This is a continuation of the story, Lost in the Himalayas Part 1, which described the first day of our trek into the Himalayas, a trek that went definitively awry. This post describes our second day that went awry-ier. This post may not be suitable for our younger or more squeamish readers.
I dropped the shovel back in the corner of the “toilet room,” walked back to the bedroom, removed my pants and sighed: another unsuccessful attempt to use the ‘local toilet.
As I pondered the right position, clothing, and general attitude that would make a better attempt the next time, Dan was excitedly stuffing the last few items into his pack. With a wave to our hosts, we started our climb back to the road. This time around, we made a point of asking as many people as many questions as we possibly could about the next leg of our journey. We felt encouraged by the consistency of the responses we had received: ‘Tingmosgam was a straight shot down the road we had been following.’ ‘The trek should take four-five hours’. ‘After Hemis Stupachen the dirt road became more of a clearly marked trail.’ ‘And lastly, no, we can’t tell you the weather (and as there was no internet and infrequent electricity- it is doubtful anyone more qualified could either).’
And so we set off, exclaiming with even more vehemence about the plants and animals and taking even more dramatic mountain pictures than we had the previous day.
By the time we arrived at the base of Hemis Stupachen two hours later, the light drizzle had filled out and the now legitimate ‘rain drops’ were falling on us. The first person we came upon was a young boy riding his bicycle toward us.
“Juley!” We called out. “Is this the way to Tingmosgam? How far is it?” (We weren’t taking any chances.)
“Yes,” he said “it’s three kilometers.”
Excellent, we agreed. We were making remarkable time. It wouldn’t take five hours after all. We waved him farewell.
We came upon another woman, presumably his mother, a few yards down the road. Just to make sure, we waved her down as well.
“Juley!” We, again, called out. “Is this the way to Tingmosgam? How far is it?”
“It’s just down this road, up the mountain. It should take around five hours from here, walking slowly”
Hm, well this didn’t seem to add up.
We continued walking through the surprisingly bucolic village of Hemis Stupachen. This is probably just a reflection of my urban rearing, but as much as I love cows and horses and other animals, I’m kind of scared of them actually touching me without proper supervision. So, when we passed a baby horse, I exclaimed “Cute!” But, when it started following close behind us, I, well, I ran. We continued climbing the steppes of Hemis Stupachen with me alternately cooing over and running from farm animals and Dan trooping along.
By the time we reached the last house of the village, it was raining in earnest and we decided to get shelter and wait it out. Dan walked up to the woman standing at the open door and asked if we could wait inside until the rain stopped. With much pointing and repetition of the word “rain,” she led us into her home and attempted to take us to see our “room.” A few confusing minutes of phrase-book flipping and loud, slow, useless English later, we were sitting in her living room as she made tea.
Happy to not be climbing mountains in the rain, I opened my nook and was soon immersed in my latest novel, Never Let Me Go (which I recommend.) “How comforting!” I thought “what a wonderful way to pass a rainy spell in the Himalayas.” I heard indistinctly the sounds of Dan leaving for the ‘toilet,’ of our host boiling water, of her teenage son coming. I looked up, smiled, “Juley!” Back to the book.
A moment later, I heard Dan sit back down next to me. And a few moments after that he turned to me with a strange urgency in his voice “We should GO!”
I looked up at him, confused. “What? Why?”
“That boy is staring at you…with his hands down his pants”
I looked over at the boy, who indeed had his restless hands down his pants, staring at me intently chewing his gum provocatively.
“Let’s go” I agreed.
As I started stuffing my scarf and nook back into my bag, Dan stood up and started speaking loudly and quickly “Thankyousomuchforyourhospitalitybutwereallyneedtogo-”
The boy screamed as he lunged towards me, across the cushion so that his face was inches from mine with an manic smile spread across his face (his hands still down his pants).
“AHHHH!” I screamed in return and abruptly stood up so that he fell on the spot where I was only a second earlier.
I thrust a 20 rupee note into the woman’s hand as she stood over the cooling tea and yelled back at her as we both ran for the door “Imsorrywecouldntstayforteabutwereallyneedtobegoingthankyousomuch”
In retrospect, I probably could have left without paying for the tea.
We ran half a mile before we stopped. To be more accurate, we both ran a block and then I continued in sort of a undead speed walk, looking over my shoulder frequently for another three blocks with Dan keeping pace, before we stopped.
We spoke in an irreverent, excited way about the incident, laughing a little frantically, as if to put as much distance between us and that house as possible. We continued making The Hills Have Eyes references throughout our trek, but as we walked the memory lingered and took on darker dimensions as if the thick low clouds and dark, silent valley were haunted by it, and not just it, but by the silent, unapologetic gaze of so many Indian men since we had arrived. This phenomenon deserves its own post (which I thought of irreverently naming “India is a little rape-y”)and probably its own therapy session. But by the time we reached the last, highest point of our journey, I had resolved that this incident was made that much more frightening by the language barrier and the uncertainty.That, for all we knew, that boy had deeper issues or simply didn’t know how to communicate. I resolved that it would not haunt my trek (or the terrorists win.)
At this last, highest point in our journey, the ‘road’ became a path… that precipitously dropped three thousand feet to the valley below. I looked around for what surely must be another road, but I could only see the thin ribbon of a path that traversed the mountain below.
Now, as a complement to the last post, it was my turn to get a little panicky and Dan’s turn to reassure.
“We.Can’t.Possibly” I stated.
As luck would have it, the rain had stopped when we stopped to get “tea,” but the wind at this highest of points whipped my hair around with such effect that it made this last pronouncement that much more dramatic.
“We can always go back and try to get a taxi from Yangthang or Likir, but I really think it looks worse than it is. We can start climbing down- slowly- and if it feels too scary we can always go back.” Dan said in a calm, even, infuriatingly sane tone.
“Alright,” I said, “but this is definitely not a ‘baby trek.’
We inched down the mountain. This is no idiomatic use of the term. We literally shuffled our feet down the trail one inch at a time. Quarter of the way down, I realize I’m scared of heights and insist on holding Dan’s backpack as he walks ahead of me. Halfway down, I realize I’m not scared of heights, I’m scared of falling to my death and grip his backpack harder.
When we arrived in the valley, we realized the trail was gone, but the valley was bordered on steep mountains on all sides but one, so we went that way. We walked along it uncertainly. “This is what happened last time!” We thought unhappily. “We’re going to end up in Pakistan” said Dan “how do we know where we’re supposed to go?”
And then, as if in an answer to our unsaid prayers, appeared the most welcome turd I had ever witnessed. A beautiful, glistening, brown pile of donkey poo. “This way!” I nearly shouted “we’re supposed to go this way!”
(Just to be clear, the donkeys belong to the guides that typically escort hikers on treks like these. I wasn’t simply inclined to follow donkeys- or their turds- into the wilderness.)
We kept walking from pile to pile, occasionally aided by the odd trail marker left by hikers before us. The path descended rapidly and we soon began to see the odd token of humanity- a pile of lumber, marked stones, a man-made pool of water, a stone wall. We were happy to be walking in this beautiful wilderness, but our increasingly sore legs appreciated what surely must be upcoming civilization.
By this time, we had been walking six hours.
We finally arrived at the base of the mountain (‘base’ being relative- we were still 12,000 feet above sea level) and came out onto a vast barren field with houses dotting the peripheral. After walking toward them for another half hour, it became clear that these were not the houses of a village but the barracks of an army camp. As we continued, it became even more evident that it was an abandoned army camp. We shifted from The Hills Have Eyes references to 28 Days Later ones.
The 50 feet high letters of white stone on the mountain across from us that spelled out “SHOOT TO KILL” did little to comfort us.
“The town must be around that hill,” we assumed. Another thirty minutes later, we were on the-if possible- even more deserted side of the hill.
“The town must be by that river, around the bend,” we continued, undeterred. Twenty minutes later we were on a stretch of highway- actual highway with tar and everything- by the Indus river without a town in sight.
At this point, we considered the occasionally unclear trek over. Now, we were just genuinely lost in the Himalayas and it’s at this point that we started waving cars down to ask directions.
“It’s 10km north of here”
“It’s 10km south of here”
“It’s 30 minutes away”
“It’s really, really far away.”
“Do you mean Tenmos? It’s 40km down this way”
“We’ll take you there. Get in the truck”
The last response was given by two burly, excited men who refused to answer where Tingmosgam was but insisted they could get us there. These responses, also, provided little comfort.
Eventually, a military vehicle stopped at the side of the road and an officer asked us if we needed help. He offered to drive us in the general direction we needed to go, wherever that was, and we hopped in.
Five minutes later, Dan was anxious. “Do you think we should stop here? How about here? Does this look like a village?” To which, I just stared.
“HERE’S FINE” Dan shouted over the engine when we came to what looked like a posh hotel.
The car lurched and we tumbled out.
The Boutique Apricot Hotel.
This looked promising.
We walked down a stately driveway through a grove of apricots and entered a lobby filled with luxurious furniture, trickling water features, and a soft-spoken, well-dressed concierge. She gave us the most legitimate-seeming direction we’d heard thus far and we reluctantly left the hotel to find this legendary, Tingmosgam. I grabbed handfuls of apricots off the trees as we left.
We followed her instructions- over the bridge, the second right, up the hill. An hour later, we were in Nurla, still unsure exactly where Tingmosgam was. We asked again. We wound up the (yet another) mountain through backalleys and past various streams and waterfalls that we were not in the mood to be charmed by, reached a dead end and came back We asked again. By this time, it hurt to move. We had been walking either uphill or downhill for the last ten hours and we were beyond desperate. We started following our latest directions, when I sat down on the side of the road and refused to move. I had tried every other way, I guess I decided to throw a tantrum and see if that worked.
“What are you doing?” asked Dan.
“I don’t know.”
“Do you want to keep walking?”
“We can’t just sit here.”
“I don’t know.”
Now, I was neither being helpful nor completely coherent.
“Do you want to go back to the Apricot Hotel?”
This alone inspired me to get back up and turn around. I didn’t care how far we were from Tingmosgam. I just wanted to lie down.
We walked back through the village from where we had just come.
“What are you doing back?” said a shopowner who had given us our most recent instructions.
I only grunted, Dan responded “We’ve been walking for hours. We’re just going to go the hotel back there and figure it out later.”
“Why don’t you take a taxi? He drives a taxi” he said pointing at a man playing soccer in the middle of the street.
With the word ‘taxi,’ I was hit by a combination of boiling anger, joy, excitement, resentment, and a bone-tired relief. He had a taxi? THIS WHOLE TIME. He quoted us with 500 rupees, a ridiculous amount of money, but we didn’t even try to bargain. We didn’t have the leverage or the energy.
He drove us another 10 km up the mountain, a route we could neither have found nor survived, and arrived in Tingmosgam. Dan wanted to look around, compare prices, check out a few rooms, before we picked where we would stay. Without a response, I walked toward the only place that promised hot water. We checked into the Namra Hotel and refused to move for the next five hours.
A week later and my legs still hurt.
- Motorcycling the high Himalayas in search of the Third Pole. (diverjency.com)
- India the Story You Never Wanted to Hear (CNN iReport)