Journal of the Rossignol Expedition to Yunnan
May 30, 2007
From the air we see layer upon layer of olive green mountains lightly stained with brown shadows, which on closer inspection turn into jagged rock pinnacles and winding gorges. Their shapes are oddly familiar, bringing to mind childhood outings into the Eastern Transvaal. Push says they remind him of the Sierras. Whatever. Rising in the distance are the crests of towering snow peaks, and then the glare becomes too much as the plane turns towards the sun.
Kunming is 14 hrs from Paris on the Gulfstream 550. Custom in-flight entertainment, but clients seem bored.
A spectacular two-day trip by Land Rover and then one day by mule track, crossing the raging Loti on a rope bridge with rotting planks. Clients swaying madly in the wind, with only the porters and their beasts stepping surefootedly above the brown water swirling with debris. All relieved to rejoin the main road with the jeeps and mess convoy.
Goal for June 6 is Lao Xun Pass at fourteen thousand.
Five clients. Grant Arvidsson, a Minnesota eye surgeon and mountaineer. Rossignol policy to have one client who doubles as medic. An Indian — Homa Sorabji. No messing with her — heavily-built skier who’s done Antarctica — but we kid around a lot. Rossignol could be set for life with infusion of her Tata family’s industrial funds. One New Yorker, an investment banker named Neville who is perpetually drenched in Deet. His better half Georgina is a long-haired Thai kathoey. Finally, Chih Lo, an actress from Shanghai.
So much work for so few. Clients paying thirty thousand apiece, door to door, except for Grant who gets a discount.
Push seems chastened with Kate in tow. She continues to play prima donna, stopping for snacks on the hour and quaffing all the best hooch at night. A pox on the tribe of artists! But their child Sophia is delightful. Has her mother’s stunning looks, and rides mules as if it’s her birthright.
Had to think carefully before taking on the two, but did it for dear Push. He hasn’t been sleeping well, but is carrying out his tasks with due diligence. Absolutely criminal of me to keep my old friend occupied with mundane logistic details. But he’s so damn good at it and logistics are what keep this ship afloat. Poor chap has been coughing a lot. Altitude doesn’t help.
Up early after bedding down luscious Lisu lass. Can’t resist these mountain beauties, all smiles and apple cheeks with strong hearts and legs. Quite a night in tent! No common lingo, but words entirely superfluous, language of love being universal. Wiser men would have conserved energy for climbs ;-)~.
Trail takes us past panicles of purple lilacs, in a bed of which rests a baby bharal. We stop for photos, as the creature blithely ignores us. Villages appear now and then, etched carefully into the hillside. Women are dark-haired with occasional green eyes, the young men attractive and androgynous. Children have the expected blisters and ringworm and sport perpetually runny noses, but are lively and curious. Push hands out candy to them, and occasionally, cigarettes.
At nightfall, terrific dinner for tired legs. Chef Marwan fussy as always, such a perfectionist. Antipasti include fried calamari rings and a mix of portobello mushroom and roasted peppers, served along with strips of smoked salmon with scamorza. Followed by a light fettucini with sliced shiitake mushrooms in a tomato-truffle sauce. Push wise to send Marwan and rest of kitchen crew ahead by road, crossing Loti at Hoi Pun and making short climb to camp.
After dessert (tiramisu), Grant gave overview of humanitarian work. Hundreds of cataracts removed from desperate eyes in Haiti and Rwanda. Fascinating talk, and a long one, given that on trail he insists on silence.
Air crystal clear, crisp morning, best thing before a climb. Old hunting path has petered away. Thank you, rockslides! But Li knows his trails. Took us off on an even narrower path that snaked its way towards the ridge, cutting a thin line through fir forests interrupted only by mountain streams. Water cold and clear and sweet, Sophia crouching down and lapping it up like deer.
Stopped for lunch in verdant meadow, sharing tree-stump with Chih Lo and Li. Chih asked Li how old he was. Fellow smiled with blackened teeth and said he had a grandchild. He counted four fingers. Three boys, and one girl, the latter the only one still living.
A bit winded this evening. The camp is at twelve thousand. Push had to sip oxygen. Grant is worried about him. Everyone else doing fine. Mother and daughter tough as nails.
Dinner marred by Naxi beggar boy crawling on stumps, clawing his way towards us like a crustacean, pleading for scraps. Porters tried shooing him away, but I got him propped up at the table with a napkin around his neck. Boy at first perplexed, able only to slobber, but then quickly began digging in, sucking and gnawing at the pâté. Murmurs from clients, and then Neville had the audacity to take a picture. Kate reached out and touched the boy’s arm; his eyes, glazed over and flecked with filth, did not seem to register, but he let it stay there as he gobbled and belched over his treat.
A hard climb ahead. Asked Marwan to shut bar down early.
Made Lao Xun Pass rather late, at 1500 hours. Peaks rising up into thin blue air, with sheer cliffs and dangling ice needles. Cloud formations whirling about the tops, rushing towards us. A drop of seven thousand feet into an abyss.
Sophia taken up all the way on shoulders of Dawa. Push nearly slipped, complaining of vertigo. Not enough Diamox? He used to be so trim and well-proportioned. But now he doesn’t seem to care.
Had to scramble down fast to get to camp. Homa was there first, waiting with tea. Absolutely amazing, quite the athlete. Like her a lot.
Dinner better than anything eaten in London lately, spicy lamb cutlets in a bed of lettuce garnished with tomatoes, avocados and olives.
Went into Push’s tent to see how he was doing. Lying down complaining of headache, family in attendance. Kate took off as soon as I came in, though not before glaring at me. Forever suspicious of the buddy from way back.
Sophia started crawling on Push’s back, and then, after his groaning protests, sat on his lap, waving her hand like a wand. He caught it – just like Paulette’s, he said. Reminding him of the afternoon when he and Paulette went boating at the Bois de Vincennes, sneaking off with her while on honeymoon with Kate in Paris. Kate had been dispatched to the Orangerie, at my advice. Can’t recall any such counsel, though he had called from Paris asking for Paulette’s number, saying he needed a break from Kate’s constant chatter.
Push said that Paulette was exquisite that afternoon, dressed in white, blue eyes under a straw hat, her long fingers trailing lightly among the reeds.
They were all lovely once, those snows of yesteryear. Poor pretty Paulette! Daughter of banker from Bolzano and Parisian society mistress, reared in an undistinguished residence in the 15e after her father died while climbing Kesselkogel in the Dolomites. First spotted her while waiting in line at a crêperie near the Musée d’Orsay, and immediately initiated conversation. She responded after carefully wiping icing sugar off her lips. Turned out she was cataloguing Jean Evariste’s works at the Bib Nationale. Walks in parks led to a long séance by a bridge and then an even warmer rendezvous at my pension; soon she was crossing the Channel with me, visiting our college. She sat quietly as Push and I paddled and punted her over murky water, a French-Tyrolean beauty sandwiched between a no-nonsense Cape Town Greek and the dark and frizzy-haired Francophile from Madras.
Lucky for him that my attention soon turned elsewhere.
Push loves his platonic trysts. Reluctant to take the leap, as if copulation is too coarse, too destructive of his alabaster image of feminine beauty. If only he would worry about what the woman feels. Beneath her calm, Paulette pulsed with currents of sublime energy, and she was often rambunctious in bed.
Day of rest, at clients’ request. Talked to Georgina. S/he trained as a nurse in Thailand and radiates gentleness and calm. Has been practicing vipasanna meditation for years, requiring utter silence for weeks at a time. Quickly cleanses mind of all dross.
Dinner snafu. Mess crew went straight on to Magan Lake, as Push failed to inform them that we had changed plans. I called Marwan on sat phone and asked him to stay put till we got there. Clients not amused at oily noodles with scraps of beef-like material that porters hurriedly acquired from nearby village of Liu Shao.
Homa spoke, rather valiantly after that meal, about Antarctica — not the desolate whiteout one imagines but a land of enormous active volcanoes and lakes of shimmering blue ice, teeming with penguins and pinnipeds. Global meltdown most evident there, krill in decline.
Drinks with her afterwards in tent, after promising her a feast tomorrow. She spoke quietly about her work, active in philanthropic causes such as animal rights, slum children, even the Mumbai port-a-john project. Father a car-collector who encouraged her to do anything as long as it helped others, never pushed her towards marriage. Discussed possibility of Antarctic itinerary. Definitely interested. Invited me to Mumbai at Tata expense. Will do!
Checked in on Push. Feeling much the same. Kate out getting sloshed with Neville in mess tent. In response to concerned probing, he pointed out that he had never questioned her fidelity, even though she was suspicious of his friendships. She had every right, he said, to seek out more chatty company.
First-class breakfast, thanks to adequate supplies of granola, bread, and Colombian coffee. Followed by all-day hike to Magan Lake. Glimpse of blue bharal drinking, horns perfectly curved. Directly above us, magnificent Mianzimu peak bathed in gold, replayed the rest of the afternoon on Neville’s viewfinder.
Chih Lo has discovered that Lisu word for photo also means ghost. This porn star (methinks) is quite the anthropologist! Tells me story of Lisu warrior who ventures abroad and returns generations later dressed in white and bearing powerful medicine. Revisits every four decades, roughly coinciding with appearance of comet Hoiko, meaning hope, in eastern sky.
Agh! Marwan down with stomach virus. No doubt a result of over-indulgence on the clients’ fare last night, too much even for a chef of his girth. Had to fish out Kate’s stores of Gerber spinach and apple mush that she had saved for Sophia. Offered it to clients as comfort food, but most preferred to remain hungry tonight. This is really Push’s fault, and it has to stop.
Picture excursion to Minyong Glacier. View spectacular, to die for, as Georgina put it, clicking away.
Glacier itself something of an anticlimax, a feminine white tongue stretching between two muddy knees. Gives off an eerie shine when catching the sun, as if ready to start sliding and causing havoc for everything in its path.
People have built a shrine below, with a crude Buddha-like petroglyph.
Marwan’s fever has gone, but the man is still tied to the privy. Push had in fact reminded me yesterday to truck in emergency supplies from Linjiang, but it was my call and I decided to save the big bucks and wing it. So tonight we feast on common man’s fare – pancake-like sustenance from the village, along with tofu and gravy. Clients livid. Homa giving dirty looks, and Neville hasn’t spoken to us at all.
Chih Lo, bless her soul, managed to give dinner talk on Chinese porn industry. Set to overtake U.S. in volume by 2014. Party has hand in it. Nothing filthy, just a type of aerobic exercise, an elaborate variation on kissing. Asked us to think of her as a dancer, taking on a pas-de-deux — or trois — with whoever glides onto the stage. Figured I should ask her for a private lesson.
Push bent double by coughing fit, and Kate had to help him out.
Grant decent enough to stop by later. Push should have acclimatized by now, at twelve thousand. But has gotten worse, severe headaches, shortness of breath, especially at night. Grant gave him dexamethasone, a steroid, but recommended taking him down two thousand feet right away.
Have heard this sort of thing before on trips. Asked him if it was strictly necessary. If you want him alive, Grant said.
Summoned Kate. Greeted me nervously, shielding breast unnecessarily with shawl. Sophia came running and hopped into my arms. Kate said Push smoked a pack a day for twenty years, so what could one expect? Best to bring him down, he’d feel better in no time. Easy for you to say, I told her. She tossed her head and glared back, defiant as ever. What does she want from me after all this time? An apology for being a true friend?
Grant asked to put him in a Gamow Bag. Push had insisted on Rossignol having one, right from the very first expedition, to Bolivia.
On the night of June 12, we were bivouacked down at ten thousand. Push, Grant, Georgina and I, along with two porters. Took us half a day to get down. Kate said she would remain in camp with Sophia. Tried to argue, but no use, since she was already sozzled. Can’t blame her; there isn’t much in the mess aside from drink.
Our man wasn’t doing much better, head visible through the plastic window of the Gamow. Grant unzipped it for an examination and afterwards shook his head. Wheezing heavily, slow pulse, even though b.p. was normal. I called for an airlift.
Camp a tiny strip of flat land overlooking abandoned mine. Couldn’t see much when we got in, but flowers on the spot where we pitched our tent, purple-stalked gentians. Took turns standing outside, with flares for the helicopter. Night sky clear with Virgo visible. Georgina by Push’s side, making sure our man stayed awake.
June 13: one long night. Constant contact on sat phone with Arthur, Sikorsky S-92 pilot — he didn’t have clearance to fly over tiny section of Tibet.
0400 by the time Chinese air traffic control allowed Arthur in. Front had arrived, with terrific howling winds, and damn S-92 couldn’t make it. Hopping mad.
At 0700, Push asked to be let out to pee. Had to prop him up, couldn’t even sit up on his own steam, ataxia having set in. Mind initially clear, but took his time responding to questions. Coughed up a white froth.
Held his hand, this friend whom I’d known since eighteen. Trying to pass on my strength, force my will into his body.
Soon after, he started to bleed from nose. Wiped him down. Grant gave him a shot and tried to put him back in bag, but he pushed it away. Whispered that he wasn’t sure if Sophia was his own. Reassured him that child looked and behaved exactly like him. She was going to be OK, I said. Remarkable girl, would almost certainly become athlete and adventurer. Even a bit of a flirt, I suppose.
Li made him ingest gentians, remedy for neurasthenic conditions in these parts. Soon cough subsided and our friend grew more alert and reverted to loquacious self. Made me promise I would be there for Kate. Said he had money squirreled away, some of it his maternal inheritance. Mother had left explicit instructions for Sophia. I said not to worry, trust Dmitri to take care of it all.
Told me Kate was the love of his life. Faithful to her for the most part, though he desired many others, including Paulette. I said appetites were fine, it was satisfying them that caused collateral damage.
He said Kate hurt him when she went off on boozing sprees, and her slurring when drunk was like a terrible goad. She was suspicious by nature, and the previous night seemed about to home in on something, but had stopped short. Now it was too late for her to do anything about it.
He asked what time he would be carried to the helicopter, and I told him it would be there any minute.
The S-92 came in as soon as weather cleared at 1100. Arthur carried out heroic landing on strip barely large enough to park a jeep. Started a small blizzard of dust around tent.
I kissed Push on his cheek, and he held my hand. Then they got him in and took off, but within half an hour, as we were en route to camp, got a call that it was all over.
A disaster for us all, and for Rossignol. Rest of itinerary abandoned. Clients will be charged only for two weeks, given the circumstances. Neville has nevertheless threatened to sue, and it looks like Grant, of all people, will join him. Rossignol will have hell to pay either way.
Kate, Sophia, and I took Dawa and two mules and made it up to road and waiting Land Rover. Drove down Xi Fuan highway all the way to hospital in Linxiang.
Didn’t think it was right for Kate to see him in morgue. Expecting the worst, sitting outside waiting with Sophia and Dawa. Spectacular canopy over Yunnan making for a night of celestial splendor. Meanwhile, child already howling. Damn.
Dawa explained that when a Naxi dies, none of his immediate relatives can approach. Corpse handled entirely by strangers. Relatives kept sequestered, while friends as well as enemies of departed expected to show respect by gashing themselves in thigh.
I should do that, and then have my eyes plucked out. Traitor Dmitri! But the living must quietly mark their losses, and soldier on.
Inderjeet Mani, who lives in Chiang Mai, Thailand, studied creative writing at the University of Pennsylvania (with Carlos Fuentes), at Bread Loaf (with Patricia Hampl), and at Harvard (with Paul Harding). His work has been published in a variety of venues, including 3:AM Magazine, Drunken Boat (Finalist for the Pan Literary Award, also one of Story South’s Million Writers Award Notable Stories of 2007), Slow Trains, Nimrod (Finalist for Katherine Anne Porter Prize), WIND (2003 Short Fiction Award), Word Riot, Asia Writes, Kimera, Plum Ruby Review, The Reston Review, the Deccan Herald, etc. He is also one of the people behind the Solpix lit-film web portal.