We drive up and down on winding roads. Today we have to conquer about 70 kilometers through the mountains alongside a river to reach our overnight stop midway between Kathmandu and Pokhara: the Summit River Lodge in Korintar. After a while we enter a construction zone. Workers, some in flip flops, are carrying stones, small excavators and steamrollers are making noise, the ride gets really bumpy. The government decided to broaden the street – from one lane to two. In such conditions, at least nobody can speed, that makes it a safe journey. After lunch the road is getting better, the news worse. There has been an accident on the main road in the morning and we have to pass the accident site. A bus has crashed into a truck and fell all the way down into the river. Seven people died. Although the traffic jam has cleared many trucks and cars are still lining up in both directions, people are standing on the wall beside the road and watch the rescue team. One man in a life vest and some military personnel are running around. A rubber dinghy lies at the bank of the river. The bus sank completely, there is nothing visible other than brown-green-gray water. Getting people to hospitals is not an easy task – and an even bigger problem for remote mountain villages. If they have to deal with something that cannot be solved with prayer or Ayurveda it can take them days to get to a doctor. Health care is not free in Nepal – unlike in India – but Nepalese can pick up some common medicine from the pharmacy every three months for free, like paracetamol. Also birth control is free of charge. However, many people do not want it. Talking about remote areas in the Himalayas, I have to catch up on an interesting lecture we heard in Kathmandu, supported by the Himalayan Indigenous Society.
Upper Mustang: This is an isolated region in the very north of Nepal. The inhabitants live in heights up to 4.000 meters. It is a semi-independent kingdom! With polyandry (women married to several men)! To warm up and stay “fit”, they drink yak butter tea. We are invited to try – not many of us are able to finish their cup (I am a finisher). It tastes like salty buttery milk with a hint of Earl Grey. In winter the Lhowa people leave the cold for some months. They speak Tibetan or Nepali, most of them are Buddhists. We learn about their weaving culture with self-spun wool and colors made of natural ingredients (even neon pink).
We reach our parking spot in Korintar. Today we walk the rest of the way. Sherpas carry our day packs. A suspension bridge leads us across the river into the mountains and we pass a small village. 450 people are living here, mostly farmers: for example Chepang, Magars, Brahmans and Chhetri. They have their own city council (11 members) and live a self-sustaining life. Most of them are “middle-class”, as B.K. tells us.
The Lodge overlooks the river and is a real hideaway – with cold water in the shower but Wifi. We sit beside the bonfire, the water roars deep down in the valley and we have a Chinese dinner.
The next morning we continue our trip, to the Barahi Jungle Lodge. Safari time in the national park! We take a boat ride on the river to spot crocodiles. And we do see some, resting at the bank. “I promise you a rhino as well”, our ranger says, “otherwise I will cry”. There is no need to do that. Ten minutes pass and we see the silhouette of a leathery butt. There it is! I give up taking pictures with my smartphone camera but Danielle zooms in.
We see the sunset on a small peninsula and are brought back to the lodge via jeep, listening to Nepali music.
The next day we go on a jeep safari through the amazing vegetation on the other side of the river. The military strictly controls the area because of illegal hunting. We spot a lot of deer and capuchin monkeys jumping from tree to tree or just hanging out.
The park has all shades of green in it, high grass and after a while we reach a dead end: am meadow with wetland and water lilies. Another rhino seems to be grazing in the far distance – as soon as it hears the second jeep, it is gone. Anyway: The scenery is peaceful, birds are singing and there is a soft mist over everything, dancing with the sunlight. When we head back it is already getting very chilly again – temperatures rise and drop quickly in the beginning winter time.
The lodge is not far from a cluster of the village “Bhangha”. Around 300 people are living there, some of them work at the lodge. So this is the deal, B.K. tells us: They get some money out of us visiting and in return we are invited to see their daily life. Whether everybody of them is ok with that, I don’t think so. But they take it with a smile. We are there, intruding, sniffing around, taking pictures, walking onto their porches. The simplest houses are made of elephant grass mixed with cow dung and mud. They stay warm inside in winter and cool in summer. Kids are playing (it is a muslim holiday today, so no school), women are washing clothes, a farmer sells cauliflower. One family invites us in to see their home. It is basic and so clean. Many people here have converted to the Christian confession or to Buddhism since 2008 to avoid further discrimination by the Nepali caste system. It is abolished, officially, and there are penalties for violators of law but the way out of Hinduism is obviously the better option.
A villager tells me, that he has worked in Malaysia to make some money and he has come back to live here for good. Children go away to earn money abroad – Dubai, India, Malaysia – and send it back to their parents or their family. A woman is stepping on what seems to be hay. But it is not. It is rice. She extracts corns from the plants.
Several generations live together, with their children and grandchildren. There is free birth control in Nepal but women would have to go to hospitals to get pills. Most of them do not go into that hassle. Election posters are hanging on the walls of some houses. It is rally season – with the elections coming up on the 7th of December. A first phase has already taken place. It is the first time since 1999 that a new parliament is elected. Citizens have to vote in their home district so some parties even offer free bus rides to secure votes, writes a Kathmandu paper. There is no such thing as a postal vote. During the last election voters threw acid in ballot boxes to destroy votes – and thus alter the results in their favor. Local candidates are fighting for votes – especially the communists have gone up in popularity. “The ruling democrats, Nepali Congress, have promised too much”, B.K. says, “and did not keep their promises”. There is a lot of political arbitrariness – above all in the rural regions. Families who are still recovering from the earthquake haven’t seen any money from the government. Others have received several thousand dollars to rebuild their houses. Nepal has had 26 government changes in 27 years. The federal system exists since 2008 but it is not fully in place yet – especially with regard to decentralization and the employment of civil servants on the local level. So with this election people also vote for Provincial Assemblies in the seven provinces. “It is so exciting to see all these changes happening here”, Louisa has said to me when I asked her whether she wants to stay in Nepal. But it is also true that it is not a smooth ride. Since mid November there have been more than 100 incidents of explosions in the country. These attacks probably targeted local politicians. There is a lot of military personnel in the streets and escorts rallies while we are driving in our comfy tour bus and are faced with an “eating challenge” at the jungle lodge (so much good food!).
Trekking the easy way – we just “fly” to Annapurna Base Camp
Overfed we leave for Pokhara – about 150 kilometers and a 7 (!!) hour drive away from the Chitwan area. We make our way back through the construction zone next to the Trishuli river and finally switch to a proper road next to the Marshyangdi river. Pokhara is a starting point for many trekkers who want to climb the Annapurna mountain – a 8091 giant in the Himalayas. We check into our hotel, the Temple Tree next to the Phewa Lake. The city seems to be placed in front of a wall paper of mountains, including the “Fish Tail” – the sacred Machapuchare – that is forbidden to be climbed. There is no time for trekking anywhere anyway, so Marie and I choose the comfy version: helicopter to Annapurna Base Camp (ABC).
The activity turns out to be a lecture in cultural mentality, apart from the natural experience. Our pick up from the hotel is 20 minutes late. Once a small van drives up we hop in. At the airport we have a slight assumption that something is not going as planned. Several girls from a flight agency make us fill out boarding passes in their small booth. The sheet of paper does not show a helicopter but a powered paraglide. We drop the sinal word “helicopter” several times but the girls are caught in their routine. Finally we figure out the misunderstanding (me, imitating a helicopter). But it is too late for the first morning flight. So we have to wait another 90 minutes, concerned that the good visibility with clear sky might change. In the end we board a helicopter with five other guys – Dave, originally from Dublin but working in Dubai – is sitting next to me. He is afraid of heights. “You can grab my hand if you want to”, I say rather facetious. After two minutes of a very (!!) smooth flight he accepts the offer, breathing heavily, once in a while taking pictures with his smartphone without looking outside the window. In my other hand I also have my smartphone handy, take pictures, and after 15 minutes we reach the ABC. The peaks of the mountains are covered in snow (the snow is that is there year-round, no fresh snow yet), the basecamp itself is surrounded by brownish grass. We sep out and feel the altitude of 4130 meters. Fortunately, we have no issues with altitude sickness but I feel a little short of breath with every step. 40 minutes time for pictures – should be enough. A small bunch of trekkers is sitting in front of the guest house. Buddhist prayer flags wave in the wind. What a majestic scenery.
On the flight back I get the seat next to the pilot.
Dave thanks me for holding his hand, we pay and we get back to the hotel. The schedule is tight. We are expected in a Tibetan refugee camp for lunch (momos!), established by the United Nations in 1964 as a temporary settlement for the large number of people fleeing Tibet because of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. B.K. gives us a small introduction on the bus.
More than 500 former refugees and their families live in this steady camp but we are not invited to their homes. Instead, we have a rather commercial experience. We are let out in front of souvenir shops. A fraction of the revenues goes to the refugee community and to their monastery. We peek into a photo exhibition about the Dalai Lama, about his “career” and his values. And I spend too much money on “stuff” I do not need but is so “nice to have”.
Even the 411 steps to the World Peace Pagoda are framed by souvenir stands and I definitely have an overkill. The view from the stupa at the top on the Phewa river and Pokhara is magnificent though.
The last 24 hours of my Nepal journey deserve a separate post. They were quite intense and need to settle in my head. Enough for today.