A while ago in the Andes mountains of Argentina we passed through a place called Uspallata, and thereafter began our ill-fated international food smuggling debacle, which saw us retreating to Uspallata. Uspallata, as it turned out, was the home base for the filming of the movie Seven Years in Tibet, turning the surrounding Andes into the surrogate Himalayas. As we drove from Uspallata to the Chilean border, passing the iconic Aconcagua and other imposing Andean peaks along the way, we just kept thinking, wow, these mountains are just like the Himalayas. Imagine. Just like Tibet.
You can imagine our elation, then, as we dropped our packs outside of a rock hut for lunch in Nepal’s Langtang Valley. Behind the hut stood a ridge, imposing and massive, and on the other side, only a couple of miles from where we sat, was Tibet. An excited Tibetan man, the same one we’d met on our way up the valley, rushed to our sunny table, recognizing us at once.
How could we forget. Sheena had made this man a promise to return when we met him on the way up the valley, and had been guiltily stressing over her promise ever since.
“You guys, I promised him so we can’t forget to stop for lunch. He would be so sad!” And then fifteen minutes later, “Do you guys remember that promise I made? We CAN’T forget!”
“Sheena, that guy tricks everyone into promising to stop for lunch,” I pleaded. Sometimes she really is too honest for her own good. Nevertheless, she had shaken his hand and promised to return for lunch and homemade yak yogurt, and she was sticking to it.
Yak yogurt, so rare and novel anywhere else, was as natural as anything in these parts. We spent our days on the trail passing yaks chewing their cud and staring ahead blankly, dolt-like. Claire, while not so brave on Himalayan death roads, conjured her confidence and made it her mission to touch the shy yaks. She would walk close enough to remain unnoticed, and then inch her tiny frame closer and closer until the yak would take notice and shake its gigantic ice-pick horns ominously in her direction. She would reach her little hand out and try to pet its head, but just before making contact she would lose her nerve and retreat.
“Dai, is there a toilet here?” I asked our lunch slinger as he passed on the way to the garden, having just taken our order.
“Yes, in yak house,” he said, pointing to the squat stone enclosure beyond the garden where yaks presumably lived. I stood and followed him into the garden, and contorted my body into the yak house. Inside it was no taller than three feet and it was unclear how yaks could fit inside. Did they crawl? In any case, I would have to crawl on my knees in the dark to relieve myself into piles of yak dung. Opting against it I turned and walked back through the garden where the man was digging in the dirt with his hands.
“Digging to China?” It quickly occurred to me that this piece of hyperbole wasn’t so hyperbolic at our current location.
“No, digging for potatoes,” he said, looking up at me as if I were perhaps a tinge stupid. We had asked for vegetable dumplings, whereupon he had walked directly to his garden to start digging for the ingredients. Fast food hadn’t caught on with exiled Tibetans as well as crafty marketing techniques had.
The villages in the Langtang Valley don’t sit on an ancient trade route, as those of the Annapurna Circuit do. Rather, these villages grew when the Chinese invaded Tibet in the 1950’s, ruthlessly slaughtering the locals in their thirst for conquest (a story rehashed in Seven Years in Tibet). Many who fled the torment ended up here, a couple of miles from the Chinese border, a stone’s throw from their ancestral homeland. These villages became a place where Tibetans could continue to survive as herders and subsistence farmers. A land without a people for a people without a land, and in this case it was actually true for the most part.
At some point the valley was discovered by outdoor enthusiasts, and trekkers began ascending the valley, a trip of a few days each way, on foot. The villagers soon recognized the opportunity to commercialize, and began offering room and board to weary trekkers.
The cost of living in the Langtang Valley, with its subsistence farming and herding, is almost immeasurably low. With an influx of comparatively rich trekkers looking for places to spend their money, the prospect of offering food and beds became irresistible to all but the staunchest holdouts, and as a result most structures in the Langtang Valley have been repurposed for trekking commerce. With so much supply and such limited demand—especially now, given the near impossibility of access to the trailhead due to the Maoist uprising—enterprising villagers had devised many inventive, persistent, if not somewhat annoying strategies of rogue marketing.
Often, while ascending the trail into the high glacial valleys, we would spot Tibetan horsemen sauntering along the trail. We watched in awe as they approached, surreal beings snatched from the pages of the National Geographic. The illusion would tarnish when the horseman would reach into his tattered yak hide overcoat and produce a business card.
“My friend, pizza, lasagna, brownie, apple pie. Where you going? Stay my guesthouse.”
Their tactics were copious and clever. Stopping for lunch or a night’s sleep would invariably end in the proprietor seeing us off with strict instructions to stay or eat at a family member’s place farther up the valley. Children would be sent by parents down to lower villages to cling to groups of trekkers and lead them to the right place to sleep for the night. Failure meant a full day and a dozen miles of walking for nothing. If they did succeed, the guesthouse would usually provide a free room for the promise of eating breakfast and dinner there.
My favorite was when we passed through the village of Bamboo. We passed a family sitting in front of their guesthouse when one of the young daughters ran up to me.
“Excuse me mister!”
“Why yes, my dear?”
“Can you do big favor?”
“For you, my flower? Anything at all.” At this she ran back to her mother and then returned to me carrying a small blue bag containing one apple. She handed me the apple and then a small handwritten note with her aunt’s name and the name of her guesthouse, which was several hours up the trail.
“Please deliver this to my aunt. It is very important.” She stared into my eyes as she said it, gravely placed the apple in my hand, and curled my fingers around it with her dirty little hand, being very deliberate to convey a sense of deep importance, as though her aunt’s very survival depended on it.
“I will deliver this apple to your aunt if it’s the last thing I do.”
“Do you promise?”
“I wouldn’t lie about something like this,” I said, and then turned and walked away, purposefully, for the benefit of my young damsel. I paused before turning the corner and looked back. The family was watching me, their clothes rippling in the breeze, eyes looking upon me with great hope. I nodded slowly, patted the apple in my pack, and walked on.
Of course the purpose of this charade was to trick us into going inside of her aunt’s guesthouse. Once inside, we would be wooed by her aunt and her home cooking, offered a free room—an offer we would be unable to refuse—and we would make the whole family richer. I may be stupid, but I’m no dummy. I considered eating the apple, but thought better of it. Instead, we sought out the aunt’s guesthouse later that evening and I approached the door with great purpose and knocked. A man answered the door.
“Good evening, good sir. I have come from the distant village of Bamboo bearing a great burden for your wife. Is she about?”
He stared at me. In a minute his wife, the intended recipient of my apple, appeared and emerged from the hut.
“Hello ma’am. I have been sent by your loving sister, a resident of the far-away village of Bamboo, to see to it that you take receipt of this nutritious fruit.” I produced the plastic bag containing the apple from my pack and handed it to her, along with the handwritten note.
“My duty is fulfilled,” I said, and began to walk away.
“You want room?” she wailed in half confusion as I departed.
“No thank you, ma’am, but please enjoy the apple.” We were bound for the next village anyway, but it was nonetheless fun to become a temporary thread in their marketing network.
On the third day, Claire was given the task of delivering not an apple, but a full grown horse, to the uppermost village in the Langtang Valley, Kyanjin Gompa. To say that she was thrilled to be manipulated by a rogue marketeer would be an understatement. She was unable to shake the maniacal smile from her face for the entire hour that she dragged that horse around by its rope.
“Come on Mr. Bo Jangles,” she whispered, “you’re a good pony.”
Kyanjin Gompa consisted of little more than a smattering of huts that had been converted to guesthouses, and a few larger buildings that had been erected to hold larger groups of trekkers. Overwhelmed by the onslaught of villagers begging us to stay at their guesthouses, we hastily chose one of these larger guesthouses on account of it not having a hawker out front. It went against our general rule of not staying at a place with more than four rooms, and as such we spent a freezing night in poorly constructed cardboard rooms smelling strongly of kerosene.
Over a tasteless dinner we were fortunate to make the acquaintance of two mountaineers who had that day finished summiting a nearby peak, the first team to do so that year. The men, both glaciologists working a six-month stint in Nepal to study glaciers, had spent several days on the mountain eating meager rations, a condition illustrated by the number of tasteless entrees that they ordered and their orgasmic reactions to eating them. In between bites they conveyed cryptic advice to us for our upcoming exploration into the upper reaches of the valley the next day.
“I spent a lot of days in that valley,” the older man said, stuffing a soggy pizza into his mouth, “and the Zen Garden is the bee’s knees.”
“Oh yeah,” the younger agreed, chow mein noodles drooping from his beard, “the Zen Garden is an oasis. There’s a boulder with prayer flags. Below it is the Zen Garden.” His blue eyes were like discs and the chow mein hung like worms in suspended animation from his wily beard.
The next morning we set off up the valley, and with our village left behind the last habitations. The trail threaded the edge of a deep groove set between endless ridges of peaks. Directly above our guesthouse stood Tsangbu Ri, whose 22,123 foot peak fell on the other side of the Chinese border—the only piece of Tibet I’ve actually seen with my own eyes. As we trekked higher it was superseded in turn by peak after peak, each in the neighborhood of 18,000 feet. We trudged along the trail at around 14,000 feet, a commendable elevation in and of itself.
Throughout the trek we came across dozens of yaks, and each time Claire veered to intercept them. The yaks invariably shook their gargantuan, deadly horns and bolted. By lunchtime these unwanted advances had caused Claire to suffer the effects of glycogen depletion and she began showing signs of early onset hanger (hunger+anger).
Just when we thought all hope was gone, we rounded a bend and saw, off in the distance, an enormous boulder perched on the side of the canyon wall, and from it a line of prayer flags. We hurried to its base, where we found a surreal garden-like area with pygmy trees, green grass, a smattering of boulders, and a crystal clear stream emerging from a spring beneath a boulder. We collapsed before the stream and stuffed our faces with bread and cheese we’d procured from an artisan producer on the way up the valley, and afterward we all fell asleep in the grass. All except for Claire, who used her newfound energy to molest some nearby yaks. Our potato-digging lunch slinger would later tell us that a half dozen overly curious trekkers get violently gored each year by yaks along this trail.
As evening fell in Kyanjin Gompa I stood outside of our new guesthouse, having relocated from the large kerosene-scented one to a small four-room hut operated by a Tibetan husband and wife. I pulled my jacket tight against my neck to keep the blustery wind at bay. Suddenly, around a corner emerged a stampede of children at full tilt, bucking and whinnying. They flew past me, two children with ropes in their mouths and jingle bells draped around their necks, pretending to be wild mustangs, and the other two pretending to be the horsemen. The mustangs practically pulled their riders with their mouths, occasionally stopping to give a wild kick aimed at their tormentors. They disappeared behind a rock hut. A few minutes later they reappeared, circled, descended to a neighboring garden, and then returned to where I was standing. One of the young boys instructed an older boy how to be a mustang; how to bite the bridle, rear his head back, and then kick the horseman. Once the older boy had the general idea he placed the rope in his mouth and they all disappeared again, kicking and whinnying in a whirl of dust and snot.
That night Nathan, Claire, Sheena and I gathered around the wood burning stove in the dining room, and were soon joined by the Tibetan woman who ran the guesthouse. She appeared to be in her late twenties or early thirties. Her English was rough, and she was almost completely unable to decipher my elementary Nepali.
“Sorry, my English not good,” she said, “and Nepali worse.”
We found this confusing, being that she had lived in Nepal her entire life.
“All villages Tibetan here,” she said. “Nobody here speak Nepali. We speak only Tibetan, little bit English.”
“And where did you learn English?”
“We learn English talking to trekkers. Not know much Nepali because not much Nepali trekkers.”
I found this amazing. She had lived in Nepal her whole life but hadn’t met enough Nepali people to have been able to learn the language. Learning English through brief encounters with passing trekkers was no small feat either, having no access to computers or books.
“Do you live here in the village all year long, or do you go elsewhere during the snowy months?”
“Always live here, all life. Never leave. My husband find wood in summer so we can have fire in winter. My kids living in Kathmandu. Now hard for husband to find wood, because now mountains protected. He must walk very far. Can only bring one load of wood in one day, and carry ten miles.” She was ruggedly beautiful, and had a tinge of a rasp in her voice and permanent rosy cheeks from a life spent above 13,000 feet in the cold, dry air. Her long black hair was contained within a woven shawl wrapped around her head. Her husband, whom we had met the previous day, was also ruggedly handsome. To find these two living in the seclusion of the Himalayas was striking.
“I saw some children outside playing games this evening.”
“Yes,” she smiled, “two of them my children. They come home for Tihar, but cannot return Kathmandu because Maoist strike. When strike over they go back to school.”
“And how do they get back to Kathmandu?” The hike from Kyanjin Gompa to the closest road in Syabrubesi had taken us three days.
“They walk on trail. Make it to Syabrubesi in one day, then take bus to Kathmandu. They very strong children. It take two days to get to school.” Two days, including a one-day walk of nearly twenty miles alone on rough, high elevation trails.
“And how often to you get to see them?”
The hint of a smile evaporated from her face and in its place came a look of sadness. “Only once each year. They come home for Tihar holiday. School very important.”
Talking to this woman, as talking with many Nepalis, made me feel as if I had never really had to struggle for anything. I did well in high school and for my trouble received a free ride to the university of my choice. I had attended university as if it were the natural progression for any person, and had easily found my way into the workforce after that. In talking to Nepalis about their struggle for education and their reasons for doing so made me feel embarrassed to admit my own breezy plight. One Nepali friend in Kathmandu had recently said goodbye to her boyfriend; he had sent applications to universities all over the world, and was accepted by one in Ukraine. After learning of his acceptance he had six weeks to learn enough Ukranian to start classes, and he went about it as if he’d won the lottery.
The wood burning stove kept the small dining room comfortable against the biting wind, which succeeded in passing some of its chill through the single pane windows and rough-hewn construction of the hut. We lounged around a wooden table next to the stove, on pillows on the hard wood benches.
“So tell me about Tibet,” I said to the woman, who had been staring softly at a pillow since speaking of her children.
“I never been to Tibet. If we go back we in big trouble. We might be killed.” She paused for a minute, and then her cheeks receded in a smile. “But we see our home in Seven Years in Tibet.”
This was crushing. Not only would she be imprisoned or killed by her Chinese tormentors should she decide to visit her homeland, literally a stone’s throw beyond the ridge right outside of her window, but the image in her mind of her home is not actually her home at all. It is Uspallata, Argentina. I tried not to let my face show just how terribly sad I found all of this. I didn’t dare tell her that the movie wasn’t actually filmed in Tibet, and I hoped nobody ever would.
In the morning we packed our bags for the trek back down the valley. As we set our packs against the hut in the early morning sun, the woman’s husband emerged from the kitchen outbuilding and cheerily invited us for tea before our departure. We shuffled into the cramped kitchen and took seats around the table, making small talk while his wife sat on a bench tending the fire in the homemade clay stove.
The husband handed us tea and wished us luck on our trek. We asked a few questions about his plans for the day and then took some pictures of the family before he excused himself. She had turned her body back to the stove and looked down at a stick in her hands.
“How do you say goodbye in Tibetan?” I asked
Maybe she was thinking about her children, and how long it would be until she would see them again. Or maybe about her husband, off to gather one solitary load of firewood from a faraway mountainside. Perhaps she thought of Tibet, one ridge away but forever unachievable. She turned to us, wiping her eyes with the back of her hand. Soon more tears streamed down her cheeks, and she spoke.