I nearly died in Kathmandu one winter. Or I certainly felt as if I was about to expire. Walking in the new city one fine late winter morning, weak from dysentery and generally feeling the aftermath of months of travel, I found myself holding a telephone pole while traffic roared past on a wide boulevard, on the verge of passing out. I was weak, dehydrated, messed up in the head. I broke into a cold sweat and a clear realization overtook me. I had to get out of the city, cast my lot with the high Himalaya and get out of town.
My brain cleared enough to make a plan as I stumbled back to the chaos of Darbar Square and the old town. For a few weeks my friend Tony and I had been talking about hiking to Langtang Khola and the Tibetan border but the ease of life in Kathmandu had distracted us and we hadn’t moved since arriving in Nepal. Well, now was the time to act, before what was left of my constitution dissolved into a haze of bad food and cigarette smoke in the back alleys of the ancient quarter.
We acquired trekking permits the next day and departed hastily for the town of Trisuli and the beginning of our trek. An Australian couple joined us in the expedition, so we had a small party of four. Eschewing porters, guides, and the other trappings of a proper expedition, we carried a minimum of supplies. I brought a shoulder bag with a change of clothes, sleeping gear, and a kilo of cheese.
Nepali trekking permit, 1976
Now the visitor can choose between operators and embark on rafting trips on the Trisuli River, stay in modest hostels or upscale lodgings in the area. In the mid-seventies the situation was different. Tourist infrastructure was non-existent, and the trail to Langtang was used primarily to transport people and goods to the various hardscrabble villages along the way. All supplies or materials were carried on the backs of porters, who made a precarious living at best. When we set out we know we were into a wild region and going back in time,
Each village, we had heard, had some kind of facilities for trekkers. Usually this translated into a house where the family had opened up the upstairs loft to backpackers. Primitive was the watchword.
We arrived in Trisuli and got directions. For half a day we followed the leisurely Trisuli River as it wound through a broad valley. Then the trail forked and we began to climb into the hills.
The Trisuli River: photo by Ken and Peg Herring
A couple of days later we arrived at the last outpost of Nepali civilization, Dunche, where local cops checked our permits. Built on a high ridge at around 600o ft., from here we could see the range of the high Himalayas to the north. Far below the terraced agricultural fields the Trisuli River snaked through a great canyon and the Langtang Khola joined it. The path we had chosen followed the Langtang through high cloud forest and finally emerge above the snow-line near Tibet.
My companion Tony never made it past Dunche. An old rugby injury acted up and he was unable to continue, experiencing great pain in one of his knees. Actually, he was pretty much cooked and his knee was now in such bad shape he didn’t see how he could hike back to the road, four days behind us.
We sat on a wall in the village one morning debating his options – he didn’t have any, as far as he could see – when around the corner a man appeared, dressed in the attire of a Tibetan holy man. We said hello, and the guy stopped directly in front of us.
“You are sick,” he said in good English, looking at Tony.
This was a surprise. “Um, yes, you could say that,” Tony said.
“Your leg, your left knee. It is bad.” We didn’t know how to respond to this amazing feat of physic diagnosis. But Tony was quick to agree.
“Here,” the Tibetan continued, reaching inside his clothing. “You must take these every day.” He produced a bunch of round herbal balls, about the size of an American dime, and showed them to us. “Take one every morning and every evening, and you will be able to walk back to the road and Trisuli town. But you must leave right away.”
“But I can’t walk,” Tony said.
“No matter. You will be able to hike. “
Tony shrugged and swallowed one of the ‘pills’. The Tibetan smiled, bade us good day, and left.
“So,” I asked Tony, “what are you going to do?”
“I guess I’d better leave,” he said. And so that was the end of Tony on the trip. We watched him depart, walking normally, back toward civilization.
Weeks later, found him in Kathmandu. The potion had given him the power to walk for four days back to the road. When he arrived in there at the end of his journey, his knee had healed completely. It was a marvel.
And years later I read about these little pills. They were some kind of semi-mythical substance, produced during a special ceremony that imparted incredible powers of healing to them. They are said to be worth more than their weight in gold.
So I continued the trek with the Australians. They made one more day’s walk where we ascended to a higher elevation of 9000 ft. We stopped at the only real lodge on the trail to Langtang, a wooden shack in the middle of the forest tended by a refugee Tibetan Kampa tribesman. A wood stove in the middle of the one-room structure provided heat, and the room was ringed by bunks. Very basic.
Here the Australian woman became sick from the altitude so the couple resignedly decided to return also downriver back to Kathmandu. I walked alone into the snows and stayed some time near Tibet, slept in a stone cattle shelter, and froze nearly to death. I even climbed a very minor hill some 16000 ft. high so I could peek into what has become, to the great misfortune of the Tibetan culture, China.
Eventually I returned the way I had started and once again found myself in Dunche. I stayed one night there to rest and carried on downhill. But I didn’t get very far from town. On one last turn of the trail I realized that the high Himalayan peaks would be lost to view permanently, so I stopped, climbed some rocks above the path and sat down. I wanted to study the mountains so that I would not forget either the view or the impression that trekking alone among the peaks had made on me.
As I was meditating on the spectacular scenery, my reverie was interrupted when two backpackers, Brits from the look of them, came into view.
“Hello,” I said, waving.
We exchanged pleasantries and I thought no more about them. After another half an hour I descended from my perch and walked ten or fifteen miles to a village that we had passed through on the way out. Here a tea house provided meals and lodging. I decided to stop for the night to rest; my muscles were sore and my boots had just about worn out, leaving my feet very painful.
As I sipped a cup of tea, a commotion brought me to the front of the tea house. Out of breath and flustered, the two English backpackers had showed up. They were nearly hysterical. Both of them had lost their backpacks.
“What are you doing here,” I asked. “I thought you were headed to Langtang.”
“Are you crazy?” one of them answered. “No fucking way. We have to get out of here!”
“Did you have some trouble?” I said.
“Trouble? Jesus. You’re lucky to be alive. You wouldn’t believe what happened right after we saw you.” He was shaking with fear and adrenaline. I said nothing and waited a few moments for the two of them to calm down. Finally they told me their story.
“Yeah. After we left you, we walked, I don’t know, perhaps another twenty minutes or so. Do you remember where the cliff rose above the trail on one side?”
“Sort of,” I said. That description could have fit one or a thousand places on the path.
“Right. We heard something from the top of the cliff, maybe 50 meters over the trail. Then, shit, a great boulder landed right in front of me. I looked up, and a bunch of wild hairy men were standing on top of the ridge, holding great rocks and stones.”
The other Brit joined the narrative. “One of the big rocks landed on my pack. I dropped it. We were horrified.”
“God, what did these men look like?”
“They were bearded and hairy and wore animal skins. They kept pelting us with rocks and dropping boulders on the path. We had no choice but to drop everything and run. We’ve been running ever since.”
And that was the heart of the tale. The two guys had been attacked by wild men almost in the same spot where I had spent the morning looking at the mountains. I never discovered what or who these creatures may have been. A remnant population of Neanderthals living in the wilderness? Yetis? Who knows?
The Brits stayed only long enough to drink some tea and raced away, back toward the dubious sanity of the road and its modern conveniences. Bemused, I watched them depart at a fast pace.
Great mysteries remain on this planet. I suppose I should be grateful that I was not one tone accosted, but to this day I wonder about the beings who just missed me.
I returned a few days later to Kathmandu. My friends were overjoyed to see me. They had wondered what I was doing alone in the mountains for so long.
So I told them about the cavemen and other wonders I had glimpsed.