A wild game hunter introduces me to the public and leads me on a perilous journey across Nepal.
Beneath the wings of our antique two-engined Dakota prop plane, the eternal eye of the Temple of Botnah pierced the upper regions of our sublunary world. The Himalayas are within striking distance. The flight, difficult to begin with, was considerably prolonged when our pilot lost his way after the rickety old plane failed to make the climb over a high peak. It wasn’t all his fault, however. This was, in fact, the inaugural flight between Dacca and the Nepalese capital. It took three attempts before we finally got through, passing so close to another peak that the wings grazed the side of the mountain as we flew by.
The view was breathtaking. The air is pure and perfectly clear. In Venice the humidity transformed the city’s atmosphere into a cloudy mist, distorting faraway objects and accentuating depth perception. But here the landscape is flattened, objects appear to be located in the same plan, a kind of anti-trompe-l’œil. The mountain peaks are amazingly close. What’s more there are no cars, no pollution, and no noises to shatter the serenity of this place. There are few hotels in the region. The Royal Hotel provides rooms to the rare foreign visitor, and once provided accommodations for Kipling.
At the hotel I met a man with distinctively cat-like features. Peter Byrne is the only tiger hunter authorized by the king to pursue this lucrative activity in Nepal. He invited me to join him on his next safari. “My clients, three Americans, will undoubtedly accept your presence.” When he sees the look of horror on my face at the thought of slaying such a magnificent animal, he drops the subject. However, having been so long deprived of music, he asks me to perform a little recital, for his clients of course, by the chimney in the reception hall of the ancient palace—precisely where the Irish poet used to write.
Katmandu’s location, the hotel and this enormous room lit by burning sconces, the silence, and darkness outside—all combine to create an unusual mood. The effect is further enhanced by the quality of the air here, which, in addition to its optical qualities, provides excellent acoustics. That is because there is no humidity to interfere with the transmission of sound here the way it does in other places. The circumstances were perfectly suited to inspire a musician, even a beginner like myself.
To the best of my ability, I attempt to justify my billing as an “international concert performer.” The title was given me by Peter, who may have embellished matters slightly. Certainly, my endless hours of practice on board the Victoria have helped to to improve my manual dexterity. However, I’m still lacking in technique, which doesn’t help my self-confidence. However, much to my amazement the small audience displays far more enthusiasm than my modest accomplishments could then justify. I am even approached by an Englishman, who introduces himself as a music critic and informs me that the experience was “unforgettable.” I’m shocked. “However,” he continued, “I should mention that we were so longing to hear your music that we enjoyed notes that were in fact… missing. A word of advice, young man, work hard!”
Peter, however, was simply delighted. To thank me, the jungle man lent me his compass and water bottle, and suggested a trekking west to Pokhara, at the foot of the Annapurna. I’m sure he intends to recommend my soul to God as well. At the time, there were no roads, no guides, and no hotels. My destination, by his estimate, was ten days away on foot (ten years later, there was almost a freeway that served as a link to the famous base station for climbers).
Eager to take him up on the offer, I quickly found myself donning shorts and sandals, hoisted my small backpack, and easily passed the sherpas, all of them seasoned mountain hikers. This is because I’m carrying little, which enables me to overtake the local carriers, the only ones authorized at the time. The trails are so narrow and steep that a mule wouldn’t be able to pass through. However, size isn’t the same thing as endurance, as demonstrated by the apparently thin men who serve as taxis here, carrying their clients on their backs.
After roughly twelve hours of walking, we stopped to spend the night at a makeshift “inn.” I’m the only one in the group who, after a frugal bowl of rice washed down with a cup of tea, goes straight to bed, clearing a space for myself on the ground. Tomorrow, I’ll be smart enough to walk at a slower pace, as the sherpas do.
By the third day, the carriers I had passed two days earlier have caught up with me. And at this point in my journey, I’m easily three times as exhausted as they are. In spite of the heavy loads they are carrying, they charge past me with terrified expressions on their faces. To them, I may as well be the abominable snowman.
By the fourth day, the Nepalese take no further notice of me, and with good reason: I’m lost in the middle of the Himalayas and not in the least disturbed by the fact. Once you reach an altitude above 4000 meters, the mountain takes on an entirely different dimension. Time seems to stand still—like the snow. Is it the surreal proximity of the surrounding mountains, the clarity of the air, or the astonishingly blue sky around me? The only thing certain is that the scenery is motionless. Here the hourglass stands still.
Not that I plan on spending the rest of my life here. The few mountain people I encounter along the way run from me in fear. Finally, one of them stops long enough, wide-eyed, for me to ask him, franticly: “Bartou (the path) Pokhara?” He reacted the way an inhabitant of some obscure French village would react if asked for directions to New York by someone from Papua New Guinea.
The path soon ended at the foot of an enormous cliff reaching heavenward. Since I refuse to turn back, I have no choice but to climb the wall, which must have been between 200 and 300 meters in height. After tightening the shoulder straps of my backpack, I begin climbing. My climb is made easier because of my relief at not having to turn back and because the urge to reach the top is irresistible.
I spotted a ledge that would serve as a starting point for my climb. Then, looking up, I spot another one, a bit higher, which I grab, raising myself up by pulling with my arm and pushing with my foot. I raise my other leg to the ledge, which, a moment ago, was level with my face. I push upward again, raising my other foot to the same ledge. Looking at the terrain stretching above me, I refocus my attention on a ledge slightly higher than the one I’m standing on.
Still, it’s getting difficult to determine just how or where to proceed. Occasionally, a ledge that appears to be within easy reach turns out to be too far away to be of any immediate use. Suddenly, I begin to panic. There’s no longer anything in sight for me to step on or grab a hold of. The wall is smooth as glass. It’s impossible to go back down since my field of vision is limited to the small area of rock directly in front of me. The rockface below is concealed by my body, which is pressed firmly to the slope. I’m now roughly a hundred meters above ground—the equivalent of a 30-story building—suspended between earth and sky. My fear, coupled with the steepness of the cliff, provides me with an impromptu opportunity to contemplate the finality of death. It’s unlikely that anyone will be passing this way soon and they wouldn’t be able to rescue me if they did. For several hours, I experience a strange sentiment that reflects the excitement at finding myself literally hanging “between life and death,” the fear of danger, and an instinctive urge to find a way out of my predicament.
It’s a long way…
Brushes with death are conducive to an increased love of life. I decide to make one final attempt. Hanging on with just one hand, I swing my entire body until my foot manages to locate the lower ledge I had used earlier. Then, my body completely extended, my hand seeks a crevice that will allow me to shift my body weight and in the process spare myself an untimely demise. Then, snaking sideways against the rock face I plot a new course. There are a few more close calls, but ultimately I succeed in reaching the top. Strangely enough, I almost feel disappointed.
After several hours staggering through the wilderness, I encounter a child who heads straight toward me and asks, “You… Indian?” In his mind it is inconceivable that a foreigner could be from anywhere but India. This isn’t as unreasonable as it sounds, however. In other parts of the world, people build their universe around a town or village, relegating everyone and everything to the status of “Indian,” or foreigner.
Since I’m not in the mood for a lengthy geography lesson, I acquiesce. He shows me the way to his village. Upon my arrival I stop the first person I see to ask him for food, using a series of hand gestures that would put Marcel Marceau to shame. My performance is augmented with sound effects, “Munch munch, gulp gulp, yummy! Mmm, good!” After a minute or so spent quizzically observing my performance, he asks me, in perfect English:
– Are you trying to tell me that you’d like something to eat?
The man turns out to be a travelling professor from Katmandu. He quickly brings me a bowl of rice and some tea in a small hut that doubles as an inn. There are several porters there as well, and a “gaïné,” the Nepalese equivalent of a griot. He’s playing a saranghi, an instrument resembling a hurdy-gurdy, and reciting the local legends, which the professor translates for me. However, the mythology is abstruse and complicated, and I’m so exhausted, that his song, combined with the gentle burbling of a nearby mountain stream, soon puts me to sleep.
It’s getting harder and harder to go on. The bowls of rice don’t provide enough nourishment for my exertion. A lone rooster unwisely crosses my path, providing me with several days’ worth of food.
One morning, I awake to find my face swollen. I know there’s a hospital in Ghurka, a small village not far from here, and change course. I reach the medical facility after two strenous days of hiking. Two rows of vultures, unsolicited escorts, serve as my honor guard, waiting patiently near the entrance to the emergency room. Judging by the blood-tinged sheets, their patience is clearly well-founded. The male nurse informs me that I’ve apparently been bitten by some creature in search of exotic cuisine. Since we’re communicating with hand gestures, I’m not sure if he’s referring to a tarantula or a scorpion. At this point I no longer have the strength to go on. I’m told that there is a field where a “flying vehicle” lands from time to time. “One day away on foot.” Because of my condition the trip takes twice as long.
The heat is unbearable. Crossing a wide, dried-out river bed, fatigue and pain force me to stop every ten meters. My bloodstained feet cause me to wince in pain. Worst of all, the intense heat makes it difficult to breathe. After several hours I manage to reach the other side, where there is a steep trail that leads back up the mountains. I spot a stream caused by the melting snow that flows beneath a tunnel of vegetation. The urge to cool off is irresistible and I don’t even bother to take off my clothes before easing myself into the icy water. The heat and exhaustion counteract the initial shock of the icy water. I remain submerged up to my chin for nearly an hour. I resume my trek, reaching the “runway” I’d been told about earlier. I collapsed on the ground and spent the night in the meadow.
Several days later a loud roaring sound fills the air. It’s the Dakota, making a milk run. The plane brings me back to the capital, a bit worn but safe and sound.
Peter is at the airport. He’s just sent his three American millionaires back home, unhappy because they failed to bring back a skin. The money they spent on their trip could have fed all of Nepal for a month.
– I avoided the area where we’d have been most likely to find a tiger. They thought I was going to guide them to some air-conditioned watchtower from which they’d be able to bag their trophy. Tiger hunting is an act of love. You must desire the animal, and the animal must feel this desire. Otherwise the animal will elude the hunter the way a woman eludes an anxious suitor.
Given his philosophy, it’s no surprise that Peter’s client base slowly began to dwindle. He’s since become a fundraiser for an organization to protect tigers from extinction.
Just outside Katmandu the sound of horns and the interminable gongs resonates throughout the mountains. It’s the sound of Tibetans fleeing the Chinese. There are four-hundred thousand of them here, soldiers who have come to take over their land and subjugate their countrymen. There is roughly one solider for every three inhabitants. This spell-binding music is an attempt to gain the favor of supernatural forces. It is radically different from the musical genres foreign “visitors” to the roof of the world have tried to propagate. Manchurians, Mongolians, the English, and now the Chinese have appropriated the song books of the Tibetans. But here music is the gateway to the heavens. It transcends earthly concerns and cannot be accurately described in words. The cultural barrier that protects the Tibetans is as impenetrable as the Himalayas.
There’s only one small road out of Nepal. It leads to India. All you need to do is hitch a ride on a truck. A turbanned Sikh agrees to let me ride with his cargo. In the middle of the night, however, he stops and informs me that he’ll abandon me here in the middle of nowhere if I don’t pay him for his good, although not very honorable, services.
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