The presence of hot water at the Namaste Guesthouse in Siklis was clearly an opportunity for the local girls to clean up a bit. There was a continual stream of activity through the bathroom throughout the afternoon, one of the daughters of the house posing for a duckfaced selfie on her phone against the tiled wall. Afterwards she sat on the ground as her mother carefully picked through her hair, searching for lice. The two smaller girls, aged perhaps four and seven, played dressing up games, putting on various items of adult clothing, checking themselves carefully in the mirror and then going on a make-believe shopping expedition round the tables on the terrace, the four-year-old toting a little embroidered handbag and slopping along in a massive pair of adult-sized flip flops.
Sal had slept throughout the afternoon despite thunderous cheers from the cricket match on the TV, and I had to go and wake her for dinner. She emerged bleary-eyed to be confronted with a steaming tray of dal bhat for the second time that day, accompanied by a glass of the local millet wine. It was wine in the loosest possible sense of the word – a tumblerful of transparent oily liquid which resembled turpentine in appearance, and smelled like it. I had narrowly avoided being offered one myself, having to politely decline numerous times, happily without having to resort to my fallback position of “It’s against my religion”, which can lead on to rather convoluted explanations as to why I don’t drink. Sal sipped at the stuff bravely, considering she’d just woken up, pulled a face and carefully pushed it away. No mojitos here. The owner stood by our table as we ate, or more accurately leaned over it with his elbows on it and his head between us. “How do you like the food?” he asked expectantly. We praised it to the skies, and as a reward, or perhaps a further challenge – Advanced Level Dal Bhat – Mana brought a small dish of pickled radishes. I wept a little in appreciation as I crunched through one – it was reminiscent of the toxically acidic mustard-yellow pickle that the British know as Piccalilli, but comprised entirely of giant moola radishes.
The cloud dissipated in the night and the next day was sparkling and clear. I looked up at the snow-covered mountains behind the village which were glowing orange in the morning sun. On the other side of the valley Tangting was still in shadow, but as I watched the sun crept down the mountainside, and as it did so the hill became loud with birdsong, increasing in volume as the rays spread downhill through the forest. We had a long day ahead, described as a seven or eight hour walk, up to Tara Hilltop for a view of the mountains, assuming it was clear, and then along the ridge and down to the village of Ghalekharka. As we packed up, Mana found a long bamboo stick for Sal, in the absence of trekking poles, which later proved to be a lifesaver. We received the ubiquitous dab on the forehead from one of the young girls who had been washing her hair the day before – a red tika this time, instead of rice pudding – and a marigold to place behind our ear. Off we set, slowly slowly, heading through the village, in a small traffic jam caused by three buffaloes.
The sun was hot as we walked, but there was a cool breeze coming down from the snowfields. We entered a rhododendron forest, the national flower of Nepal, which appears in stylized form on the country’s flag – the only national flag, incidentally, which is not rectangular in shape, consisting instead of two triangles in a pennant one above the other. These weren’t the small shrubs that we associate with the plant in more northerly climes, but large trees with extensive root systems which we clambered over. Although we had only been going for an hour or so, I had no power in my legs at all, and just plodded along in a state of no-thinking, sometimes dully looking round myself at the scenery. In places it resembled an English woodland, in others it was more like the jesse scrub of the southern African bush. Through the foliage there was an occasional lightening refracted from the backdrop of snow on the mountains which were themselves invisible, hidden by the screen of trees, and yet somehow they made their presence felt.
Soon we came to a junction marked with a signpost, indicating Tara Hilltop. “1.5 hours,” the sign said. The path snaked upwards through bushland, rising then falling, rising again. Eventually we found ourselves walking along a narrow ridge, occasional glimpses of clear sky ahead. The hilltop itself seemed to dance away out of range at every turn – we’d catch a glimpse of it before the trees thickened again, obscuring our view, and we’d trudge along some more. We could see cloud building off to our left, rising up from the valley, and we were racing it to the hilltop, hoping to get there before the view was completely obscured. Eventually the path began to rise steeply – more steps – and I powered up them, steaming like a kettle, feeling a hot twinge in my right shoulder from a pulled muscle, but determined just to get there and stop.
We emerged onto a flat, grassy expanse, but off to the right there was nothing but cold, grey cloud. No mountains in sight. I didn’t care any more, and staggering over to the edge of the field, threw off my bag and sat down. I fumbled in the side pocket for my water, and as I was doing so, Mana said: “Look.” I glanced up and saw the ghostly outline of Machhapuchhare’s triangular peak emerge from clouds of swirling mist. Then Annapurna I, next to it, came into view. As we watched, the cloud just vanished before our eyes, revealing the entire range – massively high, and right there in front of us. We fumbled for cameras, all tiredness forgotten, walking around the field in search of the best viewpoints. I tried taking a panorama on the iPhone, following the horizontal line with the arrow, but as I was still out of breath from the last push to the hilltop the arrow rose and fell with each exhalation. The next minute the view was swallowed up again by billowing mist. A minute or two later it parted again and the sun shone on the peaks once more. As we watched there came a dull boom, like an explosion, which echoed around the mountains, and a small white puff rose into the air from one of the rock faces. “Avalanche,” Mana said, and we sat in silence feeling rather subdued by the scale and the power of the natural forces in these mountains.
There’s nothing actually to do in the mountains. You walk, you stop and rest, eat something, walk some more. There’s no demand on your attention other than keeping your balance, watching for the next foothold, and trying not to fall over. Your mind is free to wander. I found myself thinking about how, in the history of my own country – the United Kingdom – our landscape had changed from being predominantly woodland, through to a small patchwork of fields and settlements, and then industrialisation. All the different eras that had come and gone had played themselves out against this changing backdrop. This led to a vision of horsemen in armour galloping through the woodland I was currently slogging though, and then, tiring of the vision, I yelled “cut!” in my mind like a film director. I thought about what a luxury it was to be clean, dry and wearing fresh clothes, not perpetually sticky and malodorous. And yet there was a kind of purity in the mountain life too. The simplicity of the diet, nothing to drink but water, meant that the few treats that we had brought with us like a chocolate bar or an orange seemed to explode with flavour, as we appreciated it all the more.
We were descending the hillside now, a set of steps that just went on and on. My left knee, often a source of trouble – it has been known to seize up on the journey between lounge and kitchen, leaving me hopping – began to give out; it wouldn’t lock, just flex whenever I put pressure on it, forcing me to then take another step with my right. It was made worse by the heavy backpack, so at one of the stops I finally gave in and asked if I could swap bags with Mana. “No problem,” he grinned, shrugging into the straps and spurning the waist belt completely. It made a huge difference. But Sal was struggling too. We’d been walking six hours by now, and the old legs weren’t working too well. She used her bamboo stick at every step, almost as if she were punting, placing it downhill and then stepping tentatively forwards. Mana kept stopping to look backwards to see how she was doing, and I kept nearly running into him in consequence with my unlocking knee. The constant stop-start meant that I got a stitch for the first time on the trip, and soon I went on ahead, keeping up a constant pace of small steps; there was only one path to follow, after all.
The last two hours were really difficult. We stopped more and more frequently, the village of Ghalekharka coming into view on the opposite hillside, tantalisingly close. Sal was halting every few steps, and I wasn’t doing much better, although fortunately my knee was holding up – trying to hop down that hillside would have been tricky to say the least, and it does give you a certain incentive to carry on when you know there is no other option; had one of us been injured and unable to walk, it would have fallen to Mana to go for help and find villagers to carry us. We came to a small stupa and halted again. All I wanted to do was get there now. “Which is the guesthouse?” I asked Mana. He pointed out a building with a blue roof. “Next to that.” I set off again, down the last few flights of stone steps towards it. Then the path levelled out, and we finally hobbled up to the guesthouse nine hours after setting out that morning. It had been a tough day.
I was completely out of water, craving a cup of tea, and there seemed to be nobody in evidence at the guesthouse apart from three small girls. One began sweeping the mud-floored yard with a broom made of twigs, and another was despatched to find the owner. A third, who wore a grubby yellow ankle-length skirt, emerged from a tin shack marked ‘toilet’, went into the kitchen and emerged carrying two glasses which she rinsed under a tap that dribbled in the corner of the yard. “I hope those aren’t glasses for our tea,” I murmured, knowing full well that they were. Perhaps the boiling water would kill any germs. A barefoot, robust-looking granny came along and conversed with Mana for a while, and he leaned towards me and translated: “The old ladies are making folk dancing here tonight. If you are interested.” I was deeply uninterested – I couldn’t think of anything worse than sitting through an evening of stomping and wailing, no doubt being exhorted repeatedly to join in. I could hardly stand up as it was. I asked him to pass on our apologies, saying that we were rather tired, but perhaps another time. It was rather embarrassing, at a relatively youthful 41, to be so done in after a few hours’ walk which was an everyday event for the Gurung. But I took consolation in the fact that the Gurung believe that up to the age of 40 you are young, and after that you are old – there is no middle ground of middle age. So I was officially old, and could hobble around with a clear conscience.
And part of me, too, was aware that this was something of a valedictory experience. I had felt that I couldn’t leave Nepal without doing a trek – it almost seemed like a requirement. But the novelty had long worn off, and I didn’t have the kind of evangelical enthusiasm any more for the wild places that I once had, and that others still seemed to possess. I had fallen out of love with the mountains, not from any great disaster, as with some former climbers I know, who after seeing one tragedy too many find that in the balance of payments, of excitement versus risk, that the price no longer seemed worth paying, but in a kind of weariness at it all. Perhaps it really was a case of getting older – though there are many far older than I who still enjoyed heading out on expeditions. It had somehow just lost its appeal. I had always thought of myself as unconventional, putting up with levels of discomfort, sometimes considerable, in order to avoid the mundane, the routine. But now I began to wonder whether I hadn’t been acting out a life that was lived out of contrariness in a kind of rejection of modern society, with its false needs, its creature comforts and perpetual consumption. I had taken to the mountains so many years before to get away from things, and yet those things followed me because they were in me – although the perspective that the mountains offered had made them manageable. It was the oldest cliché of all.
I realised that over the last few days I had thought so many times of things that I wanted to do – learn to play an instrument, become proficient in one of the many languages that I have a smattering of, write some more poetry, or just take up a hobby which involved creating or constructing something tangible, instead of merely producing the hieroglyph of digital pixels that make up the words on a page. I couldn’t see myself working in a corporation that only seemed to exist to make more and more money, and wondered about pursuing more traditional skills that required care and attention to detail to complete, but which left the mind free, not continually rushing from one half-baked task to the next without any time to do anything properly. I had had these thoughts, and one by one I had discarded them, thinking: oh well, I can come back to that later. Perhaps there was no later? Perhaps when I was back in the melee of the city, whether Kathmandu or London, I would forget that I had had the time to think these things, and they would just become more discarded ambitions. Where, even, would I live? London’s perpetual din seemed to keep me in a state of continual hyper-vigilance, unable to relax – the fast-walking people, the sirens, the drilling, the bangs and crashes, the yelling of drunks at night. I wondered, not for the first time, why I even lived there. My wanderlust had begun to feel increasingly like a curse – doomed to roam the earth and never to settle for long. I pictured a white cottage in a green field with a backdrop of grey sea, somewhere on the Celtic periphery. Somewhere I could write, and watch the changing sky, immerse myself in the elemental weather and feel a sense of belonging. It was a thought that had returned many times over the years. I could take out an advertisement: Exile seeks idyll – mild discomfort acceptable. Did Scotland require a visa these days? Was Ireland both too close to home and simultaneously too far? Wales? Iceland? Perhaps there was somewhere in East Anglia, which had, after all, become home. I would see when I went back.