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.

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.

By sundown, everyone prepares for what amounts to the national meal: dal bhat. Literally, the name means rice and lentils. Eaten twice daily, this single-dish mix, accompanied by steamed greens, a vegetable curry, and a spicy chutney, is scooped up with the fingers of the right hand -- but never the left, which is considered unclean. Although Westerners are often provided with spoons, few manage to match the quantities the Nepalese consume.

Only a third of Nepal's 100,000 visitors hiked at all in 1982, preferring instead to spend their days exploring the capital city of Katmandu, or watching animals at the jungle resorts in the south. Of those who walked, two out of three came to the Pokhara Valley, an eight-hour bus ride from Katmandu.

That journey begins in the central bus station, cluttered with vehicles, tea stalls, and ticket agents promising ``luxury coaches'' to almost anywhere. In the end, the bus seats are narrow and far from plush, and music blares from the speakers positioned in every fifth row. The choicest seats may be on the roof, alongside the goats tethered to stacks of tires. Their herders lean against burlap sacks filled with empty soda bottles.

The road, built only 14 years ago, twists through the mountains, dipping thousands of feet before rising again. About 100 yards before the periodic police checkpoints, the roof riders descend from their technically illegal posts and cram themselves inside, squeezing into the narrow aisle already crowded with luggage and last-minute travelers.

But legal technicalities deter no one: A hundred yards past the checkpoint, the bus stops again, and everyone reascends. A few never even bothered to ride inside; they merely jogged alongside until the bus came to its second stop.

At Pokhara lies the Jomosom trail, perhaps the most traveled route of all. First described by Marco Polo on his journey from China to India in the 16th century, it is now walked by as many as 200 tourists a day during the peak months of October and November.

Running north and south, the section of the trail most tourists walk culminates two weeks later, and 12,000 feet higher, at the 108 holy fountains of Muktinath.

Spring travelers may meet Tibetans, accompanied by hundreds of yaks, heading back to higher pastures for the warmer weather. We met a swami, leading 28 followers on what has become his annual pilgrimage to Muktinath from his home in southern India.

Most of his adherents were older, so the pace was slow. Stopping in the village of Tatopani for the night, the 29-year-old swami sat by the natural hot springs for which the village is named. Wrapped in orange robes, he prepared to address his followers.

One young man turned to me. ``I'm not sure I believe. I'm here to keep my mother company. But he's a very wise man.''

Most tourists, on the other hand, are drawn to the spectacular mountain views. The four Annapurna massifs, all more than 23,000 feet high, are visible from the base camp's vantage point of 16,000 feet.

Being the world's youngest mountain chain, the Himalayas shift several feet annually; the dozen trails dominated by tourists seem to be changing only somewhat less drastically.

The presence of Coca-Cola and candy bars reveal recent attempts to meet American standards of comfort.

``Some people call Jomosom the `milk run,' '' says Mike Cheney, whose Sherpa Co-Operative Trekking Agency provides guides, cooks, and porters to about 20 expeditions annually. Hundreds of smaller groups pay between $5 and $60 per person a day for more personal attention.

``The people who went before say it's spoiled now, but the people who go now come back and say it's beautiful -- and they say it's beautiful in the same way that people who went 10 years ago thought it was beautiful.''

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