Saturday, 23 August 2014
“Black holes are where God divided by zero”
“I’m off!” She bubbled, slamming the door next morning. Button Nose had left me a list of chores, mainly to do her laundry and mail her postcards. These were completed without much enthusiasm and with some haste, as I had a date with a horse.
We trotted to the zoo, where I was enthralled by Himalayan black bears, red pandas, leopards, strangely helmeted multicolored fowl, and especially by Franka, the cute little tiger that scared the Tibetan morning momos back out of me. I rode to the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, to compare my exploits with those of better climbers, and on to the Happy Valley tea estate, for a lesson in cultivation. Darjeeling produced twenty million pounds of tea every year, and my guide told me how it was disbursed.
“We send the finest tips to the British.” He explained. “The rest of the leaves we market to the rest of India. And then there are the twigs and stems.”
“What do you do with them?” I asked.
“We send them to the Americans.” He said. I bought ten rupees worth of Golden T.P., and galloped my horse back in time. Button Nose was already at the Welkin.
“How was Kalimpong?” I asked.
“Where?” She queried.
“The town you went to today.” I said.
“Oh yeah.” She said. “I bought some silver earrings.” Except they weren’t. Later we met Doug and Mike at the Chowrasta Restaurant for a curry, and Button Nose’s percolating description of all the new addresses she had collected on her jeep ride. Doug gave me a small bottle of rum on the way out.
“You never know...” He said. “You may just want to set yourself on fire. Self-Immolation. Very Tibetan.”
The reason I had come to Darjeeling wasn’t to ride horses (or Button Nose), but to take the narrow gauge Darjeeling Himalayan Railway ‘toy train’ up to India’s highest railway station in Ghoom, and then down Hill Cart Road, to New Jalpaiguri, on my way to Calcutta.
Button Nose told me she already made a reservation at the Fairlawn Hotel in Calcutta, for two days hence. I told her about how fascinating the toy train was, with its 1889 British ‘B’ class steam locomotive running switchbacks down fifty-three miles and over two kilometers in altitude, along a two-foot wide track.
“I’ll take a taxi and meet you at the bottom.” She said. “Then we can go to Calcutta together.” My brain formed a mental picture of a small bottle of rum, and a match.
After a lukewarm bucket bath and a cuppa next morning, I told Button Nose that I would meet her at the Kwality Restaurant in Siliguri at seven that evening. I gave my Nepali toque to the Welkin desk clerk on the way out, and hiked to the train station to begin my excursion. During a patio breakfast I met two female missionary nuns, one from Singapore, the other Irish. I asked about qualifications. They mentioned celibacy and suffering. I told them I had it covered.
And then, for nine rupees, we stumbled into Lilliput. What used to be bullock carts and palanquins morphed into a whimsical cabin.
The first hour was a carnival of shunting cars and engines. Then, with a noise out of all proportion to the size of its blue locomotive, our little toy cabin gave a jerk, and started. A stocky railway worker sat perched over the forward engine buffers, scattering sand on the rails when the wheels lost their metal grip, with the din of a giant spring running down when the control had been removed.
Locals materialized from nowhere to hang on the outside, the whistle and steam blew incessantly, and coal dust coated my sweater. Sometimes we crossed our own track after completing a conic circuit. Sometimes we zigzagged backwards and forwards.
The fog descended as we ascended the Batasia Loop, at a steady gradient, to Ghoom Monastery. It was freezing, and only a quick chai saved me from terminal shivering. From the highest point on the line, a small push supplied all the energy necessary to carry us to the bottom of West Bengal.
The track simply followed the roadside. Long stretches of the road were surrounded with buildings, and the railway line often rather resembled an urban tramway than an overland track line.
Our engine was equipped with a very loud horn that could even drown out the ear-piercing horns of Indian trucks and buses. It blared without pausing for breath.
The first four hours were idyllic. Clouded views of the lush hills, close-up views of village shops, picking flowers out the window, and stupas, poinsettias and tea plantations in profusion.
The last five hours dragged. Button Nose passed and shouted from a cab. I shouted back that I'd be late. Down, down to a series of impressive switchbacks and loops as the sun dropped on the horizon and the full moon rose in sympathy. At long last we pulled into Siliguri Station, and I traded in my nuns for my anchoress.
“Oh, I’ve already bought my ticket.” She said. “You should get yours right away.” I returned to find that Button Nose had adopted another new friend, a tall lanky Englishman, dressed in purple, holding his head in his hands.
“What’s wrong with him?” I asked.
“My bag. It's been nicked. It's the end. Finished.” He said. He had lost his travelers cheques, a flashlight, and love letters.
“That’s really bad.” Agreed Button Nose. “Terrible. Awful.” She asked me to help him. I handed over my flashlight, tea, and a hundred rupees. I had love letters, but the line had to be drawn somewhere. I turned to find that Mary and Button Nose were jumping up and down with the glee that came from rediscovering each other.
“Let’s all get on the bus!” Said Button Nose. We got on the bus. She asked me to change seats with her. I gave her the window and, in exchange, I got a metal crossbar night of alternating between splayed and fetal torment. The agony was made even more exquisite by three obnoxious teenage Bengali boys, who flew into hysterical fits of sniggering whenever Button Nose’s sleeping head landed on my shoulder.
A red sun eventually rose to our left. We followed the east bank of the Hooghly River into India’s literary capital, the ‘City of Furious, Creative Energy,’ and the ‘Field of Kali.’ Kali, the black figure of annihilation, meant ‘time’ or ‘death’, as in ‘the time had come.’
On June 19, 1756, the time had come for 123 of 146 British and Anglo-Indian soldiers and civilians, who perished in the Black Hole of Calcutta. In a dungeon cell intended to hold only three men, they died of asphyxiation, heat exhaustion, and crushing. The fires raging in different parts of Fort William didn’t help. They raved, fought, prayed, blasphemed, and many then fell exhausted on the floor, where suffocation put an end to their torments. After the prison was opened, the corpses were thrown into a ditch. Robert Clive liberated the remaining survivors.
I liberated Button Nose off my man-powered rickshaw at the Fairlawn Hotel. The Fairlawn had been built twenty-seven years after the last emissions from the Black Hole reached Clive’s ears. The ruling Nawabs restricted Bengali construction materials to coconut palm and mud, but William Ford built his hotel out of pukka brick. Subsequent owners were seafarers, smuggling opium and textiles into and from China. In 1942, the place became ‘Canada House’, requisitioned by the Canadian Air Force.
Upper Canada Button Nose checked in, and I didn’t. First, in the poorest city in the world, I still couldn’t afford to stay here. Second, I was given the brush-off by the hybrid English-Armenian rani queen, too busy talking about Tony Wheeler’s recent visit. Her mother used to hide coins in empty kerosene cans, but I was untouchable. Finally, there was a push to break from Button Nose, and a pull to seek Calcutta. I headed for the Black Hole.
“The black hole teaches us that space can be crumpled like a piece of
paper into an infinitesimal dot, that time can be extinguished like a
blown-out flame, and that the laws of physics that we regard as
'sacred,' as immutable, are anything but.”
Friday, 22 August 2014
“In my third novel there is an actual black hole that swallows everything
Kathmandu was the traveler’s black hole. It bent light, defied time, and devoured mass unperceived, until no energy remained. The only thing the outside world ever saw was charge and spin. I spent another week in Kat, but I couldn’t account for all of it. A fever woke me, the morning after my thirtieth birthday. I hoped it wasn’t an inauspicious sign.
Dan and I cycled down to the Indian Embassy to get permits for Darjeeling, had my thangka authenticated at the archeology office, and spent the rest of the day repenting, consuming Hemingway as my candle consumed itself. Tenzing was trying to get me a permit to go with him to Bhutan, and Robyn and Julie would leave the next day for Rajasthan. It was our last daybreak. The dogs had howled all night.
We didn’t say much. Just after noon, I went with them to the bus station. The bus left two streams of tears as it pulled out. My batteries used the last electrons to get back to meet Tenzing at the Earth House. It would take twenty days to process his application. I told him I didn’t have it in me to wait that long. He told me we could go to Tibet instead.
Bruce and Terry were holding forth at a medieval banquet at Niryana’s that evening. I was at their table, but in a different place.
The next day Tenzing brought me good news. His friend in the First Secretary’s office at the Chinese Embassy could get me a visa to Tibet for a small financial consideration, six photos, and a fifteen day wait. I said that would be fine. The following morning he returned to tell me that, no, we couldn’t get to Tibet, but that was not a problem either. He would come with me to Darjeeling. I said that would be fine.
My fever broke the next morning. I came down the stairs into the Earth House restaurant, and couldn’t find a place to sit. The entire room was pulsating with overstuffed traveler’s consuming pancakes, cappuccinos, and platters of their own mythology. It was time to go.
At sunset Tenzing and I walked past the hanging bats and their soft migrations down Rajput, to buy a bus ticket to the eastern border town of Karkavita. Just one. Tenzing said he understood, but I could tell he had hoped this friendship would be special. And it was. Because I’m telling you now that it was. This heart, I know, To be long loved was never framed, For something in its depths doth glow, Too strange, too restless, too untamed. Tenzing said he understood, but it was a Tibetan understanding.
He met me at the bus next afternoon, and put a scarf over my neck.
“Tashi delek.” I said. Thank you. He grinned. And was gone too.
The rattrap was full of foreigners. There was Doug and Mike, two soft-spoken Midwesterners, a Dutch couple, an English traveler, and a Canadian girl with long blond hair and a button nose. I actually slept most of the night despite the chai stops, Hindi nyah-nyah music, and bone-jarring potholes and gear changes. An old Indian babu held us up for an hour to look for his shoe. It was gone. As were we. Our bus pulled into Karkavita just after dawn.
I called out the back of my rickshaw to tell Button Nose she had forgotten to get stamped out of Nepal. An hour later she arrived in time for the last seat on the sardine Siliguri Express. Before she even sat down, she had asked for my address. I was to discover that she was a collector. The second request was to change seats with me. Her third was for me to understand that she had a boyfriend. He had returned to Europe without her. I was to discover the logic of that that.
Button Nose was an Upper Canada rich spoiled helicopter ski brat, pretending to be a student in a Swiss private school, and a flounder out of water in India. This was not the garden party she signed up for, and I would end up wearing every weed-whacked shred of her disapproval. No matter where she was, she wanted to be anywhere but where she was.
In Siliguri we piled into a collective taxi for the last three-hour climb to Darjeeling. A chubby German girl filled the vehicle. Button Nose asked for her address.
We ascended through tea plantations and dense alpine forests of sal and oak. There were orchids. The snow peaks of the Mahabharat Himalayas appeared on the horizon, and Kanchenjunga loomed in the distance.
Our taxi coughed into the cold thin air of a colonial hill station. We plodded past the Planter’s Club and several mock Tudor residences, and shuddered to a stop in front of an old Gothic church. Button Nose and I walked through Chowrasta Square, to the fortress enclosure of the Welkin Hotel. There would be wired barbs inside the barbed wire. We put our packs on opposite sides of the room, and turned to face each other.
“Let’s go to a movie!” She said. OK. So I took her to The Rise and Fall of Idi Amin. It was a romantic comedy, compared to the vibe in the seat beside me.
We retraced our path, for sag paneer and a cup of cold tea, with Doug and Mike, at Gleneary’s. Button Nose got their addresses.
“You do alright for yourself.” Came the voice over my left shoulder. I turned to find Adera and Alan, from Naggar Castle, still trekking the Himalayas, trying to get home.
“I have a boyfriend in Switzerland.” Said Button Nose, not making it any better. Adera smiled. We left them later to roll out our sleeping bags. I turned to say good night but she was already facing away, zipped tight. The last traveler had left a book on my night table. Darkness at Noon.
It was even colder next morning. I awoke to the frozen fractals of my own breath.
“I need laundry soap!” She said, and bolted out the door. I shaved and showered, and emerged to find her back.
“They won’t take my rupees.” She said.
“They’re Nepali.” I observed.
“But they’re still rupees.” She insisted. I took her down to Grindlay’s to change money. She befriended two more travelers in the bank, a large pale English girl named Mary, and an American nurse, whose name got lost in her rapidly burgeoning collection of addresses. Somehow, we all ended up eating brunch with a petite, opinionated, and stubborn South African girl named Sue. Blah blah blah.
“Let’s all go to the tourist office!” This was where Button Nose discovered that a permit was required to visit Kalimpong. She didn’t really want to visit Kalimpong. She just wanted the permit. I waited for her in the square, and found a horse rental place. Now this was something I thought any blue-blooded silver spoon gentrified girl would enjoy.
“I’ve got some good news.” I said, when she returned, and told her about the equine excursion I had booked.
“Oh, no.” She said. “I never ride horses.” I was about to make some remark about hymen preservation, but the need for explanation would have been too difficult.
“Let’s go to a movie!” She said. All the adolescent Indian boys in the theatre watched Button Nose watch The Kidnapping of the President. I was pulling for the terrorist.
“Now there's a look in your eyes,
Like black holes in the sky.”
Thursday, 21 August 2014
Dean and Claire arrived from the campground, with a jar of their honey. There was wild boar left for them.
“Did they have myths in India, Uncle Wink? Millie Asked.
“Too many to count, Mil.” He said. “They had myths about wars and floods and other worlds and epics and gods and incarnations.”
“How many gods did they have”
“One for sure. And another thirty three crore. A crore is ten million. A few more than the desert religions.” Said Uncle Wink.
“How many hunters like Orion” Asked Sam.
There weren’t many hunting heroes in Hindu mythology, Sam. The one they had was associated with the constellation Orion, however. He was Rudra of the Wind, on a blazing chariot, who shot Prajapati, who had taken the form of a stag in order to seduce the Dawn. The arrow that pierced him is made up of the belt stars of Orion.”
“A blazing chariot?” I had Sam’s attention.
“Chariots were a big part of Indian mythology its epic heroes. One of the most famous symbols of the country, is the giant Chariot of the Sun God, built at Konarak in 13th century. It has twelve pairs of exquisitely ornamented wheels to cross the heavens with. The spokes are sundials that provide the exact time of day.”
“Was there anything else special about Indian chariots?” Sam asked.
“Quite a few things, actually.” Uncle Wink said. “ They were held together with twine, which gave them the flexibility they lacked without springs. My biggest hero compared them to a spiritual journey. The road it goes on is ‘Straight.’‘Without Fear’ is its destination. The body is called ‘Silent,’ And its wheels are right effort. Conscience is the railings, Mindfulness the upholstery, Dhamma the driver. And right view runs ahead. And whether it be man Or whether it be woman, Whoever travels by this vehicles hall draw close to Nirvana.
The most important part of a chariot was its wheels, and made so perfectly that, when set moving, would roll until they stopped upright, and not fall over. My hero thought of the chariot wheel as the Wheel of Life. It’s one of oldest symbols in India, and was used by Emperor Ashoka the Great, 2300 years ago, to represent the dynamism of peaceful change. The ‘Ashoka Chakra’ is on the Lion Capital of Sarnath, and in the middle of the Indian flag. Similar Dharma, wheels or Dharamachakras, are on the flags of Thailand and Mongolia.”
“What’s dharma?” Millie asked, just as the pavlova came out.
“I’ll tell you after dessert.” He said.
Wednesday, 20 August 2014
“This is the way I like it”, he says. “You haven’t got the whole
goddamned society backing you up, you’re on your own: You have to
take responsibility for your mistakes, you can’t blame the organization.
And inevitably you make mistakes- you just hope they aren’t too
Peter Mattiessen, The Snow Leopard
Our churning of the Ocean of Milk left a postscript in Pokhara. Papa Wingnut and the family welcomed us back, from three weeks and three hundred kilometers ago. They were celebrating the Festival of the Dog, and Rabies was the guest of honour, with a big red splotchdot bindi, pasted in the middle of his forehead. Everyone danced for Rabies, so much more uplifting than the Bataan death marches now sponsored for more contemporary causes.
I had my beard shaved off, played chess with Tim (who had also arrived the day before), and took in a Nepali bullfight with Terry and Bruce. The entire next day was eaten up by us, eating pie. Our bodies held a festival of their own.
We were still in shock. Our bus to Kathmandu, the following morning, was from another planet. All the people and traffic and noise and chaos churned up the sediment in the deep serenity we had acquired on the trek. We felt the ball bearings grinding beneath us, and we took it personally. Our bus arrived two hours late, but our disorientation made it irrelevant.
Our old room at the Earth House seemed too big and too small, at the same time. The mosquitoes seemed huge. My midnight forays to annihilate them, and the dogs barking in the empty streets outside, killed any idea of sleep.
The next day was my thirtieth birthday. John left for Calcutta, and Robyn and Julie surprised me with a beer and cheese lunch on Bert and Dan’s sunlit balcony. My birthday card was a Bo leaf with a badly painted depiction of Ganesh. We were joined by Tenzing, the Tibetan we had met between Ghosa and Kopchepani, who had come to invite us to the Living Goddess ceremony that evening.
“How did you find us, Tenzing?” I asked.
“The same way I found the Living Goddess.” He said, always the honey in the lion.
We went out of duty and stayed in fascination. The hospitality was of the highest Atithi Devo Bhavah Guest is God practice. Tenzing’s brother-in-law, Shalendrah, was honored in the same manner as Rabies had been two days previously in Pokhara, except that Rabies didn't have to give presents in return for the privilege of having red paste and curd plastered all over his forehead. We were given a tigam dab as well, along with the other thirty Nepalis in the small room. And the time flew into the raksi, food, and strange myth of the living goddess next door. After dark, she was carried in to meet us.
The Kumari is a prepubertal girl selected from the Newar Shakyas, the caste of silver and goldsmiths to which the Buddha belonged. She is believed to possess Kali, the black goddess of time and change and destruction, inside her, and is worshipped as a god until her first menstruation. Then she goes home.
Until then, she is not allowed to let her feet touch the ground, nor leave Kumar House, except for festivals. Taking her photograph is a criminal offense. I didn’t know. She didn’t tell.
Tenzing told me how she was chosen. All Living Goddess candidates had to be in excellent health, never having shed blood or afflicted by any disease, without blemish and not lost any teeth. Those that pass the first filter are examined for the battis lakshanas, or ‘thirty-two perfections.’
They must have a body like a banyan tree, a neck like a conch shell, eyelashes like a cow, thighs like a deer, a chest like a lion, a voice as soft and clear as a duck’s, very black hair and eyes, dainty hands and feet, small and well-recessed sexual organs, and a set of twenty teeth. The next round knocked out candidates with inauspicious horoscopes, or any family members with insufficient piety and devotion to the King. The final contestants are sorted by their serenity and fearlessness. On the Kalratri Black night, the finalists are taken into a courtyard inside Taleju temple, where 108 buffalos and goats are released, and then sacrificed. They must spend the night with the carnage. Whichever girl is showing the most serenity by morning, becomes the new Kumari. And she came to see us. I told Tenzing to tell her it was my birthday. She raised her hand.
“We know.” He said.
Robyn and I returned to the Earth House, intoxicated by the experience and the rakshi. As I fell asleep, I remembered the last words of my father, as I left on my odyssey, three and half years earlier.
“Remember.” He said. “A man is at thirty, what he is for the rest of his life.”
I’d just met my Destiny, and been blessed by the Living Goddess. I was good. The dogs celebrated long into the night.
Tuesday, 19 August 2014
“Annapurna, to which we had gone emptyhanded, was a treasure on
which we should live the rest of our days. With this realization we turn
the page: a new life begins. There are other Annapurnas in the lives of
Maurice Herzog, Annapurna
On the morning of the seventeeth day, across a large suspension bridge over the Ghar Khola, we climbed back up a kilometer and a half, along the Sadhu’s stairways. Our shadows were taller than our souls.
Arumgumam guided us to the skyline, five hundred meters to the top of a rocky spur, and a single sentinel house. For a rupee, Robyn and I bought what looked like an immense lemon. That's what it was. Even more dangerous further above, we had to cross a huge landslide of slick mica, threatening to carry us down into space with each unsure footfall. Gradually, we ascended into rhododendron forest over Ghorapani Pass, and magnificent views of Dhaulagiri, Tukche, Nilgiri, Annapurna I, Annapurna South, Hiunchuli and Glacier Dome.
Ghorapani meant ‘horse water’ like Tatopani meant ‘hot water.’ Stocky Tibetan men shouted to striking caravans of plumed horses. Silver bells warned of their approach, scattering us to find a safe place to wait out the herd’s momentum. Sharp hooves ground the trail to dust. And then it went up, and up, and up. Into and through old forest, with Spanish moss feasting like bats on dying trees, past scores of obnoxious Americans. The Stetson that one wore was louder than he was. We later found out he was the US ambassador. Arumgumam was faster than their daypack rummaging produced cameras, and they didn’t want photos of us.
“Galah.” We said in greeting.
“Galah.” They replied, behind us.
As we entered Ghorapani, Arumgumam took us to a lodge overlooking the town. Here we met Terry and Bruce, Canadian harmonica impresarios, who entertained us through our onion soup and rostis. We fell asleep to their wailing reed rhythms, cool fading into the cool late night. Around 3:30 am, nature drew me out under a star-studded sky Ocean of Milk, blue-black down to her foundations. Orion shone.
We picked strawberries along the trail next morning, before beginning a knee-crunching descent through the old forest. The drop took us along rhododendron-lined sparkling clear streams to Nayathanti and Bahunthanti. Below Ulleri, the path became even more punishing, until I could feel my heelbones rattling inside my skull.
Across two suspension bridges we rolled up into Tikhedunga, to find our sadhu having lunch with the American ambassador. I thought this a rather unusual détente, until I realized that Arumgumam was pretending not to speak English, a disposition that was driving the Stetson to even louder and more frustrated attempts at diplomacy. As he joined our departure, Arumgumam fired a big blue flame from his Bic into a Marlboro, and excused himself in perfect Etonian English.
“Galah.” He said, as he left.
“Galah.” Responded the dumbfounded ambassador.
After crossing and recrossing the Bhurungdi Khola to avoid the steep cliffs, we followed the bamboo forests and waterfalls of the north bank, down into Birenthanti. Arumgumam led us down a winding street of large flagstones and sidewalk cafés, to the four rupee Sunrise Lodge. A cold wash waited down at the river.
We said goodbye to Arumgumum next morning. He turned and smiled his last Jesus head bobble. A final blue flame fired out of his lighter, and he disappeared in a puff of smoke. Galah.
Robyn and I crossed the Modai Khola on a suspension bridge, to begin an abrupt switchback ascent up a dusty trail to Chandrakot. Perched on a ridge, the trail suddenly became miraculous. The long chain of the Annupurnas were impressive enough, especially Annapurna South.
But the prize went to the profile of the ‘fish tail’ mountain of Machapuchare, off-limits to climbers because of its sacred relationship to Shiva, poking its proud Matterhorn nose into the clear blue. Robyn and I followed a ridge to Lumle, up a set of wide stone stairs to crest at Khare, where we picked up a skipping eight-year old Nepali girl, who led us over the ridge into the Yamdi Khola, and our descent into Naundanda. We checked into Sherchan Lodge, and hung out with the chickens on the flagstone terrace.
“You’re going the wrong way.” Rang out above us. It was Dan.
The afternoon’s composure was shattered by the three Company men, who had gotten lost and were on the way back to Kagbeni. That shot the program. Robyn called them in.
The rest of the day faded away on the terrace of the Sherchan. The owner emerged to join us. He was a young man, with a moustache and a yellow pin striped polo jacket. From his coat pocket he removed a packet of cigarette rolling papers, I thought to roll a cigarette.
He started to lick and paste several together, until he had made a piñata rocketship, complete with fins and flanges. He had filled it with what he called a tola, which I knew as a traditional Vedic unit of mass, about 3/8 of a troy ounce. Akbar the Great had minted tola-weight coins, and the British had carried on the standard, with their gold bullion. The gold rocket he launched took us over Machapuchare and the vertebrae of mountain pinnacles. There were other Annapurnas in the lives of men, but these were the ones in mine. From here I could see the arc of the world, and our lives. Annapurna means ‘Goddess of the Harvests,’ and the dreams I had later were a singular vintage. I knew the Himalayas because I was the Himalayas. The dogs barked all night, in fluent Sanskrit.
The last day of the trek took us first deceptively skyward, and then straight down a broad trail to the foot of the Yamdi Khola valley, and across the river toward Phewa lake. We were supposed to reappear onto the raised mud dike walls of a rice paddy field chessboard. If there had ever been a track, it had left years before.
I went ahead of Robyn, and soon found myself out of earshot, and consumed by undergrowth, gigantic spiderwebs, and growing arachnophobia. My knees jarred and crumbled across expansive sheets of boulders through a tributary. When I finally emerged into the sun and paddies, a naked young boy escorted me to a spot on the river, just in time to see Robyn and Dan and Bert enter the scene.
We swam the river, giggling, and sun bathed on the far bank, relieved to be out of the old forest and near the end. A young ferryman took us on a hot hour-long paddle to Pokhara for seven rupees. As our socks dried on the gunnels, the Annapurnas closed in to complete our circle. We ran up onto the lake’s far beach, like claiming a new land. A westerner on a bicycle was peddling circles on the foreshore.
I recognized the man who had singlehandedly made the world of exotic places available to aspirant travelers, and then singlehandedly destroyed them, by making them available.
“Tony Wheeler.” I called out. He stopped.
“You wrote in West Asia on the Cheap that Canadians don’t need visas to enter Syria.” I said.
“And?” He asked.
“We do.” I said.
“I’ll fix it.” He said.
“It’s too late.” I said. “I’ve already met my Destiny.” He shrugged, and started peddling in circles again.
Dan and Bert and Robyn and I hiked the last few meters to the courtyard of the Snowland, to find John and Julie sitting with the Israelis. She had made it back down the other side, without any further misfortune. We all adjourned to the Hungry Eye café, and ordered one of everything off the menu. Dan ate five pieces of pie, without exhaling.
The tall Israeli was bursting.
“What.” I asked.
“We beat you.” He boasted, chest out. The other Israelis smiled their Israeli smiles.
“Yes, you did.” I said. “Did you see the Yeti?”
“Yeti?” he asked. “You saw a Yeti?”
Monday, 18 August 2014
“In the longing that starts one on the path is a kind of homesickness,
and some way, on this journey, I have started home.”
Peter Mattiessen, The Snow Leopard
It was all downhill from there, and more than a metaphor. The trail headed west, descending high above the Jhong Khola to Jharkot, a little Tibetan settlement with peach trees. The villagers made oil out of the pits. Peach kernels contain cyanide, just in case they got too comfortable with their oxygen levels.
Our feet took us under elemental desert colors- blue sky contrasting against white clouds, striking yellow bare hillsides, splashes of green where streams allowed cultivation, and the blinding white peaks of Dhauligiri and Niligiri. We were in the same geographical and climatic zone as Tibet.
Just past Khingar village, the trail began its steep descent into the world’s deepest gorge, and the Kali Gandaki valley floor. The winds that howled through our space between Dhauligiri and the Annapurna peaks carried us a little off the main trail, on a side trip to the fortified medieval Mustang village of Kagbeni. We climbed down past hundreds of small piles of rocks made by pilgrims to honor their departed ancestors, beside white rapids rushing over the river alluvium, and into a green oasis of Mongol women and young girls, winnowing wheat within stone wall-enclosed fields.
A large ochre-colored gompa perched high above imposing chortens and exotic mud houses. We hiked by shamanistic statues and prayer wheels made from old Caltex tins. Small children accompanied us through dark narrow alleyways, trying to extort candy along the way.
We escaped them through orthogonal carved windows, onto the open rooftop of the New Annapurna Lodge, a precious sunlit little place for three rupees a night. Robyn washed clothes and innocently poured the dirty water over the dahlia box and onto Dan. The wind howled its approval. After a plate of fried freeze-dried yak cheese, we ventured back out to watch the threshers. Migrating flocks of Eastern Great egrets flew overhead, before the Israelis put in a similar appearance. I was surprised to see they had made it over the Thorong La. They told us they saw Julie being escorted back to Manang by our porters, and asked where we were staying.
“That’s where we were going to sleep.” The shortest one said. “Many are called but few are Chosen.” Said Bert. They stared suspiciously.
“New Testament.” I said. Shoulders shrugged and separated. That night our Tibetan hostess baked us an apple pie. In order to make it from scratch, she had to first create the universe. Later that night, after Destiny went to bed, Dan and John and Bert and I sat directly under it, and talked about it. We decided it was infinite.
The Company got off to a late start next morning. At the time we blamed the slow breakfast, but in retrospect, I don’t think we wanted to leave. There was nothing outside Kagbeni that anyone should have wanted. And much that was there that had been lost or never existed elsewhere.
We left sadly, down the stone alluvium bed, past an old woman selling apples, and up and down into Jomson. Originally Dzongsam, New Fort, it owed its existence to the trade from the pink salt lakes in Tibet, until a decade and a half before we arrived, when imported Indian salt put the route out of business. The iodine in the southern salt also eliminated the large goiters that had previously distinguished Nepalese throats. A visible form of invisible grace, it constituted a mixed salt blessing.
The bank guard let me hold his rifle, while he posed for a photo. When Dan and Bert entered the scene behind me, he looked a little nervous, until I gave him back his gun.
The Company stopped in a sunny courtyard, drinking lemon tea, and eating apple pie and 5 star bars. Revived, we hiked south out of Jomson, passing trains of ornamented horses, blinding white peaks, brown and yellow cliffs, and bright green irrigated fields.
We had to rub our eyes on entering Marpha. Huddled behind a ridge for protection from the burning winds, it seemed at first that we had been transported to somewhere in the Mediterranean. The proud Thakalis lived in tightly packed whitewashed houses, rock walls and red window lintels plumbed perfectly straight, curving along flagstone streets, immaculately spotless, with an extensive system of subterranean drainage. Grains and vegetables dried on the flat rooftops. The narrow passageways were paved. Herds of goats and caravans of plumed horses moved efficiently down the main street. It was absolutely beautiful.
“Look. There’s John.” Robyn said. And it was. And we checked into a four-rupee double at the Baba Lodge, and ate two rostis with some Marpha apple rakshi, under the high snow pinnacles. Later that afternoon we crossed a suspension bridge to visit the Tibetan refugee camp. The women weaving carpets at their looms bent back and forth like they were praying to a wailing wall. No matter how many carpets they wove, it was never going to become a door.
The ablution block at Baba Lodge was on the roof, Tibetan-style. After our rosti and muesli breakfast, Robyn told me our toilet roll was missing. I remembered a Dutch guy entering, as I left, earlier that morning. I knocked on the Dutchman’s door. His roommate opened it and, sitting on their back shelf, was our loo roll. No words were spoken. I pointed. They retrieved, like duck hunting with hounds.
“What kind of man steals another man’s toilet paper?” I asked, leaving them with the answer they already had.
Robyn and I left with Bert and Dan, climbing to Sokung village around convoys of loaded donkeys. For a moment, I shuddered at the thought that, if one of them panicked, I could be hurled off the mountain path we were sharing.
Through an arid desert of scattered pine, cypress and junipers, we crossed a suspension bridge into conifer forest. The Israelis had left earlier, but we overtook them in Lete, dropping to a stream, and a further descent from mountain pine and birch to subtropical trees and shrubs, and our old friends, stinging nettles and cannabis.
We met a French Indian couple in their late sixties. He was a nuclear engineer, and she was an artist. They were a joy to hike with, still in love with life and each other. We weren’t so sure about a plodding American hiker, who was talking into a box as we passed him.
“It’s getting harder now...” He said. Huffing and puffing and panting, he was so self-absorbed, as to be missing all the precious beauty around him. Robyn and I looked at each other.
“Galah.” She said.
“Galah.” He replied, returning what he obviously thought was a local greeting.
Ghasa was the last southernmost Lama Buddhist village we would encounter and, after a seven-hour trek, the hot bath in the cold dark toilet was restorative. We found roasted peanuts and hot chocolate and warm sleeping bags and sleep.
The descent continued at a slower pace next morning, but another twelve hundred meters would fall away in just a few hours. Down through the chickens, mule dung, bloated smiles and bellies, women washing aluminum pans from back polyethylene conduits, and along slate flagstones, we paused in front of our next suspension bridge.
“Slowly slowly, Baba.” He said.
I turned to find Jesus in a saffron robe, and a string of gauri-shankar rudraksh beads, strolling barefoot beside me. The sadhu seemed to have levitated over the steepest and narrowest part of the canyon, cut through the solid rock and a short three-sided tunnel. He dematerialized in almost the same instant. In his place was a quiet young Tibetan, named Tenzing, who asked if we had seen a missing German, and invited Robyn and I to the Kumari festival in Kathmandu, nine days later. I asked him what the celebration was for.
“It is for the Living Goddess.” He said. I asked him how he knew the living goddess.
“The same way I know you.” He said. And as I turned to Robyn and back again, and he was gone too. I suddenly noticed the lizards, sunning themselves on every rock.
“Should be a unicorn along any minute now.” I said to Robyn. We crossed the lizards and a bridge to catch up with Bert and Dan, over lemon teas in Kopchepani. They had witnessed a helicopter evacuation of two Kiwi girls and an Irishman from Ghasa. They hadn’t seen my magical sadhu and Tibetan.
“Imaginary friends are as good as real ones.” Dan offered.
“Sometimes better.” I said. A mule train shuffled by.
We dropped to cross a wooden bridge over the steep canyon river, and climbed steeply to Rukse Chhara, and the foot of a spectacular waterfall, tumbling into a series of cataracts along the trail. Our descent continued, via the elaborately carved windows and balconies of Dani, through a small tunnel carved out of the precipitous rocky hillside, and finally, into Tatopani.
We were not prepared. For over three weeks we had slept hard, eaten rice and lentils, and our world had been constructed of earth and sky and water. The lemon meringue fault line had found us again, as we crossed the threshold of the Paris Café at Namaste Lodge.
A kerosene-powered refrigerator bulged with cold beer and coke and orange soda. A radio was tuned to Hindi nyah-nyah songs. A Frenchman was writing in his diary at a corner table. A Frenchman in the Paris Café. We were on our way back. We left to meet John at the Snow Tree Lodge. I told him of the sadhu and Tibetan imaginary friends.
“Just a little situation that happened.” He said, drawing on an imaginary cigarette. We all went to the springs for a long hot mud bath and short sock wash.
The Paris Café was empty at dinner, except for the Company and the Frenchman. He was still writing in his diary when we arrived. Robyn ordered the tree tomato soup. The Frenchman ordered the tree tomato soup. Robyn ordered egg fried rice. The Frenchman ordered the egg fried rice. Robyn ordered curry veg and boiled beans, a lemon tea and a black tea. So did the Frenchman. He was still writing in his diary when we left.
We had decided to spend an extra day in Tatopani, for the ambience and the amenities. I sat in the sun with John and the boys, losing a day and winning in chess. After a trip to the hot springs, we attended the opening ceremony of the first Bank of Nepal branch in town.
Barefoot children piggybacked each other, carrying bouquets of handpicked flowers for two thin cheroot-smoking officials, almost identical in their Dhaka topi hats, V necked sweaters, and running shoes. Robyn and I left the Company for lunch at the Paris Café.
Sitting where the Frenchman had been the night before, was my sadhu. I sat across the room, and pulled out a cigarette. He pointed at it furiously, and I thought, at first, he was offended at my intention to indulge. I had been under the impression that sadhus were renouncers, and had left all material attachments, to focus on the spiritual attainment of moksha. Apparently we were in Marlboro country.
I handed one over, and offered a box of matches. He waved me away and from within his saffron robes, produced a Bic lighter which, with the largest blue flame, just about burned my nose off. He ignited his own cigarette, drew in a long breath, and exhaled a final plume of ascetic exultation, through a vortex of spinning smoke rings, and the open ceiling.
His name was Arumgumam. His thin weathered stone-worn feet had carried him from the Mahesh Yogi’s ashram in Rishikesh to the temple in Muktinath, up his own personal stairway to heaven.
In my thoughts I have seen rings of smoke through the trees, And the voices of those who standing looking.
Ooh, it makes me wonder.
Sunday, 17 August 2014
“At the top of the mountain, we are all snow leopards.”
Hunter S. Thompson
The day’s ascent, on the route to the pass, rose almost two kilometers in altitude, northwest up the Jarsang Khola.
We climbed through scrub juniper, into meadows of yaks and horses, past clusters of flat mud roofed herder huts, into alpine grasses and desolation. I remember a broken down stone house with a rusting biscuit tin of a roof, blowing back and forth in the wind.
Dan and Bert were in the lead with Robyn and I behind, and the porters and Julie trailing. She had developed another bout of dysentery, that or the first one had been only playing possum. She was taking a breath for every step. It wasn’t a good sign. The Israelis caught up with us at a makeshift little chai shop halfway. They were asking a lot of questions, like Israelis do. I told them I didn’t know the answers, and we would all find out together, something that ran counter to their experience with me, up until this point in the trek.
Along the massif, the last of the vegetation was replaced by streams of snow, and the bluegray icy river by sand-colored switchbacks up the slope to the lone ruin we would spend half a night in, before our final push over the Thorong La.
It was called Phedi which, in Nepali, meant the ‘bottom of a long climb.’ It should have meant the rock bottom of a long climb. The lone dwelling used to be a teahouse, but had deteriorated to the point you couldn’t tell. The metal roof had long since blown off, the wooden door frames had been burned as firewood, and the toilet, repulsive as it was, was even more repulsive than that. The space inside the outside-exposed inside was noisy, crowded, smoky, and freezing. The French that arrived later had a loud rakshi party, until they finally slammed the corrugated tin door into place, and the remaining light and oxygen was extinguished.
Our porters woke us at three am, but we had been awake all night. After a quick bowl of tsampa, we walked into an immediate series of steep switchbacks up the moraines.
There was only just enough reflected moonlight to distinguish the trail from the snow. We placed our boots in front of each other up the rocky ridges, in and out of canyons, and over the many false summits that seemed to go on forever. I stayed behind Julie for encouragement, but her diarrhea was worse, and she was forced to dip behind rocks at shorter and shorter intervals, as the moon dropped off to our left, and the dawn diffused through the cracks on our right. Finally, she sat down on the trail, and cried.
Robbie had returned from above to prod her on a little further, but I finally said what was necessary to say. Julie’s breathing was labored to the point I could sense her starting to develop pulmonary edema. She needed to descend, and soon.
I hurried to catch up with the porters, waiting at the top of the pass. Bert was waiting at the stone cairn and chorten at the 17,800 foot summit. Its flags were whistling in the winds, and the views of the entire Great Divide, with the Annapurnas and Gangapurna to the south were breathtaking, if there would have been any left.
I paid the porters, and gave them instructions to return Julie to Manang, and ensure that she join another party to take her back to Pokhara, where we would hopefully meet up once we trekked down the other side of the Circuit. They went down one way, Bert faded off the other, and I sat at 5500 meters for an hour, waiting for Robyn to catch up.
When Destiny finally called, Chaos was still on the other line. Maybe it was the altitude. We were both quiet, and upset with the situation, the loss of Julie, and each other. She walked on over the pass, and I hiked into oblivion, stuck in knee-deep snow. The guttural sounds of Hebrew behind me finally propelled me onto the right path, and down onto the knee-punishing 1600m descent through the wind, to a teahouse halfway down the other side. I would win my race with Destiny. She had caught up with Bert and Dan. We ate spicy potatoes and drank herbal tea. I wondered how the owner could have survived, but it was now too powerful a word to be used in a simple commercial context.
The snow turned to switchbacks to and back to moraines. There were excellent views of Dhaligiri, as the grassy slopes merged into meadows. Our spirits rose as our lungs descended into more solid air. We dropped into a ravine that was the start of the Jhong Khola, down, down into the autumn-splashed arid valley that took us finally beyond a grove of trees to the small sacred temple of Muktinath.
Sacred to both Hindus and Buddhists, Muktinath was the only place on Earth where all five elements from which everything was made came together. The sky of heaven, the earth of saligram riverbed marine ammonites necessary to establish any other temple to Lord Vishnu, the rarified air of the Dakini goddess Sky Dancers, the freezing water from the 108 sacred streams, issuing from as many bullshead-shaped waterspouts, where devotees took their frigid baths, and the fire from the natural gas jets that produce the holy flame, inside the gompa. Here was a near naked mystic Sadhu, smeared with ash and carrying Shiva’s trident, worshiping beside a Tibetan woman adorned with such an elaborate headdress, as if she were, herself, made out of turquoise.
It was a crossroads. To the north was Mustang, the former Kingdom of Lo Manthang. To the south was the Kali Gandaki, and the way back home. Muktinath was Muki Kshetra in Hindi, the ‘place of salvation.’ Yes, it was.
The Tibetan trader who sold me an ammonite outside the sanctuary didn’t realize he was giving me the means to construct my own Lord Vishnu temple wherever I choose. It still sits on my windowsill overlooking the lake, preserving the universe against seemingly insurmountable odds.
“Look. There’s John.” Robyn said. And it was. And we checked into a 20 rupee double at the Hotel Muktinath, and went over to his Hotel North Pole for vegetable fried rice and Tibetan bread. After a couple of pulls on a bottle of Marfa apple brandy, John told us of a young European girl, who had died in her sleep here the previous night. She had made it over the pass. The Ocean of Milk sparkled against the black sky and white snow on the Himalayas. We were alive.