For those who rarely walk even to the neighborhood grocery store, the question of why anyone would want to trek in Nepal is unanswerable. But for the adverturous traveler - or the armchair traveler who likes to dream about "maybe someday" - here are two views of far-out tourism.
Yvette Cardozo, a writer, made her hike on a tight budget (though, of course, it was still necessary to pay more than $1,000 for round-trip air fare). Harold J. Datz, a local attorney, took a Sierra Club tour package, with a per-person cost of $715 for the land arrangements alone.
It is somewhat past sundown . . . how much, I'm not sure because I haven't bothered to look at my watch for a week. I haven't the faintest idea what day it is and, in fact, I'm beginning to wonder about the year.
This is the dry season in Nepal but someone forgot to clue in the clouds. So now, some two dozen of us sit crammed in various corners of a 40-by-20-foot earth hut. We're travelers, each seeking refuge from the nastiness of a steady downpour in 35-degree temperatures. The lady of the house is used to such drop-ins. She makes a living of sorts by renting cotton mats on the floor for 16 cents a night and selling all the rice and lentil soup you can stomach for 50 cents a shot.
Somebody thoughtfully tossed a sheet of plastic over the chimney to keep rain from dousing the fire, so now clouds of acrid smoke billow about us, causing everyone to sniff a lot and cough constantly.
Early this day, a cow killed a goat. The goat's remains hang in dozens of dripping strips from the ceiling . . . good meat to the left where it will dry more or less naturally, other meat over the fire to smoke.
Off in a corner, a half a dozen locals lean against a wall, silently and happily getting snockered on a local brew called racksi. But the real show is taking place at center stage. Ten students from Jomsom, a village to the north, are on school break. Since the only practical way out of Jomsom is by foot, they're hoofing it to the big city (meaning Pokhara, a medium town some days south). They're in a festive mood and have decided to splurge by chipping in on a chicken.
Ten students, one chicken, one chopping block. I've never seen a chicken butchered before. I didn't know you could reduce one bird to so many pieces so quickly. Somehow, when I dreamed of traveling to Nepal and partaking in what disciples of the foot call The Ultimate Trek, I didn't envision this little scene.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying the trip was an agonizing washout. i just want to make it clear that trekking in Nepal is not exactly Shangri-La. It takes some forethought, a decent amount of gear and a hell of a lot of conditioning.
Last year, of the 130,000 tourists who poured into James Hilton's land of Lost Horizon, 13,000 came to trek. That's good leg up from the eventful day in 1964 when three midwestern women, all over 55, hired themselves a couple of Sherpas and tromped 350 miles in little more than a month.
Up to that time, the only people to go hiking here in any serious fashion had been mountain climbers on their way to conquer Everest or some equally romantic peak.Suddenly, Nepal's unemployed Sherpas had something to do with all that leftover gear which had been bequeathed them after countless expeditions. Today in Katmandu, at a moment's notice, you can rent enough retired expedition gear to mount a major onslaught.
But what, exactly, is a trek like? Well, that depends on the area of Nepal you choose. If you're on the beaten path - meaning the route to the Everest Base Camp or from Pokhara to Jomsom - you'll find beds for rent, people willing to cook you a meal and lots and lots of other trekkers. Off the popular routes, you might find a bed . . . Nepalis are known for their hospitality . . . you might find a meal. But you're also just as likely to hit an area where the people are so poor they can't feed themselves, much less visitors.
My own route took me north of Pokhara. Originally, we planned to head for Lukla, an airport near Everest, and hike to the fabled base camp. But one of the first rules of hiking in Nepal is DON'T MAKE PLANS. Four of the country's five commercial Twinn Otter aircraft were down for repairs, and when we started hearing stories of a hundred rabid trekkers milling about Lukla waving $100 bills for a seat on a helicopter, we opted for an area which could be reached by land.
The hike north of Pokhara deserves its reputation as one of the most beautiful anywhere. The change of scenery, the variety, is astonishing. You rise from a wide, flat valley of rice paddies to lush mountain villages, across high meadows and into green valleys, up again through a rain forest crawling with monkeys and over a 10,500-foot mountain with the kind of vistas that make the Himalayas so rare, down into a tiny gem of an oasis wit tangerine and lemon trees, then up again onto barren, rubble-strewn cliffs and finally, onto the windswept, moonlike Tibetan Plateau.
All of this takes place across less than 70 miles - a matter of maybe 90 minutes if you could do it by superhighway.
Locals can make the Pokhara-Jomsom trek in less than four days. A really fit Western trekker might do it in five or six. My hiking partner, Pat, and I never did find out what it might have taken us. We turned back not far past Ghasa - scene of the chicken-fest. I wanted to continue but practicalities dictated otherwise.
For one thing, Pat had gotten sick . . . not on local food, mind you, but on freeze-dried spaghetti, which she thoughtfully deposited that night atop my sneakers. For another, I was rapidly disintegrating. I don't recall any particularly big fall but slowly, over six days, I had managed to destroy both ankles and my right knee as surely as if I had leaped from a cliff.
You have to understand something about the hiking conditions in Nepal. The trail north to Pokhara is an ancient trading route (as are just about all hiking trails here). They don't much believe in switchbacks in these parts. Instead, the people carve steps. The five-mile trip from the Kali Gandaki River to Ghorapani, for instance, goes up a 4,150-foot staircase. Imagine climbing one of the World Trade Towers three times without a break and you get the general idea.
Coming down, of course, is even more fun. And after a couple days of such pounding, my legs were wasted.
It was then, sitting in Ghasa, that a major realization came over me. I am a child of civilization. Press a button and electricity leaps at my bidding. Push a pedal and 100 horses haul me along. Yet here I was, six days from my world as I know it . . . six days from any kind of mechanical power, from decent light after sundown, from hot water in a spigot.
It wasn't so much the lack of amenities which hit me. I have certainly done enough hiking in the wilds before to survive a week without a hot bath. No, it was the knowledge that it had taken six days of my sweat to get there and would take six more to get back. We had seen our share of trekkers limping on bandaged feet and wondered what happened when someone really got sick or hurt.
Supposedly, you can hire a helicopter at something unspeakable like $500 an hour (providing you first figure a way to get word out that you need help). You can hitch with a mule train. Or you can stumble and crawl. It is amazing, I discovered, how far you can hobble on two sprained ankles and a wrenched knee.
There were high points in the trip, to be sure. I will never forget dawn at Chandrakot, a jumbled collection of huts clinging to the end of a long ridge. It was still dark when the most godawful racket began. It sounded like a set of mortally wounded bagpipes. I stumbled outside of our little inn to find half a dozen itinerant musicians clanging and banging and blowing away. Somehow, the racket smoothed out into a haunting wail and against that backdrop, the rising sun struck the nearby snow-covered peaks, setting them afire in a blaze of dripping gold.
There was the simple pleasure, after the frosts of Ghasa, of lowering my dirt encrusted body into the hot sulphur springs of Tato Pani . . . and of wallowing in more tangerines that I thought it possible for one human being to consume.
There was also the trip to the top of Poon Hill, an improbably named peak above Ghorapani where I stood completely surrounded by a ring of platinum Himalayan peaks. I saluted the event with one of my last treasured Tato Pani tangerines.
But most of all, again and again, there were the looks of absolute joy which lit the faces of countless Nepalis as I tape-recorded their flutes, their odd little violins, their singing voices or just the bells of the mule trains, then played the sounds back for all to hear.
Now that I'm home and walking again without a limp, the question comes repeatledly . . . would I do it again? I'd dispense with the guide (who is really not that necessary on well-traveled routes) but not the porter. I'd surely haul less gear. But most important, I'd give myself time . . . to lie by a stream, to climb down an interesting cliff or just sit and do nothing but watch all the other trekkers hurrying by.
Cardozo is a free-lance writer. She lives in Plantation, Fla. CAPTION: Picture 1, The Himalayas; Picture 2 Lack of light inside forces a tailor to work outside; Picture 3, and chain and rope bridge a stream, photo by Yvette Cardozo; Picture 4, Yvette Cardozo tries out a porter's basket.