The bus leaves at half-past six; I’m up at five after a sleepless night handling email and preparing to leave. Getting up this early gives me half a hangover – I have that dirty, sticky taste in my mouth. I wake Steve up to get the key; he’s none too happy, but braves the chilly gloom.
The light outside is that flat, pre-dawn grey; the earth and sky don’t meet in a horizon, but in Kathmandu’s miasma, trapped by the valley walls. We leave from Ratna Park; the dawn’s early light bids the hookers good night, but the station is still a tumor in the middle of the city. The dust swirls in the noise; the conductors are yelling out of habit, not necessity, while the drivers quietly pull down counterfeit Red Bull. My 600 rupees buys me a seat near the rear, but between the axles. I’m lucky enough not to get carsick, but it’s key to avoid those who do – it’s less vomit to clean off yourself later, and this one set of pants has to last me the rest of the month.
The motor shudders awake just as the first rays of sunlight come over the lip of the Kathmandu valley, bright and strong through the smog. We grind gears and lumber forward, though the languorous morning traffic; I stop caring and fall asleep. The bus points east, into the rising sun. The dust shaking out of the seat cushions, dodging the sunlight as it settles on me, my seatmates, and the garbage in the aisle, is the last thing I see.
Lunch is at Jiri. It’s a town, a proper town as far as these things go: a small bus plaza, and lunch, a more pacific Melamchi. I have a quick plate of potatoes before the next bus: a few hours to Bhamti Bhandar, and a few kilometers closer, a few hours I don’t have to walk. But I do get another ride on the roof. This one is with some intrepid engineering students; the guy is studying for his Master’s in civil engineering at Tribhuvan, and is on assignment to collect some interviews near Solokhumbu. If he saves by riding on the roof, he has more allowance left over for weed.
The guy eyes me through the dust and pot-haze.
“Where do you go, my brother? Everest?”
“No, Nangpa La. Tibet.”
“No porter, no guide?”
The dust is so thick for a second I can’t answer. I just pat my bulging backpack; the one he’s sitting on, careful to not castrate himself on the ice axe.
I know the pass is unsupported for five days or so; and I’m too poor to buy provisions up at Namche. My bag is 65 pounds; half of it food and fuel. The decade-old stove I Ebay’d last year worked OK above the Arctic circle; it better work this time. Carrying this stuff up for a week before starting to eat it will be a good way to break my legs in, if it dosen’t break me first.
“Brave.” He’s too deferential; his smirk says “stupid.” Still, he passes me the joint. I wag a finger and point up: “Altitude; no.”
Messner didn’t come in like this, not to mention Hillary: right hand latched onto the handle of a meter-wide copper pot lashed to the roof, left hand holding the camera, right foot under my ass and wedged against a chest of drawers, left foot banging against the bus window, riding in a haze of dust and Nepali-branded death sticks. The bus shakes around the curves; every few minutes, we drop like dominoes to avoid the low-hanging branches.
Four hours, and we’re in Bamti Bhandar. Four bus plazas, a few cheery houses interspersed amidst the trees and the lazy gurgle of a river make for a nice contrast to the steam and dust of the day. The lodge to stay at is the one run by the drunk Communists. The word to learn is “sati” – “comrade.” The beds are warm, and the plates are full of hot rice.
The sun goes down. The walking starts tomorrow.