Manaslu: Monsoon

Features Issue 131 Sep, 2012
Text and Photo By Kapil Bisht

Turning with the Budi Gandaki, surrendering our ears to its peremptory roar for over one and a half days, we came suddenly to a place where the river seemed to be exhibiting, emphatically, that water is mightier than stone. Huge boulders stood passively, as helpless as guards of a palace whose gates have been crashed by revolting masses.The river was bursting forth from between them. This was the background to the few huts that made up Yaruphant. At first sight, the settlement appeared to be on the verge of obliteration. This was the place where the Budi Gandaki was the loudest and its flow most powerful. By now I was beginning to think that the Budi Gandaki flowed, not so much to get to a place, but to get to the heads of those who travel along its banks.

Ours was a group of journalists. We were on a trek in the Manaslu Conservation Area of northern Gorkha, with the objective of taking back the region to the cities— through videos, photos, and in words. Although we passed through a large and diverse part of Manaslu, our trek was organized in particular to visit, and project, the Nubri Region. Encompassing four Village Development Committees, the Nubri Region is one of the richest regions of Nepal in terms of culture. Like most such places of Nepal, it is also one of the most remote.
The next day the trail bifurcated at Ekle Bhatti. We took the branch that went North to Deng and culminated in the Larke Pass, the 5,106m pass into Manang. The south trail went to Chhekampar, which is renowned for its old monasteries. Mu Gomba, the oldest monastery in the region, is located in Chhekampar. Near Rachhen Gomba, another famous monastery in Chekampar, there is an imprint on a rock, which is believed to be that of the Buddhist poet-monk Milarepa.

In the evening we descended into Prok. Corn cultivation had turned the landscape green. Dark houses stood besideand behind the corn fields, appearing like they were some sort of plant. A monastery stood on a heavily eroded bluffto the village’s north. It gave the impression of resignation; an overnight shower would have washed it away. It stood not just as a symbol of faith and piety but as a reminder of impermanence, which was specially heightened in the monsoon. We passed under stone gateways, from the top of which deities etched on slabs of stonescast their benevolent gaze upon those entering the village.

We had to split in two groups because there weren’t enough rooms for all of us in one house. When I went to visit my companions staying in a different house from ours, I found them contemplating slaughtering a chicken for dinner. The chicken’s fate was set aside to discuss the plan for the next day. We decide to hike to Kal Tal, a lake north of the village. The group I was staying with was given the responsibility of bringing packaged food for the trip. The other group was to bring bread.

An eager butcher had finished off the chicken while we were still talking. I stepped out into the night. Mist had covered the village. Under the mist came the cries of farmers warding off bears from their corn fields. Traveling over a distance the sounds lost their harshness and became plaintive; it sounded like the farmers were calling out to their lovers, not trying to keep their enemies at bay.

Gods’ Chickens
I had first seen Kal Tal on the cover of a brochure in Kathmandu, with Mt. Manaslu, the eighth-highest mountain in the world reflected on its clear waters. A large amount of the despair that we experienced that day was a result of the fact that I had brought that brochure on the trek and that everyone had seen it. The morning was cloudy, with no signs of getting brighter. But all of us were excited; the weather couldn’t blot the image of the brochure we carried in our minds.

Less than half way to the lake we learned that no one was carrying bread; everyone thought someone else had taken up that responsibility. Our ration for the day was suddenly reduced, and the trail in front of us grew more rigorous. We now had only a couple of packets of biscuits and each one of us was entitled to a packet of noodles.

Coincidentally, the walk to Kal Tal turned out to be the steepest of the trek. Hunger began gnawing on the excitement. Conversations and steps acquired a laborious rhythm. The overcast sky began bearing down heavily on the optimism. The destination now appeared as cloudy as the weather.

Gradually, the trail became even. I noticed little red berries beside the trail, but I couldn’t make out for certain if they were edible. This query was solved by Tsewang, an inhabitant of Nubri, when he started picking and eating them. Our group sprang into action like a pack of hounds does when one of them catches the scent of a quarry. Soon all of us were engrossed in individual searches for the meager but coveted berries. It was a useful activity: our minds were diverted from the dull trail and the yield gave a semblance of a meal.

At the far end of a small meadow we met a man chopping saplings from branches, as a grimy child looked on. He told us that he was a herdsman and that his goth, a temporary stable built away from villages, was a few minutes away. Every year a few herders take cattle, which maybe theirs or someone else’s away from the villages for a few months. This is done either in search of new pastures or to protect the crops in the village from the cattle. After a brief rest we started for the lake. The herder told us his goth was on the way and that the lake was now near. We began walking behind the father and his jolly son.

The goth, consisting of four wooden huts, stood in an opening. Rain combined with the cattle’s dung and urine had turned the area around the huts into a swamp. Wooden boards had been placed in the soft mud to walk on. These had, however, sunk into the mud and were hard to locate. A few chickens were foraging in the rich soil. We asked the man if he would sell us a chicken. “I can’t,” he said with a smile of embarrassment, as though ashamed of his inhospitality, “They have been consecrated for the gods.” We watched the chickens greedily and, at the man’s invitation, went into his hut.

Inside, a newly-born calf was lying snugly on the bed. Our host lovingly picked up the calf to make room for us, and put it in a small pen. We made coffee from the packets we had carried. But there weren’t enough cups for everyone to drink from. We formed pairs, each of whom got a bowl of coffee to share between them. Everyone was given two-and-a-half biscuits. We saved the noodles for later.

After some time we were served a humble meal of rice and lentils. One of my companions showed me flies in the food. But I was too hungry to care. It was a good meal, not because of any culinary skills on the man’s part but because of its availability against all hope.

It is amazing how the poor open their doors to you and with that single act share their lives with you. They have nothing to hide; everything they have they wish to share. Meeting that herdsman who brings animals to these high pastures, living away from society for months in dismal conditions added something to remember that banal day by. Viewed in hindsight, his hut surrounded by stench and dirt now appears to me like a lotus in the middle of a marsh.

Unfortunately, the gods weren’t as kind to us day. Kal Tal was surrounded by clouds on all sides. The mountains were out of sight. We built a fire and burned juniper branches as an offering to the gods. Lama Lakpa had warned us in Prok not to be noisy during our trip. Raising one’s voice, it was believed, offended the deities inhabiting the forest through which the trail to the lake passed. Retribution for such discretion was usually rain. We had been quiet on our way upbut the gods were apparently displeased. I suspect our coveting their chickens had something to do with it. We ate our packets of noodles and returned to Prok without having seen any spectacular scenes.

The Red Army

A day after we were denied chicken, we finally ate some for lunch. After lunch Lakpa Lama our host, took us on a tour around Namrung. Lakpa was born in Namrung, and as a child had been on numerous trading trips into Tibet. On one such trip he had lost a toe to frostbite. He was now back in Nepal after having worked for many years in Singapore. In Kathmandu, he ran a NGO working to preserve and promote the culture of Nubri. Our trek had been organized and sponsored by his NGO.

Almost every house in Namrung had an apple tree in their compound bending gently under the weight of its fruits. During the course of the brief stroll we stopped to taste freshly ground barley flour from a grinding stone run by water. We then stopped in front of a large rock. Lakpa told us that formerly Namrung was the judicial centre of the Nubri Region and that a council of elders met at this spot to settle the disputes of the region’s villages. Although Namrung doesn’t command as much influence in the region today, disputes are almost always settled out of court by lamas of local monasteries or by the villagers themselves.

Our tour of the village ended in the open courtyard of a former prison. Perhaps because it was made entirely of wood, the building failed to impart the rigid impression of a prison. There were people living in the building now, and the languor of domestic life had supplanted the torpor of penal existence. The warden’s room was now a family’s prayer room. We were shown the old prison cell. It was an underground room, under the room where judges discussed the prisoner’s fate. These ancient-looking cells, which were fit for keeping animals, seemed to have been constructed with the purpose of arousing in its occupant the realization that his actions had been similar to that of the beasts.

One of the biggest crimes in this region, where killing of animals has traditionally been avoided, is hunting wildlife. The laws laid down by the Nubri’s ancestors decree a public flogging for anyone who kills a wild animal. The offender is stripped, and 500 lashes are administered on his buttocks. In the evening a herd of jharals (Himalayan Tahr) appeared on the slopes of the hill to the village’s south. They were licking salt from the hill’s walls. For the wild animals of the region the salt must taste better because of man’s withdrawal from the food-chain.

We left Namrung next morning for Tonge, where a reincarnate lama was flying in from Kathmandu to inaugurate a new monastery. On our way we made a detour to another monastery. The monastery, known as Hinang Gumba, was situated amidst old, shingle-roofed buildings. The large red door of the monastery was open and behind it, lined on either side of the path, were many young monks with yellow flowers in their hands. Their cheeks were the same maroon color as their robes. The oldest of them couldn’t have been more than eleven.They shyly handed us the flowers.

After lunch we were taken to the classrooms, where a young teacher held a class to show us the little monks’ command in Nepali and English. Although the religious texts that these monks read are in Tibetan, they are also taught Nepali and English, so that they may do well at school, which is an hour’s walk away. Sitting cross-legged on the wooden floor, the monks recited rhymes and lessons in Nepali and English. The cadence was that of a Buddhist prayer. They were a disciplined lot and they stuck to their recitation assiduously, even as cameras flashed on their faces. Later, when they were seated outside, a pup wandered up to the group. Some of them caressed it warily, always keeping an eye on their teacher. When we bid them goodbye, they broke out in a chorus of ‘byes’, waiving their little hands frenetically. One of them expressed great concern for us. “Take care,” he advised in a manner that reflected a doubt about our ability to look after ourselves.

That night we ate dinner under a tarpaulin shed that had been rigged up beside the Tonge monastery. After dinner Deepak and I went to get some wine. Before leaving I had asked the others to wait until we returned. We didn’t find any wine and when we got to the place where the others were to wait for us, we found no one. I was livid. My anger rose as we inched forward into the mist. The roar of the river was so loud that it felt like we were walking along the edge of the gorge wall. Then we saw a light down on the trail. Two of our companions had waited for us. But that didn’t mollify me, and when someone far below shouted to inquire if we were okay, I cursed at the top of my voice, hurling filthy words into the night air, sanctified a hundred times by the prayer wheels, prayer beads and bowed heads just a few meters from me in the gomba’s courtyard. A bolt of lightening ought to have been hurled at me.

In the morning we found the trails to the monastery filled by people, some of whom had crossed a pass at 5000 meters to attend the inauguration program. Many had arrived at night and had been out in the rain. During the two days that we were at the monastery I did not see a single umbrella.

The little monks from Hinang Gumba had also come to pay their respects to the Rinpoche. Dressed in red track suits and matching gumboots, they looked like a platoon. We christened them the ‘red army’.

Teahouse Tales

A day after attending the opening of the monastery we moved on to Samagaon, the largest village we had seen during our nineteen days on the trail. On our third day there a press conference was held under a tarpaulin roof. Lakpa announced that his organization would organize a month-long festival in May next year. The crowd was then directed to proceed towards the big field outside the village, where a horse race and a demonstration of archery were to be staged. The horse race was won by a rosy-cheeked boy, whose cheeks became more red when a video camera was pointed at him and he was asked to describe his feelings on having won the race.

On our return to Namrung we attended yet another inauguration of a monastery. Despite Lakpa’s requests to stay another day, we left Namrung. On the way we met a man leading a goat on a rope towards Namrung. It turned out that he was taking the goat to the monastery for a feast for some journalist guests. We were those guests, we told him. The goat, we were told, was an astonishing 14 years old.

On the sixth day after leaving Samagaon, we stopped at Jagat for lunch. Whether as a bait to lure us back to the region in the future or merely because he wanted us to leave in awe of the region, the owner of the teahouse told us an incredible tale. The story was of a kind whose veracity can neither be wholly accepted nor completely dismissed. According to the story, there is a lake called Kalo Pokhari north of Jagat. That was true; there is a lake by that name. Karki told us that most people that had laid eyes on that lake never returned home. The few that returned didn’t live for long. Intrigued by this mysterious lake, a few Germans had arrived four years ago at Jagat to visit the lake. Hiring a local man as guide the Germans set off for the killer lake. After they left their camp site for the lake, the weather changed abruptly, and mist reduced visibility to a few feet. Then out of the mist a man with white hair tied into a bun like a sage’s and with a beard that reached his waist appeared a little above the team. He motioned to them not to come any further and then vanished into the mist. When the Germans insisted on going forward, hailstones began falling and the air resounded with loud rumbling sounds, as though rocks were tumbling only a few feet from them. The team turned back. As they neared camp the hailstorm stopped and the weather became pleasant once again.

This is what treks are like in Nepal (or perhaps everywhere). You start on one clutching an image of snow-capped peaks, picturesque lakes and stunning landscapes. And on most occasions they slip away from your mind. They are replaced by newer and longer-lasting memories of someone you met, something you heard, something you ate. From my room in the city I picture the little monks sitting in the classroom, chanting Baba Black Sheep. I am curious if that goat has lived to be fifteen. I wonder how fat the chicken in that goth near Kal Tal have become.