December 04, 2005
Note 17 - Nepal, Kathmandu, Annapurna, Everest
Dear Friends, I was sitting in a little chai shop in Haridwar, observing the dirt and the cockroaches on the walls, and inhaling the smells of the nearby train station, and if you've ever been to India, you know what the train stations there smell like, and if you've never been there, I will not tell you since it may affect your decision in some distant future to go to India. So, I was lazily pushing a cockroach of the table with and empty glass and was drinking chai from the other glass, and I was remembering that some people told me that Nepal is much cleaner than India and that Nepal will feel like a pleasant vacation away from the little daily inconveniences of Indian budget travel. And budget travel is what I've been doing for a while. And not because I cannot afford the luxuries of higher-end hotels and conveniences of taxis and luxury buses, but because the luxury, comfortable way of travel greatly separates you from the realities of the country, its main local population, its culture, its worries, its problems and its ways of life. I was planning to go to Nepal from India the "rough way" - by land, but I got pressured in time by my Indian visa expiring and lack of train tickets, so a new Sahara Airlines plane took me from Delhi to Kathmandu in just over 2 hours with well trained stewards serving good meals and drinks. The flight was uneventful, except for some beautiful snow-peaked mountains that we could see above the cloud cover as we approached Kathmandu. I shared a taxi ride to the city with an American guy and a French guy. The French guy was pretty funny - he had a round-the-world ticket, which he had to complete in 6 months with 12 stopovers. That leaves about 2 weeks for each stopover. He just started his trip and already "did" India. He had seen what people call "tourist triangle" - Delhi-Agra (Taj Mahal)-Rajasthan. Now he came to "do" Nepal.
The touristiest neighborhood in Kathmandu is Thamel. With hotels, karaoke bars, western style restaurants, "German bakeries", and fake North Face and trekking gear shops lining streets of just a few blocks wide and a dozen blocks long.
Friends, as well as the "Rough Guide" to Nepal recommended the other part of the city - Freaks street. The street carries its name from the 1960s, when the hash and marijuana were completely legal in Nepal and this street was a hangout for the western hippies. It's not a hippie hangout anymore (at least not on that scale), but there are still a few nice guesthouses and a few cafes, some of which survived since the 60s. The street is in the middle of the old city, with narrow alleys connecting little streets and cramped-up houses. Here, unlike the Thamel, you feel like you are a part of the city life. It's a quiet neighborhood and a room in my guesthouse costs only 100 Nepalese Rupees, which is about $1.30.
From the rooftop garden of the guesthouse I can see Durbar Square - the main square of the old city with tall pagoda-like, multi-tiered, red brick Hindu temples and the old Royal Palace. Surrounding the Kathmandu valley are low hills, beyond which on a clear day one can see some of the high snow peaks. The "Rough Guide" gives a description of Kathmandu that leads you to thinking that you are about to enter the noisiest, busiest, most polluted and dirty city in the world.
I was amazed how far from truth this description was. The author must have never been to India. Even the worst of the Kathmandu noisiest streets do not come close to the noise and pollution and dirt of cities like Delhi or Jaipur.
The first evening in the city I spent in Durbar Square. I climbed up to the higher level of one of the temples, where a lot of local young people where sitting, chatting, observing the crowds, resting after a work or school day. I spent there about an hour talking to a young guy about "everything". He was quite impressed by my knowledge of the Hindu religion and I in turn was quite impressed with his sincere conversation style and his English. I have to point out, that most Nepalese in Kathmandu speak quite reasonable English.
October-November period is a post-monsoon season in Nepal and it is usually quite dry. This time everything was different. The rain started on the evening of my first day in Kathmandu and with some short breaks rainy weather continued through the whole week that I spent in Kathmandu. A couple of reasons held me in the city for that long. First, I had to sort out some passport issues with Russian Embassy - my passport was getting close to expiring and they promised to look into possibility to provide me with a new passport. Second, a couple of my Moscow friends got to Kathmandu from India hoping to return to India in a short while, without realizing that they did not have a new visa for India, so they had to deal with Indian embassy. In the end, aside from dealing with bureaucrats, we spent some wonderful times traveling through Kathmandu city and its satellite towns in the Kathmandu valley. Kathmandu valley is believed to be a center of various mystic and esoteric powers and forces. The city itself, as well as the little towns around the city are saturated with big and little, new and ancient, Hindu and Buddhist temples, shrines, stupas, prayer flags, god statues and other religious symbols. Every little houseyard has a little stupa or a shiva-lingam or both. Buddhist and Hindu symbols combine together in quite amazing symbiosis. It is interesting that most people outside of Nepal believe that Nepal is a Buddhist state. Nothing can be further from the truth. Nepal is actually the only state in the world where Hinduism is an official government religion. Most of the population of the Nepal is Hindu. I think the stereotype of Nepal being predominantly Buddhist comes from two facts. First of all, most tourists coming to Nepal come here for trekking in either Everest or Annapurna regions. Indeed, the Sherpa people that populate the proximity of Everest region are Buddhists and they are the most known on the west due to their part in the various Himalayan expeditions. Also, in the high mountain regions near Annapurna and north of Annapurna Tibetan Buddhism dominates. Near Kathmandu there is also a community of Tibetan refugees who practice Buddhism. Beyond that, the rest of Nepal is a completely Hindu state. Unlike India, where I mostly saw temples of Shiva, or Vishnu or some other major Hindu gods, Nepal is full of temples to the Hindu gods and goddesses whose names I've never heard before. Rituals are also quite diverse. Just on my second day of exploring the old city I became a witness to a ritual of a goat sacrifice in one of the open-air temples. The sight of a knife cutting through the goat throat, the blood flowing onto the laying golden statue representing the vehicle of the goddess, the cut-off goat head presented to the goddess, all of that made quite a strong visual and emotional impression. At first, the whole act looked highly barbaric, but then I thought of hundreds of thousands and possibly millions of goats, cows, sheep, pigs and other animals that go under knife every year to satisfy our appetites, make leather goods, fur coats, etc. And who is to tell if the sacrifice of an animal to feed our stomach is a more forgivable act than sacrifice of an animal to a tradition, to a belief.
A week after arrival to Nepal me and my Moscow friends boarded a local plane to Pokhara and in just 40 minutes of absolutely spectacular flight we landed in a small airport right in the center of the city of Pokhara. The small city is beautifully located on a lakeshore with a skyline dominated by the pyramid of mt. Machapuchare and with white peaks of Annapurna range surrounding the lake. The first impression is indeed breathtaking.
This was the starting point of my Annapurna Circuit trek and so, without wasting any extra time the next morning I left on a trek.
The Annapurna Circuit trek is the most popular trekking destination in Nepal, with the Everest trek being a close second. The trek, as the name suggests, circles around a huge mountain range that includes Annapurnas I,II,III,IV, Ganghapurna, Annapurna South, Hiunchuli, Machapuchare and many other mountains of this Himalayan region. The trek starts at the altitudes of below 1000 meters and climbs up in its middle point over Thorong La pass at over 5400 meters. For a number of reasons 90% of trekkers go in a counterclockwise direction around the circuit, which provides for a slightly better acclimatization schedule before going over the high pass, but at the same time contradicts the Buddhist style of circling all objects in a clockwise manner. I decided to follow the majority on this point.
Trekking in Nepal along established treks is unbelievably easy as long as you are reasonably fit. This type of trek is called a "tea house" trek, since originally the major places to sleep at on this kind of a trek were little local teahouses. Well... It's tea-houses no more. They have grown into Annapurna Lodges, Green View Hotels, Dhaulagiri Peak Guest Houses and so on. A few years ago, during the peak years on the Annapurna Circuit up to 80,000 people a year walked the trek in the two short pre- and post-monsoon periods. So a lot of Lodges and Hotels and Guest Houses have sprang up hoping to catch some tourist money. Unfortunately for some of them, political situation in Nepal led to a sharp decline in tourism and so many of the guesthouses are quite empty except for those in the key locations along the trek. Rooms in the guesthouses are unbelievably cheap and except for a couple of places really close to the high pass I've never paid more than 50 Nepali Rupees (about $0.70) for a room. Most guesthouses use solar panels to provide for a hot shower and some minimal electricity. Food menus are quite wide and are designed exclusively for tourists with prices supposedely regulated by some official authorities, not by the guesthouses themselves. If you are staying in a guesthouse, you are supposed to eat there as well, as this is what they make their main income from. A couple of times I have even been offered free lodging since competition for the "eater" is high in some less popular villages. The menus are quite extensive including all kinds of pasta, potatoes, vegetables, chowmeins, pizzas, sandwiches, rice and various mixes of the above as well as deserts like apple pies and rice puddings and exotic things like snickers and mars rolls, which are mars or snickers bars cooked inside the rolled crepe. An ever present item on the menu is "Dal Bhat", which essentially means rice and dal (lentil soup in this case), but which as a dish represents an unlimited refills of rice, dal soup (which you pour over rice) and some vegetables - usually "home fried" potatoes with some traces of onions, spinach or tomatoes and spices, depending on which guesthouse you are in. That is sometimes served with papad - a thin dry bread leaf, and some pickled chutney. Dal Bhat is the food of Nepalese. Especially of Nepalese porters. Some of them have never eaten anything else in their life. They eat it twice a day - for lunch and for dinner. Huge portions. And you can always ask for a refill of any of the ingredients even though some places try to refill you more on rice than on the veggies. But enough about gastronomic delights of the trip. On this trek one really does not need much. Here is what I got with me: a reasonable sleeping bag (a fake "North Face" I picked up for $25 in Ladakh was adequate), a non-cotton t-shirt, thermal shirt/trousers, hiking pants, trekking sneakers (no need for heavy leather boots), sun and fleece hats, thin gloves, sun glasses, light down jacket, fleece jacket and a thin nylon water-resistant shell which I never used. Teva sandals or just simple plastic slippers for use in guesthouses were useful. Besides that - the usual odds and ends. Half of that you wear and the other half stays in the backpack which ends up in the under 10kg category, so no need for a big backpack either. Mine was 45L - quite enough. These are the details for those who may ever consider going trekking in Nepal. It is that simple. On a major trek like Annapurna you absolutely do not need a guide and you most likely do not need a porter unless a 10kg will pull you down too much. I saw a lot of people going with a guide or with a porter or with both and speaking to some of them in the guesthouses realized that they had seen much less and usually have been under the influence of a guide as to where to stop and where and what to eat and what schedule to follow. Most of the guides have reasonable English to talk about simple things but at least those I've met where not on the level of being able to give a good explanation of local traditions or cultures beyond the simple things you can read in any guidebook. They also do not seem to be very eager to get off the beaten track, so side-trips are not their strength. I realized how much freedom I had as in a day, moving fast I could detour into villages an hour or two away from the tourist flow and meet locals, sit with them in the fields, share with them my chocolates in exchange for some pieces of an apple, white radish, turnip or a piece of local bread.
Differences that I observed between the villages on the trek and villages just a short walk away were quite stunning. While the villages along the trek have developed total dependence on tourist flow, the villages just an hour away live traditional agricultural life. People work in the fields, herd goats, sheep, buffalo and yaks and seem generally more happy, self-sufficient and less stressed than those along the trek. While their lives may lack most of the "luxuries" of the westernization, they depend less on the number of tourists and do not enter into a competition with each other with the signs like "The Best Apple Pie" or "The Best 24-hour shower" in front of their house. Fewer and fewer guesthouses along the trek remain a true family business. As I have learned, people in Kathmandu have long ago bought out those in key, most profitable locations, and so the people working in the guesthouses are often just employees. That does not mean that people are not friendly and hospitable, but often you can sense the difference in the attitudes of a warm family home and a hotel with welcoming but somewhat indifferent staff. I do not think I can write about the mountain views well enough to describe their beauty. Even hundreds of photographs that I've made will not do those views justice. One have to come and see.
Despite seeing all the big mountains, two episodes that stay in my memory most clearly are not about mountains. Both happened on my side trips, away from the trek. In the first one, walking through a little village of Jhong which is one of the few villages of the Upper Mustang region to which you can get without special, supper expensive "Upper Mustang trekking" permit, I was asked by a woman passing by if I want to buy some apples. This was just after I have crossed the high Thorong La pass (5400m) and had not had any fresh fruits for quite some time. I said yes, and she led me into her house to check with her mother on the price and how many she can sell me. Goats, chickens and a few little calves crowded the yard of the house. We made our way to the second floor of the two-story house and were welcomed by the woman's mother - an older women in traditional Tibetan clothes. I was offered a seat and some tea, while they went to get the apples. It was 5-6 apples that they brought from the garden. The mother carefully cleaned each apple with a towel and said that the price is 3 rupees per apple. Meanwhile tea refills kept on coming as I was thirsty and emptying the tea glass quickly. 3 rupees was a ridiculously low price - an apple on the main trek path costs about 20-40 rupees depending on the place. I bought all apples which made them happy, and we had a little chit-chat - as much as was possible with their limited English. I felt very much at home, but it was getting late and I departed. Just after I went out of the house onto the street, the women run after me and gave me 2 more apples. "This is no pay. >From my mother. Thank you for coming."
A second memorable episode also comes from a side trip. This time, as I was walking along the main trail, near the mt. Dhaulagiri foothills, I noticed two girls carrying heavy baskets up the hill into the forest. A thin path was leading uphill. I decided to explore and followed their path. They noticed me and kept on giggling and looking back as I was snapping some photos of them with Dhaulagiri in the background. After about half an hour of climbing I saw that there was a village still higher up on the hills, just below the magnificent glaciated face of the 8000m giant. Getting closer to the village I started meeting the local people. They looked quite surprised to see a tourist there and those who knew any English were asking where I was going. I was explaining that I just want to look and that seemed satisfactory, while probably still puzzling to them. This was a period of plowing the fields in the village, so on all the terraced fields I saw families working - usually a man works the wooden plow that is dragged by two bulls, while the other family members do smaller works. On one of the fields a family sat down for a short break and as they saw me passing by they waved to me to come over. So I did and joined their circle sitting on the dry plowed earth. Apparently it was a snack or lunchtime for them. They offered me a stalk of corn, which was very tasty. Then a few apples were cut and a spicy sauce set in the middle. We would take slices of an apple, dip it in the sauce and that weird combination tasted just perfect. Then something like a large white radish or turnip was cleaned and cut and the man gave out the pieces. His hands, dirty from the earthwork were leaving well-defined fingerprints on the white juicy radish. I told myself, that this is an offering of food and I cannot refuse it and I cannot get sick from it. So, I enjoyed a really tasty radish with all the fingerprints and all the dust and earth surrounding us and then cut the last remaining Snickers bar that I carried with me and gave it to the family. That was all I could offer and I think they enjoyed it, but not as much as I enjoyed the apples and spice. Just to mention - I did not get sick from eating unwashed apples and "fingerprinted" radish. Instead, that occasion got "fingerprinted" into my memory and I think it is meetings like these that make trekking in Nepal and other exotic countries really special. These are heart-to-heart and soul-to-soul communications, where smiles and sincere simple offerings serve as the only common, universal language.
On the way back from Annapurna Circuit, I did a short 3-days detour to visit Annapurna Base Camp. There, under the glorious South Face of Annapurna stands a memorial to Anatoly Bukreev, a famous Russian mountaineer. While attempting to make a new route on the South Face of Annapurna in winter about 8 years ago he was swept by an avalanche close to the summit. Previously, in one of the gompas (monasteries) I was given a silk prayer scarf by one of the monks. I tied off the scarf at the top of the Bukreev's memorial stupa. There were already dozens of scarves and prayer flags on it and I was happy to see mine join the others in their wind-praying chorus.
In just a few days after that, I was already on the flight from Kathmandu to Lukla - a starting point for the trek towards Everest. Actually, the starting point for the Everest approach has been slowly moving towards Everest over the past century. The first explorers and Everest climbers were starting their approach from the Kathmandu valley, spending about a month on the trek towards their goal. Then roads slowly advanced and now end in the village of Jiri, which has been a starting point for the Everest trekking for a long time, until planes started making regular flights to Lukla, a village located at around 3500m, saving another 5-7 days of walking time. A flight to Lukla also avoids the Maoist controlled areas, and with Maoists currently charging tourists up to 5000 rupees ($70) just to pass through their territory, a 6400 rupee ($90) plane ticket does not seem expensive considering the timesavings. But about Maoists – read later.
Everest region is much drier and a bit colder than Annapurna and the altitude feels much stronger here. Still, I was well acclimatized after the Annapurna trek and so walking at high altitude presented no problems to me. Once again, I will not even attempt to describe the mountain scenery of the trek. The views of Everest and Ama Dablam, of Nuptse and Lhotse, of Makalu and Cholatse, of Pumori and Cho-Oyu and many, many other famous peaks are absolutely stunning, especially if one makes an extra effort to climb onto the nearby hills, wait for sunsets, walk that extra mile, go over an extra pass. All of which I did. The Everest Base Camp is probably the least interesting place of the whole trek. You do not see Everest from there. Nor do you see any other interesting peaks or perspectives. A cold and inhospitable place with a huge broken-up Khumbu icefall in front of it and two crashed helicopters in the middle of the base-camp area.
The guesthouses along the trek are similarly commercialized as the ones along the Annapurna trek, except you do not get a free solar hot shower, Dal Bhat does not have free refils and the prices are higher as you get closer to the Everest. However, once you leave the immediate vicinity of the Everest Base Camp route, and go over the pass towards much more beautiful region of Goyko lakes (from which you actually get the best view of Everest in Nepal), the crowds of tourists dissipate, the number of large guided groups diminishes even further, the guesthouses become more friendly and family oriented and you finally become making friends with local people. If you ever go trekking to Everest, make Goyko Lakes region your priority. Even with my usual urge to keep on going, I spent 3 days in Goyko, exploring the surrounding hills and lakes, taking pictures, relaxing.
As I have mentioned before, the Everest region is a much drier and colder region than the Annapurna region. As a consequence, not much can be grown there, so most of the foods have to be carried in by the porters. For some historical reasons, people often confuse the words "porter" and "sherpa". Let me clarify. Porters are those, who carry loads. Sherpas are an ethnic group, a Buddhist people living in the Everest region of Nepal. They are incredibly strong and tolerant to the harsh conditions of their land and many of them work as porters and guides for expeditions, trekking groups, or carry supplies to the local villages for local people. The loads they carry are just unbelievable - reaching 120-150kg. These loads are carried over high passes on bad, narrow, rocky paths. A weaved conical basket works as the base of the load, usually stuffed with small items. On the higher, wider end of the basket you often find 2-3 20-liter canisters with kerosene, on top of which are tied up a number of boxes containing anything from biscuits to glass bottles of coca-cola, to boxes of potatoes or cabbage. Surrounding all that is a net of ropes under which you see batteries, watches, flashlights, some plastic kitchen utensils and all other useful scrap. Topping it all is a radio or tape player playing some local tune, a set of better shoes (they walk in slippers or barefoot to prolong the life of better shoes, which are used only in harsh conditions or on more difficult parts of the trail). Somewhere under the ropes you always find tucked in a toothbrush, toothpaste and a little mirror as well as a flashlight. The whole load is carried by tying a rope around the lower part of the basket with the rope turning into a wide band that is placed on the forehead so that neck supports most of the load. Each porter carries a very thick wooden T-shaped stick that he can put under the basket behind him for support while resting. For carrying such a load from Jiri (road end) to Lukla, which takes about 10 days to walk with such a heavy load, they are earning 90 Rupees ($1.25) for each kilo. So the more they carry, the more money they make. The way back to Jiri they walk in about 4 days unloaded which makes for a maximum of about 2 carries a month. From Lukla up, the loads are carried the same way, but as it gets higher and higher in altitude, the sizes of the loads shrink a little bit, while the prices for carrying them probably go higher. So, there is no surprise when a bottle of coke costs up to $3-4 in the higher guesthouses (not that I bought any).
I made a longer trek to the Everest region than I expected to make. While I was only planning to run quickly to the Base Camp area and then briefly visit Goyko lakes, instead, on advice on a few people I met along the trek I made an extended stop at Goyko lakes and added yet another pass, a more rarely traveled Renjo La to my travel itinerary. The less touristy nature of those regions and their natural beauty were a wonderful reward for the effort of climbing over yet another pass. In the end, I decided that instead of flying back, I would walk the original route to Jiri, and take a bus back to Kathmandu. That added another 4 days to my trip. Hard days, as the way from Lukla to Jiri goes not along the valleys, but across, thus requiring you in one day to perform multiple uphills and downhills. On one of such days I estimated around 2 kilometers of ascent and almost 2.5 km of descent, which felt pretty hard on the knees. But yet again, I was rewarded with absence of tourists, with warm welcomes from local people, and by fantastic change of scenery from dry, cold mountains into the jungle forests.
On the way back to Jiri I was prepared to meet Maoists. Maoists in Nepal control certain lands and the Royal Nepali army does not show up there. So Maoists pretend to be the government there, and play a game of "permits" for tourists. If you run into Maoists, nothing dangerous is going to happen to you. You are just asked for a specific sum to support the Marxist-Leninist-Maoist government in its fight with the King's government. In return for the money, you get an "official" receipt, which you can show to other Maoist groups in the region as a proof that you have already paid and you do not need to pay any more. Different regions require different receipts. I met Maoists once on the Annapurna trek, which actually happened in the last days during my detour towards Annapurna Base Camp. It was a middle-aged man and a bunch of young 14-18 year old kids. Only the older man spoke English. On my attempt to get away without paying he strongly suggested that I should better pay, but I managed to negotiate the price down from the standard for Annapurna 1200 rupees to 500 rupees. When you go alone, strangely enough you have a stronger negotiating power, then when you are in a group or with a guide or a porter. Those in groups, especially organized trekking tours are assumed to be rich and no negotiation is possible. Single travelers can get away with paying the minimum. Maoists are really not interested in doing any damage to tourists as in this case they would not only completely lose any help from local population, but would also meet resistance from the locals who seriously depend on tourist business. In the Everest area, the lands between Jiri and Lukla are under Maoist control and the fees there are higher - standard is 5000 Rupees (about $70). But as I said, I was prepared - a girl I met on the trek up from Lukla has walked all the way from Jiri, met Maoists and got a receipt. As she was not going to walk all the way back, but was planning to fly instead, she gave me a receipt, which I could use in case I meet Maoists. To my surprise, neither I, nor those few trekkers I met on the way, have seen any Maoists. It was getting cold and close to the end of the trekking season so they must have been gone to warmer places. I celebrated two events in the last month. On Annapurna trek, my birthday happened on a day when I was relaxing in hot springs right between Annapurna and Dhaulagiri in the village of Tatopani ("Tato" - hot, "Pani" - water). There I decided that my tiny digital camera is not good enough and that I owe myself a birthday present of a digital SLR. So, once I got back to Kathmandu, after a little shopping around I got myself my birthday present, which I immediately took on the Everest trek for some heavy usage. Needless to say, I'm greatly enjoying my new toy. The second event occured on the day I arrived back from the Everest trek. I celebrated 1 year since I started my journey. Yes, it is hard for me to believe, that it was exactly one year ago, when on December 1st of 2004 I boarded a plane at JFK airport, which took me to New Zealand, my first destination. Life seemed very different back then. The plans have been different, the views, the expectations, the convictions, the believes, it all has been changed slightly, or not so slightly along this journey. If those changes will stick, or if they are just temporary, superficial as I'm sure some of them are, only time will tell. My original plan was to return home after one year, but as it is winter now in NY and it is nice and warm in South-East Asia, I decided that I will spend a little more time in the warm countries before going back home probably sometime in spring.
Last few days I have been spending in Kathmandu resting after over a month of intensive trekking. Snowman's cafe is my main hangout place. Snowman makes cakes. He's been in business since 1960s - probably the only shop in business since those times. I tried really hard to find a cake in his assortment that I would not like. That did not happen despite me not being a "cakes and sweets" person. I remember, as on the last two days of the Everest trek I was walking up and down the hills looking at the surroundings, but thinking of Snowman's cakes. If you are ever in Kathmandu - do not miss the place. It's right off the Freaks Street. As I stepped off the bus with my dirty Everest-trekking backpack, before going into my guesthouse for shower and rest, I walked into the Snowman for a Chocolate-Banana, followed by an Apple Crumble, followed by a Cheesecake. I go there every day at least once. It's a great place for reading a book and observing local life, as the place is also a hangout for locals.
But I'm once again beginning to get restless - it's time to move on to new explorations. Myanmar and Thailand are on the agenda. But before that I'll spend a couple more weeks in Nepal exploring the lowland areas and wildlife reserves. Or so I hope.
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