Thursday, April 06, 2006

the trek, day 5 - spit swapping

we were awoken at the crack of dawn (5am) to sunny skies. hallelujah! we immediately crossed over the now frozen stream out front, and hiked through the new snow, up about 500 feet to the viewpoint. at last, there were the mountains, in all their glory. but my camera wasn't working. all my batteries, including an unused set, were dead. it turns out that batteries don't work in this level of cold, something i didn't know. darcy started rubbing my batteries in his hands and revived them long enough that i could get a few shots. we were up there amongst the tibetan prayer flags for about an hour watching the sun rise along the mountain range.

back down we went for breakfast, then out for a day trek into the surrounding area. the clouds were already rolling in, but we still had some mountain views. our guide and a few porters showed the aussies how to build a snowman, and we played cricket (i just pretended it was baseball) with snowballs and our bamboo walking sticks. snowball fights occasionally broke out. it was all very wholesome. inspite of my episode in the middle of the night, i was feeling pretty confident now about my ability to survive the whole trek, if only the weather would let us through. while we would ultimately be going 3000 feet higher, we wouldn't be spending the night much higher than we were now.

on the way back we stopped by a large house, consisting of little more than a lot of rocks piled on top of one another and a tin roof with rocks piled on top of that to keep it from blowing off. here we met a local woman and her new puppy. sitting on a yak skin in front of the house, the woman played a game with the pup in her lap. she'd let a large phlegmy lughi dangle from her mouth. this would drive the spit hating pup mad with rage. barking wildly, he'd suddenly leap up and try to eat her lughi, at which point the woman would suck the lughi back up into her mouth. occasionally the dog would triumpth and end up snatching a bit of the lughi before the woman could suck it all back. inexplicably, darcy and the bodily function loving aussies sat and watched this for a good 20 minutes. so this is how mountain people entertain themselves i thought. i was suddenly feeling nauseated again.

the rest of the day was spent loitering around the campsite, feeling cold, and swapping trekking/altitude sickness stories with other trekkers. the good natured aussies actually managed to find an irishman they despised (with good reason), and we all spend a good deal of time mocking him. eventually darcy took pity on us and said he'd sneak us into to caretakers place (he was out for a few hours) where we could warm ourselves by the fire. somehow the guides are always huddled around a fire somewhere, whereas the trekkers are left exposed. but at last this would be remedied! we piled in and huddled around the smoky stove. darcy muttered something about us not leaving the room, as no one was supposed to know we were there, and that he would need to lock the door. he was gone before the full implications of this sunk in. at first it was pleasant enough, but then all of a sudden the room was filled with smoke, as chimney technology hadn't made it's way up here yet. suddenly we were all having a bit of trouble breathing. trish began to panic. she tried the locked door, then pounded on it and called for darcy. no one came. fortunately i was able to get the window open and we all piled out. darcy came by and calmly apologized for trying to kill us. for the next few days, i would smell like rhododendron smoke, which, i suppose it better than what i was starting to smell like on my own. no shower for 4 days now. yuck.

we settled in for another freezing night.

the trek, day 4 - seven degree freezing point

in the morning i felt better, though not 100%. apparently at least one person from another trekking party in tshoka had to head back that morning due to altitute problems. i decided not to be a hero and told our guide about my problem--at least the vomity part. he thought it was a food issue, because i didn't have a headache, and because one of the porters had a similar problem. i was sure he was wrong--i've been poisoned countless times, this was different--but i didn't push it. they made me garlic soup for breakfast, which apparently is a natural remedy for altitude sickness. safe from vampires at least, i pressed on.

again the weather was terrible. we reached the snow line. hank and trish were thrilled, having little previous snow experience. i was less excited--the trail was getting slushy and my shoes had seen better days. the last thing i wanted was frozen feet. more climbing and we reached dzrongri (13200 feet) at around 1pm. this place is a trekkers hub where a few different trails meet, though there is still no electricity or running water or anyone living up here--just a large trekkers hut and a large outhouse (3 stalls!). for many groups this is the furthest (and highest) they'll go because it was all they'd planned. for many others, it's the furthest they'd go due to altitude sickness. we had already heard of many (and met a few on the way down) who were forced to turn back from here. if we didn't succumb, we were to spend 2 nights here, for the sake of acclimatizing. i thought of the info on the wall back in tshoka--it said you should only sleep 1000 feet higher than you did the day before. tonight would be about 4000 feet higher!

i was feeling ok. not great, but no worse than before, except for the bitter cold up here. we were still socked in by clouds, only now it began to snow. again, the aussies were delighted. hank asked darcy how cold it would get. darcy said "probably about 7 [celcius] (45 fahrenheit)", which became the running joke of the trip, as snow was accumulating on the ground and the water in my water bottle was even starting to freeze. with each hour of the white stuff accumulating i was increasingly sure that if the altitude didn't send me home, the snow would, because our path would be blocked. already darcy was hinting that we might not be able to go forward from here, but this struck me more as laziness on his part.

it was hard to climb out of the sleeping bag into the cold just for the sake of dinner, but i did, before retreating back for an early sleep. this time i woke in the middle of the night with breathing issues and i thought i was going to die. this lasted an hour or two.

the trek, day 3 - altitude sickness

we were awoken with 6am tea, followed by 6:30am washing water, followed by 7am breakfast, followed by a 7:30 departure. this would be the routine followed most mornings. hank was kept up all night hy cow bells. apparently he's a very light sleeper. i wondered if my snoring was keeping him up too, but after last night's fart-fest, i didn't really care if it did.

as we prepared to leave, hank wanted to show me an apparently extremely impressive pile of human shit on a rock (not his). while indulging him, i accidentally brushed my leg against the plant darcy said i must never touch. immune to poison ivy and poison oak, i hoped i might be immune to whatever this was as well. i was not. a reddish, painful bistering appeared almost immediately. i forced myself to ignore it. worst of all, the pile of shit on a rock wasn't even that impressive.

we hiked straight up the mountain and into a cloud bank. darcy told us how nice the views would be if we could see them. we were able to see some rhododendrons blooming along the path. the lower altitude red and some of the pink were in bloom, but the higher altitude yellow and white were not. darcy told us how magnificent it would be 2 weeks from now. hooray.

at about 9000 feet, i became suddenly light-headed. though there's no way to know who might get altitude sickness, and it's in no way related to how healthy you are, i still couldn't believe that i might be succumbing to it. still, we were very close to our campsite now, so i continued hiking. we arrived in tshoka (pronounced choka), at about 9200 feet. it was only 1pm. rather than just a shack surrounded by shit, this place was a tiny, picturesque village. i was still feeling drunk from the altitude. a poster on the wall of our trekking hut had a list of altitude sickness symptoms to watch out for, and relayed the story of a boy who had never woken up from his sleep at 8000 feet when his symptoms were ignored. i wished i hadn't read that. i distracted myself by going shopping. of the 8 buildings in the village, 2 of them sold stuff to trekkers at grossly inflated prices. it was already colder than i thought it would be, so i bought a pair of nepali mittens from a roly-poly sikkimese woman.

i endured hank and trish's nightly fart-a-thon and even countered with a few of my own (which they deemed pathetic), before finally settling into a stinky sleep, hopeful that i'd be properly acclimatized by morning.

i awoke at 2am, breathing heavily and feeling like i was about to vomit. i sat up in the cold pitch black for hours, preparing to run outside into the rain when the moment struck. my breathing was labored, and my body would occasionally shake, but not from the cold. i was now almost convinced i must have altitude sickness, and mulled over the fact that i would almost certainly have to head down the mountain. the vomit never came. i felt better enough to fall back asleep.

the trek, day 2 - yak bonding

the next morning we were actually able to see a snowy mountain peak in the distance, and i was encouraged. we drove to the staring point of our trek, where we met our trekking team:

person #1 - darcy - our doubly downgraded sikkimese guide. later i would learn that he is still in trainee status and therefore comes quite cheap. in spite of being a young trainee he already carries a world weary demeanor.

person #2 - our cook. a genius considering what he had to work with.

persons #3-5 - 3 porters/helpers - these guys (kids, really) are lowest on the totem pole, doing all of the dirty work.

person #6 - yak man - feeds, drives, loads, and loves (by this i mean cares for) the yaks.

4 yaks to carry all our stuff. a yak costs more than a porter, which in some way makes some sense, as a yak can carry more, though he can't set up a tent. a horse costs even more, as they move faster than the sluggish yaks, but yaks lend more atmosphere to a himilayan trek i think.

[technical note: these yaks aren't actually yaks, but are dzos, a yak/cow crossbreed. the problem with pure yaks is that they die at lower altitudes, hence the dzo was created. but locals often call dzos yaks anyway, and "yak" is more fun a word, so i will continue to call them yaks.]

and so we finally began our trek into the himilayas. the porters/cook ran ahead, while the yaks plodded behind. we lost our sun quickly as the clouds rolled in. still, we were low enough that it wasn't that cold, yet. at this altitude the vegetation was dense. trees were covered with moss, and there were even a few small flowers in bloom. we trekked near a roaring river, crossing it 3 times before finally heading up and away from it.

by 11:30 we were already at our first campsite. i was disgusted--this is trekking? it turns out most groups do in one day what were taking two to do. ugh. at least trish seemed happy with darcy's conservative approach. i held my tongue.

our campsite, where we would be apparently spending a LOT of time, consisted of a small trekkers hut and a tiny outhouse that darcy strongly suggested we not use. i didn't even dare look in, but trish did and declared it the most ungodly thing she had ever seen. our campsite was surrounded by a poisonous plant that darcy told us we mustn't dare touch (without explaining the consequences), yet our staff was busy collecting large clumps of it to brew up some sort of concoction, hopefully not for us. our camp was surrounded by heaps of yak shit (which is relatively benign), and more sneakily placed human shit (which is loathesome). i learned that not only do yaks not mind lying down in piles of their own shit, they revel in it (as much as yaks revel in anything). i suppose it is warm, at least. having nothing better to do, i spent a good deal of time watching the vapid yaks sit there and chew their cud, the bells around their necks chiming with each masticating motion. those damnable bells. hank was already complaining about the notion of sleeping through their all-night ringing. i offered the yak who carried my bag a few pieces of french toast i found in my pocket leftover from breakfast in yoksum. yaks will eat just about anything (mostly they set about eating tree limbs and leaves), but their eyes light up when offered french toast. i stroked the yak between his massive horns. it wasn't clear whether he was even aware of it--he just stared, vacantly. i asked darcy about the yak. he said it was 14. "how old do yaks live?" i asked. "14 or 15," he replied. i envisioned us carrying our own bags down after our yak died at the mountain top. on the other hand i also envisioned eating a tough but tasty french-toast-fed yak steak.

eating was the exciting part of the day. the aussies were big eaters, and i learned quickly that if i didn't spoon out my entire share upfront, they would quickly and remorselessly snatch it for themselves. meals usually consisted of 4 or 5 dishes, and sometimes even dessert. it was very impressive, though there was no meat or eggs. darcy told us this was because of "bird flu", which was nonsense--i'd been eating checken and eggs everywhere else. more cost cutting, no doubt.

meals were invariably followed (or sometimes accompanied) by a symphony of farts and belches from my aussie companions. this was especially awful after dinner, when trying to sleep in cramped quarters amongst all of the farts and giggles. yes, to them this was high entertainment. i realized, to my horror, that i would be spending the next 9 days with terrence and phillip.

the trek, day 1 - zero miles hiked

we got out of the jeep at the sikkim border checkpoint, showing our passports and special "sikkim" permits. our paperwork was in order, but our jeep wasn't, and our driver and "guide" crawled underneath the vehicle to work on the problem. we had decended steeply from darjeeling, and for the first time in 6 days, i felt vaguely warm, as the sun peeked out of the clouds. i chatted with trish and hank, the extremely friendly austrialian couple i would spend the next 10 days with in very close company. they were ridiculously upbeat about the trek, though trish was a bit nervous about the physical demands to come.

i had just paid 18000 rupees ($400+) for a 10 day trek, making this easily my most expensive travel related activity ever. already our trekking guide had been downgraded that morning from the "best" guide to a different "really good" guide, and my trust in "fat mickey", the nepali or tibetan or sikimese looking (i really can't tell the difference) tour operator out of darjeeling, was wavering. i was already annoyed that this day 1 of a 10 day trek didn't involve one bit of trekking. we were simply being driven to a hotel in yoksom--we wouldn't even be hiring our cook, porters and yaks until tomorrow, yet we were still paying $40 for the day. it got worse after our breakfast stop, when we were presented with a bill. "but mickey said everything was included so i didn't bring any rupees", i told our guide, whose face dropped at the news. i was lying of course, and "found" some cash. i wanted to establish early on that i would expect to receive what i was promised, or i would make trouble. not that i expected this scene to make a whole lot of difference, having already forked over every rupee in advance. even good natured hank took and annoyed stance and started cursing fat mickey. trish was annoyed by our negativity.

we arrived in yoksum and our guide apologized for our hotel being full. instead of staying in the nice place on the top of the hill we were relegated to the pokey place on the main drag. at least my bathroom had a hot water geyser, though at the moment there was no electricity to heat the water with. remembering breakfast, i asked, "you will be paying for our lunch and dinner, right?" i asked. "yes, yes, everything" our guide said. so we all went hog wild at lunch and dinner, ordering multiple plates of everything from the menu, though sadly the restaurant was completely out of meat. at dinner we were presented with a bill for our drinks, both from lunch and dinner. our waiter told us that our guide said we had to pay for our drinks. hank and i were irate, but trish wanted us to pay up and behave. we relented. our downgraded guide appeared and apologized that he was no longer going to be able to guide us, but that a doubly downgraded "good" guide would be taking us along. those bastards. would it be nine more days of this? would they even have enough food to feed us or adquate sleeping bags to keep us warm?

after dinner, in the rain, the town lit by candlelight and the occasional bolt of lightning, i scoured the streets for a pair of mittens and some extra alkaline batteries, but couldn't find either. damp and tired, i followed the candlelight up the stairs to my cold, dark room.