Route = Kinja (1600m) – Goyom (3220m) – Lamjura Pass (3520m) – Jumbesi (2680m)
Date = 08-09 March
D: How are you feeling?
L: And dizzy.
L: And weak.
L: And queasy.
D: Anything else?
L: I’ve got a splitting headache.
D: Drink this. It’s hot lemon tea. I’m going to cure you.
D inspects the contents of his first aid kit and pill boxes. He hands L a handful of tablets.
L: Which one?
D: All of them.
L: Oh – OK.
She gulps them back, grimacing and retching into her hot lemon mug.
L: What were they?
D: Lemsip Max-Strength.
D: And one of those magic anti-nausea pills.
L: I like those ones.
D: And a Valium, just in case.
L: Blimey! I like those ones too. Will that help?
D: Dunno. But I’ve got to get you up a very big hill.
D&L wait patiently outside the guesthouse for Angtu, Phurba and the hostesses to finish flirting and taking selfies with each other. The sky is cloudless but a little hazy. They climb steeply passing isolated dwellings in impossibly inaccessible places, frilled all around by the narrowest of terraces – some barely a metre wide. Under one spreading tree – a cloud of white blossom – a man slowly drives a pair of cattle and a wooden plough through the dusty earth.
They are passed by an incongruously dapper image, walking fast downhill, dressed in a tight-fitting cream suit, and carrying a spear with woollen tassels hanging off it. They look enquiringly at Angtu.
Angtu: Shaman. Witchdoctor.
D: Where’s he going, d’you think?
Angtu looks a bit puzzled.
Angtu: Back to the village. Every village has a shaman. It gets passed down from father to son.
D: But what do they do?
Angtu: They help people with their problems. Sometimes a physical problem, sometimes mental.
L: Does your parents’ village have a shaman?
Angtu: Of course. One of my aunties, my father’s sister, died young. She had left the village because of her marriage, but was brought home and was buried on our family land. But our village shaman said that my auntie was a witch, and that because we had buried her on our land, it would make our family and the village sick. And then our whole family and the village became sick! Then the shaman said my auntie would have to be cremated. So they dug her up again.
L opens her mouth, wonders what on earth she should say, and closes it again.
Angtu: And they found that although her body had decomposed, she had beautiful white shiny teeth and beautiful clean curly hair. The shaman told us her teeth had been biting everyone and her hair had been choking our digestion, and that is why we had all become sick. So he smashed up her teeth with an axe. Then my auntie was cremated and our family and the village all became well again.
Angtu beams at them, pleased with his story. D&L are riveted and a little bit horrified, and don’t know quite how to respond. No words are needed though. Angtu has another tale.
Angtu: I don’t fully believe, but I don’t not believe either. Once I was ploughing in our village, when I got bad stomach pains. Terrible, unbearable pains. I drank water and tried everything I knew, but nothing worked. So I went to the shaman. The shaman pressed the pulse at my wrist. Then he pressed the centre of my palm. Then he gave me a mouthful of uncooked rice and raw ginger to eat. I was afraid of eating it, but I managed to, and within 20 minutes all the pain had gone.
D: So it worked?
Angtu: Yes, it worked. Lots of cultural and spiritual beliefs were part of my life growing up in the village. A part of the lives of everyone, my friends, my family…. We tried to understand. In our village, the shaman could see a spirit that no-one else could see. A boy with long hair, scary teeth and his feet on backwards. When I was young I would go out at night, on my own, with a light and a little knife, to find this spirit boy. But I never found him.
L: That was very brave! How old were you?
Angtu: Maybe 10. When we went to school, we would ask our science teacher to explain it to us. We had seen backwards footprints by the river, so the spirit boy must be real. Our teacher would say – maybe they are forwards footprints. He would try to help us see things another way.
L: And now what d’you think?
Angtu: Now I am partly in the Western world, working with tourists for many years. I believe a little of everything. Rai people are mostly Hindu, but we are also connected spiritually to the Earth, the sun and the moon. Shamans help many people. Sherpa Buddhist practices help many people. So I visit the shaman, I take Western medicine, and I pass mani stones and prayer flags to the left. Just in case.
They walk uphill all day. L moves at a good pace, but becomes more and more zoned out as the morning progresses. By lunchtime she is almost, literally, asleep on her feet. They stop at a lodge in the village of Sete.
D: Are you hungry?
D: You need to eat. Soup?
She lies down on a bench inside the empty dining room and falls promptly asleep. D wakes her up, she eats, and immediately goes soundly back to sleep. D wonders whether the Valium was a step too far. As Angtu prepares to set off again, D nudges L again.
L: I’ve been having the freakiest dreams. About witch-doctors!
D: No. That was real.
The afternoon becomes overcast, and as they get higher, the cloud gets lower. Their destination drifts in and out of the gloom above. L staggers zombie-like, onward and upward.
Goyom is not really a village, but a series of dwellings spreading out along a ridge, each one isolated from the next. Vegetation is sparse, the trunks of trees chopped for firewood stand 2 metres tall, like ghostly figures in the mist.
They are now at 3,200m and it is a great deal colder than it was 1600 metres lower where they started the day. In their room they make a nest of sleeping bags and duvets. On one wall is a dim solar-powered bulb, but the corridor has none. After dark, a journey to the squat loo requires a head-torch.
In the dining room, Angtu has saved them the bench closest to the fire and has been smilingly shooing other trekkers into chillier corners. Their host announces that his wife has gone to a meeting and so there is no-one to make supper as he is a teacher and a businessman, but not a cook. Phurba steps in and competently prepares dal bhat for everyone – as well as working as a porter, he says he’s sometimes an assistant cook too.
Unlike yesterday’s balmier climes, it is 4°C in their bedroom this morning. They poke their noses out of the nest of bedclothes.
L: You smell!
D: Thanks. It’s not me – I’m being dripped on.
They stare at the ceiling where a wet patch is dripping intermittently onto D’s side of the bed.
L: What is it, d’you think?
D: It smells like beer.
Over breakfast, they tell Angtu who in turn tells their host. His wife has returned and Phurba is off kitchen duty.
Angtu: He says it’s cat pee. Definitely not beer.
D: There’s way too much for cat pee. And it smells of beer. Maybe he’s brewing upstairs and one of the bottles burst?
The host looks sheepishly at his wife and shakes his head.
Angtu: Definitely cat pee.
At 3520m, the exposed Lamjura Pass is not a place to linger. From the pass the trail slides between a pinch of rubble and rock to descend steeply and interminably through a tall forest of fir and moss-covered rhododendron trees. L realises that she much prefers uphill to down. They rest every 30 minutes as, despite her walking poles, she starts to stumble.
L: Stop, stop, stop. My legs are jelly.
D: Angtu? We’re stopping. Again.
Eventually the terrain flattens and opens into wide alpine meadows with cattle enclosures. At the edge of Taktor they pause at a tea-house. On a wall is a large basket – a doko – full of rhododendron leaves collected from the forest for cattle fodder. Indoors a cat sits on top of the hearth, next to a cauldron of hot water. Their hostess prepares noodle soup – feeding the fire carefully with wood, and removing it again once it has served its purpose – preserving it as a scarce resource.
On the approach to Jumbesi they pass under a vast cliff painted in bright colours with Buddhist mantras. A group of teenagers saunter by, returning from school, in immaculate uniform, laughing and chatting and sharing a packet of sweets. They’d look at home on any high street anywhere, and yet are a world away from the nearest strip of asphalt. At their feet beside the stony path grow clusters of purple primula.
Jumbesi’s houses are large, tidy and prosperous looking. At its centre is a school originally set up by Edmund Hillary. They’ve pre-booked a place that they’ve read about. They pass one after another smart-looking lodges – none of them the right one, and head out to the scruffier far edge of the village. It starts spitting with rain. Their hearts sink.
As a last resort they work their way around the back of the Gompa, the monastery. Ahead is a newly whitewashed building with beautifully carved windows and a row of bright prayer flags festooned along its front. They have arrived. D inspects the rooms with Angtu. L sits listlessly in the foyer – too exhausted to care what it’s like. It starts to pour with rain. D returns.
D: It’s nice.
They are shown into a large cosy bedroom of varnished wood, with a double bed. Their hostess points out the electric blanket controls. L almost weeps with joy. It is bliss. They can’t waste a minute of it.
L: The blanket’s on! It’s actually warm! Quick, let’s get into bed.
D: It’s half past two.
L: It’s raining.
D: Oh alright then.