KALI  GANDAKI  JOURNEY

 

June 1972

“Strawberries” the lean one had said. “Without cream,” said the other. They couldn’t remember if they’d had raspberries but the strawberries alone sounded a tempting enough excuse for him to break the ingrained fester of the previous month and make a gentle excursion into the foothills of the Himalaya. And when he arrived at the fruit farm it would be his birthday, an ideal excuse for scoffing strawberries. Of course he really did want to trek in the mountains - it would be part of the myth he had been building around himself: mountaineer, Himalayan experience - but level ground required less effort and he wasn’t sure if he could survive even a short trip. He didn’t want a repetition of his feeble efforts on the Everest trail to shatter everything. Although a month had elapsed since that debacle, the bug that had afflicted him could still be lurking in his muscles. So, to the gaunt Nepalese at the hotel, he would be back in three or four days, and would they look after his gear please. And to the pretty librarian from London, see you before you go, maybe even tomorrow.

 

Machapucchare was hovering behind haze above the maize field, and as a further indicator of the lateness of his start, the buffalo, nostrils no longer dribbling mucus, tails busy with flies, were slouching toward the lake as the day became hot. He reached the Tibetan camp at one. A very fast time indeed, until he remembered that a Land Rover taxi had brought him through the tortuous main street - the only street - of Pokhara, leaving an easy crossing of the rocky floodplain. He had come to know the Tibetan refugees very well on that short journey. There was a tall woman, in a long black dress that almost covered her bare feet. She had a beautiful silver Chinese coin with a dragon on it, and an assortment of ornaments and turquoises on a string round her neck, which she wanted, smiling a              little uncertainly, to show him. The coin was rather fine; perhaps he could photograph it and blow it up later; why was she so keen to show it to him? She raised her hands, flashed the fingers up and down to indicate 20; muttered “rupee”. He smiled, understanding, then again, apologetically, trying to convey with flapping hands that he would go, return, and come back with money. He really meant it, felt sorry he couldn’t buy the coin because of a tight budget but next time... Then a round-faced, smiling little, man, neat as a public schoolboy in shorts, knee-length socks and pumps, came running to catch him up. His black pigtails encircled his head like a braided cap, tied with pink ribbon. There was an army surplus haversack on his shoulder. He spik Ingleesh leetle. Well enough to convey that his bag was full of antiques, which he would sell very cheap. But his sales manner was more modest, pleasanter, less abrasive than that of the rapacious profiteers the traveller had had dealings with in Afghanistan. He felt a deep desire to sympathise with this peace-loving, happy people who had been forced from their unique land beyond the mountains. And here was his opportunity to find out if their personality fulfilled his expectations, deserved his empathy.

 

“You come my house”.

 

So they went. Past the folded skeletons dressed as men and women, their dusty skins looking like buffalo hide out of water. They were squatting, hammers in hand, beside large piles of boulders, which they were pounding into chunky fragments, ballast for Nepal’s new roads. Their homes were low huts built of any material to hand, from corrugated iron to banana fronds, clustered in neat rows around bamboo poles bearing ragged prayer flags, printed with incantations faded by the stormy sun, wind and rain weather of the monsoon.

 

The threat of the afternoon storm - the sky was already heavy with cloud and the Annapurnas obscured - was part of his plan to stay where he was, with the stocky Tibetans and their relict paraphernalia. So he booked in to the Tibetan Hotel, an odd enterprise for a people who have no word for a place which charges for hospitality. The refugee camp was on the plateau above a sharp gorge that opened into the flood plain. A chorus of a prayer sung surged from a long, low stone building, mingled with sporadic thuds of mallets - Tibetan girls chanting as they flung stitch on to stitch on their carpet looms. And waiting for him, a collection of Tibetans, outlandish figures in short sleeves and straw hats; copper charm boxes and dangling malas, their stings of rosary beads; tinder and flint swinging in little sporrans from strips of hide around their waists. Like their bulging pockets and bags, their necks and fingers were festooned with heirlooms and ornaments, the relics and artefacts of a doomed culture. Hoping to exchange them for the disposable currency and mechanical trinkets of his own culture, they would spread them on the ground, hang them round his neck, push them on his fingers. It seemed appropriate, squatting in gloom before a fuzzy photograph of the Dalai Lama (how disillusioning to discern, in the glimmer of the butter lamps, that he wore spectacles), to be offered a bowl of tsampa. But surely his hosts were joking if they expected him to swallow a few handfuls of roasted and ground barley, dry, without any liquid? Spluttering, little puffs of the stuff spewing from his mouth with each breath, he asked for tea. From a vacuum flask it came, rancid and salty, delicious when hot and mixed with tsampa; foul when cold, the butter like greasy icebergs floating on the surface. All this was preliminary to negotiating an exchange: a Japanese watch for a Tibetan carpet and a rosary of human bone.

 

And in the morning, smiles and blessings from the buxom mistress of the inn as he departed, carrying a full load of Tibetan bread and eggs; the big spotlight slicing into the shadows clogging the detail on the flanks of Annapurna; the first bony porters hurrying to the town with empty baskets to pick up the day’s loads, feet slapping on flat stones; little brown boys with long sticks and a good aim urging their buffalo to the paddies. He stood aside, letting the steaming hulks pass by, muzzles thrust forward, floating as if on the surface of the heavy morning air, testing it. The street, paved with a line of stones for the donkeys, must have been half a mile long: a ribbon village. And beyond it, the paddy fields, where the stream had been diverted to such a degree that it had lost its identity as a channel of water: square pools were enclosed by low, narrow dykes along which he had to balance when the path disintegrated and disappeared. And in the middle of the paddies, on a mound, a small round village with a teahouse whose owner was just taking down the wooden shutters and lighting a fire in the clay stove. He sat down and eased his pack from aching shoulders. Watched her sprinkle tea dust into the pot, and a ladleful of scum from a cauldron of milk. Presented him with a glass of brown liquid speckled with bits of tea and globules of grease. Chai”.

 

Lumle, an experimental farm run by a Scot, is a system of terraced fields and very un-Nepalese granaries, cottages and workshops. He got there at ten and by half past was devouring the promised strawberries   (without cream). And fresh cucumbers and sour peaches scrumped from the orchards. “It’s pleasant to spend a birthday in an unusual situation,” he wrote. To share it he found Rod, from Preston, eating porridge and pilchards at the next village. The Americans got left behind - they were late risers. And the New Zealanders, red-faced and sweating under their packs, preferred to bask by the pools and idyllic waterfalls. From 3500ft to 9500ft by the end of the day. “Feeling fit for once,” he wrote. Peaches and cream and lager; rauxi, the local rice wine, warmed in a saucepan; chang to cool his guts afterwards and glucose biscuits ca11ed Annapurna dunked in both. “Good way to end a birthday,” he wrote.

 

He was at Gorepani, meaning horse water, a place for resting and refreshment before plunging 5000 feet to the gorges of the Kali Gandaki. The place, they said, for getting the grandstand view of the sun coming up behind the Annapurnas and floodlighting Dhaulagiri into the bargain - provided you rush up the hill at dawn to 11000 feet, mindful of the reputation of leeches in damp forests. Afterwards he came down to breakfast on buja - popped rice - and drank a glass of chang with Rod who was tired and wanted to go back. He carried on through the forest. Silence: a green tangled silence mingled with dank leaves and smoke from the village in the hollow. Shafts of the sun found holes in the canopy to highlight festering logs bearing little landscapes of mosses and toadstools. He kept stopping, taking pictures, trying to find fading peaks framed between the strange, bedraggled stumps that loomed, contorted like triffids, over the rest of the forest. He came down out of the forest, sliding across vast shields of shale where the landslides pass, then, sweating between the maize, entered the cool alleys of the village in the valley. The last place to buy tinned food and the tea is dearer beyond it, they had said. He bought a can of beer and went on into the fabled valley. The hedges were prickly pear, in flower at that season. He traced cherry stones like spots of blood along the path and found a cherry tree, stripped of its fruit. He took tea and biscuits on a hot, flat stone beside a pool while a thin waterfall sank in slow motion, to explode on the nearby rock.       Watched the water channelled into impossibly perched huts, turning the giant millstones within. Later, in the gloom of the gorge, where the path was recessed and steps gouged in the rock above glacial mud torrents, came porters, the first all day. He followed their shuffles, moving across the white boulder beach of the shrunk river beyond the gorge, to where others were urging reluctant donkeys over a wooden bridge. He passed a teahouse up some steep steps in the forest (now turning to pure pine). Not half an hour away was Ghaza, the next village, where he would sleep. He presented his permit at the army outpost, the bored guard not understanding the wording. Caught a pigtailed lady climbing to her roof up a tree trunk ladder. She was Tibetan, the smiling almond eyes offering food and a bed. But he went on along the track by the stream, dry and heavy with smooth rocks, looking for shops, the village centre. Came to the end of the village and turned back. No shops, no teahouses, only big stone houses with open courtyards and flat roofs. Inside, vast arrays of brass utensils, rooms full of beds, the steam of boiling rice, indicated hotels. And a babel of plaintive chatter from wasted faces (scrawny bodies shrouded in dirty white) proclaimed Hindu pilgrims. Where is the spirit that should pervade these desolate eyes, he thought? Watching them chewing a few fragments of chapatti as he stuffed large mouthfuls of rice and curry into his mouth, he wondered how they would survive the journey back to India.

 

Morning came in the cold valley not yet moved into the sun, stopping at each teahouse to persuade the woman to rake the embers and put the pot on. He came round a corner finding a boulder to sit on and a few pines to provide shelter from the threatening sky. Beyond, the green slopes fell back like a stage curtain, revealing a white sweep of snowfields glistening in the low-angled light, spreading across the horizon, the icing drawn up to peaklets on the long ridge rising up to Dhaulagiri. The villages were suddenly Tibetan in character: here’s an arch full of prayer wheels to turn as you pass; those are flat roofs with firewood palisades and fluttering prayer flags. And this headless chicken flapping on a string is to placate the gods before being eaten.

 

Later, moving fast in fresh, pine-scented sunlight along the shores of a boulder lake, he came to a teahouse beneath the northeast glacier of Dhaulagiri and a plaque to an expedition buried there. Another excuse for tea; “biscoot?” enquired the woman with the twisted arm, producing a packet from the dark depths of her hut. He watched three men and a dog crossing the delta confluence where waters from the glacier mingled with the main stream - one hand holding clothes firmly on their heads like African porters, the other a stick to probe the murky torrent. The dog was left to seek out the weakest current, while the men waded waist-deep, printing wet feet on the bleached stones. He tried it himself, where the streams were shallowest, merely knee-deep, yet his bones quickly became chilled and his toes numbed and he had to thaw them out for five minutes before stepping cautiously into the next stream. Up here, at 8000 feet, the seasons lagged and the men and women were still on their roofs beating golden piles of barley with their strange, jointed flails, swinging in unison, singing. On a mound, under the white peak, was a monastery, its chortens gleaming white and the big wheel creaking in the breeze. Below the path, a string of yaks loaded with rice was crawling across the gravel by the river; every time he looked they seemed to be drawing away, going faster than he was on his switchback course.

 

It was afternoon before he could make out a low dark blur shimmering in the heat haze rising from the gravel flats. Tukche this was, guarding the approach to the gorge that channels the Kali Gandaki under Tilicho Peak, and built so solidly that it appeared to have a wall around it. He walked along the paved street, smiling at wide-eyed children and hairy yaks running from their masters. The sun was high, yet the little windows were entrances to black caves: he could discern nothing within except the occasional glint of brassware. A little man with a potbelly watched him anxiously from the doorway of a grand old merchant’s house with a massive facade and ornate windows and didn’t understand when a dusty, hairy, and ragged traveller asked for a bhatti. But “sleepy” and “tea”, accompanied by appropriate gestures, made more sense and, fortuitously, Mr. Sing (as he is known to countless parties of travellers and expeditions) turned out to own a hotel. And a wife who could rustle up omelette and chapattis in 5 minutes. And a pretty daughter who sat embroidering rugs and shawls in the courtyard. And a friendly oaf - his son - who stuffed tsampa into his mouth at amazing speed each time he came home from the fields. And a room with a fine view.

 

Tukche village, at that time, marked the limit for Western travellers going up river. Further progress towards Mustang and the Tibetan plateau was restricted by a stamp in the Trekking Permit, and by checkpoints controlling the entrances to every village. There was nothing for it but to turn round and head back down river, not dawdling this time, making for the fleshpots of Pokhara and Kathmandu. And, especially, Aunt Jane’s famous apple pie.