Part 4: Journeying through Helambu, Gosaikunda and Langtang

At times, the path wasn’t clear. The rough slabs of slate that were half buried in the ground by pathmakers were replaced by wide flat areas that negated the necessity of fixing a path to begin with. Each day I knew which general direction I was heading, and used the sun to guide me when the path eluded me.

I would often leave the path to look for a particularly beautiful viewpoint or boulder to rest on, succumbing to curiosity over what lay beyond view. Sometimes I was utterly off-track, I was sure the way before me was untrampled by foot or hoof, fallen twigs and leaves arranged gingerly on top one another, only to be crunched in my wake.

Once, the underbrush of a young forest was so thick, I struggled and pushed my way through, gaining cuts and scratches on my arms and legs. Ahh. I saw the usefulness a machete would have provided right then. Usually an hour or so after venturing off path, moving close to parallel with it, I found it again, not regretting having lost it in the first place.

The way opened up to scattered farms on a sloping hillside, terraced farmlands on either side with buffalos and horses grazing in broad expanses near the edge, their unseen precipices forming in my imagination. Their metal bells tinkled different keys with every bite and glance.

The trail led me through a series of hanging steel bridges that spanned a hundred meters long and just as high above the river below. Most were in good condition but some, the ones near a section of mountain face that had eroded over time, seemed less secure, with the foundations of a few slanting awkwardly to one side. It made crossing the bridges that much more exciting.

For several days, I walked upstream from a river that expanded and compressed around the Langtang valley which carried it. On some instances, I lost sight of the river for several hours at a time, for the valley widened and the path veered the other way; but her sound was perpetual, carried by the wind and echoing off the craggy cliffs.

Huge boulders the size of 20-storey buildings littered the valley; some were lying on the trail itself while others lay in the middle of the river, which split the water’s path into two stronger currents. No doubt some of these gigantic boulders fell from the steep cliffs on either side, but I wondered if some were carried down here by prehistoric glaciers from ice ages long past.

Glaciers move (grow/recede) a few meters every few years, and with them move massive boulders like driftwood on a swell on slow-motion. Alice, an American glaciologist i met along the way, said that in her circles glaciers are called “Mother Nature’s bulldozers,” an unstoppable force that oftentimes left huge boulders in unsuspecting places thousands of kilometers from its origin over the eons.

While basking in the beauty, serenity and abundance of the riverside did I daydream about spending some time camping in such a place, but one more isolated: fishing, foraging and setting traps for food; filtering, boiling or some other purification methods for drinking water.

Landslides etched flowing scars on the mountainside, souvenirs from the earthquakes that rocked the country years before. The striae stretched for kilometers and were just as high. They resembled forks of lightning, root structures, road maps and neural synapses — the self-repeating structure of fractals. There was enough rock debris to fill in dozens of football stadiums. Perhaps hundreds.

Not all landscapes were comforting and familiar. Some were so barren and looked so foreign to me, I could have been on the surface of another planet. At about 4,000 meters above sea level, everything changed. There were no more trees. The ground was dusty and loose, no doubt composed of a different kind of micro-life, and the leafless springy bushes that scattered the plains and mountains gave me the impression of resilience and hardiness. A high-altitude desert.

From the furthest tourist town up the Langtang valley called Kyanjin Gompa, I hiked up this alien landscape for a few hours to see a glacier that was draped over a northern peak. It was like a thick layer of magma in shape, frozen in time and creeping downwards through the millenia. The dirty white of the glacier was marred and veined with a blue the color of the water above the deepest ocean trenches, or the blue of heavy, sodden rain clouds about to pour.

Alice, the glaciologist, was on this trip to gather data from glacial water. She said it was fact that glaciers were receding, and her team believes their absence would irreversibly change the makeup of the rivers, ground water, etc in ultimately unpredictable ways. Glacial runoff has some specific minerals and isotopes, she said, that contribute to a healthy ecosystem.

I asked her about previous ice ages and future ones: she confirmed the former but put forward doubts on the latter, saying our use of fossil fuels and increase in greenhouse gases and global warming will probably prevent future ice ages from happening. But this is only a prediction from what information we currently have. A full understanding of the cosmic and planetary laws that would allow infallible prediction is forever out of our grasp.

Interestingly, there have been several ice ages in the past, some more extensive than others and stretching outward from the polar caps to freeze most of the planet. Alice, the glaciologist, said that some of the ice ages may have been caused by massive meteors that kicked up enormous quantities of dust that covered the early atmosphere for thousands of years, blocking off the sun’s heat which cooled the Earth and propagated the formation of ice and glaciers (and possibly mass extinctions). An event like this is called an “Impact Winter.”

On my first night in Kyanjin Gompa, it thundered and snowed outside as I lay huddled in bed. The below-zero temperatures forced me to wear most of my clothes to sleep. The next morning’s sunrise was faint and muffled, like our shoes on the snow. The sky was a bright and clear blue above the pristine white layer that covered everything 10 centimeters thick.

I climbed up to the nearby viewpoint and ridge on the way to the peak of Kyanjin Ri which was further away in altitude than in horizontal distance to the blue-roofed village that gave us shelter. I began following some footsteps I assumed to be the small group of people I saw ascend before me half an hour earlier. Since the trail was covered and hidden from sight, I had to rely on the fresh prints to find the switchbacks and bends that led to the ridge.

The prints I was following simply disappeared and I spent some time making my own way upwards, perilously on its steep face. The two wooden walking sticks I picked up days before saved me time and again from slipping and falling on my face or tumbling down the slope. The face of the mountain was littered with a dense, thorny bush whose roots helped my footing when I needed it.

At the ridge overlooking the valleys to the north and east, the wind was a gentle breeze that gave me enough ease to stand upright and walk normally, as if death wasn’t only a few meters to either side of me and a thousand meters below. I stopped to savor that thought and reveled in my impermanence, acutely aware that life would not carry the same depth and meaning if it never ended, without its polar opposite.

I spoke with the proprietress of a guest house I stayed at for a night. She charged me 100NPR (Php50) to have my own room with a double bed, as long as I had dinner and breakfast in her restaurant. A fairly common arrangement, some places even letting tourists sleep for free when business hasn’t been that lively, as the food prices are generously padded. She told me that the trekking guides that tourists more often than not normally had with them asked for the hotel’s bill to reflect a higher room price, at times 500% more, while still paying the hotel its normal price (the one it charges to tourists that go without a guide) and keeping the extra 400% for themselves.

A veteran guide I encountered several times along the trek named Prem once told me that being a guide is lucrative work. He had been one for 16 years already, and earned enough for his family in Kathmandu for treks most of the year. He said they always stayed in the same hotels and guest houses every time to develop better relationships where I supposed, he padded the room charges as I heard it’s commonly done. But I didn’t ask him.

Every developing country I have seen, including my own, which receives enough tourists to support the industry, have locals in the busier areas that have the habit of arbitrarily charging foreigners a higher price for wares or services rendered vs. what they charge locals. I have spoken with some locals about this and they have the mindset that selling things at a higher price to tourists, who are wealthy and from richer countries, is totally fine because “I am poor,” “It’s perfectly ethical.”

The “poor me” mentality is one we see in every culture. The hungry, the violated, the oppressed, the farmer, the fisherman. It doesn’t stop there. Even financially stable people will find something to feel poor about: their single-hood, their shit job, their lack of friends or hobbies, their addictions and all the terrible things other people have done to them. None of this is uplifting.

Our well-being takes a dip from the mental construct that we are suffering, that some wrong has been done to us, by God or bad karma, by our neighbor or our bosses. So we put ourselves in the position of a victim: full of woe, pain and anger. The only practical thing to do is to stoically accept what cannot be helped and improve on where we can. But that’s easier said than done.

There’s no arguing that everyone has the right to charge whatever price they want to sell their service or product. But is it morally good behavior to charge different prices for the same thing, depending on the buyer’s affluence? Is it ethically admirable — something you would be proud of doing — so much so that telling others about your practice will increase your image of moral standing and benevolence in society?

When I’ve gone from store to store, asking for the price of exactly the same item — a bag, piece of clothing, instrument or souvenir — I couldn’t help myself from being irked by some vendors that charged double or triple the price of others. My internal reaction is negative; I get irritated, and feel like the overcharging vendor is trying to take advantage of my ignorance. And realizing that he must do this to all the foreigners that come into his shop doesn’t help my mood. I’m signaled by my thoughts to foster empathy, and I imagine myself in the position of the overcharging vendor and think twice. Perhaps I’d do the same.

Your position on the scale of support for or against this arbitrary pricing will reflect your stance on the ethics of bargaining. Personally, I’m not strongly for or against either of the practices.

Some people observed as children, their own friends and family bargaining normally as an accepted part of their culture, as did I. I’ve seen it done comically, jokingly, within an easy conversation full of rapport sparked with wit, sarcasm, charm, slapstick or of any combination with such. Surely, in these instances, as the vendor plays along, the interaction serves as friendly banter and entertainment, a tool to alleviate boredom.

As there are positive occasions of bargaining, there can be as many crass, hurtful, aggressive or rude instances as well. Naturally, bargaining should be done in the right places, with the right discretion. People will get offended, insulted or annoyed if you bargain where it isn’t commonplace to do so.

I believe the morality of an act is measured by the purity or impurity of your volition, not the act itself. So on the same train of thought, actions should never be considered as right or wrong without consideration of the circumstances and intentions of the doer.

(Photos to follow)

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