We crossed the steel bridge from Syrapru Besi into the wild land of the Langtang valley. Immediately upon setting across the bridge we found ourselves in sparkling fields of green ganja.
And yes I mean literally sparkling. The Langtang River carries metals down from the mountains like shiny grains of silver and gold sand in the soil.
And yes actually fields of ganja!. Weed grows like weeds in the low foothills of the Himalayas.
We set up the steep side of the mountain foothill in switchbacks such that Syapru Besi got smaller behind us throughout the day. Around midmorning we came to a fork in the road at a farm perched on the steep side of the hill.
An old, leathery man with a crows-feet smile sat idly at the fork. He greeted us as we approached with a welcoming “Namaste.” The man continued to smile at us, and gestured towards the path forward. There was a goat-fence blocking the path. We politely shifted past the goat fence and gestured some thank you.
Nick commented on the fact that the man was surrounded by ganja.
The man laughed and made a rolling gesture with his hands, and then a sleeping gesture. We all laughed out loud and agreed. I felt a great appreciation for that man as we walked away. As I walked away up the mountain, I glanced back and saw him sitting idly at the fork of the road in the sunshine on the side of the hill.
We climbed the mountain in the heat of the midday sun. It was a very challenging day and a big relief to reach the top ridgeline. At the top, our party rested at a small stone fort on the crest of the mountain overlooking the three-pointed valley of Syrapu Besi.
As we traveled east along the ridgeline, we intersected a Tibetan man resting by the side of the ridgeline path. He was drinking some opaque white fluid like milk out of a plastic water bottle. The man half stumbled towards us and said some words which didn’t sound like Nepali, Tibetan, Hindi or English. We tried for a few minutes but totally failed at any communication. He insisted on walking very close behind the last person in our party which felt weird if you were the last guy. Oh yeah and he had like a 3 ft long sword in a scabbard on his left hip.
We were pretty alarmed by our companion but tried to make the best of it. For a while, we insisted that he walk ahead of us but Golem would not go in front. Finally we did some dumb shit and crossed a landslide (and almost crossed 2 landslides) to avoid him but ended up going back to the original path.
We got to the teahouse and of course our guy eventually stumbled on by. The owners knew him- his name was in fact Carson. They explained he was a mute who wandered the valley. The community at the teahouse welcomed him and gave him food and water and a seat at our table. I think this was a good example of culture clash between our innate suspiciousness of strangers and the peaceful Buddhists of this valley for whom suspiciousness doesn’t seem to enter their thinking. Furthermore- the simple fact of being totally and completely out of your element raises your alert level one or two notches at baseline. When you don’t understand the basic culture & human norms of a society, the simple fact of someone walking pretty close to you can actually be extremely unnerving. That paranoid feeling of, “is this normal? Am I the one being weird?” is a consistent feeling.
Many members of the Sherpagon community came to eat with us that night, including Carson, Tasha-Lama (owner of the teahouse), Tasha-Lama’s wife with the gold teeth, and the Ganja-Man.
Anyway, we learned our lesson and felt a little goofy and fell heavily into our beds that night.
Meeting the River
We woke the next morning slowly. I ordered what became the classic breakfast- yak milk coffee, fried tibetan bread, and “Tsampa” a Tibetan porridge made from barley. I loaded the Tsampa with honey and peanut butter.
Our teahouse at Sherpagon overlooked the entire valley we had ascended yesterday. The long dawn of the mountains started to brighten the valley ahead of us and we soaked in the view over coffee. After a long morning, we strapped on our heavy packs. I blew the whistle on my backpack which signified “Go!” and we marched on up the valley.
We were taking it slow and really soaking in the views from this ridgeline. Eventually we started to descend. We descended and the river rose up and soon enough our trail intersected the river at the village of Lama Hotel. At the river, we took a long midmorning break to swim, filter water, and eat some snacks. The river was pure silver icewater from the glaciers above, and painful to enter- but we all dunked our bodies under to wash off the sweat and dirt and grime of the past days. There weren’t always good showers, hot water, or even electricity at these teahouses, so a dunk in the glacial stream actually felt quite civilized and cleansing.
There was some fun black quicksand around the river. In some places it was almost bouncy, and then in others it would swallow you to your thighs in just a minute or so. We sifted through the sand for a little while and noticed gold and silver metal deposits in the quicksand.
We spent a few hours basking in the wonderful stream after all those hours on the hot and dusty high trail. The sun was hot and the water was cool. Our Cliff bars had that incredible taste of something eaten while hungry and exhausted. Not just food- but fuel!
After we had our fill of relaxation, sunshine, and bathing, we got on the road and walked a long, sort of flat trail along the riverside. We walked from “Lama Hotel” just an hour or two to “Riverside”. At Riverside, we stopped for lunch.
The owner of the teahouse at Riverside, a toothless Tibetan man named Dawa, insisted that we stop and rest for the afternoon & evening. We were quite enjoying our mantra of “no destination & no hurry” so we weren’t too hard to convince to take the afternoon off from trekking.
Lunch took a few hours to come out and I ordered some “Langtang Coffee”. This is coffee mixed the local Tibetan moonshine- a spirit called “Rakshi” distilled from kodo millet or rice.
It burned quite a bit going down and brought tears to my eyes- but it instantly gave a nice & warm feeling in my chest and alleviated some of the annoyances of mild altitude sickness which I was experiencing.
I drank the Rakshi with coffee in the sunshine beside the river and I didn’t feel like trekking any more that day. We relaxed and talked in the sunshine all afternoon.
As the sun dropped beneath the mountain ridges above us and the long twilight began, I walked the riverbank collecting driftwood for a fire. There was plenty of dry wood and uprooted trees carried down by the violent glacial river and deposited at this turn of the riverbank. I found a fallen tree which would act as a nice bench and built the circle of stones for the fire pit just beside that. I used the heel of my foot to dig out the center of the fire pit and push the sand and gravel against the inside wall of the circle of stones. Dawa’s son, Sidar, came out and helped. I was breaking small sticks for kindling and he gave me some dry yellow strips of wood to use as starter.
When darkness came, we lit the pyre of wood and watched the fire crackle under the blank misty night sky and towering hills.
Dawa was in some pain from a toothache. He asked for some whiskey and Ben gave him ibuprofen from his first-aid kit. Then, Dawa asked me to look at his tooth to see if there was something I could do to help. He opened his mouth and revealed the horror show in there. Basically all of Dawa’s front teeth were gone. He had a few molars left- all with black signs of rot at the base of the teeth near the gums. He showed me the two teeth that were giving him trouble- both were loose and looked like they could pop out in a second. Top and bottom molars on his right side.
I said, “That tooth has gotta come out, Dawa.”
He nodded and asked if I would extract the tooth for him.
I considered the possibility. I had novocaine, pliers, antiseptic and suturing materials in my first-aid kit. Then, as quickly as the possibility jumped into my mind I realized how insane that would be. I have no dental training and no reason besides hubris to believe I could pull off a tooth extraction in the Himalayas. I looked at Ben and Nick and the looks on their faces confirmed my realization.
“I’m sorry Dawa, I cannot help you.”
“Simple pull tooth, no problem.”
“I’m sorry Dawa, I cannot pull out your tooth.”
Ben: “Is there a dentist in this valley who can help?”
Dawa: “No dentist in Langtang.”
Ben: “Where is there a dentist who could help you?”
Silence. Ben looked like he was in pain. Dawa looked forlorn. I thought about what it would take to get Dawa to a dentist in Kathmandu- probably only a couple thousand rupees. Then I thought about all the suffering I had seen on this journey so far- the people sleeping on hard pavement on the streets of New Delhi, the amputees with their yellowing stumps pleading for just a few rupees in Chandni Chowk, the gypsy children of Pushkar with their dirty faces, sifting through garbage piles looking for bits of useful material to sell or eat. Why give my rupees to Dawa with so much suffering everywhere? I wondered if he would even go to Kathmandu for a dentist. It was such a far journey from Langtang. He had lost most of his teeth before we came and he would continue to lose teeth after we left. But Dawa was sharing our fire! I was drinking his homemade moonshine! I felt a suffocating, paralyzing feeling all laden with guilt and self-loathing. I could see that Ben wanted to help, but I didn’t know what to say.
We kept buying things. I drank some fermented milk beer that Dawa had brewed called “Chyang,” and I had a bad time.
That night, I was very sick with fever and diarrhea. Several times throughout the night, I had to rush fifty meters across rough cobblestones in the darkness from my bed to the fly-ridden outhouse by the river. I had fever dreams and waking hallucinations that night, and imagined I was being karmically punished for not helping Dawa extract his tooth.
I woke up the next morning extremely weak, with a fever of 102.5 degrees. I ate some eggs & fried tibetan bread as best I could and then went back to bed while the others relaxed by the river. Around midmorning I got out of bed, still feeling feverish. I took some ibuprofen and dunked my body in the cool icewater of the river. This seemed to bring my temperature down to about normal and we set off from Riverside up the valley.
The Langtang Valley
After Riverside, the valley changed. Before, the valley was a precipituous “V” shape which terminated in a rushing, roaring, violent river at the bottom. We had been walking narrow rock paths hewn into the vertical wall. But now, the valley flattened out into a wide expanse of pasture at the bottom, with the river split in several meandering streams through the green grassland.
The walking was easier here, too. It was a gradual upward slope through the tree-lined pasture towards the valley above. It began to rain and I was feeling somewhat low from illness and wetness. We reached the top of the grasslands and scaled a steep rock staircase which must have ascended 300-500 meters. We were exposed to the elements on this steep staircase winding up the mountain. The rain fell heavily now and wind whipped by. The staircase was thick with mud and very slippery. I was leaning heavily on my trekking pole to keep balance. When we reached the top of the climb, the pasture-lands stretched out behind us, obscured in low clouds which hung all through the valley and spit rain at us.
Now, we were above the tree-line. The air was cold and the rain fell heavily. Fortunately there was a teahouse at the top of that hill and we stopped for the day.
I promptly fell into bed, fully wet, and slept deeply for like 5 hours. I woke up for dinner and had a few bites of Dal Baht before crashing again. I woke up the next morning feeling refreshed.
In the morning, Jordan and I were chatting with the owner of our teahouse, Dawa, about the mountains. We had ideas of climbing some big peak out here but we weren’t sure which. He mentioned that he had just returned from Yala Peak the day before. In the end, we negotiated a 2-day guided expedition to the 18,000 foot peak. Jordan and I left towards Kyanjin Gompa with a buzz of energy in our step, thinking about Yala on the horizon.
Around midday, we passed through a section of valley that looked like it had been exploded by a nuclear bomb. Huge sections of the mountain had sheared away and were resting in the middle of the valley in a giant rock field. We walked solemnly through the town of Langtang where, in 2015, a rock slide had buried the entire town. The 7.8 magnitude earthquake that shook Nepal that year had sheared the mountain above along one great cleft. Forty million tons of rock and ice, and the entire contents of a frozen lake were thrown down upon the town of Langtang. Almost everyone in the little town of Langtang was buried- 243 deaths in total.
The Wheel of Samsara
Above Langtang, the land changed again and felt very harsh, spiritual, and solemn. The air was cool and damp and the wind whipped in our faces as we traveled up a gradual incline of pasture-lands. The glacial stream branched out into hundreds of slow moving little silver-white creeks which wound through the grasslands. Majestic yaks gazed at us from the pastures, their long hair blowing in the wind. Packs of monkeys scampered about and drank from the creeks.
Tibetan Buddhist structures filled the green and silver landscape. Along the path, the locals had arduously built many “Mani Piles.” These are basically huge engraved and painted piles of stones decorated by flags & yak horns. They are tokens of worship, prayer, and sacrifice. Often, I saw some Tibetan circumambulating the piles clockwise singing a melodic mantra and waving incense. Other times, when I was traveling with locals, the local would insist that I place a stone on the Mani as we passed for good luck and respect.
Even more interesting than the Mani Piles were the Wheels of Samsara Bhavachakra– mysterious structures built over the small creeks. Inside were wheels engraved with Tibetan words, spinning under the infinite power of the glacial runoff.
White steeples of the Tibetan Gompas dotted the horizon beneath intimidating snowcapped peaks of Gangchempo, Yala, and Tsangbu Ri. Each Gompa had a massive Bhavachakra turning within. The Tibetans had directed some flow of water beneath the Gompa to turn the wheel. On each revolution of the wheel a bell rung.
I sat down at the Gompa to meditate. The sound of the flags whipping in the wind, the low rumbling of the wheels, and the sharply ringing bell combined with the feverishness of my altitude sickness to bring my mind into a very focused, trippy, spiritual place. I used the ringing of the bell on each revolution of the Bhavachakra as the object of my focus. Like the dense clouds hung low in the valley around me, my consciousness felt confined to the valley and to the rumbling wheel such that the entirety of the world outside this valley seemed to be mythical. And indeed the entirety of the world in that moment did exist only inside my mind. I felt as though I might never leave that valley- that my body would shape formlessly into the swirling clouds and the impassive stone walls at my sides. This feeling of strange spiritual feverishness never quite left me until I finally descended out of that part of the valley a few days later.
Ben explained that the Wheel of Samsara is meant to represent the beginningless cycle of birth, mundane existence, and death. Existence within this wheel is by nature filled with suffering Dukkha. Escape from the wheel is possible when Moksha is attained by means of meditation, insight, and nirvana. One must relinquish material desires and base human instincts to gain true insight as to the impermanence of the self and escape the Dukkha of the Bhavachakra.
Kyanjin Gompa is the small town at the top of the valley. It sits on the edge of a wide rock expanse created by the winding Langtang river. There is a small hydroelectric power generation facility, yak pastures, a cheese factory, several white steepled gompas, some coffee shops and a bunch of hotels for trekkers. It too was almost completely destroyed by the 2015 earthquake such that everything was newly constructed.
We arrived at our hotel, the “Super View” Hotel. As with all the teahouses, the rooms were free as long as we promised to eat at the restaurant. Exhausted and altitude sick, we crashed into the hotel. There were hot showers and comfy enough beds. The top floor had a kitchen and a wooden room with big windows facing the mountains, kept warm by a wood stove. There were wooden tables and chairs and Buddhist iconography on the shelves. The room was smoky and hushed and filled with travelers from all over the globe.
The following day we rested. We took a short hike up one of the branches of the river, through green grass pastures hugging the winding blue-white river. I meditated as best I could before feeling really altitude sick and retreating to the wood stove room at the hotel.
The next day, Jordan and I climbed Yala Peak. I talk about this climb in another another post.
We left early from Kyanjin Gompa the next day, planning to return to the base of the valley in just two days of downhill trekking. On our way out, we stopped at the Gompa with the Wheel of Samsara.
Throughout the trip, Jordan had taken it on as his personal mission to locate the Lama. He had been incessantly questioning anyone and everyone about this. And only because two people have already misunderstood me on this point- I mean the Buddhist priests not the farm animals.
I had been mostly ignoring Jordan in his quest but now he approached and said he thought the Lama might be in the compound just 20 meters away. We agreed to knock on the door and ask if the Lama would see us. Jordan knocks on the thin aluminum door set in the stone wall. A woman pokes her head out. We ask to see the Lama. A light smile touches her face and she says she’ll check and ducks her head back in.
Just 10 seconds later she re-appears at the door and beckons us in. The Lama is sitting in a chair, smiling at us. He is in the traditional orange Buddhist robes, with an orange sock hat and shades. He smiles and beckons to the bench next to his chair. We sit down politely like schoolchildren. The woman brings us each a truly incredible cup of black tea with sugar.
There are a few words of greeting, of inquiring about our intentions, of the Lama searching for what we understand and what we seek. After not long, Jordan cuts through it and blurts out a question:
“What is the meaning of life?”
The Lama responds in a roundabout way through his translator. I will paraphrase as best that I remember:
“Your body comes from the earth. Flesh comes from soil, bones from stone. Blood comes from water and the heat in your body is the heat of the sun. The breath in your body is the wind. When you die, your body and all its parts will return to the earth.
The best you can do is to love your parents. If you love your parents then you don’t have to meditate.
But if you can understand yourself deeply and get rid of the illnesses that afflict you, then you will achieve something.”
I think the illnesses were:
- Rage (of your body heat)
- Arrogance (of your bones)
- Deceit (of the wind you breath)
- Jealousy (of your flesh)
- Something else (of your blood)
“When you experience rage at the actions of another, that person is not your enemy. The enemy is the rage within yourself. You are your only enemy. This applies to all of the basic illnesses of man: pride, deceit, jealousy, etc.”
Over the next hour, we talked of the body, of illness, of meditation and the purpose of living. The Lama sat beneath the white steeple with the snowy mountains on the horizon; he cut an very powerful image and I felt in awe just looking at him. I asked to take a picture but the Lama refused, saying it would bring too much attention to him.
The Lama offered to do some meditation with us if we would wait until the afternoon. We explained that we were in a hurry to get back to Syapru Besi. He smiled and said we would be welcome to come back any time. All people- Nepalese, Americans, Europeans, Africans, we are all brothers in pursuit of the truth.
We walked thoughtfully down through the yak pastures of Kyanjin Gompa, chatting about what our interpretations of the Lama’s words were.
When we had exited the valley of Kyanjin Gompa, we looked back at the ring of snowcapped peaks in the distance behind us. The mountains shimmered in the distance and seemed like a mythical place. In descending, my body was quickly recovering from the fever of altitude sickness, and my memories from just the past couple of days had a dreamlike quality. I just looked at those mountains and felt astonished at what had happened back there. And then I continued to walk downhill.
The walk down was much easier, although we had a lot more miles to cover per day. To entertain ourselves during the long walk, we started playing a little RPG game about our own adventure. The narrative covered the first four days of the trek from Syapru Besi to Kyanjin Gompa; each of us narrated one day. We used “Odds” to simulate dice rolling for actions but other than that there were no real mechanics other than the powers that we gave ourselves. We each played our own person from just a few days ago as a character, and we faced challenges that we ourselves had faced just a few days ago, except with wild and funny made-up elements.
Our characters- Ben, Nick, Jordan, & Dan- were seeking the Lama who had magically imbued a donkey with the ability to do 2nd grade math. We set off into the valley and were beset by a dual-personality Golem/Smeagol figure who attacked Ben and tried to steal his magic amulet. We eventually befriended Golem and moved on to face quicksand, a magical waterfall, lots of yaks, a tricky monkey, landslides, and eventually the great Wheel of Samsara. Our party was pulled into the wheel shaped Samsara realm and had to learn how to escape the eternal cycle of death, re-birth, and material distraction. It was a hilarious and entertaining recap to the entirely surreal adventure that we all had just had.
We arrived in Syapru Besi dead-tired and the next morning caught the bus to Kathmandu.