Quickpost: Kagbeni – The End of the Road

Kagbeni appears over the ledge of a hillside vista like a fantasy village dreamt up by C.S. Lewis.  Perched on a small isthmus in the valley, its glistening green fields glow against the drab colors of the rocky plateau.  It’s an oasis in the middle of a veritable desert.  Teetering on the edge of a cliff below the harsh white peaks of the world’s largest mountains, Kagbeni is the end of the road – the final frontier of sorts.

No foreigner is admitted past the borders of this remote town.  Beyond, lies the world’s last “Forbidden Kingdom.”

On the way into town, a man sells fossils found amidst the rubble of the Himalayas’ greatest rift.  Above him, a sign warns foreigners from venturing past Kagbeni.  The fine for entering upper Mustang (the “Forbidden Kingdom”): $500 USD per day.

The streets of Kagbeni are lined with Tibetan prayer wheels.  Devotees spend their free moments marching through the town, spinning wheels as they mutter chants.  The sky above is peppered with the bold-colored prayer flags that wave in the wind until they’ve disintegrated back into the breeze.

Below the rainbow of colors are hidden alleyways of an ancient city.  Stone barns sit next to mud brick houses.  Back alley corners hide erotic phalluses and a piecemeal settlement that straddles gushing, milky blue rivers.

The walled-in town feels medieval.  Ancient.  Like a time warp to another era.

Life here is methodical.  It’s ritualistic.  It’s hard.  The winter is long and there are no Western comforts to make it more bearable.  Kids play in the brisk cobblestone streets until their rosy cheeks turn so red, you’d swear they’d burst.  Women walk in sandals with no socks until their feet stiffen into solid blocks.

Drunks and beggars prey on the piety of generous Llamaists and wandering pilgrims.

In the afternoon, women sit on their roofs to take in the heat of the sun and avoid the walloping winds that race through the deep valley walls of the Kali Gandaki.

But, it’s the sounds of sunset that are unforgettable.

As the blazing sun cuts its path through the Himalayan Range, the delicate drone of devout Llamaists echoes throughout the valley.  A dreamlike warmth blankets the frosty town in this violet hour and magic feels very real.

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The Trickery that Tickled the Tibetan Pilgrims

With the pipes frozen, the day started without water.

That meant another day not showering, grimy teeth, and a case of what I like to call “traveler’s face.”

I left the desolate, remote army post of Jomsom for the freezing, windswept nothingness of the “road” north.

Leaving Jomson was like stepping off of earth and onto the moon. With a scarf over my face and glasses over my eyes, every inch of skin was covered as I traversed the rusty strip of rubble. To my side, wildly carved rocks twisted along the valley walls as the blistering sun set out to crack puddles of ice.

In a desolate, cold, lifeless land that was not yet Tibet, but not quite Nepal, I could feel my insides turning numb. Barely bearable in the early morning, the winds picked up and whipped through the valley with such a force that locals warned against travel at midday.

The path itself was littered with the crumbling remains of forgotten homes along this ancient trade route. Made from the rubble of the rock desert that is the Kali Gandaki Valley, the houses were hardly decipherable against the beige backdrop.

Tip-toeing over wobbling rocks as snot dripped down my nose, I glimpsed a crooked sign that read “Lubra,” pointing away from an intersecting river valley.

Scanning my map, I noticed a small village located about an hour off the path along the valley walls of the approaching tributary. Intrigued, and hoping to find some warming tea, I branched off away from the Jomsom track.

En route, I came across a group of pilgrims sitting in the snow in the center of the valley. They were chit-chatting, laughing, and having a nice mid-morning picnic.

“Lubra?” I asked, raising my hands in a questioning motion.

The Tibetan ladies laughed. But one, who spoke a few words in English, pointed me up a nearby hill.

I asked again, “Lubra?” pointing to the snow covered hill, where I couldn’t decipher anything resembling a path.

All the women agreed, pointing up the large hill.

Though I saw no signs of life, a path, or footprints even, I trusted the friendly ladies and left, bowing and thanking them for their kindness.

Halfway up the hill, I was out of breath. Above 4,000 meters (13,125 feet), the oxygen was thinning. Not only was there no path, but the slippery slopes were covered almost knee-deep in snow and my lower body was beginning to drench. Worse, turning around was no longer an option. It was hard enough to climb up the hill, but walking down, I’d surely slip and tumble into the rocks below.

Triumphantly, I found the edge of a stone fence peeking out of the snow. I sat, eating a candy bar and thinking that I had found the village of Lubra. Yet, the remote house had been abandoned.

I climbed up to another house, but it too was abandoned.

Further up the hill, I saw what looked to be a lone monastery. Nearly 30 minutes later, I crested the top of the hill and found a set of footsteps in the snow leading to a snow-covered field of prayer flags and prayer wheels next to a small stone house that puffed smoke from a metal chimney.

Approaching the small structure, I was warned off by a thrashing guard dog chained to the fence. As the dog barked, a lone maroon-clad monk stepped outside, waved at me with a luminous smile and returned to his home.

Elated but confused, I sat outside observing the prayer wheels and the glistening white peaks in the distance. It was the highest point I would reach in the Himalaya, and there was a quite beauty that took my breath away.

My Western sensibilities had me questioning how this man could live all alone at the top of this snow covered hill with his flags and wheels, but in an instant it all made sense.

I followed his footsteps down the far side of the hill. As I rounded a bumpy corner, I saw bellow me, along the valley edge, the terraced buildings of a bustling town.

There it was, the town I’d been looking for all along! Lubra had been a mere 20 minutes’ walk further into the valley and I’d been tricked by a group of pilgrims into climbing a snowy hill up to the Heavens.

As I slid down the hill, a group of townspeople began pointing and waving. They invited me to join them on their roof for tea and I could not be more thankful for their hospitality.

I sat on a Tibetan rug as an old lady spun yaks wool next to me. The younger lady went downstairs to make tea, and when she returned, she brought with her a group of women.

As the women marched up onto the roof, I realized immediately that it was the pilgrims I had seen before. They took one look at me and erupted in an explosion of laughter.

Our host recounted the tale of watching me slide down the snowy hill as the whole group doubled over laughing.

I couldn’t help but laugh too.

Out of their bags, the women removed an assortment of snacks and prepared me a plate. I reached into my backpack, and offered up some cookies and peanuts.

We sat together on the roof – me and the tickled Tibetan pilgrims – sipping tea, laughing and enjoying the afternoon sun.

Big Shots: Kalapani to Marpha

Check back later this week as MarkontheMap is tricked off the path and onto a dangerous, snow-packed hill by a group of snickering Tibetan pilgrims.

Big Shots: Jomsom Trek – Tatopani to Kalapani

The Last Jeep Out of Darjeeling

Before, when I heard the word “Darjeeling,” I thought only of tea and toy trains.  Now, I think of torches and a midnight escape.

My guidebook mentioned checking in on the political situation before heading to Darjeeling, but by the time I read that I was already in the jeep halfway up the foothills of the Himalaya.

I had wished to transfer to the toy train (made famous by Wes Anderson’s 2007 film, “Darjeeling Limited”) at New Jalpaiguri and ride the winding track up to Darjeeling.  A recent mudslide prevented that from happening.

Instead, I piled into a jeep with far too many passengers and braced myself against my bag for the bumping ride up into the heavens.   Having just completed my first overnight train ride in India from Kolkata, I was in no mood for 5 hours in a crowded jeep blasting Indi-pop – but that’s what I got.

After hours spent squished stiff, we raced through the clouds and emerged at the mythical mountaintop city of Darjeeling.  Were the clouds gone, I would have seen Everest from here.  Yet, the clouds never parted.  They sensed something was boiling.  They didn’t dare let the sunshine in.

I spent four days in Darjeeling and never once saw the famous Himalayan peaks.  Four days wandering through the clouds, not seeing up nor down until all I could see was the fire ahead and the headlights of the last jeep out of town.  Four days in a city that I would be forced to leave.

But what a four days they were…

Darjeeling was a famous hill station in the days of the British Raj.  In the mid-19th century the colonial government set up a sanatorium and a military depot.  Subsequently, extensive tea planting occurred in the region, resulting in an internationally recognized crop that ranks among the most popular black teas in the world and provides much of the economy for the town.

The poor roads and remote location keep mass tourism at bay in this romantic and mysterious region.

Darjeeling is nestled along the elbow of India’s eastern arm in close proximity to the Tibetan, Nepalese, Bhutanese, and Bangladeshi borders.  Consequently, to venture further afield, one must first obtain a permit from the Indian government.

I had no intentions of leaving Darjeeling for the nether regions.  My intentions were to stay for a week, breathe the fresh air, and escape the chaos of the low country.  But, India is addicted to a daily dose of unpredictability.

The people of Darjeeling run the gamut of Indo-European and Asiatic features.  With a large Tibetan refugee community, Newar Nepalese, Bhutanese, and sprinklings of semi-nomadic Himalayan tribes, the streets of Darjeeling offer an eclectic mix of characters who congregate daily in the town square, Chowrasta.

The origin of the name “Darjeeling” is most likely from the Tibetan words ‘Dorge,’ which means ‘thunderbolt,’ and ‘Ling,’ which means place or land.  Quite literally, it is the ‘Land of the Thunderbolt.’  Originally, this was the name given to the Buddhist monastery atop Observatory Hill but, over time, became the name of the entire surrounding area.

Two local boys in their early twenties beckoned me to join them on their walk up to Observatory Hill.  For them, this hill represented the ultimate Zen paradise.

Monkeys paraded about on the staircase up.   As we approached the hilltop monastery, we were absorbed into a thickly wrapped web of Tibetan prayer flags.  This oasis at the top of the hill was a religious carnival of color where locals gathered to thump gongs and gurgle baritone odes.  I’d never been anywhere quite like it.  So flashy, yet so serene.

I spent the following days wandering through the tea farms, chatting with local shop owners and learning from a slew of local tea experts about a drink that I had never thought much about.  Each seemed to share the same opinions.  Tea must come with milk, green tea is only to be used for medicine, and black tea should be served several times a day.  You can sniff out a top grade tea by blowing hot breath into a handful of leaves and waiting for the aroma.

At the Happy Valley Tea Estate, a drunk man who claimed to run the place took me on a tour of the plantation.  Picking started in March and there were not many people around when I arrived during pruning season.  What I could gather from his slurred and jumbled English, was that the buds of the tea bush are picked, placed on a mesh table and blasted with 8 hours of cold air and 8 hours of hot air.  This takes away 30% of the moisture, and then the buds get compressed in a series of machines and go through fermentation.  The tip of the bud produces the highest quality tea, then the larger leaves, and the stems go into the tea bags.

There are 84 tea gardens in Darjeeling.

Each night, I holed up in my cold, unheated room with a cup of tea and fell asleep in my wool hat and gloves, buried under four blankets to try and block out the Himalayan winter.  In the mornings after tea, I ordered a bucket of boiling water, mixed it with the cold tap water, and splashed liberally as I rubbed a bar of soap over my goose bumped body until I could take it no more.

Somehow, I found this daily routine quite satisfying.

On what would become my final morning in town, I started the day at the Padmaja Naidu Himalayan Zoological Park (better known as the Darjeeling Zoo) where wild monkeys patrolled the perimeter laughing at their caged brethren.  At 7,000 feet (2,150 meters) this is the highest altitude zoo in the world, and it specializes in Himalayan Wildlife like the rare Snow Leopard and the Tibetan Wolf.

Also within the zoo grounds, was the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (HMI), which had a fascinating exhibit on the mountaineers who’ve braved the world’s highest peaks.  HMI is one of the premier places in the world to learn the science and art of mountaineering and its first managing director was also the first man to climb Everest (alongside Edmund Hillary), Tensing Norgay.

When I left the museum and zoo grounds, I noticed that the road was closed and that all cars were stopped from leaving town.  Soon, all shops closed their doors and I asked a policeman what was going on.  He informed me that three men had been shot in a nearby town and that an independence strike had begun.

Ghorkhaland is the name of the proposed state in India demanded by the Nepali/Gorkhali speaking Gorkha ethic group in Darjeeling and the Dooars and Siliguri terai contiguous to Darjeeling in northern West Bengal.  The movement for a separate state gained serious momentum during the 1980s, when a violent agitation was carried out by the Gorkha National Liberaion Front (GNLF).  Things subsided for a time, but in 2008, a new party called the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) raised the demand for a separate state of Gorkhaland once again.

On February 8, 2011 (my fourth day in Darjeeling), three GJM activists were shot by the West Bengali police as they tried to enter Jalpaiguri district.  This led to violence in the Darjeeling hills and an indefinite strike called for by GJM.

Every store (save the Chemist shops) in the whole of Darjeeling shut its doors, while the citizens of the city took to the streets.  All roads out of town were shut, and pink posters flew up across the town stating GJM’s demands.

In Chowrasta Square, tribal families with elaborate nose jewelry sat on park benches next to young activists – everyone had something to say.

Down the street from Chowrasta Square, the West Bengali Tourism Building was set on fire.  I had stopped by this building twice that morning to find out information on the zoo and museum, but they were not open.  Perhaps, they sensed what was to come.

The whole town rushed to watch the fire as I looked around confused wondering, what am I to do now?  The roads were closed, the people angry, and I was stuck on the top of a Himalayan hill station with no way down.

I asked several people (the police, the lady at my guesthouse, another set of tourists on the street) what should I do?

What could I do?  Nothing it seemed.  Some said I should stay and wait things out.  Others said I should pack my bags and see if I could somehow bribe an official for a ride out of town.

I wasn’t terribly frightened, but the fact that the tourism building had been targeted irked me.  The police warned that strikes happen frequently, but that this one could be different because several activists were shot.

I waited out the afternoon in my room.  By dinnertime, the woman who ran my guesthouse informed me that the road would open for three hours that evening and, if I wanted to leave, this would be my only way out.  I packed my bags, marched to the bottom of town, and caught the last jeep out of Darjeeling.  In a jeep made for five people, I sped down the mountain well after dusk with 15 fellow passengers – inside, on top of, and hanging onto the frame of the fragile car.

The strike in Darjeeling lasted nine days.  For nine days, the town was paralyzed and shut off from the world.  The night I left, GJM protestors torched several government bungalows and looted ammunition from a police outpost.  There were several more deaths throughout the week and, though the town remains open again, the situation is still unresolved.

–Postscript–

After an unhappy night in Silguri, I caught a bus to the nearby Nepali border.  Finally, I thought, I could see the Himalaya without the clouds, without the protests, and with a bit of peace and quiet.

Little did I know that my plans would again be thwarted by a group of unhappy protesters in the political minority.  Little did I know that Maoists still existed in this day and age.

The Maoist Rebels (who hold a famously brutal reputation in rural Nepal) were holding a protest at the border.  All roads into the Nepali mainland were closed.

After my late night escape from Darjeeling, I was stuck in Nepal at a hostile border – the last place any traveler wants to be.

Check back for more MarkontheMap later this week as the blog heads to Kathmandu, Nepal!