Notes from Dolpo, Part I

It’s almost 11 pm on the 4th of November, and we are at the door of Thamel’s well-known steakhouse K-too following our trekking group’s last dinner together: a couple of the members leave without saying good-bye, several others I shake hands with while a few even brave a hug with the crazy Russian ball-breaker I somehow ended up playing in the circus troupe that was our team. “Keep kicking ass,” one gentleman tells me quietly, his own now forever safe from the kicking. The last person I take my leave of is the leader of the trek. I owe and offer him an apology for the way I treated him on one occasion. Of course, I had my reasons to behave the way I did, as most of us do for whichever way we behave towards others, but I’m content with being written off as an arrogant bitch. It’s faster that way, and the stores of my patience and civility have long since run dry. After hastily wishing everyone safe travels home, I, to my own surprise, start to literally run through the tourist district’s busy streets away from the people who have been making me feel bad about my strength and confidence for the past three weeks. That kind of company is the worst possible to keep, and to have had to explore the magical Dolpo like that definitely tainted the otherwise beautiful trip for me.

I am still confused as to what I think and feel about the experience, which just isn’t coming together in my head: I’m struggling even now, a week after returning home, to present it as a coherent post. Instead of doing that, then, I will start by sharing with you a few excerpts from my trekking journal. Just for laughs, and because I really can’t bear to edit the mess at the moment, I am going to type up said excerpts verbatim. Meant for no one’s eyes but my own, they are totally honest, occasionally rude, and feature profanity. If you’re easily offended, stop reading here.

Nepalgunj:

I can’t believe how beautiful the landing was! The river at sunset looked like liquid fire spreading through the lush green of the Terai. The town of Nepalgunj itself, we are told, has little to recommend it, however, the hotel we are staying at is fun: it’s still under construction. The size of the cockroaches, grasshoppers, mosquitoes and ants hanging out in the hallways is quite impressive – they could easily pass for pet dinosaurs. I dread to think of the size of the bed bugs, which I know are there…

Jupal and Rupgat:

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Chillies growing near Juphal

Loved the early morning flight to Dolpo! If the scenery under the little rickety plane’s wings is anything like what I’ve signed up to trek through, I am going to be very, very happy indeed. We caught up with our sirdar and local support team at the airport in Juphal, and were served our SECOND breakfast at the lodge nearby. How is one to walk after all that food?

While our mules were being loaded, the lodge owner’s daughters were inspecting my sleeve (representing the fierce Hindu goddess Kali Mata) in sheer awe and disbelief. They rubbed, scrubbed and knocked on my skin, incredulous that the tattoo was a permanent part of me. Thus, I became Kali Didi (Ms Kali), got my hair braided and was even gifted with candy before leaving. Good times!

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On the way to Rechi

The hike to the campsite in Rupgat only took about 2 hours. However, those were two long, annoying and worrying hours in my world. Apparently, the group is going to walk in this single-file formation at the speed at which a pretentious asshole drinks red wine. I can’t hold a pace like that: I’ll fall asleep, get depressed or age prematurely!

In Rupgat we had to eat again – tea and biscuits… Why would a person want that much food? Surely, it’s unnecessary and maybe even unhealthy?

On a more positive note, we have the Phoksundo Khola (river) running right next to the campsite, and it is clear turquoise blue in color… This means burkini time (I never wear a one piece/bikini to swim in the Himalaya as showing too much skin is considered inappropriate)! I found a nice spot to splash around and even a companion from Norway to join me for the dip, a cool lady named M.

The dinner… Omo omo. They keep feeding us like that, and today’s pace won’t seem too slow for me in a few days. I have not eaten this much in years! The conversation at the dinner table broke my brain. Why would you talk about… wait, I forget what already? In fact, this may prove a bigger problem even than the pace: I struggle with forced, uninspired chatter even more than I do with painfully slow walking.

It’s great to finally be by myself in the tent. My -40C mountaineering sleeping bag may be a bit of an overkill for Rupgat at 2070 meters but I am determined to enjoy the warmth. And it is very warm. Yawn.

Raktang

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Kids playing at Rechi

If this group walks any slower, they will be walking backwards. I tried following the cooking team instead of the trekkers today but that doesn’t seem to work, either. What’s a girl to do?

I have only brought two books with me this time around: The Mahabharata to reread and a Sanskrit self-study book. I didn’t want any distractions at all on this trek but I can’t begin to express how happy I am that I have these two, at least. I am liking the Sanskrit manual: it says in the introduction that it’s not for students of middling intellectual ability. I closed and put the book aside for a minute upon reading such encouraging words. Now I must decide whether or not I am worthy of continuing…

Chhepka

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Ascending to Phoksundo

We may actually be walking backwards. In an orderly single file. Chewing on something all the time as we go. I am beginning to feel like an old donkey on its way to the slaughterhouse (but along the scenic route), and to seriously worry for my sanity.

I was leafing through the Mahabharata tonight and came across this part, where a king tells a childhood friend, who comes to ask him a favor, that friendship between a monarch and a commoner is impossible. The first time I read the book, I remember how appalled I was at that notion. However, tonight, like the bad guy that I am in the eyes of the rest of the group members, I pause, reread, and try to understand where the king is coming from. Us bad guys have got to stick together! Besides, The Mahabharata is a long story, and, who knows if the king may not turn out to be a decent character, after all…

Rechi

Today’s walk to the lunch stop was legitimately pretty. It took the group through what looked like an enchanted forest, meditative and peaceful, with the the morning sun pouring rays of its soft light onto the carpet of foliage under the tall trees. Autumn in the Himalaya is my favorite time in my favorite place.

After lunch I was allowed to follow the mules because the mules are faster than the donkeys. I mean the people, my apologies. The campsite, Rechi, ended up to be less than an hour away from the lunch stop. It still amazes me how little we actually trek: considerably more time is spent waiting to be fed than walking, which doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.

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Autumn-colored trails

I have taken to helping our assistant guides to set up tents at the campsite, and that after having promised myself that I would just be a client this time around. Sorry, but at this point I’ll do anything to do something. It was very windy when we arrived, so after unpacking I decided to do a little laundry: clothes would dry well in the wind and the sun. We are still following the Phoksundo Khola, which means I get to swim every day and, thus, to stay clean and happy. I put my burkini on and headed down to the river with my laundry not realizing how many spectators I was going to have: the entire village came to watch me bathe in the icy water and even the local cool kids seemed genuinely impressed: I received many compliments like “very nice” and “strong man”.

We will finally be in Phoksundo tomorrow, which is to say that my dream of many years is about to come true. Dawn could not come sooner…

Ringmo/Phoksundo

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First glimpse of Lake Phoksundo

Day 1. I don’t normally know what to do with little kids but the ones here, it seems, will do with/to you whatever will make them happy, and you won’t be given a chance to object. A tiny little monk from Saldang in Upper Dolpo hung out with me all through the lunch stop (typically around 3 hours for our group). Undeterred by the fact that I had nothing to play with – we ended up using my map, notebook and some dry leaves as toys – and no way to really communicate, he eventually assented to an interactive English lesson, and we ran around the village labelling this a ‘rock’ and that a ‘bottle’ until he was called away to eat.

“You would make a brilliant teacher, you are so good with kids,” one of my trekking companions, himself a retired teacher, noted. No and no, thank you.

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Ringmo Village

The moment I was done with lunch, two of our assistant guides waved at me, thus suggesting to walk together to Phoksundo ahead of the group. Oh, bliss! I would finally get to warm up a little. The steep ascent of about 600 meters was quick, and in under an hour of hiking I could see the lake in the distance. It’s like a piece of the sky had descended to the ground, fallen in love with the Himalaya and remained for good – the bright aquamarine color is unbelievable! A walk through a red-and-yellow autumn forest soon took us past the village of Ringmo and to the shore of the lake itself. While the boys figured out the camp setup for the next two nights in Phoksundo and waited for the mules with group gear to arrive, I just stood in the wind, and stared.

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Yaks by Lake Pkoksundo

And I cried, fucking wept, actually, as I slowly made my way through the whirlwinds of dust down to the water. To see with my own eyes the picture I had been looking at when I could neither speak nor walk, to have had my own legs take me here, was indescribable. I was never supposed to see this place nor even to make it to thirty, yet here I am, crazy “strong man” and all.

We have two nights in Phoksundo. Just two nights. Two whole nights. Time is a terrible, beautiful thing, really, never to be taken for granted or treated with negligence.

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