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A Trek too far

by sue n 

Posted: 26 September 2004
Word Count: 2406
Summary: The story of an 'easy' two day trek in Nepal.

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A Trek too Far

I woke up on new years day in Pokhara Nepal, bleary eyed but excited that I was embarking on my first ever mountain trek. The plan was to meet my guide at 7am, go by taxi for 12km, walk to Dhampus in the mountains, stay there overnight, walk to Serenkot and taxi back. - a nice easy two day expedition well within my capabilities.
Unfortunately Nepal was plunged into a two day strike and neither guide nor taxi turned up. The hotel manager was unfazed.
'I take you but bad leg. No worry, I find you guide' he said as walked off with a previously unnoticed limp. He was only gone a few minutes before returning with a diminutive figure dressed in jeans, a thin shirt and a large woolly hat. I was dubious as to my new guide's authenticity and fired off questions.
‘How old is he?’
‘Has he done any trekking?'
'Oh yes’,
'Does he speak English?’
‘A little’
‘How are we to get to the mountains?'
‘Walk’ .
I peered under the woolly hat and asked the lad his name.
'Rajis' he muttered shyly as he stuffed a jacket into a rucksack. He squeezed in my sleeping bag, I shouldered my own bag and at 8am we set off.

As we walked out of Pokhara and along the empty roads, any hope of a passing taxi or lift evaporated. Conversation was very limited as Rajis could only understand basic English, but he had a very sweet smile and would often break into the latest Nepalese hit song. After three hours my hips, calves and feet were already aching and I gesticulated to Rajis I needed a sit down and breakfast. In the next village he found a tiny roadside café and the woman in charge sent one of her bare footed children off in search of bread. The other four stared at me with big round brown eyes, eventually tiring and returning to their skipping game. An egg inside a stale roll and two tin cups of the Nepalese version of chai and the protesting legs were set in motion again.
The valley stretched ahead endlessly but at least the mountains had appeared through the mist. At half past one we stopped for lunch at a bench outside a house. The menu was dal baht with or without meat and I instantly became a vegetarian. The lady of the bench bustled busily, dividing herself between cooking our food, changing a baby's nappy and shooing the chickens off the table. Rajis tucked into his meal with gusto and hand, while I picked at mine with the fork she managed to find. I don't think my dal baht was strictly vegetarian as I'm sure it was laced with chicken and baby shit. I ate what I could and then tried hard to convince myself that I didn't need a wee. It was no good, I had to ask to use the bathroom. It was as bad as I feared, a shed with a plank over a smelly hole in the ground.

We walked for another half hour until the valley ended and a vertical mountainside appeared straight ahead. Rajis looked pleased with himself as he said,
‘We go up here’.
My foreboding must have registered on my face as it alerted an old man sitting at the base of the monster hill to produce a long staff out of nowhere for me to buy. For three tough hours we climbed the rough rock steps. Not only did I lose my breath every few minutes (yet another vow was taken to give up smoking) and my calf muscles scream in protest but I also strained a groin muscle that made each lift of the foot very painful. Bruce (my little teddy bear companion) came out of my bag to give me encouragement and to have someone to mutter to about the pain.
'Twenty more steps Bruce and then I will kill Rajis so we can go home'.
' Thirty steps to that boulder Bruce, where I suspect that I'm going to expire. Tell everyone that I tried my best'.
At each bend I prayed that round the corner I would see the top but it only revealed yet more steps winding ever upward. Occasionally, during the frequent rests, I could summon enough energy to take in the view of the valley below and console myself that anyone would be tired after walking its length.
At one point, a Nepalese man out for a stroll joined us. Speaking good English he quizzed me about life in the UK.
‘You put your old people in special homes I believe’ he said. I tried to explain that there were a variety of options but he interrupted by asking,
'Do you live in one of these homes?'
Fortunately he wandered off before I could push him over the edge.

I was so tired that I didn't realise that the steps had ended until we were actually walking into Dhampus, a small village perched 1750m high on the edge of the mountain. Rajis chose one of the string of lodges along the road and we were shown into a wooden room off a veranda that looked out onto a mountain range, obscured now by dark evening cloud. The room contained three beds and I collapsed on the nearest one. Rajis cast me an anxious look to see if I was going to challenge the room-sharing but I was too tired to care and suspected that if I'd objected he would have had to sleep on the floor somewhere.
After an hour I wasn't sure if I was numb from the cold or rigor mortis so I forced myself to get up and join Rajis in the open air porch that doubled as the eating area. Dinner was momo, little dough packets of vegetables, rather plain but edible. Rajis had dal baht. My day improved when I saw hot chocolate pudding on the menu. A huge bowl of thick brown semolina arrived. It didn't taste very chocolatey, in fact it didn't taste of anything at all, but was at least hot.
By early evening it was far too cold to sit outside and I asked to ask to sit by the fire in the kitchen. The mother was feeding the baby, the children chased the exhausted puppy and father presided benignly over the scene. I felt I was watching an old movie depicting idyllic rural life. On cue aged grandma arrived, did a little dance for my benefit and then left. The family appeared happy, amusing itself without TV, computer or indeed any mod con at all but when I found myself envying their simple life and simple pleasure, I felt both hypocritical and guilty. I was only here for one night, an extremely cold one, and had blanched at the very basic squat loo below our veranda, with only a tap outside for washing.

At 7pm Rajis and I retired to bed. Only pausing to give my teeth a cursory brush and remove my boots I crawled into my sleeping bag under a thick quilt and immediately fell asleep. At midnight I woke up sweating and feeling very ill. Stumbling around to find torch, boots and coat, I wondered if I was going to throw up over the sleeping Rajis. A dose of freezing fresh air, a protracted visit to the loo, a swig of water and I felt well enough to go back to bed, this time minus the heavy quilt.
At 7am Rajis woke me with a cup of chai. How civilised I thought, tea in bed but Rajis kept demanding,
'Come look. Come look'.
It took great willpower to leave my cosy sleeping bag and stumble out onto the veranda but what I saw amply compensated for the aching muscles and hardship of the day before. Straight ahead, soaring into a glorious blue sky with only wispy shreds of cloud were the snow capped Annapurnas. The dark, pitted, craggy slopes contrasted starkly with white peaks sparkling in the sun. Highest in the range was Machhapuchhare, the Fishtail Mountain, so steep that the sharp pointed peak was barren rock, the snow sliding down crevices like white veins. I felt small and insignificant, and wanted to cry at my good fortune in being here, seeing this sight. Rajis, sensing my emotion, led me in silence to a hill outside the village, which gave further panoramic views of the mountains.
The spell was broken by the arrival of a group of four Korean students. They couldn't speak more than a few words of English but gabbled away excitedly as we took pictures of each other with the mountains as backdrop. Their much more convincing looking guide took my fledgling Rajis under his wing, and we teamed up for the return walk.

The next couple of hours were downhill and gradually we began to shed layers as the day and the muscles warmed up. One of the Korean girls with an unpronounceable name that I mentally called 'the plump one' was struggling. She looked exhausted and was having a problem walking in a straight line. We often had to wait for her to weave her way back to the group having fallen behind, muttering to herself in Korean. I felt surprisingly well and was enjoying myself until we reached the bottom of our hill and another monster loomed in front of us.
'Yes we go up there' was the answer to my anxious question. As we rested, gathering our strength, an enterprising local arrived in his ancient car offering to take us by road to the top for a hundred rupees each. Not wanting to appear a wimp I waited for the Koreans’ decision but couldn't disguise my glee when they decided to take the car. There was a little roadside café at the top and the breakfast of scrambled eggs with Tibetan bread invigorated me enough to walk again. The next few hours were undulating but not too steep. A joke developed that I was Rajis' mother and he would ask,
'Mommie OK?'
'Mommie tired, Rajis carry bag'.
I was actually beginning to feel quite maternal towards the boy.
We passed a group of Nepalese bearers, mostly women, trudging along with enormous baskets containing the tents and backpacks of tourist trekkers tied to their heads. The size and weight of those baskets brought back the unease about the impact of tourism. I know that this is their living and they may not have one without this trade but it looked such hard work. I was struggling with only my little rucksack. When we approached small settlements the children all rushed towards us.
'Pens pliz. Sweets pliz. Money pliz' they clamoured, thrusting out their grubby hands. I walked along chanting,
‘No sweets, no pens, no money’ at the top of my voice. As I sang and laughed, they laughed with me - no hard feelings on either side.

At the rest stops along the way the Koreans shared their snacks. I discreetly spat out the stick of dried fish but the strips of seaweed were very tasty. I didn't have much to share, only a few battered sweets. Phil, one of the Koreans, was curious about my roll ups. The vow to give up smoking had been diluted to only having a few roll ups a day in the delusional belief that I would smoke less. Many Asians had stared wide-eyed at the sight of a middle-aged woman spreading a few miserly clumps of tobacco along a piece of paper, licking it, cussing as it all fell apart, trying again until finally setting fire to the limp, saliva stained excuse for a ciggie. 'I try, preeze' asked Phil and I passed him one of my better efforts. He took one puff, pulled a face and handed it over to the guide, who accepted it gratefully. Once I ran out of filters I succumbed to buying the very prevalent and very cheap Marlboroughs.

2pm we reached Serenkot 1592m high at the top of the mountain that overlooks Pokhara 700m below, and enjoyed a late lunch and a welcome rest. On one side the mountains filled the horizon, on the other the wide Pokhara valley stretched below, with Lake Phewa and the town in the distance. We couldn't stay for long as the very steep climb down to the valley had to be tackled before dark. This was even harder than the ascent the day before as every muscle hurt, every bone ached and I developed a huge blister on one foot. 'The plump one' was in tears and weaving so much that she must have doubled the distance down. Another of the girls, 'the shaven one', a Korean version of Sinead O'Connor, twisted her knee and had to cling onto the guide. Even little Rajis had long stopped singing and seemed to be regretting the offer to carry my bag. Only Phil seemed to have energy left, plus of course the guide who was carrying several bags as well as helping the wounded. An exhausted, hobbling little group, we finally reached the bottom. I would gladly have swapped every possession for a ride back into town but on day two of the strike, there wasn't a single vehicle in sight. We trudged the last miles into Pokhara, too tired to do more than nod goodbye when the Koreans took a different path.

Rajis insisted we stop for chai on the way back. He knew the people in the café and wanted to show off that he'd led what was unquestionably his first trek. Whether a grubby, haggard, limping, middle-aged English woman was a good advert for his trekking prowess is questionable. The hot sweet liquid was enough to get me to the hotel, give Rajis what I hoped was a good tip, open my room door and fall on the bed. I wanted to remonstrate with the hotel manager that he hadn't had to pay for a proper guide or two taxis and had nearly killed me but I didn't have the energy. All I wanted was a hot shower, sleep and to savour the memory of that dawn view.

PS A comment I sometimes receive about my writing is that it can be a bit 'flat' - I don't vary the pace enough. Any comments/suggestions on this?

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Comments by other Members

crazylady at 00:46 on 28 September 2004  Report this post
Hi Sue,
I enjoyed the story of your trek and was right there with you all the way especially the bit where you reverted to talking to Bruce. Thank goodness for 'the plump one' at least you could see her suffering even more!
As for your PS Don't do yourself down! This is good stuff.
One suggestion though. Have you thought of the 'look' of it? Because you've written it mainly in one block it tends to look a bit dense.
I was taught (rightly or wrongly) that whenever there's any dialogue then it should always start on a new line.
I fired off a few questions.
"How old is he?"
"Has he done any trekking?"
"Oh Yes."
"Does he speak any English?"
"A little."
"How are we to get to the mountains?"
I peered under the woolly hat and .....
and so on.

Also, possibly breaking up some of the text into smaller paragraphs would reduce the big slabs of text.

I hope this doesn't sound too presumptuous. I don't mean it to and I enjoy what you have to say and the way you describe it all. I wouldn't change the wording simply rearrange how it lays on the page.

Just trying to be helpful

sue n at 18:10 on 28 September 2004  Report this post
Thanks CL
You are right, it did look very dense - enough to put anyone off reading it.
I've gone in and done a quick revamp. Will go in later (after I've eaten) and do it properly.
Good job there are us two in this group, bit quiet otherwise.

Richard Brown at 12:15 on 29 September 2004  Report this post
Dense or not (though I see that you took the advice about the dialogue), I really enjoyed this account. It strongly held my attention. It was often very amusing yet I felt the aches and pains and the awe you clearly felt at the morning sight of the mountains. It seemed to me to be quintessentially human and I didn't get any sense of a lack of pace. I felt 'in the place' and that's the best one can get from travel writing. More please!

sue n at 22:02 on 29 September 2004  Report this post
Thanks Richard
You made my day.
What an emotional-roller coaster this writing business is.

crazylady at 09:58 on 30 September 2004  Report this post
I just re-read this with the new spacing.
It's a beautifully told journey and now my legs ache in sympathy.
I have the same thing when I get past all sanity through tiredness that I make internal comments about the people and food and especially the loos!(I thought no one else did it.)
There are times when we wonder why we explore new places and then when faced with a spectacular view or an example of human kindness it all becomes clear.
This comes over well in your story and makes travelling glorious.

DerekH at 20:09 on 05 October 2004  Report this post
Sue, I really did enjoy this. I didn't know what to expect from a travel story (I half expected lots of facts, distances, and so on)... this read more like a very personal piece. I loved it.

I get the impression that you enjoyed meeting the people even more than seeing the sights...that's how it came across to me anyway. I really liked the well meant humour that you wrote into the people you met...right from the start that got my attention. The real characters you described were as colourful as any fictional ones. I loved the scene in the kitchen, with the dancing grandmother...brilliant.


sue n at 22:34 on 05 October 2004  Report this post
Thanks Derek for your comments.
I do love meeting people. It is also alot easier to portray people as they are all different.
The difficult challenge is to describe a wonderful view without using well worn cliches or superlatives. How do you find a fresh way to paint a word picture of the Taj Mahal or the Himalayas?
You novelists have it easy.

Cornelia at 16:40 on 05 February 2005  Report this post
I enjoyed this very much, Sue. I, too, think my own writing can be 'flat' if it is long stretches. I was thinking about this problem with regard to your own piece and thinking some drama, some suspense or some sense of mission help vary the pace. I am not someone who treks - I like living and working another culture, not travelling about so much. I always want the travel bit to pass. Having said this, I do enjoy reading about journeys, and I was thinking about a long book I read recently, called ' Ten thousand Miles without a Cloud', written by a Chinese woman who was following in the footsteps of some thirteenth century monk. She was always recalling what had happened to him, which gave added interest and a backdrop to her own more comfortable experience.


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