Part 1: Journeying through Helambu, Gosaikunda and Langtang
From the countless choices of treks to enjoy, I decided on Langtang. Not the usual route, either. I wanted a hike with less tourists plying the route and more time alone for myself. There’s a quality I notice and enjoy immensely that flowers from within when I know I’m alone and unobserved, which is multiplied to greater heights when I’m under the vast sky; with stone, dirt and grass in arm’s reach and trees and the subtleties of life in plain sight; with no structures to separate me from the world in its rawest and purest forms.
On a whim, I had just spent 4 nights up in a remote area north of Kathmandu in a psychedelic-trance music festival. The days faded into nights as an incoherent glob of indulgence — the heavy thumping of the bass hardly stopping to let the wind share her secrets. I had joined in with a group of 6 other solo travelers from all over the world (Germany, Australia, China, Switzerland, Colombia and Italy), making camp with them with the tent I rented and enjoying in the group’s shenanigans: cooking, playing, dancing, losing ourselves (in several senses of the phrase) around the solitary hills and then finding our way back again.
I got back to Kathmandu, exhausted and depleted of my social batteries. After being around so many people constantly, I wanted so much to retreat back into myself and enjoy silence once more. As the years wear on, it’s become increasingly apparent that I tire more easily when constantly around people like a cracked bucket loses water. But in solitude I can maintain. And it seems solitary moments are where I draw energy from. Telltale signs of my domineering introvertism. As in all things, a balance between the extremes seems the prudent thing to aim for.
I started in Sundarijal, an hour’s bus ride north and east of Kathmandu, then walked the 10 or so kilometers that rose up over the first low mountain areas towards the Helambu region as the path gained about 800 meters in altitude. Not completely content with only the few pastries I brought along from the city, I purchased some bananas and oranges from a stall in the village that sent me off.
There’s a fine line between being too thrifty and bringing up obscene amounts of grocery-bought trail food, enough to render oneself overburdened, and of impractically not bringing anything at all and spending away needlessly on what I have come to call the “mountain tax.” The higher the villages lie, the more expensive they charge you. For everything. Occasionally, goods will cost 6 times as much as if you bought them in the lowlands, but not unjustly, as they need to be brought by leg, neck and back by porters, mules and the like.
I settled on bringing food only to see me through the first few days of snacking. To save on money and so long as supplies lasted, I regularly skipped the noontime meal and had a bite with what I brought. My days usually started with a light meal of 2 eggs and some bread or muesli and milk and ended with a heavy top-up of Dal Bhat — Veggies, Lentils and Rice. When my trail food ran out, I would order an extra serving of boiled potatoes or bread at breakfast and take that with me. Plain and repetitive fare, but i was content. As I worked my way up the altitude and the temperature and my energy levels dropped, I ditched the cold bread and potato routine and would indulge on a hot cup of tea and steaming noodles, rice or soup for lunch.
I read several years ago that the part of our brain that facilitates our sense of smell (olfaction) is significantly connected to two other areas that trigger our emotions and memories (the amygdala and hippocampus). Over the years, I’ve learned it to be strikingly true.
The smell and taste of a Makopa (Java Apple) brings me back to the days (25 years prior) my siblings and I would swim in our village’s public pool, Makopa trees on one side, near the steel slide that gave us as much fun the most elaborate technologies sometimes fail to accomplish today. The happiness of the moments, forever locked in the distinct scent and flavour — taste and smell, a wonderful combination of senses we’d fail to fully appreciate without the other.
A specific smell of chlorine, perhaps in combination with some scent (herbal or other) I’m unaware of, strongly reminds me of the time I was with family on a massive cruise ship that would have left the Titanic in its mid-morning shade. It was the King of Holidays: several floors of entertainment centers, a casino, cinema, spa, gym, restaurants and buffets (with the food all inclusive in the week-long trip), indoor and outdoor activities, bars and all sorts of lounges.
The Lido deck, as it was called, was a large open-air space with wooden floorboards, beach chairs and a skylight stretched above the pool. The deck gave off this chlorinated smell that wasn’t fragrant or unpleasant to me, it was simply neutral. Perhaps it was the combination of the chlorine of the pool mixed with the salt in the wind, or the plants on deck, or the food cooking, but it wasn’t an entirely common smell.
As you might’ve experienced, the relation between smell and memory doesn’t always take you on a light and positive journey into the past. The smell of tequila packs enough punch to make my head reel. With a single whiff, hypersalivation kicks in and I begin to feel nauseous. Digging into my personal history, the cause is clear: I spent many nights between 15 and 18 years old downing shot after shot of the Agave liquor and would almost always end up vomiting before the night was through. The smell of tequila today brings up those old memories and emotions instantly.
For the times I hurled in the toilet at home and for those when I just missed it, I used this specific scent of Lysol to mask that sickly stench of regurgitation. To this day, smelling that particular scent causes me to gag and hyper-salivate.
On my first day hiking towards Langtang, Pine trees covered the landscape. This stirred in me intense feelings of happiness and well-being with the memories of the many times I’ve spent the summer in Belmont, California, where the scent of pine trees stretch for as far as we could see on our hilly patch of foreign soil.
Faces and routines popped up in my mind’s eye: younger versions of my family going to Safeway a few times a week, to come home to enjoy a home-cooked meal, each other’s company and the chill of the weather. And then my mind remembered and visualized: that creaky wooden house with the stone pathway that leads to the front door, the sound the steel gate makes as it swung shut, the musty smell of the garage, the brushing of our feet against the interior carpet, the bathrooms and furniture — it all came rushing back.
I was amazed and acutely aware of the positive effect the Pines had on me. I took solace from the scorching sun behind a big tree and began to tear up some of the fallen pine leaves, taking in the fresh and uplifting aroma. No doubt my dopamine receptors were firing off like crazy at that moment which allowed me to feel such euphoria in beautiful isolation.
Sometime that afternoon, I crossed a fork on the road and, mostly barren of people, I was relieved to see a small group of locals and asked for directions to Chisapani. “It was a few hours away,” they said, “to the right.”
About 15 minutes up and down that way, I met a middle-aged woman in the normal Nepali clothing I’ve seen so many of them wear: loose cotton trousers and a long-sleeved shirt, mostly red with some specks of blue, yellow and green here and there. A short rainbow colored apron hung in front of her midsection, for what purpose I can only assume to be aesthetic and tradition.
She was going the opposite direction. I asked her for the way to Chisapani, but she happily replied in Nepali, pointing the way I had come. Initially, I was having doubts as to whether I should take her advice and turn around. After a few minutes of deciphering her message — she would have been skillful at charades — I learned that I was currently enroute to my destination, but it would add several kilometers and a few hours at my pace.
She motioned that the other way was shorter and faster, through a small village which had a shortcut along the mountain’s ridge. The only English word that came out of her mouth was “long,” which was enough in making her point clear: turn back and save time and energy. This was a great example of how the barriers of verbal language can be penetrated with moderate perseverance and scant knowledge of one another’s language; subtle observations of body language and facial expressions go a long way.
A few hours later and I arrived at my destination: Chisapani (@2,215m). It was shocking: half the small town was frozen in disarray. Mainly for tourism, as most of these small towns along the trails are, Chisapani had many empty lots full of rubble, lonely walls and busted windows.
It looked as if the earthquakes could’ve just happened the day before: the piles of fallen roofs, ceilings and facades; the disfigured sheets of corrugated steel, bent every which way; scraps of worn clothing hanging on a nail or some protruding piece of rebar half imprisoned in cement, swaying with the breeze; and the half-useful lone shoe or sandal, doomed to abandonment.
There was a 4-storey building still intact but leaning precariously towards the road. It looked dangerous to even touch it. But there it stood; a grim reminder of the quakes from two years past and Nepal’s continuing struggle.
(Photos to follow)