Saturday, July 05, 2003

We’re just back from two weeks trekking and researching in the Darma Valley… looking at about two weeks until we pack up and head stateside for the rest of the year. And while we appear to be closing this chapter up in fine style, it’s true that the week before we undertook this backcountry adventure, up to the remote Himalayas beyond Dharchula, a trip of some 50 miles or so roundtrip, the signs were not so promising. It took a few days after we embarked to acclimatize to the high country, and the rigors of travel on the edges of the habitable world.

Before we even hit the trail, though, there was the recurrent bowel trouble that struck first me, and then C upon our return from Assam via Delhi. I’ve managed to keep most of the details of our intestinal distress out of this journal to date, but let’s just say that the old joke about “vegetarian salad shooters” doesn’t quite cover the indignities we’ve suffered of late. Fortunately, we haven’t had any puking, but I’ll never look at squat toilets or tissue paper the same after our time in India; it took three days apiece to recover from the mysterious malady, with me going through a course of antibiotics intended to treat the self-diagnosed giardia bug that I seem to have carried for the past few months.

Finally, finally then, we snuck out of the house with our backpacks loaded to find a ride to the mouth of the Darma Valley. This trip had been in the planning stages pretty much since we arrived on the Subcontinent – the Darma people, an indigenous Himalayan people, and their language in particular, were the main reason that we located to this far corner of the map in the first place. We’d been promised that their migration season, which spans the summer, would be a productive time to make recordings of songs and stories, and to observe the rituals of the Darma in their native surroundings.

For my part, I was also looking forward to making a last foray – for the time being – into the vast Himalayan wilderness. But before we could set boot to trail, we faced the problem of finding a jeep headed the right way. Soon we were loaded aboard one of the nefarious shared taxis headed to the bottom-most town of the Darma Valley, however, we still didn’t appear headed anywhere too quick. First one boy and then another would join our party of passengers, only to dash off at the last minute. The driver assured us the whole time that we’d be headed to the mountains in 10 minutes or so – this went on for two hours!

Next, the driver disappeared. He returned thereafter with a box containing two live chickens; grains and rice were loaded along with our packs onto the roof; a local butcher passed along a bloody package of goat meat to be delivered along the way. Then, with the afternoon waning, and clouds gathering over Dharchula, the engine finally turned over, belching a cloud of diesel, and we were on our way. “No worries,” we were reassured, once again. “You reach Sela today no problem.”

No problem, I smiled, of course, this will be a snatch. The last town in what’s considered the “lower part” of Darma Valley, Sela was to provide our first night’s accommodation. An outpost at a height of some 8,000 feet, the village was less than a third of the way to our final destination, Sipu, a speck of a town at nearly twice that altitude. But first we had to tackle this 5 mile hike, which we guessed would take at least three hours; no worries. Hadn’t we been repeatedly assured us that the trekking would be easy and we’d be safe in the valley by nightfall?

Well, we were starting to get deep into the valley by nightfall, but our safety was a bit dubious. Christina lugged her 30-pound pack like a trooper over hill and yon, skirting the raging Dhauli Ganga – a river soon to be dammed for hydroelectric needs in the plains states – while keeping her eyes averted from the thousand-foot cliffs that dropped off to our right. Small temples dotted the trail at strategic overlooks. Springs were marked by small shrines, decorated by ribbons that reminded me of Native American trail markings I’d seen in Montana.

After a couple of hours of hard walking, we descended towards the river at long last. With the temperature dropping and light fading as the darkness swallowed the alpenglow we found ourselves battered and exhausted in a clearing. From the hearth of a small, recently abandoned inn, a wisp of smoke tailed skyward. By all measures, it was time to call it quits.

With no response to my cries, I rearranged the wood in the small stove, and within a couple of breaths had sparked a fire. I was eyeing the nearby fields for a place to pitch our tent, while C busied herself unearthing dinner from the debris in my 50-pound pack – add notebooks and recording equipment to your standard camping fare and the weight piles up quick – when around the bend came a chipper young Darma fellow. He looked upon our project dubiously, and then offered to lead us onto Sela; a half-hour away along straight trails, we were reassured.

Given my previous Himalayan adventures – even that afternoon’s reassurances – I should have known better than to believe our newfound guide.

But C wanted to make time. So we snuffed the fire, repacked and shouldered our bags, and followed this optimist into the twilight. Two dim stream crossings, a second glacier pouring down the hill, a black forest, and an hour later, we spotted the light of the Indo-Tibetan Border Patrol check post through the trees. The ITBP has had jurisdiction over much of this area – official ordained a tribal area, protected on behalf of the Darma – since the Sino-Indian conflict of 1962… more on this history later. For this last part of the journey, I had simply wanted to close my eyes. Our guide held Christina’s hand to stable her, while I stumbled, miserable and ready to quit.

As we reached the small Sela market, my t-shirt was drenched, and the only thing driving my legs was willpower. We'd been walking for nearly five hours! My lungs wondered where the oxygen might have gone. In the lamplight, I could see our fellow passengers from the jeep, smirking. (Those bastards, who had reassured me that we’d make it “no problem,” I thought.) I began to quake with cold and dehydration, my system shutting down as I bonked bigtime. Somebody pressed a much-needed cup of hot tea into my hand. Thank goodness there were rooms at the inn; Christina shifted our belongings to a small alcove above the kitchen, and I retired without dinner, crashing on the floor, wrapped in my sleeping bag, praying that this fever was just mild hypothermia and that the morning would bring better tidings.

So much for the penultimate chapter of this great adventure.