The name of the game on the Manaslu Circuit is acclimatization: getting your flatlander body conditioned to survive in the low-oxygen environs at the top of 5160m Larke La pass. Staying healthy, uninjured, warm and dry also count for a lot. After leaving the Tsum Valley we started a six day climb along the Budhi Gandaki from 1800m to 4460m at Larke Phedi with the pass, and the dangers associated with it, always in mind.
Up we went, counter-clockwise around the Manaslu Himal with the towering centerpiece, Mt. Manaslu (at 8163m the 8th highest and 4th most deadly mountain in the world), and Manaslu North (7157m) often visible to our left and a variety of lesser peaks on all sides. In order to start pushing our bodies’ limits and to avoid sleep-induced respiratory problems, we hiked high during the day and slept low at night.
During a rest day in Samagaon (3520m) we hiked along the Manaslu Glacier to 4200m on the Manaslu basecamp trail. As we rested at our high point we listened and watched as pieces of the glacier broke apart to plummet down toward the turquoise blue Birendra Tal below. The sound of a groaning, cracking glacier as it warmed in the eastern morning sun was only surpassed by the booming crash of these periodic avalanches.
The next day, after reaching Samdo (3875m), we hiked straight up the nearby hill through low-lying, fragrant juniper to an altitude of 4500m. As was the case on most days, clouds started to roll in and the wind picked up significantly by the early afternoon whipping the ubiquitous prayer flags into a frenzy. Before climbing down we were able to get our first glimpse of the pass, a formidable jumble of loose rock and drifted snow in a landscape formed by glaciers long ago.
The last stop before the pass was the stone huts of Larke Phedi, an outpost with no other purpose than as a launch pad for crossing Larke La. The afternoon in Larke Phedi was spent with another steep climb, this time to 4800m. The views to the pass were partially obscured by cloud and mist adding to the ominous sense that we were heading into a place where mistakes could be quite costly. That evening Braxton was stricken with a bout of food poisoning and the next day’s pass attempt looked uncertain. Nonetheless, we set the alarms for 3:30am, and, Braxton having miraculously recovered, awoke from fitful sleeps to pack, sip some tea, gag down a chapati and boiled egg and head into the pre-dawn darkness on a slow but steady pace toward Larke La.
Within three hours we’d reached the pass and by 8:15am, having taken the requisite photos, we started a treacherous descent down the west side. Ice-covered rocks, drifted snow, and loose gravel contributed to many a stumble mostly landing on our backsides and none of them serious. We avoided turning ankles or breaking bones during the four hour downhill run and pulled into Bimthang (3590m) just after noon ready for a hot meal and our first hot shower in over a week.
The final day of walking took us on a relatively gradual descent through stunning forest scenery to the trail head at Dharapani from which we made our way by road back to Kathmandu the next day.
Crossing Larke La — a literal high point in the trip — gave us a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction, but it was, at the same time, anti-climactic and felt like a milestone marking the final stages of the trip we’ve been on since mid-January. Oddly, the ease with which we crossed the pass was almost disappointing: the much-feared disasters did not materialize and no stories of derring-do or perseverance in the face of tough odds emerged from the experience. Yes, thankfully! But the notion that the trip would be all downhill from here (back to the flush toilets and varied menu of Kathmandu, back to the wired world, back towards home via the clean, organized countries of Europe, back to our own beds, a car, a refrigerator) brought with it a feeling of loss; specifically, the loss of a sense of adventure that comes with entering the unknown.
Resigned to the fact that now we are heading toward the known, we are really looking forward to getting there!
(We should add that a guide is required for the Manaslu Circuit, and we were accompanied by a great one, Jaya Bhandari, and a strong porter, Tara. These guys were a tremendous help and the trip would not have been as successful or enjoyable without them. They were both great with the boys. Jaya is also a naturalist, birder, yoga instructor, and reiki healer, all of which came in handy throughout the trek. If you are considering a trek in Nepal, get in touch with these guys through http://www.thirdpoletreks.com or directly with Jaya at email@example.com)
We spent five days hiking into the remote Tsum Valley as part of our larger trek around the Manaslu Circuit.
The Tsum Valley runs through a protrusion of Nepalese territory surrounded by Tibet on three sides and nestled among peaks topping 7400m, including the massive Ganesh Himal to the south and east. The Tibetan border is within 10km from all parts of the Tsum, but is only accessible via 5000m passes at the northeastern end of valley. The southwestern entrance to the valley is through a narrow gorge at the confluence of the Budhi Gandaki and the Siyar Khola. The misty weather on the day we entered, the moss draped trees, and the quiet walking path cushioned with pine needles all added to the sense that this was a secret place that time, so far, has forgotten.
The Tsum Valley trek follows an out-and-back route that does not fit in to most trekkers’ schedules, and it has only been open to non-Nepalis for a few years. As a result, the valley is relatively untouched by the trekking economy and culture; accommodation and food are very basic and the daily lives of the people in the valley revolve around the activities they’ve revolved around for hundreds of years. This is in stark contrast to Langtang (reported on in an earlier post) or the Annapurna area (which Amy and I visited in the 1990s), both of which have been so overrun by trekkers that it is difficult to find any remnants of the pre-trekking cultures. Perhaps the inconvenient remoteness (it takes a half day hair-raising bus ride, a half day bone-crunching jeep ride, and three days of walking to get to the entrance of the valley) and expense (permits and guides required) will help preserve the valley in its current state, but I wouldn’t bet on it. Get there now.
In order to picture the Tsum Valley, imagine your most idyllic vision of Tibet: a high-altitude, wide valley of fields demarcated from by stone walls, a bright green, early wheat crop in the ground, dirt footpaths running through medieval villages, surrounded by soaring white peaks in all directions with a sometimes meandering, sometimes plunging river running through it. Add all of the religious symbols of the Buddhist culture: the carved stones along the mani walls to remember those who’ve passed, the periodic stupa and chorten, and the ever present blue, white, red, green and yellow pray flags. Add gaggles of children with cheeks so sun- and wind-burned that they bleed, their faces caked with dirt and snot but still full of energy and excitement as they march to school or chase livestock with a stick. Remove the several decades of Chinese occupation and infrastructure development that have occurred just over the border and you will begin to envision this place.
In order to imagine the basic level at which life is led in the Tsum, imagine a place where cow and yak dung are valuable commodities collected for fertilizer, but also for fuel. Pack animals and people carry anything that enters or leaves the valley. There are no motorized vehicles, no power tools, no cell phone signal, no stores (beyond the Chumling general store), no indoor plumbing. We spent one long day hiking between meals in search of a pack of crackers or other snack to no avail. There was no food for sale in this super rural and isolated place. Electric power, if available, comes from small household photovoltaic panels (enough to power several compact florescent bulbs and to recharge batteries) or micro hydro generators. The latter produce enough electricity to light a village or two, but only if they are functioning. In Burji, for example, the electric wires were strung and connected, but there was no power. Apparently the generator had failed, and, without a local technician to deal with the repair, they dismantled the unit and carried it back to Kathmandu for servicing.
For three of our four nights in the Tsum we stayed in unconventional accommodation (ie, not a teahouse or lodge built to house trekkers). In the small village of Chumling we found shelter in tiny rooms above the Chumling general store. Happy to be out of the rain that had plagued us in the early days of the trek, we ate what was served while squeezed in front of the store counter looking at the wide variety of goods for sale. Alcohol and cigarettes dominated the selection, but shoes, biscuits, bulk salt and sugar, soap, a few cell phones (to be used we don’t know where), and other strange items like vacuum packed ‘Instant Spicy Fish’ were also on offer. Many of these goods had come down the trail from nearby Tibet. Pirated timber moves in the opposite direction from the lower valley up across the border.
Our second night, in the Upper Tsum Valley village of Chekompa, was spent in a Tibetan family’s homestay. We slept above the stable under a loosely slated roof and draped plastic tarps that did not prove to be 100% waterproof when tested by a midnight shower. We’d spent most of that day hiking steeply uphill from the lower to the upper section of the valley and slept pretty well despite the drips.
Our third night, in the even smaller village of Burji, we stayed in a newly-opened lodge with a legitimate roof and a sign advertising 24 hour hot showers. The leak-proof roof provided a comfortable night’s sleep. The hot showers proved to be aspirational, perhaps to be realized at some future date when the proprietor invests in solar panels or a gas canister hook up.
We spent the fourth day hiking from Burji up to Mu Gompa, a monastery perched on a wind swept promontory at 3700m. This barren place houses a group of young monks who cooked up bowls of instant noodles and cups of steaming butter tea, the only food within miles. Several kilometers distant and over 1500m higher one could access the passes into Tibet. We met a group of young men who were hiking into this high area to spend several months gathering plants used in Tibetan medicine. They anticipated that Chinese merchants would come across the border to buy their harvest before the end of the season.
Our fourth and final night in the valley was spent in the Rachen Gompa nunnery where the nuns had indeed managed not one but two solar hot water systems, one for the nuns and one for the faculty. The trickle of hot water on a cold evening at over 3200m felt like heaven. Even closer to heaven (or at least more closely related to the topic) was our observation of an early morning puja in the central monastery. Rising at 5:30am we followed our ears to the daily breakfast-n-prayer ceremony where 50+ crimson-robed, shaved-headed nuns ranging in age from teenaged girls to wizened elders sat cross legged in rows chanting, drumming, blowing horns and conch shells in an orchestrated cacophony, intermittently sipping salty butter tea and eating from bowls of dry tsampa porridge. We sat, watched and listened, sipping our own butter tea. With our eyes closed we could begin to hear the patterns emerging from the chanting, which started to feel less confused and more powerful as we leaned against the brightly painted plaster walls in the centuries old temple in the middle of nowhere.
We felt a deep sense of awe, but also of sadness, hiking out of the Upper Tsum Valley on our fifth day. Down we went on this sunny but chilly morning passing through all of the villages and fields we’d passed during our ascent. Down narrow, steep stairs cut into the sides of cliffs with precipitous drops and certain death by falling on one side and the threat of crushing rocks falling from above on the other. Past the mani walls, across the suspension bridges, along the dirt paths between mud plastered stone houses, walls piled high with firewood gathered over the year and pasted with hand-patted dung patties drying in the sun, to emerge from the valley by the end of a long day and reenter the flow of human and animal traffic climbing through the Nubri Valley of the Manaslu Circuit.
This is, more or less, how the story goes. Maya Devi, a pregnant queen living in what is now the Terai region of Nepal, was strolling along one day some 2700 years ago when she went into labor. Soon after, she gave birth to a son as she stood with her arms around the branch of a bodhi tree. It turns out that this child, named Siddhartha, would emerge some 30 years later from his protected and privileged existence behind his father’s palace walls to seek the meaning of life. He succeeded in his quest and is now known as the Buddha. Several centuries after his birth, King Ashoka identified the Buddha’s bodhi birth tree in the area of Lumbini Village. He placed a stone to mark the exact location of the birth, and knocked the tax burden of the Lumbini villagers down to one-eighth of its previous levels. Not a bad windfall for living near a tree. I should mention that Siddhartha is thought to have emerged from his mother’s armpit, which might explain her death seven days later.
We had the opportunity to visit the birthplace of the Buddha, and to observe that the armpit theme is alive and well in both the village of Lumbini and in the sprawling Lumbini Development Zone that surrounds the spot demarcated by King Ashoka many centuries ago.
The village consists of a mosquito infested, one block dirt road lined with dark, flea bag hostels and a few trinket shops. During our stay a “dharma story” consisting of spoken word, ‘singing’ and musical accompaniment (that reminded me of my children’s pre-school winter concerts) was blasting through a village-wide PA system of speakers starting at dawn and continuing into the night. Static, distortion and an overly long and wandering storyline seemed to be the main thrusts, but, not being able to speak Nepali, this was difficult to confirm. We spent two sleepless nights swatting at buzzing, pesky, blood sucking bastards, and we have resumed our anti-malarial intake.
The Lumbini Development Zone is a walled compound of several hundred acres that encompasses the “birthplace” (now covered by a dark building meant to preserve the exact spot); a long, narrow reflecting pool (in which two speedboats sat ready to buzz passengers up and down its length); which divides the western monastic zone (in which massive monasteries have been built by countries practicing the crimson-robed, Mahayana branch of Buddhism (eg, China and Korea)) from the eastern monastic zone (in which only slightly less massive monasteries have been built by the saffron-robed Theravada countries (eg, Thailand and Sri Lanka)); and, amidst a maze of road and path construction, appropriately placed in the center of this armpit, sits a bizarre statue meant to depict the Buddha and the pose he struck immediately upon being born (see photo below).
One cannot help but wonder what our friend might do, or say, if he returned to this spot today. WWBD? Probably, say WTF?!?!
After leaving Bardia, the adventures continued when we set out for Lumbini (via Butwal), the birth place of the Buddha, on a local Nepali bus. We piled our bags onto the roof and packed ourselves in like sardines for one long, hot, sweaty, dusty ride, in seats not big enough for our legs, passing slower vehicles, dodging oncoming traffic, swerving, breaking, and of course honking, to avoid cows, goats, chickens, bikes, buses, cars, children, and water buffaloes all to the loud beat of a Hindi soundtrack playing in a repetitive loop. At one pitstop I was honked at by the driver who was very annoyed with me for taking too long during our bathroom break (in the woods). As bad as it sounds, this ride was an improvement over riding on the roof of the bus, which Coalter and I both did in Nepal when we were younger (sorry Mom, I never wanted to tell you that!).
Throughout this trip we have been trying to strike a balance between using the cheap and culturally interesting local transportation and preserving our lives. Private transportation, which is much more costly, allows you to ask the driver to slow down, point out to him that he’s going to kill a child if he doesn’t cool it, and to stop when GI distress and motion sickness strike suddenly, which they do with some frequency. With our children in tow, we have chosen the private option for most of our overland travel in Nepal.
We had the opportunity to observe Nepalese village life close up during our time in Betahani just outside the Bardia park boundary. Our other observations of village life have been in the high altitude areas of Langtang and from the windows of various vehicles as we whiz by on the roads. From what we can see, village life in Nepal revolves around food production and preparation.
In the Terai, the lentil and wheat harvests are in full swing. In other regions, the wet rice crop is in the ground in anticipation of the coming monsoon rains required to irrigate this water-intensive crop. All of these staples require drying and hulling to remove husks and make the grains ready for consumption.
We’ve observed three methods of hulling. Mechanized hulling is rare, but it is available for those farmers who can afford to pay the itinerant hulling machine operator who hauls his rig from village to village this time of year. (Other forms of mechanized farming, such as the use of tractors or rototillers to prepare the soil, are equally rare in Nepal and every other country we’ve visited with the exception of Thailand.) It is less expensive to have a pair of oxen stomp over your rice, wheat or lentils for hours until the grains have been broken loose from their hulls. We observed this method in several villages. Dried lentil stalks are piled on the hard-packed earth while the beasts tread a slow, tight, repetitive circle. When that stage is finished, the husk-less grains must be gathered up by hand and separated from various non-grain items and debris. The resulting small basket of lentils looks paltry against the effort required, and makes one thankful for the rice and beans aisles in our grocery stores. The final hulling method is the “road hull” in which sheaves of wheat are placed on the road in anticipation of large trucks and buses passing by to do the work. The heavy vehicles provide a free hulling service, but it is a dangerous technique (especially for the woman [yes, this is women’s work here] tasked with gathering up the grains at the end of the day), and it makes you wonder about the “natural” ingredients you might find in your bread.
Having seen the ox and truck methods in action I will no longer wonder “how did this rock get in my rice?”, and I will take more seriously the suggested first step in most lentil recipes: rinse lentils.
(As a side note, one hazard of growing crops next to a huge protected area full of elephants, like Bardia National Park, is that elephants love to eat those crops. Twice during our time in Betahani we heard large crowds yelling and screaming in the middle of the night. The entire village had come out to scare off a rogue elephant who’d found his way into the wheat fields. The next day we noticed a list of warnings posted in our room, all of which addressed the dangers of wandering outside at night to see what the commotion was about.)
Food preparation, which often requires a heat source, is another oft-observed activity. Not just the cooking, but the acquisition of fuel. Coming across a shambling pile of sticks and branches is a regular occurrence on the roads and trails of Nepal. These turn out to be either very young or very old people hauling bundles of firewood back to the cook stoves. Firewood is scarce in most parts of the country, so alternative fuel sources have been developed. On the Terai we saw what looked like long mud bricks in regular stacks drying along the side of the road. These turned out to be the Nepalese version of Duraflame firelogs consisting of animal dung and the chaff extracted from the hulling processes described earlier. In other places, straight dung (yak chips) augments firewood as fuel for heating and cooking. But our favorite fuel source is the up and coming use of biogas. Animal and human waste are stirred up and placed in a digester under an airtight dome (usually buried underground). As these wastes decompose, gases are released and captured in the dome. Enough pressure is created by the gravitational push of additional dung coming down the shoot to push the gas out a valve at the top of the dome and to an efficient, single burner cook stove. These systems are being installed at the household level throughout the country. Of course the use of poop to create gas to cook food is intriguing, especially for a 9 and 12 year old boy, and the talk of developing other ways to generate and capture biogas has been seemingly endless.
A final note on the importance of food in village life has to do with livestock. Animals are everywhere in Nepal: in the countryside and in the cities. Water buffalo are used for traction (hauling carts and tilling fields), donkeys and horses as pack animals (especially in the roadless mountain areas), cows and cow/yak hybrids are sources of milk, goats are also sources of milk and of meat, pigs are here (although they are less common in Nepal than in Southeast Asia), and chickens run wild (in fact the domesticated chicken has its origins in the wild chicken of northern India and the Terai) as do dogs (which don’t appear to be a food source here, unlike other countries we’ve visited on this trip). Tending these creatures is a focal point in the life of many villagers.
Bardia National Park is a 1000 square kilometer protected area in the low-lying Terai region of Nepal, on the border with India, where we spent several days in search of the big five: Bengal tiger, Asian elephant, one-horned rhinoceros, leopard, and sloth bear.
The main goal in the Bardia wildlife safari competition is to spot and to photograph the most large mammals, with the grandaddy being the elusive Bengal tiger, and of course to talk about it later in the lodge and boast with your photographs. There are winners — like the French couple who saw a tiger five times the day before we got there, or the lady from Chicago and her son who only had one day in the park and managed to see a large herd of elephants, several rhinos, and a tiger — and there are losers . . .
We knew the challenge would be tough from the beginning after being introduced to our competition and taking in their safari wear, their cool European accents, and their cameras weighing almost as much as our children.
Day one consisted of a full day expedition by jeep. We were so excited driving through grassy fields, crossing shallow rivers, enjoying the early morning jungle sounds. We were rewarded immediately. Within 15 minutes at our first stop there was an explosion of excitement as our guide spotted a tiger at a distance lying in the tall grass. After 15 to 20 minutes of greedily snatching the binoculars from each other and whispering “amazing”, “spectacular” and “unbelievable”, our “tiger” stood up on two feet and walked towards the forest carrying his large camera. A photographer lying in the grass! A truly memorable moment with a hearty cross-cultural laugh.
Following is an overview of the rest of our day:
Hour 1. We arrive at a bank overlooking a wide, grassy and sandy expanse where two rivers converge providing a popular spot for wildlife to come during the heat of the day to drink water. We are glued to the binoculars in excited anticipation of the tiger who was about to come. A furry swamp deer rests in the foreground.
Hour 2. The deer is still there. We entertain ourselves commenting with the hushed whispers of narrators of a TV nature program. We enjoy the sheer beauty of this peaceful spot. We wonder if something is wrong with the deer.
Hour 3. Forgetting about the tiger for a while, he’s probably going to wake up soon, our attention turns to the surrounding jungle and the banks, which suddenly come alive. We watch a brilliant kingfisher bird for a while, “beautiful enough to name a beer after” says Coalter referring to the same-named Indian lager. The “log” that it was hovering near for so long suddenly grew legs and stood up to amble back into the water, a mugger crocodile. A male peacock appears fanning his feathers and doing his incredible, over-the-top dance which resembles a solo salsa, and a female peacock appears as well, apparently buying the whole number. Is something wrong with that deer? It’s becoming a little harder to focus.
Hour 4. That deer is so stupid, it’s right in the open, doesn’t it know there is a tiger lurking in the grass, go away you stupid deer, you’re going to die.
Hour 6. After hours of quiet contemplation, deep thoughts and revelations set in like… maybe we could all learn from that calm and composed deer because isn’t there always a tiger lurking nearby in the grass, and… I had no idea my kids could sit still for so long without a screen.
Hour 7. “Show yourself you black and orange striped devil” hisses Coalter. An inconsiderate tourist group with obnoxious cameras and video equipment noisily tramp in wearing bright colors (a safari no-no), preparing to set up their equipment, including bright lights, for the night. We hate them and it’s all their fault we didn’t see anything.
Well, you get the picture and you probably guessed that even after two whole days in the jungle we never did see that tiger. But there were so many other delights and excitements. We crossed a rickety bridge that looked like it belonged in a state fair fun-house, bouncy and tilted a little bit to one side with no handrails and a few missing planks here and there, over a river where we had seen a crocodile a ways back (that sounds really bad as I write it, I don’t think they eat people). We saw langur and rhesus macaque monkeys, incredible birds like the wooly-necked stork and the crested hawk eagle, swamp deer, barking deer, hog deer, spotted deer, mugger and gharial crocodiles, mongoose, a herd of wild boar, and lets not forget the tiger man. We saw tiger paw prints everywhere and had exciting moments when the jungle animals let out their loud warning cries that a tiger was in the vicinity. We decided we would become birders. We had wonderful drives through the grasses and airy jungle watching two amazing sunsets. Mother Nature finally gave us our large game consolation prize and offered up a spectacular rhino show for us. We watched three one-horned rhinos, including a mother and baby, bathe in the river with the baby nuzzling alongside its mother and climbing on her back (to the delight of the mother spectators), and the two big rhinos getting in a little fight (to the delight of almost everyone else). And, as the parting gift, we came upon a lone, white-tusked bull elephant ambling through the tall grass at the edge of the jungle under a bright orange sunset, just as an elephant should be, with 10 minutes left to spare in our safari. Although we were not the top contenders in the Bardia wildlife game, and our competitors saw tigers the following day while we were back at the lodge doing our laundry, it was pretty darned incredible.
Temples, other sacred structures and religious iconography are everywhere in Nepal. It would take months of determined sightseeing just to visit all of the temples in the Kathmandu Valley and many years of study to understand them fully. It would be easy to overdose on religious studies and temple touring, so we’ve engaged in both on only a limited basis. But religion plays such a central role in this society that, not only is it an unavoidable part of any trip to Nepal, one cannot understand Nepal without first trying to understand the two main religions here: Hinduism and Buddhism. This entry tries to give an account of some of what we’ve seen of these religions in the architecture and statuary in the Kathmandu Valley.
We started our time in Kathmandu Valley in the Tibetan Buddhist neighborhood of Boudha within sight of the huge Bodhnath Stupa. This stupa has attracted Tibetan refugees and travelers over many centuries and is a centerpiece of the exiled Tibetan Buddhist community in this country. For us it was a first introduction to the religious foundations of Nepal.
Two things became immediately apparent as we walked around this stupa in the late afternoon of our first day (always clockwise with the stupa on our right!). The stupa (originally constructed around AD 600) is still a focal point of current religious practice. Unlike many of our European churches which have been abandoned by the faithful even while swarmed by tourists, this stupa, and all of the other temples we visited, are in daily use by their respective adherents. The other thing that struck us was the incorporation of icons that we did not understand as being “purely” Buddhist. The Buddha eyes on the tower below the spire and the five-colored prayer flags blowing in the breeze are both identifiable to even the minimally initiated as Buddhist icons or objects. But there at the base of the stupa, in fact incorporated into the structure of the stupa, was a temple dedicated to Hariti. Who is this Hariti? we wondered. The goddess of smallpox, we were told. When we ran into Hariti several weeks later at the Swayambhunath Stupa we were told she is the goddess of fertility and a protector of children. Upon further investigation, it turns out that the story of Hariti (aka Ajimadya or Sitalamaju) is a long one starting in what is now Iran, and her relationship with Buddhism is complex. (We’ve come to find that long, complex stories are the norm here!)
The next question that came to mind was whose goddess of smallpox and fertility? Hariti, it turns out, was a non-Buddhist who was instructed by Buddha about the value of compassion. As a result, she changed her evil ways (killing children) and became a guardian of the Buddha’s doctrine. And yet there at the base of one of the largest and most important Buddhist structures in Asia, Hindus, among others, were praying to Hariti. This same scene repeated itself several weeks later when we visited the Swayambhunath temple complex, a chaotic jumble of Hindu and Buddhist structures and iconography (centered on the Buddhist Swayambhunath Stupa but also including a prominent Hariti Temple) at the top of a high hill west of central Kathmandu.
In this last photo, one might expect a Shiva lingam (a Hindu symbol) atop the yoni, but there sits Buddha.
These two initial impressions — religious structures in regular daily use and a complex intermixing of Buddhist and Hindu iconography and architecture — became enduring themes as we visited or came across the artifacts of religion throughout our first month in Nepal.
The Bodhnath Stupa was just the beginning. The next day we visited the Pashupatinath temple complex as the Hindu faithful prepared for the Maha Shivaratri festival (about which we reported briefly in an earlier post), and here too the intermixing of the two religions was apparent with Buddhist icons appearing here and there and a few of the hermit meditation caves set aside for Buddhist devotees.
The notion of daily use, the deep incorporation of religion into the regular routine of the Nepalese and the mixing of Hinduism and Buddhism were on display during a stroll through a residential/commercial district of old Kathmandu during which we encountered a 15th Century Buddhist stupa across from a temple dedicated to Shiva. One block on we hit another stupa before passing an altar to Ganesh and then a 9th Century stone relief of Shiva and Parvati, then another Hindu temple with a carved Garuda, and, turning the corner, a short, unremarkable 5th Century standing Buddha statue tucked inconspicuously between a hardware store and the neighboring business. All this in the first five minutes of a casual stroll through busy, narrow streets with secular life churning around the ancient and the sacred. We walked on for another 30 minutes through a similar landscape before being driven inside by an unusual cloudburst for a cup of milk tea.
The constant presence of religious objects repeats itself throughout the Kathmandu Valley, an area stretching approximately 15 km north to south and 30 km east to west and consisting of many smaller towns and neighborhoods. Boudha and Dhulikhel are two we’ve written about. We also visited Panauti at the confluence of the sacred Roshi and Pungamati Rivers (yes, more sacred rivers) and Swayambhunath, the “Monkey Temple”, mentioned above. Finally, we spent one night in the former city state kingdom of Bhaktapur with its famous Durbar (or Palace) Square and its many other plazas surrounded by temples to the various gods. Our travels within the Kathmandu Valley only scratched the surface in this densely populated and historically rich part of Nepal. In all of these places it is difficult to walk ten feet without passing a Ganesh figure smeared with red paste, or a Buddhist stupa surrounded by prayer flags. And with the panoply of gods and other characters (demons, various incarnations of each god, their children and consorts, and their animal companions or vehicles [vahana]), it is often difficult to understand who is being worshiped and for what purpose. Some gods are well-known and the obvious object of worship if you know what to look for (a trident is Shiva’s weapon of choice, a Garuda is Vishnu’s vahana), but others are a bit more obscure. For example, the toothache god hiding in an old snag of wood covered with coins that had been nailed to the misshapen tree trunk. The fact that his little shrine was located in a district with lots of dentist offices didn’t make his purpose that much more obvious to the uninitiated. For what is, in some sense, a one-man show, the Buddhist system also includes a surprisingly large number of characters, many of them borrowed from the older Hindu system. (This intermingling includes the belief among some Hindus that Buddha is the ninth incarnation or avatar of Vishnu.)
Below are a few more photos of religious buildings and objects.
And here are a couple that capture secular life in the Kathmandu Valley.
But notice the white stupa structure on the left side of the last photo under which this youngster is bathing.
This is an entry about a man who has made a real difference in his community over the course of his lifetime, and who attributes his successes to a year spent in the United States.
We had the pleasure of meeting Mr. B.P. Shresta of Dhulikhel, Nepal during a two-day visit to his hometown set on the eastern rim of the Kathmandu Valley. We were introduced to B.P. by our family member, Dr. Jerry Bunker, who spent some time in Dhulikhel practicing medicine. “Bunker” (as B.P. fondly calls Jerry) and B.P. became friends and have maintained that friendship over the years and distances. We benefited greatly from the Bunker-B.P. connection when we contacted B.P. and were invited to spend time with him and his family at their hotel, the Himalayan Horizon, named for the magnificent mountain views from the rim of the valley. Clouds obscured the views most of the time we were in Dhulikhel, but meeting B.P. and hearing his story more than made up for the mountain-less scenery.
B.P., never before having left Nepal, traveled to Davis, California in the late 1960s for one year to teach the Nepali language to outbound Peace Corps volunteers. B.P. claims that while in the United States he observed a mentality, an approach to problem solving, and a “can do” attitude that contrasted sharply with what he grew up with in Nepal: an attitude of fatalism (his word). B.P. marveled at the freedom and defiance of the hippy culture and at other new ideas that were in the air including individualism, entrepreneurialism, and civic engagement. He also absorbed these ideas and transported them back to Dhulikhel where he returned after his year abroad. In the subsequent 45 years Dhulikhel has been the beneficiary of B.P. and his American experience. (B.P. claims it was his visit to the United States that set his wheels in motion.)
Upon his return, B.P., seeing that those same hippies were starting to visit Nepal and needed lodging, started a four-room guesthouse with no indoor plumbing. By the time we visited Dhulikhel, he’d built the Himalayan Horizon, a four-building compound with a conference center and 60 high quality guestrooms (the nicest we’ve stayed in on this trip). But B.P.’s commercial activities were only the beginning of his contribution to Dhulikhel.
A true visionary, B.P. has been able to see things both as they are and as they could be.
He started with a municipal water system. In the country with the second largest reserve of freshwater in the world, Nepal’s water distribution system is abominable. In the pre-B.P. Dhulikhel water was hauled in buckets up from the valley. In post-B.P. Dhulikhel a German-engineered water system brings water from a spring 14 kilometers to the south supplying the townspeople with water at the twist of a tap. Around this same time, B.P. began to engage in politics, serving as the mayor of Dhulikhel for 14 years.
During Bunker’s time in Dhulikhel, the absence of regular health care services was noted and quickly remedied by the establishment of a small clinic. It soon became clear that the clinic was not sufficient to fill the health care needs of the community and B.P. set out to organize and seek funding for the building of what now stands on the slopes of Dhulikhel: the state-of-the-art Dhulikhel Hospital. The service area for this hospital stretches across a quarter of the country, and it (along with the water system) has come to be regarded as a model for other communities in Nepal. Not only does Dhulikhel Hospital serve patients, but it is also a teaching hospital for the training of health care providers pursuing their degrees at yet another B.P. institution.
Yes, you may have guessed it, B.P. was also a primary mover behind the establishment of Kathmandu University: a 3,500 student, Dhulikhel-based university [despite the name] offering undergraduate and graduate degrees mostly in science and technology, areas specifically chosen to fill recognized gaps in the offerings at other universities in the country.
After Kathmandu University had been up and running for several years, B.P. realized that very few students coming out of the Dhulikhel secondary schools were being accepted to Kathmandu University. Those students were simply not prepared for college, the director of admissions told B.P. B.P.’s next stop was improving the elementary and secondary school system of Dhulikhel enough so that some of those students could advance to Kathmandu University. Not surprisingly, given his previous track record, B.P. succeeded again.
We toured several of B.P.’s favorite successes and enjoyed his stories of how they came to be and of what was next on his to-do list. His determination, perseverance and patience were impressive. For us, the important lesson was that with vision, commitment and follow through real change can be made, even in a country as poor as Nepal (per capita GDP approximately $600, lower than Haiti, slightly better than Afghanistan, but worse off than every other country in the world outside of Africa).
We made it back to Kathmandu from our trek in time to celebrate Holi. To make a long, convoluted story short, Holi is a Hindu festival that celebrates the survival of a Vishnu devotee — Prahlada, son of the demon god Hiranyakashipu — and the death of the demon god’s sister, Holika. It is a boisterous, day-long event that involves throwing or rubbing colored powder on other celebrants, spraying water, throwing water balloons, and dumping buckets of water from rooftops on Holi participants below. It is a male mayhem in which few if any Nepali women participate, and the less wholesome among the celebrants take the opportunity to touch women (almost all foreigners) in ways they would not dare otherwise. It can be a bit intimidating to say the least. Nonetheless, we all survived it!
Opening with a family photo atop a snow covered peak surrounded by stunning mountain scenery is an irresistible gimmick. Sorry. Getting high into the Himalaya was one of the goals of this trek, but getting there and back made up the bulk of the experience.
Here you are either walking up or walking down, and the ups and downs are massive. Our 12-day trek started at the end of the road in the town of Syaprubesi (1500m x 3.3 = 4950ft) and took us up the Langtang Valley over the following five days to the settlement of Kyanjin Gompa (3900m) with a day trip to the nearby “hill” of Kyanjin Ri (4600m). The return trip took us back down the river to Bamboo (1950m) before heading back up through the relatively large (and uniquely electrified) town of Thulo Syaphru (2250m), the tiny two-house Foprang Danda and the beautiful views from Laurebina Yak (3900m). On our final day we descended from Laurebina Yak to the roadside town of Dunche (1900m) to catch a bumpy, windy, 6-hour jeep ride back to Kathmandu on roads with precipitous drops through switchbacks and landslides. For those of you doing the math, the last day’s descent was the equivalent of walking down from the peak of our highest east coast mountain, Mt. Mitchell (2037m), to sea level.
This is not a wilderness area, but a place lightly populated mostly by third-generation Tibetans. Religious objects are everywhere. Here are a few that we saw along the trail.
But not all of the religious objects were Buddhist. On the trail to the sacred Hindu lakes of Gosainkund, Shiva images start to appear.
The trails themselves are much-used footpaths that have connected settlements for hundreds of years. This is a roadless area, so everything that moves here moves along these paths. That includes not only the people, but the goods. Pack animals carry cement, rice and other bulk items that are not likely to be broken when bashed against trees or rocks on a narrow trail. Humans are the pack animals for everything else. It was a painful and sobering sight to see men (young and old) hiking for three leg-trembling days (Syaprubesi to Kyanjin Gompa), often in flip flops, with the following items across their backs supported by a strap over the forehead. (Photographing these guys seemed too voyeuristic, so words will have to suffice.) Five 4×8 foot sheets of 1/4 inch plywood; 2×8 foot rolls of galvanized, corrugated sheet metal roofing material; reams of rebar; several cases of 750ml bottles of beer; solar panels, brackets, and piping for solar hot water systems; and the ubiquitous heavy-ass load of unidentified stuff to be consumed by trekkers somewhere further up the trail. A three-day haul with 90-150 pounds strapped to the back will bring in approximately $35. In Nepal this is big money; enough, apparently, to destroy your body getting it.
In addition to the lowly pack-animal porter hauling commodities up the trail, many trekkers hire their own personal porters to carry their gear so they can walk with a small day pack. The juxtaposition of doughy trekker with day pack against sinewy porter with three large backpacks strapped around his head and back was a tough one to see over and over again. We are used to carrying our own gear when we hike, and did so on this trek. But was that the “right” thing to do? As a result, we left at least one Nepali unemployed who would otherwise have made as much as $15-20 per day carrying our stuff. The porters we passed were not concerned about this dilemma and instead invariably commented with glee on the size of the boys’ packs. Some images from the trail.
The day-to-day was what made the trip. We met great people along the way, both local hosts and international trekkers. We ate mediocre but filling, carb-heavy meals and drank lots of hot drinks. We enjoyed good weather almost all of the time. And we slept well after long days of intense exercise (except when sharing lodging with large groups of loud Koreans . . .). Here are some images that capture some of those experiences.
Every day on the trek was a good one, but the best one had to be the day that we set out from Thulo Syaphru on the way to Shin Gompa (an 1100m climb). It had rained the night before, which was an unusual weather event this time of year. The trails were a bit slick and the sky was still overcast. After an hour or so thunderheads started rumbling and we sought shelter where we could find it under the eaves of a storage shed. As we crouched there with the temperatures dropping and the rain increasing we received good information from a passing Nepali of a tea house ten minutes up the trail. We made a run for it and managed to reach the warmth and shelter just as the skies opened up. The next four hours were spent on benches around a wood burning stove with an American birder, a Canadian wanderer, two German medical students and their various guides and porters sipping tea, eating various combinations of noodles, rice and potatoes, and watching a pan on the stove fill with water dripping from the ceiling. It was heaven compared to the outdoor alternative. When the weather finally cleared we got back on the trail and continued our climb through slushy forests to the ridge top clearing of Foprang Danda. The two tea houses that usually serve as a lunch stop became our home for the afternoon and night, and Foprang Danda became our favorite trail moment. Our young host cooked up an excellent dinner and we slept hard and well crammed into a room no bigger than the bed itself oblivious to the rats sharing our space and unconcerned about the frigid outdoor squat toilet with the shower curtain door. Rising at 5:30AM we caught the clear morning views to the west, north and east as the sun rose to the sound of roosters and nothing else.
Happiness is trekking with your family on the rooftop of the world.