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...