Exactly 20 years ago I was living in Nepal. Mostly I lived Kathmandu, in a hilly neighborhood called Baluwater, but by the end of October 1996, I’d be back in Burque for good.
There are embassies in that part of the capital of Nepal and government residences too. A long and broad boulevard lined with palm trees marked the western boundary of mi vecino. The palm trees were filled with dates and big fruit bats that had faces like little brown dogs.
The Chinese Embassy and the Mexican Consulate were just a few doors up the street, and the vast estate housing the Prime Minister and his family took up most of the lower end of the area where I lived.
Across from my apartment there was a beer shop that offered ice-cold liters of San Miguel Beer and packets of Triple 5 cigarettes. A huge marijuana plant took up a quarter of my front yard, which was otherwise filled with marigolds and crab grass. I shared the place with a British friend of mine who worked for the Nepali government.
On October 1, 1996, after little preparation and training, we took a flight on Trident Airlines to Pokhara, a small city on the edge of the Himalayan Mountains. There’s a trail there that follows the Kali Ghandaki River up a steep valley to a mountain outpost named Jomsom. After spending the night at the Shamrock Hotel in Pokhara, we decided to fly to Jomsom in an old Soviet Helicopter that had metal buckets for seats.
From Jomsom there was a trail up into the mountains. At about 9400 feet in elevation, hikers could choose to bear west into the Kingdom of Mustang on the edge of the Tibet or head east, away from the river toward the Thorung La pass at about 17,000 feet.
It was cold and windy in Jomsom (elevation 9000 feet) when we arrived in the late afternoon. Somehow the environs seemed barren yet fertile at the same time. The terraced hillsides on either side of the valley were cultivated with apples, buckwheat, lentils and marijuana.
The valley was surrounded by unimaginably huge mountains; years later I have difficulty comprehending how big and looming they really were. There was an army outpost at the edge of town and down by the river was a bank and the travelers’ lodge where Jimi Hendrix supposedly stayed in the late 1960s.
Yaks as big as cars and donkeys decorated with bells roamed through the cobblestone streets, shaking their heads. They were pulling loads of beer, flour, cheese and bottled water up the trail and toward Lo Manthang or Lhasa. Twenty years ago, there was little motorized transport and no paved roads in the area; merchants and pilgrims had traversed the trail following the Kali Gandaki into Tibet on foot or by hoof for centuries though.
After wandering around the place for about an hour, my friend and I took rooms at an inn called the Moonlight Guesthouse because there was a sign out front saying they served the best burritos and apple pie on the Annapurna Circuit.
My room was spartan with whitewashed walls and a small bed, table and oil lamp in the corner. To this day, I like to keep my room at home like the one I had in Jomsom; plain with no decorations and comforting in its simple attestation to the need for rest.
That night I dined on a burrito of yak cheese and lentils that had been folded into a tortilla made from a sort of buckwheat fry bread. It was decent fare all right, but the cooks at the moonlight lodge didn’t have any chile. When I asked after some sort of piquant salsa, one of them told me there was a can of tomato sauce somewhere in the kitchen; they had given up on spaghetti night a few years back because travelers didn’t fancy the buckwheat noodles on offer.
So the slice of apple pie that followed the highlight of my meal and I could’ve eaten the whole pastry, but I didn’t want to give my American identity away. Afterwards a band of Tibetan immigrants came around and played music while we smoked hashish out of a long pipe made from a water buffalo horn.
We stayed in Jomsom two days because it was so damn inviting there; there was a small museum housing a photographic history of the region as well as ammonite fossils—believed by many Hindus to be divine objects—found along parts of the nearby river bed. An enclave of German agriculture experts living on a hillside south of town could talk for hours about the apples, buckwheat and cannabis they were studying while working to introduce methods that would enhance traditional practices and increase crop yields. Jomsom was a bright, windy place—a point of transition and intersection located at the very edge of the world.
On the third day I checked the maps, flashlights and shoes, calibrated my lensatic compass and carefully loaded my pack and sleeping bag. On the way out an older, tanned Swiss man approached and asked if we needed a porter or guide, wondering if we had the proper permits to continue. I produced two government issued cards. My friend told him we were going to go it alone. He looked over his glasses at me and shook his head. And we walked away from Jomsom headed for the mountains.
Next Time: Kagbeni and Muktinath