The Trail to Manang
The five hour bus trip from Kathmandu to Dumre was a kaleidoscope of fascinating images, fear, and utter discomfort. I was one of three people sharing a seat that some Chinese engineer had designed for two. With no room to stand, people, mostly young men, kept appearing and disappearing from the windows as they climbed back and forth from the baggage rack atop the lurching vehicle. The roar of the unmuffled engine and the stench of sweat and diesel fumes was less concern than the driver's enthusiasm for speed and the precipitous drop on the right side of the narrow road. A clutter of religious charms and tokens swinging wildly from the rear-view mirror seemed more likely to cause an accident than protect us from the fate of two other busses rusting in crumpled heaps at the base of the precipice.
Arriving in Dumre, cramped and stiff but glad to be alive, we finally met our entourage. Guide Sanka Lama, an experienced high altitude sherpa, had been on several major climbing expeditions in the Annapurna area. He explained in perfect English that he wanted to give up driving cab in Kathmandu and start his own guiding company. We were his first clients.
Babu Kage, always smiling, happy, eager to help, was a young cooking graduate of the Nepalese trekking school which had adopted a standard, if unwieldy, assortment of huge pots, kettles, cast iron frying pans and grills all slung together and carried on a tump-line.
Although Betty and I insisted on carrying our own stuff we were perplexed to find that we had acquired, in addition to Lama and Babu, four fully loaded porters. Biress Lama, probably in his late teens, was on his first trip, while Bimbadu Guru, a tall middle-aged veteran of countless treks carried himself and his load with the dignity and pride of a true professional.
We never got to know the other two. At our first camp they demanded a pay raise and Lama fired them. It was the best thing that could have happened! Sharing their abandoned loads, the six of us became equal partners; a small, close-knit team with a common goal.
For the next 10 days we followed the Marsyangdi River valley around the north side of the Annapurna Himal. Beginning in lush semi-tropical farmland, the trail climbed, at first through dense forests of rhododendron, bougainvillea, and bamboo, and higher up through groves of pine and juniper before emerging into the arid, treeless landscape leading to Manang. As the vegetation changed and adapted to higher elevations so too did the houses, culture and customs of the people.
From Dumre to Jaget, a five-day trek, our route took us through verdant farmland dotted with clusters of wood and stone, grass-thatched farmsteads squeezed in among terraced rice paddies and fields of taro. The trail was busy with farmers coming and going to the fields and scores of children who greeted us with "namaste give me a pen." A neat, grass-lined depression beside one of the paddies contained the headless bodies of several large snakes. Lama explained "for eating." He may have been pulling my leg but the snakes were real enough and when we camped beside a paddy that night I was careful to zip up the tent flaps.
We quickly established a routine: early breakfast of daal-batt and tea, which Babu prepared over an open fire, and on the trail before the swarms of curious kids infiltrated our camp. Evening meals, also daal-batt and tea, were another matter. Before we had even dropped our packs the kids were there runny noses, big smiles, open sores, pantless infants in the arms of older siblings, all wide eyed in wonder at our tents and boots.
But the big show of the evening was watching us eat. They were not hungry, just fascinated by the process and to get a good look crowded in so close you hoped no one got pushed into your daal-batt. They wanted to see inside our tent but, since public nit-picking seems to be a universal pastime, we keep them away from our sleeping bags.
At Jaget we left the last small rice patty behind and entered a dense rhododendron grove where knurled and twisted trunks and branches reminded me of a mythical Tolkien forest. A short distance farther we passed our first chortin, a Buddhist religious structure. Blue and white prayer flags rose over the roofs of the next village and we spun the prayer wheels at the entry gate.
Although Nepali religion is a blend of Hinduism and Buddhism many of those working the rice paddies of the lowlands are Hindus who have emigrated across the open border with India, while Buddhism is practised mainly by people of the high country. Here in the upper Marsyangdi Valley the customs of Tibetan Buddhism are imprinted on every aspect of the culture.
At Braga we visited an ancient Gomba, a Buddhist temple which the priest who guided us to a cave at the back of the structure claimed was 2,000 years old. Standing on the stone floor worn smooth by the feet of countless worshipers we stared back at the golden image of Buddha. As we turned to leave an old woman entered, lit a candle, threw a handful of rice and sinking to the ground literally crawled into the presence of the idol. She paid no attention to us but I was ashamed to be there, a curious spectator to her profoundly moving religious experience.
We left our offering at the Temple door, thanked the priest for showing us around, and stepped from his dim mysterious sanctuary into the blinding light of sun and snow-covered mountains.
Beyond Jaget the valley narrows and steepens, forcing the trail back and forth across the river. From terraces high on one side we repeatedly descended to narrow suspension bridges in the valley, crossed, one person at a time, and climbed to a bench, or in some places just a notch cut into the cliffs of the opposite side. The trail was less busy here and those who greeted us with a friendly "namaste" did not ask for a pen. These are proud mountain people who are more likely to offer than to ask for something.
At Pisang, eight days in to our trek, the subalpine forest of pine and dwarf juniper disappeared and our trail threaded through a maze of low rock walls built by centuries of hand labour. The houses too are built almost entirely of stone since every scrap of wood, whether used for fuel or a roof support, must be carried in on someone's back. Here in the arid rainshadow of the Himalaya the treeless slopes support only clumps of grass, a few shrubs and alpine flowers. On our left the towering snow-covered peaks of Annapurna III and Gangapurna, so close they seemed to fill half the sky, and ahead the prayer flags of Manang.
After 10 consecutive days of trekking and tenting we elected to lay over a day at the Manang teahouse. While Lama and his crew rested, Betty and I climbed up through Tengi and on to the shoulder of Chulu. By following the climber's code of "climb high, sleep low" we hoped to be acclimatized for the 5,380 metre pass that lay ahead.
We climbed over 1,000 metres that day and were tired as we descended the endless flagstone steps leading back to Manang. The sun had set behind us but across the valley the dazzling white peak of Annapurna III was caught in a bright alpenglow that filled the air with a surreal pink light. Stopping to rest on rock benches built into a wide spot on the trail we took out a snack and sat quietly, marvelling at the grandeur and serenity of our surroundings.
Below us a woman carrying a large bundle of sticks climbed methodically up the trail. Reaching us she put down her burden, smiled, and with palms together greeted us with a friendly "namaste." Betty motioned her to sit down and offered her some chocolate. She accepted and gave Betty a sweet biscuit.
Sitting together, quietly resting and enjoying the beauty of the evening, sharing a small gift, conversing with gestures and the few words they had in common, the women might have been old friends. It was one of those rare moments, isolated from both past and future, when two very different lives come briefly together and remind us how much the same we all are as people.