Tag Archives: Jumbesi

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.

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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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