Monday, March 14, 2011

Sikkim Trek: In Which We Walk More, Reach The Hut, and Eat High-Elevation Pizza

We woke up early, but we were getting accustomed to that. There is no lying in on serious treks, of course, no room for sitting around in the morning and having your coffee and considering (vaguely) what you might do that day. The entire point of a trek and the entire reason one goes on one is to go up, to proceed upwards, to move.

We breakfasted on the front lawn on the usual assemblage of oatmeal, toast (with good Bhutanese jam and honey) and egg, and then the ponies were loaded up, and the porters were loaded up, and we were loaded up as well, except less so. We had what would be a shorter and easier walk ahead of us today, to the Kanchendenzonga base camp of Dzongri. It would all be uphill, of course, but we had come to expect that.

There were a group of Indian mountaineers staying at Tsokha with us. There were seven of them or so, and they were old men, who hailed from Pune and were either retired or well en-route to such. I began talking to them in a vague fashion on my way up the trail, and I would soon get to know them, them and their Sherpa guide, who was also fat and old and had been through more adventures then most more average men can imagine. There was one man in particular, who was very tall and had a noble bearing for an old man, and had the green eyes of someone whose extraction was from Kashmir or the real Northerly areas of India. He had once climbed Everest, but more on that. Some of their number had also been climbers, real hot-shot ones, and they were all old but sturdy, puffing uphill with the same direction and intention as Kiran and I. They had left earlier then we had, but I was fast, and soon enough I caught up to them.

We sat on a bench and watched a line of dhzo go by: neither of us wanted to tangle with them. His white beard and the way he walked with his hands clasped philosophically behind his back reminded me of some sort of forest deity. He shared some snack mix with me. It was very misty, and there was nothing for me to hide behind to take a piss.

The Indian men all halted at a small wooden and unenclosed sort of pavilion, and the rain was coming down so I stopped too. They were kind and offered me coffee and chai, and they were making their lunch, and they offered to share with me if I wanted. I declined since I knew our own cooks would probably be offended, though they were making puris - fried Indian bread - and the smell of them made me salivate.

"You are a very fast hiker," the Kashmiri man said, as we stirred sugar into our coffee. "It is impressive."
"Well," I said, keeping my eyes on the trail, waiting for Kiran and the guide to emerge. They seemed to be taking a while. I always thought about them falling off something, or getting attacked by dhzo, when they took a while.
"Strong like Sherpa!" the Sherpa guide agreed, thumping his chest. He had a gigantic mound of rice on his plate and three puris beside, and tea. He had also climbed Everest, years ago. He was very fat now.

The men talked in a combination of Mahrashti and English, and I mostly sat quietly and let my legs recover. Kiran and the guide did appear eventually, and we had our lunch. It was all right but I really wished we were having parotas and felt a bit of dissatisfaction about the fact that I had not shared the Indian men's lunch. And we kept walking.

The foliage had grown sparse and mossy and lush at the same time, all small and abbreviated trees and large mushrooms, and everything had lichen growing on it and seemed very slippery, and not even because of the persistent drizzle. I got ahead of the old Indian men and soon was alone, walking up the slatted wooden boards of the trail. It was not as steep as yesterday and I found it relatively easy going. As the day before, I stopped occasionally to wait for Kiran and our guide to catch up, and they did, and then I was off again. There was a tiny, barely-there drizzle in the air but I disregarded it.

There was a rocky hill to climb, a very steep and tall one, and this would I supposed lead us up to the real high-country -it seemed that way, as I had come out of the forest and into a land of bushes and scrub.

I rounded the top of the hill and there were the flags of a Tibetan Buddhist shrine or something like that in front of me, a little tumble of rocks with prayer flags all around. It was raining a little harder and I stood behind the shrine for a moment and squinted and looked off into the distance, but I couldn't see anything. It is an odd feeling, standing and looking out into what you know to be an unbelievable vista and not being able to make any of it out at all. I turned around and kept walking. I would be at Dzongri soon enough, well before nightfall, well before it was time for dinner.

Dzongri is the base-camp for the Kanchendenzonga mountain, and it is also the base-camp for attempts on the Goecha La pass. It is not even a village of sorts like Tsokha, but is an honest-to-goodness trekkers camp with no life of its own other then that provided to it by trekkers. I would read later about the people that the Kanchendenzonga -one of the world's most difficult mountains to summit - had taken and chewed up - and during my time here I would think often of how they had come here also, and had stared up at the peak and had convinced themselves (they must have) that they'd make it all the way up there and back down again, by virtue of their own exceptionality. And hadn't.

There was only one trekkers huts here and it was pretty much full. The poor weather had dissuaded people from using tents and had trapped them in place, from making an attempt on the Goecha La. Our appointed room already contained an Italian couple. Our guide threw up his hands and talked about putting up the tents in a puddle, but we thought this was ridiculous: we went to speak with them. The Italians were very nice and looked extremely tired. They welcomed us to stay in the room with them, which was quite large. So we unrolled our things and laid them out, and arranged them in the half-hearted attempts at home-making that are involved in trekking, and there we were.

We were going to take a rest day here to acclimate to the altitude, which is a good idea in these kinds of treks. The altitude did not bother me much, but Kiran had headaches. Neither of us slept much, and what we did get was fitful and sweaty, but this was trekking at high alttitude.

The Italian woman was from Padua, near Venice, and was studying Tibetan religion for her thesis. She had really wanted to go to Bhutan but could not afford it, and Tibet was proving hard as well to get to, but this was fairly close. Both she and her bearded boyfriend seemed exhausted and beaten. They had a look in their eye that worried me. "We chose the cheap package," she said, "but maybe it has not been so good." They had not got a full day to acclimate here, apparantly, but were driving onto the Goecha La the next day and hang the weather. They had not quite been fed enough, either. Their guide was very young and looked to me to be about 12. He was friends with our guide, who was apparantly his mento, and they talked animatedly in the corner of our room.
"Our guide is good," Kiran said, "so he's probably good as well." This was an attempt to make them feel better.
"Maybe," she said.

A few hours later, a middle-aged Spanish woman walked in, and then another, and then a man, and then another. There were nine Spanish people in all and they were all friends, on a trek together, and they had nowhere to stay either. So we invited them in, of course. The room immediately got crowded, but this was nice because it was cold outside and the body heat created a warming effect, and one of a certain amount of security. It was somewhat reminesecent of perhaps the old days of trading and commerce through these passes, when sleeping in packs was a good way to avoid snow leopards, yetis, and the predations of robbers: Best to be together! Put out a warning signal if you hear an angry snow leopard!

The Spanish broke out their provisions almost as soon as they got there, as Spanish people will, and best of all, they were sharing. A package of Iberico ham was produced, and one of aged Manchego cheese, and a bottle of Spanish red wine, and some crackers and good chocolate, and these were all passed around the circle. I have a particular mania for Iberico ham and eating it at this altitude and in this weather was some sort of culinary mirage: it made me profoundly happy, that in confluence with the wine.

Kiran and I stood outside before the sun went down - it was so dark and rainy outside that knowing when the sun went down was really a matter of degrees, and measuring the light. "The weather is awful," I said, watching as the ponies and dhzos stood out and looked miserable on the scrubby and muddy side of the hill.

"It will hopefully clear up tomorrow," Kiran said. "We have to go up and see the view." We were slated to wake up ridiculously early that morning to go attempt to get a clear view of the mountain range as the sun rose. It would be one of the highlights of the trip. Kiran was salivating in anticipation, which I knew about.

"I certainly hope so," I said, which was true. Kumar assured us that, if the weather looked all right, he would nudge us awake in some gentle but firm fashion around 4:00 AM and up the hill we would go.

I walked into the kitchen room, which was where all the Sherpas were bedding down and where the cooking was going on. It was nice and warm in there, and all the ovens made the room dry and comfortable. I found a place to hang my shoes and socks and then loitered in the room for a while, watching as four different cooking outfits jockeyed for space and shouted in a friendly way at one another, and carefully divvied up their equipment and condiments. Some of them, including our guide, were playing cards for small sums of money and chewing tobacco. The younger porter boys had all curled up together into a puppyish ball in the corner, huddling for warmth, and talking privately among themselves. Everyone of them had head lamps on, and everyone of them was wearing the same metallic gold rain boots. I kept on meaning to buy a pair of those but never actually did. I regret this terribly.

When I came back, Kiran had started talking to the group of two Germans and one Israeli in the next room over, who had been playing cards and whooping in the same way as the cooking boys. Kiran and I both never had much taste for cards, but we talked the same, about books and literature and other stuff of that nature. They were all very clever, had or were working on multiple advance degrees, and we all smelled incredibly bad and there was candlelight. So we felt a certain amount of solidarity with one another.

We had dinner. Dinner was always a shockingly elaborate affair, especially when you considered when we were in the middle of nowhere, up a mountain somewhere in Sikkim which 98% of people I mention it to have never even heard of, and everything we were eaten had to be hauled up the hill on the back of a 5'1, 120 pound man's back. We had, as I recall: noodle soup, stir-fried bitter melon, some kind of stir-fried meat dish, and I swear-to-god pizza. I have no idea how they did it. Maybe on the griddle or something. It had fried egg on it. It tasted all right, though Kiran and I were more concerned about the fact that there was a goddamn pizza in front of us then we were about eating it.

They did use the last of my ketchup. I wanted to say something hilarious to Kiran about how this would probably make me go insane, but somehow that seemed less funny up here in a hut in the middle of nowhere in a malingering rainstorm, so I didn't say anything.

We ended the evening by trying to make conversation with our increasingly altitude-addled brains, which was enhanced somewhat by Kiran's brilliant idea to pack booze. We had a bottle of something called Charteuse, which is this green rat-poison type stuff that the French love. Kiran had got a taste for it in Grenoble and was a bit emotionally attached to it: I just really like booze so I was happy when he brought it up. "But be CAREFUL, because alcohol will..mess you up at altitude," he said, and I said something like "Oh, of course, how obvious!" and we drank it.

Kumar walked in and we offered some to him. He looked at the bottle a bit hungrily and said, "Oh, no, I cannot. I have..problem."
I think he had a little bit of it but the general conclusion was that we might fall off a cliff the next morning, but if Kumar did, we were really doomed, whereas if one of us fell off it was more like a 50-50 chance of survival. So we went to bed.

(Kumar, like many sherpas—as I have heard—had little resistance to the drink. As he told us later, a bit sheepishly, "I drink, and drink, and drink. Until it is gone," in such a way that implied this wasn't a good thing at all.