Inderjeet Mani

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.

June 2

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.

June 4

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.

June 5

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.

June 6

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.

June 7

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.

June 8

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.

June 9

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.

June 10

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.

 June 14

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.

June 15

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.