The porter was drunk, and had just found a way to make his cellphone announce the time, which had become quickly — for him — a source of profound and infinite glee.
"The...time..." said the charmless, robotic voice of the porter's phone "...is...six...fifty...one."
He cackled and stomped his foot on the red, parchment-covered floor of the Tashi Delek Hotel, sending dust and rice chaff into the air, and causing huge copper pots of water — offerings to the Buddhas — to tremble on their intricately carved shelves. Then he hit the button again.
"The...time..." the phone announced, "...is...six...fifty...one." This triggered another fit of helpless laughter, during which much of a mouthful of half-chewed dal bhat was discharged across the room, some of it sticking to one of the dozen or so framed photos of the Dalai Lama that hung on the walls. He hit the button again.
The porter struggled for air, and I for my patience.
The Tsum Valley of northern Nepal climbs towards Tibet for 30 kilometres as it branches away from the longer-established Manaslu trekking circuit. The area was closed to outsiders until 2007, but now dry-stone lodgings like the Tashi Delek Hotel, a family-owned Tibetan abode in the village of Chekampar, give shelter, food, and rest to hundreds of trekkers every year, and in some cases, their drunken porters.
I'd been walking with a guide and photographer for ten days, and two nights ago we'd stepped down the shaky wooden ladder that poked down from our drafty bunks into the courtyard, pushed through the saloon-style doors and set out under the pre-dawn stars.
The point of all this — of rising each morning at four a.m., of hiking for hour after hour through mornings of bitter cold and afternoons of exhausting heat, of sleeping in increasingly sparse accommodations and eating progressively blander food, was to reach the Mu Gompa, an isolated compound of Buddhist worship at the valley's north end that would offer only the blandest of food and sparsest of accommodation.
Horses grazed in flat pastures below thick forests of yellow and green pine while steep creeks and waterfalls drained the glaciers and snowmelt of the Ganesh Himals that towered beyond. Like stern giants, their baleful shadows would keep the valley dark and chilled until late in the morning. Rows of pumpkins dried out on straw roofs as blue smoke billowed through the thatching beneath, lit up by the first sunrays that were just now levering over the valley's ridge.
At times, it was much like walking through the English countryside. There were stiles and turn gates to negotiate, and hedges took turns with dry-stone walls to mark out fields.
But then there's that which makes you perfectly aware that you are not in England. Besides the huge mountains, there are yaks, you can't hear the highway, and there aren't any bars. Anywhere.
We walked through this erstwhile land for days, past fields tilled by men leading yak-pulled ploughs, women sporting Tibetan face jewelry and scarves, and the occasional cluster of chotens — huge stone-built Buddhist burial tombs. We climbed steadily along the course of the Shiar Khola, the river that meanders along the trail, twisting and turning around rocks polished smooth by eons of erosion. At night, we'd bed down on the straw-matted bunks of a place like the Tashi Delek Hotel, and peer out through the gaps in the dry-stone walls at stars that can only be so bright in air that is so thin, and so far from the light of any city.
At dusk on the day we'd left the Tashi Delek Hotel, we reached the monastery, perched high on a grassy hillside, belittled by a vast white scrim of Himalayan peaks. A large iron gate gave a pained creak as it swung open into an empty courtyard. There was nobody in sight, save a solitary horse. We knocked on the gate and let out a loud but unrequited "Hello!" that went echoing and ricocheting down unknown passageways. It seemed that the place was deserted, and that our only company that night would be the cold Himalayan wind and a lonesome horse.
Just then, a bald, red-robed teenager emerged through a tiny wooden door that I hadn't even noticed, followed by half a dozen older lamas. The boy, the newest member of the monastery, explained that everyone had been in prayer, but now he'd be happy to show us to our room.
We climbed higher up several slab stairways to be shown into a stark stone chamber. There were two hard wooden beds and, oddly, a nice dining-room dresser, complete with brass door handles and patterned glass windows. That it arrived there at all is impressive. What someone having just walked more than 100 kilometres with only the barest of minimums strapped to their back would want with such a piece of furniture is anyone's guess. But it gave me something to think about during the long, cold, and sleepless night.
I spent the hours before dawn walking the monastery's alleyways, between slate roofs brimming with moonlight, past lavishly decorated doors, and the lonely horse, and came to a place high on the outskirts from where I could look down along the last stretch of the Tsum Valley. I was alone under a sparkling ceiling of crystal-clear stars, surrounded by the moonlit iridescence of the highest hills on earth, and the noise of a thousand prayer flags snapping like torn rainbows in the frozen wind. It was another world, in a time of its own.
The next night, sitting back in the Tashi Delek Hotel, eating dal bhat and listening to the inebriated hysteria of the drunken porter, I realized I hadn't the faintest, foggiest idea what day of the week it was. Not a clue. We'd been out of touch with anyone beyond earshot for weeks. It didn't matter. This was a different era anyway.
I was, however, acutely aware of the time. The porter cackled and stomped. "The time," said the phone, "...is...six...fifty...two."
Matt Whelan is a freelance writer and photographer. To see more of his work, visit his website at www.mattwhelan.ca or on Facebook at Matt Whelan Writing and Photography.