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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2709

Minding Mountains

By Gomin Dayasri

My bags are empty except for the medicine box, razor and toothbrush- wearing all the clothes carried to avoid the cold which stands at -5 C. From midday the cold winds hit the marrow though bright sunshine bathes the valley. I am nearly the last in the streets of Jomsom (9300 feet) in Nepal on New Years eve, the last outpost before the final ascent to Mukthinath(13780 feet). Ventured out to the internet café before it closes at 5 pm in pitch darkness to watch Defense.lk and Tamilnet-both spin doctors- but when you are in the Himalayas a comparison at least makes it possible to gauge the state of the war. Defence.lk was reporting of successful military maneuvers in Paranthan while Tamilnet beamed a fiasco at the Seylan bank.

After spending 3 months idling in the appellate courts waiting for my cases to be heard I had become retarded mentally and physically. To rejuvenate, I wanted to skirt the periphery of outer Mustang and to reach the summit of Muktinath a Tibetan mahayana gompa on the roof top in Nepal before I become too feeble. It is a temple venerated by the Hindus to which a road is being constructed. So before taking on a Himalayan trek, for a workout I ventured into the Burma-Thai border towards Mai Salong the famed opium belt to acclimatize at around 8000 feet. Learnt a bitter lesson in Leh-Ladakh (12000 feet) where my wife after flying in without Dermox had to be placed in an oxygen chamber with high altitude sickness.

My friend living in many capitals in Asia solicitously arranges trips for me when her family moves to a new location. Presently in Bangkok, her schedule in local buses and trains within a time frame was hard and hazardous for old bones. She sends me as the trail finder and picks tips for a comfortable rerun and does it in style with her family and friends. She dumped me into a second class sleeping berth in a night train and monitored my progress with daily dispatches. By the time I returned she had made her own streamlined travel plans on the same route!

Mai Salong situated in Thailand is the home of China’s defeated imperialist forces which fled to Burma while most escaped to Taiwan. When Burma issued a quit notice under pressure from Communist China they crossed the border to Thailand. Homes in Mai Salong proudly display on the walls old photographs of their ancestors in the attire of Chiang Kai Chek’s army with military decorations. Thais rave of splendid Mai Salong but coming from beautiful Sri Lanka it is comparable to any ordinary glen in Uva.

Amazing Thais mint from tourism without having any sign postings in Mai Salong or most other tourist centers in any foreign language. The roadside location maps meant for tourists are entirely in the vernacular. My innkeeper’s daughter graduated in tourism without knowing a foreign language; had to be sent abroad to learn to speak English. Thais do not give a damn since they have done so well for themselves without learning languages. When I inquired from many locals why English is downgraded in their curriculum the common answer with their limited knowledge was "not necessary". True, Thailand has advanced noticeably but most kids have not heard of Sri Lanka, a regional neighbor. The older generation with a smattering of English knows more of the world. To the poor it is still Thakasin.

In the homes of Mai Salong, Buddha and Confucius sit side by side along with the Thai king and the warriors of Kuomintang Chinese Army. These Thai Chinese are particular; buy only goods marked made in Taiwan. The half fermented tea is plucked in the newly opened fields which previously yielded opium and manufactured with Ginseng laced. The tea bushes are knee high and are plucked by the hill tribes bending over uncomfortably. Tribes have been converted to Christianity by grain missionaries –so named because they provided free grain to facilitate conversion. A haggard 75 year old forester from Surrey married as usual to a young Thai girl (“cook and comfort’) residing for over twelve years in Chiang Rai held out that hill tribes are wealthier than him or ordinary Thais as they are supplemented by foreign missionaries and some own four wheel drives which are kept away from public eye so their true economic levels are not revealed. They surface to entertain tourists in tribal dress but all the dancing girls were of my vintage- the young dressed in jeans and jackets refuse to disclose their tribal identity. While walking I saw many old ladies being transported in four wheel drives dressed in their tribal finery for performances-it is pathetic to watch the old dears-they can hardly move their feet and the old boys clash cymbals like bimbos; the tourists join them on the floor for a photo evening. In other tourist destinations it would be banned for boredom.

In keeping with worldly trends Himalayan high altitude trekking is all about conserving energy. Having never learnt to tie a shoelace properly I was exhausted burning unwanted energy. Packing the bag with equipment at easy reach is an art but forgetting to pack gloves is unpardonable and had to be an old fashioned shunting steam locomotive blowing hot air from my mouth to warm hands. Having trekked in many mountains nothing is more exhilarating than the Nepalese experiences. It has the cheapest trekking permit at Rs 300 because we are SARCC – taken seriously only in Kathmandu. Lodgings on the route costs- it’s galloped furiously from my last visit- US $ 15 with a standard breakfast with much variety and choice- not called buffet and not served in style- but tastier to my tongue than the insipid breakfast served at Kandalama and watching locals on a company outing gormandize- and become unfit for the scheduled seminar. Rooms are clean comfortable and basic; better than our rest houses in private management- privatization has put us on the back foot. Their kitchens were spotlessly clean and the menu ranged from Mexican to Indian.

In the Himalayan regions, unlike in other parts of Nepal under Maoist administration, there were no power cuts of 16 hour duration yet, Prachanda the new prime minister and his cabinet are grappling with problems. “Give them a chance” is the cry “after having Congress and Koirala all our lives”. Alien forces are head hunting for him. Since there are no asylum seekers or job hunters from Sri Lanka we are treated with dignity but quickly dispel any false notion of being considered an Indian. At cricket they cheer for Pakistan when India is the opponent, in a country with a Hindu majority. In Pokahara, Sri Lankans are held in esteem as our campus kids in town are respected for clean conduct.

The loneliness of trekking is to be drunk on natures many splendors. The route I took was barren and arid but unlike in other deserts in Iran or India or the Middle East- in the Himalayan deserts, the sun impacts to change colors sometimes with an undertone of light green beneath the overhanging glaciers and snow peaks which shift shades from snow white to crimson to gold with the movement of the sun and the moon. Rivers had dried till the snow melts and the sand dunes reminded of an old western. In December the trekking westerners are home bound for Christmas so it is cheap but their continuous presence has opened new dimensions with pool tables and many wines from local breweries. The apple cider made of Marpha apples tasted like rectified spirits tasteless and colorless and a single gulp sent my head spinning like a doosra from a Mendis special. If the Colombo crowd were trekking they would have been searching for gyms and flashing credit cards for status, neither are in the market.

Unfortunately the culture in this climbing circuit did not have lodges under Gurkha hospitality that hosted evenings where trekkers gathered around a burning hot fire in an open barrel to exchange. There was a sprightly lady from Japan aged 74 who proceeded with measured steps of less than 6 inches up the pathways followed from a respectable distance by her cardiologist. After an early dinner at 6.00 pm to the rooms we repaired; fortunately I had carried my lap top and a copy of Joseph Conrads ‘Lord Jim’ on the shoulders of a sherpa still an affordable luxury not available elsewhere

Trekking starts before first light because cold winds are more menacing than the cold air. The climbing society believes concentration is better in the dark (probably with a flash light on the head, more focused on the next step and darkness means less takes on the panoramic scenery) and therefore possible to cover greater distances in shorter time. I am not from that school but a compelled lone trekker with a guide and porter for dual safety who sets off under visibility taking much time to enjoy the enchanting vista and is slow as an unfit tortoise. I am not in it for sport. When the sun comes the cold disappears into the thin air and a dazzling series of picture post cards emerge from behind each curvature. By noon the winds picks the howl and by late afternoon search is for shelter. Exhaustedly a steaming hot Nepali rice dhal restores energy and an afternoon with a book in bed. In any evening at any height you have a cyber café.

A new breed is developing on Asian highlands due to recession – the economic hiker- laid off on severance of employment with a compensation package prudently invested- which does not give a monthly return sufficient to live in home countries but can live on cheap tasty food and a cozy room for rent while seeing places in the exotic East. Kathmandu may require several Freak Streets but they are not hippies; sad of the West, searching for a nirvana in the East, probably will end in a gulag back home.

Moneybags on the slopes, loud in every sense are the few Indian IT types behaving as if in Bollywood- taken to mountaineering as a fad- dressed like cosmonauts taking off to a planet unknown with women to croon around a bush-reminded me of our Colombian yuppies parading in the season in Nuwara Eliya with overdressed ladies. An embarrassment they were to the Indian military men who march the mountains with quiet dignity and are splendid raconteurs having fought on the slopes in Kashmir and Kargil.

A dinner with brown robed yamas speaking fluent English (never before heard a yama speak English on my earlier visits) from upper Mustang occupying rooms at the same inn led to one of them speaking fondly of a 20 day jaunt in Sri Lanka in the company of a group of Americans. May have been a guide of a sort coming from a nation of porters and baggage carriers? When I inquired in which temple he was quartered he vaguely referred to a hotel close to the twin towers that ran a chain called Hilton. He is living the life of the living Buddha, the Dalai Lama.

Lamas while wolfing momos spoke of trading Chinese salt to Nepalese grain by barter until recently in Mustang across the border. Now the Chinese have built a road up to Nepal which the Nepalese have not extended to meet which means trade is a one way street with Nepalese buying Chinese goods and being in permanent debt while business is roaring for Chinese traders. Opening of A9 will show who stands to gain from trade.

What Sri Lanka does not have is jagged snow peaks perched between large tranquil lakes with crystal clear waters, scent of unpolluted alpine air in a soundless motionless atmosphere. Slept in a fishing wadi (which would have been prohibited if my wife traveled) wrapped up in a hired sleeping bag (inside which I dare not inspect) and ate the most delicious lake fish meal for Rs 70 with my guide. But Nepal does not have the Indian Ocean as at the Anglers Club in Tricomalee with its enchanting cove and the sea breeze with the churning waves? The difference lies not in the hygienic conditions but in the price and the silence.

Often I am badgered, why be a mountain goat to proceed on such journeys? The trials in trails on high mountains eliminate any shade of fear at sea level. It is not for the body. It is for the mind.

- Asian Tribune -

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