Wednesday, September 7, 2011

A Short Trip to the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, Darjeeling

The Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, conveniently attached to the Darjeeling Zoo, was established by Jawaharlal Nehru in 1953, and partially run by the world-famous Tenzing Norgay, one of the original summiters of Mt Everest. It's a good day out if you're in Darjeeling and at a loss as to what to do with yourself.

I grew up fascinated by mountaineering stories, lore, and books - I must have read Into Thin Air five or six times when it first came out, I lapped up articles on Mallory, Conrad Anker, I read Outside Magazine obsessively and wished for the day I too could wander around in the Himalayas. Summiting Everest wasn't something that ever appealed to me - paying $50,000 for the privilege of facing death struck me as a bit wrong-headed - but I loved to read about it. Visiting the Himalayas and trekking in Sikkim was certainly the quiet culmination of a personal dream for me, and Tenzing Norgay must take at least some of the credit for that. (I had a pet hermit crab called Tenzing when I was six years old. I'm not sure if I should be embarrassed by this).

Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay summited the mountain in 1953 and interest in Himalayan mountaineering began to surge soon after, especially in India. As the museum at the Institute explains, mountaineering prior to this time wasn't really something Indians did, except when in the company of (occasional) convoys of slightly daft Western adventurers. Norgay's achievement made the public realize that they could do this stuff too, and furthermore, the best mountaineering on the planet happened to be in their own backyard. Norgay became the first field director for the HMI: he'd keep the post up until his death.

The HMI is still going strong, and maintains a training center up on the way to the Goecha La in Sikkim, along the same trek I did. I remember noting with pleasure that a lot of young women were part of the training camps ranks, when I passed them up or down the mountain. Sir Edmund Hillary—who, I should add, had many wonderful traits, I should write about him sometime—took a dim view of women in mountaineering, but Norgay's institute has got past the mental hump. (And Sherpa women are tough as nails, as they would be).

The actual Institute is certainly worth a visit. The museum attache to the Institute is rather violently circa-1975, but I happen to find that sort of thing appealing. There's a scale model of the Himalayas with little light-up push buttons, displays of climbing gear that belonged to famous people—including Norgay, naturally—a number of maps, explanations of the chronology of professional mountaineering in India, displays of artifacts and clothing from the Himalayas best-known cultural groups, and dusty, taxidermized Local Wildlife. You can't take photos inside. I tried.

Padma Bhushan Tenzing (his full name) died in May of 1986, and was cremated in a traditional Buddhist ceremony outside the museum, attended by Sir Edmund Hillary, who according to a New York Times article on the event, "stayed on long after Tenzing's eldest son Norbu, a student at a New York state business college, ignited the sandalwood pyre, sending billowing white smoke into the mountain mists."

A large and triumphant statue of the man himself stands nearby.

There's a small cafe and people dressed up in traditional Himalayan garb ambling around the court-yard if you're in the mood for a photo op, though they're thankfully not particularly pushy. You can walk around the Institute's facilities if you'd like- a series of classrooms and some animal skulls and a display of climbing knots, nothing particularly exciting, though it's nice to know it's a living institution.

Any aficionado of mountaineering should pay their respects here.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

The Darjeeling Zoo: Red Pandas Are Totally Weird

A standard Darjeeling view. There are good reasons to come here.

Whoa, tourist stuff in Darjeeling? Yeah, there's tourist stuff. You can get bored walking up and down hills after a while, especially if you're walking up and down hills in a crush of people and are realizing (too late) that there is nowhere to pee anywhere in the city, and there's like six or seven restaurants open at any-given-time that actually have things on the menu that are written on the menu (the Indian affliction). This is when Thou Shalt Tourist. So Tourist I did.

I went up to the Darjeeling Zoo and the Tenzing Norgay Climbing School, which are conveniently located in the same very-vertically oriented park a bit out of downtown. Catch a taxi down there; negotiate hard on the price.

Maybe this awesome sign has contributed to the low rate of animal harassment at the Darjeeling zoo. Note the lion.

Now: zoos in Asia. Horrifying conceptually, especially if you've been to one and have seen what passes for "animal husbandry" in many parts of the world. (What, we can't eat it, plow with it, or make clothes out of it? Why do we have this thing again?)

The Darjeeling Zoo is, thankfully, a notable exception and seems to be doing a pretty good job with keeping the animals both alive and reasonably happy looking. Big exhibits with plenty of foliage and greenery, toys are provided, there's handy explanatory signs, no one is throwing things at the animals or torturing them in lieu of anything better to do - I didn't feel like an asshole for paying to get in here. Also, the ticket includes admission to the climbing school and comes to around five dollars so you're looking at an economical day out.

Himalayan wildlife is reasonably interesting, and even has an adorable and charismatic Mascot Species, Your Cuddly Friend the Red Panda. (Red pandas are, if you believe the tourist literature, everywhere in Sikkim. Except for when you want to see them, but I'm told they're secretive).

They are cute little monsters who are, interestingly enough, not particularly closely related to anything else - they're usually stuck into their very own family of Ailuridae, a subgroup of Musteloidea, which includes skunks, racoons, and weasels. But they're not 100 percent on that one.

They also used to range all the way from China to Britain. Impressive for something so seemingly cute, fuzzy, and introverted. Unsurprisingly, the Darjeeling Zoo has a lot of them in a breeding program, who will either be found sleeping or pacing while waiting to be fed. Such is the way of zoos.

"Atcha, it won't move!" an old man kept on repeating to me while we both stood in front of the red panda cage, in a voice dripping with disdain and disappointment and misery. "Why won't he MOVE?"

"He's tired," I said. "Really tired?"

"I have this great camera," the old man said. "And the panda, he will not move. Why won't he move?" He sounded as if this was the great disappointment of his life. He had bought a nice camera, dragged himself out to the zoo, and now the panda wouldn't move. Maybe he was considering killing himself over this. Maybe it was the straw that had broken the camels back, the final disappointment in a long and generally disappointing life. I felt genuinely worried for the old man, for a moment.

"Atchaaa!" he said, and moved on to the cages next door, which contained exotic pheasants.

"Why won't the birds MOVE?" I heard him complain, five minutes later.

A pair of shockingly cute leopard cats, a domestic cat sized wildcat that lurks throughout South and East Asia. They can be found just about everywhere in Asia if you look hard enough (they don't want you to find them).

They're cross-bred with domestic cats to produce the lovely Bengal cat breed, which makes sense, since just look at those little carnivorous felid faces. Awww, damn, I want one.

A pack of Asian wolves, not doing a hell of a lot, as is probably their wont. They're lovely animals. A wolf is pretty much a wolf wherever you are in the world, with minor structural differences - and wolves are scarce indeed in India - so I won't harp on them too much. But everyone loves wolves! Except for Idaho cattle ranchers and people who live in poorly lit and remote villages in Uttar Pradesh. Then you have a problem.

My general opinion on bears is that they are dickheads. This is confirmed by a family friend who has been known to declaim loudly that bears are assholes to anyone who will listen. However, I'm rather fond of sloth bears, which are smallish, reasonably in-offensive, and really don't seem to care about much beyond foraging for food and taking extended naps. I mean, they subsist primarily on insects. Of course, they will nail people on occasion - I like this particular account of sloth bear attack....

According to Robert Armitage Sterndale, in his Mammalia of India (1884, p. 62):

[The sloth bear] is also more inclined to attack man unprovoked than almost any other animal, and casualties inflicted by it are unfortunately very common, the victim being often terribly disfigured even if not killed, as the bear strikes at the head and face. Blanford was inclined to consider bears more dangerous than tigers...

Another: "Captain Williamson in his Oriental Field Sports wrote of how sloth bears rarely killed their human victims outright, but would suck and chew on their limbs till they were reduced to bloody pulps."

Well, that's charming!

The Darjeeling Zoo has a lot of other animals beside these specimens, of course, except I was unable to get even half-decent photos of any of them. This was mostly due to operator error. There are also tigers, snow leopards, panthers of both the black and generic variety, more civets then you could imagine existed (The Himalayas possess a totally inordinate number of civets), and a whole lot of pheasants in increasingly surrealist colors and designs. Evolution has done very strange and perverse things to Himalayan pheasants.

There's also monkeys, but I hate monkeys and spend as little time looking at them as possible. Furthermore, you are likely to be assaulted by or at least menaced by a very large monkey with big sharp teeth and a pissy attitude at some point in your Indian Adventure, so why would I pay to see them? Pshaw.

I would add that, being a single blonde female and therefore a massive megaslut in the minds of many (I won't venture to say the MAJORITY of, but..) Indian males, I spent a lot of time being observed and photographed at the zoo.

Actually, I'd be observing or photographing an animal, and six or seven teenage boys would be observing and photographing me. While giggling a lot.

Apparently the multi-faceted wonders of zoology take a back seat to ogling sweaty foreign woman when you're an Indian guy of a certain age, I guess.

I wish I could have attached a DO NOT TEASE THE FAINE sign to my ass at that point, but it might not have worked the way I would have liked it to.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Blind Date - Himalayan Food, Darjeeling, Cheese Curry is Awesome, Really

Blind Date Restaurant
Fancy Market (Top floor - watch for the sign from the street.)
12, NB Singh Road
+91 35 4225 5404
Darjeeling, India

Blind Date is a small, somewhat creatively decorated restaurant in Darjeeling that specializes in Himalayan food - the common cuisine ground in between Nepal, Tibet, Sikkim and Bhutan. The constants? Momos (dumplings), Thukpa (noodle soup), fried bread and fried rice, and more dairy products then are usually encountered in East Asian influenced cuisines. Most importantly: Blind Date is both dirt cheap and delicious. For your buck, it's just about the best eating experience in Darjeeling. Don't miss it.

Just be sure to use the bathroom first, since, like every restaurant in Darjeeling (just about) there's nowhere to go in the restaurant. Not a problem for men, who may exert the Indian males God-given right to piss on anything wherever he pleases at any time, but ladies may want to hold back on the beer. Watch this space for an upcoming screed about Darjeeling's discriminatory bathroom facilities, but, writing about food right now.

I believe this was Chhurpi, the Himalayas' somewhat weird but delicious variant on the West's hallowed cheese soup. (The fact I am unsure irritates me - I lost my notes somewhere, and Google is proving unhelpful). We ordered it with pork, which was the way to go. Although it's made with Himalaya-style fermented cheese - pretty much cottage cheese with a weird name, don't need to delve into it further, do we? - the taste is somewhat equivalent to cheddar. However this stuff is made, it's ideal for a foggy day at high altitude.

Ting-mo, or Tibetan bread rolls, are often served steamed (like the Chinese do) and are a rather inoffensive and basic carbohydrate. Good at high altitude to keep you hiking but not something I'd pick out of a police lineup for supper. Thankfully, deep frying turns the stuff into golden-crispy Grade-A deliciousness. Get two orders.

I don't have a picture of Blind Date's variant on the theme, but momos are just what people in the Himalayas - and at various restaurants in India - call God's Chosen Food, the dumpling. The main way you can tell them apart from East Asian variants on the classic is the shape - momos tend to be rounder. Other then that, they're filled with various kinds of things and served in a dizzying number of ways. I happen to like the variety that are pan-fried and served with a thick chili sauce the best, but I'll eat and adore pretty much anything pan fried and served in a thick chili sauce. You can never go wrong with momos in this part of the world, and thankfully, you'll never be forced to live without em'.

I should add that Blind Date has some of the best chili chicken on the subcontinent. Chili chicken is a much beloved Chindian dish (You know, the bastard love child of Chinese and Indian food) and is sort of like a spicier, harsher, variant on General Tso's chicken. This being India, the chicken is usually served bone-in and stir-fried with a not-fucking-around chili sauce, some whole chilis, and some vegetables. My friend Kiran and I are nuts for it, and this was great.

Fried rice is what Asia runs on. The world will probably run on fried rice in a hundred years. I'm cool with this. Blind Date, true to form, has excellent fried rice. They keep it in the pan long enough to get a little nutty crisp on it, which is essential, and there's plenty of stuff in it, which is also essential.

Gobi Manchurian, another beloved deep-fried and spicy Chindian dish. It's deep-fried cauliflower in a sweet and spicy sauce. Just about ubiquitous and pretty good if you, like most people, prefer your vegetable products crispy and delicious.

I've got a thing for fried greens, which most people think is kind of weird. Whatever. These were really good, and a nice mix of various local-greens varieties - not over or undercooked, nice and fresh, a simple and slightly spicy Chinese-style sauce with some vinegar.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

A Post in Memorial: I Walked Around in the Mist Thinking a Lot

I continued hanging out with Patrick. Kiran was still up on the mountain and -hopefully - coming back down in a timely fashion, if altitude sickness and yetis hadn't got him first. I had nothing to do and was very much enjoying it. I visited Darjeeling's Top Tourist attractions a bit half-halfheartedly. I ate a lot of meat since I had grown to miss it in the mountains. I went for long, hilly walks to nowhere in particular. I failed to wake up early enough to go to Tiger Mountain.

I checked out of the Planter's Club at the earliest possible opportunity and booked myself into the more salubrious, if pricier, Shangri-La Regency, which did not have the ghosts of centuries past knocking about and a functional cable television, where I laid sprawled out on the bed and watched Indian intellectuals complain about the Commonwealth Games.

And I'm going to get these introspective posts about the nature of life and death out of the way in a chunk here, because I guess it seems right. Darjeeling was for me, a lot about wandering around on misty hills and ruminating - somewhat against my will - on existence. Looking back on it, almost a year on, it all seemed prescient, in light of what was waiting for me in Cambodia.

After I met Patrick, I met his traveling friend, a Dutch 27-year-old who used to be a competitive cyclist, a real athletic hot-shot. Bert was smart as hell, and he and KIran took to each other immediately, once Kiran actually arrived. They argued geo-politics and Patrick and I talked about packed-to-the-gills buses and hot days in India and what happens when you're trying to make a flight for the Congo. The four of us had dinner together. I'll talk about that later but right now I'll talk about this. Putting a food blog post in here doesn't quite seem right.

There's a cafe in Darjeeling you should find, or perhaps you won't avoid finding it, because far as we could tell it's the only place in town that stays open past 9:00 PM.

The design aesthetic is about what you'd get if your seventy-five year old maiden aunt with a proclivity for knick-knacks happened to be a Tibetan Buddhist monk: lacey things, images of Buddhist saints, lamps in awful taste with dangly things coming off of them and lots of Thangka paintings - there was a scent of incense and perhaps mothball in the air.

The menu, this being Darjeeling, featured nothing stronger than black tea and hot chocolate. I defaulted to hot chocolate in deference to the mist. I settled into a puce cushion. We talked about everything.

It is odd for me to write this now, to think that I would be reading (not much later) of Bert's suicide in January, only a week or so before my second Phnom Penh tragedy - that I will not talk about here, but maybe someday. I went online and noticed a sudden flurry of postings on his Facebook page, which is how death is announced nowadays.

His family had put up an obituary site and I went there and looked. I couldn't figure out how he'd died, since most of the postings were in Dutch. I got a Dutch friend to read a news report I found with his name in it. A suicide. No more details. None I'll ever get, probably. Don't want to pry further.

Had something in him already begun to become undone, despite how normal he was and how charming he was, and how he was telling us about his impending degree in sport's health? He was out here traveling, as many young people do who have some time and a bit of cash on their hands. Some of them are on holiday and that is all they are out for.

Some of them are both on holiday and also looking for something, a purpose, which is the category I like to think I fall into (and fall short of). And then there are the ones who are looking for something far more dire, a reason to root themselves to the earth - a trip that can turn into a farewell tour, I guess.

Did he find what he was looking for up in Sikkim and Darjeeling? Was it the failure to find (whatever it was) that drove him to kill himself? Or were the Himalayas nothing at all to him, a blip on the radar of a mind that had already begun to descend downwards and downwards, again?

Winston Churchill called depression the Black Dog. It follows you everywhere. Churchill strong-armed it, but that's luck, as much as strength. And many don't strong-arm it, let it take them away.

He was young and fit and ordered tea alongside us. He was very blonde and had freckles and was good looking, and spoke with only the faintest hint of a Dutch accent. We had breakfast with him and Patrick at Glenary's, and he complained about the quality of the baked beans.

I have forgotten where he was off to beyond Darjeeling, but the photos remain on his Facebook, which no one has aced out yet. These are things I did not anticipate in a pink-and-mauve Tibetan Buddhist cafe around 11:00 PM at night, when we had conversations we ought to have been having in a dirty bar.

Maybe that's the thing of travel alone,the particular quality - the wisdom that's imparted, the things you get left behind with, the people you meet who steer you along out of some sense of duty.

Bert is dead now, but I'll remember him and that surrealist Darjeeling tea-shop forever, and that provides a hint of comfort to me.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Things I Thought about in Darjeeling; Fortitious Meetings

Skull at the Darjeeling Planter's Club. The Raj; you know.

When I met Patrick; it was one of those moments that occurs to me occasionally when I travel alone, this particular quality of understanding. What do I call it? Kindred spirits is cliched and stupid. It is what happens when two people get to talking and realize (usually quite quickly) that they are very much the same, that their minds inhabit the same space and have walked around and sniffed around the same possibilities.

I took him to the Planter's Club because it was grand and horrible, and I thought he ought to see it. We ducked surreptitiously into what was the old club-room, which was hung with moth-eaten leopard and tiger skins, and engravings, and had a fireplace that was perhaps last lit in the 1960's.

The chairs looked as if they would dissolve into nothing if you sat into them, and were perhaps at one point a sort of off-magenta shade, and everything smelt of dust.

"I bet it was really happening, back in 1925," I said. "Emphasis on 1925."

George Mallory (back in better days)

"Shit, I can only imagine," he said, gazing around the room at the slowly-dying taxidermy, the ladies powder room in fading teal out-behind. It was a room where Orwell would have staged a scene from Burmese Days in, the sort of shit Kipling probably lived in.

George Leigh Mallory sat here, in one of these chairs, and maybe they made him a stiff drink. (Mallory, the doomed mountain climber, the dandy, who disappeared in an attempt on Everest in 1924, the one whose white and bleached corpse was found by Conrad Anker in 1999.)

He would have needed a drink, before he took off on his final journey, up to Everest and to that final oblivion. Patrick and I had less of a rendezvous with destiny ahead of us (to an extent), but we needed one too. No one was behind the bar, so we couldn't have a drink.

When was the last time they'd had someone behind the bar?

I walked with Patrick outside the bar room and down the outside corridors, which creaked and moaned a bit horribly in the evening-time, and by the heads of antelope mounted along them, and the library, which we could not get into at this time of night—and was almost certainly staffed by the ghost of tea planters.

I like to imagine them going over their ledgers around 4:00 AM in the darkest points of evening, ghostly specters wearing little visor caps and jodhpurs, and bemoaning how India has all gone to shit in the absence of their rule. (Debatable).

"That's the grand tour," I said, after we got back to the lobby of the Planter's Club. "Is there anywhere we could go to get a drink?"

"It's Darjeeling," he said. "There isn't." This was truth: It shuts down at eight, and then, the stray dogs take over.

We stood on the porch at the Darjeeling Planter's Club and looked down over the city, which had few lights in it and was begining to settle down for the night, nice and early, as it always down. Sir George Mallory's oxygen tanks were behind us.

"Yeah, it's nice talking to someone, who's actually been somewhere," he said.

" Most people where I'm from, they don't really travel. Or they do it wrong. I have this friend of mine. When he goes on vacations, he and his wife rent an apartment in France somewhere. The preppy kind of travel. Not like this. " He nodded his head out at Darjeeling, where there were stray dogs yapping out in the distance and the third-largest-mountain in the world hidden out in the mist somewhere, just something we could imagine, at this point.

"I don't know why I do it," I said, truthfully. "It's something we do in my family, it's just what we do."

Old Delhi bazaar.

We turned to Delhi. Every traveler who's been to India turns to Delhi and the black pit inside of it - we get around to what is I think that dark and eternal mystery inside Delhi, the smell of it, the twisted contortions of it, Old Delhi the only place that ever frightened my ass, and we both went there, in our conversations and in our memories. Delhi renders me a goddamn coward. Or, at least, it did.

"And how'd you find it?" I asked him. "Me, I picked up a big ass stick, and I wandered the bazaar, but that's about it." (Felt like a pussy too, but the boys all grabbing at my chest, you know, and how I was an alien from Planet Zarg there.)

"I played the black market in Delhi, for a while," he said. "In the 1970's. Supporting myself. We'd buy American goods from the diplomatic commisary and resell them to the Indians. It was a pretty good living. I was 22 years old. A real brat. I guess doing this now is sort of atonement. I must have broke every law on the book in India."

He was headed down to South India with Habitat for Humanity to build houses. A lot of us are atoning for something with travel somehow. I know I am. Nothing like a crime or some shit like that, just something intrinsic inside of me. Some of us are born with a sense, undeterminable and unidentifiable, that we must atone. Some turn to self-destruction; some seek out danger; some go on long and solitary trips and wonder if we'll ever get that final absolution. (And I think it never happens, and that is the sweetness and the sadness of it).

And I never played the Delhi black market but the idea of it makes my eyes shine, and makes me wish I could still play that game, that maybe I could if I had the balls. And if the game can even be played anymore, or if there are other games out there.

Can you do this stuff anymore? Or do you have to go to Libya and get yourself shot up ala-Chris Hondros, a warrior on the front-lines, bleeding out in an alley somewhere when your luck runs out? Is this how martial it has to be, to finally atone?(I think about this a lot - how far I have to go).

And we talked about blood, too, how we both just didn't seem to shy away from it, like it attracted it almost (dance of death, whatever, maybe this too is part of what makes us what we are, the kind of assholes we are). This was a full few months before I'd get my full real taste of death and what it meant, and stacked up bodies—the Cambodian bridge stampede of last November, which you may have forgotten about if you don't live in Cambodia, but that's how world events work — so I didn't even know what was coming for me, then. We never do.

Patrick and I talked about bull-fighting, because blood leads into bull fighting, and martial thoughts like that. I told him about that time my dad and I had been walking through a small Spanish town, and walked into a bar where they hung up little pale piglet carcasses by their snouts on meat-hooks for future roasting, and they were playing a bullfight on TV. There were five or six old Spanish farts in their with greying whiskers and they were smoking cigarettes, and they were all watching the fight intently, the bartender cleaning a glass absent-mindly and watching as the bull dripped blood from all the pinpricks in its back. My dad and I watched intently too. We couldn't tear ourselves away.

My mother appeared at the doorway at some point, following us down the alley. "Jesus, why are you watching that?" she said. My father and I found it hard to articulate, but all we knew is that we were interested, would stay interested.

Patrick knew why we had been watching.

"A real bull fight is a work of art," he told me. (When he'd been in Spain, when he'd wandered, when he'd taken a job at a Spanish guesthouse of some kind with a middle-aged lady who taught him the language, another story, another venture) "
" Not - these cheap Mexican jobs. Where nine guys can't kill the bull and they end up taking an ax to it. Not that. The Spanish stuff," he reiterated. "That's how to do it properly."

The bull with the points sticking out of it and all the bar men sitting there silently with the pig carcasses in the window,and how it shut me and my dad up along with all the rest of them, for that good ten minutes or so. I remembered that.

"And what about dog fighting?" I asked. "What's your stance on that."

"Yeah, dog fighting," he said, calling back the memory. He laughed.

" Everyone was into it back in the sixties. Well, certain types. Now, you can't even talk about it. I had this dog - her name was Molly - and she won me a lot of money," he said. "Bought her from a friend of mine. You know the type. Wifebeater, big arms, wife with a boob job, and a pit bull."

You can't even pretend to talk about dog fighting anymore but he did it anyway. (The pits and all the shouting and holding back your dog and game, how game your dog is, this is stuff I researched under the guise of my love of pit bulls, but also because it fascinates me. These are the things that are dying out.)

"We did all those gauche things," he said, a little wistfully. Atonement again.

Mallory's oxygen canisters.

We were leaning over the porch. I kept on wishing that George Mallory was hanging around the building somewhere, some little particles of him still in the air, and listening in. Not that he'd be interested maybe - he had that fucking mountain to scale, you know, that had invaded his brain - but maybe he'd have had a drink with us.

He walked up the mountain and never came down, and I've been dreaming about him since I was a kid, since I first heard about the re-discovery of his pale white body, after I looked at photos of him when he was young and fool-hardy (like me). I drink to George Mallory when no one is looking, to his contorted hands and pulled back, frozen lips on the cliffs up on Everest god-knows-where. (I wrote about him a while back, if you want to click that link).

I drink to him when he was young and handsome, and hung around with Robert Graves, and climbed and died because it wasn't like he had a choice.

George Mallory wrote an article on a successful climbing expedition to Switzerland's Mont Blanc, for a magazine.

It contained the rhetorical question: "Have we vanquished the enemy?"

Mallory replied, "None but ourselves."

(Why do we want to stare into the frozen and dead and whitened eyes of our idols? They'll bring us nothing, and tar us forever. But then again - I like the cycle, that of handsome youth and dead and stiffened corpse. it is inevitable. It is how it works.)

Streets of Darjeeling.

We kept on talking about travel because we couldn't get a drink and there was nothing else to do. Fog was moving in over the mostly-extinguished lights of the city. We were leaning over the railing, and everything was very quiet.

"My son doesn't have it, the travel thing," Patrick said. " When he graduated, I bought him an Eurail pass. He was going to go to Australia, but his buddy went to Europe, so he came too. It was only for six weeks or so, not too long. He got back. I asked him, "So, did you like Hamburg? Did you go to Italy?"
"No, no, I don't know about those places. There's some great cafes in Amsterdam though, man, great cafes."
Well, you get the idea. He spent six weeks in Europe in Amsterdam, smoking up. Face it, he just hasn't got it in him."

We laughed about that. You have it, you don't. You explore, you don't. You atone (some of us) and we find each other. I feel like a fool a lot of the time traveling, but I do it anyway.

We talked about love, and the people we had, and soon enough I found out that he was the second man traveling I had met in a month that had just lost a wife. "She was tall," as he described her to me in passing, to give me something to hold onto, and she liked to have adventures, like he did.

They lived together in Mexico for a while and attended the mata-cubra wrestling matches, and bet on them. She got pregnant in Mexico by accident and they had their son. That was how it goes. Not that this stopped them - they were in California but they kept on moving.

I didn't ask him what happened to her or why because I knew he'd tell me. They almost always do.

"It was cancer," he said (a brief emotional shrug of the shoulders, a twinge)."She got cancer and died last year. Now I'm traveling." This was the sum total offered at the time, and I didn't want to know more, or need to. She got cancer and she died.

Clocktower in Darjeeling.

I sit here writing this now and wonder why I am so attracted to these people who are traveling no just out of adventure, but also out of bereavement, to fill in a gap. When I met Patrick, in September of 2010, I was not in love and had a certain sense - a worrying one - that I never would be. I idolized T.E Lawrence, who, as they said, wandered the earth and never alit anywhere, who avoided all romantic relationships and (pretty much) all sexual ones as well. I liked D.H Lawrence, and I wished I had a man in my life, but I also felt that such a thing was pretty much doomed - as odd as I am - and if I could just work past it, the need for it, I'd be better off. To wander the earth and never alight.

Now I am in love, these days, the kind of love that I think I can with confidence call the Real Thing. I have this sense that I am going to be with this man for a very long time. Neither of like to speak in absolutes - we are scientists, him of the degree holding sort, me of the armchair variety - but we have certain visions of an extended future. I have to some extent alit, albeit in Cambodia, albeit living what is still a reasonably exotic life. But I've alit.

And when I think of the sharp love I feel for this extremely tall blonde man with steel-blue eyes (from Iowa, fixes bikes, tells long winded jokes about ice-fishermen, who-I-would-crawl-over-glass for ), I keep on thinking of Patrick wandering the world, because he's got no one left in his bed.

And I keep on imagining what I'll do when or if that's me, if Patrick's is also my future. Grieving, and thinking on it, and acutely aware of the loss (that cuts so fine, that penetrates your veins), but he has not yet pulled down all the blinds and receded into himself. He is on the move. He is volunteering for Habitat for Humanity. "It's an act of atonement," he told me. "I mean, I must have violated every law in India."

This is the final summation of love, maybe. To continue to be what you had been when the other is gone.

In a different fashion, and with that portion of yourself you had ceded (perhaps at first grudgingly) to the other missing, and aching in the night.

You grow used to the person you love there when you roll over, the scent of their hair, the way their breath sounds when they are shallowly breathing and when you yourself are staring at the ceiling, an affirmation of life. And then that affirmation is taken away, and what are you left with? (Mallory died. You will; too, and probably not as well.)

And I suppose you keep on walking anyway. There is nothing else.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Heading to Darjeeling: Share Jeeps Suck, I Like Taxidermy

The Darjeeling style aesthetic in a nutshell. Raj, baby, raj.

Today was the day I headed for Darjeeling, that Indian hill-station with the fabulous tea, the one in that indie movie I refuse to see, you've doubtless heard of it.

I was going to do this by means of a share jeep, which is how everyone gets around in Sikkim. Sikkim's incredibly rough terrain, lack of infrastructure, and remarkably vertical nature mean that a good-sized SUV with the ability to traverse a bit of water if need be is a necessity. Really clingy tires also help (as I was very soon to find out).

I woke up early and had breakfast at the same small restaurant again - I remain amazed by how the trek suddenly and entirely converted me to enjoying eating eggs, which I had previously found repulsive. I had scrambled eggs and talked more with Suman, who was also there and waiting for a ride somewhere or another, the manager of the Yuksom Residency. The two Dutch boys I had met on the way down from Dzongri were there too, also waiting on their ride to Darjeeling, and we conversed in a half-asleep way, and waited.

The trip would take about six hours, Suman mentioned. I would have to switch jeeps in Jorethang, a small city located in the bed of the river Teesta. He seemed remarkably positive about all this. It was raining outside, but everyone was used to this. The art on the walls of the restaurants, as it is everywhere in the Himalaya, was of the Swiss Alps, which I presume have attained some platonic ideal of mountainhood denied to their taller brothers.

The jeep arrived ten minutes late - not so bad - and I jockedyed for a window seat (fool) and then off we went. Sort of. We stopped every mile or so to pick up someone from their house or what have you, in the secret code of Asian shared vehicle rides, and then finally we had managed to fit 12 people into one jeep (snugly, sitting on laps), and off we went. The terrain was verdant and green and steep, and we dropped rather deeply towards the river, which was full of snow-melt and looked excellent for white-water rafting. (As previously mentioned, you used to be able to do this in Sikkim, but then a lot of tourists died, but you can probably do it again, as per the fluid motion of Indian law).

Some sadist had decided it was all right to blast the same three Black Eyed Peas songs out of her cell phone over and over again at a tinny volume. But at least there was the view. We passed by tiny stupas that clinged to the side of cliffs and overlooked the water, and quarries and hydroelectric projects (part of the Indian government's efforts at convincing the Sikkimese to stay happy and not become malcontent like those OTHER Northeastern states) and many people standing along the side of the road, craning their necks with mild interest as we went by. And pretty little Sikkimese style houses, too, stuck right on the edge of a yawning precipice and colored in blues and whites, usually with a number of porch chairs with someone old propped up in them. This was nice.

We got to Jorethang. It was terrifically hot. After Yuksom and the trek, this was somewhat of a shock to my system, but I endured: we waited in a small shopping-arcade thing (of Jorethang's variety, which was limited) and I felt a bit bad because the Dutch boys wouldn't talk to me. I suppose they were only friendly under the influence of chang. I felt bad as well because I had two bags with me, which no Real Backpacker would ever do, and was wearing a pair of slightly high heeled sandals, which I had also been forced to wear because my toenail was still threatening to fall off. I wondered if they were judging me. I wanted to collar them and say "I HAVE ALL THESE THINGS BECAUSE I AM MOVING TO CAMBODIA, AND MY TOENAIL IS FALLING OFF, AND WOULD YOU LIKE TO SEE IT WIGGLE? THIS IS WHY I LOOK LIKE SUCH AN IDIOT." But I didn't. I didn't want them to think I was crazy.

We got back in the jeep. This jeep was fancy and had assigned seats and tickets. I still had a window. From Jorethan, we climbed out of the Teesta river valley. We stopped at the Sikkim/West Bengal border to have our passports checked. I did not have my inner-line pass (needed for Sikkim) as the Yuksom trekking office had somehow lost it, and I was concerned, except I figured I was leaving the country, and I doubted they would make me stay, marry me off to a Sikkimese man, and make me take up a life of porting.

They didn't.

We kept on going up. Up and up and up and up. We had entered the realm of the tea plantation, the real burra-sahib area, where the British of the olden days kept their massive estates and their stables of High Spirited horses and their massive contingents of pretty-much-slaves, all of them picking tea for them. We had also entered Gorkhaland, which is how the healthy majority of the natives would prefer you think of it rather then West Bengal. The Gorkhas are people of Nepali descent, who, through the tender ministrations of surveyors, found themselves part of India: this does not please them. This would be an issue of fairly minor import to India as a whole if they were NOT Gorkhas, who happen to be renowened world-wide for their fighting spirit, bravery, and their love carrying around immense and sharp curved knives. (Or, as the former chief of staff of the British Indian Army, Sam Manekshaw said: "If a man says he is not afraid of dying, he is either lying or is a Gorkha.” You can see where this is going.

The proposed map of Gorkhaland.

The Gorkhas and the Dooar people want to seperate from India and form their own state, Gorkhaland, which becomes glaringly obvious as soon as you cross into Bengal and see Gorkhaland signs fluttering from every house. (I have been told that business or houses who do NOT put up Gorkhaland flags are often threatened, but, who knows).

It is worth mentioning that this entire region, including Darjeeling, was once part of the domain of Sikkim's Chogyal, who was constantly (and usually unsuccessfully) at war with the Gorkhas, who had taken most of this region by force by the start of the 19th century. The British arrived, won the Anglo-Gorkha war, and by means of two suceeding treaties, gave Sikkim back the land and reinstated the Chogyal. All sounded good until Sikkim somewhat suspiciously "gave" the British Darjeeling, while Bhutan handed Kalimpong over to the Brits as well. Still, the Gorkhas still wanted the region and considered it their ancestral home, and once Britain cut out, there was bond to be trouble.

The Gorkhas got violent in the 1980s, with the creation of the Gorkha National Liberation Front, and fought tooth-and-nail until 1988 when the Darjeeling Hill Accord was signed, instating the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council, a semi autonmous body of governance. It's gone on like this, with a passle of controversy and a lot of argument, until today, but the Gorkha's still want their own state and they are busily engaged in figuring out how to get it.

A rally for Mamata Banarjee I stumbled across my first day in Darjeeling. This affair featured a singer, uncomfortable looking children in shiny costumes performing a song n' dance routine, a lot of pro-Gorkhaland fist pumping, and a horse. I enjoyed it a lot.

That got a little technical, but anything involving attempting to explain Indian politics quickly turns into a Borges-like exploration of an endless series of labyrinths populated by corrupt and corpulent officials, and so you see the problem I face. (Another interesting political figure in West Bengal is the singularly fearsome Mamata Banarjee, if you're into that kind of thing).

The fact of the matter is, this is technically India, but don't go throwing around the word too much. Darjeeling is a strange little entity, and has been so since its inception. More on that.

As for the jeep ride, as we gained in elevation and began to be able to see down down down into the hills and plains below us, I began to grow a little concerned. As the road got narrower and even more rocky and pot-hole ridden then before, I got more concerned, and I got really really concerned when another jeep, bearing 12 people, decided it needed to pass us.

Our jeep driver, listening to his iPod and squashed up against the left side of the car, obligingly backed our vehicle as far to the side as it could possibly go and let the other guy pass. I looked out the window. I looked down. "Down" was an absolutely vertical drop into oblivion. There might have been a cloud. I looked away as quickly as possible. I considered getting out of the jeep and walking.

(You might consider me a big-fat-wuss, but it happens that these jeeps go over the edge of cliffs all the damn time in the Himalaya. A cursory google of "jeep accident" and "Himalaya" reveals a constant litany of accidents and deaths ending in flaming wreckage and screaming and falling for way longer then anyone could or should possibly fall while in a big heavy vehicle. Here, a horrible jeep accident is dust considered one of those Things that Happens, like malaria and occasional wild dog attack, and what can you do about it, really? So maybe I was not overreacting after all).

We passed through tiny and precarious looking hill planters towns, full of brightly colored and almost Caribbean looking houses, and exceptionally scrawny chickens, and a bunch of bored looking kids. Women - almost all women - were bringing in the tea on their heads, wearing exceptionally colorful prints and waving at us when we went by. We passed by the massive headquarters of the tea conglomerates, which seemed to have retained to some extent the kingships of old - they had hospitals, and rule boards, and dormitories, and educational centers, and God knows what else, and everywhere horrifyingly steep and well cultivated hillsides full of pert little tea plants.

The Dutchmen were, I could tell, growing annoyed by my tendency to murmur OH MY FUCKING GOD OH FUCK whenever we had to pass another car or were forced to squeeze through a small gap just a tiny bit smaller then our actual car, but they were sitting in the middle. They could Not See What I Saw. (And can never unsee. The nightmares still, occasionally, come.)

I attempted to read one of the Dutchmen's Murakami book over his shoulder because for some reason this was less scary then reading my own book. I believe it was a story involving a unicorn skull. I don't think he appreciated this very much.

Hours passed. It got very cloudy, but the road got better, which was encouraging. The driver ground to a halt and everyone began getting out. "Is this...Darjeeling?" I said, looking around at the desolate side-of-the-world we had stopped at.

"No, there has been a landslide. So we switch jeeps," a woman cheerfully informed me. Apparantly we had to do this quickly.

Swearing, I collected my two extremely heavy bags (Why HAD I bought all those fucking books?), arranged them around my shoulders, and teetered on my completely impractical girly shoes about half a mile uphill to the other jeep, all the time praying my toenail wouldn't fall off. (It hung on. Mostly).

Kiran did this same trip at night and told me that no one bothered to inform him that it was a massive, sheer drop off to the right and that he might want to avoid it. He also said he did not bother to turn on his headlamp, being unaware, and no one else had lights either. They Lose More People That Way.

The view from the Planter's Club. It's foggy. A lot.

We got to Darjeeling.

It was lunchtime and I wasn't really sure where my hotel was, and the entire city was, perhaps not surprisingly, built on a hill and seemingly in the process of falling OFF that hill. Darjeeling is in a state of truly impressive disrepair, a hill-station falling into ever-more dramatic entropy. It's all jammed together so tightly and has been so since the 1800's that it's pretty much impossible to build anything new - there's little land to work with and gravity is a constant enemy, and most buildings sort of sag.

The old British buildings are covered in a thick coat of grime and on occasion lichen, and the constant mist that blows through town keeps the air cool and everything slightly dampish - the Seattle of India, in its way. Like in Mussorie, there are a bunch of high class private schools here and a bunch of kids wearing English style school uniforms slouching through the streets looking for whatever trouble Darjeeling can accord them, which probably isn't much. (Everything shuts down by 8:00 pm. EVERYTHING. Well, pretty much).

I will warn all women now that there are roughly three actual bathrooms in Darjeeling. This will come up later.

I was staying at the Darjeeling Planters Club, mainly because I'd read about it in my guidebook to Sikkim (the only one we could find anywhere, far as we knew) and it sounded....interesting. The Planter's Club was (and theoretically still is, although all the members may be dead) the old HQ of the raj-era tea planting industry, positioned on top of a hill with a reasonably commanding view of the city below. It was definitely majestic sixty years ago, that's for sure. Maybe longer. The club, after all, was first formed in 1892 and it shows. The decor is themed in "majestic wildlife that used to be abundant here but now no longer is, for reasons directly related to British dudes with muskets." It's a decor scheme I happen to love, though keeping moths out of resplendent tiger pelts is more difficult then perhaps the Brits had anticipated.

More Wildlife That Once Was Common and Now Isn't, Heavens Knows Why.

The Planter's Club is now a rather moldy wreck like most things in Darjeeling, and a fascinating wreck it is - though not exactly the most pleasant place to actually stay. The room was large all right, but had curtains that didn't entirely close, a rather warped floor, a bed composed of two beds shoved together that creaked a lot, and a TV that didn't actually work. The corridor itself was long, misty, and was almost certainly haunted by the ghost of Mallory. I'm not exactly a supernatural believer but this was the kind of place that would make you INTO one.

There was a guestbook on the side-table with a lot of comments regarding mold, pervasive chill, and the woeful lack of updating. Like so many things in India, if someone would sink a spot of cash and care into this place, it would be an incredible and historical lodging (and they could probably jack the prices way up, too). I'd buy it and do it myself if I had any money. I don't.

I had not eaten actual meat in about two weeks, give or take, and the idea of devouring a tandoori chicken was veering on the semi-transcendental for me. I immediately headed for Glenary's on Nehru Road, which is Darjeeling's grande-dame of English style restaurants, and also contains a bakery/coffee shop, a basement and vaguely "rock and roll" bar, and an upstairs restaurant with a full complement of Indian and Western dishes. (And a working bathroom.) Whatever one's opinion on Glenary's, you'll probably end up coming in here a lot if you're in Darjeeling, mostly because it has an internet cafe and it's in a curiously central location, so you're always walking by anyway.

The tandoori chicken was excellent, and so was the vegetable curry I ordered to go with, and I ate myself into a minor stupor. I looked like hell and had not had time to take a shower - and wasn't really looking forward to it, judging by the Shining-like state of the Planter's Club bathroom - but at least I had food. I tried to pretend the well-turned out Indian families having lunch around me didn't notice that I looked exactly like someone who had just ridden in a jeep all the way from Sikkim that day.

I went to an Internet cafe - the only one, really - at Glenary's, to assure my family I was alive. While I was there, I made a new friend. Which I will discuss in the next post, since this one is getting exceptionally long.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

I Got Back to Yuksom! Also, Stupas!

We woke up early because we both wanted to go down, me and the porter. I got up first, I guess, and then we located each other in the not muchness of Tsokha, and got our kit together. We exchanged eye contact with each other - it was going to be an 11 mile day, after all, albeit downhill, but the scary kind of downhill. And then we set off.

And down it was, about as soon as we started off from Tsokha. The sun was out and it was a lovely day, and the landscape looked very different then it had on the way up - clear and dry, and almost dusty in places, and the mud slowly hardening. It was harder going down then up, at least on the mind, and we both were on constnat alert for ankle twists. A twisted ankle could make life exceptionally difficult up here. We descended through the high altitude rhoddendron and then we crossed into the cloud jungle, and then down more, almost back into the tropical jungle proper.

The Tenzing Norgay Mountaineering Institute, named after the world-famous Sherpa mountaineer, happens to have a house up here, and we went by it. We stopped for a second to look - I looked down the hill and saw about forty ruggedly handsome young mountaineering students, of all manner of races and nationalities, looking up at me in an extremely friendly way. A couple of them waved.

I had a temporary debate about going down.

Well. Showers.

We kept moving.

The rest of the 11 mile trek down was a bit of a blur, mainly because we were going very fast indeed and we were very focused, or at least I was, and I assume he was as well. We kept on passing by sweaty and dedicated looking Mountaineering Institute students, laboring uphill and carrying very big packs. We would exchange pleasantries. I was glad there were a healthy number of women among them. They are doing a good job of getting young Indians and Nepalis - especially Sherpas - training to be guides up here. They maintain a base camp at Kanchenzonga as well. I'd visit the headquarters in Darjeeling the next week.

Still, I was going so fast and was so focused on the trail that I failed to notice something fairly important - in that my big toenail was Not Happy, really really unhappy. Irt was being squashed one way or another and every single rock I jumped onto, it sort of hurt, but in a low level way I found easy to ignore. This would come back to haunt me.

The raininess of the past few days had brought a bunch of small waterfalls and streams to life along the trail, and they were refreshing as hell to run through. Of course, we had re-entered the Realm of the Leech, but at least they never bothered me much. (Only got a couple this go-round!)

We were getting closer - I could just spot the not-much buildings of Yuksom. We paused in the small structure where we had had lunch that first day. The porter and I wolfishly shared a fancy Lindt chocolate bar - Tiramisu flavored - Kiran had gifted me, glugged down some water, caught our breaths. Then we were off again.

The miles went fast,a dn we encountered very few animal trains (which sped us up) and a coiuple of middle aged tourists (to exchange pleasantries with), and I admired the terrifying Indiana Jones suspension bridges again. And then there was a little picnic house, for people from town to use when they wanted to take a little walk intot he woods, then some terraced cornfields, with women holding machetes working in them, and laughing with each other, and then a girl steering but not riding a bike, and looking at us with mild interest. We were back.

We walked through town slowly - the end in sight - and the porter stopped to talk to friends, and I walked with rather weightless legs. It was odd to go slow. We'd made 11 miles in about five hours. It wasn't half-bad, even if was downhill. I went to the hotel and banged on the door a bit until the owner came out. He looked at me curiously. "You are back early," he said.
"We started this morning from Tsokha,"I said, as I laid down my bag. I was starving. Food before shower, I concluded. Damn the torpedoes.
"Very very early," he said, vaguely admiringly.

Yuksom's primary export is stupas.

I adjourned to the Gupta Restaurant next door. The 14 year old girl who was manning the counter smiled at me when I walked in. They were used to people coming starving and smelling awful. I ordered vegetable curry and scrambled eggs and chapati. I devoured it as if I had been starved.

I headed back to the hotel for a shower. It was time to confront The Toenail.

I took off my boot. My toenail was not fully lodged in the bed but was instead wiggling around whenever I poked it. I found it kind of fascinating on a scientific level. There wasn't much pain, but the visible horror of the thing -my pink-painted toenail, slightly chipped - was unnerving. I wrapped it up in a bandage and tried not to think about it. What a girl would look like in a pair of strappy heels witthout a big toenail. "Oh, but I lost it trekking in Sikkim," I'd say, tipping my tumbler of Makers to whoever addressed me on the matter. And they'd still think it was disgusting.

After my shower, I felt bound and determined to walk around Yuksom and do some Travel Reporting. Except I couldn't wear my boots again until my toenail decided if it was or was not going to drop off. I put on some sandals, and although my legs had decided they were totally over the whole "bending" thing,

A little history on Yuksom seems apropo, and so here it is. Yuksom was Sikkim's first capital, before Gangtok, due to its closer proximity to Tibet, formerly the region's chief power, and was established all the way back in 1642 by three Tibetan lamas on an evangelizing mission. They located and crowned the nations' first Chogyal or "religious King," Phuntsog Namgyal, who they apparantly happened upon while he was churning milk in his residence in Gangtok. They took him here (strategically located as it is), crowned him,and began Sikkim's formal tradition of leadership - the nation prior to this time being a rather loosely arranged and hard-to-get to assortment of villages, towns, and small holdings.

. The Chogyal dynasty would continue to rule Sikkim up until the time of its (voluntary) joining-up with India. Yuksom happens to contain the coronnation site of Sikkim's old kings, called "The Throne of Norbugang," which sounds quite exotic indeed (except I couldn't find it). There's also Sikkim's supposedly oldest monastery (established in 1701).

Yuksom, being the base-city for attempts on Khangchendzonga (why does everyone spell this differently) and a stop on Sikkim's buddhist pilgrimage circuit, is also a bit of a tourist town, albeit in Sikkim's shockingly muted way. (There's a shop to buy trekking gear! And hotels at different price points!). Still, the fact that it requires a 6 hour and jolty jeep-ride to get here over indifferent roads from the already remote capital of Gangtok has kept it what it is - about two steps up from medieval and really quite incredibly charming. An ancedote I like to trot out about Sikkim is that it is the only place I have ever been where I was unable to purchase a souvenir t-shirt. (I am amused by the fact that Wikipedia informs that Yuksom is "well connected by road" with Gangtok. Define "well connected", guys.)

I walked through town some and looked at things, a bit painfully, but walking (maybe stretching out the muscles). There were dhzo and kids tending them, people going to work or going back from work, and people looking at me looking at them. I found a monastery. Yuksom has a lot of them and they all seem to be empty most of the time. I couldn't even figure out the proper name of this one. I wish someone would tell me. Hint.

Bunch of kids and women were sweeping this one up. It was a charming little scene.

I manfully then hiked to Yuksom's main attraction, which is the place where the King of Sikkim was traditionally crowned. Or I tried. There was nothing in the way of signage. I was looking at a hillock with some gravel around it and trying to figure out where to go for a bit, and then I walked up a hill, and then my goddamn shoe broke. Snap.

I'm standing there with a wonky toenail and I have no shoe and my legs won't bend. I feel so fucking sorry for myself.

The very nice Yuksom residency.

Some little girls walk by and laugh at me, but politely. "What happen, miss?" one said.
I held up the shoe. "Shoe broke," I said.
"Oh," she said. The conversation ended. I sighed. I walked with one shoe down the gravely road. It hurt. It was India, of course, and that meant that I was going to find a shoe for sale somewhere or another, maybe even by the side of the road if I got lucky - but I was totally demoralized. I bought another pair of flip-flops. I have bought more Auxilary Flip Flop Pairs then I can count while traveling.

I sat in the hotel for a while and slept a little and then I somehow got up the energy to go out again - it was getting darkish - and I decide to go up to the monastery located rather conveniently right outside of my guesthouse, caled the Ngadhak Changchub Choling Monastery.

Yuksom is an old town and one that is positively besotted with stupas and monasteries, which is interesting since there are by no means that many people - the population is a shade over 1,000. The monastery was located up a rather foggy hill through the forest, and I walked up it, and appreciated the stands of thick high altitude trees (so different from India's lowlands, so different from the Cambodia where I was headed). The monastery appeared deserted, or at least shut for the evening, and I didn't go up and rap on the door - I stood there and looked at it rather blankly for a moment. And it began to rain (but I had my umbrella, as one must in Sikkim) and I walked carefully down the hill on my wonky and unbending legs, nodding politely to a group of young boys who passed by, all of them huddled under a single black umbrella. It was almost dinner time anyhow.

I got picked up by one of Kumar's friends, who was supposed to be overseeing me. "I take you to this restaurant, and I pay for your food," he explained, as this was technically part of what I'd paid for. His English was good, and we chatted as we walked there. When we got there, a friend of his was also at the restaurant, taking his evening tea as all Sikkimese and indeed all Indians are duty-bound to do. It turned out he managed the fanciest hotel in Yuksom (which really was very pretty inside). We all began talking about Sikkim, the tourism trade, life here.

For some reason, I asked him about rescue procedures here. Kiran and I had previously had this nice idea that trekking in Sikkim was kind of like trekking in Nepal, in that there were helicopters and hospitals and emergency systems in place if something really grotty happened.
"So what about rescue up here?" I asked, as my chicken curry arrived.
He looked at me curiously. "Rescue? There is no rescue up here. The only rescue we have here is going back down. Last season - very rough. Tourists getting sick, not having the right equipment, getting AMS. Safety is important. A good guide is most important. Someone who can make decisions, at the right time, fast. I've seen people die up there on the mountains, get sick. A good guide is the most important thing."
I stared at him for a moment. "No one told us that before we went up."
He nodded and smiled. "Well, yeah."
I felt both terrified and infinitely more hardcore then i previously had felt.

We chatted a bit more and I adjourned to the hotel because I was dog-tired and I wanted to rejigger the nest of bandages on my toenail. I hoped Kiran had made it up all right and had seen the damned mountains. I was trying not to be incredulous about the prospect of my epic, planned share jeep-journey to Darjeeling the next day. I slept okay.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Going Down to Tsokha, Why I Won't Climb Everest

We made another attempt on The View, this morning. Another early wake-up, another round of pulling on dampish boots in the dark and struggling out of sleeping bags and pushing up the hill. None of us expecting much, this time, although it wasn't raining outside. The clouds were coming over. I walked about halfway up the hill and the clouds were still there, and I wanted breakfast. I was demoralized. Kiran kept pushing upwards. I stayed about halfway up and debated about going all the way up, if I hadn't given up hope. Then, the whooping started. THEY'RE THERE THEYR'E THERE I could hear people yelling.

And there they were, the mountains, the View of Views. A whole 15 minutes of them, I guess. I heard the shouting from up the hill and got committed and then I started running (like a damned fool) right up the side of the hill through the thicket and missed the trail entirely, I just wanted to get up their and see. And I did, one way or another, crashing through all kinds of native vegetation, and I made it to the ridge and I looked. I had a lot of stickers in my pants but I didn't much care. And that was the view. The clouds closed again, and the weather closed in again. It looked like it could go eitherway, but I had made my call. I was going down, Kiran was staying.

Kiran lent me 1000 rupees, or around 25 dollars. We stood around as the porters loaded up the horses and got everything together for the journey to Goecha La. The mist and the general attitude of the thing reminded me of the Breaking of the Fellowship. I said something about this. Kiran laughed. At least we were both nerds. "We'll see each other in Darjeeling," I said, confidently. And we waved goodbye and headed in opposite directions. I went to meet the porter who was going down with me.

The porter and I regarded each other with polite interest. We were stuck with each other for the next couple of days. He was probably my age, thin and lanky and not much taller then me with long hair, like most Sherpa boys. He spoke no English and I spoke no Nepali: this was going to be a relationship built pretty much entirely upon walking.

I like to think I surprised him with how fast I moved but I probably didn't - but in any case, we kept up a good clip. We both had a single goal in mind, and that was Yuksom and the comforts (such as they were) of civil society. We wanted to get there as fast as possible and damn anything that got in our way.

The next couple of days would turn into a bit of a game between us, I guess. Kumar would choose the safest way to get up the trail or avoid a yak or cross a waterfall: the Sherpa kid would choose the fastest, and that was the way I liked best myself, a habit that (I could tell) drove Kumar ever forwards into madness. Kumar took the clearly defined and cut trail: We took switchbacks, hopping over roots and twisting our ankles just so to land on rocks in just the right way. We cut through lines of horses and cut slightly more delicately through lines of yaks. Mud was a minor annoyance and so was the occasional mist of rain. We trotted instead of walked, and people going uphill or downhill laughed at us and waved.

I stopped for a bit at the small shrine I'd walked to, dejected, in the rain the day before. The sun was coming out and the prayer flags had dried out and were blowing, just a little, in the sun. It was very beautiful and you could see the plains stretching out for God knows how far below. I turned around and took a few photographs of the mountains behind me, which looked gentle and almost European in the easing, morning light, projecting the illusion of pistes and sky shacks somewhere over the next horizon. (Maybe someday. But it will not be for a long time.)

We made Tsokha fast. It was, after all, pretty much all downhill. (Should I add here that I hate going downhill? Going uphill means you're pretty much grounded in one plain, it's easy to keep your balance, your knees don't jam up. It's you and your windpower, that's all, you against a welt of mud and slime. It's simple. Going downhill, especially in the shocking steepness of the Himalaya, requires a great deal of attention, flexibility, and coordination - you're jumping as much as you're walking, you're carefully gauging the weight of your pack and what your shoes can take, you're considering the relative slipperyness and pointiness of the rocks around you, all these things are matters of great releavance when going downhill. It tires my mind out. And my knees.)

Tsokha again, that little medieval village, and the rest-house again. It looked the same as we had left it, except the mud had dried up a little as the rain was not bad that day. I even had my own little cell to myself again, complete with all the empty beer bottles and the thing that approximated a mattress and a small, hopeful pin-up of a view of the mountain range. I laid out my things and debated what the rest of the day would look like it. It was only around noon.

The Indian men were laying out lunch on the lawn in front of the hut, and I wandered down to talk to them. I was technically to take my meals at one of the village's two habitations, or that was the arrangement I think Kumar had explained to me, but they were feeling friendly. "No, come sit with us," they said. "We have got lots of food."
They had freshly made papad and curries and daal and eggs and stir-fried spam (good at altitude) and a lot of of hot tea and coffee. We all ate voraciously, with our hands, as one does in India. It felt terribly civilized.

We went up to the little tea-shop after and drank chang, the region's beloved millet beer. It is drunk out of wood sections and is made of fermented bits of millet, as one would expect, and is drunk with a straw jammed to the bottom because the millet is still in there. It is intermittently topped up with lukewarm water out of a jug. It is not a drink for those with an aversion to dirty water.
"My, you made it fast," the Kashmiri man said. "No one should ever say a beautiful girl is not strong." They were from Pune and had brought a selection of regional snack mixes along, which we were all sharing.
"Yes, strong like Sherpa," Sanjay Sherpa said, grinning. I thought this was among the best compliments I had ever recieved.
"Sanjay saved my life, a couple of times," the Kashmiri man observed. "He did it on Everest, and he also did it on Annapurna." Sanjay demurred modestly, but he went on. "Yes, I was very tired and very cold, and had twisted my ankle. It was after I had summited Everest. He supported me, and got me down the mountain."

"Yes, he did," the oldest man said.
"But that was long ago, of course, when I was younger. Now, this is all Sanjay and I are up for. We have got fat." He said this in Nepali to the Sherpa too and he laughed long and hard. "We had our adventures."
"This is a pretty good adventure, even if you consider yourselves old men," I pointed out.
"I suppose so. Maybe you could try Everest sometime. You seem strong enough."
"Oh, no, I wouldn't do that," I said. "Even if I could, I don't think I'd want to."

(This was something I had debated often when I was younger, when I spent a lot of my free time reading books about mountaineering. The allure of people throwing themselves up against the unstoppable power of nature has never been lost on me. But you get older, you contextualize, you do your thinking. My mom and I were both avid watchers of that National Geographic show a couple of years back, which followed a group of people on a commercial Everest expedition.

I lost my taste for the thing then, I think. It was a bunch of people with a lot more money then sense (as in Into Thin Air), all on some sort of bizarre quest to test themselves against an inanimate object that didn't care about them, would eat them alive, and they would do this in front of the pleas of their loved ones and former-lives NOT to do it. They were immovable objects, and they didn't much care about anyone else around them, either - only getting to the top. Of course, I like dangerous things and I like living a (somewhat) more dangerous life then is the norm, but I'm not sure I'd pay 50,000 dollars for a canned chance at killing myself. If that makes any sense. Also, my mother would beat me to death.

A little after, the Dutch boys and the Pole showed up, having started a little later in the afternoon. In lieu of anything better to do, I sat with them and watched as they drank chang - I was trying to save my money, and did not partake - and we talked about nothing in particularly. The Pole was in high spirits. Somehow we got on the topic of Poland's notorious alcoholism. He did not confirm or deny. He noted: "I've only had vodka for breakfast once. When I was going to meet the former president of Poland, because I got an academic award. Apparently he was an alcoholic."

"Didn't most of your politicians, well, die in a plane crash last year?" I said.

"Well, this was the former-former president of Poland," he explained. "This one isn't dead."

"I see," I said.

"I met the man in his office, and it was quite early, and I hadn't eaten yet. 'You have done a good job,' he said. 'Have some vodka.' We did shots and talked some. I was very drunk with the former President of Poland and it was before breakfast."

I considered this. We all did. The Polish man, for his part, looked up conspiratorially from the chang, as if relating a dark secret. "Ahh, it's so good!" He repeated this action every five minutes or so. It was awfully endearing.

Dinner time rolled around. We were, to my chagrin, going to eat in the other shack in town, instead of the fierce chang-lady's house, the one who had an electric light powered by something or another. This was the shack that was occupied by a 14 year old boy and his dementia-affected grandmother. There may have been other family members in the picture around, but they were not in evidence. I was lumped in with the three boys, so we all filed into the small and smoky shack, and watched as the silent and somewhat startled looking 14 year old cooked us scrambled eggs and daal. I wished I could have just cooked since I am a better cook then the kid was, and I felt incredibly sorry for him. To be 14 years old in a medieval village, having to shoo your touched grandmother away from precipices, only a tabby cat and chickens and an occasional stream of trekkers to keep you company. It was a sad thought. The men were all drunk on chang and were not doing much thinking. I wished I had money for chang.

"We go down slow tomorrow," the Dutch guy said, sipping on his chang. "Maybe smoke a few joints in the woods, yeah?" He directed this at their guide, Bob the Sherpa. I thought of him as Bob the Stoner Sherpa because he was rarely without a joint, and was always inquiring if I wanted some whenever the conversation got quiet.

"Okay," Bob said, "We go down slow and smoke, that's cool." He was wearing pink pajama pants, and had the red eyes of the constantly stoned that I always see in my college friends. He had a Bob Marley t-shirt. Has weed overtaken chang as the young Sherpa's favorite past-time? It's not like it doesn't grow by the side of the road around here.

We adjourned to the chang lady's shack to hang out some. There were a few British people there, and I was happy to see another woman beside the chang lady in the general vicinity. We sat and talked about scuba-diving, for some reason, which seemed awfully incongrous at this altitude. Night-time was dark and bleak and muddy outside: I just wanted to sleep, mostly. I excused myself and flicked on my headlamp and tried to avoid the cow (out there in the darkness somewhere, with pointy horns) and got back to my little room.

The Indian men were having dinner inside the hikers shack when I walked in: they called me into the room. "We've got chicken," they said, laughing. They were referring to spam. It still tasted good. That was my second dinner. I sat with them for a while and listened to them talk about Indian politics (as is inevitable), and then I really did adjourn to my small room. It was quiet as hell outside, and less musty then Dzongri had been. At least I was getting somewhere.