Faces of Nepal
A purple backpack ablaze with a big white Venture Up logo made its rounds on the luggage carousel at Katmandu’s international airport. What a great advertisement I thought, wondering if anyone would know us in Katmandu.
“Do you work for Venture Up?” An American had approached me, seeing the same logo on my T-shirt.
Here I was on the other side of the world and already feeling right at home in this Himalayan mountain kingdom. Funny how you can travel to just about any mountain land and catch up with someone you know, or somehow connected to you. Over the years it’s become less a coincidence and more a welcome expectation. There’s something about the mountain regions everywhere that draws in people of all backgrounds and connects them to one another on some level, if only for a moment.
?Thirty minutes from Katmandu, I sat on a hilltop with R.P. Pant in Patan. Rolling green farmlands broke way to a white sunlit stretch at the horizon. The snow-capped Himalaya have remained the same for eons, save for the changing light of day and the mood of the season.
He pointed to a faraway niche in the emerald hills where he was raised and worked on a farm before leaving his homeland for an education at Calcutta University. Thereafter he formed Sagarmatha Trekking agency in Katmandu with former Phoenician Bill Kite, and also served as the president of the Trekking Association of Nepal.
We didn’t talk much that morning, R.P., me or a friend who accompanied me from Arizona. We sat and watched faraway clouds drift across the peaks. A light wind picked up and it wasn’t long before a grey shroud smothered the snow-capped horizon. This land is a world apart from Katmandu, and now it was time to return there.
The road bends and blends through quiet meadows and mountain scenery en route to Nepal’s capital city. The car broke down on a lonely shady street. Parked cars with Westerners inside are magnets for curious Nepali children. One of them surfaced and stepped our way. R.P. talked with the soft spoken boy, who at 19 looked 12. He, like R.P., was a Hindu. His parents were arranging a marriage for him in a few months. He didn’t know the girl, but said he trusts his parents judgment. “I want someone a little fat, with light skin and educated.” He had quit school at 13. All his friends got married at 15 or 16, he said. “Why not me?” Before long, the car was ready and we were on our way to the Swayambhunath Temple. The boy was off to his farm.
?Katmandu is a fast and fun city, full of cars, tourists, street merchants and other Nepalese — some who live there, others trying to make a go of it. Like New York City, Katmandu does not reflect the essence of its country. Nepal is a fabulous melting pot of some 29 ethnic cultures, and Katmandu reflects this mix, although most are the native Newars.
While Katmandu offers a world of cultural experiences — the Swayambhunath stupa, Durbar Square, the artistic performances at the Vajra Hotel, to name a few — that’s not the main reason why people come.
Katmandu is the first stop before heading to the hills of Nepal. On this trip we were off for a short trek in the Annapurna region, a raft ride on the Trisuli River, and an elephant safari in the Chitwan Jungle. But we had to get to Pokara first.
West of Katmandu, Pokara is the gateway city to the trail head for the Annapurna circuit, the most popular trekking area in Nepal. Nepal Airlines offers flights there, but they are often booked up, as they were in our case. A 9-hour bus ride connects Katmandu to Pokara, and we were on the next departure. We were the only Westerners on board, and the only ones in the village where we stopped to eat. There was one meal for lunch that day: rice with chicken. A thin old man wrapped in swaddling clothes cupped rice in his hands and ate greedily. Locals lined up for food. We sat at a table and waited for our porters to bring us ours. To get it ourselves would be an insult to them. According to their culture, this would be the same as saying, “You’re not doing your job, so I’m doing it for you.”
?In Pokara, we ended up at a Tibetan refugee camp, open for trekkers to stay. The sun dropped and a Tibetan boy invited my friend and I to his home where he showed us some jewelry he brought from Tibet. Sitting in a dark adobe room, he lit a fire for tea and the dancing flames brought lively shadows to the small confines. We talked into the night with him and his father, who let his son speak for him for the most part. Then he brightened and talked on his own about Jimmy Carter who stopped by their camp in his helicopter when viewing the Tibetan refugee camps in the 1970s.
From the camp, tiny farm villages dot the trekking route. Our porters were Ram, 27, a Newar, and Pema, a Sherpa from the Everest region, who was either 16 or 24 depending on who asked him. The first part of the trek was very steep. It was hot and humid in October, the peak month in the high tourist season. Passing through Dhampus, laughing children chased us, turning sad when pointing to minor cuts and scratches for us to heal. Some were already scarred. With great concern, I played along and wiped their wounds with a moist towelette.
We reached Potana, the first stop on the trek. There, I met Bal Bahudur, who had just returned from a month-long trip to Tibet, and also had a load of jewelry. His family had for centuries lived in a farm village higher in the mountains, but the flocks of tourists on the Annapurna circuit drew him to seek his fortune here and abandon a life of physical hardship on the farm. Unfortunately, nobody was buying jewelry that day.
?Dusk turned to darkness and foreign trekkers from several countries sat at a teahouse table exchanging travel stories, a scene so common in any of the world’s remote tourist areas — the outsiders gather in one spot, isolated from the locals.
Village neighbors sat together outside their homes. I walked in the darkness, saying “Namaste,” the common greeting meaning, “I salute the peace within in you.” To my surprise several of them spoke very good English. For the most part the villagers were self taught, with the help from a few in the hoards of passing trekkers. Being the most popular trekking route in Nepal, the Annapurna region attracts 25,000 outsiders per year. Nearly all come from October through March, overwhelming the region’s 40,000 inhabitants.
I didn’t buy any of Bal’s jewelry, but gave away nearly half of my medicine supply. The night fell and I retreated to my bed in the teahouse. I ordered chicken for dinner. The cook made a long face. “That will take a long time,” he said. “We have to kill it first.”
It was a perfect cloudless day when we passed the Talka Lodge, a high point on the trek with deep, plunging valleys and high summits fat with snow. A man with a big book ran out of the lodge chasing after us. He said his village needed a bridge and we got the idea he was soliciting donations when he showed us a book full of signatures of North Americans and Europeans. It noted the amounts each person gave, which were questionably high. We gave him a few rupees for his efforts.
?A rhododendron and oak forest leads the way down a valley and upward to Ghandrung, a mountain hamlet that connects to the glacial foothills of the high peaks. Ghandrung is part of a 1,000 square foot area involved in the Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP), a product of the World Wildlife Fund that has managed to direct trekkers’ permit fees to support the environment and protect it from the encroaching tourists. The program provides the local people with the skills, knowledge, technical and financial assistance needed to help them improve their quality of life.
From Ghandrung, there are a few ways to go. The longer term groups usually head closer to the Annapurnas, where a minimum of 22 days are needed for the round-trip hike from Pokara. Most of the others head to Gorepani to take in spectacular views of Dhaulagiri, Annapurna and Kali Gandaki Gorge. Aquamarine waters runoff the mountains forming wide flowing waves to the lowlands, filtering to Nepal’s rivers and eventually to the sacred river Ganges in India. I took refuge at a sandbar, closing my eyes to the rushing waters and the ominous looming peaks.
The porters were behind, and continued up to Chundrakot a major transition point where descending and ascending trekking teams meet. A dozen merchants sold jewelry to the passing crowds. A woman called me over, asking me to trade my glacier glasses for a necklace. No deal. A thick herd of sheep crowded the trail as we rambled down to Pokara the next day. The shepherds apologized to the porters for blocking our way and swatted the sheep to make them go faster. “No,” I told Ram. “This is his home. We’ll wait.” The white mass waddled over the bumpy trail lined with stone-laid homes. Terraces of crops unfolded to the valley below. The sheep moved out to pasture, signaling our descent through thick trees and farmlands toward Pokara.
It was sunny and hot. Too hot. Fishtail Lake was clearly ahead, below in the distance. My pace quickened as I neared the water. I shot ahead, dropped my pack at its banks, and dove into the coolness. Swimming around, I noticed a group of startled Nepali women gathering at the shore, smiling in quizzical amazement. Nothing felt better, save for the shower to follow at the charming Garden Hotel in Pokara. The next day we were ready to raft the Trisuli.
Monkeys dangled in trees lining the Trisuli River. Children swam and waved at the shores. Rope bridges hung high from above, connecting the cliffs that plunged upward from the shores. The waters of the Trisuli are mild, its wildest rapid is called “Upset,” which didn’t upset us in the least. Having rafted both the Trisuli and the Sunkosi, Nepal’s largest river I realized why Nepal is not known for its wild rivers. It’s not the rapids that draw thousands of travelers here every season, but the Nepal experience by way of boat.
Next we headed to the Terai region of the Chitwan Jungle, home of the Tharu people. Dusty villages and dirt roads lead to a river with no bridge. A jeep awaited us at the ?banks. We jumped in and without warning were headed into the river sharing it with bathing people and wet elephants. Banana trees, thatched roofs, covered ox carts and elephants signaled another way of life apart from the mountains, which were still in view. Peaks visible from the area include Manaslu, Himalchuli, Pun Hill, Annapurna II, Lumjun Himal, Annapurna II, Annapurna III, Fishtail, and Annapurna South.
One-horned rhinos and the elusive Bengal tiger are the highlights of the Chitwan Jungle safari experience. Both endangered species, there are only 1,000 one-horned rhinos left in existence, 300 of which reside in Chitwan. About 40 of Nepal’s 200 Bengal tigers are also found here. A fish-eating crocodile, called the gharial, is another rare species, for which a breeding center has been established near the park headquarters. Chitwan also hosts leopards, sloth bear, jackals, porcupines, buffaloes, wild boar, monkeys, and more than 400 species of birds, including peacocks. River dwellers include the Gangetic dolphin, the python and the king cobra.
The Tharu people of the Terai are darker skinned than the other ethnic cultures of Nepal, and have a rich ethnic heritage. Farming is the their way of life. Tharu farmers here erect machan towers which serve as scarecrows to help keep the rhinos away from the crops. At sundown, villagers take turns sleeping at the top of the tower to keep watch of over the fields and scare off the rhinos.
A rhino was spotted near our jungle huts we learned the next morning. Visions of a charging rhino came to mind. The rule is, if a rhino comes running after you, run in an ?arc. Their eyesight is so bad that they won’t be able to follow you. Better yet, find a tree and hide. We needn’t fear of rhinos that day; we were headed for a more tame experience: bird watching. More impacting were the insidious spiders and 4-foot tall vultures high in the trees where a myriad of birds made their homes. Later, I ventured alone to one of the elephant camps. There are two camps in this region, each having a total of 40 elephants. Elephants are not native to the Chitwan Jungle, but were gifts from the government of India. They eat at least 500 pounds of food a day . Full-time caretakers make so-called “elephant sandwiches”, grass wrapped and packed over grain.
A witch doctor appeared to perform a routine ritual. He prayed to several icons during his many rituals, I was told. At this time he was praying for the overall health of the elephants, and the wooden icons were set in a row. Other times, if an elephant gets loose, he prays to the jungle goddess Durga Mata, for the elephant’s return. The witch doctor, in turn, sacrifices two goats to show his faith.
I had looked forward to the elephant safari the next day. Our safari left from the other elephant camp, which we reached by way of the river. A dugout canoe awaited at the banks. It was unstable until we all sat down. The boats are carved from a capoca tree; it takes seven men one week to make one of them. Canoes also serve as another way to explore the area, and the best way to meet the crocodiles. Birds swooned along the sandbars. Two crocodiles lifted their eyes from the water’s surface, never posing a threat.
?Dozens of caretakers were spread throughout the camp. A baby elephant, seven months old, swayed and bounced his head and body, crossing his legs like an anxious child who needed to use the bathroom. Then he’d lift his trunk and pounce it at his intruder. Further away were large, tusked elephants. When I approached them the caretakers screamed, “Hello, Danger,” warning me to keep away. Bull elephants are more aggressive then the others, but with a little pressure they still allowed me to take one on the safari.
Elephants lead our way and the safari was about to begin. With the tap of a stick, the caretaker brought the massive saddled beast to the ground. His hind quarter spread out like a slope of dry, cracked mud. I stepped up on his foot and scrambled up to the saddle, feeling like one of the captors of the giant in Gulliver’s Travels.
Three rhinos ripped through the grass as we began the safari. Then we learned the other rule about rhinos. White and red are the two colors to incite anger in a rhino, the exact colors my friend and I were wearing that day. Thank goodness for the beasts below us.
The day grew dim. As we returned to camp, a low resonant roar came through the grass. That foreboding feeling ignited by the sound of a rattlesnake in the desert, heard but not seen. This was no snake. A Bengal tiger was rattling in the brush. The tiger is a solitary animal, hiding by day, hunting at night. We waited from afar, hoping he would appear. Maybe the guide was reluctant to get too close, as dinnertime drew near.
Our covered ox-drawn wagon brought us away from the elephant camp through fields where families of children herded sheep. Sometimes they’d hitch a ride, reaching for our arms as they stepped on the moving cart. One group gave us their littlest brother. When he cried, I jumped off and returned him.
Plans called for Tharu dances that night. I had expected a busload of dancers would arrive from Katmandu, for there was no semblance of a thriving tourist community here. Playful children ran in the dusty streets trying to fly a kite made of leaves. In all ways, they seem to live off the land and make do.
Fire lit the night and the dancers came through the trees. The same people I saw in the village were now at our huts, dressed as they were at work; no pretenses or costumes to please the tourists. It was refreshing. The dances were genuine, an uncontrived example of their normal cultural expression. The stick dance, the last one, was most impressive. Using 6-foot poles of thick wood, they danced in a circle cracking sticks together in a remarkably synchronized order. Bowing briefly, they exited through the trees toward home.
Morning broke and the covered wagon sat in the sun ready to take us through the trees, and to the jeep to cross the river. We, too, were heading home, by way of a winding cliff side road to Katmandu.