Nuther Place. Very Nuther.
Fred and Offshoot Go to About Half-Everest
November 25, 2009
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We caught the seven-o’clock goat-and-chicken out of Kat, my daughter Macon and I, two porters, and our trusty guide Karna. A Nepalese rural bus is not the Stork Club. It is much better, depending on your nerves. For eight hours we bounced higher into the Himalayas with the tires a centimeter from precipices that would have given us time to write our memoirs on the way down. At least three hundred chattering Nepalese were stuffed into that bus. I swear it: three hundred. They aren’t used to motorized vehicles, so much of the time one was hanging out the door and vomiting enthusiastically. Nice people, though. Not too inhibited. On several occasions children detached themselves from the compact mob and sat casually in my lap. Why not? Everything has to be somewhere. It’s a law of physics.
We passed the night in one of those agreeable unfancy tea-houses that punctuate the trails and feed you tea and dolbaht, which means lentils and rice with seasoning. In the morning we set out for real into the mountains. Nepalese have a robust understanding of “mountain.” They think 10,000 feet is practically sea level. They would giggle at those sorry speed-bumps west of Denver.
Up and up and up we humped into the rumpled landscape, tea houses growing sparser, mountains just freaking huge and green and waterfalls everywhere roaring and glowing white and throwing spume and gloomy forests that had never eaten in a chain restaurant, trunks all yellow with damp golden moss. For twelve days we never saw a road or anything with a motor. Whatever finds its way to those little villages comes in on someone’s back.
Having a porter carry your stuff seemed a bit wimpy, but had its charms, such as not having to carry your stuff. The capacity of a 140-pound Nepalese to carry things is astonishing. They would make excellent astronauts, as they don’t need air, and the merest of them could carry the Space Shuffle to its launching pad. So we tramped along, upward, very upward, and occasionally flung everything down and lay back in the vastness and just were. I recommend it.
If there is a prettier country in the world, I haven’t found it.
Nepal abounds in miracles. At one point we crossed a long cable-suspension bridge over a gorge that you could have put Massachusetts in and had trouble finding it the next day, and plodded up to a sizable village where we sat at an outdoor table of a tea house. Three children, aged nine to eleven, wandered up inspected us, and asked, “Where have you come from?”
Gretgawdamighty: English. I mean real English, not pidgin, not phrase-book, but verbs and tenses. Whole high schools in the US couldn’t do it. Where did you learn, we asked. “Oh, in school. We have two classes a day in Nepali, and the rest in English,” responded this brown implausible mite. I’m not manufacturing the grammar.
Trees grew few as we approached 14,000 feet. Brooding forest gave way to rocky flats and thin grass with interspersed ascents. You find a pace that balances air intake with energy output. At that altitude gringos don’t sprint and gambol. I have heard that at slightly higher villages the elders keep a sacred oxygen molecule in a jar of rare red jade, and show that molecule to the young, so that they won’t be astonished when they descend. However, I never saw the jar.
We drew to within two days march of the Tibetan border, which meant that for practical purposes we were in Tibet, but without the Chinese army. That is the best way to be in Tibet. In fields of pale green grass, fog drifting in ragged patches, we sometimes found water-driven prayer wheels turning, turning, splash splash clink, splash splash clink, loud in the silence of fog and emptiness.
I wondered what it must be like to grow up in a remote Himalayan village. The people are not poor. Or maybe they are. Or maybe we are, but go at it differently. These things are hard to judge. The villagers are not hungry certainly, have adequate clothing, and sleeping on a good mat next to the kitchen stove is neither uncomfortable nor lacking in dignity. The contrivances and nuisances of what we regard as civilization are perhaps not as crucial as we tend to think.
But what must it be to live all of a life under the looming quiet mountains, horses wandering free and yak ambling through, with people known since birth? They live closer to the bone, I think. We live, we die. In the mountains the rest seems to matter less.
The high mountains are not altogether safe for those who don’t know them, which makes a competent guide a splendid idea. Altitude sickness is real and can kill you. Your lungs ooze fluid and you drown in it. Why some people get it and others don’t is a mystery.
One morning at 14K Macon made a strenuous ascent to see some lake or other. When she got back, she wasn’t hungry. Symptom one. Normally she is voracious and would gnaw the varnish off a table if permitted. Karna didn’t like it.
All she wanted, desperately, was to sleep. Symptom two. Karna didn’t like that at all. Did she feel short of breath, he asked? "Only a little." Symptom three. Bingo, discussion over. Ten minutes later, wrapped in everything warm she had, she headed down the trail with Karna and a porter. Operative word: Down. Into a pitch dark, fog-blurry night on a wickedly treacherous trail.
I wasn’t invited. Karna didn’t elaborate on why. Being Nepalese, he is polite. We both understood that he didn’t need a half-blind guy falling over every available precipice and generally making life complex. He meant to travel fast and I didn’t fit that profile.
The porter didn’t go to carry her gear, which stayed with me. He went to carry her if she collapsed, entirely possible. If you think that small Nepalese porters can’t carry a large gringo in fifteen-minute shifts, you have reason on your side, but not the facts. They can, do, have, and will.
She didn’t collapse, being bull-headed, and six hours later, having passed through herds of yak appearing like dark hairy ghosts on the trail, was safe maybe 1500 feet lower—whereupon the porter walked back through the night to tell me in the morning that Macon was fine. That is service. Next day we heard of a Japanese girl with a less alert guide who had to be helicoptered out.
Herewith a blatant advertisement: Should you need a topnotch guide in them parts, email Karna Magar and his partner Balu. Their English is good. You won’t find better people.
Onward into the fog…