Nepal: not so much another country, as another world

 

Travel article, by Rory Fitzgerald (Southern Star May 2008)

 

 

Nepal. A land lost in time. Certainly the taxi that took us from Kathmandu airport was from a distant era. Indeed the fact it ran at all seemed miraculous, as it stuttered and jarred its cargo of two jetlagged and bewildered Irishmen in to the heart of this strange and enticing city.

 

“Three Maoist bombs today! But no worry for you, Maoist like tourists!” enthused our taxi driver, in explanation of the M16 rifles pointing at our car window at an army roadblock. Huge armoured personnel carriers groaned through the medieval streets, on the prowl for communist terrorists. Despite the day’s unrest, the evening crowds were full of smiles, colour and the bustling warmth that Asian cities seem to radiate at sundown. The only people looking slightly uneasy were the soldiers, who looked like they should still be in school - primary school, some of them.

 

On arrival at the Kathmandu Guest House, we received a hearty welcome: “we welcome our most auspicious guests!” gushed the beaming receptionist, as porters scuttled around smiling, nodding and carrying our most auspicious rucksacks. The only sensible thing to do seemed to be to go for a wander and perhaps a quick pint, so off we went in to the teeming alleyways outside. There were almost no tourists to be seen, a result perhaps of many western governments’ advising against non-essential travel to Nepal due to the Communist uprising in progress. The lack of tourists only added vigour to the swarms of rickshaw drivers, hashish vendors and purveyors of tiger balm who seemed most eager to make our acquaintance. We eventually escaped the throng, finding a quiet bar in which to recline after the epic flight from Ireland. Here we found the ubiquitous Australian. “Bettah be off home for eleven mate. Curfew.” First we’d heard. What happens if we’re late? “Soldiers shoot ya.” This seemed a harsh, if effective, way to enforce closing time.

 

The next morning we took a rickshaw to Kathmandu’s Durbar Square. The kid pedalling the contraption pointed out the many sights: a temple to Shiva here, a place to get a service referred to as “chikki chikki” there. Yet the life and energy of the place were intoxicating, and we were quickly drawn in to the pleasant chaos. A smiling monk in his burgundy robes, children chasing an alarmed duck, beautiful women in golden flowing saris, prime cuts of buffalo meat rotting in the sunshine, mangy rabid dogs, stalls of spices and truly joyful children in old but well mended school uniforms; “here is life!” we thought, as the aromas of spices and open sewers mingled in the morning air.

 

The square itself comprises a beautiful collection of temples, dating from the 14th century. Many earlier monuments were culled by a series of earthquakes and fires, giving the square an uncluttered feel. Unlike most such tourist hot spots however, these temples are not redundant monuments or relics of another era – they live and breathe. They are used by the locals for their morning devotions, as market stalls, or simply as places to stop and have a chat. The effect is equivalent to visiting Rome to find people in togas wandering about the Agora, praying to Jupiter.

 

Western influence is notable only by its absence. The markets and streets continue, more or less, as if the 20th century never happened. It is rare to see women wear anything but traditional saris. For centuries, Nepal’s isolation from the world was almost total. It was never colonised and no Westerner had been allowed to enter this land until 1951. Some areas of the Mustang province  remained unseen by foreigners until as recently as 1998.

 

We were not just here to see the Kathmandu however, but also to pay our respects to the highest mountain on earth by trekking to Everest base camp.

 

It is advisable to have a trekking guide in the current political climate. At only US$10 a day, it not only contributes to the creaking local economy, but it is not uncommon for trekkers to encounter Maoist rebels. The rebels demand a ‘donation’ to their cause of about US$10 and will politely issue a receipt, complete with hammer and sickle and a picture of Lenin. However, being Nepal, even this donation is open to negotiation. We met a plucky German girl who batted her eyelashes at the terrorists, pleaded poverty, and had her donation reduced to US$5. Personally, I would choose not to quibble with armed guerrillas for the sake of five dollars. Nor would I risk batting my eyelashes at them.

 

Kapill, our guide and porter, ushered us politely through the airport to the slightly decrepit looking ‘Yeti Airlines’ propeller plane. The spectacular flight to Lukla, where we would begin our trek, brought us through the sheer valleys of the Himalayan foothills to within sight of the immense walls of the great 8,000m peaks. The pilots had an assortment of good luck charms in the cockpit. I understood why when we saw the runway at Lukla. It was short, badly gravelled and on a precipitous cliff edge, bordered by enormous crags; all the assistance Buddha or Vishnu could supply would be more than welcome.

 

The first stage of the trek takes you up through lush towering valleys, over glacial torrents on unsteady rope bridges, past waterfalls from the sky, on to the market town of Namche Bazar. At 3,450m, Namche is a good place to spend a few days acclimatising to the altitude. The most common problem with trekkers is that they ascend too fast, get acute mountain sickness, and end up taking a helicopter trip to hospital.

 

Our guide was a smiling and obliging host. Although very small and slight of physique, he was hard as nails and carried three times what we could. A nice chap, he reeked like a slaughterhouse on a hot summers’ evening. He boasted, “you westerners shower all the time – I only need to shower once a month!” The Western concept of hygiene has not yet reached Nepal and it is something that many tourists comment on as a downside to their visit. The hands that put the dried yak dung on the fire will be the hands that make your sandwich, without any intervening soap or water. It is wise to turn vegetarian for the trip, as a certain looseness of the bowel is a mandatory initiation to the country. Peeled vegetables are the only way forward. Eggs are the only other fresh foodstuff available in the mountains, although chickens are new to the mountain villages. Until recently it was believed that the mountain gods did not like chickens, and so eggs had to be carried up from the valleys. In Khumbu at least, the age-old riddle is solved: the eggs came first. 

 

The Sherpa people are quieter and more reserved than the lowland Nepalese, who are perhaps the friendliest, warmest and most vivacious people in the world. The Sherpas came across the mountain passes from Tibet about four hundred years ago, and so are essentially Tibetan in appearance, language and religion. What they have in common with the rest of Nepal is that they are poor beyond belief.

 

I wondered at their aversion to making eye contact for the first few days, until I realised that they were staring enviously at our boots. No wonder, given that these people walk miles of cold mountain tracks, carrying up to 100kg, wearing flip-flops or tattered canvass runners – all they could possibly afford. Nepal’s GNP per capita is $222. Less than our boots cost. It’s hard not to feel somehow guilty at the disparity between their economy and ours. Mobile phones and digital cameras are reacted to like things from another world, and in a sense, they are. Although these items are worth perhaps a year’s wages, by and large the Nepalese people are far too honourable to even think of stealing anything from you.

 

Amongst the rocky terraced fields, villages of basic stone huts have scraped a living off the meagre soil of the Khumbu region for centuries. The ploughing, planting, corn grinding and weaving are all done by hand as they have been since the Sherpa first arrived. In this patriarchal society, women account for 75% of the agricultural labour and men account for about 75% of the lounging around with mates. It is rare to see a man working the fields, although many work hard as porters and mountain guides, for as little as $4 per day. We met one man in Dughla who had climbed professionally all over the world before returning to Khumbu to set up his hostel. He had summited  Everest three times, and retired from climbing after the 1996 Everest disaster when eight people tragically died on the mountain.

 

The Khumbu region is said to be controlled by government forces, which are clearly nervous of Maoist incursions. Sitting for a rest one day, about twenty men in civilian clothes, heavily armed, strolled past us saying ‘namaste’ in a friendly manner. Three women carried their ammunition and supplies in baskets. We presumed them to be rebels. After all, what army patrols in civilian clothes? We told soldiers in the army base at Lukla of the group we had seen. They told us frankly that they prefer patrolling dressed as tourists nowadays as they don’t get shot at so much that way. Seems like a good way to get tourists shot though. The fact that their disguises were of the tacky dayglo variety puts German tourists particularly at risk, which seems a little unfair.

 

From Namche it is at least four or five day’s hard slog to base camp. The route to base camp takes you to the monastery at Tengboche. At 3,900m you are already higher than the Eiger, and yet you are still below the tree line. Here Buddhist monks will bless your journey for a moderate fee. Essentially, they will have a word with the mountain Gods on your behalf, gaining permission for you to enter their domain. Understandably, this place attracts seekers as well as trekkers. In our lodge was a large American monk sporting an impressive Gandalf-like beard, whose overbearing and arrogant manner suggested that his own particular strain of Buddhism favoured actively embracing the ego rather than abandoning it.

 

At 4,100m you go above the tree line and the landscape takes on a desolate and forbidding character. The highest mountains on Earth preside over these rugged valleys. The black rock faces and white peaks soaring above are both uplifting and daunting to look at. We found ourselves walking for miles in silence, humbled and awed. It is inevitable too that the journey will turn inward in the enormous silences of this far place, and many lost memories and thoughts will surface on long tracks and cold nights.

 

As the air thins, breathlessness increases and the walking pace slows. The higher you go, the more primitive the accommodation becomes, and the more expensive the food. In this rarefied air, good sleep doesn’t come easily, no matter how exhausted you are. Our last night before base camp was spent at 5,100m in Gorak Shep.  Sleeping at 1,000 feet above the peak of Mont Blanc or 5.1km straight up from sea level, it was an uncomfortable night, spent waking periodically from dreams of drowning, to find yourself gasping for air on waking. Slight headaches and loss of appetite are the inevitable symptoms of mild altitude sickness, and even the Sherpas suffer at this altitude. A drug Diamox and plenty of water help ease the discomforts.

 

We awoke before dawn to a blizzard, but pressed on to base camp. The terrain is extraterrestrial, white and cyan ice make unearthly forms over the vast glacier. The creak and bang of calving ice and rockfalls are all that breaks the silence. We see the footprints of a snow leopard. After hours trudging through snow, boulders and scree in this surreal place, we see something man made; scattered rotor blades and the skeleton of a crashed helicopter, which went down with the loss of two lives the previous May. We silently pay our respects to those lost. It is close now. Over one unremarkable rise, and through the icy blizzard we see colourful prayer flags flutter and dome tents half buried in snow. Base camp! Where we came all those thousands of mile to be. Three teams of climbers were encamped waiting to ascend. It truly felt like an outpost at the ends of the earth. We sat, took a few photos and ate some Taytos, brought especially for the occasion. The feeling was a mixture of relief and elation. We then turned and embarked on the eight-hour trek to lower, more oxygenated, altitudes where the only thing that will take your breath away is the scenery.

 

There is no luxurious way to do this trek. Other than hiring a battalion of Sherpas to carry your tents and cooking equipment, staying in lodges is the best option. Even in the best ones bedbugs, rats, rotten food and bitter cold are par for the course. There is no electricity, heating or running water above Namche and the ‘toilets’ are the type of holes in the ground that give holes in the ground a bad name.

 

The fourteen day walk demands at least a moderate level of fitness but is perfectly achievable provided you don’t rush, and ascend at no more than 500m per day above 3,500m. We even met a 65 year old English doctor at base camp. It is nonetheless an arduous undertaking and on our return leg we found ourselves fantasising about Holland, it’s flatness and heavily oxygenated air.

 

The experience is one you will treasure for a lifetime. The gruelling days and the physical privations are soon forgotten, and you are left with memories of the stark beauty of greatest mountains on earth and the wonderful people who populate their slopes.

 

Back in Kathmandu, we found ourselves marvelling at things like light switches and comfy beds. There was some eating to be done too to replace the kilos the last two weeks had extracted from us. Whereas a fortnight ago I had been sporting something of a beer belly, now I was positively gaunt. However, our appetites were stunted somewhat by our trip to the cremation ghats at Pashputinath. The sight of human bodies being burned, and the stench in the air is not the ideal aperitif for western pallets. We met another traumatised westerner there, and went for a few beers: these were partly medicinal, and partly to celebrate the end of our successful trek.

 

It was not just us who were celebrating though; the whole country was gearing up for the Dashain festival, the most important in the Nepalese Hindu calendar. The festival marks the end of the monsoon and the whole country was going back to their families, cheerful crowds on bus roofs, and the roads were even more congested than usual. A similar affair to Christmas in many ways, except with animal sacrifices thrown in. A Nepalese friend explained why the animals needed to be sacrificed. “The Goddess Kali,” he said in dark tones, “she like the blood. Yes. She like the blood.”

 

Blood aplenty was provided for Kali, and Kathmandu was for a day transformed in to an animal rights activist’s worst nightmare. With some persuasion I got my travelling companion, a vegetarian, to go to Durbar Square where 108 buffalo, goats and chickens would be sacrificed. The square was thronged and there was an atmosphere of heated devotion. As strange music played robed priests chanted and performed rituals. Buffalo calves and goats were lined up, looking a little uneasy.

 

Each animal had to consent to its death. Water and petals would be put on its head, the animal would then shake its head, signalling its willingness to die.

The swift movement of a large sword cleanly silenced the animal’s bleating. Two assistants would then drag the disembodied head around the altar, creating a neat circle of blood. The most upsetting thing was how the heaps of headless goats and decapitated buffalo kept on kicking. I was told that it is regarded as an act of mercy to the animals, as by killing them they were liberating an “unfortunate brother” trapped in the body of a beast.

 

However the tradition of sacrifice was by no means confined to the priestly circles and virtually every car, motorbike and rickshaw in the city was blood spattered, with at least a dead chicken laid out in front of it to appease the fearful Goddess Kali.

 

Down an alleyway we saw a man with a white goat, surrounded by a gaggle of enthralled children. The bonnet on his car was up, and flowers and food were laid on the engine as offerings. To squeals of delight and disgust from the children, he took a knife and ripped open the goat’s milky throat and then carried the creature in a circle around his old Toyota, careful to get blood from the pumping jugular on all corners. Then he swiftly ripped the goats head fully off and placed it carefully on the carburettor, to complete his altar. There are those who would say that the money spent on the goat would have been better spent on a new set of brake pads, but who is to judge.

 

 

 

Nepal is intense, but intensely wonderful and it is strange, but strangely beautiful. Above all it is unforgettable. It is not so much another country, as another world.

 

 

From Dublin, flights to Kathmandu via Bangkok cost from [eur869] and good guesthouse accommodation en suite costs from $10 per night. Three course meals can be had for $3, making Nepal a most economic destination. The Everest base camp trek, including flights from Kathmandu, airport transfers, accommodation, food and a guide (who doubled as a porter) amounted to US$460 for 14 days.  However our haggling skills were tested to the limit to achieve such a price. It is best to wait until arrival to arrange your trek as we met people who had payed two or three times that price because they booked from abroad. Other than trekking, a variety of white water rafting trips can be arranged. Three days all in costs from $160. The monsoon season, best avoided, is from June to mid-September and the Dashain festival happens over twelve days from late September to early October.

 

The current UK Foreign Office advice is: “You should be aware of the risk of indiscriminate attacks by terrorists in public places, including tourist sites. You should also take particular care to respect any local curfews. If trekking, you are advised to remain on established routes, and to walk in groups and with reputable trekking agencies. You should be aware of a travel warning issued by the US Government, which advises of threats against US citizens and urges them to defer non-essential travel to Nepal.”