Sunday, 9 December 2012

Nepal - Week One

Nepal blew my mind.
Straight up blew my mind.

I've travelled a bit but it's been a long while since I went to anywhere so out of my normal range of experience and it makes you pay a degree of attention you mightn't if you were somewhere more familiar.

When my father asked me back in May if I wanted to go on a trek to Everest Base Camp I was excited but nervous.
And then December rolled around quicker than I thought it would and found my father, my brother, my godfather, his son, a woman my father and I have both worked with, and a woman she knows through another friend sitting at the airport waiting to fly to Nepal.

Day One

We flew from Melbourne to Bangkok, got the plane from Bangkok to Kathmandu, and the moment we landed at Kathmandu the eyes were wide open.

Bangkok airport is a HUGE, modern structure.
Kathmandu airport is a single storey brick building that looks like it was built in the 1960s or there about.
Outside the taxis are all cars that look like they were built in the Soviet Union and may very well be fitted with their original tyres which have fossilised on the rim.

Being driven through the city to the hotel we quickly realised there weren't any road rules per se.
People just nudged in and were moving at a speed that there didn't seem to be any collisions.
Lanes were invented and abandoned at a whim.
There were no road markings.
We were told that they do have a few traffic lights in Kathmandu but due to daily power outages they don't actually use them as traffic lights that only work some of the time would cause more confusion than calm.

The edges of the streets were torn up as the government was in the process of having the front room of most buildings knocked down to widen the road. These rooms were mostly built without permission by the building's owners/residents as there wasn't really a planning permission system in place when they wanted to do so.

The power poles that lined the streets were hung with thick ropes of wires as it seemed that whenever someone wanted to hook into the power they just added another line.

Our group got together to meet our guide and the two other group members who we didn't know, a Canadian father and son who were my father's age and about my age respectively.

For dinner we went to a restaurant called Nepali Chulo where we sat on the floor on cushions at a low table and were served a variety of dishes - curried meats, steamed vegetables, rice, soups and breads.
As we ate, people in traditional dress from various regions took turns performing the corresponding traditional dances.
At the end of the evening a man inside an elaborate peacock puppet costume moved through the diners, bowing the head at the end of the puppet's long neck and operating its mouth in some ingenious fashion to accept tips.

Day Two

We were taken to see the Pashupatinath Hindu temple complex and Boudhanath Buddhist Stupa.

Pashupatinath was incredible.
The street leading up to the temple was lined with stalls of people selling religious icons and strings of flowers for pilgrims to buy before entering the temple.
There was an old people's community home for Hindu elders who have no family to care for them. One old gentleman waved at us quite cheerily when he saw us peeking through the gate.
Down by the river were flat pedestal-like protrusions where some people were building funeral pyres for their loved ones.
We saw one person being prepared for the pyre, family or friends taking their shrouded body down to the water to ritually wash their feet to purify them before the funeral proceeded.
It felt a bit intrusive to watch something so important but we didn't linger there long as there was the rest of the temple complex to observe - from the outside as non-Hindus couldn't enter - and many small shrines to walk amongst.
People hawking goods and gifts wandered about, trying their luck with various tourists.
Monkeys were running around on the roofs of the temple and freely in the forest behind the shrines.
The scent of ash, incense and the river emphasised the fact that this was somewhere unlike I'd ever seen before.

Boudhanath by comparison was quite calm.
There were still plenty of people around but it was in town and the stupa itself was ringed by shops that formed a perfect two or three storey circle around the stupa.
The size of the stupa was quite impressive as were the many lines of flags that ran from its tip to its corners.
While we watched men with ladders climbed in a precarious fashion to throw buckets of yellow wash over the dome.
You could see where dry materials were being ground and mixed to make paint or washes for the upkeep of the stupa.
There were also piles of powdered incense which people could buy in little packets to burn during their observances.
Prayer wheels were everywhere and every now and then you would catch the sound of chanting, either from monks or pilgrims in small temples amongst the shops or from recordings floating out of the shops.

Day Three

This morning we got up nice and early, got our kit bags ready and headed back to the airport to fly to the tiny airport at Lukla.
We waited for about an hour before being taken by bus out to the part of the airfield where the small planes depart, we drove past members of the Nepali military being put through their paces jogging around the airfield.
Even though the plane only seated about 20 people it had a flight attendant who squeezed her way up the aisle to offer us wads of cotton to put in our ears and mints to chew or suck on during the flight.
The flight through the valleys and past the mountains was amazing, especially as they were so close and every movement of the plane and touch of the wind was very evident in such a small craft.
The landing strip at Lukla was tiny. I mean tiny. We all spontaneously applauded as we touched down and wheeled around to stop by the small terminal building.

At a little field behind a house in the town we organised our kit bags and day packs - watched by locals who were tending crops and leading chickens about on strings - and then set off for our first bit of trekking, a short walk from Lukla to Ghat.
It was our first experience of the dusty winding paths and the lusher part of the track and having to step out of the way for strings of jopkyo (half yak, half cow hybrids) and donkeys being used as pack animals.
It was also our first experience with the nature of the weather in the mountains.
It was quite warm and mild during the day but the moment the sun dropped behind the mountains at about 4pm, the temperature drops somewhere between 10 and 15 degrees Celsius.

We slept in large sturdy tents in lovely warm sleeping bags.

Day Four to Day Seven

We spent these days discovering the joys of 'Nepali flat' - a term meaning that if the amount of up encountered is roughly the same as the down encountered they consider that flat - and the various considerations of the trail.
Every day you'd wake early, be given a cup of tea, organise your kit bag for the porters to carry away, organise your daypack for yourself, have a hearty breakfast, fill up your water bottles with boiled water and start walking.

The water had to be boiled because the local water isn't good for non-locals and for a similar reason we had to use hand sanitiser before every meal as the local dust and dirt we'd picked up while walking wasn't something you wanted to accidentally ingest.

We'd stop for lunch along the way, another huge meal of multiple dishes, and we'd catch our breath and look around a bit more.

The ever present mountains were almost too big to be accepted as real. You'd stare at them, you'd know they were mountains but your brain kept insisting they must be a movie backdrop or something because mountains just don't get that big.

The towns we passed through were well populated with wayhouses for hikers and little shops that obviously did quite well during the busy seasons, a time when anywhere up to 200 or more hikers could enter the national park each day.

After lunch we'd scoot on to get to our camp where we could relax, catch up with journal writing, play cards, go for smaller walks and just hang around chatting before dinner.
At dinner time they would light the yak-dung stove and we'd have a few hours of comfortable warmth in the dining building before the fuel ran out, the puffy jackets went on and it was time to go tuck ourselves into our sleeping bags again.
We rarely stayed up past about 8:00pm or 8:30pm due to lack of heating and generally feeling a bit tired after walking and being at altitude.

The higher we went the colder it got at night and the more you'd try to convince yourself that you didn't really need to go to the toilet in the middle of the night. You always lost that argument but you'd have it for a while because climbing out of your nice warm sleeping bag to trot across the campsite to the freezing toilet was not appealing.
And when I say freezing I'm not being hyperbolic, at night it was 0 °C or less even at this lower altitude and at one campsite the water in the toilet cistern actually froze solid.

By this point we'd been through the big town of Namche Bazaar and seen the local market where villages from kilometres around bought their supplies, had a rest day there to help the acclimatisation process, visited Thyangboche Monastery - arriving just in time to hear the monks going through their daily service and for me to accidentally sit at the parping end of a long mountain trumpet.

Simply amazing.

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