Category Archives: Nepal

Porters & Pencils – The Trek Begins – Nepal – Chapter 4

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Route = Shivalaya (1784m) – Deurali Pass (2705m) – Bhandar (2104m) – Kinja (1600m)

Date = 06-07 March

It’s a pleasant 12°C as L cleans her teeth at an outdoor sink, spitting toothpaste into the dirt.  She can’t spit into the sink as their host is washing his trousers.

She watches Phurba tie rope around their 25kg kit bag, add his own much smaller backpack and then pick the whole thing up suspended from his head by a band of webbing.  He leans forward into the weight and lopes off, arms hanging down in front of him as counterbalance.  L is aghast.

L:  Angtu!  He can’t possibly carry all our stuff like that!  From a single point on his head!  Hanging by a piece of string!  We must do something!

Angtu looks a bit surprised.

L: I thought he’d have a rucksack.  We must get him a rucksack!

Angtu:  He doesn’t want one.  He prefers it like this.  All porters carry like this.

L:  Surely it would be so much better to spread the weight through his shoulders and hips.  What about his poor neck?  And his back?

Angtu shrugs and smiles politely.

L is mortified.  She wonders if she should turn herself in for human rights abuses.  She can’t bear to look at Phurba – at what she has done to him.  D steps in.

D:  It’s a tumpline.  People have used them to carry stuff, all over the world, for ever.

L:  But not any more!  There are modern alternatives.

D:  Patagonia uses them.

L:  The country?

D:  It’s not strictly a country.  Never mind.  The posh outdoor equipment company.  Their founder swears by them.

L:  Oh.

D:  Look – if you don’t know what you’re doing, and you need to carry a weight, you’re less likely to injure yourself with a backpack.  But if you do know what you’re doing, it’s a different story.

L:  What d’you mean?

D:  The general opinion is that it’s physically healthier and more efficient to use a tumpline.  You need to learn the proper posture and technique, and to build up your neck and back muscles.  But once you do, it’s better for you.

L:  How can it be?

D:  It spreads the weight evenly down the strongest bits of your body.  And it doesn’t squash your lungs.  And in an emergency it’s a lot easier to throw off than a rucksack.

They look ahead to where Phurba is stepping lightly and sure-footedly up the trail ahead of them, singing loudly to himself.

L:  So d’you think he knows what he’s doing?

D:  Looks that way to me.

Under a clear blue sky, they climb the hillside high above Shivalaya, the blue and silver of corrugated tin roofs glinting below their feet in the sunlight.  Strains of music from a wedding procession drift up from the village – the steady beat of drums and the unruly joy of a trumpet.  At one end of the river valley, in the far distance, snowy peaks rise up, beckoning.  As the gradient steepens, the terraced fields become ever smaller, like vertical ripples in a pond of vibrant green buckwheat.  Fruit trees are in blossom and the white petals of huge magnolias speckle the forested hillsides.

P1010959 (2)Angtu sets a steady, sustainable pace, leading the way, and L is relieved that she can keep up.  Phurba walks with them, and the two Nepalis chat and laugh their way up the hill.   They cross, and recross, and briefly follow the road.  The road is not actually a road, but a road-sized sandy ribbon, winding its way ever deeper into these hills, promising long-awaited access for remote villages to schools and doctors, markets and jobs.  For now though, the only people on it are builders and engineers and surveyors.  Those on foot keep away – there is too much dust and not enough shade – and no-one has a vehicle anyway.

On a grassy slope a handful of goats and cattle graze.  They pause at a tidy paved courtyard between low wooden buildings and venture inside.  The small room is blackened with smoke from an open fireplace which has no chimney.  On the walls hang tin mugs and gleaming pots & pans.  They sit at a bench and sip hot sweet tea.  Angtu acts as go-between as their hostess offers a taste of curd – a slightly fermented yoghurt – and a ricotta-type cow’s cheese she has made. P1010974 (2)

Angtu:  We have a very special type of cattle here in Nepal.  Very high milk yield.  Called Jersey Cow.

D:  Oh!  We have those!  They come from an island, just off the coast of Britain.  Called Jersey.

Angtu looks sceptical but says nothing.  Their hostess tells them they keep the cow for milk and goats for meat.  They grow buckwheat, maize, potatoes and vegetables.   They talk about the road.  Progress has come swiftly to this area – in just a few years they have also seen the arrival of hydroelectric power, satellite TV, and wifi.  Sanitation, though, remains simple.  Most dwellings have a separate wooden outhouse, with a hole in the floor, placed at the edge of a field.  The waste collects below and is then raked onto the field and used as fertiliser to grow potatoes.

They carry on, ever upwards, on stony paved and stepped paths, now through scrub woodland, to reach the dusty expanse of the Deurali Pass.    A few buildings and lodges huddle in the stiff breeze.

Angtu:  Left!  Go left!

D pauses, startled, looking for hazards in the path.

Angtu:  Look – you must pass to the left here.  Always clockwise.

At the centre of a clearing are five long double-sided mani walls, hundreds of metres of carved stone tablets inscribed with the sacred Buddhist mantra “om mani padme hum” or “hail to the jewel in the lotus”. P1010985 (2)

L:  Why left?

Angtu looks at her in astonishment, then explains patiently.

Angtu:  Because that is the path of the world, of course.  Everything in our universe moves clockwise.

L:  Of course.  Stupid.

D:  Stupid.

It’s time for lunch.  D&L sit determinedly in the sun, adding layers of clothing and eating dal bhat.  Angtu and Phurba head indoors to sit by the warmth of the kitchen hearth.

As they begin their long descent into the huge green Bhandar valley, D stops.

D:  Take a photo!

He stands excitedly beside a small lopsided signpost announcing “Way To Everest”.

L:  But it’s only day 1.  We’re over three weeks walk from Everest.

D:  I know, but we’re on our way.  The signpost says so!

Later Phurba stops and rests his load on a wall.  He points at a long low wooden shed with a tin roof, and says something to Angtu.

Angtu:  It’s a school.  For your pencils?

P1020003 (3)L&D have filled their pack with coloured pencils and crayons to give to village schools.  They walk across the dusty yard, where a number of tiny children in lilac shirts and dark trousers are emerging from the building.  They have crocs on their feet and a few are wearing ties.   L&D greet the three female teachers.  They rummage in their pack and hand out pencils and crayons as the kids crowd around them.  The teachers explain that the school has 25 pupils aged between 6 and 15, though today there are only 20.  They seem younger, none of them much older than 9.

The children are arranged into rows.  Despite the interruption it is time for their exercise class.  One of the older boys stands at the front and calls out numbers in English, one to nine, as he leads them through a series of star jumps, squats, toe-touches and stretches.  D joins in.  The children begin to stare, then giggle.  The caller proudly continues his routine and his audience follow, but all eyes are on D.  The teachers laugh out loud and get out their camera phones.  Angtu and Phurba look on, amused.

P1020023 (2)Bhandar is idyllic – a widely spaced scattering of attractive stone buildings on a gentle slope of green meadow.  It was badly damaged in the earthquake of 2015 and lots of rebuilding is going on.  The lodges around the central square are full of road-building engineers, so they continue to the very bottom of the village.  At their whitewashed, blue balconied lodge, sunshine streams through the windows.  The mattresses are very thin.  Downstairs there is one indoor squat loo, but no water has been provided.

L:  Angtu – umm…is there a bathroom?

Angtu:  Outside.  Toilet and also a shower.

On a paved terrace sit several girls, one braiding the long dark hair of another.  Beyond them is a tin outhouse with two doors.  In one is a squat loo, bucket of water and jug, and in the other a concrete floor and electric shower.  At a corner of the terrace is a concrete sink and cold water tap.  These facilities are shared between all guests and family members.  L has a shower.  The water is tepid and the overwhelming smell of pee from next-door makes her gag, but she is not to know that warm water from a shower head will become a rare treat indeed.

Having eaten dal bhat once today already, they opt for pasta for supper.  It’s a mistake.  They are still feeling their way.

***

The next morning they sit on the terrace in bright sunshine.  Angtu looks bleary.

Angtu:  I am so sorry.  Very bad night.

D:  Really?

Angtu:  Very drunk Nepali.  I think he was an engineer.  All that talking and singing and snoring.  Then he would stop.  Then he would start again.  This is not normal.

D:  We thought maybe it was always like that.  We just put in our earplugs.  We slept well.

P1020027 (2)They drop towards the river, peeling off layers of clothing as they go.  The day is warming up under a strong sun.  A track winds around the hillside, where deep red rhododendrons and pink-blossomed fruit trees are in flower.  They descend through wet, irrigated gullies of cardamom plants.  As they dash to dodge the sprinklers Angtu explains.

Angtu:  They need a lot of water!

L:  Do Nepalis use cardamom for cooking?

Angtu:  No – they sell it all to India and China for medicines.

D:  It’s one of the most expensive spices in the world.  I think only vanilla and saffron cost more.

L:  That’ll be why they don’t use it themselves – it’s worth too much.  Like saffron in Italy – it’s quite difficult to even buy it where it’s grown – it’s all carefully packaged up and exported.

Further on, they spot a toddler clinging to a rock built into a stone wall on the steep bank above the path.  She appears to be alone.  Angtu speaks to the little girl.  She replies eloquently, with great dignity.  Angtu scrambles up the bank, carefully picks up the child, gives her a gentle pinch on the cheek, and lifts her over the wall.  He puts her down, she turns and thanks him and scampers off as her mother appears.  She had been looking for a good piece of firewood and got stuck – unable to either get back up the wall or down the steep bank.

They reach the village of Kinja at lunchtime and eat dal bhat outside a smart-looking guest-house.  A sign boasts “hot shower” and “attached bathroom”.  That does it – they decide to go no further.

Angtu chooses their room, which needs cleaning.  He attempts to rally the chatty young hostesses, then does it himself with a dustpan and brush and Phurba.

The hostesses prove to be better at sign-writing than provision of service.  The “attached” bathroom is attached to the building, not the bedroom.  It’s downstairs, with a squat toilet and shared with the rest of the building’s inhabitants.  “Hot shower” translates to “washing up bowl of boiling water into which you add cold water from the loo flush bucket and stand in a shower tray next to the squat loo”.   D&L bathe in the washing up bowl and are careful not to step barefoot into the adjacent squat toilet bowl.

P1020054 (2)Kinja sits where a confluence of rivers force a widening of the valley floor.  There are enormous boulders strewn about, possibly ancient remnants of glacial moraine, as they do not appear to have tumbled from the mountainsides above. The village was badly shaken by the earthquake and there is plenty of construction taking place.  A couple of boys clatter past, to and fro along the neatly paved alleys, with wheelbarrows full of building stone.   The end wall has fallen off a house nearby, and another is crumbling and abandoned, used only to tether a goat from a doorpost.  Laundry is spread out on a woodpile to dry, and a solar kettle reflects the sunlight from its enormous mirrored dish to a blackened pot suspended at its centre.  Flowering nasturtiums crawl over a low wall and a cactus tree provides an incongruous foreground for the distant snows beyond.

They are now drinking local water – sourced from it hardly matters where.  D first carefully squeezes it through a filter and then adds purification tabs for good measure.  It is failsafe and tastes no worse than London water.   Over the course of their trek it will stop them needing to buy and dispose of around 120 plastic bottles of water.

As the afternoon wears on, L begins to feel feverish and cold.  She wraps up in excessive layers of clothing and has porridge for supper.

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The Way to Shivalaya – Nepal – Chapter 3

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Several months earlier…

L:  Did you know that Lukla is known as the world’s most dangerous airport?

D: Don’t you say that about every airport we go to?

L:  But this time I mean it.  The internet says so.

D:  Oh, well then.  Everything’s true on the internet.

P1030686 (2)L:  The runway is ludicrously short, with a massive cliff to fall off at one end and an enormous mountain to bump into at the other.   And no runway lights.  And high winds.  And thick cloud.

D:  (tapping phone)  I’m sure it’s fine.  Look – Lesotho’s runway is shorter.  And so is Shetland’s.

L:  But we’re not going to Africa or Scotland.  We’re going to Nepal.

D:  Fair point.  (tapping phone) Lukla’s also one of the world’s busiest domestic airports – they have up to 50-60 flights a day landing or taking off.  So statistically, the chances of a mishap are really very small.

L:  Humph.

D:  It’ll be fine.

L:  I think we’ll walk.

*****

Back to the present….

L:  I’m so glad we’re doing it this way.

D:  10 hours in a bus and a week on foot to avoid a 40 minute flight?  Makes no sense whatsoever, but I’m delighted with all the extra walking.

L:  Oh no – we can’t go by bus.

D:  No?

L:  No.  All the buses crash.

D:  Surely not all of them?

L:  And everyone will puke on us.

D:  Of course they will.  And you know this how?

L:  The internet said so.

D:  Ah yes, the internet.

L:  The blogs say the journey is a terrible ordeal and everyone gets car-sick and the bottom of the ravines are littered with dead buses.

D:  You really shouldn’t read….

L: And statistically the bus to Jiri is actually MORE likely to kill us than the flight to Lukla.

D:  So are we back to flying?

L:  No way.  We’re going by jeep.

D:  Sounds safe.  If expensive.

L:  We just need to book one with brakes.  That explorer fellow Levison Wood was in a jeep with no brakes.  It drove off a cliff and fell 150 metres into a ravine.

D:  Was he alright?

L:  Not really.  I think he broke his arm rather badly.

L sends text:  Good morning Angtu – could you please make sure our jeep is a lovely new one with good brakes?

Angtu sends text: OK sir. Japanese.

D:  So will the jeep drop us in Jiri or take us all the way to Shivalaya, so we save half a day of walking?

L:  It depends.  The road to Shivalaya’s supposed to be the worst bit.

L sends text:  Hello again Angtu – we would be very happy to drive to Jiri and stay the night there if it is easier than Shivalaya.  We are happy to walk from Jiri.

Angtu sends text:  Ok sir.

D:  Stop worrying about the jeep and the road.  Anyway we’ll be at the mercy of the driver.

L:   Crap.  I hadn’t even thought of that.  What sort of drivers are Nepalis?

L sends text: We would like the drive tomorrow to be calm and safe.  Please could you ask the driver to go nice and slowly and to stop the car if he needs to use his cellphone?

Angtu sends text: Ok sir.

D:  For pity’s sake – will you stop hassling the poor man?

L:  Sorry.  Shall I text Angtu to say sorry?

D:  No.  Leave him alone.

*****

They get out all their clothing and equipment, and pile it on the bed.  Then they look at the waterproof bag that Angtu has given them.  And then back at the bed.  It’s never going to fit.  They put aside some stuff – a sleeping mat, a pair of thin sleeping bags, some extra fleece tops and trousers.  They add their bulky 4-season sleeping bags and new thick down jackets.

L:  We’ve just added more than we’ve taken away.

Next, clothes are pared to a minimum – compromising on hygiene rather than warmth.  A pair of trainers is discarded.  They are triumphant.  It fits.  They weigh the bag.

L:  27 kilos.  That’s too much.

D:  I thought we were told 30.

L:  We were, but we can’t give a porter 27 kilos of our gear to carry, plus his own stuff.  Remember it nearly killed us just carrying it across the train station.

They identify the heavy things and reluctantly reject spare batteries, bottles of toiletries, insect repellent, wetwipes.  They buy a Kindle version of the guidebook and unpack the paperback.

L:  We’ve now got no changes of clothes and nothing to wash with.

D:  Just weigh the bag.

L:  25 kilos – that’s better.  It’s still stupidly heavy though.  55 lbs.  And his own pack as well.

D:  How d’you know the limits?

L:  The International Porters Protection Group has a website.  It says how much a porter should carry and reminds people to check that any porters they hire should have proper clothing, food and shelter for the conditions.  And insurance.

D:  Doesn’t that happen anyway if you book through a tour operator?

L:  You’d hope so, but not always, no.  In 2014 there was a gigantic snowstorm which trapped lots of trekkers in Annapurna.  Some of those who died were porters and guides who just didn’t have the right clothing to keep warm.  Or any insurance to be evacuated.  And until recently trekking porters were sleeping in caves and wearing sandals or even going barefoot – in all weathers including snow.

D:  But our guys are sorted?

L:  Yes – Angtu says that both he and the porter have the clothes and kit they need, and I’ve checked that what we’re paying covers food and accommodation and insurance for both of them.  Which it does.

***

The next morning, a gleaming silver and maroon 4×4 awaits them at the foot of the hotel steps.  Angtu stands beside it looking cheerful.  He is wearing new leather walking boots and, despite the balmy 24 degrees, a fleece hat.

Angtu:  Sorry sir.  Indian jeep, not Japanese.

D:  Morning, Angtu!  Looks great to me.  Nice boots!

Angtu: A client gave them to me.  One size too small I think, but very good!

L&D pause to think about walking for a month in uncomfortable boots.  Angtu walks for a living.  They decide not to interfere.

L:  Has the car got brakes?

Angtu grins, removes his hat and rubs his head.

Angtu:  Yes mam.  Good brakes.

D&L have prepared for their journey by popping a Nepalese anti-nausea pill each, taken the night before.  This has the effect not only of successfully staving off all symptoms of car-sickness but also rendering them both curiously relaxed for a full 24 hours.  They wonder what’s in it.

They set off promptly at 7am and drive through the haze of a Kathmandu morning.  Dogs and the occasional monkey wander the pavements, keeping company with brightly clad women in pristine saris of vivid pinks and oranges, while the traffic swerves around cavernous potholes, street-seller carts, and at intervals a thoughtful-looking cow.  The streets throw up dust and are edged with rubble and litter and puddles and mud and bricks and sand and rebar.  Taxis, mopeds, buses and lorries shift lanes gracefully, without the aid of line markings, and without antagonism.  There are few car horns, but at the junctions the shrill blasts of the policemen’s whistle keep the traffic flowing.  Through it all weave bicycles, pushed – not ridden, heavily laden with fruit and vegetables, bundles of laundry, recycling waste, and even furniture.

They stop in a gateway on the way out of town.

Angtu:  Here we meet our porter.

L and D shuffle along the back seat to make room.  Phurba gets into the boot with the luggage.

L:  Oh!  Wouldn’t he like to sit…um…?

Angtu:  No – he’s comfortable there.  He will sleep.

They lean across into the back of the jeep and shake hands, introducing themselves.

D&L:  Namaste!

Phurba:  Namaste.  Phurba Sherpa.

Phurba smiles, showing bright white teeth and fine bone structure in an unlined face, ties his floppy hair into a topknot, plugs his earphones into his ears, fiddles with his smart-phone, and settles down comfortably amongst the bags.

Angtu:  Phurba means Thursday.  He was born on a Thursday.  He’s Sherpa – very strong.

L is relieved that the burden of porterage has fallen to someone young and fit.

As they leave the Kathmandu Valley, the road is mostly good, mostly tarmac, and mostly along river valley floors.  Low mountains rise, dry and dusty, from swathes of lush green crops – buckwheat or rice.  For an hour or so they climb and then contour the tortuous ridges high above a steep sided river valley, the road now dirt beneath their wheels.  Lorries swing wide around corners into their path, but somehow there is room for everyone.  There are no barriers, but concrete posts are set at intervals along the vertiginous outer edge to marginally lessen the chances of an unwanted plummet.   They see no dead buses at the bottom of ravines.  Not one.  It’s a surprisingly stress-free journey.  Or it could be the pills.

Back on flatter ground, they stop for lunch.  The little restaurant has a balcony overlooking a cultivated valley, a river winding through it.  In the foreground is a haystack up a tree, well off the ground.   They are served dal bhat – the Nepali staple of rice with curried potatoes, green vegetables and lentil soup.  They have asked for one portion between them.P1010989 (2)

L:  I’m really not hungry.

D:  Try some.

L:  OK.  Just one taste.  Oh – that’s delicious!  Maybe I am hungry after all.

Angtu, Phurba and the driver sit at a separate table.  Angtu tucks in to his lunch with enthusiasm, eating with his hand, and pouring water into his mouth from a shared plastic jug.  Phurba uses a fork.   Angtu grins over at them.

Angtu:  Good?

D:  Very good.

Angtu:  Any more?

D:  No more.  Thank you.

Angtu has a vast second helping of everything.

The route is uphill for much of the afternoon.  The driver pauses, adjusts his gears, and continues.  He stops again, pumps the clutch, and carries on.  Eventually the jeep comes to rest.  They lift the bonnet and peer inside.  Angtu explains.

Angtu:  Very hot.

The clutch is overheated, or overworked.  The jeep is slipping out of gear or sticking in gear.  They wait for things to cool down a bit, and then set off again.  It gets no better.

D:  My old Escort did this.  Angtu – try turning on all the heating full blast, and it’ll cool the engine.

Angtu and the driver politely ignore this suggestion and they limp onwards with frequent pauses.

D:  Really Angtu, it’s worth a try.

They nod and do nothing.  They wait for the car to cool down enough to get back into gear.  D leans forward through the gap between the front seats.

D:  Just give it a go.  Look – turn on all the heating, as high as it’ll go, and open all the vents.

There is a chorus of dismay as Angtu and the driver are hit full in the face by a cloud of hot dust.

D:  And maybe open the windows.

The jeep crunches into gear and moves forward.  It continues.  The plan seems to be working, though those in the front are less than happy.  Fortunately, fifteen minutes later, they reach the top of the hill.  The heating is turned off and the vehicle coasts all the way down the other side in neutral.

L:  I’m glad it’s got brakes.

After 8 hours and 137 miles, they reach Jiri.  They have averaged 17 miles an hour.  To their surprise the driver seems happy to continue to Shivalaya.  The jeep behaves perfectly, but their progress slows further.  They descend steeply on a very rough dirt road, thankfully dry at this time of year, but despite picking their way carefully over the ridges and ruts, hit the underside of the vehicle several times.  At the bottom they cross the river, on the other side of which the track is suddenly beautifully paved with stone cobbles – a painstakingly constructed Wizard-of-Oz-like yellow brick road undulating beside the river to the village of Shivalaya.   They arrive as the sun slips behind the mountain, blanketing the village in shade.  The final 10 miles have taken them an hour.

Shivalaya sits at 1784m altitude on a patch of flat land next to a shallow rocky river.  Terraces are carved into the wooded hillsides above, and the valley floor is a patchwork of cultivated plots beside the water.  Several shops and half a dozen lodges provide accommodation and food, though business is slow – tonight they’re sharing half a dozen trekkers between them.  Angtu chooses a lodge.  D&L take one room, Angtu & Phurba another.

L:  What about the driver?

Angtu:  He’s going back to Kathmandu.

L:  What – now?  But it’s getting dark and the car’s broken and he’s been driving all day!

Angtu:  He’ll stop somewhere and sleep.  Somewhere with a mechanic.

P1000311 (2)Their tiny room has plywood walls and ceiling, two narrow single beds – each with a foam mattress, bedcover, duvet and pillow – and a padlock on the door.  There is a bare light bulb and curtains on the windows.  There is a plug socket in the room, and astonishingly, wifi, though neither of these actually work.  This is the template for pretty much all their accommodation throughout the month-long trek.

At the end of the corridor is a loo.  The cistern is broken, but beside the toilet is a large bucket of water and a jug.  Although L describes this in her journal as “one v. basic loo”, avoiding the need to squat over a hole in the floor is in fact a luxury rarely to be repeated.

In the dining room they drink tea and peruse the menu.  They will soon recognise that almost identical choices are offered by all the lodges and tea-houses along their route.  There are pancakes and porridge and chapati bread and eggs.  There are soups and omelettes.  There is dal bhat, curry and fried rice, pasta, pizza, spring rolls, and momos – Nepali style dumplings stuffed with vegetables or meat, served boiled or deep fried.  It’s a mind-boggling array provided by even the remotest places – often many days walk from the nearest road – and from kitchens which usually cook just two hearty meals of dal bhat every day.  However it’s a carb-heavy list, with dollops of protein, and precious little fruit & veg.

D:  Are you warm enough?

L:  Yes thank you.  Why?

D:  You seem to be wearing absolutely all your clothes.  Your thermals and your fleece and your slipper socks.

L:  We’re in the mountains!

D:  But it’s 19°C.

L:  Oh.

D:  It’s going to get quite a lot colder.

L:  Oh.  Is it bed time yet?

D:  Definitely.

L:  What time is it?

D:  Half past seven.

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Impressions of Kathmandu – Nepal – Chapter 2

 

 

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They like the Hotel Shanker.  From the grand white wedding-cake façade a flight of broad steps leads up to a gleaming gallery of double height windows and crystal chandeliers.  Beyond this, things become more comfortable and somewhat idiosyncratic.  Past the Kunti Bar, the dark carpeted corridor is scented with spices of Nepali and Indian cuisine wafting up from the kitchens below.  Of the two tiny lifts, one demands a swift dash to enter/exit – dawdlers are sharply nipped by the fiercely closing doors.  Curiously, the floors are numbered not 0-3, but 4-7.  Their room is spotlessly clean and blissfully comfortable.  Faint sounds of a trumpet and shouting drift up from the army barracks nearby.

L:  Whatever’s that squeaky noise?

D:  Shaggers.

L:  Yuck.  Next door?

D:  On the windowsill.

L:   On the…?  Oh – parakeets.  Sweet!

They like their guide.  Angtu Rai is a cheerful, smiling Nepali of about their own age.  He is friendly but exquisitely polite and they are startled to find themselves addressed as sir and mam.  They introduce themselves quickly to put a stop to this formality.  They chat.  He tells them that he lives in Kathmandu with his wife and son, but his parents are in a hill-village not far from their trekking route.  He is nearing completion of a Masters Degree in Sociology & Political Science.  He has led treks all over Nepal including their route many times.  Competent and organised, Angtu describes the trek to them.  D listens attentively, while L takes longer to tune in to the sounds of her mother-tongue shaped by a Nepali mouth.   

L:  I’m surprised the first week will be so busy.  I thought there’d be hardly any other trekkers. 

D looks at her with puzzlement.

Angtu nods with concern. 

Angtu: Yes mam, the lodges in the first week will be busy.  Very very busy.

L:  Right.  Very busy.

D:  Not BUSY.  BASIC!  Angtu’s saying that the accommodation for the first week will be very BASIC.

L:  Oh!  Oh dear – that’s not the same thing at all.  But we will mostly get our own bathroom, won’t we?

Angtu winces behind his smile.

Angtu:  Very basic.

He leaves them with a large waterproof kit bag in which to pack all their gear.  And two bulky 4-season sleeping bags. 

D:  Thank you Angtu.

Angtu: Goodbye sir.

D: Angtu?  Do please call us D and L.  Please.

Angtu:  Thank you sir.  See you in two days, with the jeep.  Here at 7am.

*****

Today is Holi – the Hindu festival of colours – and as the day draws to an end, in the streets roam little same-gender groups of teenagers, boys with boys and girls with girls, heading home and cheerfully wishing passers by “Happy Holi!”  They all wear white tee-shirts and are daubing themselves and others with smudges of paint powder, applied to faces and clothing, every colour of the rainbow.  The mood is light and, apart from 3 dizzy-looking German boys, seemingly alcohol-free.   As D&L round a corner, a girl calls out “Happy Holi!” and delicately touches their faces with cherry-red powder.  They feel proud – they’re now a part of something, celebrating love, the triumph of good over evil, and the arrival of spring.  It’s their first day in Nepal and it feels auspicious.  They inspect each other.

D:  What does it look like?

L:  Ah.  Sort of a graze.  As though you might have fallen off your bike.  What about me?

D:  Umm.  Sort of a bruise.  Like you’ve walked into a door.

L:  Oh.

D: Oh.

They happily leave their powder wounds in place, confident it will bring them luck.

*****

P1000297 (2)They wander the maze of narrow mostly-pedestrian lanes of Kathmandu’s Thamel district.  Many are unpaved, dusty, with rubble-filled potholes.  Crumbling buildings reach 4 stories overhead, festooned with electric cables which meet in clumps of aerial spaghetti at every junction.   Dust hangs heavy in the air, mingling with the aroma of spices and incense.  They pop into The North Face and inspect a deliciously warm looking down jacket.  They peer at the price tag.

L:  Yikes – can that really say USD $750?

They scuttle out again.  There are dozens more tiny shops selling high-tech trekking gear, well known “brands” at a fraction of the price. 

D:  That’s more like it. 

They add to their luggage mountain: a waterproof hold-all for $11 and thick down jackets for $50 each, both emblazoned with globally respected brand names.   They regret that they are already so well equipped and have no reason to buy more.  They resist the call of temptingly priced clothing, pashminas, crafts and souvenirs.  Street sellers offer lip balm and wooden flutes.  Stray dogs lie in the shade.  There are a few Westerners but the majority of those strolling the lanes seem local. 

In a store no bigger than a garden shed, they buy a Nepali sim card for their phone – passing their handset helplessly to a slightly built youth who briskly sets it up whilst conversing with two other customers and sitting on his burlier colleague’s lap, giggling.   A pharmacy the size of a wardrobe supplies them with water purification tabs, anti-nausea pills and Diamox for altitude sickness.   At every encounter they are assisted by Nepalis who are polite and friendly and helpful – seemingly simply for the sake of being polite and friendly and helpful.  In this country there appears to be no piercing interest directed at foreign visitors, no superficial deference, no pushy hard-sell or cold shoulder or seductive flattery. 

They spot a cashpoint on the other side of a main road and pause at the kerb to cross.   Lanes of traffic are fluid – sometimes four, or five, or six.  Coaches, buses and minivans of all sizes overflow with people squashed against the windows and hanging out of the doors.  In the middle of every major street junction stands a raised one-man bandstand, towards which flows maybe 20 lanes of traffic from four or more directions.  All this is controlled by one frenetic police officer, hyperventilating into a whistle, doing the work of multiple sets of traffic lights.   Sometimes the officer works protected within the bandstand, but more often they wade bravely into the thick of the traffic, gesticulating assertively and delivering sharp and urgent blasts on their whistle.   L&D wait patiently.  They are unsure of the rules – is this a country which drives around, or straight over, pedestrians weaving between vehicles?  They shamelessly tuck in behind locals in the know, using children and the elderly as human shields.  They reach the cashpoint where their request for USD $250 is issued as a wad of Nepali Rupees a full centimetre thick. 

The city is awhirl with dust.  Dust rises from unpaved roads and the post-earthquake rubble of buildings.  Dust hangs over the city, filling noses and ears and lungs, dusting faces and hands with a fine layer of ochre.  The locals wear face masks.  L starts to cough. 

***

Kathmandu’s Durbar Square is a hive of courtyards, squares, temples and shrines to Hindu deities, teeming with locals, tourists and pigeons.  Damaged by the earthquake of 2015, some of the soft brick pagoda-style buildings are supported by scaffolding, while a few are gone forever.  Ancient wooden beams and window frames are intricately carved and the outer edges of the deep eaves ripple with red fabric frills.  It is busy and beautiful.  Guides sell their knowledge to sightseers, a Sadhu priest sells his face to photographers, and a tiny woman presses irresistible home-made cloth bags into wealthier palms.  P1000265 (3)Not all are there for the tourists though.  Two women squat in the sun washing roof tiles whilst a group of men rest idly by.  A monkey ambles past chewing a piece of fruit.  A tiny boy dances amidst a rising cloud of pigeons.  A youth dozes in a temple doorway and an elderly gentleman pauses to read his newspaper, the roof above his head providing welcome shade and supported by beams carved with graphic sexual contortions.   In one peaceful courtyard, the blank windows hide the Royal Kumari – a little girl worshipped by Hindus as the Living Goddess of Nepal.  It is believed the goddess within her leaves at puberty, at which time she will be sent home and replaced with another.

***

Most of the visitors to the Narayanhiti Palace Museum are Nepali.  They come to wander through the 20th century art-deco residence of the country’s former royal family, its hunting trophies of stuffed tigers and bear pelts preserved today with a sprinkling of mothballs.  On leaving the interior of the palace, visitors are funnelled into a dilapidated garden with unkempt flowerbeds and buildings either half finished or half demolished. 

L:  Oh my goodness – d’you know where we are?

Awareness dawns that this is the site of the massacre of ten members of the royal family in June 2001.  There is no plaque or statue or memorial or shrine.  Just a few straggling visitors and some bullet-pocked plaster.  There are signs showing who was shot where. 

D:  It was the crown prince wasn’t it?  Because his family disapproved of the woman he wanted to marry?

L:  But he shot his parents.  Nepalis say he could never have shot his parents.

D:  Well he did, didn’t he?  Along with other members of his family.

L:  Or did he?  That evening he got a bit wasted and was taken to bed to sleep it off.  He then apparently got up again, got dressed, and returned clear-headed to the party, shot everyone and then shot himself, being right handed, in the left temple, possibly twice.  Does that sound right to you?

D:  Errr…

L:  And his uncle, who then took over as King, was coincidentally not there, and the only people at the party who survived were this uncle’s wife, son and daughter.

D:  Who did it then?

L:  Some say India.  Or the CIA.

P1000263 (3)

Overburdened, Overtired & Overtipped – Nepal – Chapter 1

P1030874 (2)

The question arises on the way to the airport.  They find themselves changing trains, alighting at platform 1, with minutes to spare to reach platform 24 and their onward connection.  The two of them have packed carefully for their 30 day trek to the world’s highest mountain.  They have done their research and are prepared for all eventualities.  Except one.

L – Stop.  I can’t.  I’m breaking.

D – You’re not breaking.  You’re fine.

L – We need a trolley.

D – There are no trolleys.  We’ve got to carry it.

Each slung about with rucksacks and duffel bags and day packs, shoulders straining and knees buckling, they make their way uncomfortably along the underpass, breathing hard.  They stop and look up.

L – I’ll never make it.  You’ll have to go without me.

D – It’s a flight of steps.  You’ll make it.  And anyway, I can’t just leave you here for a month, you’ll get in everyone’s way.  Come on – we’ve got 2 minutes.

Red faced, panting and sweating, they stagger upwards, twenty-two steps and two more big ones onto the train.  They set down their loads and regard the pile with dismay.

L – How is one porter going to carry all this up and down mountains for a month when the two of us can’t heave it up a flight of stairs between us?

D:  Not all of it’s going up the mountain.   We’ll leave a bag at the hotel.  With the snorkels.

L:  Yes.  The snorkels.

D:  And maybe some other stuff.

L – But how am I going to climb Mount Everest when apparently I can’t climb the stairs?

D – We’re only going to the bottom.  Not the top.

L – Still.  I thought I was fit.  I’ve been for four runs!

D – In three years.

L – Oh.

*****

Doha Airport.  2am.  Waiting for flight connection to Kathmandu.

L – It must be a deliberate tactic to stop people falling asleep.  So as not to miss their planes.  Or make the place look untidy.

D – What must be?

L – All the bright lighting and uncomfortable benches and super-annoying armrests so you can’t spread out.

D – I’m trying to sleep.

L falls quiet.  D shuts his eyes.

L – Don’t you think that economy long haul flying must be just like childbirth?

D – WHAT?  How would watching films while having meals brought to you possibly resemble childbirth?

L – You know what I mean.

D – I truly don’t.

L – It’s appallingly uncomfortable but no-one really talks about it, and when you’re experiencing it you swear never to go through it again, and then you forget, and a year or two later there you are again.  Just like childbirth.

D – Right.  No.  No, I think it’s probably nothing like childbirth.

L – I’m going to ask some people.

D – You do that.  I’m asleep.

*****

Kathmandu airport at 10am is calm.  There’s no fuss.  Getting their visas is quick and easy.  Retrieving their luggage takes longer.  The baggage carousel is busy with Nepalis collecting imported TVs and suitcase-sized bundles wrapped in intricate webs of knotted rope.

Outside, throngs of people stand in groups – women in brightly coloured saris or tunics and scarves and loose trousers, beautiful splashes of crimson and marigold and fuchsia, and men wearing close fitting topi hats of orange patterned fabric.

L:  Why has everyone got a red smudge on their foreheads?  A tilaka is it?  Isn’t that Hindu?  I thought the Himalayas were mostly Buddhist.

D:  They are – in Sherpa and Tibetan areas.  But we’re not in the Himalayas.  There’s a lot more of Nepal than the mountains.

L:  I know, but…

D:  The country’s something like 80% Hindu and only 10% Buddhist.

L: But Buddha was born in Nepal.

D:  Yes, and then Buddhism spread outwards from here, including over the mountains and into Tibet, but since then, Hinduism has taken over in most of Nepal.  Lots of the monasteries in the Himalayas seem to have been founded by Tibetans fleeing across the border into Nepal and bringing Buddhism back with them.

Their hotel has provided an airport transfer.  They are greeted by a man who takes charge of their towering trolley and sets off with it across the car park.  They follow.  In the hazy March sunshine, the temperature is a pleasant 27°C.  He passes ranks of gleaming SUVs and minibuses, and stops next to a small, battered hatchback.  He smiles and waits.

L:  (whispering)  Oh.  I think maybe we should tip him.

A second man steps forward and loads their luggage into the boot and back seat of the car.  He smiles and waits.

L:  (whispering)   I think we should…..

A third man turns up and gets into the driver’s seat.  They set off.  On arrival at the hotel the driver gets out, smiles and waits.

L: (whispering)  I think we….

Two porters swoop down the hotel entrance steps, heave the luggage out of the car, and disappear into the building.  D&L check in and are shown to their room.  The porters arrive and set down the bags.  They smile and wait.

L: (whispering)  I think….

D:  I know.

Ch 1 Kathmandu