To the east of the sequestered valley city of Katmandu lies the forbidden and forbidding -- Darjeeling, Sikkim, Bhutan and, literally above all, Mt. Everest.
From the window of an Air Burma prop jet, I could see Everest, the 29,028-foot peak the Nepalis call Chomolungma, "Goddess Mother of the World." I stared east, awed by the jutting rock, the deep, vast bowls of snow and ice.
Aboard the flight from Calcutta to Katmandu and then for hours on my rope bed at the Katmandu Guest House, I thought long about Everest, a geological temptation that has seduced many and killed some. I even pondered the erotic meaning of the mountain, how the Dalai Lamas had tried for so long to keep it virgin territory, how Edmund Hillary and the Sherpa Tenzing Norkay finally "conquered" it in 1953, how the Nepalis call it mother, how so many had died on it, failing to reach its peak.
Alone in a $2-a-night room in Katmandu you can think anything.
I asked around about the trek to the base camp at Everest and was told I could expect to be gone for more than a month -- "weather permitting." If I was going to "find" something, no matter what it was, I had to find it in less time and under less precarious circumstances.
The Himalayas fan across all of Nepal and there are countless trekking routes. I headed west, due west toward what I thought would be a more reasonable fantasy: a trekking pilgrimage from the basin village of Pokhara along the winding, often precarious Jomosom trading route to a Hindu-Buddhist temple at Muktinath, near Mustang and the Tibetan border.
A few miles out of Katmandu, our bus is rattling around the Himalayan foothills along the Prithivi Highway, an asphalt miracle carved and paved by the Kingdom of Nepal with help from the Chinese. Thirty years ago this remote country was virtually closed to tourism, but times have changed: the bus is filled with Americans, Germans, French, Australian and Dutch visitors -- most of whom are eating or smoking hashish to fortify themselves against seven hours of anticipated motion sickness or to erase some of their more macabre predictions about the days ahead. There is talk of mountain muggings and severe stomach ailments. We are heading toward Pokhara, where most of us will set out trekking on various paths in a vast collection of mountains in north central Nepal called the Annapurna Range.
Not everyone will don hiking boots and a backpack and head for Machhapuchhare, Lamjung Himal or Roc Noir, however. Some will opt for a supine version of getting high. Pursuing a rural variation of Katmandu's Freak Chic, they will strip themselves of their magenta Rama Krishna scarves and don bathing suits and Walkmans and eat or smoke hashish, presumably to fortify themselves against several days of anticipated sunburn. In the days ahead I will often think enviously of those sedated souls as they placidly order tea and Tibetan dumplings by the shore of the Phewa Lake.
As the snow-peaked summit of Annapurna 1 comes into view there is a hush in the bus. The only voice I hear is a young Australian, dressed in a ragged sheepskin coat, talking to his young son. He is recounting the Himalayan legend of an English climbing team that stopped just short of the top of the great Sikkimese mountain, Kanchenjunga, in order to leave its sacred summit untouched.
I begin to worry that I have no such reverence for the world I am about to enter, that I am no more worthy of this beautiful place than I am of the opportunity for silence and insight it affords. Perhaps I've come here only because it is, like the Taj Mahal, a requisite stop for visitors to India and Nepal. Another tale to tell, another postcard version of Experience. Day 1-2: Preparing
Arrival in Pokhara. I take a room at the Garden Guest House for eight Nepali rupees a night (50 cents). I draw a simple room, the sort of chamber where the English kept Sir Thomas More before they severed his soul from his sensibility. Downstairs is a pen filled with roosters, donkeys and a cow. The cow appears to have some sort of intestinal distress, mooing and gagging the night through. The noise keeps me awake and I fumble for a book.
Traveling alone in Asia, I tend to read more than usual; it is a way of hearing voices other than my own. My reading is varied, but each place I've visited appears to have a set list for travelers, and I keep up with the syllabus if only to stay in literary step with my fellows . . . Kobo Abe and Yukio Mishima's novels in Kyoto. George Orwell's "Burmese Days" in Rangoon. E.M. Forster's "Passage to India" and The Upanishads in Bombay.
And on every bookrack in Katmandu is naturalist Peter Matthiessen's "The Snow Leopard." Nine years ago, Matthiessen, the zoologist George Schaller and an assortment of guides and porters set out on a trip to Shey Gompa (the "Crystal Monastery") near the Tibetan border. For Schaller, the trip was a chance to observe a rare species, the bharal or Himalayan blue sheep. For Matthiessen, whose wife had just died after a long, painful bout with cancer, it was a time to test himself, to seek out one of the harshest, most inaccessible places on earth, the Tibetan plateau. To leave behind his children and home in Long Island temporarily and journey to meet the Llama of Shey, the most exalted of the Tibetan holymen or rinpoches, was "a true pilgrimage, a journey of the heart."
For a couple of rupees I rent a canoe from an old Nepali innkeeper. Phewa Lake is as pristine and green as cut emerald. The sky is cloudless and the crystalline Annapurna range juts up into it.
Matthiessen, Schaller and their team of porters and Sherpas began their voyage toward Tibet here. My goals are more modest. Dwarfed, in fact. They spent three months in the harshest weather conditions, the most perilous climbing situations the Himalayas provide. Blizzards, avalanches, heavy winds, blinding sun. Porters quit the team, tempers flared, supplies dwindled, sleeping bags leaked. In terms of "The Snow Leopard," I would be happy to make it to page 50 or so, somewhere after satori, somewhere short of peril. Day 3-4: First Blisters
All the essentials go into the knapsack: an Ace bandage, Dramamine, aspirin, Sudafed, Band-Aids, merchurochrome, Flagyl, codeine, splints, eye drops. Clearly, I am courting disaster, so I throw in a Tibetan prayer wheel and a prayer flag I bought on Darbar Square in Katmandu.
I study a Mandala trekking map of the Pokhara-Jomosom route on the short bus ride to the bazaar, the starting point for paths leading north and west. The beat-up blue bus is three-quarters filled with locals. It's hard to imagine what these people must think of the foreigners clustered in the back -- wide-eyed visitors carrying fat rolls of 10-rupee notes in a land where an annual income of $200 is way above average. There are West Germans about to begin walking in the Kali Gandaki Valley while wearing Sony Walkmans; Americans sporting San Diego Clippers gym shorts or The Big Apple Bites T-shirts; Australians carrying equipment that could house and supply a family of six.
Most of the Nepalis are dressed in tattered shawls and tunics. Barefoot, they will carry and sell huge sacks of rice, tea, tools, grain and anything else unavailable in Naudunda, Khare, Hille, Tirkhedhunge and all the other tiny mountain villages that lead to Jomosom. Some carry sacks filled with bottles of lemon soda and Coke, and that is the clue: If only for now, we are all headed in the same direction.
The trek begins with a two-mile plain, a wide valley reminiscent of the Utah Salt Flats. I set out with the dozen or so trekkers. The sky is clear, the sun powerfully hot, and within minutes I pull off my yak wool sweater. A pair of New Zealanders who look to be in good enough shape to sprint all the way back to Christchurch take the lead and are soon out of sight.
Midway across the plain, when everyone else is breaking into full stride, I can feel a tiny pebble wreaking quiet havoc in my right shoe. I try to ignore it. As I walk, the highest peaks of the Annapurna Range -- all of them more than 20,000 feet above sea level -- jut higher and higher over the foothills.
At this early stage of the Jomosom Road, Nepali children offer to carry backpacks for less than $2 a day. Their price will go up as climbers' muscles grow wearier. They are barefoot and wear woven caps and ragged clothing; few are more than five feet tall. I am not sure how far I'll get, but I'll be damned if I'm going to hire a porter. Tiny victories for modest ambitions.
The first real climb comes at the end of the plain, a quick 1,500-foot ascent past a Tibetan camp up to the first true mountain village on the route, Naudanda. I stop at a teahouse and eat what is to become standard fare for the days ahead: tea and dal, a filling if tasteless lentil dish that is the staple for millions in Nepal and northern India. These little towns come every few miles or so -- 15 or 20 shacks and a few teahouses where trekkers, herdsmen and traders can eat and stay for the night. I pull off my boots and begin taping an endless series of blisters. When the job is over I open "The Snow Leopard" and wait for lunch and extra energy:
. . . the trail arrives at the hill village called Naudanda . . . Phu-Tsering, our merry cook, in bright red cap, brings supper of lentils and rice, and afterwards I sit outside on a wicker stool acquired at the tea house at the ford, and listen to cicadas and a jackal. This east-west ridge falls steeply on both sides to the Yamdi Valley in the north, the Marsa in the south; from Naudanda, the Yamdi Khola is no more than a white ribbon rushing down between dark walls of conifers onto its gorge. Far away eastward, far below, the Marsa River opens out into Lake Phewa, near Pokhara, which glints in the sunset of the foothills. There are no roads west of Pokhara, which is the last outpost of the modern world; in one day's walk we are a century away.
To a great extent, I have always lived a richer, more aware life in books. Even here among the terraced mountains, where wisps of fog still burn off the trees in early morning with an audible hiss, where Tibetans play a word game at the next table, the real music in my ear comes from the words I read. Days 4-5: Roughing It
Strange how with these spectacular mountains in view what I remember at the end of each day is the sight of my own feet moving, stumbling, climbing. It may be a Zen-like fixation on the ordinary, but it arises of necessity -- the "road" is a path with boulders. Although the barefoot Nepalis come charging by with 100-pound packs hanging from tump straps, the way for me is exhausting and unsure. More and more, I come to know the silence of the walk, interrupted only by the sounds of fire, a cascade, wind in the trees, my own deep, uncontrolled breathing.
Every day I wake at dawn. Every day it is harder to get up and get moving. At a busted-up old table by the road, I wolf down a plate of dal and watch the first far-off fires of the morning.
A trader leading a dozen pack mules greets me with the traditional Sanskrit word of salute. I answer in kind. The exotic has suddenly become commonplace and necessary. The lead mule has a braided mane and wears a woven ceremonial blanket. The tintinabulation of the mule train is slow and echoing -- from off the trail a beautiful music, on the trail a warning to stay to the side.
In Chandrakot, one of the best spots along the Jomosom road for a clear view of the Annapurna Range, trekkers cluster by a cliff and take photos of one another with the mountains and sky in the background. My first reaction is to cringe, but this kind of place erases irony (how often does that happen?) and I join in the picture-taking. I find a young Nepali boy to take my picture. I gingerly hold my pocket Olympus out to him and broadly mimic my request.
"You want a picture, Mister?" His Brooklynese is nearly perfect.
"Well, yes, thank you," I say, a little shaken, maybe disappointed.
The boy has never even been to Pokhara, but he sounds as if he may lunch regularly at Lindy's or Junior's and he has obviously handled automatic 35mm cameras before. He says he attends a 25-student school and shows me how his English grammar book uses Nepali notes and little cartoons of cowboys, Indians and the king of Nepal.
"What are you going to do in the future?" I realize the stupidity of the question when it's halfway out of my mouth, but I still want to know.
"I will go to Phoenix!"
"Yes. To be a cowboy!" His broad, buttery face is all smiles and I haven't the heart to tell him that the cowboys in Phoenix these days ride pickups and that the realtor, not the cowpunch, is the baddest man in the West. He snaps another photo for me and we part ways -- me for Birethanti and he for school and, maybe one day, Phoenix.
The rigors of trekking uphill are obvious -- the heart begins to slam against the ribs like a jackhammer against road -- but the steep descents are every bit as hard. At the end of a 500-foot drop, like the one from Chandrakot to Birethanti, my knees quiver and my birch walking stick is worn and splintered. Days 5-6: Endgame
The news from returning trekkers is dismal. The area around Jomosom is snowy, the tiny airfield is muddy, no flights out for at least a week. I would have to walk all the way back and I know I'll never make it. The trip to Muktinath has to be scotched, and though I know such a pilgrimmage was contrived in the first place, I am not altogether delighted. All I can think of is Matthiessen's determination in the face of incomparably sterner conditions.
Birethanti is near a gorge. There is a cascade not 50 yards away from the teahouse. The water runs as clear as gin during the day but seems milky and ominous in the moonlight. The violent rushing keeps me up half the night.
Trekkers must cross the Bhurungdi Khola and negotiate its tricky, rocky bed, so I take my time this morning mapping out the rest of the trip. I decide to try for Ghorepani, a small village at 10,000 feet.
I set out alone, again to the hypnotic ringing of the mule trains. Yesterday, after I turned my ankle on a dew-slick stone, the temptation to hire a porter was tremendous, but after a couple of miles I forget about Muktinath and Jomosom and the road seems easy. Ambition disappears.
The road is a steady climb, but the terrain changes dramatically along the way, from river bed to forest, from arid hillside to rain forest. For two days I walk completely alone and for two days I am completely at ease. It is hard to say what I think about along the road, but I know my state of mind has changed since the early part of the trip. Somehow, for these two days I am not concerned with what I have always called the world--family, friends, ambition, politics, books--and it is more than relief or vacation, it is something new.
Four miles outside of Ghorepani, I meet a group of three Australians and their six porters and guides. They are paying several hundred dollars a day to a tourist agency for an Organized Trekking Experience, and they know they've bought a bit of flummery.
"Bloody Yeti," one grumbles. He is cursing the trekking agency by that name and not the monster.
They pass, and a few hours later I see Ghorepani. It has been an exhausting climb. The air is thin, but my pace picks up as soon as I see smoke and rooftops and people. Tonight is the Hindu festival of Shivaratri, and I will stay a couple more nights before heading back to Pokhara and Katmandu.
Over a plate of fried noodles and a bottle of Nepali Star beer, I have a long talk with another trekker, David Cohen. We talk easily about Italian food in New York and the condition of the Yankee infield, and, unlike my earlier feelings of disjunction, it no longer seems so strange to me to be talking about all this in a 32-cent-a-night teahouse in Ghorepani, Nepal.
I leave David by the late afternoon fire and make my way up Pune Hill, an hour's climb. An international Himalaya expedition team built a creaky wooden lookout perch up here, and against the dusk-blue sky the spindly construction sways a little with the wind. This is no time for caution, though, and I climb the ladder.
The whole Annapurna range is laid out in front of me. The snow on the peaks is blue-white in this last light and the sun is the color of a blood orange. I look down into the river valley and see a chicken hawk in flight, flailing and arcing in the air. To look down on flight, to stand across from these mountains, to just be here, in half-light as the stars begin to appear in the huge blackening bowl of the sky, to be alone on this spot and alone in one's own imagination, if only for the moment, is to have gone far to learn to stand silent and still, but it has been worth the journey. CAPTION: Picture 1, In the Himalayas, Copyright (c) Jagdish Agarwal; Picture 2, A Mount Everest expedition; Copyright (c) 1953, Time Inc.