnants.
The afternoon trek is eased a bit by cloud cover, which lowers the temperature. For most of our trek we'll have sunny mornings and cloudy afternoon, though the higher we go the shorter will be the period of sunshine. Toward late afternoon we pass through the village of Chirwa, more sizeable than most, with several two-story tea-houses, many of which have trekker's colorful equipment draped over the wood balconies to air or dry. Joel meets a few folk he knows, and chats in the "town square" while livestock scurries and Wes and Clem get a drink. Then off just a little further, out of town to a field and meadow by the river, where some boulders and two tall wooden poles mark our campsite. We're all glad to reach it. Over supper Wes will say, wryly: "I had no idea it would be so difficult. If I'd known, I'd never have come. I'm really glad I didn't know, 'cause I'm really glad I came." Some rest, some qigong, some supper: time for bed.
At the end of this rather tiring day, I reflect: well, maybe my wife wouldn't love this so much...
Day 7: Trek to Sekathum (5400 ft)
Today's trek is largely a reprise of yesterday's with the exception that we will now start re-gaining altitude, though always in the classic Nepalese up-and-down mode. Our route follows the Tamur river, but the hillsides are so steep we can't just walk along its banks. So after breakfast it's uphill again (Wes later jokes that he can tell we've had a meal by the fact that we're walking uphill: never one without the other immediately following).
Today, though, there are larger stretches where the trail flattens out for a bit. There are short sections where we actually do trek through the glacial sand of the river-bank, and in places essay a few sections of small boulders piled up (probably by landslides) by the river. In other sections there is enchanting forest, with filtered light, mossy trees and much cardamom. Shortly before Tapethok (which is a trekking permit check-point for trekkers) there is a particularly beautiful area where the ground is level and grassy, the river running, and the hump of a small, intensely green, wooded hill rises out of the terrain, with larger terraced hills behind it. [this is the end picture]
After lunch and more river-crossings the gorge gets narrower and steeper; when we're not by the river, the vegetation is again very dense and dark. The river has miles upon miles of white-water rapids, very impressive and refreshing. Near the end of the afternoon we run into Trish and Laurie, who booked with Jamie for a private Kanchenjunga trek; they're coming back. We learn there was essentially no snow as high as Pangpema, but they had cloudy conditions and only intermittent visibility. They had wanted to climb Tengkoma, but had problems identifying it. Right now, they are waiting to watch a team of kayakers who are going down the Tamur from Sekathum. We detour a few hundred yards out of our way to stand on a bridge across the gorge and watch the kayakers swirl down. While on the bridge, we can look up the gorge and see Sekathum, our goal for the day. Actually, we'll be camping below Sekathum, which is part-way up a ridge of mountains which rise steeply on the far side of the gorge. Joel tells us that the previous year, a bridge had been washed out and they had to take a trail which essentially went straight up the ridge: very difficult. Fortunately, the bridge has been repaired and we're expecting to take the standard trail.
We now hike up to a confluence of three rivers, where the Tamur is joined by the Ghunsa Khola and the Simbuwa Khola. The sheer volume of water, with its glacier-fed rapids, is impressive. By the time we've hiked a little ways up the Ghunsa Khola to our campsite, the overcast has set in. We're at the bottom of the gorge, so the light is dim and it's beginning to feel a bit cool. Not so cold, though, that the adjacent river isn't inviting enough for us each to take a short, frigid wash. Our tents are set up in the meadow, but there are a couple of very rustic teahouses in the shade just below us. After supper we'll enter and try our first taste of tungba, a drink made in a long wooden "jug" with a straw. The jug has a compartment in the top for placing fermented millet; then hot water is poured over the millet and the drink is sucked through from the bottom with the straw. We all, except Bob P, who has been in recovery for a good long time, give tungba a try. It's like a very thin, somewhat sour sake, not very potent, with little seeds of millet occasionally getting through. Not any of our favorites, but definitely a hit with porters, crew, and even Ram Kaji (Dawa doesn't drink). They make merry while we stagger off to our tents and, more important, our sleeping bags.
Day 8: Trek to Amjilossa (7972 ft)
This morning it's quite dark, here in the bottom of the gorge. We can dimly make out the hints of some snow-capped peaks in the pale blue sky far above and far north of us.
We get some unwelcome news: the bridge has been washed out (or so we've been told), and so we have to take the steep trail up the ridge to Amjilossa - the one Joel spoke about in no happy terms. I don't find it so bad - in general I prefer hiking up to down - but once it leaves the river it is undeniably very, very steep and quite unrelenting. When Joel did it last year it was raining, muddy, and slippery - yech.
About halfway up we come to a small collection of huts. A family is there, and Clem "flirts" with the beautiful woman. She's wearing the silver belt buckle of marriage, and has a string of huge amber beads around her neck; apparently it's customary for the wife to wear the family wealth. We joke wordlessly with them; I try to get the kids to thumb-wrestle with me, but they're too shy. The woman offers us each a slice of some unfamiliar fruit/vegetable, a cross between a cucumber and a bland melon. It doesn't have much taste but it's refreshing.
The story today is basically one of climbing, pausing, climbing, pausing. It's not a long day, but it is a steep one: I personally find it gratifying to be able to look back and see the river far below and the valley stretching away below us. Across the gorge the hills form a series of cliffs which look like natural, giant-sized terraces with a profusion of greenery on their flat sections. On our side of the gorge there's more exposure, and the hill is much drier and browner. There's grass but not a whole lot more vegetation.
Finally we reach Amjilossa, a three house hamlet, very austere. The clouds have now come down low enough so they are not far overhead, and sweep across the winding contours of the hills, hiding the tops of the hills from view. It's cool enough to warrant a warm hat and maybe a bit more, but still this is very definitely middle hills and not mountains, which are still about two days away.
After supper we receive a delegation from the local "women's group," asking for donations for their village. The younger women blush and giggle; the older ones are rather imperious, though they have their smiles as well, and record our donation in their ledger. After we fall asleep, Joel tells me they keep him up with unwanted singing and dancing, but I sleep soundly.
Day 9: Trek to Gyabla (8629 ft)
A relatively easy day today, with just a bit of elevation gain. After breakfast the sun comes out, and we contour around the hills with a precipitous drop-off to our right and grassy, steep, straw-colored hills on our left. Not much vegetation on these exposed slopes, but there are occasional bushes and some eight foot high trees Dawa identifies as a species of rhododendron.
Gradually the valley base comes up to meet us, along with more mossy oaks, and with the valley comes the river, tumbling ever in rapids with small waterfalls over huge boulders. After lunch we have a steep climb again, but much shorter than yesterday. When I come to the top of the trail, around 2 pm, I find a flat, grassy field with some prayer-flags strung across one edge; there is an abrupt, almost sheer drop-off to the river perhaps a thousand feet below. Across the gorge is a tall waterfall, and beyond that can be seen the valley leading up to the mountains proper, now shrouded in clouds.
Clem has preceded me and is socializing at a hut a little ways across and up from the field. I join him and we watch the heads of Bob, Wes and Joel serially and gratefully materializing from the trail below. It's early afternoon, but cloudy and cool; still, several of us are definitely needing to do some laundry so we take advantage of the water spigot by the hut, pound our clothes in the cold water side by side with our porters put up a line and hang some underclothes up to dry by the hut. (The laundry will not dry fully by the time we leave tomorrow, there's not enough sun; damp laundry will be our lot for most of the rest of the trek). The hut - and the day - are rather gray, but there are lovely long-stemmed purple blossoms to enliven it. We have afternoon tea; here the milk-tea is spiced with a bit of ginger. There is one other party at this campsite: two Russians coming back from Kanchenjunga, on their way to India to a meditation ashram.
The one other house, another fifty yards up, is inhabited by a family with four children. Joel made their acquaintance last year, and they are perhaps the most charming urchins I've ever met, very willing to play with and interact with us (with no asking for pens or candy or gifts, as is common closer to the more populated villages). One of them has some neurological condition and is mentally retarded; his two older sibs (a girl and boy about 10 and 12) help take care of him. When, at dusk, Bob P and I start our qigong routine, this girl and boy and their youngest sib (maybe around 6) not only gather around us, but join in. They imitate us doing all the warm-ups, laughing the whole time. Then, when we start the form, they shadow us tightly, moving right in front or behind us, copying all the motions. When it comes to flying and turning around, they can't contain themselves and fall on the grass giggling, but soon rejoin us and do a creditable rendition of first and second set!
By the time we're done it's dark, and cold enough to require gloves, jackets, and hats. We're feeling the slight chill which hints of mountains nearby; in fact, right before sunset there was a very brief clearing of the clouds and we caught some glimpses of snow-covered peaks.
Day 10: Trek to Ghunsa (12451 ft)
A sunny morning and we can see the tops of the hills behind us. Looking across the gorge to the waterfall below, there are views upstream to a snow-capped peak far north of us. The first stage of our hike contours around the steep hillsides, mostly golden-brown grass with an occasional small tree which I'm told is a species of rhododendron. As we round the hillside we can look back and see the valley stretching down below us. After a while, our height and the river coincide, and we're treated to more rapids and forest. The trees are in mist, with moss hanging off their branches; the undergrowth less dense, weathered boulders abound with scattered rhododendrons; it's like some enchanted Chinese painting. After following the river for a while we then have a gradual climb up until we emerge at a level, open pasture which marks the outskirts of Phere/Phole. Yaks, festooned with red tassels on their ears, are lounging peacefully; the path passes low rock walls and introduces us to the beautiful valley where Phere is located. Phere is a village for refugee Tibetans; a few decades ago an international aid group introduced the villagers to weaving as a means to supplement their economy, and since then they've been known for their hand-made rugs. The first house we come to has a beautiful young Tibetan woman spinning from a spool, with some of her rugs hanging up for display; the rooftops are strung with prayer-flags, and the rest of the small village stretches out before us. We stop to have lunch; Clem flirts with the Tibetan woman under the watchful eye of her husband, while Bob P examines her wares and, aided by Ram Kaji, bargains for a carpet.
After lunch, while the others browse through carpets and yak bells, Dawa and I pay a visit to the local gompa, which we passed at the entrance of the village. Removing our boots, we enter the small, dark wooden space. The roof has colorful cloths hanging in multiple canopies; the altar has pictures of the Dalai Lama, statues of Buddhas and bodhisattvas, and yak-butter aflame in small brass receptacles. Thankgas and calendars with religious imagery are all around: behind the altar is a statue of Buddha which, Dawa tells me, has been brought from Tibet and is 1000 years old. Both Dawa and I perform some devotions. As we leave I notice here, too, carpets and necklaces are for sale; but it's time to move on.
On the way out of the village, we pass something which at first glance looks like an outhouse but turns out to be a large water-powered prayer wheel, powered by a small stream running under it. The low clouds have begun to come in, and as we descend through the woods it gives them a "fairy-tale" feeling. We then walk along the river, occasionally over bridges and past waterfalls spanned with prayer-flags, until we reach the settlement of Ghunsa. Crossing a substantial wooden bridge over substantial rapids, we go up a short, steep sandy hill to find ourselves in a rather drab stone village with multiple tea-houses flanking its rough stone-paved main street. The houses here have tips of evergreen trees on the roofs, to ward off demons. We camp in the courtyard of a two-story tea-house, with freshly painted exterior walls; inside on the first floor is a place for the kitchen crew, a little store where Joel is amazed to find many Cliff bars, and a small dark room with a few cots and may old posters that we'll use as a dining area. There's a water spigot and an outhouse, and it advertises hot showers. (Wes and Bob will give it a try; Wes finds it so hot it's scalding, Bob so cold it's a bit of a penitence). The clouds lift a bit and we can see mountains above us with some small, but impressive, hanging glaciers.
Back in the USA, before starting the trek, I'd been concerned at how much time we were spending at comparatively low elevation levels. It's turned out the middle hills have been tremendously enjoyable: verdant, varied terrain with the pleasures of rivers and villages maintaining our interest. But it's good to see glaciers and feel we're getting up to the mountains proper.
Sharing our camping area are Cliff and Janet, both in their twenties. Cliff's a Cal student studying geography and writing his thesis on Nepal. Janet has been a Peace Corps worker in the Solomon Islands for the past 18 months; the government evacuated her abruptly about six weeks ago because of political unrest. Having gone barefoot for over a year, she's found it impossible to wear boots, so she has been hiking with Cliff through Tibet and Nepal in Teva sandals. Janet is a charming, ebullient young woman who laughs easily, especially if you offer her a granola bar or piece of chocolate (which she consumes with happy greed and giggles, saying she hasn't had any such food for two years). They're coming back from Kanchenjunga and Pangpema, where conditions were good, and they tease each other and discuss their rather loose plans with carefree enthusiasm. I feel a bit old in the face of their bracing youth, and miss my own daughters but their fresh wonder is invigorating.
Ghunsa gives us our first real taste of mountain cold, though Janet and Cliff protest that it's warm down here, after the conditions up higher. Time to break out the down jacket and fleece hat. After supper, the clouds clear. The moon comes out, and the peaks glow faintly in its pale white light.
Day 11: Rest day/Day Hike to Lapsang La
Having gotten the bulk of the gear this far, it's time to pay and dismiss a number of our porters, who are eager to get back to their villages. We take up a collection for tips and give it to Ram Kaji, who distributes it (with homely admonishments and advice to save it which he distributes with the cash to the grinning porters). The young boy with the flashing smile who's been carrying my duffel is amongst those to leave. Bob P distributes some gear to them, and we bid them farewell. They seem happy both in what they've received, and to be going home.
With a smaller crew, we need to go through our gear and figure out what we can leave behind here at Ghunsa when we go on tomorrow to the higher elevations. I'm travelling relatively light, so I just have some books and a few extra lotions (sunscreen, unneeded insect repellent - no bugs!) but Wes and Bob P have quite a lot to pack up.
The original plan was to do a short trek today to Rampuk Kharka, slightly below Khambachen, at about the same elevation we're at now. The idea was to camp there so that we could cross a landslide area beyond it early the next morning, when it's stable. The previous year Joel and company felt quite nervous on that slope. However, travelers coming down from Khambachen all tell us the slope is OK now, without any snow. So we have the option to rest at Ghunsa today, and hike all the way to Khambachen tomorrow.
We're high enough now that it makes sense to acclimatize to the altitude and take a rest day. (We hear of a Japanese trekker who a week or so ago had himself helicoptered in to Ghunsa from sea level; set off at once for Khambachen, developed AMS, and died before he could be evacuated). For me, though, this "rest day" offers an opportunity for an excursion. Back at home, gazing at one of Vittorio Sella's pictures of Jannu in "Footsteps in the Clouds," I had developed a strong desire to go up to the Sele La, en route to the Mirgin La. Today would be the day to do it, since Ghunsa is the intersection with this series of passes which go over the shoulders of the ridge and take you to the approach to the south side of Kanchenjunga. It doesn't look far on a map, only 1500 feet higher and perhaps six miles, a possible day hike, but I've learned not to trust maps here. Joel advises against it. A closer look at the map seems to indicate that the route to the Mirgin La runs slightly south of and below a ridge which would block many of the views. There seems to be another route, heading to the Lapsang La: a much rougher pass than the Mirgin La, but we needn't go all the way to the pass. Halfway up, we would intersect the Yamatari or Dudhpokhari glacier coming down off Phole peak, with Jannu adjacent to it; there seems to be a trail running up the north side of the glacier, at about 14,000 feet, which will afford good views. Clem and I decide to try it.
We set off a little later in the morning than we'd wanted to, perhaps 10:15 am. I lead us out to the river and turn south to skirt the village; we pass through a police post and they seem to indicate the trail goes up a nearby hill slightly to our right. Once we've hopped a few streams and gone up the hill - with a lovely view back to Ghunsa and its peaks as a reward - the trail peters out. We see the policemen below gesturing to us, and figure we've made a wrong turn. Back to the checkpoint, where now the police want to see our trekking permits. They're back with Ram Kaji. Despite our protests that we're not trekking far, that we're just doing a day hike, they insist on seeing them, so Clem goes back to get Ram Kaji while I stay and entertain the police crew with conversation, ginseng, and my bamboo staff (which seems to fascinate them for some reason). None of us knows the others' language, but we manage to spend a reasonably cheerful time of it. They seem a bit bored, with nothing much to do except dry their vegetables in the sun (they attempt to explain the process of preparing their "national vegetable"). Ram Kaji comes back, we get their permission, and we're free to go. Ram Kaji says that we'll be having a ceremony at the Gompa late that afternoon, so we promise to be back by 4:00.
Now we strike the proper trail, which corresponds to the Mirgin La trail (a real thoroughfare) for a short bit, then turns off to the east and heads steeply - very steeply - up. We see the Mirgin La trail below us traversing a meadow, then going up and over the ridge immediately south of us, where it disappears. Then we're heading up, and up, and up through fairly dense forest, mostly shaded by oaks, pines and rhododendron. The trail has real soil underneath instead of rocks, though tangled with roots and rocks, but it has essentially no level stretches for a respite. We definitely feel the altitude, with this degree of unrelenting steepness; one of Ghunsa's enclosing peaks looms over us and its summit seems to be our goal, but we skirt it to the south. At one point we come across an open, sandy expanse; very puzzling, with no glacier or other source of sand in sight.
Once we've skirted to the south of the peak immediately before us, we come upon a whole new terrain; we have view of mountains to the west of Ghunsa, and a long gravelly moraine with scrub growing on it ahead of us. It doesn't look far, but it continues to angle upwards, and what looks like a 10 minute amble turns into a 45 minute slog. We're rewarded for our efforts, though, by amazing views. Below us to our right stretches the snout of the glacier, all grey rubble. The main "trail" to the Lapsang La leads down and over the glacier, then up high, very steep mountains with snowfields - probably glaciers - marking the pass. It looks doable but difficult. To our left are the upper reaches of smaller, gentler "hills" (maybe 16000 feet high), the rear of the Ghunsa peaks. We're able to faintly make out some blue sheep on their slopes.
Ahead of us is the main show: Phole and Jannu with an immense skirt of grey glaciers. We reach the top of our viewpoint and are able to take in the whole panorama, which is awe-inspiring but rather grim: my desires to go any closer are easily tempered by the ruggedness of the terrain. Himalayan glaciers, unlike Swiss (or American ones), are usually not gleaming masses of white ice, but piles of rocks and rubble which tumble down from these steep young peaks, obscuring the ice beneath. Here and there we can see crevasses and icy lakes; on the peaks' upper ridges are hanging glaciers which seem poised to avalanche. I'm excited to see several fluted peaks, all white with the parallel vertical ridges sculpted delicately by wind. The whole panorama, though, is unrelieved by any meadow or greenery; this expanse, more than any other we'll see on our trek, seems uninviting to the traveler and to offer a warning: "mountains at work."
We take in the spectacle with a mingled sense of awe and satisfaction at having reached this deserted area. Mountains somehow bring out pride in one's efforts while simultaneously helping you realize how miniscule those efforts are in the greater scheme of things. After some lunch and rest, it's time to head back down. Clem, though a much stronger hiker than I, has a bit of a headache and has suffered some decreased sleep and appetite. So I'm concerned a bit about altitude.
Once we have descended from the moraine and turned the shoulder of the mountain peak, it's amazing how quickly the terrain changes to woodlands. The sun is slanting much lower now, and Clem and I are enchanted by how the light filters through and gives a greenish-gold tint to the shrubs, rocks and moss. They had a sense of enchantment, a magic not capturable on film.
We hurry down, to make sure we're back in time, and emerge from the woods right around 4:00 pm. At the edges of the town, many of our crew are playing volleyball in the schoolyard. This time we take the proper path back, which winds through the eastern section of the village; we can hear Buddhist chanting in one house, tungba laughter in another. We arrive back at camp to find Ram Kaji insistent that we eat the lunch he's saved for us: tuna burgers! We at first decline, then realize we're famished and set to.
Once we've rested, it's time to set off for the gompa. Dawa has arranged for a ceremony by the lama to bless our ascent of Tengkoma to help ensure good fortune and safety. When we arrive at the gompa we find it is too late for a ceremony that day; it will need to be done early in the morning for the auspices to be right. Still, the caretaker opens up the gompa so we can have a look around. This gompa is somewhat larger than the one in Phole, and has a more important status. Getting in, though, takes a bit of doing because once we've entered the portals into a space below the main building, it's completely dark; we haven't brought our torches, and need to go up a steep, irregular wooden staircase and through a trapdoor into the gompa above. Eventually, with one flashlight and some candles, we manage it. This gompa is the repository of many artifacts brought in from Tibet; besides the usual altar, canopies, and thankas, behind the altar are many recesses containing ancient scrolls of Tibetan sutras. There's also a large prayer-wheel we're invited to spin. We'll come back in the morning for our puja.
Dinner is pleasant, and it feels like our group has settled into a harmonious relationship. Joel has become mellower and mellower as we get higher and higher; when I mention this he tells us some of his girlfriends have refused to be with him except in the mountains. Joel can always be counted on for a good story, some interesting tidbit about trekking, teaching in England, or movies and books he's seen; we seem to have similar tastes and enjoy jogging each others' memories. Bob P can be counted on for a serene, accepting perspective. He comments that he's learned "you need to slow down in the mountains, or the mountains will slow you down." Wes, of course, provides his usual blend of quick wit, amused good will, and mid-Western taciturn self-deprecation. He's teaching Joel how to speak Minnesotan. And Clem has been a treasure of a hiking companion: not only with an enthusiasm for experience which surpasses even my own, but a wonderful ability to connect with the local people. Clem always seems to be the one to first notice if a porter's shoe is broken, of if they're sick and need some medicine. I continue to appreciate all of them, as well as Dawa and Ram Kaji, more and more as the trek progresses. Ram Kaji is not only efficient and polite, but also a sort of Nepalese Jeeves: terrifically competent, deferring to your wishes which somehow manages you to let go of wishes which don't fit his plans! (It's amazing how often an agreed-upon 7:00 am wake-up will occur a half hour earlier). Dawa's laughter, curiosity, and sincerity are wonderful; he and I have had a few good discussions about Buddhism. Over the course of the trek, we find ourselves talking casually, but meaningfully, of the desiderata of our lives: our relationships, our hopes, and frustrations. However, I have banned talk of Kaiser from trail or table.
It's a bit warmer tonight, and I'm very tired: a good sleep is a true pleasure.
Day 12: Khambachen (12992 ft)
We get up early and forego breakfast for a sunrise puja at the gompa across the river. Shivering a bit in the cold, the five of us and Dawa climb up the gompa's stairs and seat ourselves in a respectful row while the lama takes out the tools of his service. He's dressed for the weather, rather than in any ceremonial robes, but after arranging things he offers a long chant, punctuated by his ringing a bell and beating a hand drum. Dawa meanwhile lights juniper and offers incense. The whole thing goes on for perhaps 20 minutes and, while not particularly comprehensible, in the early morning light, with Buddhas and Arhats looking on from the altar, it's strangely comforting. We offer our thanks, donations and a few bows. Then back down the hill, across the river on its sturdy wooden bridge, and back to our campsite for breakfast. Taking our farewell of Janet and Cliff, who are going to cross the Mirgin La, we set off through the "main street" of Ghunsa, cobbled with rough stones, passing the mani wall and prayer flags which mark the village's terminus. Up through some forest, then along the rocky shores of the Ghunsa khola. After scrambling up and down some stony fingers, probably avalanche chutes from the surrounding hills, we cross a tributary stream that is covered with ice, and look up over our shoulders to see snow on the peaks above. We continue heading up, toward a moraine that's projecting out from what the (unseen) Jannu. Eventually we come to a flat, sunny field with a view east to a spectacular glaciated peak, probably either Khabur or Phole's west face. The sun is shining directly down onto its glaciers, which seem to terminate at just about our level of elevation. This is a good place for a rest and some lunch, a signal we're finally getting into the high Himalaya, though Joel promises a view of Jannu once we get to Rampuk Kharka.
Crossing the river, we start climbing gradually up. We come to the landslide area Joel mentioned as being so difficult last year, and I can certainly see how it would be threatening under the right conditions. Fortunately, although it's exposed steep, loose boulders and scree, it's dry and stable. For the next twenty minutes or so we cross it, boulder-hopping with one eye over our shoulders to look for any rockfall. Watching the porters manage this with their loads is a lesson in humility.
Once past this obstacle we continue up dry brown lopes, and start to see drop-offs to a bit of glacier across the river to our right. Then, coming to the top of a hill, our angle pushes one peak aside, and we have our first view of the north face of Jannu. Breathtaking, with a bare rock summit that seems virtually sheer, arching up to a pinnacle that seems unclimbable, nothing behind it but sky, lesser peaks providing it with dark, broad shoulders. While its southern face was impressive, this northern view is absolutely mind-boggling.
After goggling at Jannu for a bit, we continue up the slopes of the moraine the Jannu glacier has pushed ahead of it. Cresting this moraine, we see Khambachen in the stark valley ahead and below us. Across the valley to the northeast is a snow-covered ridge with a dome Joel identifies as Drohma peak; slightly to the left of it, difficult to distinguish from here, is our goal, Tengkoma. Views in all directions.
We descend to Khambachen, staying to the west of the Ghunsa khola, crossing a small stream, until we arrive in Khambachen proper. There are perhaps five or six tea houses scattered on the level plain, with some villager's houses and crude inns perched on the hillside which forms the northern rim of this valley. Stone walls, about waist-high, criss-cross the area into pastures and campsites. We pitch our tents by a tea house which will offer our kitchen crew a place to cook, and us a place to eat indoors; there's also a room being used by an Australian couple, and nearby a lone trekker, an Indian professor of pharmacology in the US, sets up his place. The clouds roll in, obscuring our views, but by sunset they lift a bit, allowing glimpses of Jannu and its sister peaks. It's been a relatively easy and very rewarding day; plenty of time to do qigong, read, have supper. It's cold, but this is part of the excitement at having gotten a toehold in the High Himalayas.
Day 13: Khambachen rest day, day trip to Jannu North Base Camp
In the clear morning light, the early sun streams over Jannu's shoulders, sending shafts of sunlight up into the deep blue sky. After breakfast, with more sun appearing, we all warm up a bit. Our crew heats water for us, and we take the opportunity to do some laundry and take a towel bath. Very refreshing! Stringing my nylon cord between teahouse and wooden gate, and making use of a convenient log, we have room to drape our laundry: maybe this time it will actually dry. (Most of it does, but some remains damp the next day. Clem tries drying his bandana on his pack while he hikes, and it freezes into a flat board).
The weather being clear, it's an excellent opportunity to take a day hike to Jannu's north base camp. Last year the group was hindered by snow; this year the terrain seems much more accessible.
Wes, unfortunately, is hurting. He has some foot, lower leg, and limb problems and decides he's better off resting and recuperating at camp. So the rest of us set off with a picnic lunch. First we need to cross the river, and that turns into an adventure in itself: the current is strong, the gray stream icy, and the "bridge" consists of two narrow planks laid next to but not secured to each other (or anything else other than the loose gravel of each bank). Each plank is no more than four inches wide. That would be adequate, but when I begin to cross I discover the left-hand plank is not only a few inches lower than the right-hand one, but it's elastic: it bends and bows with my weight, while the other plank stays rigid. This requires some balancing, and I'm not ashamed three-quarters of the way across to grab hold of Dawa's extended walking-stick to help pull me the rest of the way.
We all manage to cross without incident, walk through some shrubbery, and find ourselves at the foot of the glacial moraine. We can follow it up gradually along its base or climb directly to the top and walk along its ridge; we decide on the former. The terrain's bare, brown, rocky and steep; nothing difficult but a good way to get some exercise. It looks like an easy stroll, but altitude is beginning to tell. Gradually the peaks behind Khambachen reveal themselves, and after perhaps two hours we come over the lip of the moraine and start to get into the basin of Jannu itself. We're overlooking a huge, rubbly grey glacier below us with views of the occasional ice cave and crevasse. Looking back up-valley Sarphu is particularly impressive; Jannu is immense looming over us, with its sheer rock summit and its hanging glaciers below. Every jog of the trail and shifting angle of the sun gives it a slightly different demeanor, and Jannu itself is constantly changing; you can hear the glacier groan, listen to the water running underneath it, and see several avalanches on the steep walls. Ahead and slightly northeast of Jannu the snow dome of Khambachen (a spur of Kanchenjunga) can be discerned, while to our left the glaciers spill off Merra and Ramtang. High up you can faintly view mountain sheep.
After lunch Clem, Prem and I head up a bit further, making for Jannu base camp. We reach a huge boulder, draped with prayer flags to denote it as a shrine; this was the terminus of last year's hike. They must have labored mightily to get this far under much worse conditions. The three of us continue on a bit more to reach the lip of the glacier; we would have to descend here to get to base camp, but now we're far ahead of the others and Dawa calls us back, since clouds are setting in swiftly.
Our descent is difficult for all of us non-Sherpas, since we all have mild altitude symptoms (some headache, a bit of edema); nothing serious but enough to let us know we've been up high (probably to about 15,000 feet). In our condition the rocks are sharp and painful underfoot, the cold more biting, and we stop half-way down for some well-earned granola bars and ginseng. Once we reach the river, right before the plank bridge my foot slips on an icy rock and I lose my balance and sit down sharply in the midst of a small stream, provoking laughter from all (including myself). But it does make crossing that plank bridge (which, I discover, is much easier if you use only the single sturdy plank) and the last bit of the journey back to camp a rather drippy affair, cold under the windy gray skies.
Back at camp we're all pretty wiped, enough so that it's hard to stay awake much past dinner. I ask Wes, who stayed behind, whether he had any revelations of profound thoughts in his comparative solitude, gazing at mountains. Has he gotten any keys to what he'd like different in his life? He replies, "Yes. I'd like Jackie (his wife) to work two jobs so I could do this more often."
Bob P had experienced some difficulty throughout the day hike and had to go slowly, but says it feels good to stretch himself, and after a good night's sleep feels better the next day. Clem continues strong but is having troubles sleeping and has succumbed to a cough and cold. I'm doing fine and enjoying it all, but have been surprised at the amount of effort the trekking takes; not much in miles or even altitude gain but the sheer number of hours per day, and the high elevation, can be sapping. However, I would be more than happy to continue trekking, nonstop, for at least a few years.
Tonight we fall asleep to the sounds of another group, a French one that has taken a rest day, loudly cavorting. The previous night our crew had been dancing and singing, which shows how much more energy they have than we. Nothing will keep us from a good sleep this night.
Day 14: Lhonak (15,699 ft)
We don't have far to Lhonak, so we take some time to rest in the morning. It's lovely after our exertions to just enjoy the early morning: the sound of the stream, the ice jewels covering the branches which protrude from the rivulets which melt in the early sun. At such times, I think of how much Judi would like this (though I quickly remind myself of how she would not enjoy such a tough hike and some of the more barren places we've passed through). Perhaps we'll go teahouse trekking in the Annapurnas. And who knows, perhaps Anna will come teach in Ram Kaji's village and enjoy climbing in the Himalayan hills. Meanwhile, Joel has promised us all that high altitude brings erotic dreams, and we've all been slightly disappointed until recently. Last night I had an erotic dream - of my wife, Judi! I'm not sure whether to be horrified by the limitations of my unconscious or touched by the ongoing intimacy.
We get ready for our hike up to Lhonak. Clem takes some time to help a local woman who is carrying a basket of yak dung. Seeing what she's carrying, I wonder: could it really be true, as Joel has told us, that rakshi (the local alcoholic drink) is made by filtering the fermented beverage through yak dung?
We're off and hiking, and I very much enjoy it. I time my footsteps to inner chanting of "gya te gya te para gya te para sam gya te bodhi svaha," meanwhile hearing the Nepali crew whistling and singing, all harmonizing with the undertones of wind and stream. Up over a hill, descending to a stream, Merra appears to our right in its stupendous, stark glory. More avalanches to witness, more glaciers. Standing still, we feel the cold; hiking the terrain, we warm up quickly, stop and rest to be chilled by the frigid wind. We repeat this over and over. We hike past rockfalls (currently stable) and then have an hour of prolonged, steep boulder-hopping until we arrive at a grassy (but brown) flat meadow. This is a good place for a rest and some lunch, especially with Khambachen peak facing us some miles away to the east, heavily glaciated, glinting in the sun. Many photos. Yaks wander through the meadow, and Wes tries his Midwestern farm skills to see if he can befriend them: Wes kneels down to take a photo and a yak comes within a few feet so they stare at each other.
After lunch we continue on, in our usual order: Clem scooting on ahead, me following, Wes next on painful legs, with Bob P hiking slowly but steadily. Joel suggests we stick together more. At one point Clem is concerned about Wes' stability on some loose rocks and scoots ahead to offer some protection, but I wonder if this is more destabilizing than helpful; we're all a little out of sync. Up ahead we can see a glimpses of white peaks with dark shoulders on either side, one pinnacle of rock thrusting upward from below (we'll name it "penis rock"), but soon the low clouds roll in and obscure our vision. We're walking in cold gray mist. Finally we come to the top of the broken terrain, where a thin wooden plank bridge spans the stream falling from the glacier above. It looks dicey but is much easier than the one in Khambachen, and once we've crossed it we've arrived in Lhonak.
Lhonak is a moonscape on a glacial moraine, with fog lending the grey sand an odd, unearthly aspect. Very strange to see a sandy "beach" this high with cold silver streams meandering through it, and the hints of mountains vanishing into the clouds. Every once in a while the strong winds blow the clouds away and offer a glimpse of the peaks.
Tea warms us up, and Joel unearths some kit-kat bars, which somehow seem like soul food in this environment. Joel teaches us the pleasures of dipping kit-kat bars in tea, which sounds awful but works well out here. (Joel also has been trying to convince me to drink hot Tang; I find this only tastes good when the temperature is below 35 degrees F.). For supper, I help make a pasta with a canned Indonesian anchovy paste Joel brought to experiment with; interesting sweet/salty combination.
With the dark, the fog lifts gifting us with a clear night. Joel and I climb the small hill which gives Lhonak some shelter and which overlooks the glacier below. There we watch a truly phenomenal moonrise. The moon is full, and the sky so clear in the thin air that binoculars let us pick out its craters and seas. The moon is incredibly bright, bright enough to illuminate the glacier below and the peaks above with a ghostly magic; we can look both up-valley (where the moon shines brightest) and down-valley, where the comparative dark gives a seascape of stars. The porters have had their chang (alcoholic beverage) and chanting, and now have all snuggled into a communal bed. It's about 20 degrees F. at the moment, and will drop much lower in the night, but somehow I'm not cold; perhaps the moon bathes us not just in its light, but in a magical warmth to accompany its shared secret visions.
Day 15: Pangpema (16207 ft)
Today was quite a day, encompassing one of the high points, and very definitely the low point, of the trek.
I got up early to take some photos before the clouds set in, but the light was pretty dim. Over a leisurely breakfast, we discussed our plans. The original idea was to perhaps rest at Lhonak a day, then set up camp at Pangpema (Kanchenjunga base camp), from which the climbers would set off for Tengkoma while the non-climbers roamed around the Pangpema area. However, Ram Kaji is concerned for the welfare of the porters; they complained of the cold here at Lhonak (probably around zero Fahrenheit during the night) and it would be considerably colder at Pangpema. Wes, the only one who will not be climbing Tengkoma, is not too keen on the idea of camping in a frigid place. So we decide, instead, to leave the camp at Lhonak. Whoever wants to will take a day hike to Pangpema today, while the crew takes some gear (tents and food) up to Tengkoma high camp in preparation for our climb.
Clem and I are eager to see Kanchenjunga from Pangpema, so we're ready to set off. We follow Dawa and Joel and some crew for about an hour, climbing up gradually to the foot of Tengkoma. We watch them set off up what looks like a scree slope below a snow dome. I'm a bit disappointed; Tengkoma does not look very impressive from here, though Joel says the actual summit is hidden from view. (It turns out to be difficult to find the right approach; several other parties, having read the account of last year's trek, have tried to find it without success, and it's not marked on the map).
Clem and I diverge from them and continue on the path to Pangpema. We notice Wes and Bob a considerable ways behind us; it turns out they've decided to make an easy-going foray and get as far as they feel like today. A couple of the crew accompany us unofficially, curious to see Pangpema themselves.
Our way takes us along open terrain which angles gradually upwards. On our right is a drop down to the Kanchenjunga glacier, and across that huge peaks rise. Smaller peaks are on our left. The way would be easy but for the bitter cold. Although the day is clear, the wind is very strong, strong enough so that if I'm on one leg mid-stride, several times a gust of wind nearly blows me over. Hiking into the wind requires leaning forward and bracing oneself. I estimate the winds to be around 30 miles per hour, and they're coming off of glaciers, so between the low initial temperature and the wind-chill, we feel the cold bitterly. Add to that the altitude, and we find ourselves struggling over what looks like easy terrain.
We're more than rewarded by the views. Wedge Peak, on our right, is an absolute stunner of a mountain. If Jannu was ruggedness and sheer rock faces, Wedge Peak is all that is graceful in an ice-fluted peak:
"Other mountains may be terms fanged, or sugar-loafed, but the Wedge Peak seen from the north is nothing more or less than a gigantic elemental wedge... There ice... clings to the ridges; thin flakes of ice through which the sun gleams with a cold fire; pinnacles of fairy-like delicacy, elegant busts, daring minarets, extravagant mushrooms, a strange goblinesque procession, drunken and tottering, frozen in a downward march."
When we see it the base of Wedge Peak is a sheer wall rising up out of the glacier, in perpetual shadow cast by itself and its sister peaks; the summit is lit from behind by the sun, illuminating spumes of snow-spray cast into a deep blue sky by a capricious wind.
Ahead of us are Tent Peak, Nepal Peak, Taple Shikar and the Twins. Quite a panorama, and difficult to believe that Nepal Gap represents an old trading route (at 6170 meters, 20,200 feet). They're impressive enough I initially mistake these peaks for Kanchenjunga, but as we approach Pangpema the angle allows us to see the right-hand shoulders of the peaks keep heading up, and up.
Before we get to the flat meadow of Pangpema the trail comes to a point at the very edge of the moraine, and we need to scramble down loose rocks toward the glacier and its river, then scramble back up again until we rejoin the moraine around a bend. It's a bit messy but I don't think much of this at the time; however, it will figure prominently in the succeeding events.
As we cross the meadow - if something so bare can be called a meadow - to the small hut at Pangpema, Kanchenjunga itself comes into view. It does not have the violent upward thrust and black rock of Everest's summit pyramid, but rises gradually from its surrounding peaks; its impressiveness comes from its breadth and massiveness rather than from a sense of soaring loftiness. A more careful examination of the height of its huge hanging glaciers, though, starts to give a sense of scale; the mountain dwarfs its neighbors, and the skirts of its glaciers split into four swirling directions sending the eye adrift until the only place it can look for repose is up to the bare summits.
We have Pangpema to ourselves; nobody else is around. But we are tired from fighting the cold and the wind. We place our backs against the wall of the hut, but the sun doesn't seem to have much power to warm us. Clem is also suffering from the altitude, not hungry, not sleeping, and he seems to have a bit of bronchitis. I'm a little worried about him, but he has not headache or edema, so perhaps much of what he is feeling is just a bad cold combined with a lot of exertion. Just to be safe, he takes a half a Diamox.
I have a snack, and spend about an hour wandering around, taking photos. I had wanted to frolic a bit on snow slopes, and had brought my ice axe and crampons, but the only snow around is either a few hours' hike uphill or requires a descent to the glacier below. I thought about hiking further around the bend, toward glacier camp I and the Tibet border, but my own tiredness, the cold, and Clem's condition make me think it's better to turn around and head back to camp.
On our return Clem zoomed on ahead of me, accompanied by one of the porters. I went much more slowly, partially because I was fatigued from the altitude and the cold, partially because I was entranced and taking pictures. Prem accompanied me, keeping rather closer after I stumbled a few times, but I reassured him. We soon lost sight of Clem, and I rather envied his getting back to the camp ahead of me and having the chance to warm up. But I slowed even more, because the sun was angling down and there was beautiful mountain light to photograph on the faces of the peaks. As the sun set I became a little concerned about worrying my companions, so I hiked as quickly as I could back to camp, arriving just as darkness was falling. I was glad I had brought my headlamp and 10 essentials.
I stroke cheerily into camp where I was met by Joel. I asked Joel where Clem was, so I could reassure him I was OK and see how he was feeling. Joel's face fell. "I thought Clem was with you... he hasn't come back yet." I thought Clem had been back a good hour before, he'd been going so strong, and assumed Joel had just missed him. But a search of the camp showed that, while the other porter had returned, Clem had not. The porter said that he had lost track of him right around the section of trail which descended down loose rock toward the glacier, before coming back up. It turned out the porter had taken the high route, and Clem the low one along the glacier.
By now it was fully dark and everyone was very worried. We got out flashlights, headlamps, and Wes' red signaling lights, and started to search for him. We climbed up on the hill overlooking the glacier to shine the lights, and the hills echoed with our shouts of "Clem! Clem!" No reply. For the next several hours we searched all around through the darkness. Wes and Joel retraced the trail much of the way up to Pangpema, calling and searching, without success. Suppertime came and went, but none of us was hungry. By this point we were fearing the worst; that Clem had fallen somewhere, perhaps down some rock, perhaps into a crevasse, and was unconscious and couldn't hear us or, even worse, dead. The crew continued to look, and forced us to eat something, but there wasn't much we could do. I spent an hour or two in my tent, meditating, offering the Kanzeon chant for Clem's safety, and after a while found some inkling of peace in the midst of continued worry and sorrow. Finally, exhausted, Bob and Wes and I went to sleep, while Joel kept vigil by the kerosene lamp. Joel looked haggard and seemed to feel responsible; I felt guilty for getting separated from Clem and reviewed what I cold have done differently. But exhaustion has its uses, and I drifted off to sleep after asking Joel to wake me with any news. I fully expected, though, to get up and spend the next day searching for Clem's body.
I was wakened around midnight, though, by Joel's voice and then, happily, Clem's. What a relief! Dawa and Ram Kaji had reasoned, correctly as it turned out, that Clem had kept down by the glacier and had missed the trail leading back up to the moraine and the camp; instead he was hiking past the camp along the glacier, following the river back down toward Khambachen. They organized a search not up toward Pangpema, but down toward Khambachen. In the moonlight, they had come upon his boot prints and had been able to track him down, halfway to Khambachen. Ram Kaji and Dawa were able to cover the distance in probably a third of the time Clem had, to overtake him. He had fallen in the river and gotten wet, and was very tired, but was otherwise all right.
The next morning, I told Clem I wasn't sure whether to hug him or kill him. Clem was very apologetic about getting separated, but it was clear to me this was a case of the altitude affecting his judgment. Clem said that when darkness had set in and he was alone, he was annoyed but not worried; he had warm clothes, and figured if worst came to worst he could just follow the river and eventually would come out somewhere known, toughing out the night if need be. He did regret not bringing a torch, and was distressed but not alarmed at having fallen in the river. He said that he was quite relieved when the crew located him. He also commented that Ram Kaji, most courteous and gentle of men, had given him quite a tongue-lashing about being foolhardy in getting separated from others.
We were all very lucky to have Dawa's and Ram Kaji's skills available to help out in this situation, also in having a well-functioning crew who were willing to help out. (Joel says that in some other crews, the porters and kitchen crew would have said it was not their problem. He also says that, if Clem had died, Ram Kaji and Dawa would never have been able to find work again, as they would be held responsible, even though they were faultless in this matter).
It all makes for a good adventure story, but was not amusing at the time.
Day 16: Lhonak to Tengkoma high camp (~17,350 ft)
Needless to say, we're all pretty exhausted the next day. We get up a little later than usual, and all offer many thanks to Dawa, Ram Kaji, and the crew for their efforts on Clem's behalf last night.
I think we'd all be willing to take a rest day now, but Dawa says that with the gear up at Tengkoma high camp, and the weather good (the day is perfectly clear, with little wind), we should begin our climb. When you employ a climbing Sherpa, especially one of Dawa's caliber, it's good to take his advice. So we spend the morning resting up a bit, preparing our gear, and alternately razzing and hugging Clem. Dawa oversees the gear, has us try on our climbing harnesses, distributes ice axes and plastic boots. We will all carry a pack with our gear (climbing gear, sleeping bag, pad, extra clothing, etc.) on this stage, unaided by porters (who have done their job yesterday, transporting tents and food).
After lunch we set off: Bob P, Clem, Joel, Dawa, and myself. Wes and Ram Kaji and the crew stay behind. Wes gives walkie-talkies to Ram Kaji and Dawa, so we'll be able to communicate with our "base camp." We set off on the same route as yesterday; the packs probably only weight 35 or 40 pounds, but that can be felt on the climb. The absence of wind, though, is a relief. After an hour or so we come to the foot of Tengkoma, and start up the loose scree; both Clem and I express our hope that higher up we'll have better terrain (we won't). It's not a long hike to our high camp, but it's steep and the rocks often slide out from beneath us. At this altitude, it's a matter of hiking for a bit, resting and breathing deeply for a bit, then going up a bit farther and repeating the cycle. After a relatively short time - a few hours - we come over a shoulder, round some rocks, and descend to our tents, pitched on a small somewhat level space under the shoulder. Perhaps we've come up 1200 feet or so, somewhere around 17000 feet, perhaps a bit higher. Directly opposite us is Wedge Peak, with the Kanchenjunga glacier stretching out below north toward Pangpema, south toward Khambachen. The weather remains clear, and we have a lovely sunset. While the sun sets and we rest, Dawa prepares for a puja the next morning to bless our climb. He's brought some prayer flags, and looks around for a place to string them. Behind us and across a small gap is what looks like a nearly sheer wall; he bounds over there and in what seems like seconds scales one side, attaches the flags, scoots across the cliff, finishes hanging the flags, scoots down and back to us. He's not even breathing hard, and sits down to make us our Ramen supper.
It's cold up here, and we all put on every article of clothing we can. The plastic boots come in handy now, for their warmth. After supper we make our preparations for the climb tomorrow. We strip our packs down to the essentials, preparing to leave the rest at high camp. The hill has been completely free of snow so far, as opposed to last year; while a snow dome can be seen at top, Joel thinks we'll be able to skirt below it before heading to the final summit push. Dawa says we should all bring our ice axes, but leaves it up to us whether to wear our plastics and whether to bring our crampons. (I decide I'll wear my own boots, and bring my own crampons).
Clem and I squeeze into one small backpacking tent; Bob takes the other (even smaller) one. Joel and Dawa each have a tiny tent. Clem and I have a nice sleepy conversation. As I drift off to sleep I realize I'm looking forwards to the climb tomorrow, and am also a little nervous about it.
Day 17: Tengkoma (20,390 ft)
We get up at 4:30 am, while it's still dark, and get ready for our climb. We get some hot Tang into us to warm us up. Despite knowing we should get going, it seems to take us a while to get ready, and Dawa is not happy about the delay. Bob P. is tarrying a bit in getting his gear together, moving rather slowly in the cold, and just makes it to the puja Dawa is doing. Dawa hands us all some rice he's brought for an offering, takes some juniper he's carried up for the purpose, and lights a fire. Crouching over it, he chants for a while, until it's time for us to throw the rice in the fire. I should be thinking good thought, or perhaps as Dogen says thinking not-thinking, but mostly I'm focused on how cold my toes are and worrying vaguely how long it takes frostbite to set in.
Then we're off. We initially hike up a steep gully, sometimes up loose scree, sometimes boulder-hopping. Sometimes we're near a wall of rock we can use as handholds, more often we have to balance carefully a step at a time. The terrain is difficult, tiring, and messy - good snow would be much easier. Eventually we get on to the shoulder of the ridge, still lots of loose rock, but we can see more of where we're going. On a higher shoulder above is a small weather instrument; past the shoulder above that rises the snow dome.
We continue up the ridge. Fifteen or twenty steps (usually to a silent "gya te" chant), then stop and catch the breath. Bob P. is lagging, and Dawa is concerned whether he'll have enough time to get up and down. By around 11:00 am, after more of the same, with the snow dome looking no closer despite several hours of slogging up, Bob decides he's not going to be able to do it in the time available, and turns back. I admire his ability to do this; in talking with him afterwards it's clear he has the knack of being able to hike toward a goal without being overly attached to that goal, and to feel satisfied with what he's done. This is a key to serenity.
Meanwhile, Clem is ill with bronchitis but continues climbing, indomitable and persistent. Joel curses cheerfully and keeps on going. I chant and breathe. As we continue up the ankle-twisting terrain of boulders, scree, and shale, we create mini-landslides every few minutes. This slipping and sliding is quite tiring. But we're rewarded by the mountain country continually opening up around us.
At one point we stop for a rest, and we see a small pheasant dart away. Clem jokes "there goes supper." Dawa turns intently serious, and instructs us not to talk of killing on the mountain. It's important to respect the mountain, and demonstrate that respect by avoiding even the thought of violence or sex, maintaining a purity to match the mountain's, or the mountain - which otherwise tolerates us - might make its presence known. Many Sherpas believe it was the violation of these tenets which brought disaster to the party on Everest.
Eventually we reach the base of the snow dome, turn right and see the summit a little ways above. Joel and Clem go up the rocks along the snow; Dawa and I put on our crampons and have easier going over the snow. I'll do anything to get off the damned rocks! Besides, having brought my crampons, I want to use them, and it's fun to have a little ice-axe work (I've been using my hiking stick on most of the ascent). I see Dawa and Clem on the summit, and after another fifteen minutes or so at around 1:00 pm I join them, tired but elated.
The weather continues fabulously clear, and we have an amazing, 360 degree panorama, from Kanchenjunga, to Merra, Jannu, down the valley we've come up, all the way to the Terai plains. Looking west is a series of ridges, and in the further distance you can make out Makalu and Everest. Looking over our shoulder to the north is Drohmo, with spectacular glaciers a stone's throw away below us (and, speaking of stones, a nice avalanche to view from a safe distance). Beyond Drohmo lies Tibet.
Dawa is enjoying himself tremendously. He (and Joel) later say the view from Tengkoma is better than the Khumbu ones of Mera Peak, Island Peak, Kala Pattar, or Gokyo. Dawa also will say that he thinks Tengkoma is probably harder than any of the other peaks, except there is one technical part on Island requiring roping up and using a jumar. But he says Tengkoma requires the most exertion - though he doesn't show any signs of exertion himself!
We stay about a half hour, then begin our descent. I judge the snow dome too icy to glissade down and pick my way cautiously - then catch a glimpse of Dawa zooming down doing a sort of Russian kazatska on the snow. We then descend steeply over the boulders, scree, sand, and shale; it's very steep and soon my feet are hurting badly. Clem, Joel and I find it something of a nightmare in our tired state - after climbing up for 7 hours, our legs are a bit wobbly and we all frequently trip, slip, slide, and fall on our ass. It feels much harder than the ascent, and I reflect on how wise both Bob and Wes were to not subject themselves to this! For the last hour or so, I'm bringing up the rearguard. The sun is going down and light fading, but rather foolishly I still have my sunglasses on; perhaps this is poor judgment due to dehydration, or altitude, or tiredness, or just plain stubbornness that I won't take them off until I'm back in camp, damn it. Anyway, I miss a step in a shadow, trip over a small boulder, fall flat on my back and have the stone I tripped on fall on my ankle. For a moment I'm worried I've hurt myself, but aside from being a bit shaken, I'm free to continue slipping, sliding, and picking my way to the lights I can now see opposite me. Just cross a gully, climb up a few hundred feet, and I'm gratefully back in camp.
In camp Joel and I are exhausted, Clem is sick with a bad cough. None of us have much energy to eat, or even move, but Dawa, still energetic, wants to try out the freeze-dried backpack dinner we've brought. He prepares it in the dark and we all manage to partake of it a little. Dawa's able to raise our camp in Lhonak on the walkie-talkie, and we exchange greetings with Wes and Ram Kaji. Joel orders breakfast for tomorrow when we return to camp: pancakes, hot cereal, eggs, breakfast meat, chapatis, potatoes... you name it. Dawa and Ram Kaji then talk for some time in Nepalese, having great fun with the walkie-talkie, Dawa with his wide smile the whole while.
In my sleeping bag at last, listening to Clem cough, I reflect a bit. Why did I climb Tengkoma? I know I'm glad I did, but can't quite figure out why. The views were great without the climb; the climb itself was unpleasant. Yet I'd still do it again. Is this some thing about "mastery?" I don't think so; it feels more like the mountain has mastered me, convincing me quite thoroughly that yes, I am a full 50 years old. Is it pride, or "experience-bagging?" Perhaps there's a bit of that, but it doesn't feel like the answer. I know I enjoyed doing it; I enjoyed Dawa's enjoyment; I enjoyed Clem and Joel's perseverance; I enjoyed Bob's wisdom; I enjoyed using my ice-axe, my crampons, and my legs. I like ridge tops, whether they're 20,000 or 1,000 feet high. In any case, I'm not going to figure this out before I fall asleep...
During the night, a huge avalanche across the valley wakes us up, invisible but still a reminder to us that this is the mountain's territory, not ours.
Day 18: Tengkoma high camp - Lhonak
The porters from Lhonak camp have come up and wake us around 6:30 am. How could they be here so early? It is absolutely freezing, not much above zero, with frost all over the inside of the tent and our sleeping bags. We manage to get our blood moving with some hot drinks, and postpone breakfast until Lhonak. Porters strike the tents and head on down with them. We take rather longer to pack our gear; we all (except Dawa) rather dread the descent, relatively short though it may be, over more scree and boulders. Our feet are offering strong protests to our brains. We're tired. We manage.
Once down, flat land feels wonderful; to have a bit of soil, thin though it be, rather than the sharp rock underfoot is a treat. Some of the larger boulders form a kind of rock garden, with Wedge Peak in the background. I hike back to Lhonak somewhat behind the others, chanting "gya te," offering a metta meditation for the happiness of all my companions, all the people I care about here and at home, with many thoughts of wife, children, sister and brother-in-law, friends who couldn't come. Very happy, I come into camp to the handshakes and congratulations of Ram Kaji and the porters, which soon degrades into hugs and joking. This seems a sort of post-climb ritual, both kidding and affectionate. Good to see Wes and tell him how wise he was; seeing our exhausted state, he has no regrets at not accompanying us.
Joel has ordered a huge breakfast which we inhale greedily. We'd thought about heading down to Khambachen today, especially since the porters are running out of food for themselves. We're just too tired to do it. We ask them to use some of our food instead, and that's fine with them.
After a much-enjoyed rest, qigong feels wonderful, giving me back my energy. It's fascinating to me that although almost any other activity at this altitude leaves me tired, even something as simple as lacing my boots, qigong gives me energy. It doesn't make sense, but it works consistently, and I don't think it's just placebo effect (or else why would my breathing become easier over the course of the qigong)?
Dawa and I have time for a lovely talk, though hampered by the language barrier. He tells me about his time in the monastery and his Buddhist practice. If I understand him correctly, the left hand and the back of the body are "good," while the right and front of the body are more troublesome, as the roots of karmic actions. The meditations he learned involved how to put aside angry or lustful thoughts by thrusting them out of one's eyes or nose into the earth or sky. He says, "man's life is very important... but it's not your life... it's more like a waterfall, you can't stop in the middle." I'm fascinated to find the waterfall metaphor and tell him of Suzuki Roshi's description of Yosemite falls, the drop of water seemingly separate yet part of a greater stream below and above. We exchange specifics of our practices; we both meditate with eyes half open, but he keeps his thumbs open, whereas our practice is to form the mudra with thumbs barely touching. He concludes by saying "there are many gods... but religion is in you." A lovely talk.
Wes has told me that the other day he walked west into the valley and got a view of the back side of Tengkoma. So I go along the sands, taking some pictures along the way, until I reach the limits of the flat area and get a good photograph of Tengkoma from this angle. It's pleasant to take a solitary walk. On the way back the clouds begin to come in, giving a spectacular (but impossible to photograph) view of Jannu in swirling clouds, with our camp framed by cliffs; clouds cover the mountains but for 10 seconds the ghosts of white peaks float, disembodied, above the whole scene.
Day 19: trek to Ghunsa
The clouds arrived late in the afternoon yesterday, and with it a cold front. From now on, for several days we'll have little sun. We were very fortunate to follow Dawa's advice and climb when we did; any other schedule would have given us poor visibility.
I slept poorly last night, since Bob was snoring - perhaps Cheney-Stokes syndrome from the altitude. In any case, when I get up it's certainly below 10 degrees Fahrenheit, but the sun is out and will remain so for an hour or two. So I pack up, and head out onto the sand of the glacier to take some composed photos. I went out further than expected, so by the time I get back the others have finished breakfast and I have to make do with the cold remains, which is fine since there's still hot water. We break camp, and as I'm the last to leave - very reluctant to say goodbye to the high country - I'm able to watch Ram Kaji patrolling the area, supervising the crew, making sure we've been as low impact as possible on the area.
For the first 45 minutes or so the skies remain clear and sunny, allowing me a number of backward glances as we hike down along the river. Then the clouds come in, and soon visibility is down to just a few feet. Since the terrain is steep, and crosses a few landslide areas, this is somewhat spooky, but also kind of neat in its muffling of sound and the way the fog draws each in upon himself. Surprisingly, it evokes some unpleasant memories, of the time Judi and I got lost in the Cascades in just such a fog, and that raises my anxiety a bit. At such times, it's good to be part of a group (even when you can't see them).
Walking through the cold fog, my fleece turns white with frost. Dawa, on seeing this, laughs mightily, turning discomfort into amusing adventure by the force of his spirit. At some of the dicier sections, where the exposure is high, the drop-offs are steep, and the tread slippery sand or icy gravel, Dawa shepherds us rather carefully.
Finally we arrive down in Khambachen. The plan had been to hike on another hour past Khambachen before breaking for lunch, but we're secretly hoping that in view of the weather conditions the crew may have stopped here in Khambachen. No such luck. We take a short break in Khambachen, and Clem encounters two Nepalese sisters and some children; he bargains his watch for one of the sister's ring, and each side feels they've got the better of the deal. We also meet an Indian-American woman who's out on trek after receiving her Master's in city planning from Cal; she's descended to Khambachen after mild AMS in Lhonak. In the small world category, it turns out she's been a classmate at Cal of my good friend John Dyckman's daughter.
Past Khambachen we're still in fog but past the thick of it. We begin to get into mossy trees. Trees! After time up in the barren high country, it's wonderful to have trees, vegetation, and soil underfoot instead of rocks. Lunch is set out for us above Rampuk Kharka on a lovely mossy spot near a waterfall. We have momos (Nepalese dumplings), hot aloo (curried potatoes), and fudge brownies. A feast!
After lunch we continue down. The misty environs, occasional large boulder and angular dwarf tree is like some exquisite Japanese garden. Later, as the steep hills beyond come vaguely into view, shrouded in mist, the scene will change to the landscapes of traditional Chinese scrolls.
We gradually descend below the clouds, which remain grey above but let us see now where we're going. We cross the large landslide area, boulder-hopping, and notice as we descend it's getting warmer. After Rampuk Kharka we cross the river and go sometimes along it, sometimes up and down hills, sometimes across the rocky humps sheltering feeder streams. Here is where we saw our first ice.
We've decided to do a two-stage hike today all the way to Ghunsa, so it's a long day, rather longer than Joel or we remembered. To practice not anticipating how far we've come, I walk with a listening meditation, which the sound of the river makes easy. Bob P is tired and Wes in pain, so they're going slowly; Clem is far ahead. Any impatience I feel is tempered by compassion and by the knowledge that I could feel the same way in a few years, or a few days. As usual, the porters alternately race ahead of us and then we catch up to them and leave them behind while they rest.
We leave the river below and contour through forest. It's good to feel pine needles underfoot. We continue on for another hour; it's getting dark by the time we reach Ghunsa. Despite the clammy mist, the mud, and the unevenness of the "paved" main street, it feels good to be in an actual village with mani walls and tea houses. We're all tired from cramming two days' trek up into one down, but are reinvigorated with a big dal bhaat. Wes and Bob P, to celebrate the return to civilization, take rooms in our teahouse, anxious to not be sleeping on the ground.
After dinner, while I'm writing in my journal, Joel comes in. He's come back amused from visiting another trekking group. I had mentioned to him that I'd considered using KE Adventure for the trek (they had a great brochure) but decided it was a bit too big, too expensive and too slick for me. Joel has just looked in on the KE group, about 12-15 people led by a well-known author, and reports their group dynamics leave a lot to be desired. They're a mixed British-American group and there's been some GI distress, but beyond that don't seem to be enjoying themselves. In fact, the next day three of them will hire a helicopter to take them back to Kathmandu, not from illness but from dislike of trekking. The author/leader disassociates himself from the discontent and keeps rather to himself. Joel happened in at the end of dinner, and one Texan was exhorting the rather glum group to join an improvised sing-a-long, bellowing out "Oh we trekked all day and trekked all night, doo-dah! doo-dah! Join in on the doo-dah! Learned how to use a toilet tent doo-dah! doo-dah!" The British pale a bit, looking as if they wished they'd left the table long before. As for us, for the rest of our trek, at moments of stress, we need only chant "doo-dah" to feel our loads lighten.
Joel and I have a nice chat. He talks of his concern for his aging parents. He's one of eight children. He at times feels somewhat concerned about having "lifestyle but not a living" but feels good about the peripatetic path he's chosen. He's obviously a good teacher, broadly read, a friend to the land, and a born trekker. I think he'd never enjoy a commercialized outfit like KE, whatever security or pseudo-prestige it might offer. It's hard to be a Renaissance man in a specialized world.
Day 20: Ghunsa rest day
How nice to sleep late. Though Bob is a great tent-mate to me and Wes to Clem, it is luxurious to have a tent to one's self and be able to spread out. Bob and Wes, meanwhile, are happy in their rooms (which cost perhaps $1 a night).
Clem and I set off across the river to catch the morning light and take a picture of the gompa. On the way, an old man passes us herding his single yak to pasture. The gompa is quite nice in this light; returning to Ghunsa, we see the helicopter come to take the unhappy KE trekkers home land and quickly depart. (Wes, Bob, and Joel have witnessed the incident close at hand, and are mostly impressed with the beauty of the female pilot).
On the other end from wealthy KE trekkers, we meet a Canadian couple going on the cheap, sleeping and eating in local houses along the way. They've both been sick, almost half the time, and both are cold since they had to give some of their own clothing to their porters, who were ill-equipped and freezing. They say that some of the people they've stayed with are "so poor their kids eat dirt." Kids eat dirt anywhere, so I wonder about the accuracy of her observations, but certainly there's no luxury (as we would see it) here. On the plus side, they've been able to have some conversations with local people, and is especially interested in the midwives she's encountered.
Warm water (tato pani), though promised, never arrives, so I wash clothes in cold water around 11:00 am, hoping the rest of the day will be enough to dry them out (it isn't). Clem has a project: taking individual pictures of each of our crew, which he will assemble into a montage to remind himself what it means to really work hard, with sincerity, integrity and without complaining. He asks the crew to think of what work means to them; Ram Kaji translates and tries to get them to be serious, but they clearly think this is very odd Western behavior. Watching them, I realize that work in Nepal is not alienated; it is part of the wholeness of life, not necessarily good or bad, but - although it's very, very hard - it's treated as just a natural part of what you do, like going to the bathroom or falling in love. Another interesting thing I notice is that the crew have the ability to work very hard, but also to stop work, leave it behind completely, then rest or play. These are skills sorely needed in our society.
The clouds come in; a good time to nap, eat lunch, read. Wes and Dawa talk together over a book; Bob and I talk about Shirfu and Shirmu (we think today's their retirement party back home). Toward day's end I follow the lead of Clem, Wes and Bob and buy some necklaces and other souvenirs from a teahouse. In the evening, Clem treats the crew to a tungba party. He tells us this is part of a strategy to get the proprietor to come down on his price for a rug he's been coveting ever since we passed by on the way up. (I think he was just being generous, but in any case, if it's a ploy, it doesn't work). We join our crew in the teahouse's inn for a while, and while the crew's happy, they're also more subdued in our presence (even over their bamboo mugs and tungba straws). The exception is our "odd fellow" porter, who hugs and smiles and mugs as he is wont to do. The young wife of the household is quite beautiful; when Clem sidles up to her she suddenly finds a need to go into the other room, pick up her baby, and offer incense at the altar. Draw your own conclusions. The whole family, though - mother, father, young wife, husband, baby - willingly pose for a picture, as does our crew. Then we leave them to their innocent revels.
Nice to have an uneventful day!
Day 21: past Gyabla, camp along river
It's a pleasant hike to Phole, the Tibetan refugee settlement, which all of us feel is our favorite village along the trek. A little descent to the river, a few stream crossings, then climbing up and down hills until we reach the crest and see Phole and its prayer flags. It has more light than Ghunsa, and a more peaceful feel. At the outskirts, near the river-powered prayer-wheel, a lovely couple encourage us to check out their wares. Everyone else is buying rugs; I've been resisting, since I can't think of any of my friends or family who would like one as a present. I do give in and buy a very small rug, for perhaps $5, as an exemplar of its kind. Once having let the barrier down, though, I'm vulnerable. When I return (with Clem) to the gompa I'd visited with Dawa, this time intending to photograph the 1000 year old Buddha behind its altar, on the way out the lama offers carpets for sale. With a lama selling, and the carpet quite nice, and the dragon motif, and the price reasonable (1600Rs about $22), it's hard to resist. I decide to buy the carpet for myself!
Meanwhile Clem has been bargaining for more carpets. He sees one carpet at the gompa he prefers to another carpet he's bought elsewhere, and is able to convince the lama to exchange one for the other. By the time he's ready to go, he has two carpets; one he straps to his pack, the other he carries under his arm. He claims all this carpet dealing is in his Armenian blood, but laden with weavings, Carpet Clem presents a bit of a comical sight. (The carpets are valuable, though, worth far more than we paid for them. Some businesses trek here just to get the carpets for export).
We regretfully leave Phole, and descend past pastures, ducking under an overhanging boulder, and begin the long, rather miserable trudge downhill. The clouds have come in and its drizzling, threatening to turn into a real rain. Partway down we pass a small teahouse; I peep in and come eye to eye with the "proprietor" who pops up from below the counter. It turns out to be Dawa, playing a trick; I'm startled and we both laugh. He's taking some time to chat with local folks, as is his wont.
The rain makes the trail quite slippery, so we descend with some care. Having come from the high country, we're very aware of how green everything is becoming around us. We get down to the level of the river, and then it's a matter of more slipping along the river and ups and downs on its adjoining hills. By the time we come to Gyapla, it's raining in earnest. We slog along another hour or two to a campsite by the river. Once again it's been a long day, about one and a half "stages," and everyone in our group is tired and damp. In the hut opposite our meal tent, though, the resident family is unconcerned by the weather. The young urchins have a ball wrestling, chasing each other and playing in the rain. The teenage daughter, meanwhile, is a real beauty who has caught Joel's eye. Though we're tired and wet - and all hope of finishing drying my wet laundry has, so to speak, evaporated - we're all in pretty good spirits. We've been lucky this has been our only day of rain so far, and it makes a good excuse for an early bedtime.
Day 22: trek to Amjilossa, then Sekathum
After breakfast, from the river we hike up to Amjilossa. We go through steep "rain forest" terrain, lushly green but dripping wet after yesterday. Rain is still threatening, but right now it's mostly fog and drizzle. We contour around steep hillsides with steep drops on one side, but the fog is so thick we're in a whiteout with no views; it's like climbing through emptiness.
After about two and a half hours of damp, muddy clambering we go over a last hillock and arrive at Amjilossa, feeling rather tired. It's only 10:00 am, so despite the fact that we have a one-and-a-half-days-in-one trek today, we take some time for some rest and tea. We are invited into a typical wooden Sherpa home where our crew is already huddled around the fire in the hearth, preparing their dal bhaat. Below the house are the "stables," above a storage loft; there's an altar in one corner, and Buddhist posters hang here and there. We seat ourselves on some carpeted benches and are served chai (milk tea with ginger) while our porters have their early lunch. There's a kitten on the prowl and chickens clucking. It's dark in here but also it has a warm, cozy feel.
We dread having to do down the exposed, steep ridge which we took up from Sekathum to Amjilossa two weeks ago. The mud and rain would make it quite nasty (though that's what last year's group dealt with). Fortunately, we hear the bridge is useable (and always has been), so we'll be able to take the lower route. That means going very steeply down the hill from Amjilossa; the weather is shifting to mixed fog, mist, and some sun: enough so we can see the trail angling down to the river below us and, beyond that, a small line which indicates the bridge. We zoom on dawn the declivitous hillside, and while crossing the bridge dimly can make out Sekathum in a golden haze, up a hillside far, far in the distance. The mist on the mountains looks even more like a Chinese painting today than previously.
We continue hiking along the river, through jungle green, up and down hills, past beautiful waterfalls, until stopping for lunch by the rocky mouth of a tributary stream that empties into the main river. During lunch, looking across the river and up the hillside, we spot some monkeys - probably lemurs - sporting in a blossoming tree. I get out the binoculars and pass it around; we offer it to our crew, who are perhaps more amused at the binoculars than at the monkeys. Then again, perhaps they're simply amused at our amusement; this may be a common sight for many of them.
After lunch it's still grey. Sekathum doesn't look that far, perhaps a one hour walk. However, our "low" route immediately starts up steep stone "stairs," which look to me to be at about an 80 degree pitch. For each fold in the hillside we can't follow the river, but must go up to the top of the shoulder, back down to the river, over and over again following similarly steep "staircases." Our one hour stroll turns into a demanding three to four hour plod. The cliffs are green, the waterfalls tall, but it's all rather exhausting. Still, looking across the river at the high ridge going from Amjilossa to Sekathum, we can't begrudge our path.
We're all relieved to reach our familiar campsite on the river below Sekathum. This is the last of our two-stages-in-one hiking, so we're all in good spirits. The hardest part of the return hike is behind us now, and the scenery is green and beautiful with one exception: us. We're all completely filthy, but at this point rather used to it.
Day 23: trek to Chirwa
I slept poorly last night, feeling ill with some stomach problem, and unfortunately it's still with me this morning. This makes the easy hike to Chirwa rather draining.
We've been a pretty healthy group, with illness confined to Clem's bronchitis, Wes' leg/foot problems, and a small sty of Joel's. Joel also had a touch of this bug that I have, and it probably won't last more than a day or two. Bob P's been healthy, though toward the end of the trek he developed some edema which was worth checking out back in Kathmandu (ultrasound found it to be benign, with little worry about a clot).
The hike to Chirwa takes us back through bamboo groves, woods with cardamom bushes, and green hills. We're also back in the land of giant spiders, rather pretty to see on the webs by the side of the trail. The spiders never seem to get into any of our things - probably we're too much on the move.
It is a short hike to Chirwa, and Ram Kaji had thought of going on for a bit because he wasn't happy with the noise levels of the local villagers when we'd come through last. They'd been loud in their dancing - and also perhaps somewhat extortionate of Ram Kaji in the "rent" they charged for the field we camped in. Since I'm not feeling well, though, Joel encourages me to not push it, and we decide to stop here. This gives me a chance to rest and get well, so by the next day I'm better. I get a chance to finish "Tales of the Himalaya" (great tales of the natural history and some of the anthropology by Swan, who was here in the 1950's with Hillary and has taught many years at SF State). Perhaps most fascinating to me was the fact that bar-headed geese fly not around, but over Everest, well above 30,000 feet, honking all the way as they fly to ponds in Tibet.
Clem notices that the shoes of Gyelbu, our "apprentice Sherpa," are falling apart. He gives him his own camp shoes. We all enjoy a bit of a rest; Ram Kaji says one of the reasons the crew has been in good spirits has been the number of rest days they've enjoyed (which of course they're paid for). This has made them happy to help out in extra tasks - going part-way up Tengkoma, helping in Clem's search, etc. The crew has gotten along well together, despite considerable ethnic diversity (about equally divided between Limbu and Sherpas, with one Rai).
Day 24: Jogidanda
Feeling much better. We leave our campsite, walk through the rice field and up onto the main trail. We know from our trek in that we have to go up and down four or five thousand-foot hills, past a landslide, and over swaying bridges. And it's HUMID. But the walk through the middle hills is so beautiful, and the amount of hiking that remains so small, it's hard to be negative.
Lush rain forest gives way to green terraced fields, which give way to bamboo groves, with long views downriver as we contour around the hills. At the crest of one hill is a lovely farmhouse surrounded by thick bamboo; our lunch spot is in a small village which still has its tall bamboo tripod standing (it's used as a swing in festivals, and Dawa uses it as such now). It's harvest time, and we see people carrying baskets of sheaves, cardamom, etc. In one village we see the cardamom being weighed and distributed into sacks.
One thing I notice, in comparison to the last few weeks, is how much sound there is now that human habitation is more common. We hear babies crying, herders yelling at their jauri, geese squawking, radios playing everything from native pop to classical music. In one place I can see a young woman lying down in a harvested field, half asleep, with the goats tethered while her toddler wanders nearby. The toddler snuggles up to his mother and tickles her; she giggles and rouses to play with her son. In another scene a 12 year old girl is carrying a huge load of firewood, worthy of a porter, while her father and brother walk behind unencumbered. Joel points out her schoolbooks; she's on her way to the classroom. (I must remember not to nag Bekka with such information when Bekka complains of having to do her chores or being inconvenienced by not getting a ride somewhere; it'll never work).
Feeling better, I notice with some amusement the recurrence of a certain driven-ness to my walking, as if I want to prove to the others that I'm strong again, show them I can scamper downhill and skip on up. Accepting this competitiveness, offering it to the land, happily chanting, it drains away when I least expect it, and once again I'm free. At one point, I'm by myself long enough that I wonder if I've taken a wrong turn; I sit down to wait for the others and, once they catch up, I discover that only five minutes ahead is our lunch spot. Still, it's sometimes easy in this area to mistake the trail, as it often branches. At one point I followed an arrow scratched in the ground only to hear Ram Kaji and crew calling to me to come back; it seems the local schoolboys sometimes amuse themselves by inscribing false arrows to mislead travelers. This sounds like something sprites and wood spirits do in our myths.
After lunch I amble for a while by myself, savoring the walk and the scenery. Crossing bridges is fun, despite missing boards and supports along the span. After crossing one bridge, I'm bemused to hear a school getting out and see the schoolboys run onto the bridge and jump up and down on it; they seem partially to be enjoying the motion, partially trying to mischievously dislodge a board or two. The girls are much more demur but no less curious when meeting travelers.
Finally, after crossing the landslide we had spied from our first campsite, I know I'm close to camp. I descend to the stream, cross, and keep my eyes out for a schoolhouse, since we camped in its yard. After one long last uphill, I see the schoolhouse but can't quite figure out the way to it. Somehow I find a narrow path and with mild difficulty make my way to it; it looks quite different at this time of day, populated with children and teachers. Many of them stop to stare at me. Belatedly I realize it looks different because it is different; wrong schoolhouse. I retrace my steps, followed by several children. One little girl chants "gimme pen, gimme pen" like a mantra for a good 15 minutes, despite my adamant refusal to encourage or reward her. I go back downhill, and meet some of the porters, who turn me back around and we go uphill, down once more, across a bridge, up once more behind the porters who are straining a bit on this steep stretch. We all arrive at our welcome campsite. Clem, Wes, Bob, Joel and I are all tired, soaked with sweat. The porters grunt a bit as they set down their loads - then dash off to play volleyball on the level field below us, Dawa amongst them.
We get some amusement when, sitting in our mess tent after finding out our cook has procured a chicken for tonight, we hear some squawks followed by the sight of a chicken literally running for its life; three crew are trying to nab it as the chicken swerves this way and that. The chicken evades our most agile staff members. Wes regales us with tales of the farm, and the uses of "chicken hooks". Wes is in good spirits, having discovered a few days ago some inserts for his boots which have done much to alleviate his pain. We're all rather at loose ends, knowing this is our last night on the trail.
Day 25: Suketar (airport)
This is our last trek day. Most everyone is looking forward to getting back to civilization, with its showers, beds, and ground which can be navigated without excessive ups and downs. I, however, am loathe to see the trek end, and feel rather melancholy and nostalgic.
I resolve to be the last one to arrive in camp today. So I walk very slowly up the hillside, past villages, through the middle hills, savoring the experience. It's hazy, but a pleasant day to watch the harvest and say "namaste" to the children heading off for school. Looking for a "valedictory" photograph, I stop by a chorten, and take a picture replicating one I'd taken on our first day. A crowd of small children watches rather shyly from on top of a stone fence. They don't bother me, just watch me gravely as I take the photograph. I give them a bit of dried fruit. One little boy of about six or so will follow me, at a safe distance, for the next 10 minutes or so.
Going up the last hill before Suketar, it feels like the trek coalesces and comes together for me. While I chant "gya te" to my footsteps, sing, or whistle, my feet seem to find their own, coordinated pace, a pace in time with the hill, my breath, the sky, a harmony of sound and movement, neither anticipated nor remembered. The porters have passed me and have loitered at the crest of the hill, a last rest bench before Suketar. Here I stop too, and spend some time just drinking in the view. The scene preaches how all things are transitory, all are always flowing. There's a dead snake at my feet: a benediction. Below I see people working in the fields: pure practice.
Arriving in Suketar, it's sunny and windy, much as when we arrived but a bit colder. Winter's coming. There are many people by the gompa and teahouse, perhaps ten or twelve trekkers, some of whom we've met before. It's time to sort gear, arrange for tips for the crew, and wrap things up for tomorrow, and perhaps reflect a bit.
I've so much appreciated my companions. Clem, so able to related to the locals, noticing when they were in need of shoes or bandages, joking with them even without a mutual language. Wes, remarkably gracious despite pain and the discomforts of an almost too-tough trek (not to mention coping with a relative paucity of chocolate, his mainstay). Bob, consistently even-tempered and philosophical. Joel's enthusiasm and his knowledge, Dawa's infectious good spirits and prowess, Ram Kaji's courtesy and competence. As for me? I don't know. I'm happy to have done this; I needed a trek at just about this level of difficulty. It feels very satisfying, though I'm sad it's over. I'm looking forward to seeing Judi and Bekka and Anna, all of whom I've thought of often.
Mostly I'm feeling gratitude: for my family, friends, companions and crew, for earth and sky, mountains and waters.
Late in the afternoon, Bob P and I do a full qigong set; the qi is strong between two Tibetan prayer flags flanking the gompa. As the sun set, I go out past the village, taking a photo of the sun behind the gompa. I go back to the porter's bench on the hillside, to meditate. Even in the mountains, I find I accumulate layers of ego and hold thoughts and feelings, desires and sensations in body and mind. It feels good to let go - maybe it's a bit easier to let go in the mountains.
I come back in the near darkness to find a huge dinner prepared for us, served inside the teahouse. Dawa is serving us, and is a real "Jewish mother" at insisting we eat many large helpings. Finally there is a celebratory cake. Next to us in the teahouse is an Australian couple we've met on and off along the trail; they're rather disturbed at what seems like an attempt by their sirdar to elicit a bribe so they can get a seat on the plane tomorrow. We're thankful at being able to trust our crew and not deal with such things.
After dinner we have a bit of a ceremony, with all the crew gathered round. It's time to make a few speeches, say our thank-you's and distribute the tips. I say a few words, which Ram Kaji translates, expressing my appreciation to all; the others all follow suit. Then Ram Kaji thanks us and extends his wishes that we'll come back. As is their custom, throughout this ceremony Ram Kaji is sincere and courteous, Dawa merry. We distribute the tips, and everyone is very happy with them; we also distribute some gear. Clem makes a special thanks to the people who helped him and gives them some extra presents. There are handshakes and namastes all around. Later, after we go to bed - Clem, Bob and Wes in rooms in the teahouse, Joel and I in the tents - we hear the porters dancing and singing. Clem is the only one awake enough to join them. The sounds of the people enjoying themselves are good.
"Investigate mountains thoroughly. When you investigate mountains thoroughly, this is the work of the mountain. Such mountains and waters of themselves produce wise persons and sages."
Day 26: Fly Kathmandu
We're up early to do our final packing so that we'll be ready for the "airport" formalities and the flight out. We had hoped Dawa and Ram Kaji could fly with us, but all seats are taken. Foreigners pay a higher price, and if any want the seats, Nepalese are unable to fly in their own country. The Australians, meanwhile, have secured two seats on the 16-seat twin-engine plane.
After packing, there's time for zazen, then breakfast. Then there's a long wait; although the plane is due at 9:00 am, the cloud cover prevents it from taking off from Biratnagar. This causes some anxiety, since if the plane can't take us out today, we'll need to hike a few hours down to Taplejung and then take a 36-hour bus ride to Kathmandu. None of us are eager for that.
I spend the wait doing qigong (to the amusement of the populace), then walk through the village. A little girl carrying wash water looks at me with arresting, sparkling eyes and smiles. Other people are walking through the village dressed in their best finery; there's a festival today, up above in Patibara.
Tattered clouds continue to sweep by. There are patches of blue, patches of clouds. Around 11:00 we get the word that the plane has been given the OK to take off from Biratnagar. All potential travelers, and the villagers who will watch for their entertainment, gather at the airfield. Our luggage is inspected; we're all set to go, waiting for the plane to arrive.
Soon we hear the plane's engines, and are even able to see it overhead. The problem is, though there are patches of blue sky to either side of the runway, the end of the runway itself is in clouds. The wind continues to blow, and every once in a while the runway clears, but there's a very brief window. Once, twice, three times the plane circles round, trying to time its approach; it comes in low but each time clouds obscure the runway at the last moment and it flies back up, unseen in the clouds until it re-appears in another blue patch. This happens again and again, then the sound fades. Joel thinks the plane has made too many passes and used too much fuel, and must be headed back to Biratnagar. All the hopeful passengers pray, chant, and invoke the plane to come back. And it does! Again one, two, three passes - no luck - finally one last try - and the clouds part just long enough for the plane to touch down! The whole crowd cheers, then bursts into applause when the pilot emerges. The pilot, for his part, just shakes his head, unsmiling, and heads for the little building which constitutes the terminal. He looks rather drained, as if he would prefer not to have to do that bit of flying again.
It looks like the takeoff will involve flying off the end of the runway, then dropping down the cliff until the plane pulls up. It's actually much easier than that; the field is bumpy, and as the plane gathers speed by the second bump it's airborne well before the runway's plunge. Once again looking down to brown, wide, silted rivers; then landing in Biratnagar, which has cooled considerably over the past few weeks. The airport is bustling, and brings back the feel of India. We have about a 90 minute wait, then board another plane for Kathmandu, arriving there around mid-afternoon.
Driving back from the airport, my allergy to cities kicks in. It seems very noisy, dirty, pushy. Though I must confess, the pizza and beer at Fire and Ice are very fine. And having a shower back at our hotel offers its own consolations. There's time to rest, and then we rendezvous for dinner with Jamie and his party back from Manaslu. We eat at an outdoor table at a pleasant Thai restaurant in Thamel.
Jamie is 10-15 years younger than Joel, and earnest, engaging young man whose whole life is trekking. The Manaslu group includes Dana, whose account of last year's Kanchenjunga trek helped convince me to come on this trip. His wife Dagmar is there, as are two other husband/wife pairs. There's another person who we don't see, and American who has come to Nepal to claim a Nepali wife. Therein lies a tale, but it's not mine to tell.
Very pleasant company , but I'm feeling a bit chilled and tired, and not in the mood to party afterwards. Wes, Bob and I set off back for the hotel and a good sleep in an actual bed. (Though partly because it's chilly, partly for sentimental reasons, I find myself using my sleeping bag as a blanket).
Day 27: Kathmandu, Boudhanath
Our last day in Nepal, I wake up early out of habit, giving me time for an hour's zazen. Today's a day mostly devoted to shopping for souvenirs. For Anna, Shona's provides a nice down jacket (for only $40 for good quality down), and a chalk bag with Buddha eyes. Next door is a clothing shop, with a blouse and pants for Bekka, both with colorful embroidery. A monastery supply shop has prayer flags, and prayer beads. And I pick up the t-shirts I'd ordered a few weeks before: they've turned out great. Other presents include some hand-painted wood waterfowl boxes for Shirmu and some tea, some necklaces to supplement the ones bought in Ghunsa and some colorful purses. Clem buys an outrageous mask from a street vendor. Joel takes us to a café, New Orleans, where we get wonderful fudge brownies and a young couple asks to see Clem's wild mask. After a bit more shopping, Joel takes us for "lunch" - a place which makes it own, terrific, french fries, a meal in themselves. Joel also helps Bob P find a doctor to check out his leg, which still has some edema. He shows me a bookstore, pointing out some classics on Nepal which I happily succumb to purchasing, and which will be my reading for the next month.
After arranging to meet us later in the afternoon, so we can go to Boudhanath, Joel takes off and we all go our separate ways. I'm looking for a special gift for Judi; either a Kashmiri ring shawl or a Rajasthani hanging, both items we regretted not purchasing while in India. Since there are many Indian and Kashmiri immigrants, I have a chance. I find a place which has authentic ring shawls, but they're outrageously expensive, over $500, and the less expensive ones are unimpressive. Then I find another shop which has Rajasthani hangings, of a slightly better kind than most shops display, but still not nearly of the quality I'm seeking. Still, I go in and ask, and they take me upstairs where they have a few items of high quality, one of which takes my breath away. The asking price is out of my range, at $250. We have a nice discussion about my stay in India. Then the shopkeeper says, says rather than haggle, let me tell him what's the most I'm willing to pay for the hanging. I tell him $150, and he agrees. I'm quite happy about this, as I know this is less money than I would have spent for a similar item in India 10 years ago. Also, there's a friendly feel to the whole transaction. We chat a bit more, and he discovers I'm a psychologist. He asks me, can I help him? He has terrible sleep problems. We discuss it a bit, and it sounds like fairly simple instructions for sleep hygiene might help, so I offer him some suggestions. We bow to each other - I hope he's sleeping well!
Back to the hotel, rest a bit, rendezvous with Joel and Wes, and grab a cab for Boudhanath. We drop Bob off at a clinic on the way for an ultrasound (though the doctor thinks he's OK, he wants to be sure). The drive to Boudhanath is a typical Kathmandu driving adventure. Once there, though, it's a wonderful treat. Boudhanath is a pilgrimage site not for Hindus (the Nepalese majority) but for Buddhists, mostly Sherpas and Tibetan immigrants and pilgrims. A huge stupa with Buddha eyes and prayer flags overlooks the square, where hundreds of people are circumambulating. Some spin prayer wheels, some prostrate themselves every few steps, some just walk arm in arm for a friendly stroll, others are taking pictures. Somehow, unlike many tourist temple sites, this one has an unusual feeling, as if it can embrace all the many people, with equal acceptance of the pious and the casual unbeliever. Each walks in his own way. In fact, this Buddhist shrine also has Hindu gods on its walls. The qi is strong here, as is the feeling of good will. Joel says that every time he comes here, often worn out from the stresses of the city, he experiences a happiness that seems to be shared by all who visit.
There are children running, monks lighting oil lamps, monks in robes, lay people in gassho, beggars and peddlers, Nepalese from East and West, Tibetans, Westerners, all mixing in a good-humored mélange. Inside the compound one room has a gilt Buddha flanked by 15-foot high, bright red prayer wheels. Walking around the top portion of the stupa the sun bathes the entire square until, with its setting, the place takes on the glow of its many candles and the lights of the still-open shops.
Time to return, getting back in our waiting cab and a rendezvous at . Good news: Bob is OK. For our last night's supper in Kathmandu, we all agree that one last pizza at Fire and Ice is the ticket. We walk over there, and after ordering I run out to a shop in Thamel that Joel guided to me yesterday. There I had designed and ordered a t-shirt for our group: Tengkoma 2000/20,000. I bring it back to the restaurant and give one to each. Wes, in return, gives me a present he picked out "because it's likely you will have no use for it at all" - a kukri knife. I confess to having had, for no good reason, a desire for one; perhaps it's the 10 year old in me who always wanted a boy scout knife. We also give Joel his tips; though he hadn't expected any, we wanted to express our thanks for his company and support his efforts on behalf of Nepalese schoolchildren. The pizza was fine, the beer cold, and at the end we were joined by Jamie and a New Zealand woman on holiday.
Tomorrow it's off to the airport. Clem will stay an extra day or two; Wes and Bob will stay on in Thailand (Wes for a day, Bob for a week). I'm headed home, with just a brief overnight stay in Bangkok.
If a trek is successful and safe, there's no particular dramatic event to mark its end. In fact, in a way the trek never ends, just carries on in different directions. Coming back home it was a joy to see people, but readjusting was difficult. My heart yearns for the mountains. There are mountains here, too: mountains and waters even in my home and office if I can but see them. I'm working on it. But I also have prayer flags strung across my front yard, and I find myself looking at Himalayan maps, and listening for the sounds of deep waters hidden under long-silent snows that, melted by sun and sculpted by wind, turn living glaciers into an expression of deep time and true self.