Indian Embassy, Kathmandu, 8:00 am
It‘s five past eight in the morning, but the paved, shadeless outdoor area of the embassy is already crowded. Those who are lucky get a seat on one of the few benches, the others lean against the walls or sit on the floor. Patiently, people await their turn to step up to one of the two windows to speak with one of the seemingly annoyed employees. Amidst the flood of shorter brown haired skulls a blonde head is towering above all. I slam down on the chair next to the blonde dude. “Hey there! I am Jeremy”, the tall blonde guy introduces himself with a strong Australian accent. “Do you wanna go to India?” I am not sure if I actually WANT to go to India, to be honest, I find the thought of India a bit terrifying, yet very appealing at the same time. Something is drawing me there. “It’ll take a while till the visa is ready. To shorten the wait I will go hike up Langtang with my two buddies Sudip and Sujan. They are professional guides. 20,000 rupees per person, including food and accommodation – if we find one more person. Interested?” 20.000 rupees, most tour agencies are charging double that price. “Count me in!”, I hear myself saying before my head can stop me.
Four days later
At 6:45 am, I find myself waiting for Jeremy and his two Nepali friends at the New Busstand in Kathmandu - a chaotic, crowded and noisy bus station. The task of spotting my new travel companions amidst the melee seems an impossible one. “Langtang buses?” I asked one of the nearby drivers. “Not here. Other bus stand,” he barks back, pointing towards a bridge that leads across the Bagmati River. Great. Jeremy’s supposedly professional Nepali guides sent me to the wrong bus stand. Maybe not so professional after all, I think to myself. Briefly, I consider going back to the hostel before I start walking towards the bridge.
The other bus station is less crowded but my travel companions are still nowhere to be seen. I am torn apart between disappointment and relief. Maybe it wouldn’t have been the best idea after all to go with 3 strangers on a 6 days hike? But to simply let the opportunity pass ---? I decide to give the first bus stand one more sweep. “If they don‘t show up, I go to Langtang alone. I shoulder my backpack and my way back to the New Busstand.
“Are you ready?“ I turn around. Jeremy’s blond head emerges from the throng of dramatically shorter Nepali locals. Two lanky, athletic kids in their early 20’s appear next to him. Like most Nepalese they are unobtrusive, almost shy. I like them immediately, I like them so much, it is hard to believe they once were the leaders of a drug dealing gang notorious for their street fights with the police. I, nevertheless, can’t help but feeling pretty comfortable in their company. And, as it turns out, they actually do know a thing or two about trekking. “We have to go to the other Busstand”, Sujan explains. “We just thought it might be easier for you to get here.” The bus driver who had sent me to the right bus station before shrugs as if to say: “I told you so.” And then we are on our way.
Finally we climb into a rusty bus alongside chickens, heaps of luggage, packages, and enough bodies to cover the whole floor. The heat inside the bus is already unbearable, the air thick and heavy as we begin the serpentine drive. Outside rice fields and simple huts are passing by. My head becomes heavy as lead, my eyelids sag down just like my blood pressure. My vision becomes blurred as I zoom in and out of consciousness. Then my head bangs against the window glass. We hit the first of countless potholes.
At some point Sujan taps on my shoulder and pulls me out of my delirium: “We have passed the last control post, let’s make a move to the roof of the bus.” And just like that the journey from an experience of sheer torture to an act of liberation. “Hold on tight”, Sudip yells as the driver hits the accelerator and instantly the fresh air blows away all the weariness.“ Look over there! An avalanche came down through that pass“, Sudip points towards the steep mountain wall on our right, marked by a big trace of scree which then crosses the street in front of us and vanishes inside the deep and steep canyon on our left. We trundle along on the bumpy, narrow and winding road that is hardly wide enough for just one bus. As suddenly, right in front of us, another bus appears. Our driver throws it into reverse, and a tinny drumming sound chimes in the air. First slow, then fast - almost frantic. It’s the conductors who help the drivers maneuver on the narrow Himalayan streets. Backwards, forward, left, right, stop. Millimeter by millimeter, the two busses dance around each other on the impossibly narrow mountain pass. Then, we hear a sudden and unsettling bang as we start sliding backwards down the steep grade. High pitch screams echo in the air, “Get ready to jump!“, Sudip shouts. Then, millimeters away from the edge, the bus comes to a stop.
In Syabrubensi I pass out immediately. When I wake up the next morning Jeremy isn‘t there. His bed is untouched. I feel a hint of panic. What if they have left? As there is nothing I can do about it, I simply roll over to get a few more hours of sleep.
At 7:00 am, Jeremy stumbles into the room. “Shit man, I was too stoned to find the room last night!“ he chuckles. I role my eyes thinking what a promising first impression this is. Oh well, as long as they still find the way uphill ---.
By 9.00 am the trek begins, first following small trails along the river, then leading through a dense forest. At 11:00 am I am lagging a good half hour behind the guys who keep waiting for me using every pause to role another joint. I just find it unbelievable that they are still so much faster than me considering the fact how stoned they must be. By noon I have earned my nickname: “Massive backpack, slow but steady walking – precisely like a turtle!“ Sudip concludes. As 5:00 pm rolls around, I am running on empty and by 6:00 pm Sudip resorts to pulling me up the hill with a bamboo stick. Finally, at 7:00 pm we reach River Side.
I pull my steaming and aching feet out of my shoes. My right big toe is pulsating and bright red. Next to the nail I can already see quite a bit of pus. Sudip takes a quick look, runs off into the woods and returns with a tiny plant. As he squeezes the leaves, a black liquid seeps out and down onto my toe. “Ouch, that burns!“ I whine. “This is Dide Paaty, bitter leaf. In two days the infection will be gone“. Then he turns his attention to rolling a joint, like Dide Paaty he collected the marijuana in the woods. In Nepal, Marijuana grows everywhere wild.
The next morning Sudip holds what appears to be a hand-rolled cigarette to my face. “Pollen“, he announces “makes it easier to hike!” I have no clue what pollen is, but it sounds and smells like something from nature. And nature always provides the best cures. I take a puff and sink back into my chair. A little while later I scratch the back of my head where I feel tingling sensation as if it had fallen asleep. At the same time an invisible force drags me backwards into my chair, and before I can finish a sentence I forget what I actually wanted to say. I am fading in and out of awareness! And I swear, Sudip looks – different. Has he---? It can’t be. This looks like --. He reminds me of someone. Wait, is that a beak?!. No shit! He looks like Donald Duck. I burst out laughing.
At this point, I am feeling giddy and ready to tackle the next leg towards the settlement of Kyagin “Hey Sudip, can I put my diarrhea in you backpack“, I blurt out as I pass him my diary, immediately wondering what Freud would have to say about this particular slip of the tongue.
Sudip was right, the pollen had made the hike easier. If only that invisible force pulling me backwards wouldn’t make it so challenging to walk forward Thus, whenever possible I spent a lot of time walking backwards during the next two days
In Kyagin we meet a group of men who had overtaken us – or better said: overtaken me – a few days ago while they were carrying two thick steel ropes uphill “Each rope weighs a few hundred kg” Sujan tells me. “They need a week to carry it all the way up“. I almost choke on my momo. A few hundred kilograms and they were still so much faster than me. “Don’t worry about it, lowland turtle, you did a great job”, Sudip winks. Or, wait, is it Donald Duck?