I sit a little while, watching the light rise to the peaks. In the boulder at my back, there is a shudder, so slight that at another time it might have gone unnoticed. The tremor comes again; the earth is nudging me. And still I do not see.
Peter Matthiessen, The Snow Leopard
‘You go Langtang? Stay my guesthouse. Lovely guesthouse.’
I bump into Pema on the trail between Lama Hotel and Langtang, hoping to make it to Kyangjin today. I will probably be in Langtang by noon. I often stop trekking at midday, since afternoons in these mountains at this time of year are predictably miserable, with cold winds and even colder rains. But it looks like this afternoon might be the exception, with a gorgeously cloudless cyan-coloured sky. Kyangjin is only a couple of hours from Langtang, although it is also, at almost four thousand metres, about five hundred metres higher – or about one thousand five hundred metres higher than Lama Hotel, where I slept last night.
‘I think I go to Kyangjin,’ I tell Pema, who is heading down the valley towards Syabru Bensi. ‘Nice weather today. Warm sunshine. No rain.’
‘Stay my guesthouse, Langtang. Lovely guesthouse. Daughter there, with baby. Daughter name Bhuti. My name Pema.’
He sticks out his hand, smiling wildly, to shake. I shake his calloused hand and ask whether he has cold beer at his guesthouse, whether he has yak steak. He tells me he is on his way to the market now to buy yak meat. He will see me tonight. And then he dashes down the trail, his empty basket bouncing on his back.
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I have almost run out of teahouse treks in Nepal, having already trekked the Annapurna Circuit (before they built those rotten roads, I rather annoyingly brag), Annapurna Base Camp and Everest Base Camp, twice, returning by way of Gokyo and its sacred lakes the second time. I have also trekked the Markha Valley in Ladakh, to the west of Nepal, and trekked to the south face of Kangchenjunga in Sikkim, to the east.
Now I am doing Langtang, trekking up the valley along the Langtang Khola as far as Kyangjin, then returning on the same path before heading south on the pilgrimage route to the holy lakes at Gosainkund, a trail that should take me almost all the way back to Kathmandu. Someone told me, probably wrongly, that Langtang is Tibetan for Fat Yak. So I decide to dub this trek the Fat Yak Trek.
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I cross the swaying footbridges below a small gompa stuck on the side of the mountain and climb the path to Langtang. Langtang appears to be a proper village, surrounded by fragrant fields of potatoes and onions, radishes and garlic, not just your typical gauntlet of teahouses. And sure enough, not far from the entrance to the village, there it is, with an unmissable hand-painted sign above the door. Lovely Guest House. And there is the daughter on the terrace in front of the teahouse, just as Pema promised, playing with her baby.
‘You must be Bhuti,’ I say, taking off my sweaty pack and resting it on a wooden bench, alongside my trekking pole. ‘I met your father on his way to the market. He said you have cold beer.’
‘You want cold beer?’ she asks, with the same wild smile as her father. Even the baby, who stares at me, big eyed, smiles like that. ‘Gorkha or Everest?’
‘Everest, please,’ I say.
♠ ♠ ♠ ♠ ♠
Lovely Guest House seems to consist of the main building, built of stone and wood, with a roof of corrugated iron, and a side building made of the same materials, perched above the stone wall to the side of the terrace. The upper wooden sections of the two buildings are brightly painted yellow, blue and red, with the wooden benches and the wobbly wooden tables scattered around the terrace painted the same bright colours.
As I soon discover, the main building houses a cosy dining room, with comfortably cushioned communal seating and box-shaped tables surrounding a dung-burning stove, as well as a rather cluttered kitchen and two tiny bedrooms where the family sleep. The side building is a row of three somewhat larger bedrooms for passing trekkers, such as myself, with a squat toilet just round the back.
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I sit in the warm sunshine on the terrace of Lovely Guest House and drink my cold beer.
Bhuti fetches a yellow enamel washbasin and half fills it with cold water. Then she brings a kettle of boiling water from the kitchen and pours that into the basin, giving it a stir. She picks up the baby and puts her, standing, into the washbasin. The baby stomps the bathwater with her stubby feet, chortling, while Bhuti drags a wooden bench over to the washbasin, where she sits and scrubs the baby with a washcloth and a bar of soap. Then she sits the baby in the bathwater and shampoos her hair, using a blue enamel mug to rinse away the suds.
When the baby has been given a good rub with a fluffy bath towel, it is her turn.
Sitting on the bench, Bhuti flips her hair forward over her face and dangles her long black locks above the baby’s bathwater. Using the mug, she slowly soaps and then slowly rinses her hair, before wrapping it in the bath towel and tossing the bathwater on the grass beside the terrace. Bhuti returns to the bench, removes the towel, lowers her head between her knees once again and, with some help from the baby, brushes those long black locks, letting her hair dry slowly in the sun, like those girls, I suddenly remember, in that poem by Robert Frost.
After my third bottle of beer, I ask Bhuti whether or not she has a room for me tonight.
‘Yes,’ she says, still smiling, her hair nicely dry now. ‘One more cold beer?’
‘No more beer, cheers. I think I need a nap.’
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After a long nap that is occasionally interrupted by the sound of chuckling and the smell of hashish seeping through the plywood wall from the bedroom next door, I go to the dining room for dinner. With the sun having set behind the mountains on the south side of the valley some time ago, it is already quite cold. Three young men, all with rather amusing hairstyles, huddle in one corner of the dining room, rolling smokes from shag and sipping what smells like lemon tea.
I go to the kitchen to order a beer and find the whole family there, all three of them, with Pema hacking away at some red meat with a large knife. When he sees me, Pema puts down the knife, wipes his right hand on his trousers and sticks it out, once again, to shake, smiling as wildly as before.
‘Yak steak?’ I ask, nodding towards the meat.
‘Yak meat,’ he says, picking up his rather bloody knife. ‘No steak. Very nice.’
‘Okay,’ I say. ‘With chips?’
‘No chips,’ Pema says. ‘Rice.’
‘Rice. No chips,’ Bhuti repeats, her perpetually happy baby hugging her leg. ‘Cold beer?’
♠ ♠ ♠ ♠ ♠
I sit on a wooden bench beside the toasty dung-burning stove in the centre of the dining room and drink my cold beer. The three stoners in the corner tell me they are from England, Israel and Portugal. They met at a fleabag hotel on Freak Street in Kathmandu a few days ago and decided to do a short trek together.
‘Is that where you got the hash?’ I ask.
‘So, you smelled it,’ the Israeli stoner says. ‘You can buy at the hotel. Better than on the street. The shit on the street is too dry.’
They invite me to smoke with them, so I move to their table in the corner, where the Portuguese stoner pulls a clay chillum from the pocket of his down sweater.
‘Wow,’ I say. ‘You guys really are old school. Staying on Freak Street and smoking from a chillum. The last time I smoked from a chillum was about twenty years ago, I think, with some sadhus on the steps of some ghat at Haridwar.’
‘Boom Shankar, man,’ the English stoner says, bobbing his head.
The Portuguese stoner removes the stone from the chillum, bangs it on the table a couple of times, gives it a good blow or two and then puts the stone back into the cone-shaped pipe. He puts a couple of pinches of shag in the palm of his hand, crumbles a small lump of hashish onto the shag and then rubs the two together between both hands. He then stuffs the blend into the bowl of the chillum, on top of the stone.
He passes the pipe to the Israeli stoner, who cups both hands around the bottom of the chillum, the pipe not quite touching his lips, with the bowl tilted up like the bell of Dizzy Gillespie’s trumpet. The Portuguese stoner lights the chillum, while the Israeli stoner takes two or three short puffs and then inhales deeply. He smiles, passes the pipe to the English stoner and, a moment later, slowly exhales a splendid cloud of smoke.
‘Is Pema okay with this?’ I ask.
‘Yeah,’ the Israeli stoner says. ‘Pema’s cool. We ask him before. He says no problem.’
When it is my turn to smoke, I cup my hands around the bottom of the pipe, take a couple of short puffs, inhale deeply and, a moment later, cannot stop coughing.
‘Must be the tobacco,’ I explain between coughs and gulps of cold beer. ‘The sadhus smoked hash with ganja, not with shag.’
‘Oh okay,’ the stoners say, chuckling once again.
Somewhat predictably, the stoners had ordered dal bhat for dinner, since it is teahouse tradition to serve all the dal bhat trekkers can eat for a very reasonable price. To give them some space to focus on their food, I thank them for the smoke and move to another table with my beer. Before long, Pema appears, smiling of course, with what looks like a big bowl of yak curry and a big bowl of rice.
‘Pema,’ I say. ‘It is too much. I cannot eat so much.’
‘I eat with you,’ Pema says, grabbing two plates and sitting opposite me at the table. ‘We eat with hands, okay?’
‘Okay,’ I say. ‘I think I might drink another beer. Can I buy you a beer, Pema?’
‘I forget,’ Pema says, jumping up and disappearing into the kitchen. He returns with a plastic jug full of some milky liquid and two enamel mugs – a green mug for him and a yellow mug for me – and pours the milky liquid into the mugs.
‘With yak meat, we drink chang,’ Pema says, toasting me with his mug. I toast him with my mug and drink.
‘I’ve drunk chang before,’ I say. ‘But I don’t know this. What kind of chang is this?’
‘Rice chang,’ Pema says, spooning heaps of yak curry and rice onto both of our plates.
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When I trekked with a group to the south face of Kangchenjunga in Sikkim a few years ago, our guides could see that the group was driving me mad, that if I had to spend another afternoon in that dining tent, drinking tea and listening to my fellow trekkers talk about their gardens and their grandchildren, I would have slit my wrists. So Binodh and Beichung decided to rescue me, taking me to their tent and introducing me to the pleasure of sucking hot chang through wooden straws from tall bamboo tumblers.
To bring chang with them on the trek, all they had to do was to toss a binbag of fermented millet, weighing almost nothing, onto the back of one of the yaks. They would stuff a couple of handfuls of the fermented millet into a bamboo tumbler and then top the tumbler up with boiling water. Then we would wait. The longer you wait, the better the chang. When you think it might be ready and you simply cannot wait any longer, you suck on that wooden straw like your life depends on it.
‘How was the yak?’ the English stoner asks.
‘Chewy,’ I say. ‘I think it probably trekked over the pass from Tibet. Definitely not from this sleepy valley, not one of those fat yaks you see around here.’
‘I thought they were Buddhist,’ the English stoner says. ‘Can Buddhists eat meat?’
‘If a yak tumbles off a cliff and dies, you can eat it,’ I explain. ‘But you cannot nudge a yak off a cliff so you can eat it. A subtle but significant distinction.’
‘So did that yak accidentally tumble off some cliff, then?’
‘Probably not,’ I say.
♠ ♠ ♠ ♠ ♠
‘Did you feel that?’ the Portuguese stoner suddenly says, eyes wide open, after a couple more bowls of hashish.
‘Feel what?’ the Israeli stoner asks.
‘It shook,’ the Portuguese stoner says.
‘This shook. Everything shook. You didn’t feel that?’
‘That’s you shaking, mate,’ the English stoner says. ‘Too much charas.’
More than a little stoned myself now, I tell the stoners I felt everything shake about five years ago, when I was in Peru doing the Inca Trail and a couple of other treks. I was on my way home, queuing at the check-in desk at the airport when everything suddenly began to shake. Everything that had felt stable suddenly felt unstable. Everything that had felt safe suddenly felt unsafe. The solid earth did not feel so solid anymore. Some women working at the check-in desks began to scream, looking above our heads at something behind us.
The departure terminal at Lima Airport is basically a long line of check-in desks, with the entrance to the terminal nothing but glass, about three storeys high. When we turned round, we saw what they saw. The glass was bulging in and bulging out like the bubble of a bullfrog. To go outside where it was safe, we would have to walk under that wobbly glass. So everyone just stood there, listening to the women scream and watching the glass sway in and sway out, not knowing what else to do.
The earthquake quaked for about three minutes.
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Sitting on the bed in my hotel room in Madrid, having missed my connecting flight to London, I heard the news. More than five hundred people were believed dead, the newsreader on the television said, with most of those deaths in the city of Pisco, about one hundred and sixty miles southeast of Lima. Three hundred or so people were attending mass in the cathedral there when it collapsed. Almost the entire city had been destroyed. It was the sort of earthquake, the newsreader said, that happened about once every hundred years in Peru.
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Where will I be when I hear the news about Nepal? Where will I be when I hear that nearly nine thousand people have died in an earthquake that will shake Nepal at noon on the twenty-fifth of April 2015, three years from this curious stay at Lovely Guest House? Where will I be when I hear that the earthquake has caused a huge hunk of the mountain hovering above the village to break loose and bury Langtang in an avalanche of rock and ice two to three kilometres wide, producing winds that will blow down every tree on the south side of the valley? When I hear that only one house in the village is still standing, sheltered from the avalanche by being built so close to the cliff on the north side? When I hear that only twelve villagers and two trekkers are believed to be alive?