Monday, May 30, 2011

Langtang, Part 1

If you had told me 6 years ago that one day Ross and I would enjoy waking up at 5:30am in order to trek up and down a 4,000m tall mountain for 3-8 hours every day for 6 days, I probably would've laughed in your face like the surly teenager that I was. And if you had politely ignored me laughing in your face and continued to inform me that one day we'd actually pay hundreds of dollars for this privilege, I would've told you to fuck right off, because that is just ridiculous. And it is ridiculous. But for some reason we did it anyway, and it turned out to be pretty damn fun. Ha! Take that, Past Marina!

We met our guide, Bino, while sight-seeing around Kathmandu. He was funny, knowledgeable and so friendly that we were persuaded to go trekking with him after about half an hour and a couple of Nepali teas. We're easy like that. (Bino also liked Infected Mushroom, one of our favorite bands. That was, but probably should not have been, a factor in our decision to hire him.) The evening before we left for the trek, we paid him about half of the total fee. Even though he'd shown us his guide license, had spent the day helping us prepare and had been a model citizen in every way, we still spent that whole night worrying that he was going to take our money and flee to India.

But he didn't! Thank god. Here's Bino:

Our journey started with a bumpy 9-hour bus ride to the Langtang mountain trailhead. There were about 40 people squished inside the bus, plus another 30 bouncing around on top. Every minute or so, the man in front of me would clear his throat in an overly loud and disgusting manner, and spit its contents out the window. At one point he forgot that he'd closed the window and spat right onto it. This elicited no reaction from him; he simply opened it back up as if this had happened a thousand times before. Lovely.

One poor guy had to sit on sacks of rice during the bus ride. We dubbed him The Rice King:

We started our trek at 7:30 the next morning. Many trekkers hire porters to carry their stuff while they walk, but on our first day we decided not to, maybe because we thought we were in shape or something, I'm not sure. Either way, it was a huge mistake. I don't think I'm overstating when I say that the first day was hellish. We walked up and up and up, further and further into infinity, until I was sure my thighs were going to snap and my lungs would explode. And that was only the first 4 hours. I remember muttering, "I just want to lie down and cry" and thinking that there was no way I was going to make it through the next 6 days.

This is before I knew how horrible this day would be:

After lunch, we somehow walked up another 4 hours. Apart from not dying, the other good part of that first day was walking through field after field of wild marijuana plants. We were very much (one might say 'highly') amused by how much weed grows in the mountains of Nepal. I'd never seen anything like it before -- and yet the villagers were growing potatoes in their farms! If they'd switch crops, they could buy as many potatoes as they could shake a stick at! And there are lots of sticks in the Nepali mountains, trust me.

Bino marveling at the abundance of weed plants:

Finally, after a total of 8 grueling hours, we made it to the next guesthouse and collapsed in our beds feeling a smidgen proud, but mostly just exhausted.

1,500m to 2,420m in one day!

The next day, we made sure to hire a porter to carry my bag and the 2 sleeping bags (Ross carried his own bag). I started out feeling a bit embarrassed that I was paying some poor man (and later that day, woman) to haul my bag up a mountain, but it quickly became clear that this wasn't a big deal to our porter. The people who live in the mountains here are super-human. Porters are routinely hired to carry about 160 pounds of food or supplies up the mountain, so my little backpack and sleeping bags were obviously not a problem to this guy (or to the woman). The porters made it up there at least an hour before we did.

Here's me with our second (super-human) porter:

And this is the sort of thing the porters normally carry:

Once I got over my embarrassment, I was really glad we hired a porter, because the second day was significantly more enjoyable for me. We walked for about 6 hours, and even though it was mostly uphill, I had fun and felt excited rather than suicidal. The scenery was starting to get seriously beautiful and we were making quite a bit of progress up the mountain - by that night we'd climbed up to over 3,020 meters. (Plus, we were starting to see lots of yaks! Always exciting, even if a little life-threatening.)

The view from our guesthouse the third morning:

The guesthouse we stayed in that night was pretty rural - there was no electricity and no hot water. We were the only guests, so the family invited us into their kitchen while they cooked our dinner. This was like being invited to go back in time. The entire family was sitting around the hearth on the floor, chatting and drinking home-made rice wine. The mother was shoving snuff into her nose as she cooked. (There are still companies that make snuff?) There was also a horse wandering around outside, pushing the kitchen door open with its nose every now and then. I wish horses would poke their heads into my kitchen in Vancouver more often.

Once we made ourselves comfortable on the floor of the kitchen, we realized that we had completely embarrassed ourselves without realizing it (this seems to happen so often when you travel). In our extreme hunger, we had forgotten that our food was not being cooked by a restaurant chef assisted by line chefs, but by one woman, without electricity, on a clay oven with 2 burners. We had ordered 3 different things, all of them complicated, and she'd been cooking for us for 2 hours already with no end in sight. And because the custom is that no one eats before the guests, they didn't start cooking their own food (or Bino's) until well past 8:30, which in mountain time is basically their bedtime. They were too polite to say anything about it, but we couldn't apologize profusely enough.

Me, Bino, and the woman who spent over 2 hours cooking our dinner:

We were supposed to continue up the next day, but I was feeling short of breath, so instead we decided to stay there one more day to acclimatize. In the end it was a good thing we stayed, because this gave us the opportunity to redeem ourselves at dinnertime. That night we both ordered daal bhaat, a lentil soup with rice, served with vegetables and spicy pickles on the side. Daal bhaat is absolutely integral to Nepali life - the majority of the population eats it twice a day, every day, for their entire lives. That night we all ate together and there was much less awkwardness all around.

Altitude sickness really hits me hard:

We also witnessed a big argument amongst the villagers that evening. We were reading inside after dinner when we started hearing lots of shouting from outside. Even though we couldn't understand what they were saying, we could hear that they were shouting the same things over and over again. Bino explained that two of the neighbors were arguing because, I'm not even joking, one of the yaks took a shit on the other neighbor's field. They stayed out there screaming at each other for a solid half hour.

The yak in question? Probably not, but let's pretend it is.

By the next day I had acclimatized enough to continue, and by mid-morning we arrived at our final destination, Kyanjin Gompa. The scenery here was stunning: snow-capped mountains, yaks everywhere, fields of little purple flowers, and a tiny village nestled in the middle of it all. It was beautiful and surreal. We spent the day just hanging out with Bino. We visited the village cheese factory and the Buddhist monastery and drank rice wine with the villagers.

Kyanjin Gompa, 3,830m:

Cheese "factory":

Drinking raksi in the village "pub":

The next day took somewhat of a dark turn. Although we'd gotten to our final destination, we decided to go up to the next peak to get an even better view. We walked up a very steep mountain for about an hour before the trail suddenly disappeared and we had to clamber over rocks to continue ascending. This seemed really dangerous, but we followed Bino nonetheless because we are stupid like that. I had not even finished saying, "Bino, are you sure this is the right way? This seems a bit dangerous. One slip and you'd go rolling down the mounta--" when I suddenly slipped and started rolling down the mountain!

I had tumbled backwards maybe 6 feet when I stopped falling. I can't remember if I managed to stop myself by grabbing onto a bush, or if it was Bino that caught me and stopped my fall, or if these two things happened simultaneously, but in any event, I stopped rolling before I'd even had the chance to register that I'd fallen. It was only when I got up that the realization hit me. I cried and hyperventilated for about 6 or 7 minutes before I was able to continue.

At that point I decided I'd had enough - the climb was difficult and steep, we already had a beautiful view down below, and now I was fucking freaked. We decided to just head back down. When we had walked back down about 15 minutes, we ran into a couple who were passing us on their way up. Ross still really wanted to reach that peak, so we agreed that he would go up with the couple while Bino and I headed back down to Kyanjin Gompa.

On our way down we walked down a trail, not rocks, and I concluded that we hadn't been going the right way at all. I wasn't sure whether or not to be angry with Bino. At first I was, because it was pretty unprofessional of him to take us up that way, but in the end I couldn't stay mad at him. He had been an excellent guide the rest of the trip, and I think he had simply made a wrong turn and had been too proud to tell us that we needed to backtrack. I think he learned a very important lesson that day: don't overestimate the gringos, they are clumsy and unfit and will die if you're not careful.

Bino and I made it back down and played gin rummy while waiting for Ross and the couple to return. We expected him to be back about 2 hours later. After about 3 hours, we started to worry. We stopped playing cards, and I sat around staring at the mountain and picturing every possible scenario that could've happened. Did they all get pushed off the mountain by a yak? Fucking yaks! Or did they run out of food and water and die of exhaustion? He'd only had a Snickers for breakfast that morning and had almost no water left when we parted ways. Or did they just fall off the mountain like I had earlier? Most likely.

Four hours later, Ross and the couple had still not returned, and Bino and I were both thoroughly freaked out. We started to put together a search party. I continued to pace around and stare worriedly at the mountain. Suddenly, Bino shouted something to me, and I looked over and saw...

...To be continued tomorrow, because we're about halfway through the story and this post is already way too damn long. :) 

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