On Old Trails

Features Issue 139 Jun, 2013
Text by Kapil Bisht / Photo: Dawaphenjo Gurung and Kapil Bisht

A trek to one of Nepal’s most popular destinations became a journey to the past.

The book in my backpack was Michel Peissel’s ‘Mustang: A Lost Tibetan Kingdom’, but every mile I rode and every step I took, I was perusing the living memoir of my companion. He had trekked in Mustang a half century earlier, when it truly could be called a Tibetan kingdom. Back then, the Khampa rebels had re-discovered that lost Tibet, having set up base in the district to fight the Chinese army. By day I heard the veteran trekker’s stories; at night, I read Peissel’s book. Much of what they described had long ceased to exist. The trek increasingly became a way of finding the past, of re-creating it where it had disappeared, or just envisioning it in the splendid tales my companion told.   

All the way on the highway to Pokhara, Don remembered old places and odd facts. As our bus rolled into a bustling town, Don told me about walking down from his Peace Corps village in Kuncha, Lamjung to it. Back then, it was a village. He had wanted a beer. There was one place that had a refrigerator, which ran on kerosene. It was hard to imagine that time now as our luxury bus cruised by that same town, where almost every restaurant and tea shop had an electric Pepsi or Coca Cola fridge. The town was Dumre, now the hub of business for the districts of Tanahun, western Gorkha, Lamjung and Manang. In another place, Don advised me to buy a hillock if I ever wanted to dabble in real estate. Beneath that mound, he told me, was a cache of heavy machinery and tons of metal—junk valued at millions that was left behind by the Chinese contractors who had built the lower Marsyangdi River power plant and containment dam.

Other than that one piece of real estate information, Don’s talks were mostly about the Nepal of bygone times, when Nepal was mostly rural and the places we visited were remote and isolated (before roads, and sometimes even before tourists and trekkers). When he first came to Pokhara in 1963, the lakeside community did not exist; there was nothing but “a big field beside the lake where animals grazed.” Don conjured up the past and I tried to find those places in the present. The places Don described were phantasmal, even when we were passing right through them or standing there. It was like being in a book that had come alive: The people he had met were the characters, his experiences were the plot, and the places he’d seen long ago were the locales.

The Coveted Seat
Don had made specific arrangements with his travel agent in Kathmandu to get on the first plane out of Pokhara. Don wanted to be air bound and on the ground in Jomsom before the infamous winds of Mustang began. But on checking in we were told that we had been bumped to the second flight. We sipped our complimentary (or apologetic) cup of coffee on the rooftop cafeteria of the airport as the first plane took off for Jomsom. A ghostly Machhapuchare Peak took on more form as the sun came up.

When we finally were about to get on our plane the door wouldn’t open. We waited on the tarmac as the crew worked to open it. For fifteen minutes that door became the symbolic entryway for us into the once remote Mustang District. Behind us the other passengers – a group of South Indians swaddled in woolen caps and scarves – waited anxiously to get their pilgrimage underway. When it finally opened, Don was first into the plane. The air hostess gently reminded him that he was sitting in her seat. Don asked if he could sit there. It was his theory that the further back the seat in these small planes, the higher one’s chances of survival in the event of a crash. The air hostess was perhaps from the same school of thought. She refused the veteran trekker her seat.

As we flew northwest, Don pointed down to the rapidly diminishing landmarks – Seti River gorge, Poon Hill – as the plane gained altitude. Then, he pointed to the gap between the two pilots, and there was a gigantic wall of ice—Dhaulagiri. I would have lost my job on the first day had I been the pilot, for I found nothing but expletives to express myself at seeing the seventh-highest mountain in the world for the first time.

In less than 20 minutes the plane touched down in Jomsom. Anyone stepping out of the plane in Jomsom for the first time is likely to believe he is in a different world altogether. North Nilgiri (the ‘Blue Mountain’) rising over 7,000 meters to our east was the perfect backdrop and bastion. It is too high for anything from the other side to cross, you would think. But that feeling vanishes as soon as you cross a small iron gate (the main entry and exit point to the airport) and step on to the main street of Jomsom, which is now the highway to the high places of pilgrimage. The wind has blown for millennia to erode the mountains around Jomsom. But the fastest erosion has been of Jomsom itself. The two days that I was there I saw two Tibetan mastiffs, one yak, and dozens of lodges selling apple pies. Buses, cars, and motorcycles whizzed by every few minutes. The culture has gone for convenience.

Where Cars Go To Die
After breakfast the next morning Don and I crossed over the river to Thini, an old Thakali village. We were there to find an old friend of Don, from the days when he was a 23-year-old Peace Corps Volunteer farther south in the mid-hills district of Lamjung. The person we hoped to meet was a Thakali lady who used to run a bhatti, or teahouse, on the old postal road or Hulaki Bato, through Lamjung from Kathmandu to Pokhara. In those days, with no roads for vehicles, it was the main track: Letters, locals, soldiers on leave and Peace Corps volunteers went up and down on it. Don often ate in the Thakali bhatti when he was living in Lamjung as a Peace Corps Volunteer, sitting on the floor, eating daal-bhat with his hands, drinking raksi (home-made alcohol).

When we asked for Sarkini, the old woman whom Don wanted to meet after all these years, fingers pointed us towards the old monastery up the hill. Once there, we found ourselves at the door of a small meeting hall behind the temple where we mentioned the lady’s name. A buffet lunch was laid out inside. Don called out her name. “Sarkini.” After the third time a feeble hand went up, and an old woman began to make a strained effort to get up, looking for a place to set down her plate of food so she could better see the person calling her name. Both Don and Sarkini took a while to recognize each other, mostly because of the poor lighting. Then they hugged, and Don began to explain to the bewildered people in Nepali how he knew her. “Dherai barsha pahila…,” he said. “A long time ago…” I was to hear many tales that began with those words.

Thini was a sleepy town. Work, business, recreation took its inhabitants across the river to Jomsom, where a plane landed every 10 minutes or so each morning, and, with it, people with big pockets. Thini was a vestige of a once untouched and otherworldly region. In the valley across the river sat Jomsom, prosperous but denuded of its culture—a picture of what development can bring as well as take away. Jomsom had services to sell: ‘Welcome for Climbing’ said huge white letters painted on a cliff face near the north end of town. Thini was just beginning to teach etiquette: ‘You should not urinate here’ ran a plea on a wall.

Equally quaint as Thini were some of the taxis that waited on either side of the bridge north of Jomsom. Battered and dilapidated, the cars and jeeps seemed to have come there to pass their last days in service plying the last few miles to the pilgrim shrine at Muktinath. There was an air of abandon about them. Having renounced paved roads and safe routes for this harsh terrain and treacherous paths, they cut the figures of ascetics who had given up the worldly comforts for a life of struggle and pain. If one must die on the road, the cars seemed to say, why not make sure it is on a road to somewhere sacred? These jalopies, by virtue of their last days being spent carrying devout and physically unfit pilgrims to their destinations, must earn enough merit to be reborn as Ferraris in the West.

The next morning we rode down to Marpha in a jeep with our hotel owner, the former chairman of the Mustang District assembly and current Chairman of the Thak Khola Tourism and Hotel Association, Bishnu Hirachan. The village of Marpha has survived much as Michel Peissel saw it years ago—‘a hive of neat, whitewashed houses bordering a paved street alongside which ran a canalized stream, access to all the house on one side of the street being by the means of stone slab bridges.’

From Marpha we planned to trek to a yak herder’s camp high up in the mountains, where the annual rush was on for the prized medicinal herb, yarsagumba. But before that there was a marriage in Marpha. Some villages in the Thak Khola region practiced endogamy, marrying either within their villages or with a few nearby ones. Although these practices are fast disappearing, it is still the predominant norm. As a result, most villages are bound together not just by feelings of community but of kinship. Other than the Dalit musicians, Don and I were probably the only ones in the wedding not related by kinship to the wedding party.

Our first meal in Marpha – put on from the bride’s side – was no different from any traditional Thakali meal in the region: The variety and the spices used gave us a ravenous appetite. Afterward, Don suggested we take a walk high into the mountains to the west, to the old Marpha, to work off the lunch. The old village was an hour’s walk uphill. It was situated on a small plateau that was covered with apple and apricot trees. There were sheer cliffs on three sides, making approach possible only from the steep trail we had come up. Don explained that the location had been chosen exactly for this reason. It was important to be thus situated at a time when raids from the fierce nomadic tribes of Tibet were common, resulting in loss of life, grain, animals and women. As the nomadic lifestyle waned in the Tibetan plateau, the Marphalis moved down to the fertile river valley.

Sleepless Nomads
At least in one way – sleeping in a tent out in the open – Don and I were going to be nomads for a single night. We scanned the tops of mountains south of Marpha, where we would spend that one night, to assess the weather. It was dismal. The area was covered in a white blanket. It was snowing there. Don decided it wasn’t worth risking going up there in that kind of weather. Besides, the yarsagumba pickers Don wanted to interview would not venture out of their camps in that kind of weather, which looked like a whiteout from Marpha. Heeding a few villagers’ advice and the weather pattern, we decided to wait in Marpha.

On the third day after arriving in Marpha, we began an enervating climb up the mountain to join the yak herders and the yarsagumba pickers. We arrived at Yak Kharka in the late afternoon. Snow welcomed us to the Himalayas, a name that means just that: ‘place of snow.’ Dinner was cooked and served in a low shepherd’s tent, barely comfortable for two, but now filled with six of us.

A mere five decades ago Don and a friend were up here and met an adolescent yak herder who had a ferocious Tibetan mastiff. From Don’s description our host recognized that adolescent as the old man who was now a grandfather and lived in Pokhara. Somewhere behind the mist stood Dhaulagiri, the only witness of that day 50 years ago.

After dinner, as we lay in our uncomfortable tent, a radio crackled into life. Hindi songs wafted in from Indian radio stations on the thin and clear air. There, on the mountain, for a moment I felt we were some place far, far away from everywhere. All through the night there was a distance between me and sleep, one that our tiny tent couldn’t abridge.

‘If the night was miserable, then the morning was magical,’ begins my journal entry for the next day. Don had got me rushing out of the tent by saying, “Nowhere in the world where you can see Dhaulagiri like this.” But the sight was marred by the news of the death of a French trekker in the nearby cliffs. The news had limped into Jomsom with his fellow trekker (a twin brother), who had amazingly survived two nights in the mountains without food. Don recalled how he and his friend had almost met with a similar fate all those years ago when they lost their way in a whiteout. Don mused on the absurdity of life.

After breakfast, we trekked higher to watch the yarsagumba pickers and to document the process. Then we left. Don had a feeling that the crystal clear weather was about to change dramatically and cut short our mountain stay. His hunch proved right when it began to snow again just as we left the campsite on our way back to Marpha.

Blacksmith from the West
The next morning we began our trek out of Mustang, walking down along the Kali Gandaki valley south towards Pokhara. We stopped to look at the old monastery in Chairo, a small Tibetan refugee village across the river from Marpha. The ancient ochre-colored monastery was undergoing renovation. Just out of Chairo we passed a few falling-down house walls, the remains of a Khampa Tibetan guerilla camp. I stopped to photograph an empty oxygen cylinder being used as a school bell. When I caught up with Don I found him chatting with an old man. As I approached, I heard Don tell the man that his forefathers had been blacksmiths in Germany. When Don said this the old man, who was a blacksmith and thus a so-called ‘low’ caste, shook his hand merrily, turning back to look at a group of teens nearby, with a look that said, “Look, there are ironsmiths in the West, too. We are not outcasts.”

A few hours down river we were walking against a strong wind that was carrying rain. We drank tea and a peg of whiskey in a hut before embarking on the most bizarre bridge I have ever seen. The bridge was simply three 30-feet planks of wood laid side by side. Some of them wobbled and turned in their place as we stepped on them. The river was low but a fall from the bridge would be serious. My biggest concern was our porter, who was carrying a big pack. His mother had entrusted him to us at Marpha, explaining in detail about his medication and their timings. Negotiating about fifty of those slippery plank sections, we made it across the river to Larjung.

The next morning I stood on the broad river valley looking at the mountains all around me. South of Larjung a mountain sloped down, appearing like one side of a gigantic open book. In the west, the east Dhaulagiri glacier appeared to be slowly pouring into Larjung. Behind it, Dhaulagiri dominated the sky. To the north, as far up the river valley as visible, snow had covered the mountains on either side, reaching down to less than a hundred meters above the river. Yak Kharka was under quite a bit of snow.
We turned south and continued our journey towards Pokhara. The broad river valley of Thak Khola soon became a steep river gorge, narrow and deep.

In the late afternoon when we stopped by the trail for a cup of tea, a loud motorcycle stopped. Its rider came in and ordered tea for himself. He was an Indian doctor living in Australia. Coincidentally, we ended up staying in the same lodge that night in Ghasa village. The Indian doctor told us he was on his way down from Muktinath. During the course of our conversation Don and I diagnosed him with a condition characterized by contempt for Hinduism. He had grown up in a feudal rural family of wealthy landowners in north India and the experience of seeing a few so-called high caste people ill-treating dozens from the poor and less powerful strata of the Hindu society had left him with a bitterness he couldn’t overcome or keep to himself.

“Those bloody Hindus,” he said emphatically, telling us about his family and the caste system in India. Then realizing that I, a Hindu, was among his audience, he would stop to prevent any ill-feelings. “Please don’t mind, brother. I don’t mean you.” He declared that he did not believe in any faith. Other than that, he was pleasant, well traveled, and had an engaging laugh.

Dying for Faith
The next day we stopped for tea in a place called Pairo Thapla, meaning ‘brow of the landslide.’ A huge chunk of the mountain had slid down into the river in this place. Across the river from where we sat sipping tea and chatting with the tea shop owner, we watched as one after another bus and jeep negotiated the precariously narrow road (and where a year ago a jeep had plunged into the gorge killing over a dozen Nepalese Hindu pilgrims). On the mountainside above, a trail was etched into the sheer cliff face. Don remembered walking on that old trail, his head bent to avoid hitting the low roof of the tunneled path. Pun Magars had blasted the trail a half century earlier, to give easier passage to pilgrims destined for Muktinath, and for salt traders coming and going between western Tibet and the Nepalese hills and plains. The Thakalis of Tukche ran the lucrative salt trade in the first half of the last century.

The tea shop owner pointed across the chasm to a point higher up on the same cliff to a thin line, barely discernible and overgrown with grass. That line, he said, was the oldest track up through the gorge for pilgrims and traders. Many, like the pilgrims going to Muktinath on that doomed jeep a year ago, fell to their deaths treading that treacherous trail. According to Hindu belief, by dying on the route to Muktinath, they attained instant mukti, or liberation from the cycle of birth and death. For some it was a tragic event, an abrupt end. For the pilgrims, although not wished for, it was a swift fulfillment of a lifelong goal. Don had met the group of pilgrims who had been in the jeep directly behind the one that fell. Most of them were relatives and friends of the deceased. “None of them had a sad expression on their faces, or maybe no one showed it,” Don said. “It was as though it wasn’t a bad thing to die on the way. It was the will of God, they thought, and these people accepted it.”

I traced that the faint trail line in the air with my finger, across the cliff. There were places on that track that would have been suicidal for the pilgrims, most of whom didn’t wear shoes, carry ropes, or had experience in rock climbing. Most of them had come from where there were no mountains. What had brought generations and generations of those pilgrims to these risky trails, I wondered. What did they hope to achieve? Imagining people on that trail changed every notion I had of faith, devotion, and determination. Lama Govinda, in his book ‘The Way of the White Clouds’, explains a pilgrim’s motives:

Just as a white summer cloud, in harmony with heaven and earth freely floats in the blue sky from horizon to horizon following the breath of the atmosphere—in the same way the pilgrim abandons himself to the breath of the greater life that…leads him beyond the farthest horizons to an aim which is already present within him, though yet hidden from his sight.

I wish our Indian friend had been with us at Pairo Thapla and had seen that old trail. I think I know what his reaction would have been. He’d shake his head, and say, “Those bloody…” But he would utter his trademark phrase out of awe and respect. He would see another side of religion, a side that inspires people to devote themselves to a goal only they know, to rise above the ordinary, and to leave the onlookers clueless yet profoundly moved at the same time.