The next morning I woke up ridiculously late to find all the tables in the restaurant empty. The big, loud German group had gone away and so had everyone else. Didi, Romy (the cook) and his naughty little child were the only ones left, peacefully gulping down their breakfasts. Soon, they were turning over tables, lifting up chairs and putting on ear-splittingly loud music to motivate themselves while cleaning the restaurant area. Romy threw a sparkling smile in my direction and suggested I go upstairs to eat my meal.
Armed with my diary and my kindle, I did as I was told. The sunny terrace here was the perfect place to sit down, reminisce, read, write, update my diary and take in the view of the Dhaulagiris while resting weary legs that had been walking for 20 days. I breezed through a few chapters of “Swann’s Way”, the first volume in Marcel Proust’s mighty tome “In Search of Lost Time”. My cerebration was soon jolted by a hoarse voice crooning “Tu Mujhe Kabool, Main Tujhe Kabool”. I was so deeply engrossed with the cat-and-mouse games of M. Swann and Mme. Odette that I hadn’t noticed Romy had sauntered upstairs and was sitting right opposite to where I was gleaming another one of his toothy smiles.
“You know this song?”, he asked. “Yes. Khuda Gawah. You sing well”, I said.
“It was shot right there”, he said, pointing towards Jhong. “Amitabh Bachchan, Sridevi, very good movie.” I dutifully noted this previously unknown (to me) trivia in my diary as Romy threw some details about his life for me to chew on.
He had been working in Kathmandu in a big hotel but had shifted to Muktinath recently with his boy. It was more peaceful here and the money was better too. His wife was working in Israel and she saw them once a year. He had an affable, easygoing attitude but was obviously missing his wife a lot. I couldn’t probe more deeply into the circumstances that led to them being temporarily separated because he was more keen on probing “me”.
“Are you married?” “No.”
“Don’t you feel lonely?” “Well, yeah, sometimes, but then there are always people to talk to.”
“I think you are a good man. Not like other Indians.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, you are quiet, travel alone, read books. Indians talk loudly and make noise. Are you really from Mumbai? I think you live in Europe. No?”
“I’ve never been to Europe. I lived in Mumbai for 27 years before beginning my travels. And I know many Indians who are quiet and read a lot, much more than I do.”
“But you also walk.”
I pulled out the Mumbai Hikers website on my phone and showed him there were other Indians who walked too.
“But why don’t they walk here?”
“I don’t know. Maybe because the people who trek in India don’t come here very often. And many of them are in jobs that don’t give them such long holidays.”
“But still, I think you are different. Tonight, if you don’t mind, we can eat together and have a party”, he said, beaming another of his big smiles. It wasn’t an offer I wanted to refuse.
The skies were cloudy and there was a rumble or two of thunder. It was getting cold. Since the noise had died down below, I went back to the restaurant. GG and MS were back from their hike to the Thorung La Base Camp with their German friend, who was recounting the fascinating story of how he slipped on the icy slopes while trekking. There was also a Polish couple, a Ukranian guy and a Polish-Irish couple, who had all made their way down from the pass that day.
We were all getting to know each other when an old man in a blue hood with a big, white beard marched in, his eyes ferociously darting around the room. The eyes locked themselves on GG, who was standing by the door. He waved his hands theatrically like a magician, closed his fists, opened four of his fingers in a flourish and said,“Char chai.” The whole place burst into laughter. He then marched out, hollered to his friends in Tamil, and when they entered, chattering loudly in Tamil, they were welcomed with peals of laughter.
It was difficult to tell what was more hilarious, their derogatory assumption that any Nepali looking guy had to be a waiter/working for them or the absurd theatrics of it all. Incensed at the fact that GG was standing there doing nothing and just coyly smiling a beautific smile, the old man went up to him, waved his fingers and said, “Chai kahaan hai??” (“Where’s the tea??”) This led to another round of laughter which only served to anger the old man and his group. GG, meanwhile (despite the fact that it wasn’t his job) went up to the kitchen and told the didi, who was busy cooking, that she had customers who were asking for chai. The Indians were now red-faced with anger. They had realized by now that people were laughing at them and started confronting GG and MS. One woman called GG to the table and demanded an apology. “Why were you laughing at us? Is this how you treat your guests??” etc. etc.
Having noticed that their interrogation was going nowhere and was attracting only smirks and giggles, they switched to bitching about the country they were in among themselves.
“Namba dressa thaan parthu chirikkaralo ennamo” (Maybe they’re laughing at the dress we’re wearing)
“Inda madiri adhiga prasangithanathunnala thaan uruppadi illama poyindirukku inda naadu. Namba thaan inda madiri chinna idattha perisa panni vidarom. Pohattum nashtamaa. Namba enna pannaradu?” (It’s because of these antics that this country is languishing without development. It’s only we who come to this small place and make it more prosperous. Let it go to hell. What can we do?)
“Police stationku poi complaint pannalam. India lerndu pannattha vaangi Indiansa paarthu chirikkaranga.” (Let’s file a police complaint. They borrow Indian money and laugh at Indians”)
The chai arrived and this led to another round of righteous indignation. “Is this what they call chai?” “It’s just half a cup and they charge 50 Rs. for it.” “Maybe they’re doing this because we’re Indians.” And they were having these discussions in Tamil so loudly, no one else could speak. Romy had to come out and request them to speak a little softly because there were other people sitting in the same room. This, of course, led to more anger and more hate. The old man, who was ready to go to battle again, was wisely dissuaded from doing so by the women in the group. “Pessama panattha kudutthuttu polaam vanga” (Let’s just give them the money and go) The didi, meanwhile, was trying to cool things down and make peace with them by asking them if they liked the chai, how their trip was etc. but it looked as if she was speaking to a stone wall. The group had already decided that they hated the place and the country and all of its people. It couldn’t possibly have any redeeming features.
After the initial bout of laughter, I stayed quiet and intervened neither for nor against the group. I did not let on that I was from India or that I knew Tamil. I fought the urge to tell them that people were neither laughing at their dress code nor their nationality but at the rude, unruly, entitled behaviour they had brought along with them. None of them apologized for having mistaken a Nepali trekker for a waiter and neither did they have a word of gratitude for someone who went out of his way to get their orders in anyway. But it’s not my place to tell people how to behave in a foreign country.
It had started snowing and I went out to taste the first fresh “powder” I had tasted in 3 years. Unlike the harsh pounding of raindrops, a snowfall feels ethereal, majestic, magical even as it slows down time with its gentle shower. It took me back to Markha Valley, Hemis, Tawang, Shingo La, Nubra and filled me with gratitude for having been fortunate enough to be able to travel to places where I could comprehend the beauty of this phenomenon. With these reveries playing in my head, I walked to the monastery in the centre of Ranipauwa, whose caretaker was a lovely, shy, Tibetan woman who was knitting woollens outside its gates. It was a new, remarkably well-kept monastery with some of the most exquisitely detailed and colourful paintings I had seen. They didn’t have the wear and tear that added texture to the many millennia old monasteries in Tibet and Mustang but the artistry was so sublime, I was sure if they managed to survive a few hundred years, they could be regarded as masterpieces in their own right.
When I was back in “Path of Dreams”, GG and MS were singing folk songs. MS, especially, had a mellifluous voice and the didi joined in every now and again while flitting between the kitchen and the dining room. Sometimes, they sang along to the songs playing on the speakers through the didi’s iPod. The playlist was a mish mash of Nepali songs, heavy metal remixes of folk songs, 80s Hindi film songs and fresh out of the over Bollywood nos. In the middle of this infectiously harmonic atmosphere, GG gave me a free crash course on Nepali folk music. He told me about Raju Lama – one of the leading young Nepali singer-songwriters, Edge – a popular folk-rock band from Pokhara, Gaurav – a singer whose trick-in-trade was switching between Hindi and Nepali in alternate stanzas.
This scene dissolved into the evening when, as promised, Romy invited me to dine with all the Nepalis once the other “foreigners” had gone off to bed. The musical session resumed with Romy on the tabla, GG on the guitars, MS on vocals and Romy’s 4 year old boy doing the screams and the growls. The didi was habitually shy but she had the sweetest voice of all and obliged to sing a couple of songs. It was a beautiful evening, pure, harmonious and in tune with the tranquil settings of Muktinath. I had known none of them the day before but by the end of this evening, it seemed as if we were the closest of friends. This was the sort of evening that validated solo travel, gave it momentum and made you wish you never had to go back home again. As it turned out, it was also the last purely happy moment any of us would have for weeks.
Ever since I’d met R & B on a cold, drizzly night over whisky and chips in the village of Khati in Kumaon, Muktinath had been firmly plonked on a bucket-list of priorities. R especially was so enthusiastic , he wouldn’t stop raving about the Circuit, the trek, his children doing the trek, the pass, crossing the pass, his children crossing the pass, arriving at the incredible wonders of Mustang, a world apart from the other side and blah and blah. He was selling the trek and left me no choice but to buy it. I’ve been to Nepal twice since that cold, drizzly day in Khati and was thwarted both times, once by flash floods, the next by a terrible eye infection. I wasn’t going to be beat this time.
The walk from Jharkot to Ranipauwa, the lodge town below Muktinath, takes just 30 minutes. But it was a breathless 30 minutes as I took the short-cuts climbing up the hill trying to avoid the dusty jeep-infested road as much as I could. Everyone I had met on the way had warned me against staying in Ranipauwa. “It’s just big hotels built for Indian pilgrims”, “It’s dirty and charmless”, “Except for the temple, there’s nothing interesting there” and it’s all largely true. Ranipauwa is just a disorganized cluster of ugly buildings, bland lodges and over-priced shops but I didn’t want to have come this far and not stayed just steps away from the temple. C & T, the affable American Missionaries I’d met in Tirigaon, had highly recommended The Royal Mustang Hotel saying they had “friends” there. But when I spoke to the didi, she didn’t seem too happy that people recommended by C&T were knocking on her door. I wandered around for a bit, past trinket sellers who were trying to make a fortune by haggling fiercely with gullible Indian pilgrims over ammonites procured from the Kali Gandaki Valley, bypassed Hotel Bob Marley where there seemed to be a big party going on and went straight to one of the last places on the road, the enticingly named “Path of Dreams”.
The first thing you do when you “check out” a lodge on a trek in Nepal is not ask the price of a room but look at the menu. The price of an ensuite room with bathroom, wi-fi and hot shower is usually a miniscule 200 NPR (2 dollars) but it’s the food that could break your bank. Here dal bhat was 400 NPR, a very reasonable rate for this altitude, so I put my bags in my sunny room, took a hot shower and had a sumptuous meal of dal bhat while watching pilgrims from my country go about on horseback. The Indian pilgrim traffic to Muktinath has exploded recently after the “road” opened a few years ago. Till then, only the hardiest people made the trek all the way from Pokhara. Most people now fly to Jomsom and take a jeep to Ranipauwa and while the temple is hardly a 20 minute walk/gentle ascent away, they are too lazy to trouble their precious legs. A few years ago, motorbikes from the surrounding villages made a killing by ferrying them across to the temple. But thankfully, those have now been replaced by ponies. Many of the pilgrims were young and healthy and it was just embarrassing watching pot-bellied, double chinned 30-year old men, looking weary and exhausted, sitting lifelessly on top of a pony pulled by a pony man.
I met some hardy pilgrims on the way to the temple, huffing and puffing every now and then. After the obscene spectacle of fat people on horses, my admiration knew no bounds for these more genuine pilgrims, some who had walked from the jeep-stand, some all the way from Tatopani, all adorned with saffron robes and begging bowls. I generally ignore any request for alms but the contrast between the luxury tourists and these old pilgrims made such an impression on me that I treated some of them to chai. Then, realizing that they had finally laid hands on a suitably gullible victim, they started clamouring for my money. It was time to beat a retreat. Muktinath was destined to be one of the premier pilgrim destinations in the Hindu/Buddhist world. One of the essential requirements for the establishment of a Vaishnavite temple is the presence of a shaligram (ammonites) or two. The Kali Gandaki Valley below Muktinath is littered with ammonites and that certainly must have played a part in its designation as a place of liberation or “moksha”. It also happens to be a sacred site for Buddhists as Guru Rinpoche aka Padmasambhava, one of the founding fathers of Tibetan Buddhism, had spent some of his time meditating here. It’s one of the 108 Divya Desams compiled by the Alwars from South India which explains the huge number of people who make it all the way here from Tamil Nadu and Andhra. And thanks to the eternal flame at the Jwala Devi Temple, it’s one of the very few places in the world where the five elements (fire, water, sky, earth, air) co-exist eternally. In short, it has some pretty impressive credentials for divinity.
And that’s probably why people choose to go through what should certainly count as one of the more “chilling” rituals in Hinduism. It requires people to take their clothes off in sub-zero weather, then a shower in each of the 108 fearsome fountains spouting glacier melt water from the Himalayas and then end the ordeal with three dips in two pools, also filled with freezing glacial waters. Some people, especially the very young Nepalis who come here in huge numbers, treat it as good old-fashioned fun. Some dip their toes, try to sneak out, then look around to see an assembly of tourists armed with cameras and lest they be taken for sissies, take the obligatory dips screaming in agony.
At the western end of the temple complex was a Buddhist monastery. It looked newish but it was a good place for some solitude and to take in the view of the region around. To my right were the old villages of Chongur and Jhong, with their own ancient monasteries, cults and traditions. Far below was Jharkot, where I came from that day. In the distance, the Dhaulagiris and above me the trail that ascends steeply to the Thorung La. It was 3 in the afternoon now and the weather was getting cloudy and stormy with gale force winds striking my face with much fury. I could see groups of trekkers limping their way down after the torturous walk from the other side of the pass. I wanted to stick around for the aarti at 6 but the weather was just getting too windy and cold. For all its pilgrim traffic, this temple was among the most peaceful and tranquil settings that I had spent any length of time in. With the mountains, the history, the mythology and the moving spectacle of people sacrifing comfort to shower in its fountains and dip in its pools, it was as genuine a spritual atmosphere as I have encountered. Having been to temples all my life and been appalled time and again by the filth, the corruption, the moneybagging, the swindler pandas, lack of hygiene, general unruliness and ugliness, Muktinath was like a breath of fresh air.
Back in “Path of Dreams”, it was now packed with people, particularly a large, loud, German group who had crossed the pass and were celebrating the achievement with many bottles of beer. It was around 5 and I ordered dinner, veg curry with rice, specifically mentioning that I wanted it at 7.30. It was on my table in half an hour and I was fuming with anger. I hate early dinners because I have always been afraid of waking up at midnight and getting hunger pangs. I gave the didi a gentle earful to which she smiled and said, I could always order something else later. But I was also afraid of running out of money because the nearest ATM was in Jomsom, 20 kms away. I grred and ate my delicious curry-rice very slowly hoping not to become hungry again.
Because of the large German group, I had to share a table with a Dutch couple and two Nepali boys, GG and MS, who were playing chess. GG and MS had initially mistaken me for a Nepali (it’s not funny the no. of times it’s happened to me in Nepal) and after having a loud laugh about it when they realised I didn’t speak a word of Nepali, returned to their game. The Dutch girl was reading “Burmese Days” which gave me a good conversation opener. “That’s a great book, isn’t it? A bit depressing but so beautifully written.” “Well, I think it’s disappointing,” she said, “We’re going to Myanmar and I thought I could get some tips about life there. It turns out it’s a novel. Do you know any good books about Myanmar?” That was a conversation ender. I said, “Not really”, a tad grumpily and started focussing on the chess game between GG and MS. It was a tough game and after GG beat MS, he wanted to play with me. An India vs. Nepal match. In no time, I had lost 4 pawns, 2 elephants, one horse and a queen. I had let my country down.
It was 7.30 and I was already feeling a bit hungry. I looked at the menu and the only affordable and light meal that wasn’t a salad was an apple pie. So I ordered apple pie. When it arrived, steaming loudly on its place, I already knew there was something wrong. But when I looked at it, it made me almost throw up with nausea. It was a small, fat, deep fried pakoda with apples stuffed inside. The Dutch couple, sitting opposite, had ordered fries and burritos, both of which looked delicious, and I wished I hadn’t grumpily ended the conversation earlier with these Orwell-haters just so I could borrow a bit of fries and burritos! GG and MS sympathised and I went back to my room to hopefully sleep without having to wake up hungry in the middle of the night.