Saturday 22 November 2014

Days 169 - 170: Dolpo 1 - Hello pen!

Hello pen! Juphal children are not shy.
Flying to Juphal, in the remote Dolpo region of Nepal, is not an experience that British Airways passengers would recognise.  Nobody cares how many liquids you carry in your hand baggage.  It's important to remember a warm jumper because the cabin isn't heated or pressurised.  And even if whisky were served on the plane (which it isn't), no amount of its numbing yellow droplets could prepare you for the landing.

It is a two-leg journey, with the first taking us to Nepalganj, which has been described as 'Nepal without the good bits'.  After a night in a rat-infested hotel we concurred and started calling it 'Nepal Grunge'.  Everybody was glad to board the flight to Dolpo the next morning, although the word 'glad' does not accurately describe anyone's emotions twenty minutes later.

We crouched behind the pilots, watching them make every manoeuvre and pull every lever, including the ones bound with gaffa tape.  (Gaffa tape has proved its worth time and again on expeditions but I have never wanted to fly in an aeroplane patched with it.)  We grazed mountain passes with less than a hundred metres clearance, gazing into the eyes of the blue sheep.  Then we swung hard to the right, dived and I strained for an airstrip in the valley.  There wasn't one.  With seconds to spare I realised we would not be landing in the valley but on a strip of vegetated and deeply rutted ground, perched high on the shoulder of a hillside.  It looked just about fit to hold a shepherd's hut, but surely an airport was out of the question?  Surely?  No?  We hit the ground, showering the next flight's passengers with dust.

It wouldn't be "Four Feet in the Clouds" without some!
For the rest of the day we descended through terraced fields and villages where children shouted 'hello pen, hello pen' (optimistically; we had none to give them), then diverged into a quieter side valley.  At lunch time our Nepali cook made a hot meal including the vegetable 'curilla', a spiky variant on a green pepper which quickly earned the name 'gorilla'.  Then in the evening the crew set up our camp and cooked a three-course feast.  This was a world outside my experience - not the shouts of 'pen' or the terraced fields or the yomp along a river valley but the regular replenishment of pasta on my plate, as though the wheat were on growth hormones.  When trekking, Guy and I are used to stirring a pitiful ration of pasta, mining it for the occasional scrap of onion or fleck of parmasan.  What happened to starvation rations?  This was going to be a luxury trek like none we had experienced before - so long as we could forget the shock of the plane journey.

More Juphal children
Wow... photogenic!

Exploring the main street in Juphal
Faces and Windows
Juphal children
Loading up our donkeys with Dol Badu and Narinda

Lead Donkey
(Okay, I admit it. It's a mule really)
Heading upriver to lunch 
Nigel crossing said river
A kitchen boy follows Nigel
The confluence

Sunday 2 November 2014

Days 167 - 168: Kathmandu - Goddesses and ghats

Monk begs for alms in the Kathmandu traffic
If we have a home from home, it's in Kathmandu.  We know where to find the best curries and momos, which way to turn the prayer wheels, how suspicious to be of the fake North Face clothing, how the tune of 'Om mani padme hum' will unfold, what the most popular beer is called,  the frequency of seeing 'yak, yak, yak' embroidered on a t-shirt, and roughly how many times we will be asked to buy a singing bowl.

This time we were meeting friends - Tony, Pam and Nigel - before heading to the secluded Dolpo region to go trekking.  But first it was time for a day's sightseeing.  The five of us wandered down to Durbar Square, former home of the royals, to photograph the old palace and shrines (Kathmandu means wooden temple in Nepali).  A street seller tried to flog some prayer flags and I told him "chahidaina", "I don't want it".  "No, not China, this is Nepal.  China is a long way away," he replied, looking affronted.  Either he was being facetious or my Nepali pronunciation left something to be desired.

A few minutes later a television crew asked to interview me as it was national tourist day.  I mumbled at the camera.  Yes, I liked Nepal very much.  Yes, I was very happy to be in Kathmandu.  Yes, it was how I expected; I'd been here before.  They asked if Nepal could be improved for tourists and perhaps I should have been a little more forthcoming.  Clean water would not be a bad idea.  Enough power to keep Kathmandu running without thirteen-hour long daily power cuts might also help.  But this is mostly the case for the locals, not the tourists.  Living in torchlight for a few days won't hurt us, but for a lifetime?

Drumming monk at the
monkey temple
We wandered down to Kumari's temple, the young Hindu goddess selected as a child and secreted in a corner of Durbar Square (without playmates, without getting mucky in the streets, or playing childhood games of tag, skipping ropes, cat's cradle, whatever games Nepali children favour) until she first bleeds and becomes unclean.  Us women, we're such foul things ... but couldn't the gods have considered this before they made us?  To add insult to injury, the story goes that whoever marries Kumari will die, so she isn't exactly overwhelmed with suitors when her stint as goddess finishes.  As you've probably guessed, I'm not a huge fan of the tradition, although apparently her family are housed and she is well educated during her divine phase, which seems to make the post a coveted one.  (Presumably, this means that better standards of schooling and housing are needed across Kathmandu - not a surprise.)

We loitered for a while, hoping the glut of pigeons would not shit on us.  Finally, Kumari appeared at her window, with the immaculately made-up face of a woman or a mask, but not a girl, and looked down upon us for a few seconds.  Not a single camera flashed.  Kumari is sacred.

Back in the Thamel district it was time to go gear shopping and eat momos before the compulsory monkey temple visit.  It was my third hike up to the stone staircase, where fun-loving primates vied for attention with singing bowl sellers and stupas.  I hope there will be as many more to come.

Comedy (fake?) Sadu at Pashupatinath
Our final stop of the day was at Pashupatinath where the dead are cremated and their remains thrown into the river.  It is a holy place and we stood at a distance, watching torches ignite below a freshly-oiled pyre.  As the sticks caught light, I expected to see the body struggle even though I knew he was dead.  Humans fight to escape when flames engulf them and the dead still bear human form.  

When at last the body caught light, we tasted ash.  A few minutes later, the tenders swept his remains into the river.  Perhaps a fingernail, or a shard of bone, will appear downstream in India in water scooped from the Ganges.  But here in Pashupatinath, no sign remains; it is time for the next body to be carried to the pyre.

As we left, a woman tried to sell us souvenirs.  Even death has a gift shop.  We shook our heads and wandered back to the tagliatelli of Kathmandu traffic.  It was time to return to the hotel and prepare for our trek, if we could only tear ourselves away from reviewing our photographs.

Kathmandu is a colourful city, worth metres of film or gigabytes of memory, and we had plenty of pictures (see below) to remind us of the day.

Welcome to Kathmandu! Dinner at The Third Eye with Pamela, Tony and Nigel

Who would live in a house like this?

Kathestimbu Stupa

Prayers at Kathestimbu

Fruit Seller

Durbar Square

Pigeons over Durbar Square

Sadhu in Durbar Square

No wonder there are power cuts!

Pigeons and Pagodas: Durbar Square

Cycle Rickshaws

Tony gaining karma at the wooden temple

Traditional Newari hats on display

Kumari's house (no photos of Kumari are allowed unfortunately)

Baby Monkey 1

Baby Monkey 2

Begging for alms at the monkey temple

Team LMC at the Monkey Temple

Monkey temple... wait isn't that a pig?

Pigeons live there too!

Philosophical Rhesus Macaque 

Black Kite soaring over Kathmandu

Monkey temple Stupa

Monastic drums

3pm at the Monkey Temple sees the start of the drumming and chanting

Farewell to the Monkey Temple

Funeral pyres at Pashupatinath

Preparing the next pyre

The heat and smell is suffocating

Pyres are usually lit by the eldest son of the deceased who has his head ritually shaved

Sunset at Pashupatinath

Day 166: Delhi - India's Mission to Mars

On our way out of Pushkar, Guy started enthusing about the Indian probe due to enter Mars orbit that day.

Hopefully India's space probe is better finished than this truck!
"You know about this?  Do you think it will be successful?" he asked our driver.  The driver punched the air.

"Modi, he's a strong guy!"

We had not seen him look this happy all week.  Clearly he belonged to the fan club of India's new prime minister.

A short while later we were telling him about the rest of our travels in India including the Wagah border ceremony in the Punjab.  The word 'Kashmir' was only a breath away; someone had to mention it.  We left the job to our host.

"On the border in Kashmir, Pakistani soldiers cut off the hands of Indian soldiers," he told us.  "I don't know why they do this.  Pakistan is only a small country.  We have a bomb that could wipe them out."

Guy's eyebrows almost joined the Indian space probe in Mars orbit, as did mine.  It was only nine o'clock in the morning and we appeared to be discussing nuking Pakistan.

The conversation did not last much longer - not by accident.  The rest of the journey passed quietly with the exception of a collective sigh when we saw the first bovine car crash victim of our trip.  The carcass straddled two lanes of motorway, a brighter red than any Indian bus, flanked by torn metal and flaking paint.  But why?  It's fine for cows to roam freely on roads.  It's also fine to build high-speed motorways.  But I remain to be convinced that you can combine the two.  A week of swerving wildly to avoid cattle has made us rather impatient of this.  The only surprise was that the steak joint on the highway, gutted by fractured glass, was the first we had seen.

Re-entering Delhi returned us to a familiar routine, as we have passed through the city four times so far on this trip.  Now for yet another short stay in the bustling, crazy, chaotic world of the capital.

Saturday 1 November 2014

Day 165: Pushkar - The ghats and the hippie mall

View of the lake from the aptly named "Sunset Cafe"
Rose petals.  Flies.  We sat by the lake, looking at the ghats, with the latter buzzing around our legs and the former being pressed into our hands.  "You throw in the lake; you get blessing."  Unless you do this and acquire your 'Pushkar passport' (a red thread around your wrist) you risk acquiring ever greater numbers of rose petals until you may as well just take up life as a rosebush.  Somehow, goodness knows how, we managed to escape without a passport.  ("I'm an atheist," says Guy, "I don't need a blessing.")

As we sipped our coke (the food-poisoning-free drink of India) and watched the sun go down over the water, a girl and her father came to play an instrument to us and sing.  As the captive audience, we were now obliged to buy our concert ticket.  The music was suitably harmonious so we obliged and commissioned a second song, then said goodbye.  I reckon the girl was around nine or ten.  I hope she gets the chance to learn the alphabet not just sing for coke-drinkers clutching rose blossoms all through the day.

A more common means of acquisition is to approach a tourist and say: "no money, please just one chapati".  It issues from many mouths but the words are always exactly the same, in the very same order.  Every Pushkar beggar must have learned the tune from the same piper but where to start with so many chapati-eaters to feed?

Sunset over the lake
We wandered along the streets, wandered back, wandered along again.  When I was researching destinations in Rajastan I was unsure about Pushkar, so we are only spending one night here.  I thought it sounded a bit zen; a bit henna and hippies and weed.  Bang on.  Guy was offered drugs three times in the first half hour but alas the poor boy could not secure a single pint.  Pushkar is holy; there is no alcohol here.  (Of course, I didn't tell him this pre-arrival.)

As for the henna and hippies (not that I'm in the mode for stereotyping, of course!), the whole of Pushkar serves as their department store of choice.  In this town, you can buy cushions with glass beads in them for every person in the world who shares your forename.  You can buy a scarf in every colour that Andrew Lloyd Webber believes to reside in Joseph's technicolor dream coat (of which I can testify that there are many; my sister sang them until she drove me insane when she was at junior school).  You can buy different coloured shirts all day and all night and all of the next day and you still will not have two the same.  There is enough garish fabric here to fill Pushkar lake.  Why not empty it out, then fill it again?  Shopping in Pushkar is obligatory; colour-blindness is desirable.

Guy bought a couple of new shirts.  One was bright green and one was multi-coloured.  But neither was tie-died.  We still haven't quite made it down with the kids.  Our clothes aren't bright enough, Guy's beard isn't long enough, we both look like we've seen a few too many springs.  As for my new dress, its colour range spanned dark and light brown.  You'd think I was brought up a Quaker (as it turns out, I was).  I'm only amazed that a garment of so few colours was allowed into the town.  You'd have thought that, like booze, such travesties would be banned.

And so we ended the day soberly drinking lassi and mineral water on the roof of the beautiful Seventh Heaven Hotel (highly recommended for those who don't mind a tea-total evening).   We thought of climbing the hill to one of the temples but it was too hot.  How much easier to sit and watch five stories of vines trailing down from the restaurant then eat a spoonful of ice cream as we watch smoke rise from the ghats?

The rose blossoms are beginning to get crushed in our pockets.  We remain unblessed.