Tag Archives: Buddhism

Superhuman Sherpas – Nepal – Chapter 9

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Route = Namche Bazaar (3440m) – Thame (3820m) – Thame Gompa (3970m) – Namche Bazaar (3440m)

 Date = 16-18 March

Today is a rest day.  Angtu is shocked that D&L want breakfast at the ludicrously late hour of 9am, but joins them anyway.  They have coffee, tea, cereal and toast.

D:  No, no eggs thank you.

The waitresses bring bacon, fried potatoes, and something sinister called chicken sausage.  They gaze at Angtu in dismay.

D:  We didn’t ask for any of this.

Angtu:  Don’t worry.  I will eat.

He tucks in happily.

They amble around Namche Bazaar, admiring the multi-coloured buildings nestled in their horseshoe valley surrounded by high white peaks.  They explore the paved and stepped alleys, the hiking shops and souvenir shops, the cafes and grocers.  They scoot past the meat market where dogs wait expectantly for discarded cut-offs, and through the busy weekly market selling eggs, onions and garlic, aprons and kitchenware.P1020490 (2)

Angtu:  Namche is a trading town.  With Tibet.  For over 100 years.

L:  What do they trade?

Angtu:  Grains and hides and dried potatoes.  Nepali paper and cotton.  All carried over the pass to Tibet.  And they’d bring back salt and Tibetan wool.

L:  Does that still happen?

Angtu:  Only a little.  Now things in China are cheaper than Nepal, so Tibetans come here to sell us Chinese goods.  Sherpa people don’t make a living from trade any more.  Now it’s from tourism.

They peer through the doors of the monastery, which is closed, but circle it (clockwise) and turn all the prayer wheels.  They eat pizza and drink cappuccino.

They examine an exhibition of Nepalis who have summited Everest.   There are a lot of them.

L:  How come they’re all Sherpas?  Like Phurba.  Almost every single one?

Angtu:  Sherpas are very strong.

D:  Sherpas make the best mountaineers and high-altitude porters.  They’re really good at it.

L:  Why?

D:  They’ve been living up here, at altitude for so long, centuries, that they’ve become physically superior beings.  Their blood whizzes oxygen around the body better than the rest of us.

Angtu:  Sherpa people have been in this region for 400 years.  They came from Tibet, and when they arrived there was nothing here – no people or walking trails or bridges or fields.  Just forest and grass and rivers.

D:  So were Sherpas the first people ever to come to this region?

Having listened magnanimously to Phurba described as a superior being, Angtu feels it is time to give a gentle shout out to his own ancestors.

Angtu:  Maybe.  Or maybe not.  There is some evidence of earlier people.  Maybe Rai people – shepherds.  I think Rai people were maybe here first.

P1020531 (2)He takes them up to a viewpoint above town.  On the northern horizon, the clouds shift briefly.

Angtu:  There!  There it is!

D:  There what is?

Angtu:  Everest!

He points out the unmistakable dark pyramid of Mount Everest, jutting up from behind its lower neighbours, its formidable south west face too steep for snow to stick to.  The clouds shift again and it is gone.

***

D&L need to work on acclimatisation, so they’re heading higher, to the village of Thame for a night.  Clouds are rolling over the higher peaks, hiding the sun, as they make their way up a rocky valley.  The trail is theirs alone, except for a giggling family helping their very drunk grandfather home from a boozy morning in Namche.  And an army of litter pickers.

The SPCC (Sagarmatha Pollution Control Committee) has been busy in the area since 1991.  They manage rubbish and recycling collection and disposal in villages, on trekking trails and on popular mountain climbing routes.  They have installed bins along all the major trails – with waste sorted into burnable and non-burnable.  They’ve built 3 incinerators to dispose of burnable waste and dug more than 100 pits for biodegradable rubbish.  They’ve banned glass drinks bottles entirely from the park – wiping out injuries from broken glass and the high cost of transporting heavy and bulky glass waste out of the area.  They even manage a couple of public toilets on the busiest trails.  They promote environmental awareness to local people and businesses and tourists, and organise annual clean-up campaigns.  And it really works.  For all the people living, visiting and walking through this landscape, it is remarkably litter-free.

They pass a patchwork of ploughed fields.

L:  What can they grow up here at 3500 metres?

Angtu:  Potatoes, barley and buckwheat.  Only one harvest a year – there’s a short growing season because it’s cold and dry.  It’s difficult to grow enough to live on.  Many people leave their village for months to work as climbers and guides and porters for the trekking season.

L:  Like you?

Angtu smiles.

Angtu:  Yes – like me.

Three laden yaks make their way past, ponderously, swinging their heavy heads and long sharp horns in the manner of absent-mindedly handled weapons.  They wear their hair long, like a skirt around their knees.  Their legs are short and their long-plumed tails swish gently behind them.

As D&L pause under a soaring overhang of rock, brightly painted murals of deities looming down on them, it begins to sleet.  The final half hour to Thame is a cold one.  Needles of ice-cold rain pummel sideways into their faces as they zig-zag up a crumbling slope of scree to reach the village – a wet green-grey carpet of close-cropped grass, stone walls and low buildings.

In their lodge they are the only guests.  It is achingly cold but there’s an electric blanket.  They get straight into bed.

L:  D’you know that Thame is a village of superheroes?

D:  I did not know that.

L:  There must be something in the air.  This tiny place has produced all the world’s best ever Sherpa mountaineers. Edmund_Hillary_and_Tenzing_Norgay-2

D:  Like who?

L:  Like Tenzing Norgay, the first person ever to summit Everest along with Edumund Hillary in 1953.

L:  Like both Apa Sherpa and Phurba Tashi Sherpa who share the record for having summited Everest 21 times each – more than anyone else ever.

L:  Like Ang Rita Sherpa, who holds the record for having summited Everest without oxygen 10 times.   They all come from here.

Outside, a narrow clear-sky window reveals a gigantic sun-lit snow-wrapped peak, floating in a choppy sea of dark grey storm clouds.  It’s a little bit magic.

Dinner is excellent, and copious.  They’re not very hungry.  Luckily Angtu is with them.

Angtu:  Don’t worry.  I will eat.

***

Angtu:   Don’t worry.  I will eat.

Angtu helps himself to lavish portions of breakfast.   He and Phurba have slept well, in a room in the lodge.  This morning D&L find their private bathroom rather wasted.  The water pipes are all frozen.  They scrape the iced condensation from the inside of the window and look out.  It’s a stunningly beautiful blue-sky day.  The valley is ringed by mountains – to one side a low shrub-covered hillside, to the other a gigantic slab of snow and rock.

From the crumbling, scrubby ridgetop above Thame, they can see almost into Tibet.  A woman walks by, ceaselessly mumbling under her breath the Buddhist mantra – “om mani padme hum”.  They follow the stupas and shrines set at intervals along the path, until they reach the monastery, built around a courtyard.   The terracotta-painted gompa stands in contrast against the towering wall of rock behind.  They sit on the sun-warmed flagstones, their backs against the sun-warmed wall, and wait for a monk to unlock the door.P1020584 (3)

D:  There’s been a monastery here for 350 years.  There are over 260 monasteries in the Sherpa region and this is one of the oldest.

L:  Never mind that – look at the views!

A white prayer-flag flutters on a tall pole in the centre of the courtyard, which has buildings on three sides.  The fourth side has nothing – just an immense sky and magnificent views, down over the village and further, to layers of jagged white mountains edging the horizon.

L:   Is that a reservoir, down at the far edge of Thame?

Angtu:  A little hydropower plant.  The river goes into it and makes electricity for all the villages from here down to Namche.

L:  For lighting?

Angtu:  And for grinding grain and rice.  And for cooking and heating water – so local people don’t need so much wood.

They examine the beautiful interior of the gompa, which despite the wooden floors and brightly coloured decorations, is dark and chilly.  Two lines of low wooden prayer platforms are lined with neatly folded, thick cloaks, for the monks to wrap up in when meditating.  Clearly, despite the hydro-power, both heat and light are resources not to be squandered.  They head back outside, to the sunshine and the views.

D:  It’s quite different to a Thai Buddhist monastery.

L:  It’s a different sort of Buddhism.  This is Mahayana.  In Thailand it’s Theravada.

D:  What’s the difference?

L:  I’m not really sure.  Except that possibly in Thai Buddhism the ultimate goal is to reach personal enlightenment, whereas here it’s to become enlightened and then help others to get there too.  Maybe.  You’d need to ask an expert.

D:  But otherwise it’s similar?

L:  I think so, in many ways.  They both believe in reincarnation, and gaining merit, which in Nepal is called “sonam”, to improve their current and future lives.  And here they believe that mountaintops are the home of the gods.

D:  I can believe that too.  Just look around – if one was a god, where better to live?

Angtu: Mount Khumbila is home to Khumbila – the god who protects this area.  The mountain is too sacred to be climbed.  It’s not so high – just 5761m – but it has never been climbed.

D:  Where is it?

Angtu: Just above Namche – I will show you on tomorrow’s walk.  And of course Mount Everest is sacred too.  The goddess protector of Everest and the whole region is Miyolangsangma.  She lives at the top of the mountain and rides a golden tiger.  She’s the goddess of giving.

They walk back down along the ridge, looking northwards towards Tibet.

L:  Angtu?  Could we walk into Tibet?

Angtu looks startled.

Angtu:  Now?

L:  No, not now!  Just generally.  Can people just walk across?

Angtu:  No.  Sometimes the borders with Tibet are closed and sometimes open.  Right now a few are open, but only five or six, for local people to trade.  But tourists need permits.  And in winter they are closed with snow.

P1020590 (2)They cross the yak paddocks in Thame.  Yaks are lying or grazing, wearing woven collars and big bells and wisps of crimson wool.  On their withers is tied a white prayer-flag with Tibetan script printed in gold.

Angtu:  Yaks are very valuable for local people.  If you have a yak, you have milk and curd and cheese, you have wool for clothes and rugs, you have power to plough your potato fields, you have dung for fuel and cooking and warmth, and you have transport to carry heavy loads.

L:  Can the yaks stay there all year?

Angtu:  No – in the summer they will go higher to pastures further up the mountain – to Gokyo – and then they will come down here again in the winter when it snows.

L:  That happens in Europe too, in the mountains.  Not with yaks of course.  With sheep.  And cows.

They find a little used path to take them back down to Namche on the other side of the river.  It starts well but dwindles out.  They weave their way comfortably down a grassy slope, slaloming between clumps of juniper.  The slope ends at a bluff.  A thin crumbling animal track zigs on down to the river far below.  D finds a better way, but longer, and sets off away from them.  L is torn.  She chooses to follow Angtu, not wanting to undermine him or hurt his feelings.  They slip and slide, Angtu grimacing and guiding L from below, while D tactlessly emerges underneath them on a flat trail, looking smug. P1020605 (2)

Angtu:  Slowly, slowly.

Angtu:  Not easy.

Angtu:  Be careful – slippery.

At the water’s edge they rest, sun bouncing off the turquoise surface and the broad white river stones, smoothed and flattened by centuries of winter torrents.  The air is cold, the water icy, but the sun is hot on their faces and the scenery spread out before them is like a cinematic backdrop – too big and beautiful to possibly be real.

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Zombies & Witch-Doctors – Nepal – Chapter 5

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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.

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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