Trip Start Oct 21, 2006
Trip End Mar 21, 2008

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Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Our earliest morning for a while sees us up at 6am for final goodbyes and transfer to Rajesh's house for the start of our trekking phase. There we meet up with Sue, our trek-mate who has been staying with Rajesh for the last month or so. She's American but quite nice, a small lady in her early 50s who has been volunteering at some women's shelter for a few weeks but has taken a break to join us. She is small in stature but her pack, containing way too much stuff for a seven-day trek, is almost as big as she is.

Our guide's name is Birman, which we remember because it sounds like Beer Man. He comes from one of the six villages we are due to spend a night in and is a smiley chap about our age.

We figure that Rajesh might drive us down to the bus station but he just waves us goodbye so we have to walk then catch a microbus. Then, at the chaotic bus stand, Birman seems to have no idea what bus we should catch so we stand around for a while. Not the most confidence-inspiring start but we don't mind too much. An hour and a half later our bus pulls up in the middle of nowhere and we pop into some shady-looking restaurant for - you guessed it - dal bhat.

Then the trekking begins. A gentle stroll across farmland turns sharply into a solid hike up a steep trail that leaves Sue a way behind us. At the top of the hill we recognise the road as being the one we took by bus to Nagarkot a month or so earlier. All up we walk for about four hours today, including several breaks, and arrive at our first village, Dulal Gaau, at around 3.30pm. It's a small, spread out village that climbs up the hill amongst the rice and potato paddy fields. Our host family's house is very different from the relative, western-style, comfort we have been provided with so far in Nepal. The first floor is occupied by a couple of massive cows and a dog, lying on a bed of hay. The staircase leads up through a trapdoor to the second storey, where the kitchen and bedrooms are. The walls and floors are all clay, with a bit of sacking laid down as carpet in our bedroom. The beds are just wood with a straw mat on top, so very hard.

Before dinner we stand outside for a while, as this is really the only thing to do around here. Some cheerful local men stop to chat on their way home from work and we exchange small talk in our limited Nepali. One particularly jolly and affectionate older guy starts hugging me and making fun of my belly. He is a very wiry chap, carrying some sickles around with him. He looks about 55 but apparently he is 75 and nowhere near retirement by the looks of things. Without warning he decides he will guess my weight so he wraps his arms around me and hoists me off the ground. I'm equally concerned by the sharp sickles he has in one hand and for the 75 year-old man's back, but both seem secure enough. He waves me around for a few seconds, plonks me down on the ground and accurately proclaims me to be 80 kilograms.

Apparently the host family didn't know we were coming, which again speaks to the way things are organised around here. We later realise that it is fine because most families don't even have phones and they are used to visitors showing up unannounced. Every so often, when Birman brings a group through this way, they just rock up at the various houses and announce that they are staying the night. And quite an early night it is too, given that there isn't anything to do. Our hosts don't speak English and our basic Nepali serves us well but the subject matter is quite limited. The television, always the centre of attention in a Nepali home only gets three channels, and we are all pretty bushed anyway. So, after dinner (dal bhat), it's pretty much straight to bed, at 8.30.

Wednesday, March 28

Day two takes us a fairly short distance for Dulal Gaau to Panauti. Apart from an hour or so descending through some paddies, most of today's walk is along the road with motorbikes and packed-to-the-gills buses tearing past us. We thought that, in order to see the mountains we are hoping to see the mountains we are hoping to see, we would mainly be going up rather than down but we'll see how things work out.

By about 2.30pm we roll into the mid-sized town of Panauti. Birman had been telling us that we would be staying with his boss, one of Panauti's richest men, who had made his fortune selling cheese. We were imagining what kind of luxurious digs might be in store for us at the Cheese King's place - hot shower? Soft mattress? Cheese for dinner? Half way along Panauti's main street, Birman veers off into some nondescript building and beckons us to follow. The second floor reeks strongly of cheese and the top floor contains a small, bare concrete room. This, apparently, is our home for the night. We were prepared for, and even looking forward to, basic accommodation but we had been told we would be staying with families. This is simply a square room with no family or home-like furnishings anywhere. If we aren't staying, as promised, with a family or in a village, then we feel Rajesh should put us up at a hotel. He is really saving quite a bit of money this way and we are all a little disappointed.

There is also the constant smell of cheese, or some cheese-related substance that wafts up to the roof. I ask Birman about the cheese-making process and if they use some kind of cheese machine.

"No machine", he says, shaking his head. "The village people come in and make it".

"No kidding - The Village People?" I reply with a straight face. "I've been wondering what they were up to these days. I suppose they work here for a bit then head off to the YMCA."
"Yes", Birman confirms, although he looks a little confused.

The empty concrete cube that is our room gets transformed slightly with the addition of a straw mat and a sack pillow - luxury. The evening again goes slowly, with a little bit of entertainment from the dozens of kids that randomly show up and give us an impromptu song and dance show. It's another early night for us, around 9.30, but the traffic through our room to the neighbouring kitchen continues noisily even after we are asleep. Each new person bursts open the door and turns on the light, completely unconcerned with the three guests trying to sleep. Once all that finally settles down, we have the problem of trying to sleep on a wafer-thin straw mat on top of concrete. I can only stay in any one position for five minutes before my tailbone or hip starts to get sore, so there is a lot of shifting during the night. Well, until 4am at least. That's when the Cheese Baron and some of his kids get up and start crashing around. Nepali people are naturally very kind and generous but they don't really get taught about being considerate to others. For example, I would not shout at high volume to a family member while my guests were trying to sleep in the same room. Nor would I hoick up phlegm at a volume that makes it sound like I am dying just outside someone's bedroom. There's an oft-repeated saying in Nepal that "guest is God" but there must be another saying that "God is deaf or at least a very heavy sleeper".
Thursday March 29

So it isn't the best start to the day but it's all part of the fun. Today is a much more satisfying day, in the sense of what we were expecting from our trekking experience. We start off by passing some nice pagodas on the edge of town then start climbing. Compared to yesterday's distinctly un-remote, highway-side walk, this feels very genuine. In fact the slope becomes very steep in places, particularly as we head up to the Namo Buddha stupa and monastery. It is a pretty hot day today and we work up quite a sweat. Unfortunately the heat and lack of rain makes the sky very hazy so we can't see the Himalayas that are hiding tantalisingly behind the haze. The views are spectacular nonetheless, the mountains layered behind one another and the terraced fields that make the hillsides look like a life-sized topographical map. The stupa (Buddhist temple) near the top of the hill isn't very big but is apparently significant because it is over a thousand years old. Apparently Buddha offered his body as food to a starving tiger here.

Being out here in the middle of nowhere, atop a difficult-to-access hill, it is nice and quiet and virtually tourist-free. We stop here for delicious dal bhat and then climb some more to the monastery associated with the stupa. It is a beautiful setting, a tranquil complex of buildings built on the side of the hill. All the monks are inside doing their afternoon chanting and music so we sit outside in the sun and listen. It is so relaxing that I fall asleep for a while - not difficult after last night's fitful rest. Here is such a contrast to the hustle and bustle of Kathmandu, or in fact to anywhere with a road passing through it.

By 3pm we have already covered around 15 kilometres. In the next couple of hours we walk another seven or so, meaning we have walked a half-marathon today when we reach our destination for the night, the village of Dapchal. Our host house is tucked away inside a streetside building and is again of the clay floor variety. It is perhaps even more simple than the place we stayed in on the first night. As always, the host family doesn't know we are coming until we show up on their doorstep so there is a bit of rearranging of furniture and relocating of family members to free up some beds. They don't mind too much because of the 600 rupees they get from Birman for the inconvenience.

As we are sitting around in the living room, an older gentleman walks in and sits down. Birman identifies him as the grandfather of the family and says he is 96 years old. He can't see so well but otherwise has all his faculties. He was born in this village way back in 1911 when there was still jungle all around, and has lived here ever since. Apart from a couple of trips to Kathmandu he has rarely even left this area. We ask if turning 100 has any major significance, just in case he makes it, but apparently not. Eighty-four is a big milestone here, as it has some religious meaning. So he doesn't have much to aim for but he seems in great spirits nonetheless.

The pre-dinner period follows a similar pattern to previous nights. Various members of the family drift in and don't speak English so Jane makes conversation in Nepali. My Nepali's okay but hers is really quite good and she has that natural ability to keep a conversation going. The TV gets switched on as soon as possible and to the most annoying channel and volume and remains on whether anyone is watching it or not, forcing everyone to shout over it.

The kitchen is downstairs and is basically a big empty clay room with some little straw mats for sitting on and a little stove in the corner. I still struggle with having to sit cross-legged and eat. Because it is 'jutho' to hold my plate with my left-hand and eat with my right, I must keep the plate on the floor and reach over for my food. Jane is more flexible and she has no trouble.

Then it is bed-time, at about 8.30. The 11 year-old kid just stands and totally stares at us while we get ready for bed and even when we are lying in bed. He doesn't speak English so we can say things like "piss off, kid" and he doesn't understand.

We are very glad to see how these people live - so poor and so simply but so jolly too. They obviously don't know any different and have just grown accustomed to these conditions. That is one of the great things we have learned on this trip, and particularly on this trek: that so many people do without even the most basic luxuries - carpet, running water, indoor toilet, etc, but they are so happy with their lot.

Friday, March 30

In order to avoid a bit of the midday sun, we start out at 8am down a precarious hillside to the river. Actually, most of the riverbeds are completely dry, in contrast to the monsoon season (July and August) when they fill up with raging torrents of water. This particular river, whose name I forget, has its source at the top of the mountain we are staying on tomorrow night. It flows right through Nepal and ends up in Bangladesh. Its unstoppable monsoon overflow is the major cause of the devastating floods that kill thousands of people every so often in that country. It's kind of awesome to think that such a powerful force has such humble beginnings, right here. There is a nifty little water mill constructed on the side of the river that diverts some of the river water and the current powers a machine that grinds maize all day long.

We cross the river and then start ot climb up the hill to the village of Ambode for lunch. The lady of the house produces an old bucket filled with what we assume to be dishwater or something. Instead, she pours some into big metal bowls and hands one to each of us. It is a murky yellow concoction with chunks of mushed-up corn floating in it. Known as 'chang', it is one of the two types of alcohol they drink in these parts. It is a fermented corn and water mixture that tastes a bit like corn-flavoured beer. It isn't great.

We are only the second group of white folks ever seen in this village so we are an instant attraction, especially for the children. Birman sits us down for a few minutes while he gets something and the entire child population stands right in front of us, gawking silently and scratching themselves. Lunch takes quite a while to prepare so we don't have much option but to sit on the porch of the lunch-provider's house, in full view of the captivated village audience. Even when our dal bhat is ready and we go inside, the 15-20 kids follow us in and observe our every mouthful with avid interest.

It's not that I mind kids, as a rule, but I do mind starers. I realise that we are a total novelty to these people, much like a three-headed alien would be to us, and this is fine. Take a good look, examine us closely for a few minutes, but then bugger off. Don't stare and stare for hours with your mouth open like an idiot, and don't follow us in when we're eating. I know I'm a grumpy old man but that's my prerogative now that I'm 30. Jane has no such compunctions and she is always entertaining the kids (giving them more reason to stare) and practising her Nepali.

Anyway, that stop seems to take forever and it is 3 o'clock by the time we leave. We are extremely rural now, long past anywhere that a bus or even a motorbike can access. It is all foot traffic around here, which makes for some nice peace and quiet. There are no stores out here, even of the hole-in-the-wall variety and no one speaks any English at all. The scenery is nice and varied on our walk. Stony riverbeds, terraced potato fields, dusty paths that curl around massive mountains, lush - almost tropical - sections of damp forest, and hazy views of distant peaks.

Mondu Gaau is the name of the tiny village we stop in for the night. It is the smallest of all the villages so far, little more than eight houses on either side of a tinny cobble-stoned street. Birman says we are the first white people to come to this village, as he normally takes another route, and that we might be a bit of a curiosity. The kids, who are sitting idly beneath a tree, spot us as we approach and the word spreads like wildfire - "Strange people are coming! Strange people are coming!" We sit down on the side of the main, and only, street, and the kids huddle together on the other side, keeping a safe distance. They maintain a steady, silent stare, broken only by the occasional whisper to someone else when one of us does something exciting like scratch our head or take a sip of water.

Saturday, March 31

We are off to our guide Birman's home village today. Mate, the name of the village, is similar to the word for 'up' in Nepali, so we figure we might be in for some climbing. And indeed that proves to be the case. As soon as we cross the river we start to climb up a steep hill and we are fairly puffed by the time we reach the village.

For 10 years, right up until 2006, this part of Nepal was a stronghold for the Maoist terrorists. They would set up camp in the jungles above the village, and sometimes force the villagers to feed and house them after they performed their military drills at the local school. If there was any display of wealth from any of the villagers, the Maoists would demand a portion of it for themselves. Because of the remote location, the government troops could only attack the Maoists by helicopter, so they would bomb their camps, only a few hundred metres from the village. The Maoists were real pricks but they were extremely difficult for the national army to dislodge, thanks to their good knowledge of the mountain regions they operated in.

The government eventually had little choice but to cave in to the Maoists' demands, which primarily included representation in government. Now that they have that, they continue to be pricks, making all sorts of unreasonable demands. One of the conditions of the Maoists joining the government was that they handed over all their weapons. However, they have not done so and they ludicrously claim that all their guns were washed away in the river. Now, if things go pear-shaped for the Maoists in the upcoming election, they can just collect their hidden weapons and take to the mountains again.

Although they are no longer terrorising the mountains, the Maoists are still involved in violence. Just last week, they provocatively decided to hold some kind of meeting at the same time and place as the Forum Party, their arch enemies. A scuffle broke out and some Forum guy shot 28 Maoists.

Mind you, massacres are nothing new in Nepal. About seven years ago, the Crown Prince shot and killed eight members of his family at a Royal Party, then turned the gun on himself. He obviously wasn't a great shot as he didn't manage to kill himself and only ended up in a coma. As all the other eligible royals were dead, he was proclaimed King by default. He died soon enough but the current King is almost as much of a dropkick, by the sound of things. Everyone knows that, whatever the result of the June election, the parliament will legislate the Royal family out of existence. So this King is doing whatever he can to prevent the election from taking place, including funding and arming hired guns in the south to stir up trouble. The whole political situation is a real mess here and I sure wouldn't want to have to clean it up.
Anyway, now that the Maoists are causing their mischief in Kathmandu, things are nice and quiet for the people of Mate. It's a beautiful, scenic village of 300 people that sprawls gently across the side of this massive hill. They have seen foreigners before so we are not quite the novelty we were yesterday. In fact, one wealthy Englishman enjoyed his visit so much that he donated a few thousand pounds to the village, and Birman said they used it to build toilets or something. And many of the kids have their education in Kathmandu sponsored by Americans and Europeans.

Shanti, our original classmate from the orientation phase of our stint back in February, joins us today. She and her friend Neema - a part-time resident of this village - made the trip up from Kathmandu today, the short way.
Sunday, April 1

Because Mate is so nice, we just spend the day hanging out in the village in the morning we take a short hike up to the top of the mountain where the national flower, a bright red rhododendron, is sprinkled colourfully across the hillside. Then we pop down to Neema's house for lunch and copious cups of tea in lieu of any drinkable water. The village has no stores, although one guy sells little candies out of his cupboard and this is described as a store by the locals. There is no mineral water available anywhere around here and we can't drink the tap water, obviously, so we are reliant on boiled water but Jane doesn't even fully trust that.

More to come shortly . . .

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