Mountain gold, Back in my van & Longer in Nepal

Trip Start Sep 30, 2011
Trip End Oct 16, 2014

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Monday, July 16, 2012

Back in May the final deadline for the new constitution was getting nearer, so the unrest getting bigger, meaning that any group of people, cast or political party can call for a 'Bandha' (strike),  which means no motorized traffic on the roads during the day, so protesters have space to march and chant without the risk of getting hit by crazy drivers. Depending on the importance of the initiator and his followers this Bandha can last up to several days or like in the Far West Region up to more than a month! And the intensity also varies, sometimes even emergency vehicles, blue plates and cyclists are blocked. Hence the chaos it can cause. I started to question ‘Is a Bandha really serving the Nepali people?’ ‘Do the protestors even know what they are protesting for?

In the middle of a 3-day Bandha, nationwide, I needed to get to Pokhara, where I would meet up with a Nepali friend to go into the mountains. Better leaving my van safely parked here, I get on a tourist bus, hoping we’ll be luckily enough to get through. With heavy pack I am walking through Kathmandu, no micro busses running, to the other end of town. Seems I am not the only one wanted to leave Kathmandu, Nepali and foreigners are all anxious to get somewhere. There should be police escort… at some point. Turns out this was just mentioned to reassure the tourists! Ah well, let’s see. Getting out of the city looks promising, letting us passed small road blocks without hassle. The highway is almost deserted, never travelled so quickly. Passing another 3 road blocks; nothing more than a piece or rope and a few men or sometimes just teenagers guarding it, but the bus driver takes no risk and stops every time, letting the people on board checking us out in a not at all threatening way. Seems we’re lucky. Alas, just before Pokhara we foreigners are allowed to continue, but the Nepali people have to get off and spend the night(s) there until the Bandha is over. They take it very matter-of-factly and get out without protest. Don’t think we would have done the same in the West. All in all I get to Pokhara in no-time and into the mountains the next day, getting far away from all this.

Reunited again with Roshan and Map, we return to Sikles, this time travelling on top of the jeep! Great views are spoiled by the fact that the jeep leans over quite far with every rocky turn and the driver’s subtle remark that we are overloaded! I hold on for dear life, no popcorn eating this time, as I do not intend to fall off again. That Gatlang experience back in 2010 was painful enough. After a mentally looooong 3 hour trip we arrive safely and are back at Hom’s home, where we celebrate Roshan’s B-day with roksi, of course. We spend an extra day preparing and relaxing, enjoying the mountain views. Look! That’s where we are heading tomorrow, someone pointing out some cloudy mountain tops.

I am very excited as this is not just another mountain hike. Already in April Roshan told me about Yarsagumba. This Nepali ‘gold’ with an extremely high economic value, is found only on high altitudes. The Yarsagumba (winter worm summer grass) is a rare fungus that parasites on the body of a caterpillar of a moth. The caterpillar of a moth lives underground in alpine grass and scrublands on the Tibetan Plateau and Himalayas (at an altitude of 3500-5000 m) spending up to 5 years underground before pupating, feeding on roots of a plants. During this larvae state, the caterpillar is attacked by a fungus. This fungus fills its entire body cavity with mycelium, eventually killing and mummifying the insect. In springtime, after the snow melts, mushrooms emerge from the ground, always growing out of forehead of the caterpillar. Hence the description: half-caterpillar-half mushroom. Already for centuries the Chinese market has been using the Yarsagumba as part of herbal medicine. It is claimed to boost the immune system and virility, and is prescribed, usually in conjunction with other medicines, for kidney, lung, and heart problems, as well as for Hepatitis B; nowadays it is also frequently mentioned as improving eyesight. But most of all it is known for increasing the libido for men and women; Hence the popular description ‘Himalayan Viagra’.

From Sikles we had to hike downhill crossing the river and then up, up and more up to Kori, one of the ‘Yarsagumba’ locations. I had heard horrible stories about non-local people being killed during season time, in protecting of the precious stuff. Schools being closed as whole families made their way up into the mountains, in need of every pair of eyes and hands to find as much Yarsagumba as possible, for most poor families the opportunity to insure their income for the rest of the year! Most of this has been happening around the Dolpa region, where the highest quality Yarsagumba is found, and therefore with the highest price per piece. Selling 10 pieces equals an average monthly salary for the villagers! In Kori, so I’m told, things are less hectic as the quality is less and the area not as well known. In an attempt to organize things and generate income to built facilities in Kori, any Yarsagumba searcher needs to buy a temporary permit: locals pay less, outsiders pay more.

The horror stories did not hold me back of course. I am travelling with very well know locals and do not intend to search for it myself, well maybe once for the fun of it, so no threat to the people in real need for money. Not only the Yarsagumba search fascinates me, I am also told that the scenery is amazing, with beautiful views of the high Himalaya peaks, at very close range. But this climb uphill, going from 1500 to 4000m, it was tough on me. Again I am confronted with the fact that I am not in  the best of shapes. More than happy to stop for the night at a buffalo house, less happy the next morning after a painful attach of thousands of little stinging flies! Aaaah, I meet the midgets again! The hike continues, removing leeches and having lots of ‘catching my breath’ breaks with more midgets around, but also amazing forest views, spotting my ‘Tree of the Year’, collecting herbs and jungle veggies for cooking, flowers decorating the nature, and my first mountain glimpses.

Then, just when I think I cannot go any further, Hom Dhai tells me we are there, we made it to Kori. I am not sure if I am smiling in the photo. By the end of the afternoon we pitch our tents near the only house there: the kitchen, as well as sleeping quarters for locals without a tent. Clouds hide the mountains, but then later that evening one of them greets us unexpectedly for a brief moment: A magical ‘welcome home’ salute. It will be me, the local searchers and the Himalayas for the next 2 weeks, what a lucky lady I am.

Nature is waking up late, the ground still mostly covered with snow. Few people go searching for the stuff every morning, but only the lucky ones find 1 or 2 pieces. Amongst the locals is also an 82-year old man, the person who first found the Yarsagumba in this area 12 years ago. He generously shared this precious information with some villagers and over the years the number of searchers is increasing. Despite his age he still porters his own stuff (over 30kg) up the mountain every year. A truly kind and remarkable man! After a few days of acclimatizing Home Dhai, Map and I are going on a day hike to check out the next valley, another Yarsagumba spot. The scenery is beautiful and plenty of snow around for sledge fun! On the way back I get carried away, enthusiastically following ‘mountain goat’ Map without watching my steps….aaaahh….twisted my ankle! Luckily I can still move it and somehow make it back to my tent. During the rest of my Kori time my ankle is under huge protest. A kind local carves me crutch so I am able to move around a bit. Hom Dhai applied some kind of mountain medicine twice daily, which seemed to do wonders. This saves me from being carried down the mountains. Not an easy task, for the porters!

During my stay Roshan also organizes a Chatauda, a traditional Tibetan resting bench, to be build, in memory of his grandfather who died a year earlier. The boys collect the stones and porter them up a hill, from where one can enjoy perfect Himalaya views. The older generation transforms the pile of stones into a work of art, all done by hand in only 2 days. His grandfather can be proud.

Nature is kind to me, nights not too cold, the sun smiling often in the day time, making the snow melt before my eyes. With the snow gone flowers start to grow along with grass, scrub and tiny brown colored mushroom ‘tentacles’…the Yarsagumba. One early morning I set out with the searchers to document their work and to see if I can spot the ‘gold’ myself. After several hours on   all fours I found...nothing. Even when Hom Dhai told me he found one and directed me to the area, it still took more than 5 minutes to locate it. Of course I blame the late season and slow Yarsa growth for my pathetic score. Love to stay here longer, but things make me return to civilization, however not before I tried the ‘Himalayan Viagra’ myself, freshly picked. Juicy with a nutty taste, did not make me crave for sex that night, but maybe a higher doses is needed ;-)

Time to go: a porter carrying some of my stuff and being my support in case my ankle fails on me. What started off as a nice sunny day hike, turned into a water battle field. Nature must have been very jealous of my umbrella as it threw everything at me to try and take it, wind hoses, rain storms, hail the size of limes, and lots more rain. With no shelter and being wet to the bone we decide to continue to Sikles anyway. I cannot believe my eyes when I cross the bridge, the calm river has transformed into a wild water rafting scene. And I have to giggle out of sheer madness when I see a waterfall coming down the steps…the first of many. Imaging walking up steps you cannot see, against water streams with a twisted ankle. And Hom Dhai warned me to take it easy, oops. At first I found the water very refreshing, until I realized that the water was full of rubbish, cow dung, leeches and god knows what! Impossible to take photos, but I hope you can somehow visualize the madness of it all, us battling uphill, without seeing where to step, against river streams waist deep! Once we have to cross a river blocking a road and my porter was luckily enough to stay alive as a HUGE rock came rolling down the mountain. Only after nightfall we finally arrived totally exhausted, taking the leeches off with my last strength before collapsing into a deep sleep coma. What a day, absolute madness!

Back in Kathmandu it is time to pack my bags once more, returning to my house-on-wheels, to live in it again. The kids are already in Finland and by the end of June Sini and Masse are also leaving,  starting a new journey elsewhere. Kathmandu being a city I have trouble finding a suitable park&living spot. But then a nice Nepali guy offers me to come and stay on a bare piece of land in the middle of an authentic Newari neighborhood, behind gates, free of charge. I have been here now a few weeks already and can only say I love it. There are 2 very helpful Nepali families living there as well, with curious and enthusiastic kids ready to help me with anything.

It is with them, my amazing friend Naba, and his family that I celebrate my new non-tourist visa! After weeks of fruitless talks, going-nowhere-leads, office visits and slight stress, I finally managed to arrange the visa on my last tourist visa day. Close call once again. I am now officially a journalist in Nepal, with a visa for 6 months, and possible extension for another 6 months. This allows me focus on my new how-to-make-my-money-journey: freelance writer & photographer. No longer happy with the forth and back travel between Holland and my travel spot, I feel the need to see if I can start to make money ‘on the move’ with the things I love doing: Writing and Photography. So I am giving myself a year to establish a network, get paid assignments and create a portfolio. After which I hopefully can travel more, tell the world about things worth knowing about…and get paid for it. I have deliberately chosen Nepal as my ‘stop and focus’ country, knowing that lovely colorful hectic India would distract me too much. For all you out there in India, don’t worry, I will come back, just a bit later!

From the first time we met, it was clear without saying that we would be doing great things together, and so we are. Love our weekly cocktails meet-ups, been part of her first try-out fashion show, meeting great people; we are true wing women. And now with my new visa I can be part of the big launch of her fashion brand in September, Natasha I am super proud of you!

Lots more to tell, but enough for now so leaving it for next time or not at all ;-)

ps. The Monsoon has arrived!

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corrie van leeuwen on

wat een leuke fotos ik zie wij staan er deze keer ook bij via het fotoboek leuk kan iedereen ons als familie zien liefs mama

Bikash Khadge on

i'm here some where else , in the middle of the words........

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