Nepal 62: A Journey Back in Time

I was trekking with two strangers into the remote mountains of Nepal.

My relationship, my job, and my life all hung up in the air—juggler’s balls abandoned to the whims of gravity—while I walked upwards, and away. The absurdity of the situation didn’t escape me. It seemed almost mythical, like something out of a movie. Walk into the mountains and return enlightened.

But I was 23, lost, alone, and unsure what I was searching for. I doubted I would return with anything more than stronger legs and a good story. But still, I thought as our guide returned from the TIMS checkpoint, what is there to do, brother?

This phrase had been echoing around in my head ever since Sujan had uttered it in Kathmandu. For whatever reason, it was resonating with me.

[this is a serial travel memoir about my experience traveling in Nepal. It’s best read from the beginning. Click for Chapter 1]

My pack was heavy, my mind was full of doubts, and my feet chafed in my new, Chinese-made hiking boots. But I was here. I had committed. At this point, what was there to do? Nothing but enjoy the journey as best I could.

I followed my guide as he set off towards the trail only he knew. As we walked through the little town, I looked around at the chaos around me. I was surprised at the activity that was present here. Trucks rumbled by, and a huge volume of trekkers were present on the trail, both going up and going down.

We crossed a roaring river. The water was milky blue—pure glacier melt from the mountains. I’d never seen such a color in my life before. Our guide didn’t even pause to point it out as he led the way across the bridge. If that was unremarkable, I thought, what wonders laid ahead?

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Our little group continued upwards in silence. I was struggling to adjust to the heavy load on my back, and I knew the Malaysian was as well. He was a small man, about a foot and a half shorter than I, and he said he didn’t do much hiking.

“Anyone can trek,” our guide said. “It is simple. Just keep walking. We will go slowly, slowly. We have far to go. Let me know when you need to rest,” he said as we stopped briefly, at the entrance to the Annapurna Conservation Area.

As I unshouldered my pack and sat down on a stone bench, I thought about the guide’s words. He was right, of course. That was one of my favorite things about hiking—it was never a matter of skill, it was a matter of persistence. A steady pace, a strong determination, and anyone could make it to the top.

Hiking is a good metaphor for life. A reminder in the power of persistence.

So when your life is falling apart, trekking is one of the better places you can go, I guess.

Not to say that I found myself convinced of the power of persistence on day one. In fact, I was low-key angry all day. I noticed candy bar wrappers and other trash along the trail. I didn’t talk much with my companions, and my back hurt from the heavy pack. My stomach gurgled with hunger and anxiety. I questioned my decision with every painful step.

However, as we kept trekking, the detritus of modern civilization slowly fell away. The trash disappeared, the roads vanished, and soon, our only traveling companions were goats, farmers, and other trekkers. It felt like we were walking back in time.

Despite these encouraging signs, I was still questioning my decisions when we came across our first tea house, and our guide suggested we stop for lunch. But, glad for the opportunity to remove my pack and rest, I eagerly agreed. The three of us took an outdoor table overlooking a farmer’s fields. Our guide went inside and spoke a few words to an old woman in the kitchen.

The Malaysian and I looked at each other. Then we looked out into the valley, with its gentle, sloping, terraced fields. A few animals grazed lazily, far off in the distance. We looked back at each other and kind of laughed. Where were we? What were we doing?

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My stomach rumbled. I was a lot hungrier than I’d thought, I realized. All I’d had to eat today was a cinnamon roll. My anxiety about the trek had masked the hunger. If I’m not paying attention, it’s pretty easy for me to forget to eat.

Our guide returned with waters and a few menus.

“I’ll be your waiter on the trek,” he told us. “You tell me what you want to eat, I tell her.”

We nodded and turned out eyes towards the menu in front of us. It was a menu we’d come to know very well over the next ten days, as the offerings were identical at every tea house on the whole trek.

“The menu is set by the government,” our guide explained. “The prices get bigger as the altitude gets higher.”

“Why?” the Malaysian asked.

“Trekking is big business here friend. The government sets prices for all trekking, everywhere in Nepal. That way it is fair for everybody.”

I looked over the menu. Prices ranged from 200 rupees to 400 rupees per entree ($2-$4). I looked for Dal Baht, the Nepali national food. I’d been recommended time and time again that this was what I wanted to eat while trekking. Dal Baht was always the cheapest item on the menu; it was legendary among trekkers. Love it or hate it, everyone ate it.

“How much is a Dal Baht at ABC?” I asked.

He thought it over for a second. “Mmm… Seven hundred?” our guide guessed.

Us clients nodded, and decided to order the Dal Baht.

“Dal Baht is the national food of Nepal,” he said. I was still struggling to remember his name. Something with an ‘A.’ “We guides and porters will eat it every meal.” He went over to put in our order: three Dal Baht.

I leaned over to the Malaysian and asked: “What’s his name again?”

He shrugged. “I don’t remember!”

“Neither do I!”

We shared an awkward laugh. Half a day in, and none of us knew each other’s names. Circumstances had made strange bedfellows. We talked until our food came, discussing our homelands and the trek to come.

Before we knew it, a homely little Nepali grandma shuffled over to our table with our food.

Dal Baht, as it turned out, was basically a standard curry set. Our plates were filled with rice, curry of some sort, pickled vegetables and some unidentifiable greens. A sight that would come to be commonplace to us as the trek wore on. On Day 1, it wasn’t the most appetizing sight for my still not-quite-settled stomach.

Nonetheless, we all shoveled it down with gusto. Within minutes, our stainless-steel plates were sitting empty.

“More?” Our guide asked us, encouragingly. “Dal Baht is the national food. In any restaurant, you can ask for seconds of Dal Baht and they will bring them to you, for free.”

Unsure when we’d eat again, and how far we still had to go today, I shrugged and said yes. My companion passed, but was glad of the extra time to rest. Our guide helped himself to a second heaping plate, and brought one for me as well. It really wasn’t bad: hearty, filling stuff, just like everyone said.

“We have saying in Nepal,” the guide said, as he watched me polish off my second plate. “Dal Baht: 23 hour power, 1 hour down and sour!” He laughed uproariously.

I inadvertently spit some grains of rice at the Malaysian, who ducked out of the way. That was certainly a cruder take than the tourist t-shirts they sold in Thamel, which just said “Dal Baht: 24 Hour Power.” I liked his version better. I was coming to realize that the image Nepal presented to the world wasn’t quite right—it was a little sanitized, a little too neat around the edges. Which is a shame. The reality is better—even if you do have to sometimes think about spending an hour “down and sour.”

***

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