Hunger in the Himalayan Foothills

He wanted my sleeping bag for the chicken, my knife for the eggs, my headlamp for the rice and my stove for the flour. When I looked at the goat, he only grinned, coercively. As he smiled, his brown, leathery face opened to reveal a cavity of broken, yellow teeth through which his tongue pushed coils of wet, black tobacco, like hot tar through a spaghetti strainer.
I’ve never wanted to know what he wanted for the goat.
A month ago, our group of a dozen schoolboys, two teachers and a doctor, had landed at Islamabad International in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, and headed north on buses into the Chitral and Hunsa territories that border Tajikistan to the west, China to the north, and India to the south.
We’d trekked for weeks through the rough and barren landscape of the country’s Northern Areas. We’d ridden yaks, their hairy, huffing masses parting seas of tiny green frogs. We’d been inside the blue cavities of glaciers and crossed the frigid rivers formed by their withdrawal, pissing on our own toes to warm them when we reached the other side. We’d reached Mingli Sar, a 6,050m mountain from the peak of which one can look north on a clear enough day and see K2—on a clearer day, and looking east, Everest.
These are the foothills of the Himalayas, where giant valleys, often more than a mile across, give sharp rise at their edges to looming, ancient rock that leans in, obscures the sun, and chokes the horizon. The valleys were scraped out by glaciers at the end of the last ice age, from mountains 70 million years in the making.
It’s astonishing, beautiful country, but nothing’s beautiful on a stomach this far past empty, your very frame shrinking upon it.
Two days into the return trip, we’d realised we were short on food—about seven days short—and would each have to spend the rest of the trek on a daily helping of one wet chapatti, three tinned mushrooms, a slice of cheese, and a scoop of sticky white rice.
It wasn’t enough, and I remember watching the weight fall off my companions’ bodies by the day, as it must have been falling from my own.
Food became the stuff of fantasy, and even hallucination. Rocks began to look like potatoes and the sweat pouring off people’s brows became condensation sliding down the sides of a cold can of cola. People’s fingers began to look more and more like sausages, and sometimes I could hear them sizzling in the midday heat.
Now here we were, trying to trade our camping equipment with a group of nomadic shepherds whose wandering path we’d been lucky enough to cross, their own malnourished hands now gesturing between our battered gear and their small herd of stringy livestock.
He wanted my sleeping bag for the chicken.
My sleeping bag? But what would I sleep in? Fuck sleep, I thought. Dead men don’t stay warm in anything—I wanted meat. So I handed over my Sierra series 860 with full synthetic down for a single, scrawny fowl. Others traded pots or stoves, sleeping mats or socks, walking away with handfuls of eggs or small sacks of flour for which they now had little means of preparation. I saw a foldout cutlery set go for a few strips of dried meat and a packet of cigarettes go for a cup of rice.
No one, though, felt they could afford the goat.
Once trading had closed, we set up a somewhat diminished camp, lit fires, and cooked our newfound food to the best of our already limited ability and newly restricted equipment. It would be three more days of hard walking and long, cold nights before we reached a transport tractor near the settlement of Shimshal that would take us to the road that led back to Rawalpindi. By the time we made it there, I’d lost more than 30lbs and known what it was like to be truly hungry.
Real hunger isn’t something often suffered by those in the West, especially by well-to-do prep-school boys from central England. When it’s relieved, even only for a short while, the relief is intense.
As I chewed on strands of undercooked chicken and grains of dry rice, I watched the sun disappear behind the foothills of the Himalayas, and for a short while, they looked beautiful.

M Whelan

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