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Thursday, May 17, 2007

Travelling #12: What’s in a Name?

Harsh and I are sitting in the common room of our guesthouse poring over the trekking map in front of us. On it are strange and exotic names that are gaining comfort on our tongues and are becoming attached to real places and things on our journey. We revel in our new knowledge; discussing with fellow travellers of going to Loboche versus Dzongla or whether we can see Makalu from Kala Pattar becomes as normal as discussing London or Central Park. Here in this world of valleys and villages, they are normal, everyday parts of our lives.

As we gain comfort in the sounds and meanings of the Sherpa, Nepali and Tibetan names, these words on the map become things of substance, framing our journey, demarking our time and enriching our stories. They become our map.

The blank edges of the map of our mind quickly gets filled. “Lake” becomes “Tso” and "Pass becomes “La”, giving a picture to the Cho La we are to cross in several days. “Tse” or “Ri”, meaning peak/mountain, becomes synonymous with high places such as Cholatse and Pumori. And to make matters easier, as is common with English names, many mountains, ridges and features use the cardinal coordinates or other physical things in their name. “Lho” is south, “Nup” is west, “Shar” is east and “Chang” is north. So the famous towering mountains we see surrounding Mt. Everest, 8501m Lhotse and 7861m Nuptse, simply become “South Mountain” and “West Mountain” respectively. I’ll let you figure out what the mountain Changtse translates as.

Mount Everest itself has many names by many peoples: Chomolungma, meaning “Mother of the Universe”; to the Tibetans, Sagamartha, meaning “Head of the Sky,” to the Nepali. The Chinese call it Zhūmùlǎngmǎ.

As we travel, our guide fills us in on the meaning of other words and names that add clarity to our travels. The Dudh Koshi river is called that because “Dudh” means milk and its glacier-fed waters are a milky-white; the village of Phortse Tenga is called that because “Tenga” means rapids, in similar fashion to the US and Canadian co-towns Niagara Falls; and the famous lookout you will climb if you do the trek, Kala Pattar, means “black rock” for reasons obvious when you see it.

From all this, the place we were in has meaning, a new language to annotate and describe it with. We climb Gokyo Ri and later over the Cho La. From Island Peak I look down at the ice-covered Imja Tse and up at Lhotse Shar towering above me. We pass Buddhist chortens and stupas on the trail, knowing we are to pass on their left. We debate with new friends whether the mountain in a photo is Cholatse or Arakam Tse. We meet travellers coming up from Pangboche or down from Locboche and know where those are.

I brought home my map as a precious souvenir from the trip, awash in all these names and many more. Places that now have meaning and memory and stories of my own. As I spin tales of my wanders and pokes through this area, these will be my narration.

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