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Kathmandu, Bhaktapur, Pokhara, Jomsom Trek, Pokhara
Namaste! is a Nepalese greeting that means "We bow to the God within you." Nepal is a beautiful little country surrounded by the Himalayas - the world's tallest mountains. We enjoyed the temples and bazaars of Kathmandu, Pokhara and Bhaktapur, then "headed for the hills" for two weeks of trekking along the world-famous Annapurna Circuit. October-November is the best time to trek in Nepal because the monsoon season (rain, mud, leeches) is over and it's harvest time, when the two most important festivals are held. For once, our timing was right and we were there for both festivals. The first one was amazing: both Hindus and Buddhists spend 10 days celebrating Shiva's wife's reincarnation as a collie dog!
Kathmandu's Durbar Square is lined with magnificent wooden temples topped with grass-tufted red tile roofs. We sat high on one temple's stone steps beneath a frieze of gargoyles to watch the amazing festival scene below. The scene overhead was also amazing - the temple soffits were supported by wooden struts covered by wildly erotic tantric figures!
Fluttering pigeons filled the square, along with jingling rickshaws, vendors carrying "trees" of wooden flutes, dealers with carpets partially unfurled, an occasional parade of percussion instruments and lots of sacrificial chickens in bamboo baskets. Women in brilliant red, pink, yellow and green saris moved around in a giant kaleidoscope of color. Families who entered a nearby temple emerged with tikkas (globs of vermilion wax) on their foreheads. Occasionally, a saddhu (loin-clothed holy man) wandered past. The day before had been devoted to animal sacrifices and worshippers delivered chickens, goats and calves to Durbar Square, where the ritual executioner dispatched their souls to animal heaven and their carcasses back to the buyer for his festival dinner table. Fortunately, we missed all this. But we did see a black heifer lying on the plaza, headless and bloody. Above it all, hundreds of colorful kites dotted a serene blue sky.
BHAKTAPUR AND POKHARA
One day we took a taxi to Bhaktapur, the former capital of Nepal - a bustling city of herringbone red brick streets, skirted pagodas, shrines in colorful courtyards, and remarkable architecture in red brick and dark carved wood. Here, as in Katmandu, the struts supporting pagoda eaves are carved into erotic figures. (Sex is the central metaphor for spiritual enlightenment in the tantric offshoot of Buddhism.) The rice harvest was at its golden peak and every square meter of open space was piled high with drying grasses and heaps of golden grain that farmers were raking and winnowing.
From Kathmandu, we flew to Pokhara, the staging area for treks into the Annapurna reserve. This is where trekkers hire guides and get trekking permits, provisions and gear. We stayed at Sacred Valley Inn - a charming little guesthouse managed by Vicki, an American former Peace Corps volunteer, and her Nepalese husband. She arranged for us to hire an English-speaking guide/porter for $12/day. Although not much more than five feet tall, Gam toted our 40-pound backpack with ease. Each of us carried eight-pound rucksacks filled with drinking water, guidebooks, parkas, camera and binoculars. Joan gave Gam daily lessons in English, using a small booklet of Nepalese myths. Lou taught him to sing the American folk song "She'll Be Comin' 'Round the Mountain!" We had a fun time together.
In Nepal, trekking isn't technical or even normal mountain climbing. Rather, you just walk up and down, and up some more. (Our trek from Naya Pul up to Muktinath and back down to Jomsom was more than 75 miles long, with a total elevation change from 3000 to 12,500 feet.) And most trekking here isn't a wilderness experience either, as the main treks are along well-worn stone paths linking mountain villages and trekking lodges.
Nor is trekking a solitary experience. Because much of Nepal is road-less, the trails are heavily used by pack trains. A jingling sound warned us to plaster ourselves to the side of the cliff because heavily-laden donkeys sporting bells, dyed plumes and little Tibetan prayer rugs on their heads were coming around the bend. Sometimes a big flock of horned sheep came by on their way down from summer pasture and once a herd of yaks plodded past heading for market. Countless trekkers streamed by us - mostly from England, France, Germany, Poland, Israel, Japan, Australia, Canada and the United States. But many of the people we passed were Nepalese and transplanted Tibetans toting stuff between villages. The local folk wear colorful traditional garb - in distinct contrast to the high-tech Goretex and fleece worn by Western trekkers.
THE JOMSOM TREK
The popular Jomson Trek follows the mighty Kali Gandaki River most of the way. Along its upper reaches in the U-shaped glacial valley the riverbed is broad; shallow braided streams meander across the terrain to join it. Rushing, gurgling sounds accompanied us as we moved along. Late one afternoon we sat on a rock at the torrent's edge, watching a small bird fluttering just above the rapids and remembering Joan's mother - an avid bird lover - who'd died at 87 earlier in the year. Farther downstream, the raging river carves out the deepest canyon in the world before it enters the Ganges and flows into the Bay of Bengal.
Our first trekking lodge (above) was a four-hour walk from where we began. We seldom walked more than six hours a day and each lodge where we stayed was different. Some were basic - charging $1.50 for a double room, with squat toilets in a shed out back. Other lodges offered more comfortable doubles with private baths - at rates ranging up to an "astronomical" $5.00. We always ate where we slept, as that is how the innkeepers make their "real" money: $2.50 to $4 apiece for dinner!
The high mountains were almost always in view. Machhapuchhare ("Fish Tail") was the most picturesque, but the highest snowy peaks looming above us were Dhaulagiri and Annapurna South. (There are four Annapurna peaks, with the tallest often too far back to see.) The youthful Himalayas are still growing slowly, as the Indo-Australian plate continues to collide with the Eurasian continent. Poon Hill - near the beginning of the Jomson Trek - is said to be the most popular trekking destination in the world. We arose at 4 a.m., put on fleece and parkas and joined a flashlight stream of over 300 other trekkers on the 45-minute ascent to the summit. At the top, we saw the Big Dipper standing on its handle above Annapurna South and the full moon still shining golden on the western horizon. The moon sank as dawn advanced and the sun lit up the five snow-capped mountains. After an hour enjoying the vast panorama, we went back down the hill for pancakes and coffee at Sunny Lodge in Deurali-Ghorepani.
The pleasure of trekking among these mountains came as much from the commonplace as the spectacular. We enjoyed talking with water buffaloes and Brahma bulls (who did not moo back, but roared), gasping at the handsome, shaggy yaks heading down to market and watching donkeys have their packs removed at the end of the work day, and - legs akimbo - roll in the dust to scratch their backs. And the flocks of curve-horned sheep! Why are they so endearing? Is it their vulnerability, their quizzical gaze or their pathetic bleating and thigh-to-thigh huddling? Or is it just their sheer stupidity? We watched one tethered sheep almost hang himself on his rope trying to get free to join a passing flock. We saw four sheep fall off the trail and down a steep cliff, and watched shepherds hoist three of them back up - abandoning the fourth to the wild.
One day as we approached a shaky wooden bridge spanning a 30-foot-wide stream, a flock of about 200 sheep arrived on the other side and totally balked at crossing the bridge. For the next 20 minutes the three shepherds tried to cajole and coax them across. One at a time, the shepherds dragged stubbornly resisting "leader" sheep across the bridge to show the others it was safe to cross. But the minute the shepherds turned their backs to get some more, the untended sheep would swim back to the main flock. In the end, one third of the flock did walk over the bridge, while the other two-thirds swam.
Along the trail there were women threshing rice, while others were winnowing - one assisted by an electric fan! A man was repairing a wooden plow (essentially the same style that's been in use some 5,000 years.) A pair of buffalo pulled a plow while two Tibetan women stooped to gather the upturned potatoes. Speaking of stooping, a woman just in front of us bent and bare-handedly scooped up a glop of greenish cow dung, placing it in her near-full basket to be dried and used as fuel or fertilizer. A baby crawled on all fours down the center of a village street, picked up a large donkey turd, and (just as Lou snapped a photo) inserted it in her mouth!
THE SNOW LEOPARD
Taking pleasure in small things is a major theme in Peter Matthiessen's The Snow Leopard, chronicling his two-month trek through the Nepalese mountains in the fall of 1973. His award-winning book was an inspiring companion on our trek. He began, as we did, in Pokhara, but after a couple of days his trail headed farther west and then north into the Dolpo District. He was accompanying a renowned field biologist who wanted to observe the rutting behavior of bharal sheep - thinking they might be the link between sheep and goats. Matthiessen was on a spiritual journey - using the vast, silent mountains to meditate and perhaps catch a glimpse of the rare snow leopard. Matthiessen's descriptions in his daily journal of people, flora, fauna and geology - along with his evocative comments on the cultural, religious, sociological, and historical aspects of life here - are so accurate and richly metaphoric that we almost felt more connected with the mountains through his descriptions than directly through our senses. (He has since become a fully ordained Zen Buddhist roshi or teacher.)
In recent years, the Dolpo area where Matthiessen camped has been the center of political unrest and violence. For a long time the inefficient and often corrupt Nepalese government grossly neglected the needs of the poverty-stricken rural people living in the far reaches of the country. In the early 1990s so-called "Maoist" dissidents began a series of protests that led to a brutal police crackdown. Since then, the Maoists have retaliated by systematically attacking Nepalese policemen. While we were in Nepal (October 2000) the rebels launched their biggest offensive and attacked a police station at Dunai, the administrative headquarters of the Dolpo district. Fourteen policemen were killed. Two days later, the rebels ambushed a police patrol, killing eight more. Some observers believe that the rebels have legitimate grievances with the government. A few believe that, after many years of pursuing their cause in peaceful ways without effect, they are justified in their violent tactics. Since then, the royal family was assassinated (apparently by the brother of the king) and violence has become more commonplace.
Among the many people we encountered along the trail were porters carrying supplies to the villages along the way. These human pack animals staggered under basket loads weighing as much as 50 kilograms (110 pounds) bending far forward against the tump lines across their foreheads. The men weighed little more than the loads they carried and wore only thin-soled rubber sandals on their feet. We also met barefoot Saddhu ascetics walking up the trail to the holy site of Muktinath. Wearing dreadlocks, foreheads painted in red and white stripes and bodies wrapped in loincloths, they carried thin blankets for sleeping and tin buckets for begging food. Many of these pilgrims had walked barefoot all the way from southern India! (Below is one of many small shrines along the trail.)
We met Captain Pun, an impressive 43-year-old man who had already lived several lives: as a member of a Gurkha Regiment in the Indian Army, as a world-class diving champion (he proudly showed us his many medals), a social worker, policeman, school principal, civic leader and lodge/restaurant owner. Hearing of the (rare) robbery and murder of a lone backpacker, Captain Pun ran four hours down the Jomsom trail, grabbed the culprit and beat him soundly. Enraged, he told the guy that many people depended on tourism for their income and he wasn't going to let a punk spoil it for everybody! In Captain Pun's cafe at Sunny Lodge, 12-year-old Siba was the only waiter - busily juggling orders and clean-up while speaking to guests in halting English. This charming, highly motivated and capable boy had had only three years of schooling. Whether he would receive more was highly problematic.
In Nangethanti one evening, we sat around the wood stove by candlelight - this little village didn't have electricity yet - and talked with three friendly ex-Gurkhas, who shared some of their apple brandy with us. They were headed from Pokhara to Sikha to organize a demonstration for more pension benefits for their compatriots. Later, back in Pokhara, Lou lunched with these men, advising them on the economics of their task. Gurkhas were first recruited by the British in 1815. In World War I, more than 200,000 of these Nepalese mountain men joined the British army and in World War II 250,000 played a vital role in defeating the Japanese. More recently they fought side-by-side with the British in Maylasia and the Falklands. Today there are only 2,500 active British Gurkhas, but many retired ones. It's a shame that the Nepalese Ghurkhas - among the world's fiercest fighters - haven't received the pensions and disability services given to the British veterans. (Captain Pun, on the other hand, served in the Indian Army, which has provided pensions.)
As we hiked along one day, Lou noticed a school near the mountain village of Kobang and went over to investigate. This two-story, veranda-faced structure in white-washed stone and heavy dark wood trim looked like a 19th century California schoolhouse. The teachers came outside and warmly welcomed him. The English language teacher invited Lou to meet with his three 10th grade students, who were in the science lab - a dusty clutter of test tubes, measuring devices, and zoological and botanical specimens gathered from the surrounding fields. Back in a dark corner, the class gathered around a small table covered with stacks of books. On top was one by Dr. Seuss! The three students each read several lines from the Indian poet, Rabinadrath Tagore. Lou encouraged them to study English diligently, because it has become the world's international language and a key to their future success. Back in Kathmandu Lou purchased three boxes of English dictionaries, world maps and school supplies and posted them to the school. After witnessing so much poverty, it was a good feeling to leave Nepal a bit better off than when we arrived.
TRAGEDY ON THE TRAIL
One day near the village of Ghasa Lou came around a corner and found a dead body on the trail. According to the Nepalese guide and policemen waiting nearby, the 56-year-old British hiker had suddenly toppled over and died - apparently of a heart attack. Her husband had just left for a village three hours up the trail to arrange for a helicopter. Lou sat by the river around the corner from her body, waiting for Joan who was walking slowly at this altitude. He stared at the tattered Buddhist prayer flags flapping in the wind and at the river moving ceaselessly below, and thought about the fragility of life and how we can take nothing for granted. When Joan arrived at the body a half-hour later she was really shocked because the woman's pants and shirt were the same color as Lou's, and the curly gray hair visible above the jacket covering her face looked just like his. When we found each other again, we hugged for a long time. Later, we passed the husband as he came back down the trail - tall, handsome, graying, athletic - with tears streaming down his cheeks.
KAGBENI TO MUKTINATH
The best day's trek was the stretch from Kagbeni to Muktinath and back. We began at 9,000 feet and ascended to an elevation of 12,500 feet, then returned the same day to Kagbeni. Joan, who was experiencing some altitude sickness and remembering the dead woman hiker six years her junior, followed the old saying that "Discretion is the better part of valor." She rode a pony up the trail while Lou and Gam hiked with trekkers we'd befriended earlier.
The morning was cloudy, cool and quiet and the path rose steeply above Kagbeni, passing over starkly barren hills, then along streams wandering through meadows, vegetable gardens, orchards and clusters of yellow poplars. Both Hindu and Buddhist pilgrims flock to the magical site of Muktinath, situated on an incline in a grove of trees. We spun the prayer wheels, jingled and clanged the bells and - at the lower temple dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva - were blessed with tikkas by the caretaker, whose palm we crossed with the expected rupees. This likeable man asked us to affirm the goodness in our lives - an easy request to fulfill.
Then, like children, we kicked and rustled the autumn leaves beneath gnarly trees draped in colorful prayer flags. At Vishnu's temple we touched our fingers to the sacred waters that fall from 108 copper cowhead spouts in the walls. Many pilgrims had stacked cairns (piles of stones) in memory of their ancestors on the rocky hill below the temples. Joan paid tribute to her bird-loving mother with a circle of stones in the shape of a bird's nest.
During a lunch of vegetable curry and dal baat (lentils and rice) in a nearby trekking lodge, we talked with a couple from South Africa who invited us to visit them sometime. We then descended to the fort-like village of Jharkot to visit its gompa (temple) perched on a promontory. The outside walls of the gompa's veranda were richly painted with religious subjects full of energy and character. Although the doors to this red rock temple were locked, a walk along the narrow ledge to the back of the temple yielded a breathtaking panorama of the valley and towering Dhalagiri and Nilgiri.
The yellows and grays of the stark hillsides contrasted dramatically with the harvest fields of green and rust. As we approached Kagbeni, the lowering sun left dark shadows in the deep vertical creases of the canyon walls and set the sorghum fields ablaze in orange.
The first night in Kathmandu we enjoyed a Newari dinner at the Kathmandu Guest House where we stayed. The traditional Nepalese dishes included dal (lentil soup), rice, a vegetable curry of spinach, cauliflower and potatoes, spicy water buffalo and a chicken curry. We were served yogurt with fruit and a pastry for dessert. Delicious! Because this was harvest time, the Marpha apples were crisp and sweet. In a single day on the trek, we had apples, apple pancakes, stewed apples, apple juice, apple cider and apple brandy. (And made several trips to the john!) The best single dish on this trip was unquestionably the nak cheesecake we had in Jomsom. There's no such thing as yak cheesecake, because the yak is male!
With a very favorable exchange rate in 2000, Nepal was quite inexpensive for American visitors. Our porter/guide was $12/day for the 15-day trek; he paid his own expenses, but we treated him to a number of beers and meals, and gave him a big tip at the end. We also paid his airfare from Jomsom to Pokhara at the end of the trek, but locals fly for only $14, instead of the $60 charged tourists. (We later realized that Gam was uninsured. If he'd been injured, we would have been morally obligated to care for him and his family. It would probably be better to hire a guide for $3-5/day more through a recognized tour guide operator, and make sure the insurance is covered.) The cheapest double room on our trek was 80 rupees. At 72 rupees to the dollar, that was about $1.15 - quite the deal! Our daily food and lodging on the trek always cost under $10 per person and we often got the most expensive room available. While the rooms were invariably clean, they were sometimes short on comfort. In one trekking lodge the communal squat toilet was down the outside stairs and across the courtyard - a challenging trip at 3 a.m. Somehow, the discomforts of the trek seemed small compared with its delights - the many friendly people and the stupendous mountain views.
Other photos of Nepal
From Nepal we flew back to Thailand. The following year (2001) we visited: MIDDLE EAST & GREECE
DETAILS, DETAILS, DETAILS
GUIDEBOOK: Trekking in the Nepal Himalaya (Lonely Planet)
BACKGROUND READING: The Snow Leopard, Peter Matthiessen; Shopping for Buddhas, Jeff Greenwald
KATHMANDU: Kathmandu Guest House, $20/double, bath down the hall. Meals in the outdoor patio restaurant are extra. We stored our extra luggage at KGH while trekking. www.ktmgh.com/kgh/default.php
POKHARA (Lakeside): Sacred Valley Inn, $8/double, including bath. Ultra-clean and nicely decorated. Next door is a garden cafe serving breakfasts with homemade bread and jam.
Joan and Lou Rose email@example.com