Friday, 15 August 2014

Ocean of Milk 2


                   “This is closer to my own idea of freedom, the possibility and prospect of  
                    ‘free life’, traveling light, without clinging or despising, in calm
                     acceptance of everything that comes; free because with defenses, free
                     not in an adolescent way, with no restraints, but in the sense of the
                     Tibetan Buddhists’ ‘crazy wisdom’, of Camus’ ‘leap into the absurd’
                      that occurs within a life of limitations.”
                                                                Peter Mattiessen, The Snow Leopard

Julie and Robyn and John and I were on the trail by six next morning, armed with an egg, glug coffee, and a mental map of the cosmic Ocean of Milk. Every muscle complained, loudly with each step. We made our way down to the river where we encountered our first obstacle. The river. It was churning. A ford in our future. We only found out about the suspension bridge a little upstream and a lot too late.
The morning percolated through rice paddies, one we lost our direction in, and on, through a hot flat mudslog that finally dissolved us in a river swimming hole to cool down. We climbed up a hill and across another suspension bridge, for a lunch of good dhal bat in Bhote Oralo. When our energy caught up, we set off high, above and then through a tapering wooded gorge, and finally across another bridge, into the Wild West town of Phalesangu, mid-afternoon.
Along the narrow flagstone main street, with its raised rock slab sidewalk, were double stories of shuttered windows and eaves, overhanging a continuous line of grimy whitewashed buildings. The yellow sign announced our destination, Hotel Lila, no relation to the beauty parlor in Kat, or my mother. It was the first name on the Israeli inventory, and for three rupees, we took the only rooms. The only water was the town tap, back across the bridge, next to the thatch-covered woodpile.
Refreshed and drenched and stripped to my shorts, I squinted down at the Grand Prix of soap bubbles, slithering down into a stream under the holes in the rock, and up to find the glint off the gold earrings of two bashful Nepali sisters in colorful dresses, watching my every move with all three eyes. Their mother stood sideways with a coiled headscarf, half-amused, clutching her sickle. All three were serenely beautiful.
Later, writing by the light of a kerosene lamp, waiting for dhal bat at the Moti hotel, we greeted the tired Israelis on their arrival.
“Are you staying here as well?” The short stubby one asked. I told them we were staying at Hotel Lila. He told me it was the best place.
We were up again stiff and early the third day, hobbling past the old fortress palace of Gaonshahar to the west, two hundred years after its fall to the kukri knives of the Gorkkhas.
A steep descent had to be repaid with a near vertical climb, along a deep river gorge. Huge conifers hung off and onto the cliffs, like a battalion of green trolls, charging up the bluff while trying to keep their heads down. A tired old suspension bridge, over the Khudi Khola, groaned beneath us. The few tin and thatch roofed houses that lingered around its anchors was the Mongaloid Gurung village of Khudi.
A wizened bearded Gurkha captain, with a hard silver, coral and turquoise tobacco pouch hanging from his waist, tried to sell me his kukri. There was something very sad about a failing warrior having to sell the source of all his youthful pride and strength.
We tramped on in silence to Bhulebule, and a nice inn on the river. The Israelis wondered how we knew.
Views of Himalchuli on the horizon crossed a suspension bridge to the east bank, and past a two hundred foot waterfall, on the morning of the fourth day. Manaslu and Peak 29 followed us through the stone settlement of Ngadi and across the Ngadi Khola scrub forest, to the horseshoe villages of Lampata and Bahundanda, the ‘Hill of the Brahmins.’ Our boots took us down to Khane, and then high above the river, in and out of side canyons, across a suspension bridge to Syange and back to the west bank.
We climbed further above the winding torrent, on a terrifying trail carved into near vertical cliffs, where only thirty years earlier there had been just a series of wooden galleries, precariously tied to the face of the rock. Forests of rhododendron and pine and nettles and cannabis swallowed us on the other side until, later in the day, we emerged, hobbling, into Jagat, and a room for four in the barn. John found the chickens. The Israelis failed to materialize that night, and had obviously settled some other promised land, further back along the track.
They snuck around us, through the fifth morning, before we left. After a clamber back into mountain forest, up a rough rocky path, we emerged under a huge boulder that formed a tunnel over the trail. It seemed the only inhabitants beyond the steep ridges of the east bank of the Marsyandi were lizards and stinging nettles, until we entered a picturesque open plateau, to the foot of a large waterfall in Tal village. Where Tibetans once hunted musk deer for their aromatic animalic glands, was a broad valley of buckwheat and barley and potatoes, and stone walls and rough timber houses. We had penetrated into the lower Manang region.
A stone staircase on the other side of the valley took us towering above the Marsyandi, cresting on a spur. The trail undulated up and down through oak and rhododendron, and spruce and hemlock forest, forcing us into an ascent across a suspension bridge, and under a kani archway to Dharapani. A final burst over a trailspur and past five exhausted Israelis, brought us into the hamlet of Bagarchap, the first village with typically Tibetan architecture and feeling.
Most of the closely spaced stone houses had flat slate roofs piled high with firewood, and only a few had sloping shingles. There was a whitewashed gompa with Tibetan Buddhist paintings and statues. John and Julie and Robyn and I found the family memorialized on the Israeli road map. Their laundry hung like prayer flags. They offered us a room big enough for six in their three-sided courtyard. It was a good thing. It was bitter cold at dusk. The temperature continued to drop, even below the spirits of the Israelis who, when they arrived to find us warming ourselves with vegetable noodle egg soup, and the fire that had been their inspiration for getting up early, frosted over to a less commodious dwelling. They were beginning to wonder.
Day six had us now walking in rhythm with each other’s steps, west up the Manang valley, with views of the high Himalayan peaks of Lamjun and Annapurna II, through the trees to the east. Summited only twenty years before our view of it, Annapurna II was the eastern anchor of the range, five feet short of the over eight thousand club. In contrast, Manaslu, a hundred and fifty feet high than that, materialized as a dramatic backdrop to the pine and fir tree-filled valley. Our entire world became a horizontal striped flag of blue and white and green. The bright sun threw silver steam off the white peak.
We trekked along the mule track, in the oak forest near the river, climbing and descending amongst river-worn boulders to Kuparkodo village, in a meadow surrounded by pine and spruce. My left knee began to throb, a torn medial meniscus injury I had never done anything about. It was too late now. Robyn took my pack, and I hers. I was amazed how well she shouldered it, just one of the many amazing qualities I was discovering. Maybe it was those mountains that gave me the clarity. Maybe it was Destiny herself. Even with my lightened load, I still gradually fell behind the others.
A thunderous roar landed with a spinning behemoth on an outcrop around a corner. The helicopter pilot had jumped out of his cockpit to take photos of Lamjung and Annnapurna II and IV. We shared our different perspectives. He had just completed a medical evacuation, and was heading back to Kathmandu. Almost as an afterthought, remounting his beast, he turned and opened his door.
“Hey, you want a loaf of bread?”
“Sure.” I said. He tossed it out the door.
“Baked fresh in Kat this morning.” He said. And his rotors started turning. The loaf was in the top of Robyn’s pack before he was airborne. I limp lurched to catch up with my tribe.
We arrived in the settlement of Chame by early afternoon. John was the first to find the Israeli-favored accommodation, among the closely spaced stone dwellings. There were barking dogs and scurrying rats, the smell of woodsmoke, and far too many bones hanging from the rafters but, compared to the other choices, Ama and Tushi’s hovel was a solid five star Himalyan Hilton.
With plenty of time to unwind, we immersed our aching into a delicious bath, in the two small hot springs across the river. In my pack was a can of Canadian salmon, and one of baked beans. I opened them both, heated the contents of the second, and served them out with thick slabs of fresh sliced bread. We sat on the steps in the horizontal fading sun.
I looked up into the ten eyes of five wasted Israelis. You could see the trouble they were having, figuring this out.
“How did you know to stay here?” Asked the tall thin one.
“Why are you so clean?” Asked one of the girls.
“Hot springs.” I said, with my mouth full. It was rude.
“You have hot springs?” She wanted to know.
“What are you eating?” Asked one of the other girls.
“Salmon sandwiches.” Said Robyn. Frankly, I thought they would ask about the salmon. I think it’s because of what they could smell.
“Bread?” The last one, full interrogation mode. “Where did you get bread?” I had been waiting all day.
“Off the helicopter.” I said, chewing slowly.
“Helicopter. You have a helicopter?”
We continued to eat quietly. Some are more Chosen than others.

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