Nepal:Trekking the high road in the Himalayas
AT dawn, the proprietor of a lodge in Dunche, Nepal, a village four day's walk from the nearest road, readies glasses of tea sweetened with sugar for travelers who will soon be on their way. We stir on the thin pallets where we've been sleeping, warm beneath the heavy quilts. Many of the dozen strangers who shared this loft last night have already left, beginning their day's walk in the dying hours of darkness.Skip to next paragraph
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Downstairs, the lodge owner stokes the open fire in the clay stove, while her two children warm themselves near its flames. Like many mothers, she carries her youngest child around her waist, swaddled in a blanket woven from yak hair.
We descend the rough-hewn wooden ladder, adjusting our eyes to the daylight entering through wooden shutters. There are no glass windows in these houses made of stone. Even the dishes are simple tin plates.
Nor is there running water. Instead, ablutions take place at the common pump before the police checkpost. Tourists and soldiers wash together, taking turns standing barefoot on the chilly stones beneath the spray.
At the lodge, breakfast seems to be a Western innovation. Generally only the tourists ask for omelettes, while the Nepalese hasten to be on their way. But we eat, chewing the dense, hand-size loaves of unleavened ``Tibetan bread'' before slipping on our backpacks and paying our bill. The cost of two meals and a night's lodging is 37 rupees, or about $2.
A generation ago, no Westerner was allowed beyond the borders of this isolated country sandwiched between China and India. Now, tourists who trek along the 10,000 trails connecting remote villages live much as do the Nepalese they encounter along the way.
``Namaste,'' says an old woman approaching from the opposite direction, her palms pressed together in a gesture of prayer. This expression of greeting and farewell translates as ``I salute the God within you.''
She stops, glad for the diversion, and rests upon a stone wall built to catch the shade of a towering banyan tree. The conversation is brief and will be repeated again many times that day. ``Where are you going? Where are you coming from?''
In this nation the size of North Carolina, but populated by 16 million countrymen of more than two dozen tribes, even strangers address each other as family. All women become ``elder sister''; all men are addressed with the respectful ``elder brother.''
On the trail, the porters who earn their living carrying other peoples' burdens keep a steady pace. In woven grass baskets suspended from rope headbands wrapped around their foreheads, these men may carry 100 pounds or more of rice, eggs, and even umbrellas between lowland and mountainside villages. Depending on the weight of the load -- which may be twice the porter's own weight -- the pay can be as high as $4 a day.
In the mountains, bonfires stoked with hard-to-find wood warm the central room that is kitchen and parlor. In the lowlands, bamboo huts offer needed relief from the afternoon sun. At the tea houses, generally located about an hour's walk apart, local travelers stopping for the night may quaff glasses of a drink brewed from rice while they play card games that can last until dawn. The tea houses now offer peanut butter and pillows. Yet the dining-room furniture will probably be only a bare wooden table a nd some straight-backed chairs, with a sputtering propane lantern providing the only light after dark.