Trekkers & Treats – Nepal – Chapter 8

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Route = Paiya (2770m) – Surke (2290m) – Phakding (2610m) – Namche Bazaar (3440m)

Date = 14-15 March

 For a third day in a row Angtu has L&D up and walking by 7.30am.  Today they need to reach their long awaited beacon of luxury, however long it takes.   At last the snow covered peaks are getting closer as the trail turns north towards the high Himalayas.  The landscape is stretching and distorting, becoming taller and deeper and steeper.   Below the path, the slope tumbles 1,000 metres to the cold blue thread of the Dudh Kosi river.  Overhead buzz 18-seater Twin Otter planes landing and taking off at Lukla – so dwarfed by their surroundings that they resemble tiny white insects, impossibly vulnerable.  D&L watch as the insects touch down with absolute precision on the 30 metre wide strip of runway on the edge of a cliff, braking hard as they disappear from view, roaring up the 12% gradient to stop, they hope, in less than 527 metres, at which point the tarmac ends and the mountain begins.

In the village of Surkey, they round a corner to find 30 people blocking their path.

L:  Whatever’s going on?  Is it a wedding?  A funeral?  A protest march?

D:  It’s a trekking group.

L:  Oh.  What on earth are they doing here?

D:  Umm…trekking.

L:  But these are our mountains.  Make them go away.

D:  You’d better get used to it.  We’re about to join the main route to Everest Base Camp.  You’re going to be sharing your mountains with a lot of other people.

Angtu: In the busy season, if the weather’s good, maybe 30 flights land at Lukla every day.  That’s nearly 600 people coming in.  And 600 people leaving.  A lot of people.

L: A LOT of people!

Angtu chats to the group’s guides, shaking hands with them and laughing.  He returns.

Angtu:  Don’t worry.  They’re going the other way.

After a brief stretch of supremely flat engineered trail, they pass a junction, lose the trekkers, and the surface beneath their feet crumbles once more.  From here, for a few hours, there is nothing and no-one, no people or donkeys or lodges, just pine trees and views and the roar of the Dudh Kosi tumbling over boulders far below.   The trail clings to the side of the mountain, and the drops are dizzying.  It’s beautiful.

P1020413 (3)They come to Moshe, a medieval-looking collection of tiny stone cottages and doorways in rock-faces.  The land is worked – divided into little stone-walled fields and compounds.  There are no shops or lodges or tea-houses.  More than anywhere they’ve walked through so far, this place seems utterly untouched by tourism and modernity, separate, forgotten.  Lukla’s town and airport are invisible and yet just a few hundred vertical metres above them.  They are right in the flight path.  Some days 1000 people pass over their heads, but each is oblivious to the other.  They are worlds apart.

The village goes on and on.  And on.  Moshe morphs into Chaurikharka, with its neat, good sized houses newly painted.  There is an almost continuous display of long mani walls, prayer wheels and prayer flags along the main street.  Everything is tidy and well maintained.  There are no people, no donkeys and still no shops or lodges or tea-houses or bustle of everyday living.

L:  Where is everyone?  It’s bordering on spooky.

D:  You’re probably just hungry.

L:  I am quite hungry.

On and on they walk, through the village, looking for anywhere that might provide lunch.  But no-one is opening their kitchens to feed hungry porters and trekkers, and there are no porters or trekkers to feed.  This is a community not on a trading route.  All the foot traffic heading to Lukla will bypass this valley.  However unlike Moshe, it seems there’s money trickling in from somewhere – Lukla’s tourist dollars reaching them by osmosis – to fund the maintenance of houses, walls and lanes.

L:  D’you think a community is better or worse off if they can benefit from tourism without the tourists?

D:  Better off, surely, without hundreds of the likes of us marching through.

L:  But there’s no life here.  Without the passers-by, there’s no commerce.

D:  Or worse off.  I don’t know.  You’re confusing me.  I need my lunch.

On and on they go.  The few buildings that might be lodges are closed.

Angtu:  Hungry?  We’ll find somewhere soon.  At least it’s flat.

L:  It’s definitely uphill.

Angtu grins, dismissing the insignificant gradient.

Angtu:  Nepali flat.

At the very top of the village is a huge empty lodge.  It is open.

After lunch they emerge onto the main route opposite what looks like a smart English country pub.  The engineered paving is back, flat and smooth and wide enough to drive along, lined at intervals with lodges and restaurants and tea-houses, and busy with trekkers and porters.

There is a clear division between trekking porters and commercial porters.  The former work with tourists, and are usually young, well equipped with footwear and appropriate clothing, and their tumplines suspend waterproof kit-bags supposedly limited to 30kg.  They trot along the trails, skipping up and down the steep slopes at twice the speed of the trekkers.   They cover a relatively short distance per day, as they are limited to going only as far as the trekkers can manage, and earn about $15-20/day.

Commercial porters supply stores and lodges with food, consumables and building materials.  They tend to be older and dressed more simply, shod in trainers or crocs or even sandals.  Their tumplines support a doko basket, loaded with as much weight as they can manage – there are no limits.  Often they are carrying as much as or more than their own body weight.   They move slower, rest more frequently, and carry a short T-handled walking stick called a tokma, on which they can balance their load to rest while standing.  They cover more ground and earn less than trekking porters, being paid by the kilo.

P1030455 (2)There is also a hybrid third group – the expedition porters.  These guys tend to look and dress like trekking porters – young, fit and reasonably well equipped.  However, it seems that they too are paid by the kilo as they carry ludicrous loads, the furthest distance, to base camps at the foot of the world’s highest mountains, covering many miles a day.  They are doubled over under towers of chairs, rolls of carpet, steel folding tables, mattresses, drums of climbing gear, cooking gas cylinders, pots and pans.  It’s seasonal and punishing work, but lucrative if they can get it.

As has become a pattern, the day has by now clouded over.  In the village of Ghat, they spot a small tatty-looking sign to their destination, and Angtu seeks directions.  They leave the main route and cross a swathe of landslip.  A young woman overtakes them, cheerfully swinging a large mouse in a small cage, and talking on her phone.

D:  Umm…Angtu?  What’s….?

Angtu:  It’s a rat trap.  The rats eat the food supplies, which is very bad.  So she will take it to the far side of the river, to set it free where it can’t come back.

As if the mani walls and prayer wheels and prayer flags and stupas weren’t clues enough, they are reminded yet again that this is Buddhist country.

They cross the Dudh Kosi on a suspension bridge, feeling the chill of the water waft up around them, and climb through pine forest.  Though surprised at the approach on what is barely more than an animal track, every minute they expect to arrive, to walk through the doors of welcoming luxury.  Forty minutes later they reach a tiny farming village teetering precariously at the top of an enormous landslide.    Angtu again asks directions.  They follow a high walled lane, climb over a fence and walk through a yak enclosure, to arrive at an unsigned single storey stone building.  They have arrived.

The door is opened by a tall slender Nepali woman whose poised stature and fine features are unlike the small, soft, rounded faces that they have become familiar with.   The interior is stylish and comfortable – books and cushions and Buddhist artwork.

P1020431 (2)Angtu acts as translator and go-between, making sure they have everything they need.

Angtu:  Tea?

L:  My usual.  Hot lemon please.

Angtu:  No hot lemon.

L:  Oh.  OK.  Tea please.  Could you ask for the wifi password?

Angtu:  No wifi.

L:  Oh.  Well.  Never mind.

Angtu:  Are you ready to order dinner?

D:  Yes.  Can we see the menu?

Angtu:  No menu.

D:  Right, what is there?

Angtu:  Spaghetti or dal bhat.

L:  I think I’ll have….

Angtu:  And you have to both choose the same.

L: Oh.

D:  We’ll have dal bhat.

Angtu:  And salad?

L:  Green things?  For the first time in 10 days?  Yes please!

Angtu:  OK – we’re going now.

D:  Hold on – where are you off to?

Angtu: Down to Phakding.

L:  That’s an hour away.  Why aren’t you staying here?

Angtu:  They don’t have a room.

D:  Are they full?

Angtu:  No.  There are no other guests.  But they don’t have a room.

He shrugs and grins and rubs his tummy.

Angtu:  We have friends in Phakding.  We’ll eat momos.

Their room is cold but beautifully decorated and the duvet is thick.  The bed is….

L:  Oh.

D:  What?

L:  Hard.  It’s a futon mattress.  It’s less comfy than the lodges.

The dal bhat is tasty, but the salad is scrumptious.  L abandons her rice and gorges on unidentified greenness:  crispy and crunchy and bitter and sweet and lemony and fragrant.  There are herbs and little beans or peas or nuts – she can’t tell which.  She doesn’t care.  She just keeps eating.

D:  It’s risky.

L:  What is?

D:  That salad.  It may make you ill.

L:  It tastes much too good.

D:  You’re living life on the edge.

***

Angtu and Phurba return in the morning.

Angtu:  So was it worth it?

L:  No.  Though the salad was amazing.  But I never would have booked if I’d thought they wouldn’t give you both a room.

Angtu:  We saw friends.  We ate momos.  Maybe too many.

He disappears discreetly for about the 5th time that morning.  This is most unlike him.  Usually he is happy to share his bathroom habits with his trek-mates, having first chosen a nice viewpoint:

Angtu:  It’s my time – natural toilet!

They are alone on a hillside of pines, paralleling the river and the main trekking route.  Between Phakding and the river are fertile fields and a series of polythene greenhouses.  At around 2,600m, this is the region’s kitchen garden, with a 9 month growing season and plenty of moisture, providing greens for the higher, colder settlements further up the trail.  Angtu whistles.  A tiny figure emerges from a greenhouse half a mile away.  They both wave and whistle some more.  Angtu smiles.

Angtu:  My friend.

They join the main trail, following the Dudh Kosi upstream, past small-holdings, stupas and mantra- painted boulders, shops and tea-houses.  They pause to watch a group of laden cattle crossing a suspension bridge.

P1020459 (2)D:  Are those yaks?

Angtu:  Or naks.  Yaks are male.  Naks are female.  But these aren’t either.

D:  So what are they?

Angtu:  These ones are dzopkyo – half yak, half cow.  You probably won’t see proper yaks till we get higher.

D:  OK.  Chopki.  Got it.

They pass through a checkpoint and Angtu heads off with a fistful of paperwork.  A sign says “Welcome to Sagarmatha National Park – World Heritage Natural Site”.  They sit on a wall to wait and read about the park.

L:  As well as Everest, it’s got 7 other peaks over 7,000 metres.

D:  Excellent.  We’ll see some of those.

L:  And glaciers.

D:  Cool – we’ll see some of them.

L:  And “the unique culture of the Sherpa people”.

D:  We’ll see some of that.

L:  And snow leopards and red pandas.

D:  I doubt we’ll see those.

L:  It gets 30,000 visitors…

D:  Yikes, I hope we don’t see all of them.

L:  ….a year, which has massively boosted the local economy and made access for local people much easier to things like healthcare and schools.

D:  That’s good.

L:  And has led to a lot of investment in infrastructure, such as bridges and trails.

D:  That’s good too.

L:  But it also means the cost and demand for food has gone up a lot too.

D:  Not so good if you’re not getting an income from tourism.

L:  No.  Guess what percentage of the park is forested?

D:  Tell me.

P1020921 (2)L:  3%.  Hardly any.  And guess how much is barren land over 5,000 metres?

D:  Umm….

L:  Too slow.  69%!  Most of it’s over 5,000 metres!

D:  What’s the rest?

L:  Grazing.

D:  I’m worried about the 3%.  The trees.

L:  You’re not allowed to burn firewood in the park.  From live trees.  They only burn yak dung.  And rubbish.  And dead trees, though there really aren’t any.  And they’re replanting bits.

D:  OK.

Angtu returns.

Angtu:  Shall we go?  Slowly slowly?

He’s worried about the big climb ahead to Namche Bazaar.  The guidebooks describe it as torturous.  L is coughing much less now but he’s not sure how she’ll do.  He’s still not feeling great himself.

They stop for lunch in a restaurant crammed with several large trekking groups, and sit at the end of a long table feeling overwhelmed by the crowd.  Outside it begins to rain.

P1020476 (2)It’s still spitting when they make their way alongside the river bed, on a path of worn-smooth river stones.  Ahead across the river are two long suspension bridges, one above the other, reaching from one hillside to the next.  The lower one is no longer used.  The higher one is a very long way up.

They start to climb.  People keep getting in the way.  To their surprise they overtake one group after another, one person at a time.  Most of these trekkers flew straight into Lukla yesterday and so are less fit and less acclimatised.  L&D have been walking for 10 days.  They bounce across the suspension bridge happily, watching others cling to the swaying sides in terror.  It is a very long way down.  The drizzle turns to rain and sets in.  They put on their waterproofs and set off up the broad, sandy zigzagging path.  It is mercilessly steep.  They get into a rhythm, overtaking trekker after trekker after trekker – not because they are faster but because they don’t need to stop and rest.  Even Angtu can hardly keep up.

Angtu:  We are strong!

L:  I feel strong.  I can breathe!  It’s amazing!

Angtu:  Stop and rest?  Or keep going?

L:  Keep going.  I’m fine.

D:  It’s not a race, you know.

L:  Of course it’s a race.

They’re treating themselves again. While they can.  The Yeti Mountain Home is right at the top of Namche Bazaar, almost in the cloud.  After last night they are braced for more disappointment.  At the door, boots are traded for the crocs provided.  The sole is flapping off one of L’s crocs so she has to walk with a limp to avoid tripping over it.  They are welcomed, given hot towels and a pot of lemon tea.  The reception area is bitingly cold, but their bedroom is cosy and comfortable and carpeted.  It has panoramic views down over Namche Bazaar.  It has a heater!  An electric blanket!  Great thick duvets and great thick mattresses.  An en-suite bathroom!  The shower dispenses masses of scalding hot water, solar heated on the roof above.  They shower, wash their hair, and get straight into bed.  It’s the middle of the afternoon.  It is heavenly.

P1020478 (2)There’s good news – the hotel is giving Angtu free accommodation and meals.

L:  And Phurba?

Angtu:  He will stay in town.  I’ll find him somewhere.  I’ll look after him.

L:  Oh.  Somewhere nice.

Angtu:  This is normal.  It’s how things are.

It’s not ideal but they accept it.  They’re grateful for Angtu’s free place.  He joins them for supper.

D:  How’s Phurba?

Angtu:  He’s happy.  He’s found friends.  I had dinner with him.  More momos.

Three bowls of soup arrive.

Angtu:  Not for me – oh, ok then.

They finish their soup.  Vast amounts of Chinese food arrive.  The unexpected flavours make a nice change.

Angtu:  Not for me – oh, ok then.

There is much more than they can eat.  But Angtu is not one to waste an opportunity.  He eats until he is about to burst.  One of the waitresses is married to his wife’s brother.  They leave him there chatting and go back to bed.

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Little Donkeys, Little Donkeys… – Nepal – Chapter 7

 

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Route = Ringmo (2720m) – Trakshindu La Pass (3070m) – Jubing (1680m) – Paiya (2770m)

Date = 12-13 March

Angtu is at a loss as to why D&L don’t get up at dawn, like all the other trekkers he has led and set out before sunrise.  Every day he tries in vain.

Angtu:  So breakfast tomorrow…what time?  6.30?  7.00?

D:  Or 8.00?   There’s no hurry.  We’re not walking all day.

But now Angtu needs to put his foot down.  They have a lot of ground to cover and he now knows that L can neither breathe nor walk downhill.  He digs in.

Angtu:  (firmly) I think 7.00 will be OK.  Leave at 7.30?

P1020269 (2)The early morning light drapes the hillside with a chilly blue hue, but the sky above is clear.  In the distance a curtain of morning mist opens briefly to reveal an immense white pyramid, and then closes again, as though they imagined it.  They climb steep cobbled lanes, past orchards and neatly fenced paddocks, and, still cobbled, still steep, on a sunken lane through woodland.  At the top a covered gateway leads them to the Trakshindu La.  The 3070m pass is scruffy and windswept – a bare earth farmyard with a lodge, barns and animal enclosures.  Contradicting all outward appearances, inside the lodge dining room every table has a pretty cloth and a vase with fresh flowers.   Near the door is a huge copper basin filled with water, in which freshly picked marigolds float on the surface.  An elderly woman arranges them lovingly.  It is entirely unclear where in this harsh landscape these flowers could possibly have come from, or whom they are for.

On the far side of the pass a thin cloud blurs the landscape.  From a monastery compound resonates the deep chanting of male voices to the beat of a drum.  Beneath them the serpentine village of Nunthala emerges.

There are several remarkable things about Nunthala.  One is the donkeys.  There are suddenly hundreds of them, in enclosures, on terraces, grazing on dust or being loaded/unloaded, and parading through the village nose to tail.  Another is that the main street looks like a snapshot of a prosperous Cotswolds town.  On each side of the path are large three storey houses with generous front gardens, paved and edged with trees and flower beds and enclosed in neat dry-stone walling.  And lastly there is the tin shack.P1020297 (2)

L:  Look at the tin shack.

D:  It’s a tin shack.

L:  Look at the sign.

D:  It’s a…..snooker hall??

A large tin sign on the large tin shack says “Snooker House”.  And to clarify matters for the disbelieving, there are pictures on the sign of people playing snooker.

L:  Umm…how much does a snooker table weigh?

D:  Well over a ton, I’d imagine.

L:  And they got it here….on the donkeys??

Nunthala is a day’s walk from tiny Phaplu airport and the nearby town of Salleri, from where there is a tarmac road to Kathmandu.  As such, it is a gateway village, hence the donkeys.  Trains of pack animals transport heavy goods such as gas, kerosene and rice from the roadhead to settlements en route to Everest Base Camp.   The new sandy ribbon road project has also reached Nunthala, in theory providing access for motorbikes, jeeps and tractors.

Walking between terraces of intensely green buckwheat and pink cherry blossom, they are forced to step aside at intervals, out of the way of approaching donkey trains.P1020354 (2)

Angtu:  Right!  Go right!

He waves them out of the path of the oncoming four-hooved traffic.

L:  Must we always pass them anticlockwise?  The opposite way to the mani stones?

Angtu looks at her blankly.

Angtu: You should be on the inside.  The uphill side.  Or they will push you off the edge.

L:  Oh.  That makes more sense.

D:  Idiot.

P1020315 (2)The trail becomes punishingly steep, a waterfall of dust and boulders.  They continue down, glad of knee supports and trekking poles.  Below, they can hear, and then see, an icy blue river and a huddle of huts.  This river is their first glimpse of the Dudh Kosi – which they will follow for the next two weeks, all the way to its source, where at 4,700 metres it flows from the Ngozumba Glacier through Gokyo’s sacred lakes.

The tiny settlement of Chhirdi is one of the simplest they have passed through.  With the exception of a single two storey building with a blue-painted balcony, the buildings are low, made from bare stone, wood and tin.  It is not clear which are used for animals and which are habitation.  Goats graze on the steep shrub covered slope above.  Half a dozen women of various ages are sitting on the wall outside the largest building.  All have their faces lavishly adorned with gold jewellery.  They wear enormous hoop earrings, large gold disks spreading across their left nostril and cheek, and golden pendants hanging from septum to mouth.

“Rai people” murmurs Angtu Rai.

They are grateful to reach Jubing – to remove their boots, to rest up in their toy-sized room, so small that there’s no space to shut the door unless they are standing on the bed, to wash in a bucket in the tiny tin wash-house, and to find working internet.

L:  Finally!  I’ve got a response!

Further into their trek, L has attempted to book some luxury.  At $140/night half board they have very high hopes for warm rooms, en-suite bathrooms, hot showers and delicious food, but have so far had no response.

D:  What does it say?  Are we booked?

L:  It says: “Sorry to not getting you back sooner I was in the silent Meditation for a month and I couldn’t use any mail or phone.”  Oh.  Curious.  But yes, we’re booked in.

***

P1020324 (2)Angtu has been firm again, and in the morning they are on the trail by 7.30am – heading uphill pretty much all day.  The landscape is stunning, the sky is blue, and the temperature pleasant.  They wish they could dawdle – taking two or even three days to cover the ground instead of just one.  Ahead on the path a woman, stick in hand, gracefully flicks cattle dung from the ground into a doko basket on her back.  Bamboo, fruit trees and even the occasional palm grow beside the trail.   Angtu and Phurba chat and laugh.  Phurba sings and quacks like a duck.

Angtu:  I’m thinking of putting him on a dating website.  “Phurba Sherpa, age 27, height 5’3”, very strong and handsome, sometimes his head works, sometimes it doesn’t.”

P1020338 (2)At the top of a steep flight of stone steps they pass through a monastery gateway.  There is a choice – more steps to the gompa itself, or a pause for a tea-stop.  L opts for tea and basks in the sun.  D heads for the steps.  At the top, prayer flags flutter and the gompa door is open.  Inside, his socks slide on the polished wood floor.  The walls and ceiling are alive with colour, shapes and patterns.  Layers of fabric forming cylindrical frills, in reds, greens, yellows, blues and white, hang from the ceiling.  One wall is made up of niches for prayer books.  Two green-skinned drums stand sentinel over low cushioned benches for monk meditation.  Outside again, the sunlight is dazzling and the lush green valley is spread out at his feet.

The village of Khari Khola trickles across the hillside for a kilometre or more.  They are charmed by everything: the cottages, washing lines, haystacks-up-trees, an arbour of blossom across the path, stupas and prayer flags, terraces and meadows, lodges and shops, of which there are plenty.  Sadly they have to move on.

P1020359 (2)In a tea-house in Bupsa they order noodle soup and omelettes.  The owner’s tiny son shares a bench with D, playing a game on his mother’s phone.  He edges along the bench, studiously ignoring D.  D peers towards the screen and gives advice.  The boy takes no notice, loses the game and slides closer to D.  They both study the screen.   The boy loses the game.  He hands D the phone.  D loses the game.  The boy rolls his eyes and reclaims the phone.  He loses the game.  The boy gets comfortable, turning sideways, leaning back, using D as a back rest, feet on the bench, phone on his knees.  D drinks his tea.  The boy loses the game.

They climb.  And climb.  Magnolia trees are flowering in the oak forest.  The path is steeply stepped and rough going.  The donkey trains are frequent.  Angtu points across a thickly wooded gorge to a village on the far side.

Angtu:  See Paiya?  Over there.  That’s where we’re going.

D:  Great!  Not that far then.

Angtu:  Quite far.  Maybe 2 hours, maybe 3.

L:  Three hours?  But it’s just there!

Angtu:  We have to go round.  A looooong way round.

They begin the contour to reach the head of the gorge.  It goes on and on.  Paiya remains just over there but never closer.  The trail consists of tall and irregular stones forming cobbles, in a soup of liquid mud.  It is narrow, and very slippery.  There’s nowhere to rest away from the mud.  They have been on their feet for 9 hours and counting, and have climbed over 1,200 metres today.  It takes all their concentration to keep their footing.   Every now and then they negotiate an ammonic swamp of donkey pee.

L:  Why do all the donkeys pee in the same place?

D:  Dogs do.  Maybe they’re leaving messages.  Being sociable.

L:  Traffic jam ahead.

The trail is entirely blocked by donkeys.  Angtu goes off to investigate.  He returns.

Angtu:  A rice bag split.  They’re eating it.

D:  Might they move on?

Angtu:  Not till 5 o’clock.

D:  Why 5 o’clock?

Angtu:  They’re on a break.

D:  Right.

There is no way to edge around them on the uphill side.  So they scramble down off the trail onto the steep bank below, and make their way slowly past.  Phurba holds L’s hand and stands downhill of her to prevent her falling.  She hopes none of the donkeys will stumble off the path and squash them.  They have nearly made it when the donkey train begins to move.

Angtu:  It’s 5 o’clock.

P1020378 (3)They climb back up the bank and onto the path, still behind the donkeys, and follow them into Paiya.  At the entrance to the village there’s another hold-up.  A workman has left a hammer on the narrow metal bridge, and there is no way one particular donkey is stepping over that hammer.  No way.  After some ineffectual shouting and pushing, the hammer is removed and the donkey train continues.

The Bee Hive Lodge is pretty and has flower beds edged with upturned beer bottles.  Their room is ridiculously dark and has thick leopard print velour blankets.    They put on their head torches despite there still being an hour of daylight outside.

In the cosy dining room is an Israeli family with four small cheerful children.  Impressively, they too have made it here.  There is also a German who speaks fluent Nepali, eats with his hands and drinks water from a jug.

German:  I’ve walked all over Nepal, for 30 years.  Done every trekking route there is.  Many times.  And I think that this could be the toughest.

L:  Should we feel like heroes or fools?

D:  I’m thinking about it.

They go to bed early.

L:  D?

D:  What?

L:  Are you asleep?

D:  Yes.

L:  Oh.

D:  What?

L:  Nothing.

D:  What?

L:  Everything smells of donkey pee.

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Tibetan Nuns & Black Dogs – Nepal – Chapter 6

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Route = Jumbesi (2680m) – up down up down – Ringmo (2720m)

Date = 10-11 March

D:  How are you feeling?

L:  Feverish.

She blows her nose.  And coughs.

D:  Revolting.  D’you want any breakfast?

L:  Hot lemon.  I’ll get up.

D goes downstairs.

The curtain across the bedroom door bulges and wavers.

L:  Hello?

Phurba walks in with a mug of hot lemon.  L is still in bed.  They both look embarrassed.  D joins them.  Phurba makes a hasty exit.

D:  Sorry about that.  He offered.  I thought you were getting up.

L:  I’m ill.

D:  Drink your tea.

L drinks her tea.

D:  Have a pill.  Maybe just a Lemsip though.  Not all the sleeping potions you had yesterday.

L takes the pill and gags it back into her mug of tea noisily.

D: Disgusting.  Shall I leave you here?

L:  Yes please.

***

Down in the dining room, D meets an elderly American monk who lives in the guest house.  The hostess calls him Lama.

D:  How long have you been a monk?

Monk:  Oh, since 1990.  But I’ve been a Buddhist for 45 years.

D: And d’you live here all year?

Monk:  Oh no.  I spend my springs here in Jumbesi, the summer in Lhasa, and autumn somewhere else in Nepal or Tibet.

D:  And the winter?

The monk looks a little embarrassed.

Monk:  Well, the winters I go south.  Where it’s warmer.

D:  In Nepal?

Monk:  I go to Koh Chang, an island in the gulf of Thailand.

He seems to feel the need to explain this apparent frivolity.

Monk:  I have a son there.

D asks him about Thubten Chholing, the huge Tibetan monastery in the hills outside Jumbesi.

Monk:  Well, I’ve been there of course.  I go there often to meditate.  But they won’t let me stay more than a week or two at a time.

D:  Because you’re not Nepali?

Monk:  Because I’m not a woman!  It’s mostly nuns there.  The men can only visit.

***

P1020170 (3)High above Jumbesi, below the monastery, towers an immaculate white and gold stupa.  Four layers of niches wrap around the circumference, and in each little midnight-blue alcove sits a tiny golden Buddha.  Prayer flags stream from the pinnacle in all directions.  Mani stones, mantra-covered boulders, and prayer wheels mark the onward route.

Thubten Chholing is much more than a monastery – it’s a large village complex, populated by up to 700 red-robed, shorn-headed celibate Buddhists – the majority of them nuns, but also a few monks and children.   Around the central cluster of temple buildings spread countless little white bungalows spreading up and down and along the steep terraced hillside.

D:  It’s enormous!

Angtu:  Yes – much, much bigger than anywhere else in the Jumbesi valley.

Founded in the 1960s by Guru Trulsik Rinpoche fleeing Tibet, the community is independent and autonomous, and exists in isolation, leading a traditional lifestyle, feeding, housing and educating its residents without access to public healthcare or government support.   80% of the inhabitants are refugees from Tibet – most of whom will move on, but every year about 40 nuns opt to go no further and become a permanent part of the growing community. P1020200 (3)

D:  All these people must need so much firewood, and water and food.  And where does their sewage go?

Angtu:  It’s a problem.  The local people, in the smaller villages, are worried that this place uses too many resources, that it’s not good for the valley – the land or the people.  That if it continues to grow there won’t be enough for everyone.  Although last year the monastery planted 4000 trees.

They are greeted and shown around by a monk.

D:  What’s he saying Angtu?  Can you translate?

Angtu:  I will try.  But not easy.  I think they all speak Tibetan here.

P1020201 (3)In one courtyard nuns have spread maize kernels on large tarpaulin sheets.  One is kneeling, crushing the kernels under a rock, whist a shaggy white pony stands at her shoulder hoping for a meal of husks.  At a waist-high wooden pestle and mortar, the maize is further ground by two more nuns, heavy wooden clubs raised and lowered, pummelling rhythmically, wood on wood.

In another corner, a group of nuns sit peeling a potato mountain, dropping the small naked globes into a vast cauldron of water.   The monk leads them across a courtyard, festooned on high with strings of large white undergarments drying in the sun.  The monk is still talking.

D:  What’s he saying Angtu?

Angtu:  Many things.  But all in Tibetan.

The monk delivers them to a large room with low platform benches around the walls, and hands them over to a hospitality team of nuns. Tea and biscuits are offered and accepted, and they sit sipping, watching the nuns return to their task of counting money. A large cardboard box is filled with envelopes, each one containing a donation. There is a production line of opener, extractor, counter and rubber-band bundler. After a few mesmerising minutes Angtu extracts his wallet and pulls out a couple of large denomination notes.

D:  Hold on Angtu.  I’ll do the donation.  And isn’t that rather a lot?

Angtu:  Not a donation. Small notes are really useful. There are never enough. I’m going to ask for change.

They leave the monastery with gratifying bundles of cash.

***

D returns to their bedroom at lunch time with a menu.  L has covered the bed with discarded loo-paper hankies.

D: Repulsive.  D’you want any lunch?

L gets up and eats a quarter of an apple pancake.  The guesthouse has done their laundry which is drying on a line on the terrace.   The monk is in the dining room.

D:  Have you had a good morning?

Monk:  Well, I got bitten by a dog, and had to have a rabies shot.  A black dog – he sorta just came running at me.  He lives by the police station so they’re not going to do anything.

After lunch, D is determined to get L up and about.  They walk around the village.  Angtu has insisted they take their trekking poles for safety.  D is armed and tense, ready to defend them both from rabid attacks.

P1020212 (2)D:  A black dog!

L:  Where?  Oh, he’s friendly, aren’t you, puppy?

They continue past the school.

D:  Another black dog!

L:  It can’t be him – he’s too fat and old to come running at anyone.  And look how short his legs are.  And he’s smiling.

They continue round the stupa.

D:  Black dog!

L:  He’s asleep.  Or maybe dead.  Poke him with your stick.

D:  I most certainly will not.

Against all odds they survive their 10 minute stroll and return unscathed to the guest house.  L goes back to bed and spends the afternoon coughing and blowing her nose.   By evening the loo-paper snow-drift has grown.

D:  Gross.

He puts a bin by the bed.

D:  D’you want any supper?

L:  Some of that veg noodle soup thing we had the other day.

D:  Are you coming down?

L coughs until she runs out of breath.

D:  I’ll bring it up, shall I?

He returns later with a bowl of soup.

L:  The noodles are wrong.  And it’s got vegetables in.

D:  You asked for vegetable noodle soup.

L:  But I wanted just a stock cube and some Pot-Noodle-noodles.  This is actual food.  I can’t eat it.

D:  Just try some.

L tries some and retches loudly into the bin.

D:  Delightful.

He takes the bowl back downstairs.

***

P1020216 (2)The following morning they try again.

D:  How are you feeling?

L bursts into tears.

L:  Much better thank you.   No fever.  Just a bit weak.

She gets dressed sobbing, coughs until she doubles over and gags as she cleans her teeth.

L:  I’m fine, really.  Ready to go.

At breakfast D eats his pancake with enthusiasm and chats to the monk, while L tries for 30 minutes to swallow 3 spoonfuls of porridge.  The tears well up.

L:  I’m just going outside for a bit.

She sits in the lobby, weeping.  Phurba walks through to rope up the bags and they both pretend she isn’t crying.  D retrieves her.

L:  There’s nothing wrong, honestly.  I don’t even know why I’m crying.  I truly feel fine.

D:  You haven’t eaten anything for days.  Don’t worry, I’m going to cure you.

L:  Uh oh.

D:  How about….errr….strepsils, bananas and isotonic water?

L:  OK.

Angtu turns up looking pleased with himself.  L hastily dries her eyes and everyone does some more pretending that her face isn’t pink and blotchy.

Angtu:  I have pepper!

L:  Pepper?

Angtu:  For your cough!  It’s very good medicine.

He gets out a small pot containing a sort of peppery pesto-type paste.

Angtu:  Just put a little bit on your tongue.  It will help.

L does as she’s told.  Her eyes start watering again as the heat burns through her mouth.

L:  Mmm….that’s umm…great!  Thank you so much!

P1020250 (2)The day is overcast but dry.  The landscape is beautiful – a gentle path undulating around meadowy hillsides, through clumps of fir trees, past grazing cattle and (clockwise) around stupas and prayer flag poles.  They cross a river on a swaying steel suspension bridge above a group of mani boulders painted in multi-coloured mantras.  Despite the mild gradient and the fact that they are still at well under 3000m, L walks slowly, panting like crazy, as though her lungs are battling the thin air of high altitude.  She is coughing so much that her chest hurts and her stomach muscles are sore.   The three hour walk to Ringmo takes five and the final 200 metre climb finishes her off.  She staggers into the first guest house they come across.

L:  I am DONE.  Completely DONE.

She goes straight to bed, emerging only in the evening.  After dinner, they are joined in the cold dining room by eight Nepalis, friends and family, who turn on a large TV and avidly watch an hour of American wrestling.

L:  Have you given me another weird pill?

D:  No, why?

L:  Is this really happening?

D:  Yes, I’m afraid it is.

P1020186 (3)

Zombies & Witch-Doctors – Nepal – Chapter 5

P1020116 (4)

Route = Kinja (1600m) – Goyom (3220m) – Lamjura Pass (3520m) – Jumbesi (2680m)

Date = 08-09 March

 

D:  How are you feeling?

L: Feverish.

L: And dizzy.

L: And weak.

L: And queasy.

D:  Anything else?

L:  I’ve got a splitting headache.

D:  Drink this.  It’s hot lemon tea.  I’m going to cure you.

D inspects the contents of his first aid kit and pill boxes.  He hands L a handful of tablets.

D:  Here.

L:  Which one?

D:  All of them.

L:  Oh – OK.

She gulps them back, grimacing and retching into her hot lemon mug.

L:  What were they?

D:  Lemsip Max-Strength.

L:  Good.

D:  And one of those magic anti-nausea pills.

L:  I like those ones.

D:  And a Valium, just in case.

L:  Blimey!  I like those ones too.  Will that help?

D:  Dunno.  But I’ve got to get you up a very big hill.

P1020078 (2)D&L wait patiently outside the guesthouse for Angtu, Phurba and the hostesses to finish flirting and taking selfies with each other.  The sky is cloudless but a little hazy.  They climb steeply passing isolated dwellings in impossibly inaccessible places, frilled all around by the narrowest of terraces – some barely a metre wide.  Under one spreading tree – a cloud of white blossom – a man slowly drives a pair of cattle and a wooden plough through the dusty earth.

They are passed by an incongruously dapper image, walking fast downhill, dressed in a tight-fitting cream suit, and carrying a spear with woollen tassels hanging off it.  They look enquiringly at Angtu.

Angtu: Shaman.  Witchdoctor.

D:   Where’s he going, d’you think?

Angtu looks a bit puzzled.

Angtu:  Back to the village.  Every village has a shaman.  It gets passed down from father to son.

D:  But what do they do?

Angtu:  They help people with their problems.  Sometimes a physical problem, sometimes mental.

L:  Does your parents’ village have a shaman?

Angtu:  Of course.  One of my aunties, my father’s sister, died young.  She had left the village because of her marriage, but was brought home and was buried on our family land.  But our village shaman said that my auntie was a witch, and that because we had buried her on our land, it would make our family and the village sick.   And then our whole family and the village became sick!  Then the shaman said my auntie would have to be cremated.   So they dug her up again.

L opens her mouth, wonders what on earth she should say, and closes it again.

Angtu:  And they found that although her body had decomposed, she had beautiful white shiny teeth and beautiful clean curly hair.  The shaman told us her teeth had been biting everyone and her hair had been choking our digestion, and that is why we had all become sick.  So he smashed up her teeth with an axe.  Then my auntie was cremated and our family and the village all became well again.P1020079

Angtu beams at them, pleased with his story.  D&L are riveted and a little bit horrified, and don’t know quite how to respond.  No words are needed though.  Angtu has another tale.

Angtu:  I don’t fully believe, but I don’t not believe either.  Once I was ploughing in our village, when I got bad stomach pains.  Terrible, unbearable pains.  I drank water and tried everything I knew, but nothing worked.  So I went to the shaman.  The shaman pressed the pulse at my wrist.  Then he pressed the centre of my palm.  Then he gave me a mouthful of uncooked rice and raw ginger to eat.  I was afraid of eating it, but I managed to, and within 20 minutes all the pain had gone.

D:  So it worked?

Angtu:  Yes, it worked.  Lots of cultural and spiritual beliefs were part of my life growing up in the village.  A part of the lives of everyone, my friends, my family….  We tried to understand.  In our village, the shaman could see a spirit that no-one else could see.  A boy with long hair, scary teeth and his feet on backwards.  When I was young I would go out at night, on my own, with a light and a little knife, to find this spirit boy.  But I never found him.

L:  That was very brave!  How old were you?

Angtu shrugs.

Angtu:  Maybe 10.  When we went to school, we would ask our science teacher to explain it to us.  We had seen backwards footprints by the river, so the spirit boy must be real.  Our teacher would say – maybe they are forwards footprints.  He would try to help us see things another way.

L:  And now what d’you think?

Angtu: Now I am partly in the Western world, working with tourists for many years.  I believe a little of everything.  Rai people are mostly Hindu, but we are also connected spiritually to the Earth, the sun and the moon.  Shamans help many people.  Sherpa Buddhist practices help many people.  So I visit the shaman, I take Western medicine, and I pass mani stones and prayer flags to the left.  Just in case.

They walk uphill all day.  L moves at a good pace, but becomes more and more zoned out as the morning progresses.  By lunchtime she is almost, literally, asleep on her feet.  They stop at a lodge in the village of Sete.P1020092 (3)

D:  Are you hungry?

L:  Sleepy.

D:  You need to eat.  Soup?

L:  Porridge.

She lies down on a bench inside the empty dining room and falls promptly asleep.  D wakes her up, she eats, and immediately goes soundly back to sleep.  D wonders whether the Valium was a step too far.  As Angtu prepares to set off again, D nudges L again.

L:  I’ve been having the freakiest dreams.  About witch-doctors!

D:  No.  That was real.

The afternoon becomes overcast, and as they get higher, the cloud gets lower.  Their destination drifts in and out of the gloom above.   L staggers zombie-like, onward and upward.

Goyom is not really a village, but a series of dwellings spreading out along a ridge, each one isolated from the next.  Vegetation is sparse, the trunks of trees chopped for firewood stand 2 metres tall, like ghostly figures in the mist.

They are now at 3,200m and it is a great deal colder than it was 1600 metres lower where they started the day.  In their room they make a nest of sleeping bags and duvets.   On one wall is a dim solar-powered bulb, but the corridor has none.  After dark, a journey to the squat loo requires a head-torch.

In the dining room, Angtu has saved them the bench closest to the fire and has been smilingly shooing other trekkers into chillier corners.  Their host announces that his wife has gone to a meeting and so there is no-one to make supper as he is a teacher and a businessman, but not a cook.  Phurba steps in and competently prepares dal bhat for everyone – as well as working as a porter, he says he’s sometimes an assistant cook too.

***

P1020112 (2)Unlike yesterday’s balmier climes, it is 4°C in their bedroom this morning.  They poke their noses out of the nest of bedclothes.

L:  You smell!

D:  Thanks.  It’s not me – I’m being dripped on.

They stare at the ceiling where a wet patch is dripping intermittently onto D’s side of the bed.

L:  What is it, d’you think?

D:  It smells like beer.

Over breakfast, they tell Angtu who in turn tells their host.  His wife has returned and Phurba is off kitchen duty.

Angtu:  He says it’s cat pee.  Definitely not beer.

D:  There’s way too much for cat pee.  And it smells of beer.  Maybe he’s brewing upstairs and one of the bottles burst?

The host looks sheepishly at his wife and shakes his head.

Angtu:  Definitely cat pee.

At 3520m, the exposed Lamjura Pass is not a place to linger.  From the pass the trail slides between a pinch of rubble and rock to descend steeply and interminably through a tall forest of fir and moss-covered rhododendron trees.  L realises that she much prefers uphill to down.  They rest every 30 minutes as, despite her walking poles, she starts to stumble.

L:  Stop, stop, stop.  My legs are jelly.

D:  Angtu?  We’re stopping.  Again.

P1020148 (2)Eventually the terrain flattens and opens into wide alpine meadows with cattle enclosures.  At the edge of Taktor they pause at a tea-house.  On a wall is a large basket – a doko – full of rhododendron leaves collected from the forest for cattle fodder.  Indoors a cat sits on top of the hearth, next to a cauldron of hot water.   Their hostess prepares noodle soup – feeding the fire carefully with wood, and removing it again once it has served its purpose – preserving it as a scarce resource.

On the approach to Jumbesi they pass under a vast cliff painted in bright colours with Buddhist mantras.  A group of teenagers saunter by, returning from school, in immaculate uniform, laughing and chatting and sharing a packet of sweets.  They’d look at home on any high street anywhere, and yet are a world away from the nearest strip of asphalt.  At their feet beside the stony path grow clusters of purple primula.

Jumbesi’s houses are large, tidy and prosperous looking.  At its centre is a school originally set up by Edmund Hillary.  They’ve pre-booked a place that they’ve read about.  They pass one after another smart-looking lodges – none of them the right one, and head out to the scruffier far edge of the village.  It starts spitting with rain.  Their hearts sink.

As a last resort they work their way around the back of the Gompa, the monastery.  Ahead is a newly whitewashed building with beautifully carved windows and a row of bright prayer flags festooned along its front.  They have arrived.   D inspects the rooms with Angtu.  L sits listlessly in the foyer – too exhausted to care what it’s like.  It starts to pour with rain.  D returns.

D:  It’s nice.

They are shown into a large cosy bedroom of varnished wood, with a double bed.  Their hostess points out the electric blanket controls.  L almost weeps with joy.  It is bliss.  They can’t waste a minute of it.

L:  The blanket’s on!  It’s actually warm!  Quick, let’s get into bed.

D:  It’s half past two.

L:  It’s raining.

D:  Oh alright then.

P1020130 (3)

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

P1020058 (2)

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.

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Overburdened, Overtired & Overtipped – Nepal – Chapter 1

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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

The Hmong & The Khmu, Laos (Trek Day 2)

P1050665 (2)

Thanks to the enthusiasm of its 37 cockerels, the remote Hmong village of Ban Phatum, tucked into a wooded pass in the mountains of northern Laos, wakes early.

In the indigo pre-dawn light, children potter sleepily around the village chewing sticky rice cakes, piglets scamper into the undergrowth, and the hens peck around the cooking fires looking for scraps.

D & L stand on a plateau above the village, toothbrushes in hand, swigging water from a bottle, and spitting minty freshness into the undergrowth. If anything, the views are even more astounding at dawn. Yesterday’s blanket of low cloud has returned, snugly wrapping the foot of the mountains from the early morning chill, leaving a hundred black peaks jutting through to greet the sun, whereupon they glow gently, turning hues of pink and gold.

Their guide Lia whips up rice, salty boiled greens, and omelettes and joins L & D for breakfast.

L:   It’s so beautiful here. The lifestyle is still so traditional. It’s pure.

Lia: Yes, it’s poor.

L: No – pure. Their culture is uncontaminated.

Lia: I understand. But also, it’s poor. The government have tried to make them move. But they don’t want to go.

D: Why? I mean why should they move?

Lia: The government want all the ethnic people, the hill-tribe people, to move down from the mountains. To be closer to schools and hospitals and markets to sell their produce, to have electricity, water and toilets, to find jobs. Any village smaller than 50 houses is asked to move. To make life better for them.P1050624

D: But Ban Phatum said no?

Lia: They said no. They like it here.

L: I can see why. But they’re not hiding.

Lia looks startled.

Lia: Hiding?

L: From the government.

Lia: (sounding polite but confused) No. They are not hiding. Now, we must get ready to leave. We will go at 7.30am.

D steers L back into the grass-walled, palm-thatched house where they had slept.

D: Have you gone mad? What are you talking about? ”Are they hiding?” Why would you even ask that?

L: Because of the war. I read about it.

D: What war?

L: The Vietnam War.

D: But that was forty years ago!

L: I know. But during the war, the Americans were helped by local people in Laos. Those locals were Hmong. They were the ones living in the area. They knew the terrain.

D: Oh.

L: And when the war ended, the communists took over not only in Vietnam but in Laos too. The Hmong had fought against the communists. They were on the wrong side.

D: Ah.

L: So they weren’t the new government’s favourite people. A lot of Hmong fled to the US or over the border into Thailand.   Lots more were sent to re-education camps.

D: But surely that’s all water under the bridge by now.

L: Mostly, yes. Several generations on, most Hmong now live peacefully in Laos. Like here in this village. But several thousand of them are still in hiding in the mountains, in areas like this, afraid of reprisals.P1050696

D: Hasn’t the government forgotten about them after all this time?

L: It seems not. Apparently they’re still being captured and killed for being bandits and rebels.

D: And are they? Being bandits and rebels I mean.

L: Maybe a few Hmong do still have guns left over from the war, but I’ve seen reports that most of them are unarmed. That they’ve got no reason to fight. That they’re just frightened families unlucky enough to have had fathers or grandfathers who helped the Americans. And that they’re starving – eating roots and bugs – because they have to keep on the move, to stay hidden, so they can’t grow any crops.

D: In that case, why doesn’t anyone do anything?

L: The UN are aware of it but say they haven’t got enough proof to step in. And Thailand is sending thousands of Hmong back to Laos, saying there’s not enough proof to give them asylum.

D: The ones who’ve come back from Thailand – are they OK now?

L: I don’t know. But a lot of them seem to live in huge restricted camps. Which doesn’t sound ideal.

It is nearly 7.30am. D & L emerge from the house with their rucksack, ready to go. Lia looks surprised. He’s obviously not expecting them to be on time. L takes a last look at the village, sad to leave, and sad to compare this seemingly tranquil lifestyle with those of other Hmong, hidden elsewhere in these mountains.

They set out in silence, waving goodbye as they go. D tries to lighten the atmosphere.

D: How long has Ban Phatum been here?P1050543

Lia: Since the 1950s. This village is linked to a bigger one down near the road. The village chief lives there.

D: So there’s no chief up here?

Lia: No, but there is a group of elders. I will tell you what happens. Remember that most village people don’t speak Lao, they speak only Hmong. So they choose a chief who is educated and can speak Lao and so can talk with local government. But every village also has the elders, and the chief must listen to them.

D: So the elders look after the village?

Lia: And the shamans.

L: Shamans?

Lia: Yes. The village has two or three shamans who take care of the spirits and any illnesses. The shamans are not chosen – it follows from father to son. If someone in the village is sick, they don’t go to the doctor, they go to the shaman. Only if it is very serious they will go to hospital.

The path contours around the hillsides, climbing gently, heading towards a higher pass. The grass is damp.

Lia: Watch out for leeches.

D: Really? Excellent! I definitely want to be bitten by leeches. Like a proper adventurer.

L: Really? I definitely don’t.

P1050683They pause for a drink. The slopes in all directions have long ago been cleared of trees, and now the forest is reclaiming them. Lia waves an arm expansively.

Lia: This area here? All opium garden.

D: Interesting. Until when?

Lia: Maybe 10 – 15 years. All the mountain people used to grow opium poppies. Especially Hmong people. It was very difficult for them when it stopped. They had to learn to grow other things. But they don’t make money like before.

L: Why did it stop?

D: I remember this. It was international pressure. A few countries were given huge aid incentives to put a stop to it – Laos must have been one of them. But one or two of those places now grow opium legally for medicine – selling it to the big pharma companies. Does Laos do this?

Lia: No. We grow no more opium.

They continue on up the narrow trail. At the pass they pause. The way down is drier, on the sunny side of the mountain.

Lia: Check for leeches. I have one – here.

L: Yuck! None. Hurrah.

D: None. Dammit. I so wanted a leech.

It is a long, long descent through the forest, and increasingly steep. They walk slowly, using their trekking poles to lessen the impact on tired knees and feet, and avoid slipping on the greasy mud underfoot. They are overtaken by two women and a girl, stepping sure-footedly down the mountain in rubber sandals, the baskets on their backs loaded high with marrows.P1050700

Lia: Heavy! 30 kilos!

A little way on, they stop for a rest. The women are also resting – their marrow baskets on the ground beside them. D walks over to lift one of the baskets. It is as immovable as a rock. He checks if the straps are somehow hooked, and tries again, his face turning red. Lia grins.

Lia: Heavy! 30 kilos!

D: At least!

L takes off her shoes to massage her feet. D feels envious and does the same. There is blood on his sock.

D: A leech! I have a leech!

L: Look – you have three!

D: Hurrah!   Let’s get them.

The socks come off. There is nothing to show, except for the blood.P1050703 (2)

D: Oh. Never mind.

L: Are you happy now?

D: Oh yes.   Fantastic. Look, they won’t stop bleeding!

He pauses, the elation in his face fading and turning to concern.

L: Are you alright?

D: D’you think they’ll get infected?

L: I doubt it.

D: Good.

He continues to frown at his feet.

D: D’you think I might bleed to death?

L: No. I really don’t.

The last hour into the valley is tough. They pick their way slowly down the steep, slippery wooded path, step by step. The women with their 30 kg baskets are long gone, chatting happily as they move three times faster in their flapping sandals.

P1050697 (2)Lia: All the falang (foreigners) fall over on this path.

D: Thanks for that.

Lia: Then they cry. Women, men, they all fall over and cry.

D: We’ll do our best then.

Lia: But today is easy. Not so slippery.

L: Is it. Is it really.

They creep their way down to the valley floor, without falling over. Or crying. Despite being falang. Lia looks a little disappointed. Before they leave the forest, he thrashes about in the undergrowth, emerging with two large palm fronds. As they emerge into bright midday sunshine, he hands them one each to carry over their heads, giving them shade.

L: This is fantastic. It’s perfect. I love my jungle parasol!

D is certain that he looks like a twat, but carries it politely, nevertheless.

The approach to Ban Phayong village is through a lush, flat, well-watered landscape, with the mountains forming forested walls to each side.

P1050720They arrive at an immaculately shorn green meadow on which sits a collection of traditional woven-leaf houses with palm thatched roofs. There is electricity to each house. They pass several blocks of public toilets with water points nearby and larger, brightly painted buildings of blockwork with tin roofs. Livestock are tidily contained in pens. Berries are spread out to dry on a grass mat in the sun. It feels a little like an authentically themed holiday park.

They smile and wave at people as they pass, but are mostly ignored.

D: (whispering) It’s the parasol. How can they take me seriously with a massive leaf on my head?

L: (whispering) Don’t diss the leaf. It’s my favourite thing.

They reach the chief’s house, where they are given coffee and herbal tea, and sit under his porch in the shade. A group of French walkers arrives and settles nearby, outside a sleeping hut for guests.

Lia explains the village set up.

Lia: Ban Phayong has 68 families. Hmong people and Khmu people share the village. This is the Hmong side.

L: So where are the Khmu?

Lia: They live separately. On the other side. They have different cultures, different languages. Khmu are Lao Theung – upland Lao, not mountain Lao like Hmong people.

D: So why do they live together?

Lia: It is easier, to have a bigger village. They have electricity, and a school – right in the middle, between the two sides. The lessons are all in Lao. I told you – the government wants the smaller villages to move closer to towns and roads, to make life better for the people.

P1050724D: But why put people of different ethnic origins together like this?

Lia: So that they become more Lao – they learn the national Lao language and culture. It is better for everyone.

D: Cultural assimilation. Aren’t they losing their own traditional ways of life though?

Lia: They still live separately. Traditional life is strong. You will see.

Food emerges from the house of the Hmong chief. They tuck into chicken soup, pumpkin, omelette and rice. The French group are also here for lunch. Children in traditional dress parade past slowly, in case anyone might want to photograph them.

Lia: This chief – he is Hmong. He has done many things for the village, for more than 10 years. Everything you see is because of him. The electricity, the toilets, the tourists, the guest house. Many tourists come here, every day, bringing money to the village.

After lunch they walk through the village and admire the chief’s hard work, and his networking, noticing that several of the public facility buildings bear plaques showing sponsorship from overseas. They pass the school, a smart new building standing alone on a hillock in no-man’s land.

They cross an invisible line and continue through the Khmu part of the village. The contrast is striking. Some houses are built of wood, others of bare blockwork with tin roofs. They are raised off the ground, and are smaller than those of their Hmong neighbours. There is no grass, more dust and litter. People sit in their doorways in the shade. They smile and wave and two small boys shout “Hello!” and “Happy New Year!” to them in Lao. Here the authenticity comes with a smile and a stark absence of holiday park trimmings.

D: So much for cultural assimilation.   The two halves could be ten miles apart, not ten metres. None of the Hmong chief’s work has crossed the line to the Khmu side at all!

L: You’re right. There’s just two completely separate communities sharing a name and a school.

Lia is silent on the matter but has a story to tell about the Khmu people as they amble through the verdant valley landscape towards the river and the end of their trek.

Angkor-Wat-in-CambodiaLia: After this, you are going to Angkor Wat, right? In Cambodia?

D: Right.

Lia: The greatest temples in the world!

D: Right.

Lia: Built by Lao people!

D: Really? Umm…I’m not sure I’d read that.

Lia: (emphatically) It’s not in the history books. But yes! Lao people. Khmu people.

D: Right.

Plain of Jars picLia: And the Plain of Jars – have you read about that?

D: Yes, hundreds of stone jars in the fields in Eastern Laos, thousands of years old, and none of the historians or archaeologists know who left them there or what they were for.

Lia: Ahh. But I know.

D: Really?

Lia: (proudly) Yes. Khmu people.

D: Right. I’m not sure I’d read that either.

Lia: It’s not in the history books. But I will tell you.

***

And so, as they walk, Lia reveals the age-old secrets behind the origins of the Plain of Jars and the founding of Angkor Wat.

Once upon a time, in the first or second centuries, the ancient Khmu people lived happily in Eastern Laos.   They made a lot of lao lao rice whisky, which may be why they were so happy. The lao lao was very important to their culture and they drank it whenever they could. Festivals, ceremonies and battles were all celebrated with the drinking of great quantities of lao lao. All this whisky needed to be brewed and stored. It is obvious that the hundreds of mysterious stone vessels spread across what has now become the Plain of Jars, are whisky jars. So that solves that one.

Now, the first king of the Khmu people was a strong and powerful king called Khun Jung. The fame of his strength spread far and wide and lots of his people wished that they could be as strong as him. The people thought that if they could only eat a little bit of the king, they would gain his strength. Khun Jung was no fool, and he told his people that if they killed and ate him they would become weak, not strong. He told them that they too could become strong, by following him and learning from him. This worked for a while, but eventually the people killed him, popped a skewer into his bottom and out of his mouth, barbecued him, and had themselves a feast. However, eating Khun Jung did not make the Khmu people strong after all. Instead it made them argue and fight amongst themselves for three hundred years, until in the 5th century, some of them split off, headed 500 miles south to Champasak in southern Laos, and founded the magnificent temple of Wat Phu.  Here they settled, but continued to argue and fight amongst themselves for a further six hundred years, until in the 11th century, some of them split off again, and headed 300 miles south west. Here they settled and founded the even more magnificent temples of Angkor Wat. Which is over the border in Cambodia. Where the people are Khmer. And the language to this day is Khmer. Khmer – Khmu. D’you see? The original Cambodians and builders of Angkor were Khmu people. Lao people.

And so concludes the revelation that the greatest temple complex in the world, Angkor Wat, in Cambodia, was in fact built by the Lao. According to Lia. But it’s not in the history books.

P1050732 (2)

The Hmong Village – Laos (Trek Day 1)

P1050544 (2)

Lia: And every house has a spirit. This is important. When we arrive at the village, you must not go inside any home unless you are invited. You could bring bad spirits from the forest into the house and make people ill.

L: Err….right. No. Absolutely.

D & L meet their guide, Lia, early that morning, and set off on their two day hike into the forested mountains of northern Laos. They are to spend the night in a remote Hmong village. Lia briefs them as they walk.

Lia: Hmong people are not Buddhist.   Only half the Lao people are Buddhist. The Hmong people believe in spirits. And ancestor worship.

They pass a large watermelon plantation and pick their way across dry rice paddies, not yet planted for the coming season. They cross a stream and the path starts climbing through woodland and patches of rubber plantation. Lia continues his briefing.

Lia: In the village, they do not speak Lao. Only Hmong.

D: Oh. Will that be tricky? Do you speak Hmong?

Lia: Yes. My father – he was Hmong. When I was fifteen he sent me to the mountains to learn the Hmong language and culture – his culture.

L: Are the two languages similar?

Lia. Not at all. Completely different. I’ll teach you. To say “hello” – in Lao is sabaidee, but in Hmong is niaojong. To say…

P1050537They hear voices above them in the forest. They are climbing steeply through the trees on a narrow path and the cloud has rolled in leaving everything blurred and dripping. Lia stops talking and listens. A dog barks.

Lia: Hunters.

They catch up with a group of five men and a pack of dogs. The men each have a gun. L, D and Lia join them and for a while they all walk together, tripping over the dogs who weave up and down the procession and get under everyone’s feet. The men chat in sing-song lilting tones, musical swoops and swings of voice impossible to emulate in English.

Lia: Hmong people. The men hunt for food, and also build village houses. The women look after the children and animals, and gather firewood for cooking. You will see.

D: (whispering) Have you noticed their guns?

L: (whispering) So? They’re hunters.

D: (whispering) But have you actually looked at them?

L: (who wouldn’t know a Colt from a Kalashnikov) ????

D later explains that he has spotted an ancient World War II military rifle, several homemade muskets fashioned from a length of tube and a trigger mechanism, and an AK47 complete with bayonet.   He then further explains that no, these are all quite different to anything one might see shooting pheasants in the Cotswolds.

L: What are they hunting?

Lia: (looking a bit shifty) Anything.

L: But what? Big, small, animals, birds, what sort of thing?

Lia: Anything they can eat.

They reach a clearing and pause for a drink, and the hunters, the dogs and the sing-song voices all melt away into the mist. From now the path is along a bare ridge, still climbing steeply. Lia strips a handful of leaves from a shrub and pops one in his mouth. He offers them around. They taste lemony.

Lia: Sourleaf. Good, huh?

They nod, chewing.

L: So there are three main ethnic groups in Laos, right?

Lia: Yes.

L looks pleased with herself.

Lia: And no.

L: Oh.

Lia: The government says 49. Others say 134.

D: You weren’t far out.

L: Shut up.

Lia: But yes, there are three main groups. You can see them on the money – the 1000 kip notes.

D fumbles in his pockets and finds a note. They study the three women pictured in traditional dress.

1000 kip noteD: So who are they?

Lia: They live in different areas. In the valleys, the hills or the mountains.

He points to the woman on the left.

Lia: This is Lao Loum – lowland Lao. They live in the river valleys and grow wet rice. More than half the population are Lao Loum. They speak the national language – Lao – and follow the national religion – Buddhism.

He points to the right.

Lia: Lao Thoeng – upland Lao. They are maybe one quarter of the population and they live on the hill slopes. They are very poor – when they have no money they barter.

Lastly he points to the middle of the three women.

Lia: And this is Lao Soung – mountain Lao. Hmong people are the largest group of Lao Soung. They grow corn and dry rice, and keep animals to sell. When we arrive at the village you will see.

P1050541The ridge flattens and they emerge onto an orange dirt road. They are now above the cloud, in bright sunshine under a vivid blue sky.

Lia: The village. Ban Phatum.

They look around, but see nothing but forest and the track leading away towards a wooded pass. They follow the track and suddenly come upon fencing and a collection of small buildings. The village is in an idyllic setting, nestled into the pass, fringed by areas of cleared meadow beyond which the wooded mountain rises protectively above. The temperature a perfect mid-20s, the air is clear and the colours seem richer than before – the glowing orange of the earth, the vibrant green of the woods and the cerulean blue of the sky.

In the road a cluster of boys are playing a type of boules with spinning tops. Lia greets them and stops to join in. A carved-wood cylinder, sharpened to a point at one end, is set spinning on its point as a target. Lia takes another, winds a line of string around it and then launches it towards the target. His technique is spot on, his top hits point down and spins across the ground, but he is miles out. The boys laugh in delight.

Lia nods, satisfied. Honour is served. D&L look impressed. They walk on through the village. A group of women are squatting in the shade of a tree, chatting softly and chopping vegetables. Next to them several dogs lie panting and piglets and hens hunt for treasure in the dust.

D: (whispering) What’s “hello” again?

L: (whispering) Something to do with a game. Mah-jong. And a cat. Miao-jong. With an N. Niao-jong I think.

D smiles as he passes. One or two smile hesitantly back.

D: Niao-jong!

The women giggle.

It is Lia’s turn to look impressed.

P1050543The village spreads up both sides of the pass. Single room dwellings of wood and bamboo and palm thatch contain fourteen families and a menagerie of livestock. About half of the houses have corrugated tin roofs but all other building materials have come straight from the forest. They head to the far upper edge of the village, and stop.

Lia: Here is the house. You rest and I will make lunch.

He pauses.

Lia: And the toilet? Over there.

He waves vaguely at the undergrowth beyond the edge of the village. L looks for a latrine or outhouse building but sees nothing.

L: Where exactly?

Lia: Anywhere. In the forest. But don’t go too far.

L: Oh. Of course. Right. Because of the bombs?

Lia looks puzzled, then smiles.

Lia: No, the land here has been cleared. It is safe. There are no bombs.

They wonder what else is out there, but Lia doesn’t elaborate.

P1050551They enter their new home. Under a covered porch two small children sit on tiny stools around a fire in the middle of the earth floor. Nevin is five, but tiny, and his sister Ladah is two. L & D greet their mother, who is their host. She nods shyly at them.

L smiles at the children and waves.

L: Niao-jong!

Nevin stares solemnly at L, stands up, walks over to his sister and wallops her hard over the head. Ladah opens her mouth and howls. Their mother scoops Ladah into her lap, and scolds Nevin. Nevin howls too. L flees indoors to where D is unpacking.

D: Was that you? What did you do to them?

L: Nothing! I promise!

P1050542Their house has a spotlessly swept earth floor, split-bamboo walls and a palm thatch roof. It is cool and airy. A raised bamboo platform covers two sides. This is where they will sleep. L lies back. Despite the absence of a mattress it is surprisingly comfortable.  Through the paper-thin wall a cockerel crows loudly. It is roosting under the eaves of their hut.  Dangling from the ceiling they notice, to their surprise, a lightbulb.

Lia calls them for lunch. On a surface of banana leaves he has laid out cold pork & cauliflower, sticky rice, and a smoky aubergine dip. They are told to eat with their hands – picking up mouthfuls of pork and cauliflower, pinching sticky rice into balls and dipping it into the sauce. It is delicious. Once they have eaten their fill, the family tuck in to the rest.

L: There’s a lightbulb. So the village has electricity?

Lia: A little. Down in the valley is a waterfall which makes electricity. Enough for some of the people to have a light in the evening. You will see.

After lunch they are dispatched for a walk. Shal is an unsmiling teenager with a machete. He speaks only Hmong. They smile at him. He regards them blankly, then turns and walks off. They follow.   Three smaller boys, aged about ten, tag along for the ride, each wielding a balloon on a stick. One by one, along the way, as they swipe at the undergrowth, they pop their balloons. They grin, shrug and carry on. One of them grazes continually, munching fistfuls of sourleaf from the shrubs that he passes.

P1050558The views are glorious – wooded peaks, patchworks of upland meadows and a sea of cloud blanketing them from the rest of the world below. In the fold of a valley lies another little village, spreading down the slope like a landslip. The boys spot figures on the opposite hillside, as tiny as beetles, maybe 500 metres away as the crow flies. They call across and a long conversation ensues, phrases floating to and fro, bouncing from one hill to another, as natural as a phone call, with no need for technology.

On the way back the boys spot a small fallen tree, one end about a foot off the ground. They stand on it, and it moves. Shal joins the younger three, straddling the trunk, and the four of them bounce, helpless with laughter. D & L look on, laughing with them, enjoying their delight.

L: We’re a long way away from crisps and computer games.

***

Back at the village, Lia is killing a cockerel.

D: Oh dear, I hope that’s not the one that lives in our roof.

They leave him to it, and wander around the village. Everywhere there are children and dogs and chickens and pigs and piglets and goats and cows roaming free. Bamboo fences separate the village from the edge of the forest. Despite all the livestock, there are no flies, and almost no waste.

P1050596D: Well, for a start, with no shops there’s no packaging. Or carrier bags. That helps.

They watch Lia hurl a bowl of scraps out of a doorway. Instantly it is hoovered up by piglets and hens.

L: And there goes your food waste. But there’s no animal mess either. Or human for that matter. All these people. All this livestock. And yet it’s remarkably clean.

D eyes up the piglets, snuffling their way eagerly around the village and into the undergrowth beyond.

D: Pigs are omnivorous. Probably best not to think about it.

Children are gathering bundles of grass to make into brooms. Toddlers roam in and out of houses, singly or in groups, some clothed and others naked, clutching sticky rice cakes which they nibble on.

D & L smile and wave.

D: Mah-jong! I mean niao-jong!

The kids grin and wave back.

P1050599A woman is weaving palm leaves to make sections of roof. She laughs and blushes with pleasure as they admire her work. Another woman and her daughters return from the fields with baskets bulging with marrows.

L: Wow – beautiful!

D: And heavy.

The girls nod shyly as they pass.

At the edge of the village, they find the community’s only water source. A skilfully crafted bamboo aqueduct channels water from a mountain spring to the edge of the village in a constant flow, allowing people to wash, do laundry and gather water for their homes. They wander back through a whirl of children and puppies chasing a blue balloon.

P1050630 (2)On the hillside behind their hut, beyond the edge of the village, is a large flat clearing. From here, they have an awesome 180 degree panorama of peaks spread out at their feet and of the sun sinking behind the mountains, washing their own hilltop in gold. It is blissfully peaceful and utterly stunning. They stand there gawping and wearing out their camera. There is a chuckle.

Small child: Falang. Oh!

Another chuckle.

Smaller child: Falang. Oh!

Two little boys, aged maybe three or four, are standing on the other side of the clearing, laughing at them. Falang means “foreigner” in Lao, and obviously also in Hmong.

Boys: Falang – oh!

L: Niao-jong!

She waves. They edge nearer, grinning and laughing. The smaller child is naked and holding a red balloon. Both are barefoot, oblivious to the sharp stony ground.

Boys: Falang – oh!

L: Niao-jong!

They dart nearer. L reaches out, but they dart back. She folds her arms and they dart forward.

Boys: Falang – oh!

L: Niao-jong!

Boys: Falang – oh! Falang – oh! Falang – oh! Falang – oh!

P1050648 (4)They run circles around her, chanting and laughing. L laughs with them, whirling within their circle but keeping her distance, frightened of frightening them.

D: Whatever are you doing?

L: I don’t know. I’m terrified!

D: What of? They’re children.

L: Exactly!

Boys: Falang – oh! Falang – oh! Falang – oh! Falang – oh!

At dusk they return to their home, add extra layers of clothing, and join Lia around the fire under the porch. The whole village smells aromatically of woodsmoke. There is the soft chatter of conversations around cooking fires, the wail of an overtired child, and the sound of a hundred hens.

L: There are lots of cockerels, aren’t there? About thirty seven, I’d guess.

D: One less than earlier.

He nods at the fire, over which a plucked chicken is spread out flat and cooking. Lia rolls his eyes.

Lia: It’s the only reason I don’t like staying here. I can’t sleep. You will see. Three, four o’clock in the morning – they start! Then all the village wakes up, talking and making a noise. It’s terrible!

They watch the cockerels stalking around, bossing their hens. Nearby a young man is stroking and teasing and hand-feeding a white cockerel with a long tail.

D: What’s going on there? That one looks quite different.

Lia: A fighting rooster. He’s very special.

There is a loud crow from the eaves of their house.

L: Thank goodness. He’s still alive.

Lia: And that one, he’s special too. A hunting rooster.

A gaggle of little girls sidle up to L and stand beside her. They have solemn pretty faces and are dressed in traditional Lao wrap-around skirts, topped and tailed by western style tops and leggings. One has her little brother strapped to her back, legs dangling.P1050617

D: That’s sweet. They want to be your friend.

L: I know. What shall I do?

D: How should I know? Be nice.

L smiles at them. They stare seriously back at her. She gets out her camera and photographs a hen, pecking at their feet. She shows them the photo. They smile. She points the camera at them – takes a photo. Shows them. They giggle and point at the image, call their friends over and bossily arrange themselves into a line to be photographed again.

L: There are plenty of children here.

Lia: (sighing) Hmong people don’t understand birth control. The women have six or eight children. The man can have several wives. And they do not have to marry to be together. In the valleys some Lao Loum think badly about the Hmong because of this. The lowland Lao are very strict – no sex before marriage. Anyway. All these things make a lot of kids that need food and clothes.

L: Do they go to school?

Lia: Some. Now the track is here, it is easier. Until two years ago, the only way to the valley was the way we walked today. But now they can arrive at the main road in one hour, on a motorbike.

They have noticed that a few of the young men in the village have mopeds.

L: Do they go every day?

Lia: No – it’s too far. They stay at school for the week, from Sunday to Friday. But they have to bring their own food and uniform and books and pens and paper. It’s not easy.

L: We want to help. We brought some money. To help pay for the kids to go to school. Is that the right thing to do?

Lia: Money is good. Or clothes – they always need clothes and shoes. Not toys though – nothing plastic. The people here don’t understand about rubbish. Last week a visitor gave them balloons – you can see – the kids are very happy, but now there are are pieces of rubber all over the village.

P1050621 (2)They sit around the fire in the dark. Puppies and hens tiptoe close to the embers. Lia brings out supper. There is barbecued chicken, boiled marrow, chicken and marrow soup, and rice.

D: Do people eat meat every day here?

Lia: No. Only when the hunters bring animals. Mostly they eat rice. And vegetables.

L: But all this livestock? There are so many hens and pigs. And cows and goats.

Lia: Hmong people don’t eat these animals – they sell them. Except for the spirit sacrifices.

L:   The…..?

Lia: At a ceremony, they will kill an animal. The spirits take the blood, and after that, the people can eat the body.

By 8pm it is silent, and very dark. There is no moon, but a million stars glow brightly in the utter absence of light pollution. The village is in blackness, interiors lit only by cooking fires and half a dozen dim light bulbs, and outside the occasional bobbing of a torch at the edge of the forest – heading to the loo before bed.

D: It’s so peaceful. No parties?

Lia: (laughing) Hmong people are quiet people. They don’t listen to music, only their own traditional music, and they don’t drink alcohol. Not even lao-lao rice whisky.

On their bamboo platform, they find a mosquito tent has been set up, two quilts and two pillows. They snuggle down, and sleep soundly, aware only of their hipbones as they turn over.

***

D: Holy crap! What’s the time?

L: 3.47am.

The cockerels have started. All 37 of them. Including the one in their eaves.

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