Wednesday, 25 May 2016

There's a one-eyed yellow idol To the north of Kathmandu

Kathmandu, like Mandalay, is one of those places whose name fires the imagination but in reality is a bit of a shit hole. It’s the third most polluted city in the world. The rivers are filthy and litter clogged. The poorly constructed roads, normally covered with a generous covering of dirt and dust, become quagmires when it rains and are choked with too many cars and bikes - all of whom drive to their own particular rules. The majority of the streets, and many are no more than narrow walkways, are congested and have pedestrians rubbing shoulders with handlebars of motorbikes that squeeze through beeping their horns so much that it would be a greater warning if they didn’t beep at all.

A collection of skinny high rise flats 
The city is there to principally get as much money out of your pockets as possible. As much old mystical shit as you can carry; enough fake outdoor branded equipment to make you ‘look’ like you are serious (until it rains, that is, and you’re left standing there drenched in your new waterproof jacket); enough restaurants selling you tourist versions of the local stuff that you begin to think Nepalies must be well off (Until you walk into a real locals restaurant and realsie you are paying 4 times the price). Walk down the street and you will be offered the opportunity to “Just look inside…I give you good price” by nearly every shop; to take a cab every 20 paces and to refuse or accept “Smoke hashish” from every shady, sideways looking character you see.

Budhas birthday bash at Monkey Temple
The city as a whole is tired, grubby and architecturally uninspiring or bleak. The three or four districts we covered during our ambling turned up some nice things to look at but if you want nice stuff then go elsewhere. Here you have to pay to go into the one main square for the privilege of being mobbed by beggars and hawkers and even then they want more to actually enter some of the buildings.

Political rally bringing traffic to a halt
Kathmandu is a transit lounge. Its where people generally start or finish their Nepal experience consequently it has a bit of a party town feel to it.

Maybe we had just seen too much by the time we got there to accept it as it was. We had met and lived with Nepali people. We had heard their stories and seen the sorrow of the country and seen the beauty. On top of it all I felt crap which obviously tinged my views a little.

So that’s that. Nepal all done….although I strongly suspect it is not the last time we will have seen it.

Anything for the weekend sir?
We are now in the States after a mammoth 4 flight/stopover journey which was greatly improved by getting a free business class upgrade as far as Abu Dhabi – Thanks Ethiad!

Up and coming schedule. Ft Lauderdale  (housesitting and learning Spanish), Everglades and Florida Keys (Bit of a honeymoon), New Orleans (visiting our friend Jill), North of Mexico City (housesitting and really learning Spanish this time) then onwards into the big wide wonder of Mexico, central and south America.

Friday, 20 May 2016

The Poon Hill 'Stairmaster' hike

Chris overlooking the Annapurna range at dawn
The Poon Hill circuit is a 4/5 day trek that is considered easy to intermediate in difficulty depending on whose information you are reading. It is said to take in small Nepali villages and has occasional tea houses along the route offering food and board. There is varied terrain which includes dusty roads, some stone steps, diverse forest, walking tracks by terraced fields and, the highlight being the summit of Poon Hill itself standing at 3210m. Here one can watch the sun rise over the Annapurna range and you can take in the majesty of seeing several of the world’s biggest mountains coming to life. The route then follows on falling and rising until it eventually ends after completing 59km, 64km, 72km (who knows?).

We had talked of doing other routes. But decided as this was our first long trek and time was short that we would do this one. In retrospect we may have got it wrong.

To me (us) a trek should allow one to amble, walk, scramble, forge streams, sweat, get a bit lost (but happily discover that the new way is shorter), forget one’s water bottle, happen upon quaint inns/lodges/tea houses/cabins etc and generally revel in the openness, solitude and beauty of it all. We were ready for several days of hard walking for 6 or 7 hours but….

Our trek started in Pokhara after a cab ride to the bus park to catch the 7.00am local bus. There is supposed to be a bus every hour but our bus turned out to be the 7.00am, the 8.00am and didn’t leave until 8.30am. Consequently our intended early start began at 10.30 once the driver had finally set off, stopped for breakfast, then stopped for some tea and we had cleared the trek check in point.

The Poon hill trek starts off pleasantly at Birenthani by crossing a bridge and following a rutted, barely used dirt road beside the river. The valley is smallish and the route slowly climbs (passing a couple of houses) until it reaches a couple of tea houses in Sudame where everything changes and the route becomes steps. Quite nice flat rock steps that looked all rustic - but steps all the same. And they went on and on and on like the Led Zep song. 

For 2½ hours we simply put one foot in front of the other. Avoiding standing in donkey shit where possible and refusing to be dragged into the now frequent guest/tea houses until we reached Ulleri where we had decided to take our first nights stop. A nice little guest house overlooking a valley and mountains. With a  simple room with two clean beds, and  bathroom for 400 Rupees (about $4).  Rooms generally cost about 100-200 Rupees for a single on the walk and 300-500 Rupees for a double with bathroom. Beds are cheap but food and drink costs a lot more than in the towns. Fair enough since everything has to be transported by donkeys.

More bloody steps!
Day two. More bloody steps, loads of ‘em and they are most of the way to Ghorepani at 2800m. Taking out flat bits, that's  still roughly 1800 metres climbed up steps! There is some respite in the middle of the day when you have to go down a load and then re-climb again (which if I were a picky step climber I might point out would add a few more hundred metres). The trouble with steps apart from being bastards, is that you can’t look at much. You have to constantly be on your guard so as not to stumble and consequently the joy of walking is replaced by the tedium of just exertion. I do recall some foresty bits and some pleasant rocky bits towards the end but, in truth, the first two days were not that great which is a shame because we really wanted it to be amazing.

Guides. Many people had said you should get one but its really a waste of $100. You won’t pay more for accommodation or food as prices are pretty standard and its nearly impossible to get lost. If however, you want to boost the local economy by employing a Sherpa to carry your shit then go for it. Although there again you need very little so not really necessary.

Back to the trek. We arrived at Ghorepani a little earlier than we expected. We had thought we would be trekking for 5 or 6 hours a day but managed this leg in about 3 hours so got there at 11.30am and because we wanted to see a sunrise over the mountains the next morning we had a lot of time to kill. Which was just as well as a huge storm started just after we arrived. Ghorepani is quite a nice little place. Touristy with gift shops and lots of guest houses but pretty with blue roofed houses on either side of narrow pathways and dramatic views from the windows.

Poon Hill Summit
Day 3 we are up and at ‘em at 4.45am and guess what? To get to the top its once again the direct route with a 400m climb on steps!  We reach the Top of Poon hill in 45 minutes just as the sun is lighting the mountains. From here it is possible to see five peaks that are about 7,000m and upward and seeing them set against a clear blue sky, tinged with the first yellow rays of the sun make them spectacular.   All are crested with white snow and look magnificent with shafts of light rising over them like search lights. There were about 40 people on the summit – more than we have seen the whole time on our trek. But its a large area and this was the most hikers we would see for the whole of our walk in the mountains.

Annapurna Range from Poon Hill
The skies quickly start to mist at this time of year (and the rain clouds have loomed large for a week or so) but today they didn’t and we were able to watch the scene with no urgency before heading off. Steps! But then…joy. We hit rising and falling paths strewn with rocks. We can look about as we walk and take in the views around us. A green tree filled valley on one side, valleys and mountains on the other. The path hugs the ridge going through forests of huge Rhododendrons. The views of the mountains gradually disappear as you head lower. There are chasms to go walk down, streams to follow, steps to climb (one very long haul up the other side of a valley). But here the trekking is varied and the steps are no longer uniform but more natural. Walking along on this side of Ghorepani is what we wanted. Effectively we have done the hardest part and will finish the trek with the more scenic and interesting part. We pass log jams in the mountain stream that rushes down over shining rocks; a small collection of kerns placed over the years by other climbers; sheer cliff faces dotted with long sprouting mountain grasses and we even had a Lord of the Rings moment with white pony’s in the forest. The walk on this day was great. Tea houses were sparse so finding one to get a cup of sweet black tea was a treat. In all (including Poon Hill at dawn) we were on the trail for 10 hours. Eventually we reached the outskirts of Ghandruk and were dismayed to find one last set of 400 little regimented steps which almost made us scream.

Ghandruk is fantastic. Lots of guesthouses. But lots of homes, a german bakery, a few shops and surrounded by terraced farms. Our bed for the night was Shangrila and had a wide balcony in front of the empty bedrooms where we read, took dramatic pictures of more mountains and ate whilst, once again, the heavens opened just moments after arriving.

I woke at dawn to the yapping of an infernal dog that had gone at it all night. Well done that dog though. The dawn was majestic and with views of Annapurna South and Fishtail Mountain played out in reds and yellow. Quite lovely.

View from Ghandruk
Final day Ghandruk back to Birenthani. Another lovely day with the wooded valleys changing to farmed terraces. We follow a path that runs level for a few hours. Passing locals and donkeys and maybe 6 hikers. It's a beautiful day and the temperature soars the lower we got. Rachel’s knees are suffering after all the steps and both of us have sore calves so the absence of the dreaded ‘S’ word is a relief. Eventually we come upon Kimche where a dusty little used road runs down to a fast flowing, rock filled river. It’s really pleasant and beautiful.  We decline a ride in a bus and passing tractor as to not complete the circuit would feel like cheating. After a further 7km we then cross the bridge once more into Birenthani, sign out of our trek and, as luck would have it jump on a bus that is just leaving.

Last day heading down the valley

In conclusion. We are glad we did the walk but would not recommend it - It’s safe, there is plenty of opportunity to stop and rest and no chance of going astray. We saw some lovely sights and covered a lot of miles and now, a couple of days later are ready to tackle something more serious (with less steps). Bring on the Andes.

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Goodbye to Saping. Hello to the rest of Nepal

Three storey pagoda from the five storey pagoda
For 6 weeks  I have lifted, carried, pushed, sawn and reveling in my strength and stamina. Then all of a sudden two days after the last bit of manual work I get up and my back that has had me hobbling about like a 90 year old for four days. Consequently, the last days of Saping were a little bit muted from what I had hoped. Our successors arrived and are a fantastic, committed and lively Canadian father and daughter who will, no doubt, carry forward the torch.

It has rained a bit over the last couple of days and at one point for about an hour, there was an incredible downpour of marble sized hail that rattled on the roof with such ferocity that even shouting at the top of our voices we could not be heard. The area in front of the school was awash with ice and stripped leaves whilst in the fields the new shoots of maize looked decidedly battered and may not survive the onslaught – which would be disastrous.  You would think that such extreme weather would alleviate the water situation but even after the rain the streams and wells have not recovered. The dry ground just soaked it up and the under ground reserves have been disrupted because of the earthquake. The village is having an emergency meeting to come up with some sort of plan – Good luck with that…I suspect more gossip, Roxy drinking and procrastination than solid decision making.

Holy Hailstones
So our last day we woke to the business of the surrounding houses going on as usual but everyone feeling the inevitable hour was upon us. We have become very close with Uttam's family and the kids in the school over the six weeks. We have shared much, witnessed much and contributed much both emotionally and physically. We have been told we were the hardest working, funniest and most willing volunteers to date. I hope that's true. We have tried to be respectful, pro-active and useful. We have tried to find things to do rather than be asked. And, above all, we have tried to understand and embrace our situation. 6 weeks doesn't seem so long when you look back but I bet this 6 weeks will have ramifications for our futures that we don't appreciate fully just yet.

Honeycomb with Silo
So we had our last meal and were served fresh honeycomb that Uttams father had scooped from the wild bee hive in the wall of their house. Its a big event and only  happens once a year so it was a great gift to have our leaving marked in this generous way. Tears fell all around and then we had to go. Salikram walked us to the road (uphill with fully laden backpacks this time) and we caught the frightening bus ride down to Dhulikhel once more. Emma (the volunteer coordinator for the school) is here with us. An entertaining and interesting woman with a penchant for doing good and we are due to have big talks with her and Uttam in the next day or so and come up with plans for the future of Medaka. Something we are honoured to have a part in.

We have a full length mirror and scales and are able to see the ravages (a little strong) of our time in Saping for the first time . We have both lost 8 kilo’s!  8 KILO’S!!!!  We thought our new weights were something we would never see again.

Indreshwor Mahadev Temple
Yesterday we went to the town of Panauti and wandered about the old town. The day was a perfect temperature with lots of shade provided by the closely built, antiquated buildings. There is a Fantastically rustic temple – The Indreshwor Mahadev Temple – which has intricate wooden carvings and filigree work around its four sides. In a small shrine to the side we found two priests smearing blood, from the head of a freshly slaughtered goat on an alter decorated with small stone deities and inflated intestines.  The sacrifice was part of the Bel Bibaha celebrations that were happening that very hour in which girls of around seven are married to a Bel fruit (a representation of the god Vishnu). There is a later ceremony where girls undergo a second marriage to the Sun and then, when they are of age, a third marriage to a man either chosen for or by her.

Bel Bibaha Brides
The ceremony was a joy to see with many little girls bedecked in beautiful red and gold saris, their hair braided, curled, twirled and pinned in ornate designs, their little bodies festooned with jewelry and complex and striking make up covering their faces.  We chatted and greeted and smiled our ways about the crowd whilst background music provided by drums and pipes wafted on the incense scented air.

Nepal like so many underdeveloped countries  gives one  access to such complex feelings. Feelings of frustration, joy, sadness, concern, hope, respect and anger to name but a few. They all mingle and squirm around in your gut and the emotions that come out of that melting pot of complexity is often highly charged. We had seen beauty and care in the ceremony just witnessed and yet, as we three sauntered out of the temple, we are met with the accumulated plastic detritus of modern living in a land of inadequate infrastructure and poor social education. The river being damned by old rags, bags and lonely sandals and the banks strewn with festering piles of rubbish that quietly attracts the flies.

People pass, some in rags, some in silks, crumbling buildings are seen to be both derelict and decorative, the life style both hard and yet lazy. Everything is juxtaopposed but still our hearts soar. Something is in the air beside the gentle smell of hot wood and baked brickwork. Maybe it’s the charm of ancient, slowly decaying buildings; the warmth of greetings or simply that our lives have led us to this place. I dunno. All I can say is that I felt like a glass of overspilling Perrier water.

Leaving Uttam was pretty sad. We had a lovely last meal and said stuff straight from the heart. Moist eyes, stiff upper lips, warm embraces and hopes of seeing one another again. In case you ever read this Uttam… You are a good man. It’s been inspirational meeting you and we wish you nothing but happiness and success in all you wish to achieve. Thank you.

Next stop – Bhaktapur….Wow. What a city. We have stayed a couple of nights in the old town area. It’s all a Unesco site and you have to fork out $15 each to get in but, when you do, you can quickly see why you have to pay. The place is just rammed full of lovely! Lovely buildings, lovely temples, lovely shrines, lovely roads and alleyways. Oh, and behind the scenes, completely shitty reminders of the earthquake. Lets start with the lovelies…The roads in the old city are all paved in worn red brick which immediately give the place great character.

Beautiful streets

The centre is a litter free zone and people take care of their patches and the place is peopled by some of the most elegantly dressed and attractive road sweepers I have ever seen. There are several delightful squares and each is adorned with an ornate temple complete with big statues guarding the steps up or the doors in. Rustic brickwork, sun bleached wood, highly decorated doors  and amazing carvings can be seen in every direction (especially on Shiva’s temple in Durbar Square where the wood carvings all pretty raunchy).


These temples and the stupas, palaces and other fabulous have stood for hundreds of years. However, the evidence of last years big wobbling event have reduced some to ruins. Large picture boards show how they looked before the quake and hopefully when reconstruction work is finished all will once again look beautiful. In the main, however, they survived and the city hustles and bustles and sustains itself with innumerable stalls and shops selling local (obviously nothing mad in China) wares.

Not so beautiful streets
Scratch the surface of this tourist dream and there is another side of Bhaktapur that you see once you have travelled down the little mazes of alleys and come away from the centre. Here there are parts of the town which are just rubble. Shells of buildings, piles of rubbish, stacked wood and brick ready for resale and people living in hovels. Here you see yet more evidence of how slow recovery is and can’t help but wonder how many years it will take before things get back to how they were. If, indeed, they ever will.

Tuesday, 3 May 2016


There are 2 carpenters making doors and preparing timbers; there are 3 men carrying wood and cutting away a clay terrace; there are two other men whose job is loiter earnestly; there are woodsmen cutting down another tree in the forest and preparing planks and more rafters, Me and Silo (Uttam’s brother) are collecting and carrying on our shoulders, wooden rafters that the owner is selling from his earthquake struck derelict house 2km away in another valley. In one of the top terraces is a huge pile of black sand and other assorted wood. In one of the classrooms there are bags of cement – some spilling out on the cowshit floor.

Repairs and refurbishment
Three of the five classrooms are out of use and these, and the area in front of the school, are carpeted with rocks, sawn wood, discarded rotten or broken wood and sawdust. The temperature is in the 90’s, the electricity is erratic and off for hours. It hasn’t rained for weeks, the flies are desperate for moisture so constantly pester. The water has run out as the storage tanks are empty but we are hopeful that some will be allowed through later today. We are sweaty, filled with snot from the copious amount of dust that blows up from the dry fields full of newly planted crops that are on the point of failing. It’s bleak, its hard and yet these wiry, underfed people just go on with life. Never looking beyond their noses, pre-empting or planning ahead. I can’t decide whether this is stoic acceptance of the inevitable or laziness and dissolution brought about by having a government that is, quite frankly, shit.

"Hows the weather" lesson
Rachel and I both teach for some hours a day in a crowded classroom that is currently accommodating grades 3,4 and 5. We are teaching maths, English and science to kids of very mixed ability. Its tricky but fun and Rachel and I are co-teaching which means we can demo things, create a great atmosphere and bounce ideas off one another as we go. We have brought plenty of flash cards and have lots of classroom teaching songs that link to the cards and the kids stay engaged for most of the 3 hours we have them.  We do have to make many allowances for the children’s lack of understanding – sometimes shockingly low and, other times, surprisingly good. The kids are very poor. Dirt poor with frayed and torn clothes, falling to bits shoes, dirty nails, mussy hair and covered in dust. Some walk for over an hour to get here and as they leave we hear them singing our English songs as they tramp across the barren fields back home. We do our best. And I think that some of it is sticking as we teach in a very different way to the formal, almost victorian-learn-by-rote system that's normally applied. We have put up posters and painted murals inside and out of the classrooms.. We keep having to remind ourselves when we see the local girls that are effectively teaching as best they can with no resources, training or total understanding of their topics that this is better than no education. As I have said before (and often when trying to raise some money for the school) many of these kids are destined for the lives of their mothers and fathers – tilling the fields, uneducated and surviving as best they can. Some will have to follow this track but some may find a better or, lets say, easier life. And this goes especially for the girls who labour hard, do lots of carrying of huge baskets containing God knows what and are largely tied to household chores. 

It's been really interesting living here and experiencing this totally alien way of life. Many people visit Nepal and come to places like Pokhara, Kathmandu, Lumbini and leave with a very different perception of the country to that which we are having. Saping only sees foreigners if they come to this school and before Uttam started the volunteer programme a few months ago, many had not seen one. We get stared at a lot but that's something we have come to accept through our fairly extensive travels. We love it. And, of course, as soon as Rachel’s big smile cracks open people cannot help but smile back. We have now, however been here 5 weeks and many of the locals recognize us (more so the kids, obviously) and a walk amongst the terraces usually means we soon garner an entourage of small people.

It is particularly pleasing to have people try out their “Good afternoon sir" or "how are you, madam” because they know our response will be positive and encouraging although we do prefer the the greeting ‘Namaste’ which essentially has the rather lovely sentiment ‘The light in me meets the light in you’. A charming greeting issued with the touching of hands in a prayer like fashion and slight incline of the head.

I mentioned the water situation which came on a particularly hot day during which our peak and trough emotional temperaments hit a low. Rachel felt apathetic and spent most of the day after our classes in the room having a bit of a wallow. I too feeling frustrated over a lots of little things sat and painted walls in a classroom. But towards the end of the day three little lads, Anish, Manish and Shardev saw us sitting in the window of our room and asked us to play music. We turned on the Bluetooth speaker to full power felt the joy return as they danced to ‘Green Onions ‘- The Booker T and the MGs song. Very sweet and focused us once again.

Shardev, Anish, Manish and Prabitra

Now there has been a big event this last week. One of the teachers called Soba got married and we were invited to the ceremony, Rachel wore the Khuthra she’d had made and looked fantastic whilst I donned a shirt and didn’t.

The event, held at the brides family home, lasts two days with the brides family and friends  (about 100 people) getting together on the first day to eat and drink, and eat and drink, and eat and drink some more.  The second day involves the arrival of the groom and family, actual ceremony, music and eating and drinking, eating and drinking etc. (250 people)

It's a walk of 45 minutes up and down the obligatory rocky paths to get to the wedding which is held in large rutted field several terraces below Soba’s  temporary tin shack accommodation. (their beautiful three storey home had to be abandoned after the earthquake). Flags fluttered from every tree and there were lines of hundreds of plastic chairs in around the large colurful marquee. It’s only us and the menfolk from the school on the first day (girls are fasting and the mums are not there for personal and caste reasons). We chat to various people and as per form we eat and drink for a few hours and leave 5.30 as the sun was going down to stagger along the dusty road with much laughter and silly races. Men and their testosterone!

The next day, the big day, we all dressed in our best finery. The girls, Pabitra (Uttam’s niece) and Sante (Uttam’s daughter) looking stunning in their dresses, we felt so proud. Again the long walk which the girls wanted to do in high heels and full regalia until they were persuaded that their new shoes and feet would be ruined by the time they got there. So we carried there shoes and presents whilst they wore flip flops and hitched up their dresses. We arrived two hours later than we were supposed to and were still two hours too early for the ceremony (Good old Nepali time).  We are immediately force fed the first wave of food and given large bowls of Chan (local millet brew). 

After a while the bridegroom made his big entrance. We hear a traditional local Nepali band coming along the pathways. A cacophony of sound from the drums and horn instruments, there is shouting and a cloud of dust rising from the gathered ranks of his familys feet as, following the band, they head to the place of the ceremony.  He is bedecked in black with tikka on his forehead and and umbrella permanently held over him. He is a tall, handsome, haughty (maybe terrified) looking man of about 24 and I only saw him smile once the whole day. Soon he is joined (less ostentatious entrance) by the bride who looks fantastic with  metres of splendid fabric elaborately wrapped around her, henna painted hands and feet, beautiful tikka on her forehead, kohled eyes and bejeweled eyebrows.  Here surrounded by a jostling crowd they perform a simple ceremony of walking in circles proffering a tray of burning incense, having grass neckpieces fastened around their shoulders and receiving a blessing from someone I couldn't see. They then walk to the large marquee and sit in residence for the next few hours whilst guests either ignore them or present them with gifts. Everywhere throughout the throng there is a profusion of colours. The most vibrant reds, blues, greens, golds, pinks, yellows and oranges on all the ladies Saris and Khurtras. The men, however, had not made quite so much effort but then a wedding is really for the ladies, isn’t it?

The day moves on, we talk and laugh, we eat and drink, we meet and greet and all the time are surrounded by onlookers who, although they cannot understand us, laugh when we laugh and nod wisely to one another. It was a lovely day and a real honour to be asked to share it with the two families, all of whom were warm welcoming and entertaining.

Sun sets , exit Chris and Rachel leaving those who like to sleep on rush mats in a field to revel on. Goodnight