DAY SIX: MEETING THE LAMA
Morning comes early in the Himalayas because for people who don't use electricity, so does bedtime. The crisp mountain air was as stimulating as a mug of fresh moka java. It slaps you in the face like a splash of icy mountain spring water. I moved quickly out of my sleeping bag and next to the warm clay hearth at the end of the tea house. Ahhhhh!
Our Tibetan hosts greeted us amiably and fried us up some thick flat bread. We embellished it liberally with local honey and yak butter. No coffee, but the Chia milk tea was hot and almost as vital.
Clear blue pristine skies and billowy fast moving clouds greeted us outside the Tea House, as well as a flurry of Tibetan Villagers. It was very busy for the middle of nowhere. You could hear the sounds of people, bleating of goats, clucking of chickens, and the occasional moo from a yak.
What could possibly be happening to create all this excitement? We soon discovered that a high Lama from Tibet was making rounds through the Himalayas and would be at the local Gompa (TIbetan Temple) today.
On the hill above us, the Gompa was a square stone two story building that stood out in the stark landscape. Hundreds of Tibetan villagers were swarming around excitedly. Kid were running as kids do with much laughter and excitement. There was a festive air about the place. It was not like the sullen whispers and hush reverence found in Western Christian churches. These people were celebrating their Spirituality!
We were the only westerners there. That's the way I like it. It was undiluted pure Tibetan culture without the prejudice of the manipulative tourist industry casting it's facade of authenticity though a lens of profit.
We headed up to the entrance and pulled out our camera. Respectfully, I ask some kids hanging off a balcony of the Gompa if I could shoot their pictures. They motioned no. Oh well, one thing about authentic experiences is that you often can only record them in your heart.
We went inside the stone building and were surprised to be received by the High Lama (Tibetan Priest) in a most congenial fashion. As we humbly gave the "Namaste" Greeting with prayer folded hands, he promptly strode forward shook our hands and said: "Thanks you for coming."
I guess he wanted to impress us with his worldlyness while we were trying to impress him with our humility. Funny how our perspectives were reversed. After the brief hello the Lama was off to minister to the excited thong of Tibetans surrounding him.
We followed him to a group of Tibetan women. The Lama unrolled a Thangka (Tibetan religious paintings) on the wall and started his discourse. The women were on the floor in a semi circle. They were so excited that they could barely sit still. It was a beautiful insight into the real life of the people here and certainly did not fit any stereotypes I had imagined. The Tibetan villagers were not solemn and meditative here. They were remarkably ordinary and simple. What was unique is how they combined their religion with having a good time.
In fact, the whole atmosphere of the Gompa was one of celebration. There was no seated assembly. The people and children were weaving in and out as the Lama walked around and gave his discourses to different groups in an impromptu style. It was relaxed and humanistic without any pretention.
Wow, I was impressed. What a difference from the way religion works at home. This was truly a natural way to interact. People were very at easy and there was an intimate atmosphere and connection with the Lama.
It was a special beginning to the day and left us with smiles a mile wide. We stumbled down the rocky path to the Tea House where we left our packs.
At the guesthouse we met Tibetan woman was sitting and having a cup of tea. She spoke a little English, so we chatted about nothing special. Like all grandma's she wanted to adopt us and I let her braid my hair with yak butter to smooth it (something I really regretted later). She complement me on having long hair like Tibetan men.
It was still early and we need to use the daylight for our Trekking, so before long we were back on the trail. Now the scenery was getting bare. With a wide open valley of mostly bare hills or smaller trees. The shrubbery was small bushes. The was also dry golden grass that was carpeting the valley. The lonely path was interrupted only by a solitary brown yak posing for our entertainment.
Yaks are so cool. They are like hairy cows with long crooked horn that point backwards. Their big too, standing about six feet tall and weighing over two thousand pounds. Yaks have longish hair on there bodies and thick hairy tails. They are high mountain animals and can only live above 10,000 feet in elevation.
The Yak is very integral to life in the high Himalayas. Local people raise them for milk, cheese & butter. Butter Tea or tsampa is one of the main stables of the Tibetan diet. It consists of butter tea and a kind of flour from roasted pearl barley. It is the most common food in the Himalayan mountains for the Tibetans.
As Buddhist, the Tibetans do not kill Yaks for food, but if they die of natural cause then it's OK to eat them. The thick long hair and hide are also good for all kinds of useful things like ropes, rugs, & bedding. Some villagers will spin it into yarn to knit clothing.
We continued on the trail by the Khola river which was now becoming a stream. Went up another 1000 feet in elevation to a place called Ghora Tabela. The trail got at bit steep and challenging sometimes, but nothing like our second day trek of straight up switchbacks.
At Ghora Tabela, there was a small lodge and a kinda ranger station for checking our trekking permits. Oh yes, Nepal requires permits for all this trekking and it's quite amusing that they would check it half way up a mountain in the middle of nowhere, but I suppose it provide jobs.
Now it was pay back time. We start seeing beautiful views of Langtang Lirung mountain peak capped in snow. It's huge! Once again, I must exclaim about the transcendental nature of seeing a snow capped Himalayan peak. There nothing so compelling and mystical in it's magnificence! It is a generous reward for the long trek, aching thighs and dysentery. All is forgiven by this benevolent God of nature looking down serenely at you.
Looking at Langtang Liring you can feel it's quiet power as you watch the swirling mist blowing of the snowy peak. The mountain somehow transports you up there for an instant when you gaze at it. You feel that life really does make sense somehow in an uncomplicated way. There is a simple reason to be alive and it's all worth it. The beauty is ecstatic and proclaims the truth in it's silent pronouncement.
Now, we are totally in Tibetan territory. There are no other tribes that populate this high elevation so close to Tibet. All of the villages here are Tibetan style stone huts. The local dress is all Tibetan and the people have that brown skin, weather worn and sun baked with the slightly slanting eyes.
Continuing on up the trail for a while, we get to a little more populated area. The valley is somewhat domesticated here, as we approach the largest settlement known as Langtang Village. We walk by stone fences and herds of domesticated yaks.
Before long we arrive at Langtang village. It is a simple rock hovel with no real charm, so we decided to continue on treking. It was still early enough to make the mysterious Kyanjin Gompa Monastery.
Kyanjin Gompa Monastery was the last place before the Tibetan border. It was a remote mountain Temple that captivate my imagination. From there only high passes continued on through the Himalayas. It was literally the end of the road for most treks. After Kyanjin there was no food or lodging.
As we walked out of Langtang Village, I noticed some colorfully clad young Tibetan women in the fields collecting yak dung. The women would put the dung in large woven baskets on their backs. At the time, I couldn't imagine why. I latter found out that yak dung has many uses. You can burn if for fuel or use it as mortar between the rocks of your house. I don't know what else, maybe make clothing, …. just kidding.
The path climbed gradually up hill through the center of the open treeless valley. We crossed little streams from time to time and passed some small rock Tibetan villages. It was amazing that people could live up there in such a harsh environment with so little to provide sustenance.
After a few hours walk Kyanjin Gompa Monastery came into view at the base of an age old glacier. It was a small unspectacular white plastered stone building with prayer flags attached. Oh well, there goes my fantasy of an exotic monastery hanging precariously from the side of cliff.
I'm was not too disappointed, as the zen saying goes: "The path is superior to the goal." I would agree with that. We were surround by superb vistas and it was exciting to be up so high in the Himalayas at about 12500 ft. Now we had to find a Tea House and get rid of these heavy backpacks.
There were several small primitive stone Tea Houses to choose for lodging, but we chose the Nepal Government lodge because it was supposed to have a solar heating system.
As usual the guidebook was a bit out dated. All the solar panels of the lodge had broken a long time ago and the heating consisted of a small thin metal wood stove. The lodge itself was very primitive, but did have some nice windows in front. Other then the windows, it was the usual stone walled lodge with a long flat wood communal bed surface area and outhouse. Of course, there was no running water or electricity.
After dropping our packs, we decided to take a little walk around before sunset. The view of snow capped peaks surrounding us were utterly spectacular. The crystal clear thin mountain air made the sunlight intensely bright.
We had gained a lot of altitude that day and didn't quite realize how profound it would effect us. Each step felt like it was in slow motion. It was like one of those dreams where your are trying to run through a thick molasses and your legs are weighed down with sand bags. After about a quarter mile, we plopped down to the ground and just sat dumbfounded. We looked a each other in puzzled amusement. We could walk any further.
It takes about 24 hours to adapt to every 2000 feet of elevation and even more at very high elevations. Looks like we'll spend the rest of day hanging around the lodge.
There are certain comforting domestic routines that you develop on a trek. One of the best is a fine cup of chai milk tea to warm the heart and soul. The other is sharing traveler stories from the people you meet.
We were lucky to have two other European couples in the lodge with us. They were 30ish bohemians from Austria and Germany. The Austrian couple Wolfgang & Andrea worked for a four star hotel in Vienna. Wolfgang was a master chef and later worked his magic for us under these limited culinary conditions.
The German couple Lars and Petra had been all around Nepal and told amazing stories of attaining mountain peaks by hitchhiking behind an larger expedition.
There story was what I'd call a 'real adventure'. I listened wide eyed as there tale unfolded. They were in the Everest region of Eastern Nepal and decided to make a trek to Everest base camp and then perhaps aspire to one of the smaller peaks in the region.
What make there story so remarkable is they had no set plans or elaborate preparation like most mountain climbers. The only had basic backpack, tent, and luckily some crampon shoe attachments for climbing ice.
The outfit they hooked up with provide ropes and food for them to survive on the climb, but it was not easy. A blizzard hit and their inadequate tent was blown apart at night in the storm. This is a life or death situation for a trekker on top of a mountain.
To survive it, they took out some sewing gear and actually sewed their tent together with frozen fingers in the middle of the storm. It was just another day for Lars and Petra who nonchalantly. I could only dream of such an adventure! It's amazing what people are capable of in desperate situations.
Many stories like this were told as we sat by the stove and sipped the hot chia. Of course, that internationally renown Murphy who invented 'Murphy's Law' was just waiting around the corner for us to get comfortable.
The Nepali hosts who ran this Teahouse were looking a bit nervous and finally the told us in broken English that the wood was "Finished". What do you mean finished? It's cold. Night is coming. Snow is starting to fall and there was a forested hillside just a few miles away. Ah well they told us, but it is against the law to take the wood from that forest. Against the freaking law! What the @ #! &%?
We were on the front lines of ecological morality now. It was future sustainability verses present necessity. What to do? You can read all about ecology and donate money to green peace, but you have no idea what morality you have, until you face freezing your ass off on a mountain top in Nepal.
It took a little time for it to sink in that some government agency somewhere down in Kathmandu had put a limit on wood use to protect the forest. We were there in November and I guess the limit for the month was as they said: "Finished!"
Just then, another more pressing situation started to arise. Oh my God! Not again? There was a gurgle in my stomach followed by a sharp pain like a knife in my gut. Then I got a cramp so severe it felt like someone punched me in the stomach.
The next thing to happen has an almost dreamlike quality as if I was falling into unknown or in my present case all too well known predicament. I started loose control.
My hope and prayer was that I could make it to that little wood outhouse 50 feet from the front of the lodge. Oh, but too late! As I stood up I felt an uncontrollable warm liquid whoosh into my cotton leggings. Misery has no greater moment the when your realize your have just trashed your only means of staying warm on top of a mountain.
I made a discrete exit from the social room to investigate the extent of my dilemma. I was fucked! It's dark outside. There are no washing facilities here. No running water. No clean change of clothes. Only some B grade pink imported Chinese toilet paper that was so unabsorbent that I think it was made of plastic and not paper.
I was more despondent then angry at my circumstances. I felt that tingly feeling of entering uncharted territory. As if my mind and emotions were stretching in to a new portion of my brain reserved for desperate moments like this. I now had a new benchmark in my life to measure miserable experiences and it was a long freaking way from my previous benchmark.
I once again had to borrow a flashlight to negotiate the outhouse. The problem is that you need three hands to use a toilet in Nepal at night. One hand is needed hold the flashlight and a second hand to hold your clothing while you squat dangerously near the shit filled hole in the floor. Then the third hand would then be free to clean yourself up. Bummer, I only two hands, ….. Some sacrifice would be necessary and the options were dismal.
Shivering in the cold dark outhouse, I struggled with the repulsiveness as best I could. My Warm leggings were yet another victim of the trek and I tossed them to an unknown destiny into the night abyss. They would not be found till spring as the night was at this moment being blanketed with an early winter snow storm.
A few yards of the repulsive pink toilet paper did the necessary clean up and I was ready to return to the happy social group inside. I won't mention how I negotiated the shit cover floor and hole as I didn't to well in that regard.
Inside, I turned a pale face toward Kirsten wanting her to realize what I had just been through and somehow comfort me. She look at me and asked: "Something wrong?"
I am normally an incorrigible story teller with a verbose nature, but for the life of me, I was speechless to really describe my emotions at that moment. I didn't even try. I just casually said: "You know the usual, … diarrhea problems."
It's seems like the main topic for travelers in Asia and particularly in Nepal is what color & consistency your shit is. You will find total strangers spending hours over dinner discussing the intimate details of there bowel movements. It is an extremely weird cultural phenomenon, that seems completely normal in Nepal. How quickly we adapt.
As the fire burned down and snow buried the village there was nothing left to do, but snuggle into a sleeping bag and try to stay warm.
I was actually feeling quite grateful to be cleaned up and warm. I had already lost everything that my gut could hold, so I was safe for the night. I felt a blissful resolve that probably the worst is over and that, was the last thought I had that night.
More to come, ……