A name doesn’t mean anything. Nevertheless, many people grab hold of their name and use it as a fertiliser to grow things like identity. What is interesting, though, is the soil the fertiliser is applied to, the soul – what makes you a human being. But perhaps that way of thinking or approaching life is too intangible, or not fashionable. I don’t know. I seem to meet a lot of people whose achievements are to be considered in terms of degrees from well-known universities, high salaries, prestigious appointments in large companies, blah-blah, and so on. Pure name, no soul. At least, that’s the dissatisfying impression that lingers, even if I’m most probably the very same kind of person.
Whatever the case, I do find names useful, for directing energy and attention to a particular place, individual, or idea. So. For what it’s worth, my name is Yash. I’m 35 and live in Kathmandu in my own three-room apartment. It’s rather nice. There’s a fireplace with a mantelpiece in the living room. I paid the entire amount for the flat in cash before moving in last year. I sell insurance, and I’m good at it. So good, in fact, that I get a cut of the company’s annual profits. I’m also on the product development team. The pet insurance policy packages I came up with have been selling like basic goods since the earthquake. The wonders of rising middle-class incomes. The other day, just down the street and out on Lazimpat Road, I saw a huge poster advertising the arrival of the country’s first pet CT full-body scanner. What a world.
I live alone in my apartment. But not by choice. I find it easy to attract women but impossible to hold on to them. Vini, Saarah, Tara, etcetera. Not a single Six-month Survivor. As sure as the passing of the monsoon rain, they leave me while telling me what a nice guy I am. Same pattern, each and every time. I don’t want to be a nice guy, I want to be the love of a woman’s life. I guess there must be something wrong with me. I got no idea what it is. No woman ever told me the truth. Maybe I’m just plain boring – I do sell insurance. Or my decency is suffocating. Really, it could be anything. That’s one long list I don’t want to write. The thought makes me think of insurance.
In the early morning, I like to sit in the light at the big table in the kitchen, sipping a cup of freshly brewed French press coffee, strong and intense. The fragrance is almost as delicious as the black liquid. I read yesterday’s newspaper or listen to the radio. Even though it’s cold now, early December, I open the window. The scent of the orange honeysuckle crawling up the wall creeps into the kitchen. A pale-blue sky replaces the dirty-grey morning light. I work from home today, brainstorming new ideas for insurance packages. Imagine if I could come up with an insurance against loneliness. What a seller.
Around noon, the wind is just wrong, coming straight from the south, bringing the worst of Kathmandu to my kitchen table. Close by, there’s a workshop where they fix old Indian motorbikes and scooters; the wind deposits the diesel fumes in my mouth, that particular oily taste. It’s also there whenever I choose to walk the short distance to my office, mixing with grit and dirt, crunching like bits of sand between my teeth. When I blow my nose, the handkerchief goes black.
I close the window and open the fridge, take out a handful of green chillies, an onion, garlic, fry them in the pan and prepare a quick pasta dish for lunch. I eat and leaf through The Kathmandu Post. In the lifestyle section, there’s a story about 10 unusual places to go on your next holiday. Nar and Phoo. For some reason, my eyes settle on those names. Nar is to be found at 4250 metres altitude, higher than any other village in Nepal, isolated from everything, close to the Tibetan border. Go there before the Chinese build a road through it. The story doesn’t say anything else. There are many rural parts of the country I’ve never visited, city-hopper that I am. But I know I want to go to Nar.
The music from my ringing cell phone interrupts my thoughts. Not work. It’s the sound bite I’ve chosen for my sister, Straight outta Kathmandu. She’s ten years younger than me, but we are close, talking on the phone almost every week. She lives in Denmark. Her brain’s the size of a small planet, a gold medallist from Tribhuvan University, then she went to Europe on one of the Erasmus Mundus scholarships. Now she’s doing her PhD at the University of Copenhagen, something about developing new techniques to measure glacier movements in Greenland and in the Himalayas. We all have our particular interests.
“Hi, Sis, any uncool glaciers on the move?”
“You sound in a good mood, what’s up?”
“I want to go to glacier country, to Nar. A small village in upper Manang.”
“Nar?” she says, “They have the exact same word in Danish. Means fool.”
“Really? Some words get to travel. There’s also another village up there, Phoo.”
“Figures. Add an l, and you get the same result.” She has always been good at making me laugh.
“Seriously, Sis, I feel good about it. I have two weeks of holidays, and I want to go as soon as possible before it gets too snowy up there.”
“Are you in trouble? What’s her name? Someone, I know?”
“No trouble, not at all, I –”
“Freedom of heart is something you give yourself. Running makes no sense.”
“I know. It’s not that. I just want to go somewhere quiet, with clean and pure air.”
“Clean and pure? What’s going on? You are dirty forever. You sell insurance. You speculate in people’s potential misfortunes and lack of faith.”
“No. I offer people the opportunity to sleep safe and sound, free of worries.”
“For a fee. Yash-cash.”
“Yes. Like the Gods. They show the way. Though their fees are steeper.”
“I don’t like it. I know you’ll go alone. And do something stupid. City boy. Can a mountain goat navigate the streets and alleys of Kathmandu? No. That works both ways, you’ll be lost.”
“Life’s unpredictable, that’s why I’m in the insurance business. But I’ll keep my mind and eyes open. Who knows, maybe the opposite will happen, maybe a mountain goat will show me the way. I got a good feeling about this trip.”
She seems pretty convinced that I’ll bring harm to myself, but she lets it go, eventually. My arguments that the trip will bring me peace and freedom bounce off her like the drops of water running down the Teflon on the pan I clean after lunch. The talk leaves us both dissatisfied, her worried and me annoyed.
I leave my phone in Kathmandu, and a minivan takes me to the end of the good road, to warm and lush Besisahar. I wander around town as I wait for a jeep to take me up north. Small trees loaded with early December oranges bless each garden. I stand under a tree, reaching up with my hands, and the fruits warm my skin like small globes of fire, the citrus scent descending to surround me. I want to choose one, to feel the flesh between my teeth and the juice running down over my chin. But I can’t decide which one to pick. I walk back to the main street, empty-handed.
A Himalayan cowboy takes me in his jeep to the village of Koto, riding and hitting each pothole like there’s no tomorrow. My body hums as though it has been plugged into a socket. Dirt roads are spreading through the mountains like governmental ghost fingers. But they haven’t yet reached Nar; in Koto a narrow footpath branches off from the road, and I start walking, trekking ancient trails for three days, only meeting the odd porter and mule train, hauling goods up into the high mountains. There are no other tourists, winter season. The soft snow caresses the tree-covered slopes above me.
In the few hamlets, nothing more than old herder huts trying to upgrade to get into the tourist business, I buy shelter for the night and simple dal bhat. No meat, plenty of spinach. They also have coke, the black variety I sometimes drink. The price increases with the distance from civilisation. Perhaps the coke price can be used to index the price of insurance in remote areas? But who’s at work, not me! I snuggle beneath thick blankets to keep out the cold. I’m sure each lodge owner has an old shoe box, out back, with a collection of black, frozen-off toes, clinking against each other like ice cubes.
Grandeur. There is no other word for the landscape, the towering stone walls, the black and white mountains pushing up into the sky, the carpets of whispering pines, the roaring river veins. But I find equal pleasure in the small things, the yellow berries of the bent seabuckthorn trees, the scrubby juniper thickets whose leaves are collected and burned in pots with some aromatic root the locals call jatamansi. I enjoy waking up in that fragrant smoke, sipping hot tea, and then hitting the silent trail.
On the third day, nearing Nar, traversing a slope full of big boulders and trees dominated by the wind and the lack of water, a tahr steps out in front of me. The wild mountain goat and I are equally surprised. We stare at each other. Then I see it. Those pools of dark liquid honey. Something unwinds inside me, I can literally feel it, an opening of my chest. And I fall in love with the mountain goat and with all the flowers that must blossom on these slopes in the summer, the rush of the narrow rivers and the song of the wind. Joy rushes through my body, tingling my skin. Is this how I was supposed to feel with Vini, Saarah, Tara, etcetera? Maybe that was why they left me. What can I say; I don’t know; I sell insurance.
I close in on Nar in a great mood. Maybe I have gone somewhat off track. The trail is narrow and not much used. I cross a small stream and rest by a man-made pile of rocks. It’s made up of carved stone plates and coloured pebbles. Most of the plates are inscribed with the same mantra, probably Om mani padme hum. But there are also other texts, in Tibetan, on stones so old that the letters are being taken back by time. One flat stone is painted with a cross between a man and a demon, smiling, holding a luminous pearl in one hand. It looks ancient yet also fresh like it was painted yesterday. It’s beautiful. And it whispers to me, in a voice just too low for me to catch the words. For some reason, I know I’m now in Nar territory.
I quench my thirst in the pure water and plod on for an hour, along the stream, then up a steep ravine to emerge onto a small plateau, dominated by barren fields. I keep climbing, up towards the village above the agricultural land. It has around a hundred stone houses, firewood and winter fodder stacked everywhere. It feels like the place only exists because someone extended the world with boards. Maybe it’s the rarefied air playing with my mind. It’s late afternoon, a moving cloud of smoke envelops the village, swivelling around the thousands of fluttering prayer flags in white, red, green, yellow, and blue. I pass a newly constructed monastery, golden figures glittering in the sun, and walk into the smoke and the village, finding a room in a new lodge. Tourism is coming, as are the dirt roads. This old world and way of living – food from small fields of potatoes and barley, herding animals, and trading highland herbs and yak blankets for lowland cooking oils and grain – is going, going, gone.
In the last light, the sun disappearing early behind a snowclad mountain to the west, I stroll among the houses and fields. I’m fascinated by the sharp-horned yak grazing on the outskirts of the village. A yak is a mobile production facility turning grass and leaves into good stuff, milk and meat. I saw slabs of butter at the lodge, and dried strips of meats hanging above the cooking fire. All produced entirely without insurance. I pass a young yak eating a cardboard box that has contained packages of noodles, Wai-Wai with original chicken flavour. Next to the calf is a juicy bush full of fat evergreen leaves. What a world. On the way back to the lodge, a small kid wants me to take her photograph for a sweet. Selling her cute face for a piece of candy. What’s going on?
The disappearing sun leaves the cold behind. I try to keep it at bay, sitting next to the fire in the lodge kitchen. The smoke stings my eyes and tears run down my cheeks. Three other men – they turn out to be Lopsang, Karma, and Sonam – huddle around the fire while a woman in a traditional Tibetan dress cooks rice and dal. We munch yak and drink rakshi. The men speak in a mix of a Tibetan dialect and accented Nepali. I understand the gist of what they say. They talk about three things: the Dalai Lama, yarsagumbu, and corrupt politicians. Not a word about insurance. But perhaps the first two are insurance against the latter. As soon as they learn I haven’t met or seen the Dalai Lama, they drift to the caterpillar fungus. I’ve heard about it, yellow as gold but more valuable, finally a chance for high altitude villagers to make some money from a resource they control. The only thing they had been sure of in the past was paying taxes for public services delivered in distant towns.
“What’s with the yarsa,” I ask, “how come it’s fetching those crazy prices? More than ten thousand dollars per kilo?”
“They say Chinese men use it as a kick-starter when they are with a woman.” It’s Lopsang, the oldest of the men. “You know, like we fertilise our fields, they fertilise themselves, to stay productive.” He’s laughing.
“So the need of Chinese men to deliver in bed means you can build new houses?”
“Yep. As long as we get to keep the money. Kathmandu, Pokhara, local government, everyone is trying to muscle in. But this time they won’t succeed. Now we’re selling directly to buyers, flowing like melting snow down from Tibet in the spring, as soon as we start the collection. Each buyer has a backpack stuffed with cash and a gun-toting bodyguard. But it’s good, they don’t give us problems, and we don’t have to pay anyone in the south.”
We toast to the gold that grows out of the ground every spring. We toast goodbye to the timeless cycle of back-breaking labour. We toast to the Gods that watch the land and provide. We toast to the local spirit, that none of the three men will name, protecting Nar.
After the meal, as the fire dies, we head to our own places. The water bottle next to my bed turns into a cylinder of ice during the night. I sleep like a child.
The next days I sit in the sun in the village and do nothing. People and livestock pass by. I watch them and don’t think of anything in particular. Lopsang comes and takes me to the upper pasture, to look for two of his yaks – the snow will soon be too thick for them to find grass up there. We bring them down, closer to the village where he can feed them with hay if necessary.
The days keep passing. I keep doing nothing. A strange kind of satisfaction suffuses my body. I make a wish to stay in Nar. One evening Lopsang asks me how I make a living. Insurance. It comes back to me. I realise I have to go back to Kathmandu. Then what? Who knows.
The following morning, the frost glittering like a sea of tiny jewels scattered over the resting fields, I pack my stuff and head down. I know a lot of the trails around the village but find myself on the vanishing path by the small stream, back at the old and overgrown pile of stone plates and pebbles.
I pick up the flat stone with the ancient fresh painting of the local spirit. It’s around thirty by ten centimetres, weighs no more than a couple of kilos. I wrap my fleece around it and place it in my backpack. Plenty of space. There’s an image in my mind, that beautiful painting on the mantelpiece above my fireplace. I don’t know where that idea comes from but it’s there.
Maybe the weather has turned a little warmer without me noticing it – the stream is full of water and I can’t cross it here. There’s a small path, I hadn’t noticed before, heading down into the ravine, following the stream. I take it.
The going is tough. The ravine is full of boulders, and it gets darker and darker as the walls on either side get steeper and taller. But that’s not what’s eating my energy. It’s my backpack, it’s getting heavier and heavier. It’s the stone. It doesn’t weigh two kilos, more like twenty. I throw away everything else in my backpack. But it keeps getting heavier with each step. I must be suffering from some kind of altitude sickness or something.
Have you ever heard the sound of a landslide? It’s magnificent. I thought it was on the other side of the stream, but then the first pebbles rained down around me. The ground started shaking and I danced to the rhythm of the moving earth. Above me, the sky-gate was open and the glory of the deity poured forth, a symphony of triumphant rocks and song, a blessing and an invitation. I am happy to stay here.