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.

1 comment:

roey said...

KC the blog is great reading as always. which pair of shoes are you on? when are you coming back? have you decided to stay at KC's restaurant, no doubt a sign from God?
wish i could join you but i won't be able to...things here in NYC are reaaaaly busy and we're doing swell. come visit when you get back! which is when? what's next wildman???