17 July 2012

Dolpo 2

April 26, Laina to Dho Tarap

We wake in the wood cutters’ camp. The sun crisps the juts of high stone ridge, but the slate turn of canyon river where we pitched our small tent last night,  remains in a cold, shivering shadow.  Slowly, slowly we climb up and away from our camp, the wood cutters huddling around a pot of smoky tea. We climb past the last of the trees: Himalayan birch and juniper thinning out into thick clumps of thorny shrubs. Every day the land and the people change. Cedar has been sick for three days.  Our bags are heavy beasts and we are gaining elevation,  despite no food she is still strong and we move steadily up canyon.  This impresses our guide, Karma,  and for the remainder of the trip he tells all people we meet of her heartiness, usually following some questioning on why, why on earth, are we not using porters? And what exactly is in our huge packs?  Karma laughs at this and answers with the story of Cedar -the baliyo keti (strong woman). He tells how for three days she walked up the hills with no food, a very heavy pack, and having to stop constantly for – here he does a funny hand gesture, a little flutter of the fingers from the stomach area outward – ‘little bit problems with the stomach’.

Climbing the trail we try to place this landscape some where, but find that even if the ochre cliffs bearded with scrubby juniper and the crow shadow on the canyon wall are familiar in elements – the very essence of this place is unrecognizable, it cannot be placed.  The nature of its remoteness has preserved a way of life that has been largely lost in other geographical similar regions.  I think of the young family whose tent we ate in last night.  The young wife’s face: round and angular like the Blackfeet.  The whole scene was one of 19th century Montana, the west.  How I envision the time of the mountain man, the European, living half-nomadic, with buckskin pants and fur hats. And the Natives in cotton blouses plaited with elk ivory, moccasins and top hats.  Cooking pots, guns, and grinding stones stored in the corners of tepees, living traditionally and with change. Winter camps, summer camps, children, horses, dogs, metal, leather, drying meat, pounded grain, trade. 
 Across the river the woman’s husband felled a tree and with his horse drug it back to the darkening camp. The baby tied to her back, silent,  as they walked to a small channel to get water to boil for tea.

As we walk on all, familiarity disappears.  Up to a pass.  Clumpy rocks and prayer flags jumbled in the cut juniper branches.  Descending, we follow a long switch back, the beam carriers- two young but old looking guys carrying one very large wood beam- catch up to us and drop their beam at the pass. Karma taps his head saying they are sick so cannot carry it anymore.  Heavy with our medicine bag we pipe up ‘Oh we have medicine!’  ‘No, no sickness from too much of the drinking’ he says.

We see this for ourselves when the next afternoon we eat lunch in a warm dark house amid their noontime drunkenness. The small bottles strewn around the stove and the one with the fuzzy black hat that looks just like his friend's hair is bending drunk and keeps calling us little sister, and wants to treat us to soda and rice and booze, all caravanned in from China, we decline, he buys us some coconut biscuits and we say, ‘ No, no it’s enough’ and ‘Thank you, Thank you’ and ‘You are a good man'.
 He struggles to remember all his English. We are big in our shiny Patagonia jackets and this small- big brother in his animal fur hat the texture of his friend’s hair wanting to give give and give.  ‘Being drunk makes everyone into a rich man’ says Cedar and it’s true:  he is rich and we accept the biscuits and go outside to walk in the afternoon blizzard.

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