- Submitted by: Eugene Margulis
- Submission Date: 09th Feb 2005
After seeing a number of questions on travelling in Nepal recently and a few travel logs posted, I decided to post my travel notes from my trip to Nepal last Spring. I spent a month there, half of this time trekking part of the Annapurna trek. Please realise that the following are my own subjective, biased and opinionated views. See the guides mentioned for more objective and accurate information about the country.
Exchange: 1.00$US = 47NR (Nepali Rupees)
Nepal, a travel survivor kit, T.Wheeler and R.Everist, Lonely Planet 1990
Trekking in the Nepal Himalaya, S.Armington, Lonely Planet 1991
A Guide to Trekking in Nepal, S.Bezruchka, The Mountaineers, 1981
25.02.92 - Zurich - Frankfurt
(Flight to Frankfurt)
I left Zurich early afternoon with a Lufthansa flight to Frankfurt. There I changed to a direct Frankfurt-Kathmandu Lufthansa flight. It was obvious that the particular Zurich-Frankfurt flight is normally used by the people transferring to the Kathmandu flight in Frankfurt. There was one guy who looked as if he was teleported from the 60's who rolled up a joint while waiting for the Frankfurt flight in the waiting area of Zurich airport. Smoking hash is legal in Switzerland, but I did not think someone would do that while waiting for an international flight. There was another guy, a westerner, about 25 who had his head shaved; he was dressed in pale purple colours. During the entire short flight to Frankfurt he prayed using some sort of praying beads that were attached to an embroidered cloth case-glove with a hole for his hand and thumb. Several other backpackers and trekkers with packs in the economy section of the aircraft were a great contrast to the jacket-and-tie wall-street-journal reading business.
26.02.92 - Frankfurt - Kathmandu
(The flight, Arrival to Kathmandu; Getting the hotel; Kathmandu)
The Frankfurt to Kathmandu flight seemed amazingly long. It took about 13 hours altogether. There was one refueling stop in Karachi, Pakistan. Karachi is a strange city if you look at it at night from the air. It is very big and spread out with lots of lights. But all the lights are very two-dimensional, defining only very flat structures. It is almost as if there were no buildings on the ground. Only few roads are lit up, so there is very little pattern in this large flat maze of random lights.
In Karachi no-one is allowed off the plane, so you have to be inside and cannot leave your seat for security reasons for a couple of hours while the plane is on the ground. The flight from Karachi to Kathmandu took about 3 hours. The approach to Kathmandu airport was fantastic. I sat on the left side of the plane and could see the whole panorama of Himalayas. It took three attempts to land in Kathmandu, apparently this is normal because of the haze and clouds. Most planes are usually held in the air for a while, until the approach to the runway is clear.
When I got through all the customs formalities at the airport, I was surrounded by the crowds of very loud and aggressive young men trying to sell me a hotel room or a taxi ride. They kept on talking to me even as I was changing the money at the bank. After 13 hours in the plane I was not in a particularly good mood and was afraid that I would end up hitting one of them with something heavy. Fortunately the only heavy thing that was around was my pack, and that was too heavy.
Eventually I gave up and ended up agreeing to go with one guy to his hotel. The hotel was clean and the staff was friendly, but it was very near a construction area and the streets around it were exceptionally dusty and smelly. It was in Chetrapatti, about 10-15 min walk from Thamel. The price was $6 US per night for a single room with a toilet and shower (originally he asked for $8, but I bargained $2 off). By Kathmandu standards that was expensive, as I found out later. In Chetrapatti you should not pay more than $4 for a room like that, In Thamel a room like that should cost no more than $5. A single room with a common toilet/shower should cost no more than $2 - $3 per night.
When you arrive to Kathmandu and are in the same precarious situation as I was, tired and dazed after the flight, surrounded by all the hotel representatives, the best advice is probably to insist on a taxi ride to Kathmandu Guest House (centre of Thamel) and then walk around and choose among the thousands of hotels. The cab ride to the city should cost no more than 100NR. Another option is to agree to look at one of the hotels being offered and then turn it down. If you agree to look at someone's hotel and then turn it down, they would charge you less than the cab fare for the ride to the city. In that case you will end up paying only about 40NR or as little as you manage to bargain for before you accept the ride. Just make sure that the hotel they are taking you to is in Thamel (or whatever part of the city you want to stay in).
After I checked in the hotel, I went for a walk in the city. The abundance of colours was the most startling. All colours were bright. Women were dressed in bright blue, bright yellow, bright red, bright green saris. All Hindus had ``tikas'' (red marks on their foreheads). Bright coloured doors, window shutters. Red, white and golden temples. Tibetan Buddhists wore saffron and magenta coloured gowns. Sadhus (the Hindu holy men) in ocre ``dhoti'' (loin-cloth), their foreheads painted white with red marks. Rickshaws painted in all colours. And everything is under the bright sun, blue sky and with the snowy mountains in the background. I got the impression that no matter where you point your camera, you would still get a good picture.
Many streets are only partially paved, especially the small ones that are not usually marked on the maps. There is lots of dust in the air, and for a while that was a major problem for me. Eventually I learned to deal with it by carrying a handkerchief and breathing through it when a truck passed by. The locals do that all the time. Many people riding bicycles wear surgical masks to protect them from dust.
There are heaps of garbage with cows (holy animals) rummaging around, picking up bits and pieces. Sort of natural recycling. The drawback is that unrecycled, uneaten garbage smells. The garbage that has been recycled (through a cow) is all over and one has to be very careful not to step in it, but at least it smells less.
Kathmandu abounds with various sorts of transportation. Rickshaws, moto-rickshaws, tracktors, trucks, cars, bicycles, motorcycles. The most important part of every vehicle seems to be a horn or a bell or some other home-made noise making device. The louder the better. Some of the vehicles make so much noise on their own (e.g. tracktors) that they require really powerful signals to be heard over the engine. The result is deafening ``white noise'' that completely surrounds you. First day it was shocking, but after a couple days I got used to that.
Kathmandu is very dusty, smelly, noisy - wonderful. So unswiss that it makes me grin when I think how much the Swiss would suffer if they were forced to stay there. (I am talking about the swiss-Swiss. The ones that are travelling and get there on their own are rather unswiss-Swiss).
27.02.92 - Kathmandu
(Street vendors; Trekking Permit; Bus Tickets)
On the streets of Kathmandu you are approached (attacked is a better word) by people trying to sell you: carpets, tiger balm, chess sets, ghorka knifes, rickshaw rides, flutes, violins. Your initial (western) reaction is to look at the product, politely tell them that you like it, but do not want to buy it at the time. Wrong! If you so much as acknowledge them, they will follow you for hundreds of meters, chatting without a stop, running in front of you, sticking the flutes right in front of your face, making some horrible noises with the violins. Even if you say a definite NO, it would only encourage them to tell you more about the quality of their product or how cheap they are willing to sell it for.
There is another type of peddlers, they are usually sleasy characters. One of them would approach you and offer ``Carpet?''. If you ignore that, then in a hushed voice he would say ``Change money?''. If you sill keep on ignoring him, in a really hushed and low voice, he would offer ``Hash? Marijuana? Opium?''.
The best way to deal with all of those is to completely ignore them, and to make sure that they would not get you into a conversation. Eventually you will develop a certain look on your face that they will stop hustling you completely -- the look will tell them that it is useless.
This was my second day in Kathmandu and I needed to get my trekking permit. Trekking permit is really a special visa allowing you to go in a specific region of the country. With the normal visa you are only allowed to stay in Kathmandu valley, Pokhara and Chitwan. I went to the immigration office at 10am, that's when they open, got the application for the trekking permit and got into a line-up. The application form is labelled as ``Appendix-1 (Related to Subrule 1 of rule 3)''. I have no idea what the Subrule 1 and the rule 3 are, but the Nepalis definitely take the administration and the bureaucracy seriously. The forms are completed in triplicate with two layers of carbon paper. The forms are colour coded according to the general region you want to trek in. Since I wanted to go to Annapurna region I had to fill out the yellow forms. After the forms were filled out and after standing for about an hour in the line-up I paid about 1000NR for 25 days of trekking in Annapurna region. That included 200NR special Annapurna Region Conservation fee. I left my passport, two passport sized photos at the Immigration Office and had to come back there at 2pm to pick up the permit and the passport. The whole procedure was much more efficient than what I expected. You also end up meeting lots of other trekkers in the line-up.
I would imagine that later in the season when there are much more trekkers the whole procedure would take much longer. It seems that the best way to get the permit is to go to the Immigration Office and get the permit application a day in advance and fill it out before 10am the following day. If you show up the next day with the completed application and all the documents required before the office opens (10am), you will likely be the first in the line and the whole procedure will take under an hour.
According to the new regulations, you do not need to show money exchange certificates in order to obtain the trekking permit IF the trekking period you are applying for is before the end of your visa (One used to have to exchange $20US for every day of trekking). You still need to exchange $20US for every day of visa extension.
After getting the permit I went shopping for the bus ticket to Pokhara. They can be bought in any of the dozens travel agencies in Thamel. They all sell tickets for one or another type of ``tourist busses''. These are the busses with 2x2 seats that have only 2-3 stops between Kathmandu and Pokhara (unless they break) and take only 8-9 hours to get there. The ``tourist bus'' ticket costs anywhere between 140 and 160 NR, you can usually bargain the quoted price down to 120-140 relatively easily. Tourist buses depart from the Immigration Office at 7am every morning. You could also get to Pokhara with a local bus, that would cost you 58NR, but there they pack as many people as they can fit (including the roof) and the trip takes about 15 hours. Local busses depart from the main bus station. Note that the ``tourist buses'' are not only for tourists. Locals take them as well and from what I was told they pay about 20-30NR less than the tourists. I bought a ticket for one of those tourist busses.
There are also what is called ``mini-busses'', those range from small busses that carry up to 20 people to the air-conditioned toyota vans. The price for those ranges from 180NR to about 300NR depending on the quality of the bus. Their major advantage is that they are usually newer and the windows can be closed tightly -- that means much less dust inside. On the Kathmandu-Pokhara road that is very important. The small busses are usually faster than the regular tourist busses, but not by much. Kathmandu-Pokhara trip would take you at least 6 hours no matter what bus you take.
Tickets for the tourist busses can usually be bought 1 day in advance; make sure that you get a seat number. Try to get a seat in the middle of the bus - if you seat at the back of the bus, your breakfast might jump out. Generally it is a good idea not to have a breakfast before travelling on a bus. The first 100km of the road from Kathmandu to Pokhara are under construction and during the ride you might hit the ceiling of the bus with your head a few times.
28.02.92 - Kathmandu - Pokhara
(Bus ride to Pokara)
Early in the morning I left a bag with the stuff that I would not need on the trek at the hotel's safe. On the trek you would only need the minimal amount of stuff and I figured that things like deodorant, shampoo, shaving cream, etc. -- are all western extravagances and should never be taken up in the hills. I also left my old sleeping bag and took the down-filled sleeping bag that I bought the day before. I got to the bus stop at 6:45 and found my bus. Someone took my pack and put it on the roof of the bus along with the other packs, bags, suitcases, random pieces of furniture, a bamboo basket with chickens and a goat. The bus left after about 40 min of noisy ceremonies, counting the passagers, writing up the passager list in duplicate, drinking milk tea, etc.
Bus driving in Nepal is a complicated business. It requires cooperation and coordination of efforts of several people (about 6-7). Most of them seat in the front of the bus in the separate compartment along with the driver. The driver's job is to drive as fast as possible in the middle of the road. Whenever an oncoming bus/truck appears (also driving at the middle of the road) the driver would speed up and about 5 metres in front of the oncoming vehicle would sharply swing to the left.
There is usually a little boy (or two) whose place is on the roof of the bus. Whenever the driver needs to get through a narrow part of the road (or to pass another bus) the boy would knock on the bus roof to indicate if there is enough clearance. A fast series of knocks is a negative signal indicating to the driver that he should slam on the breaks immediately. A slower sequence of knocks, two at a time, is a positive signal indicating that there is enough clearance on the appropriate side of the bus (2cm or so).
Yet another helper would hang out of the bus's open door and inform the driver of what's going on on that side of the bus. There would be another guy who will check your tickets and another that would load/unload the luggage on the top of the bus. There would usually be two or three more helpers with randomly defined responsibilities, ready to help the others. All of the bus's ``official'' crew would constantly move from the front of the bus, to the door and then to the roof and back (while the bus is moving).
On the way to Pokhara we got stuck behind a broken truck that was blocking the road. The truck driver was walking around asking other drivers for some special wrench. Luckily the driver of our bus had the wrench and went to help the truck driver to fix the truck. In less than an hour the truck was fixed enough to move away from the spot and leave enough space for other busses and trucks to pass.
It is worth mentioning the busses themselves. The busses are Indian made and are marvels of mechanical engineering. If they tell you that the bus is new, it is sure to be at least 20 years old. The local busses look as if they were made in the last century. It is amazing that the busses and trucks function at all after the beating they get on the roads there. One can apply the Darwinian evolution theory to the busses and other moving mechanisms that function in Nepal - the strongest ones survive. I cannot imagine any new European or American bus surviving even a quarter of the road from Kathmandu to Pokhara.
Between Kathmandu and Pokhara there were two scheduled food stops. The first one was in the middle of nowhere, next to a little store. There one could buy tea and crackers at exorbitant prices (10NR for tea, even in the hills they would charge you only 2-3NR!). The second stop was in a relatively big town Mugling, about half way between Kathmandu and Pokhara. This stop was relatively long, next to many restaurants where one could get Dhal-Bhat. There were two or three other stops; I feel that those were unscheduled and caused by some of the crew members needing to go to the toilet (on the side of the road).
We arrived to Pokhara at around 4pm and there the situation was worse than that upon the arrival to the Kathmandu airport. The hotel peddlers seemed to be even more aggressive. Me and two Australians immediately chose one of them and went to look at his hotel (after making sure that the hotel was on the Lake Side). The Australians decided to stay there, but I wanted to walk around and find a better place. I paid my 15NR for the cab ride and in 15 min found a room with private facilities for only 80NR per night.
29.02.92 - Pokhara
(Pokhara; Sarangot; ``Guides'')
Pokhara is a very large (geographically) city. It really has two centres - the local centre, near the bus station and the bazaar, and the tourist centre in Baidam, or Lake Side. Most of tourist hotels and restaurants are located along the road that follows the lake side. The lake - Phewa Lake, is relatively large, with a small island that has a little Hindu temple. Pokhara is very near to the Annapurna and Daulaghiri ranges and early in the morning, when the air is still clear, one can see the snowy peaks of Annapurna South and Machapuchare.
This day I had a slow and relaxing breakfast and went up to Sarangot. Sarangot is a hill, 1592m, about 1.5 hours climb from Pokhara. The way there lies through the terraced rice fields at the bottom, next to the lake and then through the forest up to the top of the hill. It seemed that during and after mansoons the rice fields would be completely covered with water.
On the way up I was surrounded by dozens of little kids, each offering me their services as guides and wanting 20NR in return. One saw me from afar and run up to me, starting up this conversation (he was about 9-10 years old):
Hallo frend! Where you from?
Oh, Kanada! I like Kanada! Kanada is nice kontri! My girlfriend is from Kanada! Nice kontri Kanada! You go Sarangot? Yea? Want a guide? I good guide! Weri cheep! 50 rupies! Yea, Sarangot nice! First easi then difficalt, difficalt! You need guide? After that hill werri difficalt! I show you! OK? I will be quiet! No talking! OK? 40 rupies! OK?
30 rupies, OK? First easi, then difficalt, difficalt!! I show you! 20 rupies OK?
- FUCK OFF!
Fuck off, yea?? 20 rupies, no much! I good guide!
At this point he started running on the path right in front of me repeating the whole thing again (``Kanada nice kontri...''). I tried to ignore him for a while, but that proved to be impossible. I can imagine that many people would pay him just to get rid of him. After a couple of hundred metres he became really annoying and I thought that if I let him talk longer I might end up killing a child. So without waiting any longer I just brushed him off the path into the bushes. I think that brought the point across since after that he stopped following me. Later in Kathmandu, I tried to replace ``Canada'' with ``Albania'' once, and what I got, was almost the same thing all over again ``Albania, nice kontri! My broder go to Albania!...''
On the way up I met some Swiss and Canadians, for the rest of the day we walked together. At the top one could see the other side of the Pokhara valley and the contours of Daulaghiri, Annapurna South and Machapuchare. Unfortunately it was very hazy, so the contours was the best we could see. I would imagine that the view from Sarangot is really amazing after mansoon (Fall) when the air is clear. There are a couple of small restaurants right at the top of the hill where we had lunch. By the time we got back, it was about 4-5. We met later in the evening for dinner at the Tibetan restaurant ``Little Tibetan Tea Garden''. This restaurant serves probably the best Tibetan food in Pokhara. Momos are absolutely fantastic. I do not remember the exact name of the dish I ate there, but those were vegetarian momos in a bowl of soup with all sorts of vegetables and Tibetan bread. There were 6 of us and we paid the equivalent of 7 for all our meals including drinks (non-alcoholic) and desserts and tea.
01.03.92 - Pokhara - Phedi - Lumle - Birethanti - Hille
This was the day I started trekking. My intent was to go towards Jomosom and Muktinath - that path follows up Kali Gandaki river, and to try to fly back from Jomosom either to Pokhara or directly to Kathmandu. I found out that RNAC - Royal Nepali Airlines were on strike and that the flight situation from Jomosom was a bit iffy. There were rumours that Nepal military was operating the flights, but there was no definite confirmation of that. So I decided to walk as far as I can get in 5-6 days and then head back unless the flight situation clears up.
I was also a bit apprehensive of trekking alone, but I was told that I would meet lots of people en-route. Early in the morning I went for breakfast in ``Boomerang''. This is the best place for breakfast in Pokhara, located right on the lake. They have an excellent German bakery and the most comfortable chairs. Sure enough there were other people with packs and it took me only about 2 min to find other 4 people to split the cab with. They were going towards the Annapurna Sanctuary, but we all needed to get to Phedi - the beginning of the trek. They told me that they have arranged for the cab via their hotel and that the cab would cost 300NR for all of us. They thought that they were getting a minibus, but we all ended up cramming into a little 2 door toyota. That must have been a record - 5 people with large backpacks and a driver. When we got to Phedi, an argument ensued - apparently the driver wanted 600NR. He got hold of a 500NR bill and would not give change. There was nothing we could do except to accept the fact that the ride costed us about $2 each (instead of $1.20).
At Phedi there is a tiny restaurant serving dhal-bhat and lots of kids trying to sell you walking sticks. After telling them that I would only pay 1NR (they wanted to sell them for 10NR) they thought that was unreasonably low and left me alone for a while. I needed to get to Lumle. One could walk there (about 2-3 hours) or catch a ride with a Chineese dumper truck. The Chineese are helping Nepalis in many road construction projects in Pokhara area, they lend and donate lots of equipment, including trucks. The truck driver wanted 100NR to Lumle, but eventually he agreed to take me there for 40NR. On the truck I run into two Israelis on the way to the Annapurna Sanctuary, trying to get to Gorepani first.
Once we got to the point the truck was to dump the gravel, we had to get out and walk towards Lumle, about 30 min away. As we were walking we joined another group of people, two Americans and two Canadians along with a guide (Hari). The guide was hired by the Americans, but we all ended up walking together for the next 2 days. The path took us through Lumle to Birethanti in about 2 hours. It is a beautiful village in the forest with lots of nice lodges. There is the first police check where a guy looking very official stamped our permits and we had to write out names in a big black book. We had a lunch there. From Birethanti we walked for another 2 hours to Hille. The walk took us through a lot of little villages, rice fields and forests. There was not much climbing this day (except for the very end), but this was a long day anyway.
On the way to Hille we passed through a tiny village where we encountered very strange procession. A porter was carrying a large basket with an umbrella attached to it. There was a woman in the basket and at least 5 people accompanying them. There were a couple of other completely loaded porters. As soon as I raised my camera one of them shouted that they do not want pictures to be taken, so I did not take any. I am not quite sure what the procession was about, I wanted to ask Hari about it, but by the end of the day I forgot. Someone suggested that this was either a marriage procession delivering the bride to her husband, or a mountain ambulance (the last was more likely since the mood was not very festive).
My policy to taking pictures in places like that is to take a picture only if I am sure that the person does not see me taking the picture (from the hip, etc.) or if I have a reason to believe that the person would not mind having a picture taken. I usually raise the camera half way and wait a couple of seconds. If there is no protest I go on, otherwise I explicitly move the camera down. I also never pay for pictures. The attitude towards pictures differ from one village to another. In one place a woman protested when she saw I was going to photograph her child. In another village a woman saw me changing the film in my camera, picked up her kid from the ground and gesticulated that she would want me to take a picture of her with the kid. I was afraid that she would ask me for money afterwards, but took the picture anyway. She did not ask for money and we had a few laughs since the kid was cute.
Once we got to Hille it was already 5pm. Hille is a small village stretched along the ``main'' road. Altogether probably 4 houses, two of them lodges. The lodge we ended up staying in had tiny rooms with mattresses. To stay overnight in that place costed me 25NR. There was no glass in the windows, just shutters - I was very happy to have bought the down filled sleeping bag in Kathmandu. After the long day it was wonderful to take a cold shower (it was actually a bucket of water). They could warm the water for me, but Hari convinced me that the cold shower is better, so I decided to try it. He was right.
The food in all these small villages is very similar. They all have the same menu and prices. Apparently the menus and the prices are regulated by some park authorities. Most of the time the only choice you have is between dhal-bhat and vegetable fried rice. What they have, however, is cooked very well, tasty (although a bit bland) and there is plenty of it. The only variety is the ``special'' section on the menus that consists mostly of desserts. Practically every lodge features some sort of an apple pie and the Jomosom trek is sometimes called the ``apple-pie trek''. They also have fruit fritters, but everywhere outside of Kathmandu and Pokhara ``fritter'' is creatively spelled as ``filter''. So you get ``apple filters'', ``banana filters'', etc.
02.03.92 - Hille - Biretati - Ulleri - Gorepani - Deurali
We got up early and started walking shortly after 7:30. We had a quick breakfast in Tikedunga, about half hour past Hille. I had very little, just tea and crackers. The best eating schedule while trekking is lots of tea, water and some light crackers while trekking and a big meal after.
The path climbed slowly, descending sharply from time to time to cross suspension bridges. The path we followed is an important trading route that was used by traders crossing Himalayas on the way from India to China for centuries. In fact this is the same path that Marco Polo took on his way to China. The path is still the only affordable route for most of the people in the region. We kept on running into caravans of donkeys laden with goods and porters carrying huge loads.
The donkey caravans are an amazing sight. Each group of donkeys has a lead donkey, probably the smartest of all. The lead donkey has a head-dress made of coloured and embroidered cloth and red feathers to distinguish it from the others. All other donkeys follow the lead donkey with a caravan driver walking behind whistling, hissing, shouting and kicking the stray donkeys. The caravans could be a great nuisance on the path. The trail is very narrow most of the time and in order to pass a caravan of donkeys or let the oncoming caravan go we had to scramble in the bushes on the side of the path. If you stay on the path, the lead donkey would stop unless there is a clear path around you. Sometimes this creates huge traffic jamms with the caravan drivers shouting and kicking the donkeys, the donkeys trying to move in all directions at the same time, shitting and pissing from all the excitement. Although the donkeys are trained to stop when there is an obstacle directly in front of them, they have very little conception of the size of the load they carry. That means that if you are passing a donkey (or letting it pass you) make sure there is enough clearance for the load and be on the upper side of the path. If the donkey does not see you, you do not exist from its point of view. If it hits you with its load and drags you off the trail (off the cliff, into the river), that's your problem, as far as the donkey is concerned.
After Tickedunga the path started climbing sharply into Ulleri. It was zigzagging up the side of the hill offering great views of the valley and the terraced hills. In fall they grow rice there, now the terraces were green with wheat crops and yellow with mustard flowers. The climb from Tickedunga up to Ulleri was the hardest part of the whole trek. According to a guide book that I read (Bezruchka's) there are over 3700 stairs there. I did not recount the stairs - I was afraid that if I do, I would end up with a much larger number. The stairs were not well defined, they were just a bunch of rocks that were organised to form a stair-like pattern. Many ``stairs'' were knee high and it took a lot of effort to get up. The day was hot and with the trail going up on the sunny side of the hill I was sweating like a pig. So every hour or so, I would stop and change into a dry T-shirt, attaching the wet one to my pack to dry. The locals found my actions very amusing and funny. By the time we got to Biretati, I was having sinful thoughts of hiring a porter, but after seeing a group of westerners carrying absolutely nothing and two porters carrying 3 packs each, I figured that I would never stoop that low.
We had a lunch in Biretati and then continued on to Ulleri and Gorepani. After we reached Ulleri, the trail became easier. It was still climbing steadily, but the climb was not as sharp as before and there were no stairs. The trail led us through a forest, crossing lots of small rivers and springs. It was mostly in shadow and comfortable, but very wet and dirty. There were many big monkeys jumping from one tree to another way up above our heads. It was late in the afternoon by the time we reached Gorepani and I was really tired and thought that my pack was way too heavy to enjoy the walk. At Gorepani there was another police check post where we had to show our trekking permits and sign the big black book. In a few more minutes we reached Deurali (literally means ``Pass'') at the height of about 2800m and stayed overnight in a lodge run by an ex ghorka soldier.
I forgot the name of the lodge, but it was on the way up to Poon Hill and the view of the mountains from the lodge was magnificent. Nilgiri, Annapurna I and Annapurna South were directly in front of us, shining in golden and purple hues of the sunset. It was much colder here than below in the valley. As soon as the sun went down we went inside and gathered around the fireplace waiting for our meals. In that place we had to order our food before 5pm so that they could cook it. Cooking in places like that is a complicated task. Often there are only two or three burners on which they cook meals for dozens of different people; the menus offer quite a variety of food. The food there was very simple, but very well made - vegetable rice, Tibetan bread, tea and, of course, the apple pie. There is no electricity in this village, most houses are lit with kerosene lamps or candles and heated with wood burning stoves and fireplaces.
I walked out after dark and looked up at the stars. I have never seen so many of them. The multitude and the brightness of them is awesome. There is not a single part of the sky that was black - there were stars everywhere. I even had trouble locating the Big Dipper because there were so many other bright stars around it. Even in the Alps one cannot see so many stars, probably because there is electricity in every small tiny village and this artificial light blocks the light of the stars.
From Deurali I was going towards Tatopani, but the rest of the people I trekked with were heading back to Pokhara. Hari offered to take some of my stuff back to Pokhara and keep it in the hotel he worked in. I gave him my sleeping bag mat that I never used since there were beds or mattresses in every lodge. I also gave him my second camera and the lens that I carried ``just in case'' but have not used on the trek. This made my pack a couple of kilos less and it seemed much more manageable by now. By the time I returned to Pokhara, my bag was waiting for me at the hotel. Next time I might hire a porter to carry a part of the load, this would allow to bring things like a second camera, tripod, etc. The cost of a porter is about 200NR per day including his food and accommodation during the trek.
This night was Shivaratri - Shiva's birthday, a big festival for Hindus. They all drink a lot of home brew and smoke hash. In the middle of the village there was a bonfire and lots of locals singing, dancing, getting drunk and stoned. Hari warned me that it was not a good idea to partake in the activities, he claims to have been sick for two weeks the year before when he drunk the stuff in a similar small village. The village was pitch dark and I was not sure I would find a way back to the lodge (it was up on the hill side, with narrow stairs leading up to it), so I just watched the celebrations from the hill.
03.03.92 - Deurali- Poon Hill - Deurali - Chitre - Tatopani
Most of the guide books suggest to get up before the sunrise, walk up to Poon Hill and watch the sunrise from there. I tried to follow it, but missed the actual sunrise by about 5 minutes. The walk up the hill took about 1 hour of very steep climbing from 2800 to over 3200m. That early in the morning it was really cold. There was no snow there this time, but I was told that the snow was only gone 3 days before.
Once up on the hill, the early view is a bit anticlimatic - the sunrise lits up the whole south face of Daulaghiri, but the sun is too low to see other mountains clearly (the Annapurnas and Machapuchare). The most impressive view is about an hour after the sunrise when the sun is high enough to light up all of the mountains. Then all of them: Daulaghiri, Tukche Peak, Nilgiri, Annapurna I, Annapurna South and Machapuchare are sparkling in the morning light. Needless to say I shot at least a roll of film there. At the time of the sunrise, the top of the Poon Hill is literally swarming with trekkers, everybody who stays in Deurali and Gorepani goes there. About an hour after the sunrise there is hardly anybody up there.
It warmed up considerably in the short time I spent on the top of the hill. The walk down to the lodge took me only half an hour and by the time I got back the breakfast was ready. I ate, paid for the stay in the lodge and the meals, said good-bye to Hari and the rest of the group walking back to Pokhara and took off towards Tatopani. I started up walking on my own, but after about an hour run into a guy I saw on the top of Poon Hill that morning and we walked together to Tatopani.
The walk to Tatopani from Deurali is mostly down. You loose as much height as you gain climbing up from Hille. The walk leads through rhododendron forests with clear views of Daulaghiri and the Annapurnas on the right. At the beginning of the walk I passed a group of locals walking in the same direction as I. That was a woman of about 35 and three kids, from 5 to 12. After talking (using whatever little English they knew and waving hands) I understood that the woman was a Thakali (an ethnic group from the Kali Gandaki river valley), she was taking her nieces and a nephew to Tukche where she runs a guest house. I walked faster than they, but I stopped often to take pictures, so we kept on running in each other.
All this walking down is fast, but is very hard on the toes and knees. One really has to be careful to cushion the steps in order to do as little damage to the knees as possible. I kept on being amazed by the porters, some of them carrying up to 70kg huge loads (water, mail, rice, furniture, etc.) The most they have on their feet are rubber flip-flops (thongs), but many of them walk barefoot even in snow. It is useful to see how they walk. When they step, not a single rock moves. In contrast to them, when I (and all of the other westerners that I watched) step, the rocks fly out from under my feet in all directions, definitely contributing to the soil erosion in Nepal. That's probably because I have a pair of strong leather boots with GoreTex lining, vibram soles and excellent ankle support. I can afford to walk the way I do. If a porter walked that way he would break his feet in 2 minutes. It seems that the westerners should be sent to a sort of walking school, where they would study how to walk barefoot for a year. If they pass the exams, they should be allowed to wear flip-flops for another year, and graduate to the tennis-shoe level. Wearing real hiking boots should only be allowed to those holding special permits.
Just before reaching Tatopani there are two suspension bridges one has to cross. One of them is especially high and scary. However, they take donkey caravans over these bridges, so they are definitely strong enough for a trekker.
In Tatopani I stayed at the Kamala lodge, right at the end of the village. The lodge has the best food outside of Pokhara and is always crowded with trekkers. The lodge is run by a Thakali woman whose name is Sima. The name of the lodge, ``Kamala'' is actually the name of her mother-in-law. Sima would walk out to the middle of the road, and wait for some pooped out trekker approaching. As soon as he/she gets near her, she would just say: ``Room 14, upstairs'' and pass him/her the key. She also makes a point of talking with everyone who stays there. She can speak Nepali, English and Hebrew fluently; in addition to that she can hold a basic conversation (Where are you from? How is the food?) in French, German and Japanese. When you wait for your food she would talk to you and then will give you a ``book about Nepal''. The book is really about 1990 Nepali democracy revolution and contains lots of political information and pictures of demonstrations, police shootings, injured and dead protesters - all normal violence that happens during any fight for democracy in any country. Unfortunately Nepal was not an exception. Sima would watch carefully how you read the book, most people do not want to see this kind of pictures on their holidays. I found the book very informative, since I knew very little about the events that took place in Nepal at that time. After that Sima came over and gave me her opinion on the current political situation in Nepal (which was not very favorable).
The lodge does not have showers, but there are hot springs right down by the river that everyone uses for washing, relaxing and laundry. The village of Tatopani is on the right bank of Kali Gandaki river surrounded by high hills on each side; to the right is the part of the Daulaghiri massif and to the left is the part of the Annapurnas. The snowy peak of Nilgiri I is towering above the river.
04.03.92 - Tatopani
Most trekkers use Tatopani and the hot springs there for a rest day. Tatopani literally means ``hot (tato) water (pani)''. There many of trekkers that make only a short circuit from Pokhara to Gorepani to Tatopani and back to Pokhara via Beni. There are others that either go up towards Jomosom or returning from Jomosom. There were also a few who did the whole Annapurna circuit and crossed the Thorong-La pass from Manang to Muktinath. Most of those were telling horror stories of 14 hour crossing of the snowed up path. According to the books, one should not attempt to cross the path (5300m) before late April due to snow and weather. Tatopani is a great place to meet all these people and get the information on the conditions of the trek further up.
This day I explored the town and the surroundings. The main street of the town is about 60m long and is the part of the route to Jomosom. There are several lodges, shops, a school, a bank, a post office and a medical centre. There is electricity and plenty of it due to the small hydroelectic plant nearby. But there is no telephone. As I was walking through the ``downtown'', there was a traffic jamm. Two large caravans of donkeys, horses and mules met in the middle, all shops were open, shopkeepers and the caravan drivers were busy loading and unloading the donkeys, weighing the sacks of rice on the huge man-sized scales attached to the walls of the houses, moving some donkeys from one part of the town to another, fixing the horseshoes, arguing, shouting at each other and the donkeys. There were so many donkeys and mules that crossing the street was almost impossible, and to walk along one had to climb on the low stone walls on either side of the street.
Most trekkers that are having a rest day there spend the day in or around the hot springs. The hot springs are directly down by the river. There are several hot springs there (4-5), the two largest ones are officially maintained and cleaned from time to time. If the water is too hot they feed in the regular cold water from the river to bring the temperature down. There is a little kiosk near the springs where you are supposed to pay 20NR usage fee and the sign advising you to do so. However, when I read the sign and went to pay my 20NR to the character in the kiosk, he was very surprised, but took the money. He also sells drinks, tea, cleans the pools, controls the water temperature, and can shave you. By the time I got to Tatopani I had not shaved for 5 days, so I asked the guy to shave me. He pulled out an old rusty razor, got water right out of the springs and used some brown laundry soap. In spite of all that he did an excellent job, not a single scratch!
05.03.92 - Tatopani - Dana - Ghasa - Lete -Kalopani
I left early this day, at about 7:20, since the walk to Kalopani is a long walk and involves climbing up to about 2900m. The path up the Kali Gandaki valley goes through a number of small villages, the first one is Dana. It is extraordinarily stretched out. The first houses with ``Dana'' signs appear as close as 40 min away from Tatopani, and last for the next hour and a half. As you walk up the river valley the Nilgiri in the front disappears. Tuckche peak and the Annapurnas are seen to the right. In Dana there are several water mills that are still used to grind grain into flour.
Just before Dana there is a suspension bridge over a small river that joins Kali Gandaki. The bridge did not look very safe and had gaping holes in it. After wondering for a while whether it is crossable, I noticed that the donkey trail leads down to the river and crosses it over the large boulders, at the shallow part. I started walking down towards the river when I saw a group of Nepalis crossing the bridge, gesticulating that I should walk down, under the bridge and on the other side of the river. I followed that advice and thanks my goretex boots even my feet did not get wet. It seems that the locals deem the bridge to be unsafe for donkeys, (a donkey costs over 10,000NR) but would walk over it themselves. So, the rule number one - if it's unsafe for a donkey it's unsafe for you. Another donkey related rule is that if the trail forks - take the one with the donkey shit on it. It shows that the caravans are driven there and therefore you are on the right track. I have successfully applied these two rules on my way to Kalopani, crossing a number of suspension bridges.
It was about 1pm when I got to Ghasa. I had a lunch at a lodge there. The most expensive item on the menu is water. The further you go, the more expensive the bottled water gets - it has to be carried by porters. A bottle that costs 15NR in Kathmandu costed me 55NR in Kalopani. This is a very significant amount if you consider that a single room at a lodge there costs only 25NR.
The trail from Tatopani to Kalopani is not particularly steep, but climbs constantly, nothing like the part from Hille to Ulleri. There are two steep climbs, one just before Ghasa and one after Lete, but both are relatively short. The stretch from Ghasa to Lete is along the left bank of the river and provides a good view of Annapurnas. The path there is laid with roundish, large size rocks - ankle twisters. The river itself looks very weak and small, but one only needs to look at the left bank of the river to imagine how it looks during the mansoon. The left bank is at least a 100m cliff, completely razed by the current. After climbing up to the plato after Lete the weather changes noticeably. There is a small pine forest and the snow line of the mountains looks very near.
In Kalopani the views of Nilgiri and the Annapurnas lit up by the sunset are amazing. I stayed there in ``See You lodge''. The lodge has a large table with coals underneath to keep your feet warm. There I met an old Scottish couple. Jimmy Thin, an ex-bookstore owner from Edinburg, told me how he hitchhiked in Switzerland in 1949 wearing a kilt, and how he was arrested for crossing the road at the wrong place. He seemed to be proud of his achievements. I told him about my impressions of Switzerland and about a Scottish friend of mine that lives up to the Scottish standards of (mis)behaviour in der Schweiz. Jimmy Thin was not surprised that the things in CH are still the way they were in '49. I was not surprised that CH in '49 was pretty well the same it is now.
Kalopani has no electricity, so it was ``good night'' at 8pm.
06.03.92 - Kalopani - Lete - Ghasa - Dana - Tatopani
The plane situation in Jomosom was not clear yet, the strike was still on. I wanted to spend some time in Kathmandu, so I decided to return to Tatopani. In the morning I left my pack at the lodge in Kalopani and went up the river, towards Larjung and Tukche. The river widens up on the plato and I walked along the dry river bed (the path goes along the left bank of the river). There were many caravans crossing the dry river. I walked up for about an hour, then turned back, picked up my pack at Kalopani and went back to Tatopani.
The return trip was very uneventful, except that I talked with a Nepali that runs a little road-side restaurant and lodge. He said that a few years ago he bought a piece of land on the left bank of the river for 16,000NR and turned it into a field. But one day the field was gone - the whole river bank was razed by the river after a mansoon. I asked him if he got any compensation from the government, he said that all he got was 50NR and 10 kilos of rice. He runs the little restaurant now and tends the second field he has, this one is a bit away from the river. He has 4 children, all go to school except for the older daughter who had to stop the school after four classes to help him at home. The school is 2 hours walk away, in Dana, and the children go there every day. Up to the sixth grade the school is free, including books, uniforms, stationary, etc.
When I got back to Tatopani it was already after 4pm and Kamala lodge was full. I stayed at a lodge across the street, but ate at Kamala. This was not appreciated by the guy who run the lodge, but the restaurant at Kamala is much better.
07.03.92 - Tatopani - Beni
The walk from Tatopani to Beni was long, but enjoyable. There are not many villages on the way, so it is a good idea to carry plenty of water or water purification tablets. The path follows the rocky left bank of the river. Sometimes the trail is cut through the rock and one ends up walking almost in a tunnel with the one of the sides open. There is not much climbing on that part of the trek. As I approached Beni, there was lots traffic: donkeys, porters, etc. At one time a large group of porters carried a suspension bridge cable. The cable was at least 200m long and there was a porter every 5m or so. The whole procession snaked along the hills, sharp turns, descents and ascents on the way. It requires a lot of coordination to even pick up the cable - about 40 porters are involved, there are so many turns on the path that any porter may see only 2 or 3 of his neighbours. To carry it, they all have to walk with the same speed.
Beni looks like a western ``cowboys and indians'' town, with a single street and 2-3 story houses on each side of it. Almost no people (perhaps due to heat), lots of dust. I could almost hear the tune from ``The good, the bad and the ugly'' and half expected Clint Eastwood to ride in any moment.
In Beni I stayed in Namaste lodge. The lodge is run by a large family. The whole family lives in the same house: adults, children, goats, chickens, trekkers and mosquitos. One westerner using a dental floss was a great entertainment for the locals. When he gave some of the floss to the locals then the whole happily flossing family became a great entertainment for the trekkers. I got very little sleep there, there were billions of mosquitos and they were everywhere.
08.03.92 - Beni - Kusma - Pokhara
After about 4 hours of walk I reached the end (beginning) of the new road that is being built from Pokhara to Baglung. At that place the road is nothing more than a large trail blown along the side of the mountains. That is where one can catch a ride on a truck back to Pokhara.
The end of the road, the ``terminus'', in some ways reminded me of some science fiction movies depicting old decrepit star bases out in nowhere, with all various space creatures simply wanting to get out of there. This place was dusty, completely gray and yellow - no tree or grass could grow there. It was full of all sorts of tired, dusty, unshaven, dirty people and animals: Tibetans, locals, Buddhists, trekkers, truck drivers, children, cows, goats, chickens, porters, laden donkeys. All were moving, shouting, talking, hissing, whistling, eating, drinking, spitting, washing, meditating, sleeping, arguing, selling and buying. Although there were a few buildings, most of the people were outside. The buildings were nothing more than randomly assembled wooden or metal frames with plastic wrapping and signs like ``Eagle Fooding and Lodging'' or ``Hotel Lucky''.
Suddenly a man looking official (he had a shirt that was white no more than 3 days before) appeared and said that there would be two trucks going back to Pokhara at 1pm and that we could seat on the top of the cabin for 200NR. That sounded like a reasonable deal for a 4 hour ride. Shortly a truck appeared and I, along with several other trekkers, climbed up on the roof. This is probably the least dusty place in the truck outside the cabin. After we made ourselves relatively comfortable, the truck moved up the street, turned around and stopped. There was a big commotion outside the truck and in the back of the truck.
Apparently a local thief pickpocketed the truck driver's vallet and among other things stole the permit required to drive the truck on the unfinished road. Some of the people from the crowd caught the thief, but not before he managed to destroy the evidence - he tore up the permit, money, and everything else he stole. Needless to say that the crowd was a bit upset - in the worst case that could mean that we all would have to wait until the new permit is issued or until another truck comes. That would mean overnighting in this god-forgotten place. The thief was caught and tied in the middle of the back compartment of the truck. Lots of people were shouting at him, and he was pushed around a bit before they managed to tie him up. He asked for water and someone poored water from a jug in his mouth, his hands were still tied up. I was afraid that they would hang him right there or at least kick the shit out of the guy (there was no police around). I was quite surprised that the whole incident ended up in a lot of shouting, but nobody had actually hit the thief. Eventually the truck moved and the thief was dumped at the police station instead of the permit. In any western so-called ``civilisation'' that I know of, the thief would never get out of the situation without being administered a good amount of crowd justice.
09-10.03.92 - Pokhara
(Rest day; Island)
In Pokhara I stayed at ``Bedrock'' hotel, where I got a separate room with a private shower. I was splurging by Pokhara standards - I paid 100NR (about 2) per night. The price took a lot of bargaining, the owner even showed me the hotel booklet for the US and European travel agencies, where the same room was advertised for 29.95!! So, although the room was pricy by Pokhara standards (one can get a room with shared facilities for 50NR), it was still a very good deal by international standards.
Pokhara is a great place to rest and to eat after the trek. There is more food variety there then in the whole of Switzerland. There you can get everything: Chineese food, Indian, Tibetan, chicken kiev, Swiss fondue (eek!), even something called ``kwality ice-cream''. Besides eating, doing laundry and meeting (drinking with) all trekkers you met on the trek before, there is little else to do in Pokhara. I rented a boat and paddled to the tiny island on the lake. The island has a few trees and a Hindu temple in the usual run-down state. The Hindu temple is apparently quite significant, it is used during a festival, once a year, for an animal sacrifice.
11.03.92 - Pokhara - Kathmandu
The bus trip back to Kathmandu was just as much fun as the bus trip to Pokhara. I ended up sitting at the end of the bus, behind the rear axle. That meant that all the road bumps were amplified. There was also a Nepali guy who was travelling with his family and tried to impress them (and me) with his knowledge of air travel. He said that he worked in airport and once went to Germany. So the whole conversation was something like:
Lufthansa is good. Service very good. Frankfurt - Munich 43 minutes, 727. Frankfurt - Bonn 24 minutes, 737. Good plane, Lufthansa good....
Eventually I pretended to fall asleep, but he kept on waking me up with the new information on air-schedules.
He was also very interested in prices of things. How much does it cost to fly to Kathmandu? 1500 Dollars ????? Wow!!!!! How much is your watch? 40 dollars??? Wow!!!! How much did you pay for your camera? 400 dollars??? Wow!!!! How much is your salary???? They all seem to think that everyone who comes to Nepal is millionaire. Even the more educated people never seem to ask how much I pay for my room in Zurich or how much does it cost to go to a restaurant in Switzerland. The truth of the matter is that although the average salary in Nepal is only 1500NR per month (about 35US), it is just as sufficient for the basic necessities there (food, lodging, etc.) as 1500 per month in the US. The straight exchange rate is very misleading. The things that are really more expensive in Nepal are the luxury items - cameras, watches, cars, air travel. These are the items that are not produced in Nepal and cost as much as they do in the West. So, for most Nepalis, these are completely out of reach.
Once the bus stopped in a big traffic jamm. I walked out and asked the ``airline expert'' what was going on. He said ``No problem, no problem! One bus a little bit jumped! No problem, no problem!'' Apparently a bus went of the road, but not quite off the cliff and had to be pulled back on the road. It took about an hour after which the traffic resumed.
When I got to Kathmandu, the bus was again surrounded by the hotel peddlers, but this time I just fought through and took a moto-ricksha to Kathmandu Guest House. The guest house was full so I started to walk around looking for another place to stay. I had to fight off all the characters trying to persuade me to go to their hotels. One of them was extremely persistent, so in the end I told him that I would look at the room at his hotel but if I don't like it he will pay me 20NR. To my surprise he said OK. At this point I was obliged to go. The room was clean, but I did not like the state of the facilities, so I told him I would look elsewhere. I did not mention the 20NR, but he suggested to look after my pack while I look for another place. I found another place, for 5/night and came back to pick up the pack. I wanted to give the guy 20NR for looking after my pack (I also felt bad for not giving him the business). I was a bit embarrassed when he did not take the money saying that he was just acting as a friend and did not want to get paid for that.
12.03.92 - Kathmandu
(Kumari; Kathmandu Bazaar; Faxing in Nepal)
In the middle of Durbar Square there is a house of living goddess - Kumari. Kumari is a young girl, selected by priests at the age of 4-5 to be the ``living goddess''. She continues to be Kumari until she reaches puberty or otherwise looses blood (cutting a finger, etc). She is confined to the special temple - house in the middle of the Durbar square and is looked after by a number of servants. During the main public activities she shows up in the window facing the square all dressed up and with special make-up. She also shows up from time to time in the window facing the inner yard for the groups of tourists or for anyone giving a sizable donation, but it is forbidden to take pictures of her. When a girl stops being Kumari, she is given a large amount of money and is free to do whatever she wants. From what I heard, the ex-Kumaris grown up in almost total isolation from other children have hard time adjusting to the normal life. It is also believed to be a bad luck to take an ex-Kumari as wife.
The current Kumari is new, she is only 5 years old. I mixed with a predominantly geriatric group of French tourists to listen to the guide (as much as I could understand) in the inner yard of the House of the Living Goddess. After the usual ``look to your left'', ``look to your right'' everyone was told to move their cameras down and the Kumari appeared on the balcony, behind the railing. She was a little girl, dressed up and with lots of make-up. An older woman, probably a servant, ushered her towards the railing in front. The girl moved closer to the railing, clasped the metal bars, and stood there watching the crowd of tourists clapping. I felt bad, because it seemed that the poor kid was definitely very unhappy and was just about to break up crying, her eyes full of tears. She run away after a few seconds. But I would imagine that the whole show is repeated all over at least a couple of times per hour for every group of tourists. I hope that she cuts her finger soon.
From Durbar square I walked along the New Road to Kanti Path, one of the main roads in Kathmandu. Across it there is a large field that serves as the largest bazaar for locals in Kathmandu. One can buy anything from clothing to live goats there. When I walked there, I saw no other western travellers at all. The market is somehow departmentalised: one part is designed specifically for clothing, another for chickens, another for fast food, etc. There is a row of tailors with old-fashioned pedal driven sawing machines. There is another row of barbers that squat on the ground and would shave you as you squat in front of them. There is a row of hair dressers where you actually got to sit on a chair and have a standing mirror in front of you. There was a raw of strange looking people selling things like rocks, pieces of wood, powders, dried plants and roots, animal bones. One even had dried bat wings. I could not figure out what was all that for and tried to speak to one of them. Immediately a crowd formed around us, all curious (I was the only foreigner on the whole market) and trying to help, but in this place almost noone spoke English. Eventually the man told me that what he was selling was ``medicine''.
Telephone calls from Nepal are easy to make if there is a telephone around. There are dozens of private telephone communication offices in Kathmandu and Pokhara. The only problem is that the international phone calls are very expensive. A call to outside of the east Asia would cost over 500NR for the first three minutes and 200NR for each additional minute. It is much cheaper to send faxes from Kathmandu, that costs only 180NR per minute and the faxes can be sent from almost any private communication office.
13-14.03.92 - Kathmandu
(Swayambunath; Dakshinkali; Stolen Valet)
In the morning I went to Swayambunath, just outside the central part of the city. Swayambunath is the most famous and probably the most beautiful stupa in Nepal. It is situated on the hill overlooking Kathmandu valley. The way to the stupa leads along the staircase through the forest on the sides of the hill. The forest is full of monkeys that will steal any exposed food if you are not careful. ``Swayambunath'' literally means ``monkey temple''. There are several huge Buddha statues at the foot of the hill protecting the temple.
Next morning I went to Dakshinkali with a tour from Kathmandu Guest House. Dakshinkali is about 20km from Kathmandu and has a Hindu temple dedicated to the goddess Kali. Every Saturday there is ``festival'' when the local Hindus come there to sacrifice an animal. It is believed that if a Hindu commits any of the 8 predefined sins during the week, he has to bring an offering to Kali on Saturday. In front of the temple there is a long line-up of people with chickens or ducks under their arms or goats on the leashes. The place is crowded, everyone is very festive, wearing the best clothes, lots of kids playing around. The people patiently stay in the line-up that slowly moves towards the altar. At the altar, each owner of the animal pours some water on the animal's head, gives a few rupees to the priest and gives the animal to the butcher. The butcher spends about 5 seconds with it after which the animal (its head separated from the rest of it) is returned to the owner. The blood of the animal is drained as the actual offering to the goddess. The owners then take the animal home and serve it for dinner.
Although there is lots of blood around, the whole procedure is not a sacrifice as one would come to expect. There is very little ceremony, the whole procedure seems very routine and the animals that are sacrificed are not wasted. The sight, however, is not for animal rights activists or pet owners.
I got quite involved taking the pictures of the ceremony and it took me a few minutes to realise that I no longer had the valet in the side pocket of my pants. It was not just lost since the pocket was buttoned with two buttons before. The thief who stole it must have been a professional - instead of cutting the buttons off and making his job easier he actually unbuttoned the pocket. I did not loose much - about $30.- worth of Nepali rupees and my driver's licence. Passport, foreign exchange etc. were all safe in my neck pouch. But since the driver's licence was lost I needed to go to the police office to file the official report. That took me two days. The police office is located on the Durbar Square in Kathmandu and first I had to file the application for the report. That involved describing what was stolen, when and how it happened. I also had to bring a passport size photo and a 1NR stamp (they would not take 1NR!). After this is done, they ``investigate'' for a couple of days. I was told to come back after 2 days and pick up the report. When I came back the report was waiting for me. I was expecting much more red tape, I was even told that some people who had their cameras stolen had to pay certain percentage of camera costs to the police in order to get the report (the police is well aware of the baggage tinsurance). I did not have such unpleasant experiences, but then I only lost my driver's licence that had no commercial value.
15.03.92 - Kathmandu
(Royal Museum; Erotic Carvings)
On the Durbar Square there is an imposing white building that used to be the Royal Palace. It is a Royal Museum now. Most of the exhibits inside are related to the life of King Tribhuvan who ruled the country from 1920s to 1950s. He was the first Nepali King ever to travel outside of the country and his visit to India in 1947 was an extremely controversial one. According to the tradition at the time no Nepali monarch could set foot on the foreign soil. The exhibit in the museum is not really exciting: the King's shoes, the King's hat, the King's desk etc. But there are lots of photographs that offer some glimpses on the Nepali history at that time. This museum is not one of the main tourist attractions and I saw much more locals there than tourists. There are wonderful views of the Basantapur Square from the upper floors. One thing that I found quite interesting in the museum is the room that had items related to the King's hobbies. There was a bicycle, a violin, a grammophone, a photo camera and a complete set of dark room equipment. I had a feeling that the King was really bored with his royal duties and tried to find other, more interesting things to do.
Every temple in Kathmandu and Bachtapur and many buildings there have some intricate wood carvings: window shutters, doors, even the wooden beams that are parts of the walls. Often the carvings have some religious nature - they depict Shiva in one of his many reincarnations, or some other religious scenes. Many temples have erotic carvings that cover all possible aspects of sex. They are very explicit and leave no room for doubts. It seems that the society in Nepal in the past had much more liberal and advanced attitudes towards sex than the western societies of the present. Many temples in Kathmandu have carvings like that. The two that most people see are the one on the Durbar Square and the small temple just before the bridge near Pashputinath temple (both are described in the Lonely Planet guide). There is also a small temple in the court-yard, just across the street from the Immigration Office that has some of the better preserved carvings. In Bachtapur on the Durbar square there is a small temple with carvings that show copulating elephants.
16-17.03.92 - Kathmandu
(Bicycle riding; Pashputinath; Bodnath)
I rented a bicycle early in the morning and went to Pashputinath and Bodnath temples. The bicycle ride in Kathmandu is itself an adventure. One can get a ``regular'' bike, 1 speed, very heavy but comfortable for about 30NR per day or a mountain bike for about 100NR. I rented the cheaper one and rode to Pashputinath. When riding a bike in Kathmandu it is important to remember that the right side of the road is actually the left side (unless you or the ongoing traffic feels otherwise). It is also extremely important that the bicycle bell works and is loud. When riding do what Nepalis do: ring the bell whenever you need it but no less than once every 2 seconds to make sure it still works. The ride to Pashputinath takes about 20 min and saves at least 3 hours of walking through a very dusty part of the town. Pashputinath is a Hindu Temple and only Hindus are allowed on the temple grounds. All others can watch from outside and from the hill on the other side of the Bagmati river. There are lots of smaller temples all over the area and the place is practically swarming with beggars, sadhus (Hindu holy men) and many other mysterious characters that are only partially present on this planet.
Bagmati is one of the tributaries of Ganges and therefore is a holy river for Hindus. In March at the end of the dry season it was very shallow, the river bed was exposed and most of the river was a brownish mud stream with vile smell. But holy is holy even if it is dirty - there where people bathing, women doing laundry, washing dishes, bathing their kids. All that within 5-10 meters of 5 cremation piers, 2 of those in action at the time.
The surroundings of the temple are also used as a huge public toilet and smells that way. That is very unfortunate since it is full of smaller temples, each is definitely a work of art. Since it was the beginning of the Holi festival, there was much red powder all over.
From Pashputinath I walked to Bodnath, the largest stupa in the world. Bodnath is not as intricate as Swayambunath, but the sheer size and the colours are impressive. The huge Buddha eyes are seen from everywhere. The colourful Tibetan prayer flags are flying on the lines strung from the golden top of the temple to its sides above the white dome. There is a large Tibetan community nearby and right next to the temple there is a building housing some sort of Tibetan monastery. When I was there the doors were open and I peered inside. There was a large group of boys and young men (ages from 10 to 30) dressed in saffron and magenta gowns, sitting cross-legged in front of low tables reciting prayers. An older man, dressed in similar but a bit more elaborate clothes sat on the side on a huge chair that looked like a throne. He had a yellow half-moon shaped hat and was leading the prayers. Another man, old with white hair, sat right in front on an even more imposing throne. He was not participating in prayers but was sorting a bunch of white silk scarfs that two assistants brought to him. When he was done he gave the scarfs to the assistants and they distributed them among the young men. They accepted the scarfs without interrupting the prayers. The scarfs are called ``khatas'', they are given by lamas as a blessing to their followers.
I also noticed that along with the scarfs the young men were given money, so that was possibly a pay day ceremony. I wanted to take some pictures, but it was too dark and I did not want to disturb the ceremony using the flash. Even looking from outside, seeing this abundance of colours and hearing the chants of the prayers was like having a religious experience. Outside, however, the non-religious life was going on - two young Buddhists (10-12 years old at most) dressed up in the saffron and magenta gowns were having a water bomb fight.
18.03.92 - Kathmandu
Holi festival - the festival of water and colours, began a week before, on the 12th of March. The festival lasts for 7 days and culminates on the first full moon in March. This time that was March 18th. The beginning of the festival is marked by erecting a three tiered umbrella on Durbar Square in the front of the Old Royal Palace. The umbrella is made of white cloth with coloured strips of fabric attached to it and is mounted on the bamboo stick of about 10m high. The umbrella was hand-carried by a crowd of people for several hundred meters. A dressed up military detachment was participating in the procession. There was a gun salut, Kumari appeared on the balcony and the bystanders cheered when the umbrella was finally fixed in the upright position. Next to the entrance to the royal museum on the Durbar Square, Hanuman (the monkey-god) was dressed up in red and for the next seven days people were offering special prayers to him.
The start of the festival marks the beginning of the 7 days of related activities that mainly consist of throwing water and coloured powder on each other. The first six days are relatively restrained, the only real participants are the children. Most of them are ``armed'' with water balloons, water pistols, spray guns, sprinkles, pouches with coloured powder etc. Street vendors are making brisk sales of all types of water propelling weaponry (including some home made items such as old bicycle pumps modified into water cannons). As the seventh day neared the kids started attacking young women.
On the last day of Holi, the whole city became a battle-zone. This is a national holiday, so that everyone can take part in the activities. Foreigners in Thamel do get a special attention, but they also participate in the activities along with the locals. Walking along the street means being drenched in water. All roofs in the city are occupied by people of all ages having fun throwing water and coloured powder on anyone passing by down on the streets. But the ``war'' is not limited to the ``roofs vs. streets''. People on the roofs first drench and paint each other; then (when there is noone on the streets) they will engage a nearby roof in the activities. There are also gangs of kids walking on the streets with water guns, water balloons and coloured powder that would attack those on the roofs or anyone (or anything) they meet on the streets: locals, foreigners, rickshaws, cars, cyclists. The only people that manage to venture on the streets that day and stay dry are the police. They walk in patrols of 5-10 officers making sure that water fights do not turn into the real ones. One could stay reasonably dry walking right next to one of those patrols.
I was determined to take pictures of the festivities, even if it meant getting my camera wet. Initially I walked very cautiously, next to the walls of the buildings so that I could not be seen from the roofs. I was very pleasantly surprised to see that the locals never made an attempt to throw the water or powder at me when they saw that I carried a camera. After taking a few pictures, I ended up on the roof of ``Tom and Jerry'' (pub) drenched and coloured, a bucket of water in my hand, fully participating in the activities of the day (my camera safe in a plastic bag inside my backpack).
19-20.03.92 - Kathmandu
(Pumpernickel; Book shops; Bachtapur)
After being drenched at the Holi activities the day before I needed a day of rest that I spent sitting on the roof of my hotel, reading a book, drinking tea at Pumpernickel and browsing book shops. Pumpernickel is probably the most popular cafe among the trekkers in Kathmandu. It has an outside garden where one could sit for hours. The staff is friendly and helpful and all speak fluent English and Hebrew and understand at least a couple of other European languages. There is a bulletin board there where you can leave letters/notes to other trekkers. Everybody goes to Pumpernickel at least once.
There more book shops in Kathmandu that anywhere else I have been to (and that includes Cambridge, MA). They all have excellent selection of mountaineering books and lots of popular paperbacks. They all do a lot of business in selling and buying used books. Most books are much cheaper in Nepal then they are in the west. The new popular guides (e.g. Lonely Planet series) are the same price as in the West, but the used ones are available for half price. Lots of books are published in India and those are dirt-cheap. A brand new Indian printed copy of the Bezruchka's guide is available for 100NR (about $2, it is about $19 in the States). I bought lots of books there, fortunately I flew back directly and did not have to carry my pack for a long time anymore.
Next day I woke up early in the morning and went to Bachtapur, about 15km from Kathmandu. I went with a local mini-bus, the ride costs 2.5NR and takes about 20min. The bus is packed like a can of sardines but the ride is fast and there are no stops. Bachtapur is the ``city of devotees'' and has lots of famous temples. I walked around for a few hours and noticed that many temples are used for many purposes, not only for the religious ones. People are drying grains on the temples, tie up goats to the figures of lions guarding the temples, etc. Most temples are ``guarded'' by figures of ancient wrestlers that are supposed to be 10 times stronger than the strongest man. Then by lions that are 10 times stronger then the wrestlers. Then by elephants that are 10 times stronger then the lions, and so on. There are usually 5-6 such pairs guarding the entrances of each temple. In spite of their strength, the ``guardians'' cannot prevent people from spreading laundry on their heads and backs to dry. I liked this pragmatic and humorous attitude towards religion.
21.03.92 - Kathmandu
This was my last day in Kathmandu and I was busy duing the last minute shopping, trying to get rid of the last rupees I had. I bought lots of clothes, spices and some souvenirs. I also bought a silver decorated monkey skull that looked particularly evil. It now stands on my office desk casting evil spells on everyone within the radius of 10m. I could have bought a carved and silver decorated human skull for only $45, but I run out of cash and did not want to change more.
22.03.92 - Kathmandu - Frankfurt - Zurich
The flight back to Frankfurt was uneventful, the weather was clear and the views of terrain in the eastern Pakistan and Iran were amazing. I arrived in Frankfurt late at night, my connecting flight to Zurich was only next morning. Here I got the first culture shock of being back in the west: it was so fucking clean, that it was revolting. The cost of staying overnight in Frankfurt was also shocking - 100DM (about $60) - almost two weeks hotel cost in Kathmandu. Frankfurt to Zurich plane was filled with business suits full of self importance, reading Wall Street Journal and The Financial Times, looking as if they all had umbrellas stuck up their asses.
I was back at my office in time to go for lunch.