Wednesday, May 28, 2008

More to come!

I'm back in the States with 24 hour electricity and my own computer so lookout for more tales from the trail along with loads of photos in the weeks ahead.


The doctor found this guy living in my stomach!

No I'm only kidding, my heath held out, although I can't imagine why.

One of many "road" side markets in Kathmandu.

The rich and poor live side by side in Lalitpur.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Okeldunga to Taplejung and the end of the first trek.

Okeldunga to Rabuwa 8 hours.

Before leaving Okeldunga we stopped to eat Nepali donuts and at least 6 (painfully small) cups of tea each. Something about tea and donuts in Nepal, I don't know, just a great way to start a long day of walking.

Okeldunga to our first day's destination, Rabuwa, was almost entirely down hill and by most peoples estimates should have taken 6 to 8 hours to walk, even for us. Since it sounded like a relatively short and leisurely day we chose to take a longer but gradual route along an unfinished road rather than the steeper hilly route people in Okeldunga had recommended. It started out as a nice walk along an almost level road that was broken by the occasional landslide but seemed to make its way towards the valley below. That is until it stopped dead leaving us with no clue as to where to go. We set out knowing the road wasn't finished but everyone we asked along the way said it was at least to Rabuwa so this was another surprise.

After a long and ultimately fruitless search for some kind of main trail heading in the right direction we asked an old lady for directions. She pointed across a valley to a parallel hill (the one we had avoided in the first place) and said that the trail was over there. We got the impression that she thought we were idiots. After realizing that we brought this on ourselves we spent quite some time looking for a place to ford the river separating us from the opposite hill. All together a waste of two hours.

Once back on the main trail we were told that it was another 6 to 8 hours to our destination which was kind of depressing, surely we had covered some distance? Following what we were told was the trail we came to a small bamboo bridge straight out of an Indiana Jones movie leading to another irrigation ditch. This time it was obviously abandoned and far more overgrown than the last. We followed this ditch for 3 hours over washouts, avalanches, and missing bits. At one point we had to stand facing the hillside and walk along on our toes where the trail had been destroyed by a washout. One slip or landslide and it would have been a 500 foot drop straight down into the river below. The only time on the walk we were ever in any real danger and no one had warned us about it, in fact they recommended it. Ironic, no?

Somehow this improbable trail did make it to Rabuwa, eventually coming out of the uninhabited jungle near a Buddhist village where a woman was throwing food in a large cooking pot submerged in a stream and yelling at something or someone unseen (possibly insane, or a shaman, I will never know). She told us it was only 2 hours to Rabuwa and pointed out the way. Around the next bend we could see the town in the distance and slowed down our previously hectic pace to take in the scenery. While lost walking along the irrigation ditch with no prospect as to when it would end we had walked as fast as possible, which wasn't really that fast, mostly in weeds that were above our heads. Here there were no mountain views but it was very beautiful country none the less. This was also the only day we ever made it to our destination within the amount of time people said it would take. Not bad for being lost all day. Rabuwa was nothing more than a collection of 11 stone and wood buildings at the point where a suspension bridge crosses the Dudhkoshi ("dude-kosi") river. Rabuwa was a kind of a truck stop with people instead of trucks carrying the goods. From here there were trails in every direction, north to the Everest region and south to the Terai as well as our east - west route.

Rabuwa to Diktel. 8 hours.

The walk from Rabuwa to Lamidanda, a level piece of ground with a small airport, was 4 hours straight up hill. We left early to beat the sun and made it to the airport by 11:30. Lamidanda was a pleasant surprise. A well situated village with Himalayan views, orange orchards and a lot of unusual characters. There were Buddhist monks in their red robes and fluent English speakers with big (but broken) wristwatches who were obviously trekking guides and groups of city kids returning to Kathmandu dressed in their impractical fashion apparel. It was good place to stop for the morning ritual: another round of tea and biscuits.

In Lamidanda we were given improved directions to Diktel, the day's final destination. This involved two more hours of walking straight up a hill through thick rhododendron forests with uninterrupted views of the Sagarmatha National Park aka the mount Everest region.A real panorama. The two hour walk from here to a village called Muday was mostly flat (which felt like a gift from the heavens) and skirted the line where the moss covered ethereal rhododendron forests had been cleared to make way for farms. This was shaping up to be quite a day.

In the small hamlet of Muday I had a long conversation with an extremely drunk man who wanted to tape record me answering all the usual questions about who I was and where I was from as a group of villagers stood around laughing at him. While it doesn't sound like it would have been fun it was. Your definition of entertainment changes in the face of numerous 10 hour days spent walking with a congenial but monotone Dutchman and your own imagination for comapny. From Muday the trail descended into the town of Diktel through an enormous series of military bases. Both of the towns we had passed, Maontali and Okeldunga each had a large army and police encampments but Diktel was the largest yet. It went on for 20 minutes until we finally reached the town.

Diktel was inexplicably dirty. The hotel we were staying in was a friendly place run by a Buddhist Tamang family but it had the filthiest "washing" facilities I have seen in Nepal. For this reason washing our clothes and ourselves was a real challenge. We were sure to eat elsewhere as the dishes were also "cleaned" in that unspeakable filth behind the house. It must have been the thick layer of dust that covered the whole town but we could not escape the feeling that the whole town was dirty.

We did meet the local grammar school principle who invited us to say in his house but we just wanted to rest our feet and relax in our own hotel, so we instead took him up on numerous cups of tea. He really wanted me to give him my Basic Course In Spoken Nepali book so he could use it backwards to teach his students English, which I thought was a bad sign as far as school supplies go. In the end he just wanted to spend time talking and proved to be a nice relief from the rest of town.

Diktel to Dilpa 11 hours.

Glad to leave Diktel we set off for the even larger town of Bojpur. It was a long day on the map but it started off easily enough with a level 6 hour walk along the route of a new road being cut out of the earth by hand. It was really something to see, gangs of 20 or so villagers cutting the road out of the side of the hills without the use of machinery. Work for these villagers was divided between cutting away the soil and rock along the steep bits and carrying 80 pound rocks from the near by riverbed to fill in the low areas. Backbreaking work in both cases.

Along the way we met a young man who had worked in Saudi Arabia and Malaysia returning to his village to open a small general store. His understanding of international politics and economics was excellent, in fact the best we encountered on the entire walk. He was far more intelligent than most of the school teachers and even principles we had met. He had returned to open his small shop, the only one in his village. In his shop he kept a large book of international currency he was collecting and a video ipod, the only one I've seen in Nepal.

Leaving this incongruous shop after being treated to plates of oranges we came to the end of the valley we were traveling in. To cross the pass ahead required following a series of short cuts. This of course meant we got lost for an hour in a dense section of forest before reemerging along the main trail. At 4:00pm we asked an old man walking with his cows if there was a village near by we could sleep in as we realized we wouldn't make our planned destination. He said that there was a small village called Dilpa "half an hour up the hill, just to the left the pass" that we were nearing. An hour later we reached the top of the pass and saw an elderly couple in the distance. We ran as fast as we could to catch up with them thinking that they must be going to the village. Sure enough they were going to Dilpa. However it was a two hour walk once across the pass! We were again saved by locals. These two walked us right to the front door of a hotel that happened to be next door to their house. What a long day. In the dark we passed 5 or 6 major buildings that had been attacked and burnt by the Maoists. The area now had a huge military presence.

In the morning it was a half day walk to the large town of Bojpur. This was the largest town we came across in Eastern Nepal and had an equally large military presence. Coming into town we stopped to have tea and got into a half hour conversation / running joke with a group of land surveyors. One of them was carrying toilet paper which is not used in Nepal except by tourists. He, being a Nepali, was the perfect target for many a joke. I kept asking him what it (the toilet paper) was, and once he called it paper I asked him if it was for writing. This attracted quite a crowd but as he was a local VIP and something of a joker himself it want over well. Sometimes the dumbest jokes are the most universally understood.

We had not been in Bojpur for five minutes when a young guy in a horrible green suit jacket came up and started making small talk. He asked us if we wanted to join him at the political meeting he was going to, to which we of course declined. We instead asked him if there were any hotels in town. He said he didn't know as he was a visitor from the Terai who was only in town to fill out some paper work in order to apply for a foreign work visa. This should have set off some kind of alarm but it didn't.

Like Talin Lama earlier in the trip this young guy named Raj Gopal seamed to be related to at least 200 people in town. We met them all. "The" hotel that one of his uncles pointed out was full (there seemed to be only one), so Raj suggested we stay with him. Having no other plans we took him up on the offer, but first... he had other ideas.

We had to be taken around town and displayed like a piece of gaudy jewelry. The first destination was the political meeting we didn't want to go to, which was of course an awkward but very brief exchange of pleasantries followed by a tour of the local college where we were compelled to play numerous rounds of ping pong. We made everyone happy by losing all of our ping pong matches, during which I almost got caught out on my bogus Canadian citizenship by one of the professors who wanted to know the size, population, prime minister, capital, primary crops, GDP, national motto, national flower, national bird, size relative to other countries in both land area and population, trade patterns, total miles of roads and rail roads, etc... about Canada. All of which I made up on the spot and most of which I got wrong. I guess he didn't know anymore than I do or he would have noticed that I got the capital wrong!

This was easy compared to the walk back through town to Raj's family house. Our big splash in town attracted the attention of the police who sent a plain clothes cop over to ask us what we were doing in Bojpur. It was a innocent question but I never felt so sneaky saying just visiting. He then said that we had to write down our names, addresses and passport numbers so that they could "check on us". Having no idea what this meant but betting that he had no way of checking anything in a timely manner I gave him a fake Canadian address and passport number and, figured we would be well out of town buy the time he discovered, if he ever discovered it was fake. But just as we were turning to leave he asked Raj where we were staying! Raj told him and we left for his family home which turned out to be an hour away in the direction we had just come from. Needless to say I had visions of cops walking into the village wanting to know why the information didn't add up. Fortunately no one ever showed up.

After a long walk through a wooded area we came to Raj's family's house. It was a massive old home with acres of fields and more importantly a dhara or washing area. I was filthy and had been looking forward to a shower all day so this was like a mirage. This dhara was a massive underground spring emerging from somewhere beneath a huge old banyan tree and pouring into in a sunken carved stone basin for collecting water and washing laundry. The water was freezing but the afternoon sun on the rice fields and the old stone walls of the dhara were picture perfect. This was of course another opportunity to become a spectacle, but I didn't care-- I was taking a shower! I've never gotten used to showering while a group of kids stands around watching you and telling you that are "too handsome... too white". The rest of the day we were led on a tour of the village and engaged in an unending conversation about how I could get Raj a visa to work in Canada, which I told him endlessly I couldn't. This conversation went on late into the evening and started early the next morning. It only ended as Tim and I were walking away down the path back to Bojpur.

Bojpur to Kudule Ghat on the Arun River 9 1/2 Hours

Entering and exiting Bojpur as quickly as possible we started down a gentle and then steeply sloping valley towards Chainpur. Once we reached the bridge we had been directed to for over an hour, we were told that this was the wrong bridge and that it would take several additional hours to reach our destination if we continued to follow this path, and "why were we on this path anyway?". A very good question that we obviously could not satisfactorily answer. We decided to try our luck of walking along irrigation ditches in an attempt to reach the correct trail and picked one that took us back up stream half an hour through more dense jungle. Amazingly we arrived at the correct trail.

Once at the top of the next hill there was a small village made almost completely out of corrugated tin. It looked for all the world like a budget set from a 1970's Doctor Who episode. Unfortunately we arrived just as Mount Everest and all its neighboring mountains were slipping away into the clouds. We sat around at a tea stall and ate "chow chow" aka instant noodles with numerous cups of tea in the hopes that they might come back but they never did. When entering the above mentioned tea stall we accidentally stumbled across a man who can only be described as a "Tibetan gangster" who was in the process of stuffing what must have been several thousand dollars worth of rupees into his leather jacket as they were handed to him by the tea stall owner. After that it was a little awkward but nothing came of it.

From here the trail descended for several hours which is always hard on the legs but it also devolved into a steeply pitched field of scree and dust with larger sharp boulders that were there to cut you to pieces if you slid into them. We did pass up the one opportunity to sleep in a village half way down the hill when we noticed EVERYONE we met there was suffering from advanced tooth decay. Must have been something in the watter.
Passing no one for hours we came to a split in the trail. The larger trail went left but the much smaller trail to the right had more foot prints in the dust so we made our decision and took right path. This trail led us to a very picturesque set of rice fields along the edge of the Arun river that I really wish I had taken photos of. As it was we saw no bridge which is usually a bad sign. Approaching a group of women cutting rice near a small stream we asked where the bridge was and they told us we had to ford the stream and then take a boat across the river.

Crossing the stream we had an audience of the women who all stood up and watched us, waiting I suppose for the moment we might fall over. Once across the first river we walked through more rice paddies and then came upon to the most unusual sight I have ever seen in Nepal, a small collection of shacks similar to what you would expect to see on a tropical beach in the Caribbean with banana trees, sand beaches complete with pigs and chickens running around. At the end of this collection of shacks was a dugout canoe that took people over the main branch of the Arun river.

We couldn't pass up the opportunity to sleep on an island in the middle of the Himalayas and in all honesty we really couldn't walk another mile so we got two "rooms" in one of the hotels. These were just cots above a sand floor with the sounds of grunting pigs coming through the straw walls at the rear and completely open to the kitchen / dining area / store at the front.

I took this time to catch up on my notes from the trek which was apparently very interesting. Everyone in the village was standing around me watching my every move. A few people slowly spelled out the words I was writing, the rest probably couldn't read English if they could read at all but none the less there I was-- somehow fascinating 15+ grown men and women with the slightest movement of my pen. This was so interesting that many of my pen watchers stayed with me for the whole hour I wrote my notes. Of course this was not interesting at all but it was the only unusual thing to happen in town so there I was on display yet again while Tim decided to take a nap.

Kudule Ghat to Chainpur 5 hours.

In the morning our hotel operator asked if we wanted to take the boat across the river (as if we had a choice?), in which case we should pay him 10 rupees each as he was also the boat captain. The ride lasted less than 2 minutes with the boat dragged up stream and aimed at the opposite shore while a young guy bailed water out as quickly as he could. Apparently the boat was always in a state of perpetual sinking but the river being so narrow it never had time to sink before reaching the opposite shore.

From here we had a repeat of the hill from hell that ended the previous days walk, only we were going up it this time. It was up this nasty scree filled hill for two hours after which we met another school teacher, Mr. Kumar who was going our way. Teachers do seem to spend a lot of time outside of school around here, don't they? At some point Mr. Kumar showed us an amazing shortcut of perfectly level ground that led in to the town of Chainpur.

This had to be the best "town" we came cross. Beautiful buildings, great views, good food and nice people, all you could ask for. This was another place we were aiming to spend a couple of days doing laundry and taking showers. Mr. Kumar led us to his preferred hotel, the Diamond Lodge. Bad name, good hotel. They even had coffee, which if you know me, is important!

I spent our second day in Chainpur with the hotel owner's son who took me to their private garden were they were growing coffee (it just keeps getting better) and oranges along with fodder for their livestock. While there, I answered all the usual questions about Canada while the son, whose name I never caught, harvested fodder for the hotel's 2 cows, 1 water buffalo and 4 goats. He quizzed me on pro wrestling. Is it real? Was there wrestling in Canada? Who was my favorite wrestler? He then showed me all of the signature moves of his favorite wrestlers. Pro wrestling is beyond popular in Nepal, it's prime time mainstream TV viewing across the country. You can find "The Rock" t-shirts everywhere. Unfortunately I couldn't really connect with him on this level but he did remember a friend of a friend who had been a Peace Corps volunteer in Chainpur 7 years earlier and who I had spend some time with in Kathmandu. Small world.

Chainpur to Taplejung 2 days and 20 hours of walking.

The walk from Chainpur to Taplejung is easily the most dramatic and photogenic in eastern Nepal. From Chainpur we walked along a ridge for 5 hours to the base of the Mike Danda mountain range and then started a 4 hour ascent to the ridge. It was classic Nepal trekking climate, walking through rhododendron forests with the clouds at first above us and eventually surrounding and then below us. Wild yaks grazed in the fields along side horses that were used to transport food to the higher villages. Half way up the hill we came across a family consisting of a wife, husband, and one of their sons. The father had a t-shirt that said "You don't need no license for these guns" with arrows pointing to his arms. Over this he had a green suit jacket. His son and wife were similarly prepared for the cold weather on this 9,000 foot pass. While walking up this killer hill we stopped often to rest and snack. They shared a whole radish with us and we gave them some of our tea biscuits.

At the top they volunteered to negotiated a room for us at one of the hotels that lined the ridge that separates the Arun valley from the Tamur valley, the last river valley in eastern Nepal. As they were leaving they wanted my address but it was so cold my fingers could barely hold my pen. Eventually I was able to write down my address but it was in a crude chicken scratch due to the cold. After returning to the hotel we were shortly rejoined by our walking companions. I guess the fact that they were attempting to descend a 9,000 foot mountain in the dark, through a dense forest on a broken ice covered trail without a flashlight between them finally stopped them from going on. That night we all huddled by the fire taking turns holding the hotel cat on our laps to keep warm. In the morning we descended for several hours through heavy fog and frost to a clearing with views from Everest, Chamlang and Makalu to Kanchenjunga on the Sikkim / India boarder. The view was amazing. Each mountain was sticking out of a flat sea of clouds obscuring the valleys between us and the peeks 30 miles to the north, a picture perfect postcard moment. I took more photos in these last three days than all of the previous eighteen, It was such a beautiful part of the country.

We had finally made it, almost. All that was left was a 2,000 meter decent to the Tamur river and then a 1,800 meter ascent to the town of Taplejung. During both the decent and ascent we were joined by two school teachers who know both the shortest path and the cheapest hotels. In fact the hotel in Taplejung only charged me for my meals as is the old Nepalese custom. In retrospect I'm not sure it was even a hotel. It might have simply been a boarding house for students studying in town. While hanging around Taplejung for two days waiting for the 40 hour bus ride back to Kathmandu I became quite ill for the first time on the trek.

Somehow I managed to keep myself together for the long bus ride back to town and miraculously only NEEDED a bathroom at the exact moment one was available. I'm not going to bore you with the details of the bus ride (15 miles an hour for the first 9 hours, flat tires, groups of matching tracksuit wearing Young Communist League (YCL) thugs at dinner...) but it is worth noting that 6 of the 40 hours spent in transit were at cafe waiting for a connecting bus to Kathmandu from Birtamod that wasn't oversold. The Cafe staff took a "liking" to me and bought me numerous snacks to make up for the fact that they kept lying to me about when a bus with seats available would actually show up. When I asked about job prospects in the Terai they confided that smuggling goods across the Chinese border was the best job opportunity for those without computer skills. Describing the dangers of the job, one of the men looked at me and pulled an imaginary trigger. Apparently it's quite dangerous.

15 hours later I was back in Kathmandu and a world away from the rural village life I had been immersed in. I underwent a bit of culture shock just experiencing the variations that exist within Nepal. Kathmandu is no south Asian Tokyo but returning to the capital was like being plunged into a hi tech future society compared to life in the villages.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Hey folks these three pictures took an hour to upload so you can see why I'm not blogging that much.

A quick update. I'm here in Kathmandu waiting for my visa expire so I can renew it for the last trek. This is also the 9th or 10th day of a major "bandh" (business strike and blockage of the roads) which has shut down the Terai (through which all imports like gas and food come) and many areas in the eastern hill districts. As it stands I can't even leave Kathmandu do to road blocks so it's just as well that I'm waiting for my visa to renew.

In addition to the bandhs in the Terai and Kathmandu the power outages continue at 48 hours a week. This coupled with chronic water shortages and dwindling supplies of gas and cooking fuel (due to the Terai bandh) are having the effect of making Kathmandu seam as though it is a city under siege. Which in a sense it is. I have seen people in line for two days waiting to get gas for their cars and lines of people 200+ long queuing to get a few liters of kerosene. An interesting experience in 2008.

All this is nothing compared to what is expected next winter when the daily power outages will stand at 15 hours a day. Sufficient power is not expected until 2013 and additional water supplies some time in 2014, that is if things go as planned... so I wouldn't hold my breath. Despite all this people in Kathmandu are going about their lives without the chaos and violence that would doubtlessly accompany such hardships in the states.

When the bandhs finally end the next trek will start off in Bajura district (after a two day bus ride) and head east to Rara Lake. From Rara I hope to travel south to Jumla and then across a 3400 meter pass to Jajarkot and Rukum districts before entering the Dhorpatan Hunting Reserve. From Dhorpatan the trail crosses another high pass and descends to Pokhara where the trip will culminate. If all goes well it should take about 50 days and will pass through some of the most remote and least populated areas of the country. I had to scrap my prior plans to travel through Dolpo due to a change in the regulations surrounding trekking permits into "restricted areas". Oh well, you have to roll with the punches. I'll try and squeeze in one more update before I leave next Tuesday, fingers crossed!

Thursday, February 14, 2008


The many different sides of Kathmandu. To truly enjoy this city It helps if you like monkeys, crowds, ugly cement buildings and the finer things in life, not to mention stairs, lots of stairs.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Q) What does $70 a week get you in Nepal?

A)A trekking permit into southern Dolpo for $70 a week gets you access to the wonders listed below...

I post the following as part of my research into the next leg of my trip. So far I have completed walking across the eastern half of the country from Pokhara to Taplejung. It has taken approximately 70 days of actual walking, with lots of additional days spent renewing visas, sitting on buses, touring around the capital with my family and generally enjoying life.

This wikipedia page must have been written by the same guy who warned me last month that I was entering the "Tamang belt", where he assured me I was to be killed and robbed if not pulled to bits by the savage Buddhist Tamang people. Of course nothing could have been further from the truth as I suspect is true of the copied text below. In any event this has to be one of the most inaccurate and I suspect plagiarized wikipedia pages up right now.

The typos and inaccuracies below are for once not my own.
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search

Dolpo is a region in Nepal. The Dolpo people (or "Dolpo-pa" in their own language) live in the Himalayan range of Dhaulagiri near the Tibetan border. The Dolpo-pa have a culture more Tibetan than Nepalese.

The lives of the Dolpo-pa were portrayed in the oscar-nominated film "Himalaya -l'enfance d'un chef"[1], in 1999.

Geography and history worked hard together to raise all possible barriers around the Inner Dolpo region of Nepal. The trek east towards the once prosperous Kali Gandaki road is always dangerous, never easy and seldom open; heading south means crashing against the Dhaulagiri; the high passes heading west just go to… Dolpo, and if one decides to head north he might be either shot by the Chinese guards or die of thirst in the endless Tibetan plains.

The inhabitants of the area belong exclusively to the Tibetan stock. Indeed the area was settled by Tibetan nomads in the early centuries A.D. and the links to the vast northern realm have always been strong, especially because Dolpo’s winter are so harsh that the herds must be carried north in winter if their owner wish them to survive.

In the golden ages of Lamaism Dolpo was administered by Tibet and Mustang (Lo), and being a place ‘across no route from anywhere to anywhere else’, the area remained unbothered. The struggles between the more powerful chieftains controlling the surrounding trading routes hardly reached such a barren and godforsaken land. But such places are a magnet for hermits, pilgrims and would-be saints, of which Tibet was opulent. The area entered his ‘Renaissance’ between 1530 and 1700: scholars and famous lamas loved the place and founded small but famous monasteries like Shey, Margom and Yang-tsher, the locals were free and willing to engage trading expeditions north and south and were unmolested by administrators as long as they bartered donations for social control (read religion). This was the glorious period when the ‘Four Lamas of Dolpo’ lived, obviously ignorant of the fame they would have acquired four centuries afterward thanks to the passion of the British scholar David Snellgrove. Their names, Merit Intellect, Religious Protector, Glorious and Good and Glorious Intellect, are sufficient to create a magical atmosphere. It could not get much better than that, and indeed did not last long. In slow but nonetheless effective succession, secularization all around Tibet weakened both the quantity and the quality of the local Lamas; Mustang was conquered by Ghurkas, that in turn was soon absorbed by Nepal, the Britishs and so on, and basically everyone forgot about Dolpo; then the Chinese invaded Tibet and the border remained open just to small groups of adventurous herders and merchants, when even the important Gandaki valley closed. The population, where intermarriage was already ‘not infrequent’, remained more and more isolated, the authorities were non existent, the religious lamas lost the contact with their leaders and masters, and Nepal found it cheaper to declare the place ‘closed’ rather than helping it out.

If one is in favour of autarchy, he should visit Dolpo. With no material, spiritual and social exchange with the rest of the world, the only way is down. As a further disadvantage, the Dolpo society was not, and still isn’t, organized feudally around a master, or chief. The authority and social control functions are held by village elders whose ancestral authority is acknowledge by the community, and simple lamas. Being there no resources to plunder, Dolpo slowly fell into oblivion. Villages are small and far apart, isolated in deserted valleys, small bunches of stone houses with occasional wood-carved windows and flat roofs where juniper is left to dry, surrounded by barley and buckwheat fields and dry pastureland. Two months of greenery and flowers at the beginning of the monsoon season, fine months of ochre and five of white. Electricity is unknown, telephones a dream, plumbing non existent, metal almost revered, hospital unheard-of, schools absent, glass unfamiliar, medicines alien, gas outlandish. Energy comes either from dried yak dung or from occasional juniper. Young people can barely afford to sit still in winter and is forced away in small, shy trading ventures, where wool and barley is exchanged for whatever these cheap commodities can buy. Here the concept of per capita income is totally useless, because most of the economy is still based on simple barter. The poorest African village is more developed that any place in Dolpo.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Langtang trekking...

Look for a "real" blog update in the next few days, until then enjoy these pictures from the latest leg of the trek.

1) Quite possibly the dirtiest menu in the world. The restaurant was at least 2% cleaner, at least!

2) You can laugh at "some kinds" of signs...

3) Yes they do have Buddist monasteries on top of mountains, just like in the cartoons.

4) From a particular spot in the Langtang valley you can see the sun set in both the west and the east simultaneously! Something I would have said was impossible until I witnessed it my self.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Just a few observations on getting around in Nepal and how not to run a government.

Getting around in Nepal and how not to run a government.

A week ago all of Kathmandu and most of the major cities of Nepal were completely shut down by a general strike due to the news that the government fuel monopoly was going to raise the price of cooking gas (there is only one kind), diesel and kerosene by approximately 20%. It was a protest that shutdown all of the roads and almost every business with rows of burning tires blocking all of the major intersections and groups of young (somewhat idiotic) people accosting drivers who "violated the strike". Only bicycles and pedestrians were allowed on the streets.

The news of the increases did not come about as a warning of a possible increase but as news of a decision that the government had made without telling anyone. A similar announcement had taken place three weeks prior when the previously scheduled power outages, known as "load shedding" that the country was experiencing want from four hours a week in two, two hour shift two days a week to thirty six hours a week in two three hour shift six days a week! Add to this that the cost of all fuels, cooking and motor have doubled in the last two years and you can see why Nepal is experiencing such inflation.

Today when we opened the newspapers we were greeted with headlines that the whole country is preparing to grind to a halt. At least the people running the transport industries in the country are nice enough to give us a warning, unlike the government.

Good thing I'm walking...


Transporters call indefinite strike

Himalayan News Service
Kathmandu, January 31:

Demanding regular supply of fuel and maintaining its quality, the transport entrepreneurs today announced an indefinite transport strike in the Valley beginning February 3.
“The strike would be extended throughout the nation in a few days if the government remained indifferent to our demands,” said Rajan Rokka, convener of the Bagmati Zonal Committee of the Federation of Nepali National Transport Entrepreneurs while addressing the press conference organised to make its protest programmes public.
“There was no point of plying only a handful of vehicles as most of the vehicles are off the roads,” Rokka said.
The chakka jam is expected to have serious consequences in the near future. It would also greatly affect the daily life of the people of the valley who have been facing difficulty due to the shortage of cooking gas, kerosene, petrol and public transportation.
Rokka claimed that only 25 per cent of the public vehicles were plying on the roads these days due to shortage of diesel. “Those plying vehicles need to struggle whole night to get a little amount of fuel,” he said.
The entrepreneurs have put forth seven-point demands to the government claiming that there exists artificial shortage of fuel in the market. They have also demanded that the quality of petrol, diesel, kerosene and cooking gas should be maintained using scientific methods.
“Load-shedding has affected electric vehicles that run with the help of recharged batteries,” stated the release issued by the FNNTE. The entrepreneurs have also demanded that the fares be adjusted as per the increment in the price of fuel.
Meanwhile, executive director of Nepal Oil Corporation Digambar Jha told this daily today that the NOC has paid Rs 1 billion to Indian Oil Corporation after the amount was released by the Finance Ministry. Jha claimed that the fuel supply would become regular from Saturday.
Secretary at the Ministry of Industry, Commerce and Supplies Purushottam Ojha said the Department of Commerce is doing its best with available resources to check fuel adulteration. “The DoC squad has taken action against those indulging in adulteration,” he claimed.
Ojha opined that adulteration would be checked effectively if diesel and kerosene cost the same. He said there should be an open market policy for the transaction of fuel.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Montali to Okhaldunga

Going back to the first trek...

Montali to Sanghutar. 8 1/2 hours.

Leaving Montali our first task was crossing the
small but very foul smelling stream running just south
of town over the flimsiest bridge ever cobbled together from drift wood and bits of wire. Once over the bridge and 20 minutes down a promising looking trail we asked directions to Salupati the first village on this days
walk. The two women we asked responded in unison with
"Ah, no it's over there", as they pointed up a large
hill we were hoping to avoid.

Once back on track we rechecked the 'excellent map'
we had just acquired and in fact we had simply walked up
the second of two very similar river valleys. After
this I simply wrote town the names of the villages we were heading to on a piece of scrap paper and put the map away. This system
worked far better then using the map
as we would often be directed to "short cuts", a phrase that has worked it's way into village level Nepali.

By 11 o'clock we had walked alongside a very
friendly school teacher, turned down numerous rides
on the buses plying this road and with the help
of yet another local walking along with us we came into
the small village of Salupati, hidden just off the main road.

After a snack of spicy chickpeas and crushed dry rice we set out on a dusty but level road with periodic
views of the Himalayas to a village an hour down the road where we were directed down a very steep hill along another short cut.
Trying to follow the infinitely smaller and smaller "short cuts" we became completely lost and ended up walking through
hundreds of levels of rice patties stacked one on top of
each other. We could see a long suspension bridge in
the distance but were repeatedly advised to go in the opposite direction. Once we reached the valley nowhere near the bridge we found a man walking with his herd of cows who looked at us and made a gesture that said "what are you doing?" We explained
where we were trying to go and he pointed out a dry
irrigation ditch that we followed in hot unrelenting
sun for half an hour. Finally reaching the far side of the bridge it was
further up hill for another hour sweating like mad only to
immediately turn straight back down into another valley to the town of Sanghuntar.

This was a attractive little town along the banks of a large river separating Ramichap and Okhaldunga Districts. The town was comprised of two streets paralleling the river with Newari style homes (
At the end of town was a Victorian era looking suspension bridge with a sign indicating it was made
in Scotland. Otherwise it was unfriendly place, no one
said hello and the only question I was asked was what country I was from. Not a good sign, and the reason I'm a 'Canadian'.

There were all the usual stores you find in every
village, tailor, fabric shop, hardware, dry goods,
women's fashion items (bracelets, fashion
bindis, hair braids...) a small industrial area with blacksmiths and two hotels. We picked the nicer looking of the two hotels which was almost completely taken up by a huge coffee table and two couches after which I
want to wash up.

At the water tap a burly and extremely heavy women walked up and asked rather forcefully if she could fill up her
water tank first. It was obvious that it was going to
take much longer for her to fill up her huge water tank
then it would for me to quickly wash my face but I
said sure, go ahead, I'll wait, not that I had a choice. I stood there for 5 minutes staring at her, thinking she would feel embarrassed, but to my
surprise when her first water tank was full she started
filling up a second one! I was starting to hate this

After returning to Kathmandu I read in the newspaper that two days after we left Sanghuntar a group of Young
Communist League cadres (YCL - a thug wing
of the Maoist party - as if they needed one?) had beaten up the local government official and made him ware a garland of old shoes. So my impressions of the place weren't so far off the mark after all.

Our hotel in Sanghuntar was basically one room with a covered porch serving as the kitchen. Towards the back of the
room was a bed sheet with a bamboo lattice behind
it - separating the "bed room" from the "dining room" - that want almost all the way up to the ceiling, almost.
The ceiling was a frame of
driftwood with a corrugated tin covering. As I found out
upon returning from my face washing fiasco the bed room was also being used as additional seating for the restaurant, despite the fact that my bag with my stuff was half unpacked was sitting in a corner of the room. In fact there were two men sitting on my bed eating and chain smoking. I walked right in and started repacking my bag despite the fact
that the restaurant owner had served these two people their
food in the bedroom we was paying for. I hoped they minded but they seams unfazed by it all.

Later that night the owner cooked an egg curry that was truly amazing, served with a
Dhal Bhat spread it was a real treat almost making up for the rest of the say but it was to cost
dearly. His prices were so high I referred to him in my
note book as "Crazy Eddie" because his prices were
truly insane. (

Sanghuntar to Phediguth 9 hours.

From Sanghuntar it was another 4 hours straight up hill.
This time we were walking with most of the people from a neighboring
village who were on a pilgrimage to Ghorakhori for a festival that was celebrated throughout that night and
into the next day. At some point I was separated from the group and ended up at a grammar school in the middle of nowhere. An old man pointed me towards Ghorakhori but I had missed any food that was available as the villagers had passed me somewhere along the way and eaten all of the food in the single restaurant in town.

While resting at a chautara
(a resting place, usually a long stone bench some time after Ghorakhori an older porter and his wife came up and told us to follow them
as they were going to Phediguth (pronounced "very
good"). We were feeling tired and my feet were as
usual in pain but having someone who walks fast and
knows the trail is a huge motivator. You just follow
as fast as you can and stop concentrating on any pain
you are feeling or thinking about which trail you
should be on and why it keeps disappearing. This guy must have been in his 50's but could have been anywhere in age from 40 to 70, a hard life in the mountains ages you prematurely. He had on a pair of flip flops, shorts, t-shirt
and vest and was carrying a dhoka (Nepalese version of
a back pack held from the forehead ) full of kerosene and
other goods wrapped in plastic. It was all we could do
to keep up with him.

At one point we stopped to rest and his wife want off
to get some oranges to eat in a near buy village while we sat with him talking to some young kids. While we were sitting
there this man asked the kids to read the political
graffiti painted on an abandoned house as he was illiterate - ironic as the graffiti is aimed at the least educated and poorest people of Nepal, most of whom can't read it! His wife returned with lemons which they eat likes apples and
which we saved for later. After that it was back to

Due to our poor Nepali we thought it
was another two hours up the trail when we stopped in
a tinny village that was actually Phediguth. The
porter pointed out a house where we could sleep and we
met the owner, an extremely nice man who who ran a small
food store, hotel and bar out of his 2 room house. All
night people would come in and talk to us but not
because we were there, they were coming anyway. This
was a popular spot and possibly the only place to
socialize in the village. Let me make a distinction that a "bar" in a Nepalese village is not a recognizable version of it's namesake almost anywhere else. Although theoretically illegal (it has been known to cause blindness and death) home brewed rice "wine" is produced across the country in such small hotels. So that in this "hotel" the same 10 by 15 foot room that people would come into hang out
and talk and in which food was cooked and in which we were sleeping, was the same place you could get a small glass of clear home brew, and or wait for
something from the shop in the adjacent room. Very
efficient and very unlike anything in America.

When the local school's English teacher eventually came down we had a lengthy and enlightening conversation
about migration in eastern Nepal and the recent
political fighting that goes by many names: "the
civil war", "the uprising" "the unrest"... "the
conflict" being the most common. His opinion and that
of many people is that the average villager has been
"caught between the guns" of the Maoists and the
army forces. He also noted that the current
political violence in the Terai region of the country
stems from open racism against the darker skinned low
land people and their political domination by the central government located in the hills.
He want on to speculate that there were forces
exacerbating the Terai issues to try and get the whole
southern region to revolt against the central government. A political prospect that the Maoists and others would greatly benefit from.

Since the Maoists joined the government in 2006
they have been rapidly loosing popularity and are increasingly playing by their own rules with near impunity. They have groups of thugs who carry out their bidding while
playing the most absurd political PR games in
Kathmandu. Come to think of it all politics are
absurd in Nepal. The bar is set so low that open criticism of the government as totally corrupt is common by even government officials! In the countryside there is an atmosphere that while peace has come to Nepal the fighting isn't over.

Waking up at 5:30 in Phediguth it was 2 1/2 hour walk more or less straight up hill to a pass with the best views of the
walk thus far. For the first time we were above the
tree line if not above the village line. Anywhere
else in the world, in the mountains, at 7000 feet we would have been alone but as we
rounded a hill huge groups of
people were walking down towards us from yet another pass to our left. Below us was a twice
weekly market being held near the top of this
mountain in the middle of nowhere. As it was orange
season the market was full of people selling what looked like thousands
of oranges. With this many people selling oranges and
seemingly every village growing oranges it was
surprising that anyone at all was wiling to but any.

In addition to the fruit market there were people selling
biscuits, tooth paste, toenail clippers, flashlights,
dry noodles, stuffed toys and any other number of cheap Chinese goods from plastic tarps laid out on the flat spots. Keeping all of these people well supplied with tea and various fried snacks were a 6 tea stalls set up under temporary
bamboo and plastic shelters. We sat around watching all the action drinking cup after cup of tea
and eating numerous shell roti (small Nepalese
donuts). Oddly enough we didn't buy any oranges!

Leaving this open air market was a slow and treacherous
decent down a trail of packed mud that was frozen in
the shady areas and wet and slippery all over. Basically invisible ice for an hour or so. It was take a step, stop to
see if you were going to slide away, take another
step, repeat.

A young guy passed us and said he was going to
Okhaldunga and that we should follow him. He didn't
know where the trail want but he was fast as hell so
we were glad to have him to pace our selves. At one
point we left the trail on the recommendation of a
group of women plowing a field. They
directed us to a "short cut" that turned out to be not
not such a short cut as we had to walk through a dry riverbed constantly asking directions.

The short cut crossed the next river (not at all
dry) well above a large suspension bridge by way of a
small homemade bridge that started half way across the
river! Both our new found guide and I made it half
way across the river leaping from stone to stone before we both fell in knee deep water just as we reached the bridge. Tim crossing last managed to avoid falling in. Wet feet with blisters front, back, top and bottom
was the last thing I wanted.

The young guy we were following was
incredibly strong and left us far behind over the
course of the next leg of the journey, an hour of
walking straight up a flight of stairs cut in to the
earth. Eventually he left us to walk the rest of the distance ourselves saying that he had to get back to his army barrack.

Without our soldier guide we would have never made it
all the way to to Okhaldunga in a single day, and honestly
that would have been OK with me. After he left us we stopped and lingered a while, unable to walk more than a few steps with out stopping to rest. Just then a young kid, about 13 came out and asked us all the usual questions,
and reassuring us that we were in the outskirts of
Okhaldunga already. It was 4:30 and darkness was
quickly approaching. He asked us if we wanted an
orange and when we said yes he disappeared momentarily returning
with about ten from his garden.

After reaching the center of town we found a hotel in
which we were put up in the owners office. He
appeared to hold some kind of government position as
people would come in a present him with volumes of
paperwork with their photos attached, all the while
casting bewildered glances at the two dirty foreigners
over in the corner with their sleeping bags and
backpacks. We just sat there an smiling and waving.

Okhaldunga is one of the Newari (traditionally urban
cast) towns that dot the country. Their towns are
immediately identifiable from other towns. They are laid out along a main
street or streets that are paved with stone and
contain a basic sewage system. Their homes are urban
in design, built in rows with ground level store
fronts in each house. Houses tend to be stone or brick with painted clay or cement exteriors. These towns also
tend to be much cleaner than other towns and lack a
"wild west" feel you get in towns where homes
are mostly made of wood and clay with no obvious town planning.

This was another chance to do laundry and walk around
town in a series of circles that caused a lot of
speculation as to who we were and what we were doing.
Apparently there aren't many visitors. On the second day we stopped by
the only NGO in town, (another Swiss
organization), to ask if they had any maps. The staff
said they had a map of Okhaldunga district and want to
look for it. The map turned out to be useless (a map of proposed roads rather than existing ones) but they
all wanted to talk and one who had recently visited
Switzerland brought out Swiss chocolates and coffee! A
real treat.

Next, Okhaldunga to Chainpur: A dirty town, a brush
with law?, the worlds best shower, sleeping on an
island and the hill from hell...