Monday, December 31, 2007

I'm getting way behind on this blog but to keep you up to date, since the last trek I've mostly been been back in Kathmandu. Had a chance to attend the Kathmandu International Mountain Film Festival which featured a couple of excellent documentaries about Nepal. Sari Soldiers was one in particular to keep an eye out for. It's the story of the Maoist uprising as told from the experiences of 6 women all on a different side of the conflict.

After that I had a chance to walk around the hills immediately outside the capitol. The start of this walk was a disaster. I walked to Kakani which turned out to be both the most expensive place I've been to so far but also more importantly the least friendly. I was so put off by the place I walked to a bar by the side of the road and put up with drunk police and electricians trying to kiss my hands and cheeks for several hours just to escape the surly hotel owners! Fortunately the woman who owned the place was nicer than her customers and let me sleep in the bar after it closed. After that the walk became a series people offering me nothing but hospitality.

Since then I've been back in town getting ready for the short-ish walk to the town of pokhara 200 kilometers west of Kathmandu. This is the heart of the beaten tourist path so I'm interested to see the differences between traveling here vs the eastern region of the country.

The various political parties have selected April 8th as the date for the next elections after they were postponed from this past November. This doesn't mean they will definitely happen on the 8th as they were easily postponed last time but it's an event that I'm trying keep abreast of as the general state of lawlessness in the country keeps getting worse. For example while I've been here they have had to pass a law making kidnapping illegal, as it has started to become a real problem. Actually it has always been a problem for women but that has been historically classified as "human trafficking" so until recently kidnappers faced ridiculously light sentences.

The far western region, the least visited area of the country and last section that I would be walking through has been for the last two months experiencing a severe food shortage that is causing people in remote villages to face starvation if they do not leave their homes. If the situation hasn't improved buy mid February when I am hoping to go I may have delay that portion of the walk until another day. Having already visited the far western region twice I know how little food is available even without a famine. We will see.

Otherwise the capitol chugs on with fuel shortages and power outages. I recently found out that a former U.S. ambassador to India had described the place as a "functioning anarchy". My impression Nepal is slightly different, that of civilized chaos. It's doesn't just function but is a pleasant place despite having the initial appearance of pure chaos.

Photo captions.

1)Low budget historic preservation. The businesses can stay but they house may have to go.

2)Big budget historic preservation. The prince had to go but the house can stay.

3)This photo of a photo at the China-Tibet photo exhibit is of Lhasa, the capitol of Tibet but they could just as easily be of Kathmandu. The pace of development is almost exactly the same.

4)After biting me she stuck her tong out at me! The crazy cow of Naxal.

5)Dhal Bhat at it's finest!

6)Just another Buddhist monastery...

Monday, December 17, 2007

The first four days, Dologhat to Mantali

The first trek started with 5 hour bus ride from Kathmandu to the bridge at
a small village called Dologhat. This was a ride I had taken twice before
while part of Sojourn Nepal and a path over which I walked in 1995.
As with most South Asian long distance bus rides, this one started with
the requisite massive technical problem. The gear walla ('doer of
gears' aka manual transmission) was not engaging first
gear. A serious problem that meant the bus would only start from a stand
still if facing down hill. This made getting through the thick Kathmandu
traffic a slow and violent process as the driver, whom I was sitting next to,
would struggle with the stick, rev the engine and wince at all the grinding
noises. Just past the airport at the edge of town we pulled over into
a repair shop, down a steep hill. If they couldn't fix it, the bus was never going to make it
back up that hill.

This wasn't just a repair shop it was an open field where groups of teenagers
were building busses from scratch. After some words with the young guys
welding the bus frame in front of us, the floor was popped open revealing the
engine and gear shaft. A guy jumped in and repaired the stick with an
electric soldering gun wearing a pair of slim fashion sunglasses as a
welding mask. The entrance to the cab filled with villagers staring at the
bright welding flashes with fascination. Then while the metal was still
smoking the floor was slid back into place and we took off up the hill and
very nearly got into a collision with a taxi driver who rightly didn't expect a
huge bus to blindly thrust its self into the middle of the road. Frequent
near death accidents are an unfortunate reality in Nepal.

An hour down the road I realized that my backpack, securely tied to the roof,
was being used as a cushion by one of the 20+ people traveling on the roof.
In an attempt to save money I had skipped buying the usual hard plastic Nalgene
water bottles used by campers the world over and instead bought two 1.5 liter
bottles of Coca Cola at something like 1/20 the cost. Now I had
visions of 3 liters of Coca Cola bursting in my bag and corroding my camera, erasing my notebook and quite possibly dissolving my sleeping bag and backpack. It was too horrible to contemplate
so I just left it to fate. Fortunately no one took the opportunity to pilfer
my bag and the unopened coke bottles withstood the pressure of being used as
cushions for 4 hours.

Dologhat is the point were the Indrawati Koshi and Bhote Koshi come together
to form the much larger Sun Koshi, possibly the largest river in
Nepal. In Dologhat, there are lots of restaurants for the
bus loads of people traveling to and from Kathmandu and little else.
After getting off the bus we walked down to the point where the rivers come together and got
talking to a group of three young Kathmanduites who had ridden out on a
motorcycle to see the river and eat fresh fish. We walked back and forth
across the bridge talking about life in Nepal and Canada (I'll explain
shortly) and looking for a place to eat but we couldn't find anywhere either
clean enough for them or with fish so we parted ways and started walking
down the river. At the first bridge, still in Dologaht, we were stopped by a
young guy named Santosh who spoke some English and insisted that we hangout
with him. He pointed out a cheap hotel, in fact the cheapest of the whole
trip and as it was too late to start walking we joined him and some of his
friends by the river. This turned out to be a bad idea as his friends were
sitting around chain smoking, drinking and throwing bottles in the
river. It was a seen straight out of Heavy Metal Parking Lot. One in
particular was dead set on being an ass, alternately complementing and then
insulting me. Fortunately it seamed to embarrass his friends and caused one of
the group to leave. They did offer us goat meat and crushed rice from a plastic
bag which was quite delicious.

After that I accompanied Snatosh to the otherside of Dologhat where I got
the impression I was being shown off as his western "friend" to anyone who
would listen. That turned out to be just about every teenager in town. I
would later figureout that this was a common practice.

We drank tea, and more tea and I asked him about his still fresh bandage.
His arm was bleeding through a small cotton bandage. He told me quite
proudly that he was an excellent motorcycle rider and that he had crashed
while driving drunk the day before. He wanted me to know that it was only
because he was drunk that he crashed, he was after all an excellent
motorcycle rider! We met quite a few others who were throughly pickled
racing up and down the only road in town. Dologhat is one of those middle
places in Nepal where young people have access to the modern world and
aspire to travel but live on the edge of very rural and traditional
villages. Lots of pro wrestling t-shirts and alcoholics.

Santosh asked me again and again how I could get him a Canadian visa. We
must have had the same conversation for over two hours. Note: In an attempt
to change the nature of such conversations and to avoid ever present not so
distant anti-American sentiment, I spent the entire trek introducing myself as a Canadian. It
definitely changed the course of many a conversation, as people told me
how much they wanted to go to Canada, but where exactly in Europe was it? No
one was much impressed with the tales of deep snow for 7 months a year and
no one blinked an eye when I told them the prime minister was Tony Humphries
(hint, not the PM of Canada).

That night we want to his house to watch Hindi music videos from
India's version of MTV, but the hospitality was tainted by the rude manner in which he kept dismissing
his mother, as she tried to inquire who these strangers were in her house.
At 8pm we left for our hotel with Santosh telling us that we would meet him
at 8 am for breakfast! It was a form of hospitality but not the kind we were
eager to take him up on.

The hotel was a wooden house perched on a cliff leading down to the
floodplain below. Being so close to the river at approximately 800 meters
above sea level there was no glass in the windows and the walls between
rooms were made of cardboard. You were simultaneously both inside and out
side. It was obvious that we were sleeping in the owners bedroom as they came
in and took there bedding out into the restaurant that formed the
front half of the house, where they slept on the floor. Like everyday we woke up at 6:00am
and got going by 6:30am not waiting for slim possibility that Santosh might
actually keep his date with us.

From Dologaht it was a 5 hour walk uphill through the clouds along a
dusty road to the village of Salle, where we stopped for lunch. Salle was
also a stopping point for buses that plied this road to Kathmandu, we
happened to come at the same time as a bus bound for the village full of
mostly young men. Most of the buses you see in Nepal are full of men as
there are still strong social taboos against women migrating for work.

Leaving Salle we were stopped by a farmer who asked us where we were going.
Usually it was one of us who would ask just about everyone we passed if we
were on the right road to the next destination. So far everyone we had
asked had said that we were on the right road to get to Ramichap.
Fortunately, this friendly soul further inquired where in Ramichap we were going as it
was both a district and a town! We admitted that we didn't know
where we were going that day but that we were heading to Mantali, at least a three day walk away. He took us back to Salle and drew us a map that tried to represent in three dimensons the
route we would take. Unfortunately he was no artist and the line
representing both elevation and direction looked like giant half
circle. It was clear that if we followed the road it would take us 4 days to reach the
Ramichap border rather then the main town half way across the district.
We thanked him and went off on the trail he directed us to. After half
an hour of climbing straight up we could see what he was talking about, the
road wandered back and forth in infinite switchbacks. This was clearly the
right trail. The next village we came to we met a very friendly and
slightly drunk man who answered our questions for directions with an invitation to
have tea and biscuits. It sounded like a genuine offer so we took him up on it. While
having tea and talking about where we were from and where we were going, a
group of about 5 young men who were walking the opposite direction stopped
and had tea with us. One who was from the area we were heading to looked
at our homemade map from Salle and told us quite rightly that "this map is
no good". He proceeded to write down all of the names of the villages and
the general terrain we would pass so that we could ask better directions as
we went. This was immensely helpful as the large scale map we had didn't show
anything in the area we were crossing. No trail, no villages, nothing.

The rest of the day from this village onward was fairly level walking
through pine forests with amazing views of the valleys below and as we
crossed the ridge along which we were walking the views of the Himalayas
were superb. At about 3pm we started a long descent crossing the path of
another dirt road with buses full of young men. By 4pm we came to the end of
the road in a small village called Kaphale. In a stupid move that we would
not repeat we decided to keep going even though the sun would set by 5:15.
There was a small village across a deep river valley just a half mile from
where we were standing, surely we could make it to that village by dark. Asking
a young guy if there was any accommodation available in the village we could
see, he said no and that we should stay in Kaphale.

I was convinced that
there must be somewhere to stay in the not so distant village and kept
asking, wasn't there somewhere to stay over there? The answer was that we
could stay in the Buddhist monastery slightly above the village. The
thought of walking up that hill was daunting, probably a 2000 foot decent
followed by a 2500 foot accent but staying in a Buddhist monastery VS the
nasty looking hotels at the road's end was tempting so we headed off for the
monastery. The valley we were descending seemed to go on forever, so that it
was 4:30 by the time we reached the suspension bridge at the bottom. Just
then we met Talin Lama who was heading up to the village we just left.
After asking him if we were on the road to the monastery he told us in
English that there was no one in the monastery and that it was closed and
locked! Ah! This was a problem.

Seeing that we had no idea what we were doing he immediately offered to have
us stay at his house, it was an offer we couldn't refuse. So he turned around
and we all walked up the hill towards the village we had been heading to.
Due to a misunderstanding he led us to the monastery to have a look and
then to the near by school where we were offered a plate of delicious
oranges which grew all over the village. It was pitch black by this time
and my legs were beginning to shake I was so exhausted. After a long while at
the school and after many cups of tea we departed for the village that we
had overshot in the dark. By the time we finally reached his house it was
around 8 pm, 14 hours after leaving Dologhat.

We ate a huge plate of Dhal Baht and agreed to a further offer to spend
the next day here with Talin and his family, then I literally passed out while people were
talking to me. One thing about staying in someone's house in a small
village as a guest is that you are perceived to be infinitely more
interesting than you actually are and become a spectacle. You are not
left alone for one minute and often have crowds form around you. The
bed was on an elevated platform on the porch as were
several other beds. It felt great to sleep outside with only a roof over
head. In the night the sounds of dogs fighting kept waking me up but the
sound of someone violently coughing and expectorating was a scary reminder
of the prevalence of respiratory infection in the villages.

The next day my feet were sore and badly blistered. It's never a good idea
to start a long walk with such a ridiculously long first day. We spent the
next morning in Talin's village where everyone was first and foremost an
unemployed Thangka painter (traditional Bhuddist painings)and secondly a farmer. Early in the morning we had a massive plate of food made from boiled corn and went to cut several paddies of rice that were ready to harvest. Walking through the uncut rice, a wave of hundreds of grasshoppers would scatter in front of you like water
parting in the wake of a ship. The amount of life in a field that has never seen pesticide is quite remarkable. Grasshoppers, spiders and praying mantis by the hundreds were everywhere. There were people wrapping rice around the branches of trees to
dry and we even met the Lama from the monastery who was returning from a
trip. Afterwards it was back to the house to eat another massive plate
of Dhal Bhat.

Their home was a large two story wood house with a clay floor in the middle
of which was a large sunken hearth. The family's plates were beautiful heavy
brass. Talin said that they cost 800 rupees a piece! The food came with
several glasses of dahi, slightly biter fermenting milk. Delicious.

Unfortunately for us, Talin wanted to take us back to the village we had
decided to pass up the day before, back down and then back up that huge
ravine. This river turned out to be the boarder of Ramichap district, so we
had made it after all. After a short swim in the river at the bottom of
the valley we walked back up that hill and were introduced to some
relatives. In fact everyone we met in the village was a relative! In
Nepali it's respectful to address people you meet with kinship terms
but these people all seemed to be actual relatives. Maternal
aunts and uncles, paternal nephews... it was endless. Despite our
nervousness to get back before dark we agreed to go to his mother's house
where we ate plates of meat and corn mash. Delicious but it meant that we
would have to walk back in the dark. To our surprise Talin suggested that we
stay 4 or 5 days at his mother's house! We declined the offer and started the
long walk back in the dark. It became obvious that Talin was quite scared
of us being attacked by a "tiger" that had attacked animals and people in
the area by the bridge. He would call out and carried a flaming kerosene
torch. There was no chance of a tiger living at this elevation but
something was in these woods, we decided to call it a "big cat" which Talin
thought was very funny.

The next morning the school principle drew us another map which would take
us all the way to Mantali, the first "town" on our walk. It was quite
amazing in its accuracy. Leaving Talin's village at 7:30am after another
huge meal we walked 2 hours to the orange growing village of Bramma Bishnu
where Talin suggested we wait 2 hours for a plate of Dhal Baht. Tim and I
were getting kind of stressed at Talin's total disregard for time and space,
after all he could walk to Montali in a single day where as we were only
capable of walking about half the pace of your average Nepali. We declined,
still stuffed from breakfast and continued on.

As Talin left us he gave us a stern warning about the "jungle" we were about
to walk through. He said we would without a doubt be attacked by a tiger and if not
then the bandits would surely get us. It was quite a shocking warning. We
could see the pass after the forest and it looked like it would take no more
than 1/2 an hour to cross the small wooded area. In fact it did take only 1/2
an hour and the only people we met were a friendly couple who gave us
some of their biscuits. This kind of warning of sure and dire consequences became a problem on the walk because with everyone crying wolf you never knew when to
take a warning seriously. If we had heeded half of the warnings we received
of dangerous jungles, tigers and roads lined with bandits who would kill us,
hack our bodies into bits and steal our cloths we never would have made it
out of Kathmandu. The result was that you came to ignore all warnings except
the warning that you are on a road that "wandered very far". That was the
one sure warning you should heed. Constantly asking directions was

After leaving Bramma Bishnu we walked through very steep and beautiful
terrain eventually coming to the village of Galpa. This was a wonderful
little place with a view of the Himalayas that stretched as far as you could
see. We stumbled into the village of about 20 buildings and a large
grammar school at dusk and were taken to a teahouse / hotel where our
room was soon flooded with kids and a few grown folks who wanted to
ask the usual questions. It was as though we were again famous for no
good reason. "Village super stars" without merit. After the
excitement died down we met up with a group of school teachers who
wanted to practice their English with the same set of
questions. We met the school principle and spent most of the evening
with the teachers, who agreed to meet us for tea in the morning. After
they bought us breakfast of tea and biscuits we walked town a
beautiful trail with excellent Himalayan views.

Up to this point we had been walking at exactly half the speed it was
assumed all people walked, so that when someone told us that it was 5
hours from point A to B we could count on it taking 10 hours. 10
hours of walking a day became the norm, leaving around 7 am and
stopping as close to 5 pm as was possible. From Galpa to Mantali,
which was the first place to actually make it on our map, it was a long
and leisurely downhill decent. Early in the day we encountered another
well meaning but slightly pickled man who invited us in to his house
for tea but we had to decline. Shortly afterwards a lone woman asked if we had
eaten and invited us to her home. It was hard to turn down such
hospitality but we had found that eating a massive meal around 9 to 10
in the morning took about 2 hours and really slowed us down. Lots of
cups of tea and a couple of packs of biscuits in the morning followed
by a light snack around 1pm and then a heaping plate of Dhal Baht for
dinner was all we would eat.

Leaving the higher elevations, we walked until we came to a road with
bus service to Mantali. The first road in two days. We only got lost
once and had to be rescued by a young kid who led us back to the main
trail. Large trails have a funny way of disappearing in Nepal. One
minute you know that you are on the main trail and the next you are
walking along the edge of a rice paddy no more than 6" wide.
Unfortunately I wore a thin pair of socks and by the end of the day I
had given my self huge blisters on both heals. My shoes were still
breaking me in. The afternoon was hot and dry pine forests with
almost no villages but Mantali and the adjoining villages were well
irrigated and surrounded by lush flood plains with acres of rice
paddies. Approaching the town, we met a Bhutanese refugee who had
grown up in one of the refugee camps in the Terai. He was currently
working as a teacher in a local primary school and had just heard
about the international relocation program that was giving those who
had been in the camps visas to various countries. He was optimistic
but wanted to return to Bhutan. I can't imagine why knowing what the
Bhutanese government was likely to do to him if he returned.

Mantali was a bit of a let down as far as destinations go. A modern
cement "town" with three roads and lots of shops selling cheap
imported Chinese goods. Two wonderful things did happen in town, we
found a hotel that had a shower! After 5 days, we were filthy and our
clothes needed to be washed, so this hotel / bar / restaurant, ugly as
it was let us clean our selves up. The other wonderful find came
after I got my hair cut and bought a three day old news paper (the
most current available). While having tea on the main street through
town I got talking to a man about Canada, he turned out to work for a
Swiss NGO and incidentally had the only high quality map (Swiss of
course!) of Ramichap district in all of Ramichap district. He took me
to his office and let me photocopy the map down the street in the only
photo copier in town. We had been asking teachers and police along
the way if they had any maps but no one had anything besides a map
showing the outline of the district. Armed with this new map we took
the next day to rest our feet and dry our laundry. The hotel had a
interesting set of characters who came everyday. One of whom was a
policeman who was often drunk after work and would ask me over and
over again where I was from, with a horrifying grin. Incredibly
annoying! The other downside was the restaurant was directly above
our room and during the nights, much drinking and merryment would
culminate in singing and drumming on the table. This had the effect
of turning our room into a huge drum with each stomp on the floor and
each pounding of a fist on the table. It was an experience.

I'll get you the next leg of the journey in a few days.

In the mean time check out these excellent maps of Nepal I found online.


Thursday, December 13, 2007

Mantali to Okhaldunga

As I work on the blog content I'm uploading the photos, it's a slow and annoying process so bear with me. These are in reverse order walking from Mantali to Okhaldunga.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Some photos from the first four days

Experiencing serious computer trouble, hold tight and take a look at these images from the first four days of the trip.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

How do you know you are on the wrong trail when walking in rural Nepal?

1: It is in fact an abandoned irrigation canal.
2: It is heavily overgrown.
3: You haven't seen anyone on it for several hours.
4: You have come to a landslide that completely obliterates the trail.
5: All of the above.
6: None of the above.

Answer below.

click on the photos they expand!

Well I'm just off a 40 hour bus ride from the town of Taplejung with nothing but fond memories and many a blister to show for it. My eyes are heavy and I smell quite bad but I had to check my email so I will leave you with a few photos from the first wonderful walk in this series of walks across Nepal. It took me 20 days to reach Taplejung and along the way I got lost as the title of this post suggests but more importantly I always found wonderful people who helped me make it to the next town. Almost every day a school teacher or student would join me and practice his or her English. A few children and even a shy cow or two would run away at the sight of such an odd traveler. Manny people would say hello and ask an almost preset series of questions: Where was I from, where was I coming from and going to, what was my job and why was I walking when there was a bus?! In fact if I had known the answers to only these questions I could have gotten by just fine. I walked with porters, soldiers, Maoists, families, drunks, alone, with entire villages on pilgrimages and passed a wild yak high up in the clouds.

On the first day I passed a group of 5 Japanese tourists with 7 support staff including a photographer and two guides! I bet they didn't get nearly as many blisters as I did. Other than that there were 4 Spanish tourists in Taplejung and that was it. I was told tourists some times followed my route but I didn't see a single one in 19 days. This is remarkable considering that the newspapers here are declaring this the single biggest year in Nepalese tourism history as measured by shear number of foreigners to visit the country. People need to put those guide books down and just get lost, that's what I do.

I was joined on this trek by a Dutchman named Tim, who has asked that I not include his full name or any photos. As an internet researcher I fully understand his request! It's sufficient to say he had a wonderful sense of adventure and also thoroughly enjoyed the trek! As he was a bit taller than myself he flew back from Taplejung rather than suffering the impossibility of Nepalese buses for those over 6 feet tall. I will never forgive him for this!

Interesting stories and all that stuff to follow shortly.
Answer 6!