The Trail to Manang
The five hour bus trip from Kathmandu to Dumre was a kaleidoscope of fascinating images, fear, and utter discomfort. I was one of three people sharing a seat that some Chinese engineer had designed for two. With no room to stand, people, mostly young men, kept appearing and disappearing from the windows as they climbed back and forth from the baggage rack atop the lurching vehicle. The roar of the unmuffled engine and the stench of sweat and diesel fumes was less concern than the driver's enthusiasm for speed and the precipitous drop on the right side of the narrow road. A clutter of religious charms and tokens swinging wildly from the rear-view mirror seemed more likely to cause an accident than protect us from the fate of two other busses rusting in crumpled heaps at the base of the precipice.
Arriving in Dumre, cramped and stiff but glad to be alive, we finally met our entourage. Guide Sanka Lama, an experienced high altitude sherpa, had been on several major climbing expeditions in the Annapurna area. He explained in perfect English that he wanted to give up driving cab in Kathmandu and start his own guiding company. We were his first clients.
Babu Kage, always smiling, happy, eager to help, was a young cooking graduate of the Nepalese trekking school which had adopted a standard, if unwieldy, assortment of huge pots, kettles, cast iron frying pans and grills all slung together and carried on a tump-line.
Although Betty and I insisted on carrying our own stuff we were perplexed to find that we had acquired, in addition to Lama and Babu, four fully loaded porters. Biress Lama, probably in his late teens, was on his first trip, while Bimbadu Guru, a tall middle-aged veteran of countless treks carried himself and his load with the dignity and pride of a true professional.
We never got to know the other two. At our first camp they demanded a pay raise and Lama fired them. It was the best thing that could have happened! Sharing their abandoned loads, the six of us became equal partners; a small, close-knit team with a common goal.
For the next 10 days we followed the Marsyangdi River valley around the north side of the Annapurna Himal. Beginning in lush semi-tropical farmland, the trail climbed, at first through dense forests of rhododendron, bougainvillea, and bamboo, and higher up through groves of pine and juniper before emerging into the arid, treeless landscape leading to Manang. As the vegetation changed and adapted to higher elevations so too did the houses, culture and customs of the people.