Traveler

The Manang Trail – Part III

By Chinthana Gopinath

Not strong enough to go on?

I got up at 5:30 a.m. after another night of fitful sleep. The plan for the day was to walk to Tal (1700 m), stop for breakfast and then continue to Dharapani (1900 m), where I was to stay the night. I munched on a few dates for a burst of energy. I shared some with a few locals who were making the journey to Manang. Then at 6:00 a.m., I set off.

It was a very cozy trail right outside Chamche, fully enclosed with boulders, green shrubs and tall trees. Within half an hour of walking I encountered the first suspension bridge that I had to cross. The sight of the rusty nuts & bolts holding the bridge together set a knot of fear in my heart. Very gingerly, I set foot on the bridge. Was I to look straight ahead till the end of the bridge? That only made it feel like I was in those strange 3-D movies that I watched as a child at the fairs that came to town. Was I to look down and watch my step? The roaring, gushing, powerful Marshyangandi was not exactly a reassuring sight. Was I to look to my left and right? This only made me realize that the bridge was swaying quite strongly with every step that I was taking. By the time I processed all this in my mind, I reached the other end. I had to cross at least a dozen such bridges by the end of my trek, every one of them higher than the previous one. Much later I figured out the strategy to cross these bridges. I would focus an unwavering gaze on the floor a few feet ahead of me. I would then focus all my attention on my breath. Inhale. Exhale. When I reached the point that I had set my gaze on, I would set another goal a few feet away.

The trail after the bridge continued to be cozy but a steep climb upward. The floor was moist as the sun didn't get a chance to get to it. I heard the tinkling of bells and when I turned that corner, I found a caravan of mules making their way down the trail. They definitely have the right of way in these parts. Brown, black and white, with a brightly coloured Tibetan mat on their backs and a small decorative woolen maang-tika on their foreheads, these beasts carry rice, potatoes, mattresses, LPG cylinders and all other essentials for the villagers. After awhile, we came upon a small tea shop on the mountainside with a stellar view of the valley below. We sat down to rest and had a cup of black tea with butter crackers. We were still an hour away from breakfast and I needed some energy to continue up the steep slope. Everything was perfect in my world at the moment. I was where I was meant to be.

We continued up till we reached the top of the mountain and obviously enough, I had to descend to get to Tal, a small village by the riverside. Korto always took me to the last restaurant in the village to eat because everybody else would settle into the first few ones and crowd the place. I ordered Tibetan bread, a cheese omlette, fried potatoes and hot chocolate (which on hindsight was too much for one person). When I started eating my breakfast, I felt like I deserved every morsel of food that I was eating. I had the river flowing in front of me, the mountains looming large all around me and the sun warming my skin. Was it possible for someone to feel so at peace? Was it possible for someone to feel so in harmony with her surroundings?

When we left the restaurant, we had to get across a small hill. A pretty little mountain girl, about 5 years old, came skipping along with us. Silken straight hair tied in a braid, creamy white skin, a gold ring pierced in her nose and wearing a bright pink salwar kameez, she had me smiling all the while that she was my companion. She stopped at the edge of the hill trail to pick a bright yellow wildflower which made my heart stop beating for a moment. When we got across the hill, we reached a clearing by the river where some villagers had gathered to graze their sheep. That was the destination of my travel companion and we had to continue on without her.

The trail was flat and steep in parts. There were many waterfalls to break the monotony of the green foliage. I even had to walk under one that was falling directly on to the trail. After a while my brain was lulled by the same scenery that I had been witnessing for the last hour and a half. Then I climbed up a slope and gasped in astonishment. The small valley below was covered with bright orange buckwheat fields by the riverside. Villagers were wearing Chinese style straw hats and working in their fields. An hour and a half of climbing up the next mountain and I was in Dharapani.

As I walked in, I bumped into Frank, Christine and Manoj. They were proceeding onwards to halt at Timang for the night. When I mentioned that I would be staying at Dharapani, Frank said, "Oh, you're not strong enough to go on is it?" I laughed it off in front of them but that statement rankled. By nature, I'm competitive. I like to be the best at everything that I attempt. I felt like I was not the best here. It was just 2:00 in the afternoon, so I asked Korto if we could walk further to Timang. He said, "No, very steep, tomorrow." The whole day loomed large in front of me now because of my crabbiness. The room was almost exactly like the previous one. But while the previous one looked cute and cozy to me, this one looked shabby and small. I had to get out of this mood. I decided to focus all my attention only on the next activity on hand. Lie down on the bed to rest. Eat. Shower. Dry out the clothes that I had worn that day. Set out the clothes that I'd need for the next day. The dark shadow lifted.

The dining room was filled in the evening with a group of noisy French. I sat down to talk to two local boys, the only other people in the lodge. We spoke no common language till I asked them, "Hindi film dekhte ho?" That got them talking although the only words I understood were Salman Khan, Katrina Kaif, Akshay Kumar and Dabanng. Had a dinner of rice and vegetable curry. I sat with a cup of lemon tea outside, staring at the shadowy silhouette of the mountains in the cold, misty moonlight. The cook, a young boy, gave me company for a while. He spoke excellent Hindi which he had picked up from watching movies. I was off to bed at 7:30 p.m.

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