Messages Without Voice

Spilled Ink Issue 94 Jul, 2010

I'm sipping black coffee and eating "poauched egg", sitting in the "Dinning Room" of the a trailside hotel in Braga, upper Manang District. Here on the popular 'Round Annapurna' trekking route some of the hotel and signboard messages are intriguing.

Braga is at the top of a trek that I recently led in Manang. We'd hoped to reach Nar and Phu, two villages a few miles from Tibet, but the weather gods (or global warming) thought otherwise. "Not this time", they said, then threw a wild blizzard at us. We holed up in our tents at Meta, well above 10,000 ft, but well below Nar and Phu, for three days before retreating back down the avalanche-prone gorge to Koto. We'd come close but not close enough to both our goal, and to serious trouble. According to the locals, this year's snowfall was the most so late in living memory. It made for difficult and dangerous trekking.

Our retreat required crossing several treacherous snow slides, and it was over nine wearisome hours before we reached safety. After that, we were happy to hike in fine weather through upper Manang around Pisang and Braga where group members enjoyed side trips to nearby lakes, sacred caves, monasteries, other pilgrimage sites and Gangapurna glacier.

Despite the meteorological treachery of the blizzard, we enjoyed the geological entertainment of the ice-bound northern Annapurnas. And we were humored daily by a variety of uniquely encoded trailside messages. Signs and symbols greeted us on rocks, hoarding boards and hotel menus, in English, Nepali and Tibetan. Most were trekker-oriented, but some were targeted exclusively to the locals, like those emblazoned with political symbols and messages extolling the virtues of the 'New Nepal' Republic. We were also informed when we entered the "Autonomous Himali State" by bright red rock signage left over from the recent insurgency.

Many trailside signs are mis-spelled, some with attractive misinterpretations of English. And while they are often political lower down, up in Manang proper they are usually religious. Buddhist prayer walls with carved mani-stones and numerous prayer-wheels greeted us, full of block-print invocations to the gods: Om mane padme hum ('Ode to the jewel in the lotus', the Buddha) and others. Some messages are encoded in symbolic imagery, such as the easily recognizable hammer and sickle of international communism in contrast with images of the deities of Tibetan Lamaism.

At the entrance to Manang town there's a picture greeting all who enter, of a mounted horseman crossed with a red “X”. Alongside it is the figure of a riderless horse being led by the reins, marked with an affirmative “(P)”. Dismount, it commands, to avoid driving locals and visitors from the trail and paying a 500 rupee fine for breaking the rule. In Manang, where manliness and horsemanship are co-equal, horse riders typically race along the trails at a frightful gallop.

A more subtle message is embodied in what we dubbed the "milk-can mani" seen in one village. Apparently the original burnished copper prayer wheels were stolen, then were replaced by powdered milk cans with their original logos painted over and stuffed tightly with the usual rolls of prayers sent heavenward with each spin of the wrist.

Restaurant menu entries also cheered us with yummy entres such as "Yak Yugart" and "Strog Noff". There was also a "Germaney Bakery" with fresh "Cinnamon Rools". One hotel signboard advertised the availability of "Train Guides", and a shop full of "trekking stuffs". By contrast, most hi-tech broadband billboards for Internet and Skype connections are printed in impeccably correct English-except the one creatively spelled "Enternet".

What does the trailside messaging tell us? That locals should pay close attention to political demands and realities. That village hoteliers and shopkeepers are quite creative. And that all who pass this way are welcome.

It's the unwritten, unlettered messages, however, that intrigued me the most. They're a form of 'Spilled Ink' without lettering, of poignant messaging without voice. Meanwhile  my coffee and "poauched eggs" have gone cold.

Good Writing

Don Messerschmidt may be contacted at