Roads approach Bagalthok from every angle, and I remarked to Achyut as we tramped down to the river that there won’t be any village left if the roads are to continue over fields and through chautaras, not even sparing bar-pipals. Who are these roads for, I wondered. They use them to take fertilizer to the fields, he replied. And excavate sand and gravel from the river, I added disapprovingly, as we walked past wheat that had been trampled by tractors.
Achyut indulged my bird-watching fancies; the binoculars slung around my neck, then his, lent us some purpose. Spotting kingfishers, bright greens in the water that turned out to be plastic, a bunch of barbets, some bright reds that I couldn’t identify, and a massive raptor that took off from a Simal tree as we approached, possibly a Golden or Imperial Eagle. Achyut wasn’t impressed; it could have been a common kite as far as he was concerned. But he was happy enough to identify trees for me – Kauro, a big-leaved, twist-rooted tree by the Andhi, planted in rows; Sissau, tall and straight; Katus and Chilaune; Bayar, not in season!
I fear even the most basic surmises I am making as to the Nepali and Western common names of these trees are completely off. Without a base knowledge of tree types and how they vary geographically how on earth can I get a grip on anything beyond what Richard Mabey terms the ‘blur of green’? How, then, to write green?
Mabey is a stylist through and through. His prose stays you: you are not tempted to scan for information as you might, say, sections of Ramachandra Guha, who writes in a clear, accessible but journeyman fashion. For all his skill in drawing you a picture of, say, the global environmental movement, the text is strung together with research, citations and an overarching structural rather than natural impulse.
A shorter walk up to the water source with K’s dry, spry father. With leading questions, I pursued once more the viability of roads reaching every which way – since I’ve been here I’ve not only seen K bring the dozer right up to the back of the house, a raking scar has Z-ed its way up a hillock across the highway, scratching into my view of the Himalaya. Uncle suggested that the roads are a good thing (subida bhayo) but also that there may not be much of the village left as a result. We city-dwellers are tempted to dichotomize; the reality is jumbled.
On the way back from the modest, pretty waterfall in a moist, leaf-fringed gulch, I asked Uncle about what they grew up eating. They had a decent variety of strictly seasonal vegetables to go with their rice – bhatmas, karkalo, pidalu, cauli, bodi, sag, even tomatoes – but everything grown in their karesa bari was for themselves. There was no question of selling or buying. So now, I clarified, you sell many things and you buy many things, the medium has become money. We grow more things as well, he said, adding that this was not enough because pahila thorai bhaera tyati le pugnu parthyo, ahile dherai bhae pachi dherai chahincha.
The idea of eating a thing when it comes into season and eating a lot of it – say oranges, as here, is newly novel to me. Kathmandu is still governed by the seasons to a large degree, but the availability of fruit and veg and grains from around the year from around the region has altered eating habits more than it has in the country. Everything is consumed in moderation, with the exception of meat (which is more! More! MORE!). There are still seasons for Bhogate (strictly uncommercial in my experience), and other festive foods such as Til ko Laddu (for yesterday’s Maghi) and cross-cultural gifts of Yomari. But living in different places has scrambled my radar. It’s a question of unlearning, then relearning the rhythms of the place that you are in, before overlaying the interruptions of the rest of the world.
Being here has also thrown my eating habits into contrast with ye olde gaule traditions. Thankfully meat-eating is no great pastime here. But the twice-daily offering of piping hot buffalo milk has set off a battle between its associations with a rural homeliness and a desire to keep my cholesterol on a leash and my belly at peace. Tea-time, particularly abroad, has devolved into a pallid imitation: leaves replaced by bags, milk by nut substitutes, sugar by a drop of honey. But where’s the pleasure in tea without a bit of a burp?
I’m pleased to identify for the third time a Great Barbet in the Chilaune by the side of the house, with its somewhat regular one-note screech, and now – wait for what Birds of Nepal says – a rather more silent Blue Whistling Thrush. So satisfying, the naming of things. White-rumped Munia, leave them orange trees alone, I’ve picked them green.
After a few days of cloistering myself come dusk, I warmed my body with yoga, and stepped out to view the sunset. A lovely warm shading, the shadows falling softly over and under the summits, the snow as easy on the eye as it would chill to the bone anyone up there in miles of icy, falling darkness. Reading an expedition account from 1960 by Jim Roberts (with a young Chris Bonington) I trace their route up and down the jagged line on the horizon: the first ascent of the 7,937m Annapurna II, which Roberts would have liked to have named Marsyangdi Himal.
The gauley way of shouting up and down the hills, their shrieks (it’s invariably women) bouncing off the terraces, is challenged by mobile phone numbers. Anthanabbey jero chattis! Anthanabbey jero tis? Chattis! Chattis? Unh! Ani pansaye chapanna! Saatsaye chapanna re! Saatsaye chapanna…? Pansaye chhapanna! Yeh saatsaye chapanna re!
On the way down from my longest walk yet – a goodly 4 hours – I broke off a piece of Chilaune bark and rubbed it vigorously on the back of my hand, just to see if it does what it says on the tin. It does, with a delay, reddening the skin and rendering it tender and itchy.
Udaya Bahadur Gurung, age 74-75, was weaving dokos in the sun. He called me over on my way down from the tower, above the last houses on the ridge. Up there, the path was guarded by a brace of playful strawhaired dogs, who let me pass to stumble around in the fallow terraces being overtaken by banmara and saplings, a few errant cardamom plants still flush. I couldn’t find a way up through the forest, so arranged myself on a slab of rock for a view and an orange, then strode down. The old man peered up from his work, cracked a grin at my Namaste, and began chatting. Soon, he offered me a tiny orange and we peeled them as we talked, mine devoured almost before he began popping the danas into his shrunken mouth, his wizened features and frail build an exemplar of ‘poor Gurung’, several iterations behind the lahurey sons I befriended at school.
Four green, fresh-looking dokos stood upright beyond him. It took him 4-5 hours to weave one, but his son can’t do it, and there’s no one to work the fields anymore, there’s only 25-30 houses left here. ‘I’m only staying for the maya of this place,’ he continues, ‘I’ll head down to Pokhara soon, where my son lives.’ Pahila ban phadera khet banayo, ahile khet sabai bajho chhan, he laughs. We cleared the forest to make fields, now the fields are all fallow. ‘Back when I returned from India, I was a hawaldar in the army, I bought bits and pieces of land everywhere. I have 4 bighas of land near Bhairahawa, the same Tharu has been farming it for 38 years, we just get the rice. I have about 25-30 ropanis of land around here. But there’s no one to farm it. Buy? No one will buy it either, never mind that there’s a road here.’
What will happen to his homestead once he leaves with his wife? It is already in decline; the forest is reclaiming what always belonged to it. What the roads carve out, I’m happy to see, the forest takes back.
Yesterday, when I saw the morning mist hovering over the hillocks around the river, I imagined a giant sitting on one of them, leaning down for a great spoonful of foggy soup. But other beasts were afoot. A troupe of chittering monkeys raided the homestead a dozen terraces above us, overturning pots, grabbing corn husks and whatever else they could get their paws on. K’s mother heaved herself up the terraces with a big stick to chase them away even as I stood stock-still in my pajamas, grinning at the sight, only belatedly joining in to chuck feeble stones at our cousins.
A Common Green Cuckoo lured me out almost as soon as I roused myself with its loud kui-koo/kui-koo in the orange grove. If mountain birds for the most part are not as ablaze with colour and as thick in the trees as those in the Tarai, they are still impressive, and quite easily spotted. They compensate very well for the relative lack of larger animals to spot from the trails. I’ve identified some three dozen birds in my time here, most not far from the cottage. Not bad for a rookie twitcher.
I went further than I had the first day up the mountain, past K’s old school in Pahelkachok. It’s rather modern and bland now, though the smaller settlements nesting along the ridges ribbing out from this plateau are more intriguing. I passed neatly kept but quiet, almost abandoned clusters of houses, some still thatched, left to ruin or demoted to stables while stone or concrete structures signalled the arrival of road and remittance, oft painted the same combination of green and brown. But once I left the last village behind and began to climb up a cattle trail, Dhaulagiri and the long ridge of Annapurna I now visible, the beat of a dhami’s drum began below.
Within a few minutes I’d reached a clearing obscured by vegetation where one might hope to look out to the north, leading into deep forest. A scratching in the undergrowth froze me in my tracks, and as I crept forward I heard a step down the slope, and another, then the bark of a deer, followed by that of a dog from the village. There wasn’t much more, certainly nothing I could track. In a couple of minutes more the odd refracted voices I hadn’t been able to place on my way up materialized from the forest; it sounded like a few women were on their way back from chopping fodder. Not more than fifty yards away, and approaching the clearing, or were they? They were loud enough, but not speaking Nepali. I didn’t want to surprise them. It’s one thing to explain to a passerby in a village, ‘Ghumeko’. What on earth would I be doing above habitation, in a clearing leading nowhere? A fanciful thought occurred to me – perhaps they were spirits, luring me in. Fanciful logic replied: then wouldn’t it have been a murmuring rather than a mundane conversation? The first thought snorted, no, of course it wouldn’t have sounded like you think a spirit should sound.
There are no spirits.
The sun’s out! One more time.
The buffalo was in luck today. Two old carrots and a perfectly white slab of cauliflower made its way to its wet maw, its purpled tongue curling irresistibly.
The animal has no issues urinating while it is eating, though I’ve known humans to do the same. I’ve consumed a couple of litres of buffalo milk in my 3-week sojourn here, and the source appears to be perfectly happy (as does her calf). But I am discomfited by the idea that she will be confined to this space for the duration of her productive life, inseminated as soon as she gives birth so as to keep the stream of goodness flowing. How different is this from industrial production, where a cow may be kept in a stall and impregnated year after year? The crucial difference is that the calf is not separated from the mother. A male calf is destined for the slaughterhouse, of course, but perhaps at an age that does not trouble the mother overly. The feed, too, is markedly better – a mix of forest leaves, hay, and kholey free of chemicals. And surely it benefits from the human touch.
An examination of the conscience, peeling away layer after layer, points inevitably towards veganism, if one is not to follow Han Kang’s titular vegetarian to her final, absurdist solution.
Tomorrow these hills, these orange trees in this chunky red soil and the white butterflies that track across them, will begin their transition to memory. I have no way of knowing if I will ever return, though I know that Pokhara and the terrain north of it is always open.
The process of memorializing these 20 days in Syangjha, one January of cold nights and warm days, has already begun. It will never quite fade, and the interplay of text and photos and a scattering of pencil-sketches will continue, as it does here, half a year later in a foreign land. But it probably doesn’t matter how good the translation of experience into memory, it’s enough for it to be there. To paraphrase Wordsworth: what once was, ever is.