January 01, 2006
Note 18 - Still in Nepal
I did not expect to be writing this message from Nepal. By this time I should have been enjoying the warmth and the sites of Myanmar, formerly known as Burma(Birma). But troubles with documents altered my schedules. My Russian passport is about to expire in just 3 months and in anticipation of this event, a few months back I applied for a new passport in Russian consulate in New York. The procedure takes about 3-4 months (don't ask me why) so I applied well ahead. The passport was ready by October, but by that time I was in India. Once I came to Nepal and realized that I will spend here at least two months trekking and sightseeing, I decided to ask the Russian embassy here if they can help me with the situation - either get me a new passport more quickly since all the formal verification procedures have been just performed in New York or ask the Russian Consulate in New York to forward my passport to them. After some negotiations both embassies agreed to the latter option. That was in the end of October. It is the end of December now and my passport is still not here. Apparently, the only legal way to send a passport over the borders is via a diplomatic mail. As I have learned, that mail goes through Moscow. As I have also learned, this mail only goes once a month to and from each of the embassies. The thing I have not learned yet is how exactly it goes - by foot or on horses. If by horses, then it must be stuck somewhere in Mongolia by now. In any case, as my passport did not show up in the December mail, I'm now to wait for its arrival in the January shipment - end of January to be more precise. I asked, what would they do if I had lost my passport. The answer was simple - they would give me a special paper which would allow me to return back to "the motherland" (but would not let me to continue the travels). I cannot really blame the people at the embassies. They were very polite and understanding. The consul in Kathmandu gave me his home and cell phone numbers, so that I could reach him in any difficult circumstances, but the fact remains, that the bureaucratic system is still incapable of supporting the ease of travel for its citizens. So, after I came back from the Everest trek, I spent the whole month of December in Nepal. I wish I had spent less time in Kathmandu and more time traveling around, but after over a month of combined Annapurna and Everest trekking I had a deceptive feeling of some need for civilization. Kathmandu has really changed since the times I explored it on my arrival in October. I understood why it is considered a very unhealthy, polluted city. I arrived in October during an unusual for that season period of rain. The rain was a blessing in disguise. It freshened the air, it cleaned the streets, and it pushed all the dust and exhaust fumes down and washed them away. Kathmandu, located in a circular valley surrounded by hills and mountains, naturally keeps most of the pollution that is produced in the city. That, combined with no rains for several months to wash the pollutants away creates a horrible atmosphere. There is an air-quality monitor placed near Durbar Square that reports on the air quality in Kathmandu and nearby cities. Over the last month I could see a constant increase in the number of the so-called "perspirable particles" in the air and a diagnosis flashing the red "Unhealthy" sign for Kathmandu. Most people a coughing badly. I came completely healthy from the treks and just in a few days developed a severe cough. It was time to escape the city.
I made a few trips over the last month, from brief 2-day excursions in Kathmandu valley to an over one week long trip to the south and south-east of Nepal. A friend of mine, Ben, an avid photographer whom I met on the Annapurna trek invited me to join him on a trip to Bungamati, a small village 1 hour away from Kathmandu, where he knew a local photographer, Panit, who promised Ben to take us around the local villages. Ben has been there a few years ago and was carrying with him some nice photos of local people which he made on the previous visit. One of our goals was to find those people and present them their pictures. Once we got out of Kathmandu, the air became breathable again and it got much warmer. The days are sunny here, but in Kathmandu the narrow streets block the sunlight for most of the day and the stone buildings keep the coolness of the cold nights for the whole day. That must be very pleasant during the warmer seasons but not in December.
Panit owns a little photo-lab in Bungamati, and his main income comes from taking photos for IDs and documents for local people. That amounts to a sustainable business when one takes into account hundreds of school children who have to have new IDs every year. It was great walking with Panit from village to village - everywhere people know him as he is the only photographer in the area. That made it possible to have close contact with many locals. We would sit in front of the houses, chat, take photos, have some local oranges or tea and then go on to the next place. In the villages people do not speak any English. Maybe just a few words. But the verbal conversation was not necessary most of the times. It's the smiles and the gestures of welcome and of respect, sharing of some simple food, enjoying together photo-previews on the LCDs of our digital cameras - that was the substance of the conversations. As this was the season of low agricultural activity, most people where at their homes, sitting just outside their little, okra-colored, grass-roofed mud-houses with little children running around, and little babies being breastfed by their young mothers. We took many photos and found most of the people whose photos Ben brought with him. We spent a night in Panit's house in Bungamati a vertical slice in a long chain of 2-3-story high brick buildings that line the sides of a narrow and winding cobblestone street. Some parts of Bungamati actually reminded me narrow streets of some small Italian towns like Sienna - red-brick houses, cobblestone streets, craftsmen working in their little studios on the ground floors and wood-worked balconies and window frames with bunches of dry corn stalks hanging out for decoration, or later consumption. The next day we again went into the fields and visited some more villages and viewpoints. Larger villages are more like little towns, but with no cars. This area is famous for a variety of handicrafts so we saw many woodcarving workshops, many women weaving wool and knitting colorful garments, some ironworks, etc.. Most of this craft then gets sold to the tourist stores in Kathmandu, but some is made for local or other Nepali use.
We left late in the evening by bus. Half-way to Kathmandu a very disturbed young western man got onto a bus. He started asking us various questions about trekking and other touristic options in Nepal. He was a college kid from Germany. A few months ago he decided he wants to do some volunteering work in Nepal and without doing much research paid a lot of money to some NGO (non-government organization) to be able to go to Nepal to volunteer. He was sent to an orphanage from which he was now retuning to Kathmandu after spending there over a month. He was on the edge of being hysterical. The orphanage is run by a man and his gang who got so corrupted, that of all the money that come to the orphanage for the children, probably less then 1 percent actually goes towards children. Children eat only rice. Rice every day - for lunch and for dinner. No vegetables, no nothing. Pretty much it's water and rice. There is no clothing for children either. Nothing. Of course there is no teaching either. The German guy was threatened and his room has been broken into a number of times. Admiringly, he still had the guts to stay and actually try to make the lives of those kids just a bit happier during his stay. But he was fed up and now was running away. We calmed him down a bit and highly praised his efforts as he was pretty devastated that he spent so much money and time for nothing.
My next trip was to the city of Bakhtapur famous for its well preserved architecture and craftsmanship. The city imposes a tax of $10 on all the tourists coming in, but that can be easily avoided by walking into the city by any of the small streets. Paying to visit a city just didn't seem right to me and so, after getting off a bus near the main gate I walked around and went into the city along a very narrow street. The city indeed was worth the visit. Not so much for the bigger architectural monuments, they are pretty much the same on all the big squares of the older cities of Kathmandu valley, but for the narrow, winding streets, when the rays of morning or evening sun shine at an angle through the light smoke from cooking fire or through the dust raised by the street sweeper, with the women bathing and washing clothes at communal water sources which range from simple metal pumps to bronze or stone mouths of a rhino, a crocodile or some mythical animal recessed in a stone wall and surrounded by a stone basin. I spent two days in the city and surroundings. Early in the morning I wandered to the Ghats - Hindu ceremonial areas on river banks. There I became a witness to some interesting ritual - a complicated procedure of praying, throwing of rice, making of some sort of dough figure and then throwing it into a river, burning of incense, placing tika dot on each-other heads and so on.
I returned to Kathmandu and started planning my next trip. This time I decided to visit Chitwan National Park - a wildlife reserve that promised tigers, elephants, rhinos and other animals in abundance. Someone in Kathmandu recommended to me a guesthouse to stay in near the park and so I went. It took just 6 hours by bus and I stepped of the bus into a completely different land. It was hot, probably around 30C, it was flat, ahead of me were bright yellow fields of mustard crops in full bloom. These fields of mustard will not stop to amaze me with their bright beauty till the end of my stay in Saurahu - the village on the edge of the Chitwan Park. Among these fields little mud-houses with thatched roofs are spread out creating little oasises of gray-brown-okra colors. Walking south one comes to a river which creates a natural boundary of the Park. One cannot to get into the park by himself. A ticket, a certified guide and a canoe ride across the river a required to enter the park. But I was in no rush to go into the park itself. I was there more to get some peace after the hectic environment of Kathmandu, to see some villages along the river and in the fields, to take the full advantage that countryside of the south of Nepal can offer. Park is just a tourist trap and packaged tourists come to Saurahu on an all-included all-pre-planned 2-3 day trips when they only have a few short breaks between an "elephant ride", "jeep safari", "jungle walk", and "canoe run", before being herded back to Kathmandu. Uttam, the guesthouse owner, welcomed me as a king, once I mentioned that I come by recommendation from Rishi-Baba - an Italian men I met in Kathmandu, who has been coming to Nepal and India since 1975. (By the way, Rishi-Baba literally means Wise-Monk.) As with most places I visited in my travels, I stayed in Saurahu longer than planned. It was a place impossible to leave. The mornings were misty, with low fog covering yellow mustard fields. Suddenly, through the mist you see a huge shape, then another - that's elephants go to work, their owners sitting high up on the simple wooden platforms strapped onto the animal's backs. The "work" consists of taking tourists on 1-2 hour rides in or outside of the park - depending on the price paid. The tourists usually look highly uncomfortable bouncing up and down, holding onto a wooden pole, one in each corner of the sitting platform. I did not take an elephant ride, but I became quite friendly with one of them. I liked to sit in a little tea shop on a side of the only street in the village, run by a woman with 3 children. One of the elephant owners on his way to and from work liked to stop there for a cup of tea and a bread bun. The tea shop was just an open bamboo terrace with two tables and some kitchen in the back. Sitting at the table you just see the lower part of the elephant and its trunk, while the owner sips his tea sitting high up. Then he would climb down, take another bun and feed it to the elephant. I got into a habit of feeding yet another bun to the animal. It was fun to watch and touch its inquiring trunk that would move and sniff inside the tea shop, waving around, curling up and down and snatching crumbs from the tables and the floor. The skin - rough, warm, sometimes slightly wet was fantastic to touch. Looking into elephant's eye from less then a foot away was yet another experience - what a huge and amazing eye. I made a closeup photo of it that almost fills the screen.
On the first day Uttam recommended that I visit the Elephant Breeding center located just outside the park. There I found about 10-12 elephant mothers, each with one or two little elephant children. The mothers are occasionally used for some work carrying wood and heaps of grass. The rest of the time they are chained by a pretty long chain connected to one foot to a low tree stump. However, the little elephant children are not chained and a re free to roam the grounds of the breeding center. So the visitors can play with "baby" elephants at their own risk. The risk is to be stepped on, pushed over or rammed into. But in general the "babies" are quite benign and playful but not aggressive. If you push one - it pushes back twice as hard. That must be some sort of an instinctive behavior as it is always the same. If you sit down on a grass, the baby elephant runs to you thinking you are about to offer it some food. Then you have a chance to pet it a bit until it becomes disinterested in you and goes back to its mother. I spent at least a couple of hours playing with baby elephants in the breeding center. I felt happy.
I was a low season and for most of my stay I was the only guest in Uttam's guesthouse. I became very friendly with his family and the working crew. The only thing I could not get used to was the constant "sir" in their communications with me. I now noticed that "sir" is a standard form that most Nepalis use towards tourists (unless it's a lady), but in a family setting of the guesthouse it felt especially out of place. But I could not get them to call me just by name. Nevertheless, I felt incredibly comfortable in the place. Uttam's son, Utsav, whose 10th birthday was celebrated during my stay, has some mild mental disability. What impressed me, was how the parents and the others were treating him. As if he was a completely normal kid. It was very touching. Even when he would get into one of the more troublesome states, one of the parents would quickly take care of that and then everything is back to normal. Other kids would not treat him different either and many showed up for his birthday. I was invited to the birthday party as well. It is impossible to find any birthday presents in the village and I was puzzled as to what to bring as a present. Once the party started, Utsav and his little sister where sited up at a small table, nicely dressed up for the occasion and the guests lined up with the presents. Well, the presents were either a notebook with a pencil or money. So, that solved the question of a present. Each guest, before giving a present would take some of the red-colour paste mixed with a bit of rice from a special dish, put a bit of paste on Utsav's and his sister's foreheads, then spray some flower petals on top of their heads and only then present the gift. I did the same. Later Utsav's grandmother did the same to all the guests, so for the rest of the evening I was walking with some flower petals on my head and a red dot on the forehead getting funny looks from all the Nepali guests. I was the only foreigner at the party.
On a second day of my stay in Saurahu I borrowed a bicycle from a lady working in the guesthouse and, on advice of Uttam, went to explore the "Twenty Thousand Lakes" area, a large area of marshes, lakes and forests near the border of the Chitwan Park - a so called "park buffer zone". At this time of the year, the grasses in the park itself are so high that chances of seeing animals are very low. The "20 Thousand Lakes" offered higher chances of seeing wild life and also are not a regulated area. But first about a bicycle. An old Indian made, super heavy lady bicycle called Swan, had a basket in the front and a rear brake combined with a lock and a key. I have to admit, that not counting a couple of very short rides, this was my first bicycle ride in about 20 years. And I was to ride for kilometers over bad dirt roads and forest trails after riding about 10 kilometers on a bad pavement. So, I really tested the saying that once you learned to ride a bicycle, you never forget how to do that. I found that to be true, but have to admit that the first few kilometers I was probably spending 10 times more energy then necessary. Later, in the forest I had to get off the bike a few times or had trouble to start biking if it was immediately uphill with rocks and roots on the trail. Overall I biked about 30 kilometers that day and was quite proud of myself. Narrow forest trails were the hardest. The trip was worth the effort. I saw a rhino grazing on the low branches of the trees. Luckily I was separated from the animal by a stream with high banks. Rhinos are known to be extremely aggressive and charge anyone without warning. I was amazed how fast that huge animal can accelerate from a complete stillness. Numerous birds, from small blue kingfishers to huge pelican-like creatures crowded the lake area. A crocodile was sleeping or sunbathing with it's tail emerged in the water and the upper body lying flat and still on the lake shore. Wild dotted deers came for a drink to a water hole, but got scared of me and run away. I got startled by sudden loud movement in the bushes as I was biking by and a family of wild boars crossed my pass and run away. I went all the way through the forest and found myself on the other side of the area, in a tiny village. I found a little shop there, selling simple biscuits and food stock to the locals. As they did not have any water, and I have not brought any with me, the owner made for me excellent chai, which, besides the usual ingredients of tea, milk and sugar, this chai had some spices added to, like in India. I missed that Indian masala chai in Nepal.
The owner did not speak a single word of English, but once again I discovered that the language is not so much needed for simple communications. Every time I was considering leaving Saurahu, Uttam would come up with some new idea for me. He perfectly understood what kinds of activities I'm interested in and was always right on the spot with his suggestions. I learned to trust him. So, one of the days he told me - why don't you go to Devghat - I'm sure you'll like it. Devghat is a village located on the confluence of two rivers - Kali Gandaki and Trishuli. Both rivers are considered important spiritual streams in Nepal. According to Hindu believes, confluences of rivers are considered to be very holy, power centers. Especially so, when the rivers are spiritually important by themselves. Devghat is a village to which the old people come to spend their last years. Some of them discarded by their families and some of them, out of the believe in the special properties of the place. Many families also bring their dead for cremation on the shores of the rivers near Devghat. On some Hindu festival days, tens of thousands of people come onto the rocky open delta - triangle formed at the confluence. No cremations or festive activities were going on during my visit,m so I enjoyed the village in its undisturbed form. I was following a narrow, weaving path along tiny mud houses, each with a little praying place and a tiny garden in front. The inhabitants were at home. Elderly man and woman. Sitting in front of their houses. Taking care of simple daily chores - washing clothes, cooking simple meals, cleaning rice or some grains from the dry weeds or just enjoying the sun and chatting with the neighbors. Some were startled to see a foreign tourist there - this place is not visited much. I was the only tourist there at the time and I'm sure, the only tourist in quite a while. Some were very friendly, invited me to sit down with them. In front of one of the huts was sitting a very touching old man, follower of Shiva, as I could tell from the attributes of his little temple and from the three horizontal white stripes on his forehead. He invited me to join him in front of the ritual fireplace. We sat for a while and then he offered me some "prasad" - a "blessed" food. Anything can serve as "prasad". Usually people bring some fruits or hard sugar balls to a temple and hand them over to the priest. The priest puts them into a common pile and from the same common pile would give you something back. This is "prasad". You make an offering, possibly symbolic (since you can get prasad without bringing anything of your own) to the gods or any higher deities and now you can take this food. It is considered good to share prasad with others. "Feeding" the gods and deities is one of the obligations of a proper Hindu. One is also supposed to feed monks and poor people and I often saw this happening during my travels. But let me get back to Devghat. The old man offered me some prasad in the form of a banana. Took some for himself. We ate, sat a bit longer. I asked him, using gestures, if I can take some pictures and he happily posed. I gave him some small money in the form of donation to his little home-made temple. As I was about to leave he pointed me to sit down. He showed that he wants to give me some food. He went into the hut and a few minutes later brought out two steaming plates of Dhal Bhat. So we sat together in front of his little Shiva corner and ate some tasty Dhal Bhat. I think we both really enjoyed the moment. I hope my visit brought some color into the usual routine of his day and his simple offerings, his peaceful appearance and gentleness made my day much happier. Later in the evening I went to the delta formed by two rivers and observed people, mostly elderly, coming one by one to perform their simple daily ceremonies, which usually included washing of feet, hands, spraying some water on the top of the head, a few ceremonial gestures. After the ceremonies, some of the people would sit on the riverbank and meditate. It was amazing for me to see all the cultural traditions, which I have learned about during my studies in Rishikesh, being followed and observed here by these simple old people. Even certain rules of pre-meditation exercises, postures, direction, everything was exactly as my teacher in Rishikesh was telling us about. But it was time to leave, as there are no facilities to stay in the village. I had to get back to the bigger town of Narayangarth from which a local bus would take me to the place on a highway from where I could get a rickshaw back home to my village. But getting to Narayangarth proved to be not so easy. There were no more buses. I met a few young Nepali students who had to get to Naraynagarth as well and we decided to walk together - about 7km, but it was getting late. On the way we got lucky - a tractor was pulling a low open trailer behind it. We climbed onto the trailer and tried to survive the bumps of the road amplified by total lack of suspension, bad wheels and an overall shaky build of a bare-metal trailer. But it got the job done and in half an hour, all dirty from the rust and dust we stepped of the trailer. I got late into my village and during dinner could not thank Uttam enough for his suggestion. I spent a few more days in Saurahu. Some days I would walk along the local roads to some villages, some days would go to the river to see the sunset and the fisherman going into the water with their nets silhouetted against the red setting sun.
Finally I left. Instead of going straight back to Kathmandu, I decided to visit a city of Janakpur in the far south-east of Nepal. Janakpur is a very important Hindu pilgrimage site. Some of you may have heard about a famous Indian epic Ramayana - one of the later holy books telling the story of god Ram (9th reincarnation of Vishnu) and his wife Sita during their fight with evil forces. Sita, Ram's wife was a daughter of king Janak, and it was in Janakpur where Ram found Sita and where they got married. There is a beautiful Janak Mandir - a temple complex built recently, in the 18th century, that attracts the visitors. But the city is also spotted by hundreds of temples and water tanks some of which may have been in use back in the Ram and Sita times. The city is indeed a typical Indian city and I could immediately feel the contrast with the Nepali cities. The state of degradation, of filth and dirt, the noise and colors and yet some unbelievable energy of life. And as usual, at first all our senses get offended by the negatives and only slowly we start seeing through them. This is a different culture, where external really does not matter - it can be dirt and filth, it can be plasticky kitch and yet there is more to it. On the bus ride to Janakpur, which was supposed to be 5 hours, but ended up being 8, I had an amusing companion. A Nepali man in his fifties, well groomed, well dressed and quite tall by Nepali standards, asked me if he can talk to me during the ride. I did not mind and he settled himself on a sit next to me. He used to be a journalist in his younger age. A Famous journalist at that. He interviewed many famous people, including Indira Gandhi, Mother Theresa and some others. He sound genuine. Later he became a politician and was a head of one of the districts in Nepal. As a matter of fact he was a head of a district to which the village of Devghat, the old-people village, belonged to. He was very eager to tell me about his achievements during his "rule". The presentation was fantastic. He was talking like a man on a podium in front of a large supporting crowds. He would say something like: "Before I became a chair of district, there were only 50km of paved roads. During my work, we built additional 450km!" Then he would produce a wide smile, tilt his head, raise his hands slightly to the side and would start clapping, applauding to his own achievements and as if inviting me to applaud with him. At first people around us looked with some curiosity, but then lost interest. But I did not suffer. After a while it was possible to actually ask some questions and it was interesting to me how things weer done in Nepal on both political and economic levels. He was very knowledgeable. Later we had a more generic discussions about communism, socialism, politics in Russia, Nepal, rest of the world. He retired from politics now and was occasionally working as a freelance political writer for some papers and magazines. He asked me if he can use my name in his next article on political views. I did not mind. Janakpur was exciting, but it was becoming anxious about my passport troubles and I headed back to Kathmandu. My passport did not arrive in December mail and so the option was to wait till the end of January or try and get some visas for Asian countries into my almost expired passport. Lucky for me, neither the consulate of Myanmar, nor the Thai consulate checked the expiration date (as formally it is supposed to be at least 6 month validity from the start of visa) and issued me visas. Now it was up to the tickets. That and the visas took a few days and today, on Dec 31, early in the morning I bought a ticket to Thailand for today. New Year I will meet in Bangkok.
I may back go back to Nepal if my new passport ever shows up there, but for now I keep my expectations of that pretty low and will keep you updated on my travels in South-East Asia.
Happy New Year!
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