March 02, 2007

Tatopani: Beautiful yellow things

We'd been traveling across the Tibetan plateau for over two weeks. Tibet, the rugged roof of the world, is one of Earth's most fascinating destinations, but travel there is physically punishing. Tibet fills you up. And saps you utterly.

Our journey was ending, and everyone in our small tour group looked forward to crossing the border into Nepal. Kathmandu held the promise of hot food and hot water, and we dreamed of these. We'd savored our trek across Tibet, but we were spent.

Tibet had dealt us a deck of broken roads, landslides, rabid dogs, power failures, lengthy document checks by Chinese officials, hotel water that ran for two hours a day (you had to guess which two...), monotonous canned meals of mandarin oranges and stewed tomatoes pulled from cardboard boxes stashed in the back of our bus -- we'd suck down every drop of liquid to relieve our dehydration and take in every available gram of vitamin C. We couldn't count the times we'd helped our driver, Pinzo, with his shock of thick black hair and huge, patient eyes, push our vehicle out of mudholes and swollen streams and flooded roadbeds, and we couldn't remember the last time we'd bathed.

At Zhangmu, Tibet we made our way down a mountainside to the Friendship Bridge that links China to Nepal at Kodari. The hike was too steep for a few older members of our group, so they hired nimble-footed porters to carry them across the border on their backs.

Our itinerary called for a bus to meet us in Kodari and take us to a site where helicopters would ferry us over a severe, wide landslide area, completely impassible by road. Once over the slide, another bus would meet the helicopters and take us to Kathmandu. That was the plan.

Plans go awry. Our minimally competent guides had spent most of their energy on the journey squabbling amongst themselves and had forgotten to call the helicopter dispatch office to announce our arrival in Nepal and confirm the helicopter pick-up. We sat on a mountaintop near the landslide area for three cold hours, until the sun began to inch below the hills, waiting for choppers that the guides delayed admitting were never coming. We would end up walking over the slide the next day, a grueling, waterless, foodless debacle that would take 10 hours.

But first we had to find somewhere to spend the night. We were driven up a steep, cliffside dirt road to Tatopani, Nepal and left in the middle of the town's dusty main strip. Trekkers on Nepal's Annapurna climbing circuit use Tatopani as a rest stop, and when we arrived there weren't any rooms left in the town's few basic lodges. We were filthy, frustrated, parched, hungry and exhausted, and there was no room for us at the inn.

As we began wandering the main street, cursing our luck and wondering what to do with ourselves, the village of Tatopani embraced us.

First, a handful of farmers, herders and merchants offered us space in the lofts of their wooden houses. They led us to their homes, rolled crude mats onto straw-covered plank floors, and told us we were welcome.

After we'd all laid claim to a mat somewhere, we gathered in the street. We hadn't eaten since morning, so we made plans to buy and share whatever we could find on the shelves of Tatopani's few tiny shops.

As we prepared to fan out to find food, a man called to us from the stone stoop of a narrow wooden house. He opened his front door and windows wide and invited us all inside. The man had transformed his home into a makeshift restaurant, just for us.

As he showed us to tables and benches he'd set up in his front room, his wife was cooking something hot and wonderful-smelling in a kettle that hung on a tripod over a wood fire in the kitchen. Steam that hung heavy with a rich, vegetable aroma billowed from the pot. A few minutes after we sat down, the woman began delivering platters of deep yellow skinless, boiled potatoes and bowls of salt to each table.

Warm and butter-colored, with a velvety mouthfeel. Coated with chunky salt. Eaten with dirt- and sweat-creased fingers under the smoke-blackened rafters of a tiny house that clung to a Himalayan hillside. The Tatopani potatoes were the finest meal we'd ever had.

Sated to our bones, we thanked the family, left some rupees to help cover the cost of what had been shared with us, and moved outside. At this point, everyone in the village knew about us and our unplanned overnight stay, and a group of children, some with tiny brothers or sisters in bundles on their backs, waited in the street to inspect us.

One of our fellow travelers reached into his pack and produced a bag of yellow balloons. As he blew them up, the children moved closer, and their cautious curiosity turned to grins and laughter. Within a few minutes, nearly every kid in Tatopani held a yellow balloon.