(Unabridged Himalayan Odyssey)
Part 1: Going Through the Portal
It’s a stormy afternoon here on top of a mountain called Tsenkharla in Far East Bhutan. Outside my window snow coats the upper reaches and around my feet are the scatterings of an epic adventure. Evidence of a remarkable journey: A jagged blue rock, an Annapurna poster, a velvet tiger, a shimmering party hat. Have I really landed back here in my cold leaky hut? School has begun, sort of. The students have arrived and the tedious five hour meetings in Dzonka have commenced. Classes will start after HM’s b-day celebration at the end of the month. In the meantime at a boarding school there is a lot to sort out on the business end. I will be teaching three sections of class nine and both sections of class seven this year. I am excited to have many new faces in class and new curriculum to delve into. I have never taught students as old as class nine so it will be challenging as the stakes are high approaching class ten exams. I don’t have a home class and will carry twenty eight periods instead of thirty two and can’t wait to get back into the classroom and my routine, but exactly two months ago I couldn’t wait to escape Rangthangwoon.
The class ten boys were celebrating completing their exams and after sharing a meal of delicious emadatsi at the mess I hit the road in a taxi to the KC hotel. I banged my toe on the bed upon waking up in T-Gang bruising it severely but managed to load into a taxi with Ashleigh and we picked up Scotty in Yadi. It was heartwarming to see Scott say goodbye to his students and colleagues after two years of service. It was a beautiful clear day with patches of ice over the Thromsing La Pass of 12,400 feet. A wall of mixed forest rises from Limithang cresting and breaking into the magnificent pine forests of the Bumthang valleys. Gangkar Puentsum towers in the distance (the tallest unclimbed mountain in the world) I held over in Bumthang for a few days at the welcoming River Lodge. By day I explored the valley visiting the impressive Dzong and several ancient temples. My favorite was Jampey Lhakang featuring some very old paintings, statues, and an elephant tusk. Inside the temple was a boxed configuration of prayer wheels and faded murals with tantric scenes. The interior contains three stone stairs that represent the three ages. The bottom step is the historical Buddha, the middle step is the present, and the third step is the future Buddha or matreya. The caretaker was a mild mannered young monk who spoke English well. While in Bumthang I also visited the Burning Lake which is really a pool set in a narrow gorge. The pool is actually part of the river but gathers in a tight inlet interlay with countless strings of prayer flags stenciled with flying horses and mantras. The water at this point moves in unusual ways swirling in gentle circles and snaking ripples. One might stare into the depths and contemplate Pema Lingpa dazzling the assembled villagers by diving in the lake with a burning lantern, immerging with a terton prize and lamp burning brightly. This is the epicenter of the spiritual heartland of Bhutan. Bumthang is a region considered particularly holy by Bhutanese and for good reason. Located at the center of the country the land stretches out into four wide valleys and sloped pine ridges, an alpine wonderland in all directions. Before leaving Bumthang I dragged Scott up to Ura a traditional village off the highway. This intriguing village had friendly residents, a Tibetan style temple, and stone houses out of the pages of a fairy tale. On the way Scott a former pharmacist turned teacher lamented on leaving Bhutan but felt it was time to move on to China. Walking back from Martin and Tara’s place at night we ran into some students who struck up a conversation, afterward Scott says he will miss talking with kids most of all.
On a bright morning BCF teachers Ashleigh, Martin, Tara, Scott and I headed West on the Chummay school bus. En route we picked up Sonam Lhamo a pleasant stocky young woman who had a weaving shop in the valley. At my insistence we became friends on the twelve hour haul to Thimbu where the road was blocked between Trongsa and Wagdi by a mammoth slide. The bus lumbered into the capital after dark which appeared as a veritable metropolis compared to East Bhutan. Becky received me at the Ambient Café where I checked into a modest room and we headed out to The Zone for pizza and burgers. The next day I moved to Paro to meet my mother and brother at the airport.
Ram Dass said, “If you think you’re enlightened spend a week with your family.” I was slated to spend eighteen days with mine beginning in Paro. Upon seeing me in the terminal, my mom broke into tears to the bewilderment of some Bhutanese onlookers. I hugged my mother and brother tightly and we were off together. Bra booked us into a spectacular hotel overlooking Paro called the Palace. The property is perched on a hill lording over the entire valley including the town and the Dzong. We set out down the hill merrily but before long we were aimlessly wandering in the parched rice paddies on the valley floor. We laughed at our plight as I pointed out piles of trash discarded in the fields. But not even some trash could deter from the perfection of the warm winters day. The massive Dzong sits across a wooden bridge spanning a shallow river up an imposing stone staircase. (which wouldn’t be my last) The impressive structure reeks of importance and value, a classic example of Bhutanese architecture. This Dzong was crucial in fending off numerous Tibetan invasions in its heyday; sufficient to say without this prominent edifice we’d be standing in China right now. Like Lhuntse this Dzong is being restored but remains a powerful place resembling a massive gingerbread house constructed for defense. A small watchtower is perched above the main Dzong, Its square dimensions supported by massive wooden beams. We spent the night in the tower of the palace with a rat who woke Tyler up nibbling on potato chips left on the nightstand. My mom slept well but bra was still jetlagged. We sired a taxi and drove out to Drukyel Dzong outside Paro. The ruined Dzong was the sight of a battle between Bhutanese and Tibetans long ago and the path to the Dzong is lined with thick cypress that reminded me of redwoods. On the perimeter of the crumbling fortress is a stunning glade of pines with Jhomolahari rising above. Mt. Jhomolahari is the mother goddess making the border of Bhutan and Tibet west of Paro valley. I longed to see this peak more than any other Himalayan massif and was rewarded. Its snow cone pointed askew angled to some distant galaxy dominated the horizon, although far off, this peak emanated a potent energy. I had had aspirations to trek to the base but in my heart realized this was my moment with the goddess. Actually it was a family triumph as Ty and mom joined me on the rocky outcropping at the mouth of an endless wilderness. The warm day confirmed us in sunshine as we retreated back to Paro gazing at Taksang high above on the cliffs. The Paro valley is one of Bhutan’s treasures and features colorful architecture painted with penises, tigers, and dragons. The erect phallic symbols have to do with the Divine Madman and are painted on the side of homes as a means to fend off evil spirits. The painted phalluses are more common in the west but carved ones are favored in the east and can be seen hanging near entranceways.
On the way from Paro to Thimphu with an extroverted driver who called himself R.C, Tyler chewed dolma spitting profusely and I don’t recall him trying it out again. We reached the Dragon Roots Hotel a place anyone associated with BCF will know, and met Sonam Lhamo at the hotel who arrived with her cousin Pema wearing full kiras and looking resplendent. We headed to the National Chorten on the most auspicious evening of the end of the world. At 5:12 the earth was scheduled for a major shift in consciousness or literal destruction in accordance with Mayan predictions, but on the front page of Kuensal Buddhist leaders pronounced the world was not going to end. I was pretty sure that a shift of consciousness was eminent due to the amount of positive psychic energy at that moment in our universe. We arrived at the impressive neon lit chorten and fell in line with other regulars who were there to recite nightly mantras. As it turns out Becky was already deep into a spiral of circumambulations when she pushed me from behind. When I turned to confront the culprit she jeered at me. I introduced her to the quiet and comely Sonam Lhamo and we joined the circling with Ty and my mother. So it goes we all slipped happily through the portal together at 5:12 P.M and that’s my story and I’m sticking to it. After that we began the new era at the zone where we met up with Ashleigh, Reidi, and Tara., I gave Reidi and Tara a hug saying goodbye while Sonam Lhamo dabbed chili sauce on her pizza and absorbed our rapid repartee. How strange we must seem to a traditional young woman from Bumthang who lives with three generations in her home. (Sonam was off to Thailand for a few weeks to a workshop with twenty other ladies and I was thrilled for her) I gave my mom a purse made by Sonam with gho fabric and the evening was a wonderful cultural exchange as the backroom of the zone was lit with good cheer.
Our first full day in Thimphu was memorable to say the least. The day started out nice as we took in an archery match. My brother was psyched to see live archery and later confided that this was one of his ambitions while in Bhutan. I must confess although I appreciate the cultural significance and pageantry I can’t follow the action with my poor eyesight. The tradition is authentically Bhutanese though with songs and chants performed after each arrow. These players were the best in Bhutan and the crowd of locals was transfixed watching the strong handsome men compete in colorful ghos. We stayed the entire morning and were offered lunch by the cultural minister in the V.I.P tent. The spread was authentic Bhutanese giving my family a taste of the cuisine here. Tyler fancied the emadatsi but my mom was not so keen. After archery we went to the weekend market which was full of vegetables, dried fish, and clothes. Coming from the east I was overwhelmed by the selection of fresh food in the capital, which although small functions as a city of 100,000 people.
On the way back to the hotel my mom took a terrible fall on some uneven steps busting her shin wide open. When I turned around she was flat on her face. We rolled her over and pulled up her pant leg revealing a gaping hole in her leg that exposed the bone and the wound began gushing with blood. As my mother lost blood I felt my own blood drain from my body as I attempted to cover the gash with her sock. Some Bhutanese Samaritans got a taxi and Tyler and I carried her into the backseat as she went into shock. I thought she might have struck an artery and the situation was life threatening! We rushed to the hospital (on the way I felt terrible that I wasn’t guiding her up the stairs in the first place as I had done the night before on the way to the Chorten where I was attentive in helping her through the streets. But the truth is my mom is quite capable at 68 and is in great shape and accidents can happen to all of us) The scene at the hospital was surreal, we got a wheelchair and moved my mom into the hallway outside the ER. Inside every available hand was working on a small child while his mother was nearby weeping. A savvy female doctor was running the OR and despite the developing world appearance of the place I felt in capable hands. A man at the desk lips were hanging off his face and we both were told to wait. I was scared but my mom’s steady bravery calmed me some and she wasn’t even crying. We took her into the side room and got an x-ray and an injection of pain medication. Unbelievably the bone was not damaged and eventually we got her into see a male nurse named Sonam who had the task of stitching mom up. But first he had to administer several deep injections with a huge needle directly into the gaping wound. My mother writhed in agony which tore my own heart apart. At one point I almost fainted from the trauma of seeing my mother in grave pain. After the shots he applied twenty five stitches in three layers to close the hole. Amazingly three hours after falling on the sidewalk we were on our way to the Dragon Roots and my mom was walking under her own volition but in extreme pain. I can assure you I wouldn’t have handled the pain so well and would be bitching about it like nothing else. But my mom is not a Grossman by blood and has a positive outlook of Amor Fati (excepting ones fate with good humor) Mom settled in with a flick and Ty and I retrieved our heroine some pizza and chocolate cake. (Gotta love Thimphu right?) Due to a Snafu with acquiring a road permit we had an extra day to begin my mother’s recovery. Bra and I puttered about town, met Sonam Lhamo at the clock tower, and shopped for school supplies. I began to feel okay about what had happened to mom but still worried about infection of the wound, but amazingly the vacation went on and so did we pressing east towards Punakha.
Part 2: A Very Wangdi Christmas and a Happy Birthday at Tigers Nest
We were again treated to spectacular clarity on Dochela summit with an outstanding panoramic view of the Bhutanese Himalaya. There is nowhere on earth like Dochela with its visibility for hundreds of miles. An expanse of forests layered beneath a distant arc of giants. The view sweeps from Jhomolahari to Gangkar Puentsum. In the foreground, primal looking cypress flow downward into slumbering rhododendron forests and nowhere else can you grasp the varied topography of Bhutan to such a vast extent. The vortex is marked by 108 chortens of white and red, prayer flags, and an elegant temple which we were permitted last year as a group of teachers but usually is locked. Again I stood with my mom and brother overlooking the tallest mountains on earth, a hundred miles away across grand valleys and pine clad ridges. On the other side of the peaks the vast wasteland of the Tibetan plateau. But in front of us the forests benefited from sizable rainfall making them lush and formidable, a refuge for monkeys and leopards. After soaking up the view for an hour we descended the switchbacks in our vehicle through dormant rhododendrons and mixed vegetation. By the time we reached the Dragons Nest Resort in Wangdi the temperature was mild supporting a drier brand of plant life including succulents and cacti along a meandering turquoise river. This would be our home base for the Christmas holiday (A very Wangdi Christmas!) Speaking of wangs on Christmas morning we headed off to Chimmey Lhakang, or as Ty quipped the “porn palace” For me, this was another pilgrimage to the temple of the Divine Madman. Drukpa Kunley comes from the tantric or crazy wisdom sect of Himalayan Buddhism. He enlightened folks by his sexual exploits, drinking and song and he constantly challenged taboos and the religious hierarchy of Tibet and later Bhutan. He wandered south to Western Bhutan subduing demons by striking them with his flaming thunderbolt, hence the protective penises. He seems to have a lot in common with Guru Rinpoche in the tradition of embracing the infancy of each moment. Both figures brought the light of Buddhism to a “savage land” where bon’s worshipped spirits and external forces. The way of the Buddha is in reality atheistic and singular renouncing duality of any kind. Yet somehow in Bhutan they are left with a pantheon of deities and gods similar to Hindus or Bon. I’ll never figure it out but that seems to be the starting point for the Divine Madman or the crazy Wisdom manifestation of Guru Rinpoche with bulging eyes and clenched teeth saddling a tigress. On that Christmas day all was well in a dry valley and resting above the barren fields was the modest Chimmey Lhakang adorned with a gate and bodhi tree similar to that of Gom Kora. Children scampered around the premises kicking a football and ran over to greet us in typical exuberance for rural Bhutanese kids. I enjoyed my mom interacting with the children who asked her many questions. My mother has a childlike and irrepressible innocence of spirit! Inside the dilapidated compound we happened upon a puja inside the temple. Monks in maroon robes beat worn drums and chanted prayers from dusty texts. We received a blessing from a monk being tapped on the head by a ten inch wooden penis. This is known as a Wang blessing, what an auspicious Christmas morning being bonked by a wooden phallus. No gifts were exchanged except the precious present of spending time together as a family. We headed to Punakha Dzong visiting a chorten en route inhabited by nuns who also played football on the grounds.
Punakha Dzong enjoys an extraordinary position at the confluence of two rivers surrounded by undulating hills. A huge wooden bridge invites the traveler into its midst. The Dzong is unlike any other and is the grandfather of all Dzongs, a heartfelt expression of Bhutanese culture and identity. One must ascend steep ladder like stairs to reach the inner complex. We passed through a painted foyer with enormous prayer wheels into a spacious courtyard, a marvelous area with a bodhi tree and cobblestones. The whitewashed exterior of the Dzong rose above into the crystal sky, there are several opulent inner temples and extravagant murals line the halls. Monks roam the corridors chatting and attending the shrines. One room features glorious wood floors and golden relics adorned the walls as pigeons fly about the ideal setting; this is the soul of Shangri-La. The best Bhutan has to offer. One realizes the specialness of the country when standing in the vicinity of Punakha Dzong and can’t help but speak in hushed voices. The gentle landscape accentuates the landmark and brings about a harmonious feeling, only momentarily disturbed by an angry deity scowling from the wall.
We enjoyed Christmas dinner at the Dragons Nest benefiting from the attentive service of Boono, a fetching waitress from Southern Bhutan. Like many Southerners she is of Nepali descent. At dinner we were hysterical recording a video message to my father on Tyler’s I Pad. I am sure we were more than noticed by the large Japanese group at the next table and it was a Grossman classic holiday feast. The rest of the night is a blur, however we all woke up and went on with our lives. This meant traveling eastward on the lateral road to Pobjikaha Valley temporary home of the migrating black necked cranes. Heading over a pass we saw several shaggy yaks wandering the roadside before dropping into the picturesque valley where we saw two cranes poking around a fence.
My mom was spun out from the harrowing drive and relaxed in a rustic room near the bukari, while Ty and I went roaming, it was a cold afternoon with a biting wind. We walked the windswept valley floor as the sun raced up the pine covered nub above a dilapidated temple where we observed an intense prayer session. On the way back we were buzzed by a threesome of cranes swooping overhead with a haunting cry. Tyler, moved by the birds gave me a brotherly embrace and kiss on the cheek. We felt lucky to see the rare birds as several Malaysian tourists had come to Bhutan just on the hope of seeing the species. The cranes fly here from Tibet each winter along with a smaller flock roosting in Bumdeling in Yangtse. The birds are revered by locals and have a safe haven in the isolated and sparsely populated valley. A full moon rose over the cold mountains as we stopped in a smoky shed to watch a local family chop veggies for dinner. We went up to an upscale hotel for supper sitting in a stunning dining room overlooking the whole valley. Sitting next to mom we enjoyed the roaring bukari fire and a fine meal of beef and veggies from the buffet. It was a rare moment of stillness in the frenetic pace of the Grossman family vacation. A smattering of stars sparkled in the icy sky as we moved back to our hotel.
The next day was a travel day back to Paro. It was a full day in the car this time with charismatic Jigme at the wheel. En route we saw a pair of large monkey sharing a special embrace along the road and once again we stopped at the zone for dinner accruing an expensive bill that astounded simple Jigme. I have to admit I felt a tinge guilty at the gap in living standard. The zone features a jet set of Thimphu citizens not the average Bhutanese crowd. All Jigme could say about the Yak ribs we ordered him was they were “too salty” That night we returned to the palace to round out our Bhutanese travels. There was ample discussion if my mom would be able to hike the three hours vertical up to Tigers Nest and we decided at bedtime that it wouldn’t be prudent for her to go. We shared a room for nearly every night of the vacation except the night of her injury and the following night at the Dragon Roots. It was like a family slumber party and we all handled the close quarters well.
On the morning of my 35th birthday my mother announced emphatically that she would be joining the expedition to Tigers Nest. So we set out around 8 AM on another glorious winter day. Hiking to Taksang is the epitome of any Bhutanese itinerary. It is also a very important pilgrimage for all Bhutanese and other Buddhist from around Asia. Therefore each trip to Tigers Nest involves ascending the mountain in a loose configuration of people with a shared goal of reaching the monastery. By the end, many of these folks become acquaintances bound together by the holy charge at hand. This would be my second trip up having come with my comrades during orientation, and I couldn’t script a happier circumstance for my birthday. A little Indian girl instantly gravitated to Tyler who helped her up the trail holding her tiny little hand delivering her to father and I was reminded what a dutiful father Tyler is. Also on the trek was an older Indian couple, Indian schoolgirls on a trip, a couple of gentlemen teaching abroad in the Middle East, two Tibetan ladies, and a young lady and her guide from Singapore. On the trail camaraderie developed as we all ascended through pine forests with panoramic views of the surrounding mountains. The monastery clings impossibly to a cliff face thousands of feet above the valley floor and the original monastery burnt down then rebuilt. But it appears old clinging to the crags and the story behind it all is most remarkable. Of all Guru Rinpoche’s stops in Bhutan none resonate as firmly as Tigers Nest. Here the Guru transcends historical reality and manifests himself in the very air flowing into your lungs. He shines in the faces of each passerby or glimmers off each pine needle. In his presence there is no time, identity, or god. Instead there is only the crackling static of the moment broken up with laughter and sputtering coughs along the winding trail. The second Buddha brought Buddhism up from the plains into the wild territory of Tibet and Bhutan. He is near and dear at the core of tantric Buddhism. Guru Rinpoche originally sprang spontaneously from a lotus flower in a lake in Afghanistan or more precisely the Swat valley in modern day Pakistan. He was born an inquisitive eight year old boy with many talents. This event occurred around twelve years after Buddha died. Like Buddha he served as a prince before being banished from the palace after dropping his trident on a woman and killing her (This story is meant as a metaphor) But the Guru had an appetite for destruction if the mood struck him in his wrathful manifestation. Little is known of his escapades and fact and fiction often blur together. But after witnessing him at Zongtopelri Tsechu I can testify that this incarnation of Buddha still walks the earth and is contained in the fabric of our collective DNA. At Taksang the Guru flew on Yeshi his consort turned tigress to the top of the mountain where he meditated and subjugated the local troublemaking demons thus converting the land to Buddhism. It’s a powerful myth with palpable ramifications. This is not just a story to the devotees but an essential part of their shared identity. Guru Rinpoche maintains an important thread connecting the Himalayan Buddhist ethos from Northern India, Nepal, Tibet, and Bhutan. The second Buddha reached the sacred places associated with everyday life in the kingdom. But perhaps both Buddha’s are the same as we are all the same. Or as Zeke says, “we’re all meat off the same bone” Actually Zeke at times struck me in both appearance and mentality as a big baby (or electric infant) which is the cornerstone of crazy wisdom. Observe the way a babe interacts with the world and you have a blueprint for enlightenment. You dig?
So in various forms of consciousness we pushed up the mountain. Some even quit at the midway café but my mother persevered up the switchbacks towards immortality. After descending more crooked stairs we reached an icefall with chunks cascading to the bottom near a bridge. Patches of ice impeded the trail which hung precariously over a chasm. The final push to the nest is up a slippery stone staircase to the front entrance of the iconic monastery. At the very moment I stepped through the gate I received a text from Becky in Thailand wishing me a happy birthday! Hmmm how auspicious. As a family unit we explored the monastery. My mom was in a great deal of pain, although she wouldn’t admit it I could see it in her face. We crept into various chambers including one with a trap door revealing part of the cave where GR meditated. A heavy air seeped up from the dark cavern where the Guru tangled with prehistoric demonic forces. Since we know that energy cannot be destroyed these subjugated entities were merely consumed by the precious master or turned into guardians of the region. Nevertheless there was a rawness emanating from the bowels of the cave. Atop the tigers nest is another entrance to the upper portion of the cave with slits deep into the mountainside. Near that entrance is a forbidden staircase leading to a locked door as I could only wonder what lay inside before an officer asked me to come down. The entire place is saturated in holiness as if the known universe radiated from the miraculous structure itself that clings to the cliff over 10,000 feet on the hairs of angels. In another chamber we received a blessing for long life under the statue of Tara (powerful female deity) I prayed for my niece and nephew’s long life and the longevity of all my loved ones. The cold stones burned my bare feet as I traversed the promenades between secret rooms coming in contact with a lively statue of the Guru that winked at me.
Eventually we reversed course and descended from the magnificent monastery carefully treading to the snowy bridge. I spotted a side stairwell and scampered up to a hidden shrine in the fold of the mountain. My brother found me in the crease of earth and we gave an offering to the goddess before rejoining mom who was walking with the older Indian gent. On the way down I was met by the Indian Schoolgirls who in tandem wished me a happy birthday! I have no idea how they even knew it was my special day but something pervasive and magical was in the thin air on December 28th 2012. I was so proud of my mother who completed the challenging hike and later would admit that it was the highlight of her entire vacation! We absconded back to the palace for our last night together in the kingdom, Ty and I got mineral stone baths in the shed behind the property, like mad fiends we called out for another rock! to be dropped into the sizzling water. We soaked our weary bones to the sounds of Sector Nine in the steamy shed, satisfied by a great trip in Bhutan.
The next day we boarded a plane with BCF teacher Sarah and her mom bound for Bangkok. My mom grabbed my arm upon takeoff and told me she now understood why I loved Bhutan. This alleviated some of my uneasiness of staying on another year. As we flew over Phuentsholing and the Indian plains, Ty read aloud passages from Jamie Zeppa’s book and I couldn’t help laughing at the relevance of her words twenty years later. It was clear I wasn’t ready to say farewell to the kingdom just yet, but a break didn’t seem like a bad idea either.
Part 3: Adventures in Southern Thailand
Arriving at the international terminal in Bangkok was shocking. Tourists crowded every inch in designer fads looking annoyed and board, wanting to get on with their vacations. I wolfed down a KFC sandwich before we boarded a domestic flight and three hours later landed at Crabbe, a tourist Mecca near the Southern tip of Thailand. The streets were stuffed with New Years crowds mainly from European countries. There were many families and far less drifters than other spots in Thailand and we arrived to a swirly sunset over the Andaman Sea. But the scarlet clouds indicated sketchy weather blowing in from the Philippines. Crabbe sits along several coves with long beaches with the area boasting remarkable limestone cliffs that tower over the coast and jungle. The beach is studded with a strip of restaurants and shops, but near the end of the shore was chilled out massage parlors and outdoor bistros and a patch of beach inhabited by inquisitive monkeys who climbed on tourists including my mom. An alpha monkey even chased me into the surf in pursuit of my bottle of coca cola. My mother was like the monkey whisperer as they climbed all over her limbs, I on the other hand was terrified by the creatures with angry pink faces and long claws. We spent three days in Crabbe getting massages, eating street food, and trolling the beaches. One day was spent on a snorkeling excursion to four offshore islands. One stop included an amazing inlet of warm turquoise water within a ring of limestone formations. At the base of the cliffs were mangrove forests that sprouted from the sea itself. Here the sun made a blazing fantastic appearance. that night we dined on Thai curry and fresh fish. On the 30th the brothers hooked up with two Dutch chicks at the nexus of several seedy bars. Wed mistakenly turned down an alley and were attacked by hungry prostitutes with sharp talons and scanty clothes. We took refuge at a table with two blonds who collectedly sipped their cocktails. Brianna and Linda (AKA Wanda or Helga) both were on a long vacation together and at the table we were treated to a private show by Marco, a drunken pole dancer from the Ukraine. We promptly ditched Marco and the hookers and went out to a club. The music was fine, mixing modern hits like Gum dung style with more sensible beats and the dance floor was a mix of Wookies, prostitutes, lady boys, and tourists all having a high time. Later on at Burger King a misunderstanding almost escalated into a brawl between my brother and some wangker but fortunately the situation was dispersed. Our last night on the mainland was New Years Eve and as per booking regulations we had to take dinner at the hotel which put on a splendid buffet but an awkward party. After eating myself sick Tyler dragged me out on the town for the midnight festivities and for the magic moment we lit and released a fire lantern into the sky. We watched our lantern join hundreds of others in a journey over the ocean while drunkards lit off fireworks in all directions.
On New Year’s Day we headed out in a taxi over two ferries to the enchanted island of Ko Lanta. We stayed at a sprawling resort that was under the process of renovation. The upshot was the resorts locality on a pristine beach but something was amiss. Up and down the beach were runners all appearing tall and blond whom we dubbed the “super race” and in fact we had booked a spot on an exclusively Scandinavian part of the island. Despite the brooding beautiful people we enjoyed our stay in paradise immensely. The long sandy beach stretched for miles mirrored by the Andaman Sea. At the end of the shore the sand gave way to sharp rocks and minute tide pools. Here we witnessed an astounding sunset refracting off grotesque funneled clouds. At the resort we met a couple of old hippies from Boulder and went to dinner, they were a riot with psychedelic stories of the 60’s and had a son who played in the NFL. While on Ko Lanta we explored other islands and snorkeled, peering underwater I saw a rainbow fish and shadowed it for awhile as it navigated the coral labyrinth. This fish had the full spectrum of rainbow colors in proper arrangement and swam at a queer pace lilting from side to side then twirling, wiggling its translucent tail in gay fashion, the golden donut holed coral soon gobbled up my companion and I returned to the boat. At night I savored red snapper in spicy chili sauce with a banana split for desert. Unbelievable!
On our last day on the island mom opted for beachcombing while bra and I hopped on a rented scooter for an island getaway. Although my brother is an excellent driver I am not fond of this mode of transportation. It harkens back to a dawn speedway chase five years ago on my inaugural trip to the land of smiles. We zipped over the hilly terrain past jungle thicket zooming over bluffs revealing ocean vistas, meeting my mom and the Colorado couple in old town for lunch. Before our meeting Ty and I stopped at a deserted inlet where we saw a mudskipper, a most peculiar critter that walks on water. It is half reptile and half fish and I believe this tiny creature might be the link between sea and land, our common ancestor, Adam. While examining this miracle we heard Muslim prayer music piped from the forest (Ko Lanta is predominantly Muslim) The sun baked our mudskipper while the hypnotic drone for Allah mingled with the waves. After lunch we jumped on the scooter and headed out to a pristine national park on the point. The road cut through tremendous old growth forest with towering trees sporting albino bark. The final grade down to the park was steep but we arrived safely to a palm laid oasis on the Andaman Sea. We had hit the jackpot I mean Holy Cow! This place was paradise. The sea shined in a dazzling array of blues and greens and a lighthouse pronounced the point. From here the onlooker can see the curvature of the earth and gaze down at empty white sand beaches. The Oceanside is a vivid wilderness of its own, perhaps the most primal of wild places beyond which lies the ultimate underwater domain, where likely humans crawled out of the salty solution as a mudskipper. It just had to happen that way as the sea seems far more ancient than the land. From the beach we did a groovy forest loop ascending steep stone steps through a humid jungle, exhibiting some very impressive trees with trunks thick as redwoods with ultra light bark. I am always game to discover new trees! And don’t get much tropical love. But on that day I was Jungle Jim and bra led me through the forest skillfully. We left the park and went beach hopping ending up at reggae themed bar drinking a lasse for sunset. On the way back Ty stormed our scooter into a Muslim marketplace like “American Dad” and was rebuffed by an angry man. Overall I found the local Muslims were congenial and enterprising. A crescent moon etched the tropical horizon over a silhouetted mosque and after our run in at the stalls we burned rubber back to the resort before mom had a panic attack. It was a fun day that I will always cherish.
Mommy had to go to the clinic to change her bandage and clean her wound, and on the table next to her was a surprisingly calm obese fellow with a knife protruding from his side. After four days on Ko Lanta we returned to the mainland to fly to Bangkok. I had passed through Bangkok briefly but was interested in spending a few days in the mix. Honestly I wasn’t expecting to enjoy the place as much as I did.
Part 4: A Happy Ending in Bangkok
Upon arrival in Bangkok I began to feel apprehensive about saying goodbye to my mom and brother. But was grateful we had three more days together. Tyler did a fantastic job in coordinating the Thailand trip and once again we had a great hotel downtown with a rooftop pool that was open all night. Bangkok is a nocturnal place with many strange creatures roaming the streets after dark as the author will inform you of soon. Ahem, but first dinner. We found Terminal 54 a supermall with a plethora of eateries including an amazing cafeteria with duck, noodles, soups, fish, and everything else oriental and edible that you can imagine. (Sitting here after midnight at my desk in my hut I am salivating recollecting this monarch of cafeterias) One floor of the mall even had a San Francisco theme including a replica Golden Gate Bridge, while In the basement was a Japanese burger joint and Dairy Queen. The blizzard was divine! But out on the streets another side of Bangkok unfolds. From the limited exposure I received I judged the city as diverse and tolerant. Beggars huddle in the street near food vendors and shops hawking everything but the kitchen sink. And then there is Soy Cowboy. Heehaw! Or is it –saddle up partner. This neon avenue resembles a pornographic spacecraft seething with flesh and deviance. Lady boys outnumber gals here and often it’s hard to discern the difference without running objectionable experiments. The clubs are fronts for prostitution with the exception of a few exclusively stripper joints, we saw some bizarre things which were an interesting insight into aspects of humanity. The lady boys for instance are regarded as a third gender and widely accepted in Thailand. We steered mom down Soy Cowboy to show her another side to Asia before cruising back to the Inn. Tyler and I adjourned to the roof for a nightcap looking over the glowing skyscrapers and cracking wise about our family outing to the red light district then chatted up some Bangladeshi brothers in the wee hours before turning in.
The following day we explored Bangkok as a family. We went to the famous weekend market that featured everything for sale including, clothes, food, furniture, and puppies but it was so hot that at one point I almost collapsed on the pavement. After the market we went to the ornate Royal Palace with was encrusted with shimmering jewels, an image from a lyric of “China Cat Sunflower” To reach the hotel we took a longboat on the river which was a definitive Bangkok ride at sunset, the waterway was jammed with boats of all sizes passing in the choppy river. The sticky air saturated my lungs as I took a moment to appreciate my family sitting next to me. There was scarcely time to enjoy one more family dinner before we groggily departed for the airport the following dawn. Hugging them goodbye I grabbed my carryon and headed toward my gate. I felt empty walking away but as Buddha says, “we are born to depart.” The spell with my mom and bra will remain a cherished time in my heart and in the company of my beloveds I realize the marrow deep similarities and traits we share.
Part 5: What to do Katmandu
The flight to Katmandu stopped through Deli which was blanketed in a bleak haze. The airport was disorderly and gave me a taste of what might wait out the door in one of the worlds cacophonous cities. But I made my connection and soon was descending in an archaic aircraft over an arc of mountains and into Katmandu. My body coursed with nervous energy as I obtained my gear and cleared customs getting a heap of rupees (payment for my year’s labor) and headed out into the smoggy afternoon. Half a step out of the airport I was greeted by the touts. Let the confusion begin! I never found the driver appointed to pick me up and climbed into a beat up taxi. Immediately we hit a monster traffic jam with horns blaring but ironically for all the honking we were going nowhere. The driver only remarked, “What to do Katmandu” The streets were dirty and full of bodies, on my first impression the place did appear a dump as (Uncle Hank) had professed. It actually appeared a warzone with piles of rubble and debris strewn everywhere. After an hour I reached the Ganesh Hotel set off the street in an alleyway outside of Thamel which is a tourist hub full of shops. Despite being the epicenter for tourists Thamel also was a bustling locality of commerce. Butcher shops, tailors, trekking shops etcetera. The security guard at Ganesh Himal (Ganeshy Mall) saluted me and I slid into the fortified oasis. My brother had called on my behalf from the rooftop in Bangkok and secured a room at the inn and I was greeted by Sanu a genial and lovely girl who worked the desk. Upon receiving my welcome tea I sat in the lounge which remarkably had a painted picture of four friends along with other familiar Bhutanese iconography, as it happens a Bhutanese artist had painted the lounge years before. Sipping my tea I struck up a conversation with a young blonde from Australia named Claire. It seemed she was eager for company so I agreed to go to dinner. Claire was a university student and quite prim and proper, I think she felt a bit overwhelmed at being in the city alone but she did help keep me from getting run over. The narrow cobblestone streets were congested with traffic moving in both directions, add in roundabouts and the area becomes a labyrinth of vehicles and pedestrians. For the next day Claire suggested sightseeing and I accepted. After walking her back to Ganesh I doubled back and hit the darkened streets, quickly got lost and ended up at a deserted roundabout watching butter lamps burn by a chorten. Then out of the shadows came a lone rigshaw driver. Unlike the motorized tuk tuk’s of SE Asia the rigshaws are rickety carriages attached to bicycles. The dark driver reeked of alcohol but I accepted a ride into Thamel. The Big Dipper shined brightly above as the carriage swayed and rattled over the uneven and broken pavement. At that exact moment I transported into a mysterious realm, swept away by the mystique of this ancient settlement. But it was more than just a tiger in a trance I left my body while the man humped me on his bike as the Dipper sat in my lap. I regained my composure in Thamel and chatted up a bewildered woman in leopard print pants and red leather coat with glazed eyes. (A thousand mile stare) The streets teethed with shifty characters selling their wares and themselves. It was cold and I had only my college sweatshirt so I hopped another ride back to Ganeshy Mall to sleep off the day’s travel. I was itching to get off by myself but I didn’t want to rebuff Claire as per the traveler’s code so we spent the next day in the city together. In actuality we made a good team as Claire knew how to read a map, she was my tour guide slash guide dog as we went on a walking tour to Durbar Square. The temples are more akin to small shrines tucked in between shops, these bricked edifices had little alter rooms where Hindu worshippers rang bells, hung strings of marigolds, and smeared red paste on Ganesh’s forehead. Some of the temples had butter lamps burning behind iron gates. The whole place reeked of urine, incense, and history. Indiscriminant corridors led into disheveled courtyards with kids playing football, and it appeared the city had layered itself up over centuries. In a reversal of fortune it seemed that the city must have appeared newer some centuries ago and the modernization of beat up cars seemed to add to the chaos of the place. Durbar Square is an iconic commons outside Thamel where rich Newari architecture impresses the eye. The tall narrow temples and buildings are a remarkably sturdy construction of brick and wood. The exterior of the buildings are marvelous masonry with intricate wood trimmed windows and doorways. I have never seen anything comparable in my life, a powerful elegance infused the terraced structures with people resting in every nook and furrowed crease. At the center of the plaza was an odd Greek looking building. For the requisite tourist fee we went to the temple of the living goddess and several subsequent temples. The living Goddess is a lineage of prepubescent girls who lose the title after menstruating. They are pampered and revered before they are replaced by another “pure” being. We didn’t catch a glimpse of the reigning goddess who pokes out of a window on occasion in extravagant regalia and makeup. I did not spend the whole day people watching as Aunt Mare suggested but Claire sniffed out a nice rooftop for lunch. We spent the day in Katmandu as I followed her around as she tried to sort out some financial issues. Claire went back to Ganeshy Mall to rest and I snuck off to the Garden of Dreams an insulated garden tucked off a noisy street. Ganeshy Himal eventually transformed into the “Hotel California” with its own immaculate garden, rooftop strewn with prayer flags overlooking the mass of humanity and snowcapped mountains beyond its bounds. But inside the hotel it was “a okay” they even were outfitted with a descent restaurant with bottles of coke. Claire and I arranged a taxi to the monkey temple on the outskirts of town, this Buddhist temple is a massive chorten perched above the edge of the city. To reach the temple one must ascend a gigantic staircase which would become a theme for my trip. Aggressive and agitated monkeys enjoy freewill at the temple and one chased me into the forest in pursuit of my coca cola. There are several minor Hindu alters surrounding the primary stupa. Even the Buddha eyes atop the whitewashed stupa had a red bindi dot over them. Beautiful Hindu ladies in bright scarves and alluring eyes mixed with the Buddhist faithful some coming from as far away as Korea. The vibe at this temple is relaxed as youth congregates to play hacky sack and old men shoot the shit. Clair wasn’t feeling well so I dropped her back at base and continued on to Bodhnath to scout it out for Rebecca.
After two days in the capital we loaded a tourist bus at dawn bound for Pokara. Claire was going on a short guided trek the following day so I stuck by her. I complimented her with my chutzpa and she complimented me with her composure and truthfully as transfixed as I was, Katmandu was more than overwhelming and it was good to have company. The seven hour ride to Pokhara is grueling and I was wiped but in her efficiency Claire and her guide plotted on to the lake and I accompanied them. Pokhara is advertised as “paradise” on a billboard entering town, and despite some haze it was exactly that. Eastern Bhutan seems to lack one thing, a proper lake. And the lake in Pokhara was just what the doctor ordered. The lake is surrounded by the tourist district of restaurants and lodging with a boat launch at the shore. (No motorboats on the lake) We boarded a canoe and were paddled across the water by an old man. In the middle of the lake is an island housing a Hindu Temple. We made the opposing shore to begin our hike to the “peace pagoda” and the waters of this lake were placid and magical. One peers down and see’s their reflection perfectly as a mirror. The water seemed aware in a certain way as we glided to the opposing shore. The hike to the pagoda follows a trail through an emerald forest, I sighed to finally be in the forests of Nepal and the trail follows a steep stone stairway that switchbacks through the shimmering canopy. The pagoda sits on a ridge overlooking the sprawling metropolis of Pokhara proper affording a view of the Annapurna Range in the distance. Fishtail peak a gigantic shark fin rising from the tumbling hills was hardly visible through a film of cirrus clouds but it stirred my core tugging on my soul in a peculiar way. I had never seen a mountain with such striking features. The peak is not high by Himalayan standards but remains unclimbed due to its sheer face. After too many climbers perished while attempting descents, the government finally outlawed assaults on the peak. From my vantage point at the white pagoda with golden Buddha statue, the mountain remained only a shadow, and soon was swallowed by the atmosphere.
Part 6: The Warriors Path
The next day Claire woke me up to say goodbye leaving me alone in Nepal. I dallied in Pokhara acquiring the permits for my solo trek and strolled the paths along the lakeside. I was tired from being on the move since leaving Bhutan and wondered if I had the reserves to attempt the trail at all. But finally I had the permits, the gear was packed, and I was on my way in a taxi to the trailhead in Phedi. My goal was to ascend the fifty or so miles up 10,000 feet to reach Annapurna Base Camp (ABC) and the guide book outlined the trek in 14 days. There are two trail heads and I opted for the lesser trodden Phedi starting point. The taxi left me at the small roadside village in a narrow valley. I large sign indicated the way to ABC, a vertical stone stairway ascending into an oak forest. The first hour was a foreshadowing of the week to come as more than half the trail consisted of steep up or down stairs made of varying stones. I had on my red backpack stuffed with sleeping bag, clothes, and canteen. The advantage of trekking in Nepal is that no food is required since it is provided at the numerous tea houses en route. The first stretch was a good warm up ascending through terraced fields and scattered huts to the settlement of Dhampus. The lower regions of the trail provide an excellent chance to meander through real villages before the higher altitudes where only trekking settlements prevail. At Dhampus I was surprised to see my first true glimpse of the Himalayan Mountains, a panoramic view featuring the stunning promenade of Fish Tail properly known as Machhapuchhare. The outrageous pointed peak speared my essence and a warm fluid energy emanated from my core. A feeling I can best compare to the first time one sees a lover. A dirt road intersects Dhampus and I followed that road to the edge of a forest where I registered with the authorities handing over my trekking permit for stamping. An anxious feeling clumped my throat as they asked if I was trekking alone. Most trekkers are in groups with a guide and/or porters and this was the low season in addition. In fact on the first section of trail I only saw one other couple who was returning from the three week circuit trek. As the stern man handed back my information I could imagine that if something unfortunate happened this would be the last account of my whereabouts. From here on out I was on my own and there was no turning back. From the checkpoint a gentle grade takes the walker through lowland forest and golden glades with occasional views of the range popping out from behind gentle ridges. The foreground scenery was comforting but the snow clad glaciers in the distance sent shivers up my spine. About two hours beyond Dhampus I turned my ankle and rolled on the trail, I was on my back much like a turtle waggling its stubby legs in the air. A group of lunching trekkers might have witnessed the event or seen the fatigue on my face as when I passed them they inquired if I was alright. I assured them I was fine and stumbled up the trail through a remarkable stretch of rhododendron forests. The rhododendrons bloom in March and were slumbering at that time, but the glossy leaves and towering stalks still gave a wonderland expression to the landscape. I arrived at the next village midmorning and kept my pace passing the outpost steadily traversing an undulating landscape. Knowing that I was slated to ascend 10,000 vertical feet each downhill appeared a recession but that’s the blueprint for Nepali treks. No flats and extreme change in elevation, but this part of the trail was hard packed dirt with an absence of stairs and was pleasing to the feet. At the onset I was concerned with my boots that were brought over by my family. They were a pair of heavy leather boots of unknown origin and seemed clumsy upon inspection. I almost acquired another new pair in Thailand but was too frugal to shell out $200. This left my fate in the souls of the mystery boots which would turn out to be my saving grace.
On my first day out the weather was glorious and warm. I hiked in a long sleeve t-shirt, sweat pouring down my cheeks in the noonday sun. It was hard to believe I was in the Himalaya in mid winter a fact that was proven by the absence of people on the trail. During the high season of May the trail is crammed with parties of mountaineers and trekkers. But in late January I went hours without seeing another human face, accompanied only by the sound of birds and a benevolent breeze tickling my neck. The pack was heavy though and bothered my sore right arm which caused me to stop and adjust every so often. My pace seemed slow and I stopped frequently to rest on stone benches constructed by the wayside. In the warmth of the early afternoon I stopped for lunch at a deserted guesthouse for my first taste of food on the trail. The menu featured a range of cuisine from Dal Bat to pizza. I had a plate of momo’s before hoisting my gear and moving out and after lunch the trail pitched steeply into a deep gully surrounded by thick vegetation. The scenery changes rapidly in Nepal but one must be careful not to get too caught up in the beauty and watch their feet. My fall earlier in the day had reminded me of my mother’s accident as we both share the same proclivity for distraction from wonderment. I also knew that any accident out here would be exaggerated by the lack of medical facilities. I had only brought some moleskin and band aids in my limited first aid kit. Going down steep broken stairs was a real challenge especially carrying weight. I lilted sideways and maintained my balance uphill careful not to tumble ass over teakettle. At the bottom of the ravine a lady tried to sell me some crafts but I opted for a Snickers Bar instead resting at her guesthouse in the shade making small talk. She implored me to stay the night but I pressed on over another minor ridge and into Tolka. From Tolka the trail made several bold ascents and descents through thick forests before winding up a long ridgeline and into the hamlet of Landruk. Landruk was a village that also provided several guesthouses beyond the locals mud and thatched abodes. The teahouses were nicely assembled stone buildings, sparse but elegant. I found a suitable choice (they all were completely vacant) and settled in for my first night.
“Namaste!” sounded a sweet voice. A voluptuous girl with an impish grin came over to me giggling. I felt an instant attraction to this teenager who had the innocence of a girl but body of a blossoming woman. Her name was Roca and she was the daughter of the proprietress of the guesthouse. I spent the afternoon tailing this exotic creature who served me ice cold coca cola bottles from an icebox. We laughed and playfully bantered while her mother cut hunks of meat from a carcass one eye suspiciously fixed on me. Dinner was a delicious Dal Bat with fresh meat. Dal Bat is lentil soup, rice, and pickled vegetables, and is a staple in Nepal. The combination proved extremely satisfying in the cooling evening while the sunset splashed eerie scarlet light on Annapurna South at nearly 25,000 feet. Annapurna encompasses several massifs but Annapurna South was the one featured on this trek. The mountain is broad shouldered with a flat peak and is known as the goddess of hearth. As Roca sang and floated around the kitchen brewing my tea it was if she was the mountain personified. All I could do is silently observe this splendid creature brown as the earth. She spoke limited English but seemed to enjoy the attention I lavished upon her. But with a few stern words from mother Roca disappeared into the darkness and soon I did the same retiring to my quarters for sleep.
Morning is a magical time in the Sanctuary. The sunrise splashed Annapurna South with brilliant gold light as the rays stretched into each crevasse of the peak creating splendid luminosity. The light bathed her cornices and pinnacles ushering a new day as it always had done. One felt small and humbled by the display and it was easy to stuff my ego and identity with my gear into the pack and set out. I bid a cheery farewell to the girl and her mother and vowed to return before vanishing over the lip of the plateau. The trail went down crossing over a lengthy wooded suspension bridge straight out of India Jones’s Temple of Doom. Men stood on limbs high in the trees cutting leaves for whatever purpose as I greeted the world with a big ol’ Namaste! This section of the path featured bridges spanning a rushing white river that roared through a shadowy ravine. The route was hard going but the exuberant spirit of the morning kept me moving swiftly. The traveler crisscrosses the river several times before a gnarly ascent that would have them gasping and pleading for mercy. From the bottom of the gorge one climbs more than a thousand feet on jagged stairs up a vertical face. Adjacent to the trail are terraces etched into a vertical mountainside. One could only marvel at the amount of labor needed to etch out a living on such a daunting landscape. Not even trees or purple flowers soothed my soul as I could taste the vile from my stomach as I lurched upwards. Every few yards I stopped to rest ruining the scant momentum I possessed. The big peaks were now well hidden behind the inner range of the Himalaya that I had grown accustomed to in Bhutan. But this was a merciless terrain steeper than what I had experienced in East Bhutan and one had no choice but to persevere stopping often to slug from the canteen or collapse on a wayside bench. Sherpa types and school kids ambled by seemingly unaffected by the terrain. Despite being exposed to trekkers the kids were shy except to ask for chocolate a form of begging developed on the trail. The local economy is quite dependent on trekkers for sustenance and one must always remember how poor Nepal truly is. Back in Thamel kids my students age begged for milk and these trailside kids seemed far better off by comparison. As per the guide book advice I opted not to give money and only hoped the fee for my entry permit would help supplement the people in these communities. The mind has no time for romantic notions and must only listen to the body as it climbs and I was astounded at the amount of awareness needed on the trail to maintain safety in each step. At my most exhausted I reached Jinu a village and cluster of teahouses on a precipice over the deep wedged valley from which I had come. Unbelievably this was merely the start of another round of stairs that switch-backed up another ridge to the hub of Chommerang. The morning had been taxing and would lead to a peril filled afternoon. On the trail cause and effect is always at play and my exertion would amount to near collapse further up the trail. I lunched in Chommerang a nexus at the convergence of two hiking arteries. The plethora of guesthouses suggests that in high season the place must bustle with climbers but now it had a peculiar abandoned feel as aunties dutifully swept their cobblestone areas waiting for phantom crowds. Chommerang is also the last village proper before the trail heads into higher elevations deemed unsuitable for natural habitation. The village enjoys a breathtaking view of Fishtail rising fifteen thousand feet directly overhead as a fathomless canyon falls away towards Landruk below. All told the eye scans some twenty thousand feet in elevation in a sweep I can still not fully comprehend in magnitude. My luncheon was in the heart of this terrifying mandala as I could scarcely keep my eyes on my plate as the presence of Machhapuchhare was overwhelming, almost taunting me from above. While below rocky riverbed sheltered by plush forests pulled on the pit of my stomach. Equilibrium was hard to come by but eventually a serene balance came over me. This feeling of ease was lost however as I attempted the vigorous descent into the village proper some thousand feet below, only to regain that same thousand feet immediately thereafter. The trail became hard to follow with blue painted letters abc> sprayed on rocks. Here the trail eroded as a team of workers repaired the main section and a supplemental path took the trekker through some unsettling terrain scattered with boulders. This was a place that sheltered a demon and I felt like I was being watched, around that moment my stomach faltered and the tremendous efforts of the morning caught up to me. I could barely move and felt sick and tired and in the middle of nowhere. I happened across a shifty dude in blue jeans with a gap in his teeth rolling a cigarette by the gushing silt riverside. He looked like he had no business there and when I asked directions as he just nodded in a non affirmative manner. I hurried to get away from the guy, the river, and the depression of land that threatened to swallow me and began another ascent. My body was now pushed to the limit and I staggered along trying to keep on the trail. I came upon a small village not on the trail map and considered hunkering down but didn’t like the midway feeling of the place so I pressed on. I labored until 4 Pm finally reaching a cluster of guesthouses where I stopped. I had the ambitious goal of reaching the settlement of Bamboo but there was no way I could continue. In reality I was on a pace far faster than the lonely planet blueprint but adrenaline had control of my actions now and inertia took over. Despite languishing in the afternoon, according to my map I was nearly half way to ABC. But with each gain in elevation the air would grow thinner and the temperature colder so it seems the trial had merely begun. Little did I know at the time that some of the most brutal sections of the trail were behind me but the most difficult was dead ahead. That night a large Korean contingent stayed in the same guesthouse. It was known as “Korean Season” on the mountain as eighty percent of the trekkers were Koreans on holiday. I had to chuckle at them in full gear and poles with their robotic movements. They are tenacious and fit with ashama’s (older Korean woman) steadily plodding the trails in a string. Their dogmatic approach to the mountain was Korean to the core but like most Koreans they possessed a gentle spirit underneath. In the morning I slipped into a frosty bamboo forest where I happened upon a self possessed and self proclaimed “strong Russian Woman” named Lisa. She was standing alone in the forest just blending into the emerald backdrop. She had a muscular frame and long red hair and seemed an aberration standing motionless on the trail. She remarked on the beauty of the forest in broken English and I concurred, my mind buzzing with wood nymph fantasies. An erotic cold war storyline bubbled in my brain a sort of naturalist James Bond scenario but I merely nodded and kept on ahead of the woman. As it turns out her companion a hairy Russian man awaited her at the top of the knoll and my moose and squirrel cartoon fantasy was thwarted.
One thing the trail in Nepal lacks is the abundance of prayer flags and chortens that I encounter on my daily ramblings in East Bhutan. Somehow the landscape seems naked without them and I missed the religious artifacts. Those of us fortunate enough to reside in the kingdom become accustomed to the manmade offerings that pepper the land. The Nepali who inhabit the mountains tend to be Buddhist and you will see a strand of prayer flags at the lodges but they are not a dominant feature. The physical features of the land resemble Bhutan but are also different. (Same Same but different as they say) The truth is the topography of both countries is endlessly diverse. For instance there is no place like Tsenkharla or that enchanted emerald mansion housing the Russian babe. It’s truly fascinating to roam in such a fluid and mutable dimension. After surpassing the Russians I finally reached Bamboo, consisting of a half dozen guesthouses in a dwarf bamboo forest. The vegetation was changing becoming more stunted as the trail steadily climbed through the chain of mountains known as the inner Himalaya. Deep in these spaces one cannot see the higher peaks that hide behind a labyrinth of steep slopes. But one can feel the air thinning and the energy grid shifting in favor of a more inaccessible reality. A few steps beyond Bamboo I felt I had glided unnoticed through a portal into a realm of highness. Such a realm requires a man to tune his senses and focus his muscles on the task at hand. Vegetation becomes sporadic and sparse as the trail shadows the tight river that bounds through boulders and slashes over cliffs as waterfalls. This is the bridge or arc joining the lush hills to the abode of the gods, a mountainous purgatory where the more cautious among us have an opportunity for retreat. But today my energy level was amplified and electric compared to the toiling of yesterday. I had my sights firmly fixed on a spot on the map labeled Deurali which was reportedly the gateway to the high country where the trail might be snowbound. It was also recommended to stop in Deurali to acclimate to the gains in elevation and to avoid the potentially serious situation of altitude sickness. For being a rigorous trek, the ABC trail was not particularly high by Himalayan standards as compared to Everest. But above 10,000 feet the signs of altitude sickness can still manifest. I had vowed to drink only one coke a day above 10,000 feet and supplement my body with water. In Bhutan we met a traveler recently returned from the region who recounted a story of a boy who drank too much soda and ate too many candy bars and got gravely ill. The tale resonated with me and I kept the admonishing tone firmly in mind. Oh the devils temptations, at every teahouse one can buy coke, cigarettes, and whisky, all toted up the mountain by Sherpa’s who know the westerners appetites. The price for such precious commodities go up with each stop along the trail. For instance a coke will cost more than lodging by the time one reaches Deurali. Rooms are quite cheap about three bucks a pop and dinner might run five accordingly. Although the rooms are simple they are clean and comfortable consisting of a sleeping mat on a wood frame. The lodges are unheated and burning wood is not permitted in the upper reaches of the Sanctuary. Another sign warns that eating meat or passing stool in the open might anger the deities and must be refrained. As for those deities they were wide awake and quite aware of a lone Phillingpa traversing on their turf. But your protagonist (a vagabond for beauty) did his best to tread gently occasionally making a song for them as we went. At two P.M he reached an expansive stretch of scree with a clump of guesthouses exposed to the elements. This was Deurali.
My body felt remarkably capable and fit stimulated by the strain of the mornings assault. The signboard denoted 1.5 hours walking distance to MBC the base camp for Machhapuchhare. I sat on a bench in the sunshine mulling over my decision to hunker down or press on. Perhaps in the grip of mountain fever I opted to continue and what followed was one of the more difficult stretches of trail I have ever encountered. The only thing more challenging would be struggling to descend that same stretch less than 48 hours later. But I had made my decision and was on my way in the waning afternoon. Just a hundred yards out of Deurali the temperature plummeted and the effects of the altitude began to kick in. I was overcome by a shortness of breath and was forced to stop frequently. The landscape was barren with only tired wild grasses long abandoning their greenness. Not a proper tree was left except some odd stand of leafless oaks on a parallel ridge across the river. The trail became hard to follow as I scrambled down a scree slope over boulders and a rivulet of glacier runoff. This didn’t seem like a place to get lost and at several junctions I scrutinized the earth whispering incantations for guidance. There were spirits in attendance but the choice was mine alone. Even Sylvie could only flutter by my side waiting for me to point the way, so I did. Regaining the thread I came across a Korean and their guide who snapped a photo of me and reassured me I was on the right path. Until that moment I still hadn’t seen another solo trekker and wondered if I was the only one up there alone. The solitude that once seemed my good fortune now seemed isolating. The stretch where I encountered the Korean and guide was a rare flat expanse following the ripping river. The ground was sandy with burnt grasses and loose rock. I was a tree hugger without a tree to hug. Know it was a race against time knowing I had only two hours to reach MBC before the gloom of night and I developed a headache and became dizzy stopping to rest countless times. Despite the late hour I couldn’t move fast and was left to contemplate where my boundless zeal had gone. My right arm throbbed and a dreary sense of fear accumulated on my horizon. I slipped and fell and worried about injuring myself in such a wasteland and knew there was no one left on the trail to rescue me. The path went up a steady grade but thankfully the steepest parts of the journey were in the midlands as the highlands are a steady climb made more intense by the sparse oxygen and sketchy footing. There were no signs of life or trail markers and some degree of intuition was needed and I studied the landmarks incase I was forced to retreat to Deurali. Finally as the sun sank behind Fishtail I spotted the outline of a blue roof against rugged terrain. It seemed an insurmountable passage of time but I finally crossed a small footbridge and ascended a jagged staircase to the frozen oasis of MBC. I was met by Ram the proprietor from a cast related to Sherpa’s and Jon a handsome solo trekker from Brazil who was scribbling in a notebook at a picnic table near the top of the world. “Namaste’s” were exchanged before I collapsed on a bench. Ram was quick with a strong blend of tea, a balm for my weary spirit. Machhapuchhare loomed above in an indescribable manner that seemed to tear me apart as spindrift blasted off the pinnacle into the ether. The lone lodge sat in a rutted amphitheater with peaks over twenty five thousand feet encapsulating it and above Ram’s place was the ruins of an abandoned German meteorology station. The scene was vapid and brutal as one could hardly retain their identity or purpose. Jon and I retreated to the lodge for some pizza and tea joined by a soft spoken Korean man who went by Mr. Park. We discussed physics and the accelerating universe as a new Nepali moon hung like a frozen teardrop in the sapphire sky. Jon (a young physicist) had observed a thermometer in the derelict station that had indicated minus twenty Fahrenheit so after dinner we crawled into our sleeping bags for the long night. I shared a room with Jon and we talked about girls and the nature of existence. He told me his mother mistrusted Americans due to some peculiar CIA intervention in Brazilian politics a generation ago and I wondered how much damage has Lady liberty inflicted on the global psyche in her rampages. Thank god for Obama at least restoring some respectability in the international arena. For the second instance Morgan’s sleeping bag saved my ass (the first being an exposed night on the shore of Lewis Lake in Yellowstone) I sunk into my nylon cocoon for a fitful dreamless sleep.
I awoke to changing weather patterns. The sky remained clear but a film of cirrus clouds hung over the squat peak of Annapurna South. I said ado to Jon (who was descending) and set out ahead of Mr. Park but took an immediate wrong turn leading me towards another guesthouse. Mr. Park called out gesturing the correct route and after that our fates were inexplicably linked for the day. Mr. Park was a gentle soul who had just retired from the Korean Army. If memory serves he was in his late twenties and had a slight yet sturdy build. He seemed very happy to be in my company after trekking alone for a week. As it happens the only three solo trekkers on the mountain to my knowledge were assembled at Rams that January morning. I was stubbornly independent determined to do the trek on my own but could not refuse his quiet company. In the end things are best shared with others a sentiment expressed by Christopher Mcandless on his death bunk in bus 142 in the wilds of the Alaska bush. But I was on my own trip and reluctant to merge with anyone for the triumphant summit day. But if I had to walk with someone Mr. Park was good as anyone, and Korean boys always did fancy me. Mr. Park had just aborted a guided trek to Everest a week prior due to altitude sickness and now was making his assault on Annapurna Base Camp. I was secretly impressed that I was keeping pace with a trained soldier as we started up the icy trail through a swath of land cut by a glacier. From this point on the land was alien and extreme in a way I had never seen. Strange muted colors of earth, rock and ice mixed together in ribbons and braids. The path rose to meet the mountains and the sky until nothing was discernable from anything else. Mr. Park was thirty yards in the lead and I followed him to the best of my ability. We passed a group of Korean climbers descending from ABC who had camped there during the night. I had left most of my items at MBC and ascended with a light pack. After consulting with Jon I had decided to leave most of my belongings behind and planned on returning to MBC after summiting. I carried my canteen, a jacket, and a few other items. Remarkably I trekked in my college sweatshirt and “Steal Your Face” ski hat and wrap around shades that my brother gave me. The morning was cold but the struggle of climbing kept my body warm and the path was gradual but the altitude was affecting everything I did. Despite shortness of breath and lightheadedness I felt fine at 12,000 feet. This was close to the highest I had ever been including summiting Mt. Lassen and hiking above Nederland Colorado on the Isabel Trail. Neither of the aforementioned localities was as lunar by comparison as strange eyes of ice peered at us as and the sense of silence was stifling. All I could here was my diaphragm pushing out and taking in air. Mr. Park occasionally stopped to pose for a snap and remarked “how he couldn’t believe he was there” I agreed with a genuine smile and had grown to like my companion who was a salt of the earth sort. I can be too fickle with people and am constantly reminded of the goodness in them when I do drift into their orbit. The entire vacation I had met wonderful folks including several cute Korean gals, Roca, Jon, Claire, Helga and Brianna, and of course Mr. Park. No doubt Mr. Park will always remember Mr. Tim and vice versa. But our triumph was not secure as we inched up the slope, dipping briefly through a boulder field, than rising again past a crackling river of ice. This place was ancient and unmanifested. That morning when probing Ram about Machhapuchhare he simply said “Fishtail is God, God is fishtail” That god was actually Shiva the ancient Hindu Creator credited with dancing the universe into existence and that dance went on in icy increments all around us. Above we heard the roar of an avalanche a most unsettling sound that can’t be put to words. One might liken it to thunder but there is something more deathly to it. This was the home of Shiva and all of the forces he danced into being including two little creatures who called themselves Mr. Tim and Mr. Park. Both these puny men had great reverence and willpower and one could say they were representatives of determination.
About one hour after leaving MBC we were on a pitch surrounded by discarded jagged rocks deposited by the icy beast as it shifted through the moraine. To my left the treacherous ice field flanked my progress, an ominous shadow darted across the iridescent blue sheet and I suddenly became aware that my death was stalking me. My fear gave way to an unbending sense of purpose in the act I was performing. At that moment and from then on I was walking on the warrior’s path, behind me Fishtail jutted into heaven, a faint sundog ringing the apex and below my feet fingers of ice grabbed the grey earth. From the top of the knoll we were treated with an unobstructed view of Annapurna South’s sprawling peak and up the wash of scarred firma was ABC, a collection of stone guesthouses at the foot of a mammoth moraine. After a monumental struggle some time later we arrived at the gate, a sign welcoming “all internal and external trekkers!”On my fourth day out I had reached ABC at 13,200 feet! The craggy place was an uneven topography of rocks and sandy washes strew with strings of prayer flags and monuments to perished mountain climbers who had died on the peak. Above the guesthouses I scampered off the trail making my own path on an exposed ridge that jutted out from the glacier. To my right was a sheer drop into a volcanic depression with a frozen turquoise eye at its center. From here the greater Annapurna peaks including Annapurna One at 27,000 feet unfolded in a maze of icy columns and spires. I clung to the patch of barren rock like a mountain goat climbing up on all fours leaving my companion behind on a flat piece of earth. The ridge I ascended ran up the spine of Annapurna South until the moraine swallowed it whole. This was as far as I could go without crampons and proper climbing gear. Furtively glancing over my right shoulder I could see Base Camp hundreds of feet below. It was amazingly calm although clouds began to swirl around the peaks. Here I clung to a rock, fumbling around in my fanny pack for my piece, and promptly made a proper offering to Shiva. From Annapurna One I heard a terrible rumble followed by the sound of ice chunks crashing to the earth. I surveyed the area and decided that I was safe from the threat of avalanche so I closed my eyes and absorbed the stillness before a sudden wind alerted me that it was time to go.
Base Camp was deserted as we were the first to ascend on that day but soon we were joined by a few other groups that I had passed throughout the last few days including the Russian dude who had abandoned Lisa somewhere below. I had some potatoes and tea taking in the panoramic view and sucking thin air. Around two I decided to retreat back to MBC. I said farewell to Mr. Park and began to scamper down the scree slope when suddenly I could hear someone calling out my name and turned around to see Mr. Park running towards me. As it turns out in my summit delirium I had forgotten to pay the proprietor for my lunch. Embarrassed I retraced my steps to make my second summit to ABC where I paid my tab then reinstated my descent. Passing through the gateway to ABC I saw Lisa (the vivacious Russian babe) struggling up the steep slope. We exchanged a congratulatory moment before I pointed myself towards Fish Tail which still gallantly saluted the stratosphere but Annapurna South was now hidden behind a veil of silver clouds that were cold on my heels.
The walk from ABC to MBC was mesmerizing and I had the place to myself with only howling wind to accompany my tune. I paused at many points to absorb the vibrations of the planet that coursed through the invisible channels that construct the Wheel of Time. The world stopped and I entered a timeless realm where everything was possible. Here for an instance my insatiable ego and vanity melted into the hard rock’s scattered around the majestic amphitheater. I plunged into caverns and crevasses that protruded off the path and exposed myself to the elements knowing that I could not survive in this harsh realm. My intent was to stay as long as possible and let my soul fly, like the tiny blackbirds that somehow inhabited this otherwise barren domain, a most unique habitat inhospitable to god’s creations. This was a place of power, and Don Juan says that a warrior’s mission is to seek power, but soon power would seek me. After what I can only describe as one of the greatest hours of my life I came around a corner into the gulch that harbored Ram’s joint. The black pyramid of Machhapuchhare towered above emanating a searing hum that rattled my core and I realized the mountain was aware and that death was stalking me just to my left. At that moment death was my dearest companion and always will be. In the failing sunlight of late afternoon I reached the shelter of MBC and ordered a celebratory Coke. I was all alone at camp besides Ram who had lived in the shadow of Shiva for fifteen years. I ate a hearty meal of Dal Bat and crawled into my bag to sleep. When I awoke in the darkness to take a piss I was stunned to see snowflakes whirling in the beam of my headlamp. The deck had accumulated four inches of snow already and it was just passed midnight. A heavy feeling gripped my gut as the wind pounded the shelter with brutal precision. At dawn nearly a foot of wind buffed snow covered everything and it was still falling in a curtain of crystalline flakes. I crept to the edge of the deck and peered over the precipice but the rugged trail was now erased in a blanket of white. I knew eventually the group would be retreating from ABC but I wasn’t sure how long the storm would last and was feeling eager to move to a lower elevation. I pondered the difficultly of the trail between MBC and Deurali, even on a clear day the route was evasive. Drinking tea I mulled over the possibilities. Should I hunker down and wait for other parties to descend from ABC figuring on safety in numbers, or should I attempt the trail on my own? Meanwhile the snow was accumulating and the wind increasing. After anguishing over the decision I decided I would make an attempt to get down from MBC. Ram lit some incense and gave me a bamboo pole to use on my descent. At 9 AM I dropped over the side and was immediately struck by a gust that almost knocked me off my feet. The snow was shin deep covering the uneven terrain underneath. I remembered that I was on stairs and shifted my weight backwards so if I fell I would fall uphill. I jabbed at the snow with my stick like a blind man surveying his surroundings. My first task was simply to reach the footbridge a few hundred feet below. An hour before I had been able to see the bridge, but now the blizzard had reduced visibility to nearly nothing. This was compounded by a whirling tempest. I was ill equipped for these blustery conditions and had no proper snow gear or goggles. I also worried about my feet with no gators covering the boots. The snow drove into my face stinging me in sharp pellets and on certain occasions I turned away or shielded my face with my arm.
When I reached the footbridge I planted my pole which promptly snapped, as I fell the bamboo jabbed my ribcage and I face- planted in the snow. Standing up I had a compulsion to move but instead I stood still in the moment. This was odd since usually my compulsions rule me but I intuited the gravity of the situation. Now more than ever I needed an ally of a clear mind in concert with my limbs if I hoped for a safe passage. I closed my eyes and visualized the trail as it wound through a mound of scrub at the crown of a vast canyon. I even spoke to that trail and asked for guidance before I spoke aloud a prayer to Shiva to look after me, expressing the deference for all in his domain. Slowly watching my feet I plotted my route and moved cautiously but confidently. The sensation was almost like skiing a momentum interrupted when I traversed over any staircase, sections that would require extra dexterity and a lighter step. I stumbled wildly on one such section falling to my knees but I knew from skiing not to resist the fall. My aim was to find the snow cave, a memorable feature that was a cavern of ice tucked in a glade trailside. I could begin to feel the energy of the trail, a white swath or gap in the scrubby clumps of protruding dead brush. When these gaps were lost I stopped and refocused my eyes until they revealed themselves again. The weather intensified and transformed into sheer POWER. Suddenly I was blinded by a flash of what I can only call lightning. At that exact moment a blast of thunder nearly knocked me to the earth. I remembered my grandpa Harry who when I was a child had taught me to count the seconds between the lightning and thunder to ascertain how far off the storm was. By this calculation the bolt should have struck me down and I laughed out loud. The next boom tailed the flash by a half second so I knew the super cell was passing through me. My fear abided and a sense of calm radiated from within. My focus was sharp and felt peculiarly aligned with my surroundings as if I was in cahoots with the POWER. I felt humbled to witness the commanding force of nature as the snow, thunder, and lightning were reining its full glory upon my diminutive form. In actuality I was merely part of that whole just like we are all ONE being, more complex an entity than any manufactured notion of God. All my reserves of fear and joy were contained and expressed in that storm which wasn’t actually a meteorological event at all. Those elements are contained in the seed of our collective identity and through that seed a monumental fear blossomed into my consciousness. I called outward for support to Sylvie, to Rabes, to anyone that might feel my need at that moment and I even mustered a few lines from Estimated Prophet. In the midst of the “blizzard” I found the snow cave and considered creeping inside. My blurry eyes could scantly make out the features of the hollow cave a few yards off what I knew was the path. My next intent was to veer left towards my death to where I would find the river. (Every warrior has a place to die, where he performs his last dance for death. My spot is at Zongtopelri where I encountered Guru Rinpoche) Thunder roared and lightning flashed everywhere and I felt that the thunder dragon was calling me back home which made me cackle. It must have been a manifestation of this kind that had prompted the name for the kingdom of Bhutan. The thunder rolled up and down the canyon until it was a continuing growl. Veering left delivered me to the bank of that river and I slowed my pace which had become a loose gait. I recalled from my ascent that this part of the trail was technically challenging and called for patience and I also knew I should reach the plateau where I had encountered the Korean and his guide days before. The surface of the land was unbroken by any track of animal or man and the choice was up to me. I allowed myself a brief moment to rejoice in being alive standing in fresh powder which has always been a source of joy for my soul. After some time I reached the flat and the visibility improved allowing me to see ten feet ahead. I would have to veer around a mound of boulders and into a wash where the rivulet flowed to its source but with each recognizable marker I felt more confident. A stone bench, a staircase, and before long the faint outline of Deurali below. I crashed into camp where a group of trekkers were waiting out the storm. I had navigated the course in two hours and now was at the gateway to the abode of the gods once more. I took five before starting again towards Bamboo and the chain of inner Himalaya, this time welcoming its extreme terrain.
Between Deurali and Bamboo the snow became sleet and soon rock and dirt were visible. Bamboo was encapsulated by fog but a cawing raven welcomed me into camp where I met a Scientist from Baltimore and we discussed the possibility of the Harbaugh Bowl. Talking football I missed the comforts of home, imagining myself munching guacamole and chips in the glow of the television rooting for the home team. But I settled for a delicious pizza in a damp guesthouse dining room where a group of Koreans played cards waiting for the storm to break. The cook added a splash of garlic and I chuckled at the irony of eating pizza in such a place. (If only we had this cuisine at Tsenkharla) I rapidly descended the trail as bamboo changed to rhododendron and the sun broke free painting the misty canvass of the canyon with a rainbow. I paused in the deep cover of the forest watching the rainbow fade before pressing on. Grace. Each passer by wanted a report of the conditions ahead and I was tickled to be the trail weatherman. The sun relinquished to rain and the rain froze to chunks of hail that pounded the landscape.
It was my intent to reach Chommerang, an ambitious goal on this day. But by mid afternoon I was on a huge descent through the haunted piece of trail that once again drained my energy. All that was left was a sickly ascent more than a thousand feet up vertical stone stairs and in agreement the sky opened and a torrential rain poured soaking me. All I could do was take a bath in the cold curtain of water as kids dashed by me with umbrellas. It took me forever to finally reach the top of that mountain and I passed each alluring guesthouse on the way until I reached the one highest on the ridge, where I stumbled through the door was handed a key and towel, and proceeded to my room where I stripped down naked. Most of my belongings were soaked but my sleeping bag remained relatively dry and I found a pair of damp sweats and long sleeve shirt. By sunset the storm had broken for an instant revealing a pastel sunset on Annapurna South and I wondered where Mr. Park had weathered out the storm. For dinner I had a chicken burger as rain pelted the shelter and hung some clothe on a line and did my best to dry out. My original plan was to go the other way out towards Poon Hill but now I had my sights set on getting out of the mountains. The simple things are always the best as I sipped a bottle of coke cozy in my sleeping bag. I fell asleep replaying the remarkable events of the most amazing day of my life, reveling in awe at the POWER of the universe.
The morning was clear and it was evident that my clothes would not dry, but I hit that trail with a smile, once again astounded at the vastness of Chommerang. Behind me was the Annapurna Range and ahead the steep valleys and mountains of the inner Himalaya. It was a long day on the trail, at lunch I returned to Landruk and Roca who made me an excellent chicken curry prepared with love. I dallied more than an hour watching her brush her waist length hair in the sunshine humming along. A dog was my companion between Landruk and Tolka where an old aunty offered marijuana and lodging but I resisted drawn instead into the lush hills. The trail showcased a myriad of songbirds, poinsettias, and banana trees following the course of the rushing river. Every few hours I encountered hikers or locals along the path including a European solo trekker who would retrace my steps to ABC. From this elevation one had no idea of the storm that had blanketed the upper region with snow. But the weather was amicable with partly cloudy skies and for a spell I considered trying to reach Phedi. But instead I labored into the twilight and came upon Dhampus in a mist finding a suitable guesthouse for the night. It was a wise choice as morning brought an enchanting sunrise that splattered the entire Annapurna range with glorious light from Annapurna South to Fishtail and beyond. From my rooftop vista the panorama included the lowland valley of Phedi and Pokhara to the east. I set out through the oak forest getting lost in the village and admonished by an auntie who pointed me back to the trail. Upon stepping out of my beloved Sanctuary I was immediately met by civilization in the form of a taxi driver who toted me back to Pokhara.
Part 7: Rhino Hunt
Becky was traveling in SE Asia and was scheduled to arrive in Katmandu in a few days. I had allotted for two weeks in the mountains but only needed a week. So I went back to my game plan which was to head south to Chitwan National park near the Indian border. I was fervently hoping to see a One Horned Asian Rhino (unicorn Rhinoceros) a desire that had stemmed from when I first heard about Bhutan from a friend in Korea over a gourmet meal at his flat in Anyang City. The chef had been to Bhutan and told me about seeing a one horned rhino there. Looking back I doubt the validity of his story since the Rhinoceroses’ in Bhutan are found only in Royal Manas Park which is virtually inaccessible to tourists and Chef was known to greatly exaggerate his exploits. But that detail is irrelevant since until that dinner I didn’t know Bhutan existed and from that moment on I became obsessed with the tiny kingdom and deep in my core I associated the mysterious country with the one horned rhino. At that time I was hoping to save every penny in hopes of visiting Bhutan as a tourist which never happened. Once my dream of living in Bhutan was realized I wanted to reach Royal Manas which is a jungle haven for elephants, rhinos, tigers, and golden languor’s. The park has been closed in the past due to Assamese terrorists hiding out in the bush on the Bhutan side of the border. Well the Fourth king personally led an assault on the insurgents driving them out of the country and the park presumably reopened. Nonetheless it is difficult to access from Gelephu and a guide and permit would be required. My notion of traipsing around Bhutan was ill conceived as travelling here is restrictive, expensive, and difficult. Now I feel blessed to have seen much of the East and many sights on or near the lateral road. My reason for choosing Nepal was a cheap and open alternative to high altitude and lowland exploration.
So I boarded a rickety bus and seven hours later we were rolling through Sal forests and a sprawling city in the flats of Southern Nepal. Beyond that anonymous city a dirt road led to a bus park outside Chitwan. The landscape was baffling at first glance a flatland with farms and boggy terrain. Getting off the bus I was swarmed by aggressive touts, one of them taking me to a dive hotel that was not suitable for my needs. I bailed and walked into the village following the advice of my guide book I checked into the Safari Resort. A short time later I found the swallow languid river, a cold coke, and a view of the jungle on the opposing bank. The river sustained flocks of birds of various shapes and sizes and teemed with life. The sunset was an orange fireball and somewhere across the water a tiger was awaking for the hunt.
The next day I hired a guide and went into the jungle on a walking tour. By law two guides are required to enter the forest and we rowed across the river which demarcated the boundary of the park. It was a foggy morning limiting the visibility creating an eerie atmosphere in the thick forest. The tall grey trees were covered in creeping vines that tangled in the canopy. We saw a few deer scamper through a bed of dry leaves and a monkey’s silhouette in a treetop. We zigzagged through the jungle occasionally stopping to listen. Upon leaving the forest we came upon an expanse of grass twenty feet high, this is elephant grass and provides excellent camouflage for any predator. In the sandy wash along a rivulet we saw distinctive tiger prints that the guides said were from the previous night. We also observed sloth bear scratches on the bark of trees. At noon the fog lifted and revealed a safari of grassland stretching to the horizon, a streak of hills on the Indian border. From there we roamed back into the jungle where I was startled by the shrill cry of a magnificent peacock with rainbow array of feathers. Back in the thicket we carefully stepped around huge piles of rhino dung that were scattered everywhere. We reached a watery channel and saw a huge garal crocodile with corkscrew muzzle. The primordial beast was basking in the sun stretching thirty feet long with an ominous grin. Its pale green exterior was marked with an armor of scales. There was something so ancient about the creature that I lost my orientation with space and time completely and my own thoughts turned off as I too soaked the rays of our galactic star. We ambled down the bank of the meandering waterway before stopping on a bluff overlooking the river for a pack lunch. Hear flocks of birds gathered including pairs of beautiful Siberian Ducks that were migrating for the winter. These bronze and white birds had an exquisite grace and filled my heart with joy skipping along the water in monogamy. They were harmoniously joined by white pelicans, kingfishers, and blue dive bombers that torpedoed along. Far off in the grassland semi domesticated water buffalo languidly grazed. It was all a perfect scene but in the back of my mind I knew the chances of seeing a rhino were fading with the afternoon sun. After lunch we continued walking over the difficult terrain along the bank.
Suddenly up ahead my guide jumped and shrieked, I ran to his position and there down in the gully was an enormous rhinoceros munching on grass. I stood in awe spellbound by this strange prehistoric creature. Its wrinkled blue grey skin was protected by thick platted armor and he had a huge horn protruding from his forehead. These are powerful and temperamental creatures and are the meanest vegetarians on the planet. People have been gored by the charging beasts that can move incredibly fast. Our specimen appeared relaxed and consumed with the task of eating foliage. Feeling daring (if not foolish) I crept down into the wash twenty five yards from the creature. Its ribcage burst through its skin and it was if he was made solely of muscle, he huffed at me and I retreated to higher ground. I will never forget this animal and the feeling of power he generated. Knowing he is out there brings me an inexplicable joy that these silly words cannot capture. This exotic creature is a manifestation of my dream and an exotic addition to my totem. Eventually we parted ways but I carry that rhino with me always.
The guides remarked how fortunate I was and although Rhinos are prolific in the park seeing one is no guarantee especially on a one day excursion. We retraced our steps several miles out of the jungle and back across to the tourist village at sunset. For dinner I rewarded myself with a buffalo steak and vegetables swarmed by flies.
The next day I expanded my consciousness in the community forest outside the park boundary. It was another foggy morning but birds of all varieties (including ravens) were active along the cobalt river. I stood on a log and tiny kamikaze birds darted around me grazing my crown. At an oxbow bend I was met by a river angel in the form of the largest flying creature I ever saw. The bird appeared a dinosaur as it sprang from the water with a melancholy cry that broke my heart in two. Its gait spread twenty feet and she seemed to fly in slow motion with huge wings beating the still air. This anecdote is woefully inadequate like Juan Diego attempting to explain his encounter with the Virgin of Guadalupe. My entire reality was permanently altered by that river angel who took the form of an orange, black, and white bird with an elongated beak. The creature settled in a treetop and sat for a long time. So I sat too waiting as the morning wore on and mist rose from the river. Eons later the bird swooped from its perch suddenly splitting into two birds that flew in opposite directions. The split startled me and I still can’t conceive of how one bird became two. In that moment I nearly fell and whirled around eventually tracking one of the mythic creatures down the river. I knew it was an omen but some things are best left a mystery I guess. Afterwards I prowled the shoreline on all fours pretending I was a tiger. While resting by the river, a tribe of tall sinewy women appeared wearing bright cloth and carrying baskets on their heads. They talked to one another in clicks and shrill noises that seemed peculiar but there bright grins were reassuring. At that moment from the other direction I saw a tribesman being chased by a small rhino. It was a very weird moment and suddenly I felt venerable out there. Elephants with their mahouts lumbered by crossing the river as the sun burned through the veil of clouds. I spent the rest of that day wandering the riverside, skinny dipping, and exploring the alternating grassland and forest.
I had considered going to Lumbini several hours west to the birthplace of Buddha but was wiped from the safari. I also had trouble with the local ATM’s but luckily managed to cover my tab before boarding a bus back to Katmandu. When I reached the capital I was feeling raw but managed to get some cash and retreat back to Ganeshy Mall to wait for Becky. I was so excited to see my pal that I waited by the window like a kid anticipating Santa’s arrival. But eventually I adjourned downstairs and when she found me I was reading an edition of Brick N Bhutan.
Part 8: What to do Katmandu Part Two
The next day we repeated the walking tour I had gone on with Claire but with a twist. Becky has a knack for aimless exploration which led to magical moments. We ducked into portals, encountered hilarious kids, and a guy who looked like Cheech who kept trying to sell us “sticky weed” We went to Durbar square, got lost, and had lunch at a dilapidated rooftop revolving restaurant that didn’t revolve. That afternoon we went to the Ghats where Hindu families cremated their deceased kin. Adjacent to the Ghats was an auspicious Hindu Temple and a gathering place for locals and holy men. This locality was ancient with robed men in beards sitting in brick doorways as the thick ash rose from the filthy river. The scene was what I would imagine Varanasi to be, a strange cocktail of death and life. But instead of being dreary a strange peace pervaded the area. With death out in the open life was captivated in the moment releasing the gentle human spirit to waft around in the acrid air. We found our driver with a cannabis leaf sticker on his beat up rig and he took us to Bodnath. Upon stepping out of the taxi we got a miracle ticket to the temple from two Swedish women whose passes hadn’t been punched and we slipped through an ornate portal gate and into nirvana. This Buddhist sanctuary revolves around a tremendous stupa, which is a large white dome. Atop the dome is a square portion painted with the serene eyes of Buddha. The place was packed with worshippers many of whom are Tibetan refugees. Twilight is a remarkable time to visit the stupa as the worshiping hits a fever pitch. Devotees prostrate themselves full length on large boards in a callisthenic routine, beads of sweat dripping from their brow. Others sit in circles chanting from ragged prayer books while butter lamps and incense burn and people swarm in a clockwise motion spinning prayer wheels while mumbling mantras. It appeared to be the nucleolus of the Buddhist universe and the sheer humanity of the place brought the Buddha into tangible form. People have been worshipping here for more than a thousand years as merchants used to pray for safe passage to Lhasa when the route was open. Now cut off from home Tibetans rally around the Chorten and a westerner can only pontificate what they must be feeling. Taking a break from circumambulation Becky and I found a rooftop joint for masala tea at sunset. The stupa is circled by shops selling Buddhist swag, and lined with hotels and restaurants. But instead of detracting from the vibe the consumerism and activity adds even more humanity to the shrine. This is home for the FAMILY Buddhist or otherwise. I savored my tea in the company of a true friend astounded at the texture of incarnation.
That night we roamed in Thamel and Becky (a rock hound) led me to some cool gem shop and styled me out with a jagged blue rock that is good for cleansing. I also appraised some morganite a very precious clear pink stone that I considered buying for a wedding that might yet happen. But I was broke and the time wasn’t right so I settled on a hunk of rose quartz for myself and we slipped out the door.
The next day back to Pokhara where events unraveled and chronological time ceased. We went to the peace pagoda, Becky sniffed out the local district with cheap candle lit bistros. (Nepal is loud with generators constantly humming pumping limited power into establishments and there are periodic outages) we rowed on the water and laughed at the Nepali folks mocking me. We bought silly pants and a staunch Englishman told me I was wearing ladies trousers. We bummed and tramped and stayed in a flea bag motel. (Separate rooms of course) But time ran out and we said goodbye… She was going on a guided trek to a cultural village and I was boarding another backseat bus bound for Katmandu. It was my third cross country bus in six days. In Katmandu I went to the monkey temple for a curtain call before retiring at Ganesh Himal and the following day I arrived at the airport at 1 P.M, checked in only to find my flight was gone. Druk Air had changed the departure and I missed the connection. Eventually I went into an office with soldiers in camouflage and k-9 units and contacted the office of Druk. They informed me they had no contact information to tell me about the change so I was ordered to return the next day which I did. When I arrived the following morning I sat in the terminal with a group of sprite nuns from Trongsa who were returning from a pilgrimage. I boarded my dragon chariot and picked up a copy of kuensal to see a picture of Nancy Strickland standing in a group of foreigners on the front page. The flight from Katmandu to Paro is worth the 250 bones just for the amazing scenery of the Himalayan range, although on this day Everest was shrouded in a pod of clouds. The approach to Paro is more dramatic than the Bangkok route as the aircraft nearly flips over in an acrobatic summersault. The pilot navigates through the wedge of mountains without the aid of instruments making it a profound feat. When we touched down I couldn’t help break into applause. Reentering Bhutan was perhaps more dramatic than my original arrival as the contrast from Katmandu to Paro is acute.
Part 9: Returnee
It was a crisp day in Bhutan’s loveliest valley with prayer flags snapping in the breeze. I got settled at the Palace where I had left some articles, then strolled down into town the same way I had gone with my family weeks before. I felt euphoric to be back, a feeling that would diminish considerably in the following days. The next day I moved to the purgatory phase of Thimphu. I checked into a dive hotel and then went to the Dragon Roots to meet the new group of teachers. Eventually I moved to the Roots since the owner cut me a good rate. The new teachers were nice, they had busied themselves forming connections but as a returnee my position on the fringe was solidified. After a few days Becky arrived and we anxiously awaited word from BCF if there was space on the eastbound bus.
On the day of departure while seated on the bus Karma informed us there was no room after all but they could make space after Wangdi. So Becky and I got a taxi to Wangdi and met the group at the Dragons Nest. The next day we moved to Bumthang where we dropped of Andrea, Bob, and their two adorable kids at their new place which was not quite finished. The newcomer men of the group acted as surrogate uncles to the kids which was cool. After that we headed East with passengers Ashleigh, Becky, Jonathon, Lee, Collin, Sharon, and I. The long journey gave me time to get to know the new arrivals that were all very nice. On the Big La Becky and Ashleigh hung some prayer flags that were given to them by Vicky and Ian and we finally arrived in the heart of the east after dark. I loitered in Trashigang with Becky for two more days eating curry from the bakery and shooting the shit with Phuntsho at her shop. Becky bought me a party hat to commemorate the Losar holiday (Bhutanese New Years) which I wore around town shouting Happy Losar! to the locals who were bemused.
But every vacation ends and I found myself sitting on a couch in the lounge of the K.C wagering with Becky on whose taxi would arrive first. Well it was mine and with little fanfare I slapped Bunks on the back and headed out on the familiar road towards home.
|Monkey and Mom, Thailand|
|Elephant Ride with Bra|
|The Tiger at 13,500 Feet|
|Rhino in Chitwan|