Thamel, the tourist district of Kathmandu, will give any thoughtful person the willies: you struggle with your western guilt of having more and understand that desperately poor people will grasp for whatever they can, but at the same time you can’t help being repulsed and feeling taken advantage of. And most of the touts on the street aren’t as poor as the villagers I saw in later in the mountains who have much more dignity. At any rate I am getting much better at bargaining. My fear is that it will be so ingrained in my psyche by the time I get home that I’ll try it in Target.
Pimply 19-year-old Cashier: “That will be twenty one dollars.”
Me: “Twenty one dollars! That’s too expensive. Give me better price.”
Cashier: “I’m sorry ma’am?”
Me: “OK twelve dollars.” Cashier stares uncomprehendingly.
Me: “I’ve changed my mind. I’m walking out now.” Cashier: nothing.
Me: “I’m WALKING OUT of the store now…” (Why isn’t he following me?)
At any rate I couldn’t get out of Kathmandu fast enough. Once I had made up my mind, I spent a day and a half running around getting a visa extension, buying a new Conservation Area permit, and renting some outdoor gear. I hopped the local morning bus to Besisahar, a regional town that is the traditional beginning of the Annapurna Circuit. Six hours of low-budget Nepali music videos later – hero and heroine waltzing around in someone’s backyard making little effort to lip-synch but changing costume every 4.3 seconds – I dragged myself and backpack stiffly off the bus.
It was raining hard and I thought to check into a hotel but met a Spanish couple who were pushing on to the village of Bhulbule and tagged along. Bhulbule was dark and cold and seemingly deserted, and although the couple was pleasant it seemed clear that we would not be hiking together much. I began to doubt my sanity. What if there weren’t as many people on the trail as I’d thought? What if I didn’t meet anyone to hike with? I could be held up by Maoists; I could fall and break my leg and not be found for days; I could be gored by a rogue yak… I did what it is I do whenever I get too tired and lonely: went to bed.
The morning dawned bright and my spirits rose. I set off on my own, congratulating myself on my independence, feeling calm and happy. For the first few hours the path followed an easy up and down trajectory through a narrow green valley alongside a mineral-teal rushing river. There were Nepalis everywhere: old ladies tending goats, young boys with heavy loads on their backs, teen-aged girls in tight jeans and flip-flops and t-shirts with English slogans walking miles to who knows where.
After a few hours I was presented with the option of crossing the river to walk along the dirt road or continuing on a foot-path up the hill to a village called Bahundanda. The road seemed to me a bit like cheating, so I continued on my side of the river for about an hour, then began to climb. And climb and climb and climb, with alternate paths branching out every now and then and no sign-posts. I knew there had been people about recently because I saw stacks of freshly-hewn firewood, but otherwise no sign of habitation. It began to thunder and I wondered how far I should go. I must have climbed stone steps for two hours before giving up, sniffling into my poncho. I wondered what kind of moron would set out for a three-week walk in the middle of nowhere by herself. Down at the bottom again I questioned a young cowherd in sign language; he motioned that yes, Bahudanda was up there, but that it was a long way. I was skeptical. With low morale I trudged back to the bridge and onto the road, eventually arriving in late afternoon at the town of Syange, drenched. Once again there seemed to be few foreigners and I sat alone in the restaurant of a guesthouse trying to warm myself on a cup of tea. My stomach had begun to make itself known and I was afraid of explosion. A group of wet teen-aged Nepalis came in, one boy carrying an unconscious girl who he tenderly laid down on a table. While most of the group chattered amongst themselves and drank tea, her friend repeatedly took a handful of water, ceremonially dipped a gold pendant she was wearing into it, and flicked the water all over her body. Appalled that most of her acquaintances were paying little attention, I asked the guesthouse owner what was going on. He replied that apparently the girl passed out all the time and that she would eventually wake up and everything would be fine.
It was sunny again in the morning and by seven o’clock I had slept twelve hours, but my stomach was still feeling funny. I decided to set out and see what happened. The trail turned steeper, undulating between the river banks and high above. There were road-works everywhere – basically men chipping out rocks with hand tools and pushing them off cliffs into the river – but none of the small portions of completed road met up with each other. It was as if they had gone along and done all the easy bits first and were now trying to join them up; apparently this will take another ten years.
I began to vomit every few hours. Stopping for a plate of plain rice, I slept on a wooden bench for an hour accompanied by a black and brown puppy. On the trail again I met Roberto, a philosophical 23-year old Italian with the biggest red afro I’ve ever seen. He had already walked fifteen kilometers that morning in new boots and had the blisters to prove it. He said he had come through Bahudanda, though I’m not sure I believed him; in fact I’m still not sure I believe in the existence of fucking Bahudanda. Though we were both in pain we pushed each other to continue, ending the day with a long slow climb up through a narrow gorge with white waterfalls all around, eventually reaching a hanging valley that long ago was a lake; now the village of Tal (which means lake in Nepali) sits on a plain of white sand and smooth cobbles next to a wide blue river, encircled by cliffs. Coming into the valley in dusky purple light I thought it was one of the most beautiful sights I had ever seen.
I woke up feeling miserable. We hit the road by nine o’clock, but I only made it a few hours. When we arrived in the village of Dharapani I proclaimed that I could not go any farther and fell into the nearest bed. I slept all afternoon, ate dinner, then went to sleep again at seven o’clock. I remember next to nothing about Dharapani and didn’t take any photographs. For some reason Roberto decided to wait for me. I think he realized that having company even if it meant moving more slowly was preferable; either that or he desperately needed to rest his feet.