Trekking in Nepal, 2010
Nepal is a small land-locked country, 800 km long and 200 km wide; but as the old adage says: ‘good things come in small packages’. Around 64% of the country is covered by mountains. One third of the total length of the Himalaya lies inside Nepal’s borders and the country claims ten of the world’s fourteen highest peaks. Wow!
‘Pokhara is beautiful’, said Krishna, the waiter at the New Orleans Cafe in Kathmandu. The lake lies at the foot of the mountains ‘like a child nestling in the lap of it’s mother’. ‘It’s clean and green’, he continued, ‘not like Kathmandu’. With such a recommendation we had to go.
On the bus to Pokhara I got my first sight of the Annapurna range. I was so excited I could hardly sit still. Huge snow-capped peaks, hanging seemingly suspended in mid-air, as if unattached to land and man. Ethereal, supreme, heavenly – dominating the valley, sometimes indistinguishable from cloud, but always awe inspiring. I got a grin on my face, but this was much more, a feeling that registered in my whole body – as if someone had shot a thousand happy volts through me. A totally natural high.
We had to get closer to the mountains. Nepal is one of the worlds greatest trekking destinations but several short day hikes give a taste of what trekking – and life in the mountains – is like. We climbed 800 m to Sarangkot, a viewing point over a panoramic sweep of Himalayan peaks. On the way up we passed small villages and settlements, often getting a glimpse of people trying to eke out a living on small parcels of land. Men ploughed with oxen, and with shouts and guttural throat noises, encouraged the cumbersome beasts to turn on small stepped terraces the size of postage stamps. Sometimes they were barefoot, pressing the soles of their feet against the share of the plough, forcing it deeper. Sometimes women followed behind the plough, sowing seed by hand. Potatoes, corn, wheat are planted at various times of the year. It’s a hard physical life. Men and women walk bowed on the narrow earthen tracks under enormous bushes of greenery or huge piles of wood – they chop wood and foliage in the forest for firewood and animal fodder. Women washed clothes in icy rivers or at water pumps. Kids ran up and down, shouting excitedly, playing with a hoop and stick. Three teenage lads walked a way with us, desperate to practice their English. They told us ‘Switzerland is the world’s number one, most beautiful country’! Nepal ranked only at number two.
Tea houses provide a welcome break on the way. We have great memories of one on the way to Sarangkot. Perched on top of a tiny mound it commanded a wonderful view over the terraced fields, down to the lake at the bottom of the valley. A beautiful young Nepali woman balanced precariously on a ladder picking coffee from a tree. Concentrating hard, she put the fruits into her shoulder bag, the eyes of the Buddha stenciled onto the canvas watching us with her every move. The coffee would be sold at the market in Pokhara. Goats and hens ranged freely. Tiny chicks pecked at our feet. Two cows and two buffalo were stabled in a lean-to at the side of the house. The toilet was at the end of a dirt track, a leaning corrugated iron shed – just a hole in the ground, with a drop to the earth beneath. Primitive, but the place was warm and welcoming.
Locals were always friendly, always willing to point us the right way. One old lady, with a lined face and a gorgeous smile came running after us to show us the way. She chatted nineteen to the dozen – if only I could have understood what she was trying to say. She took hold of my hand, rubbed it against my cheek and kissed my fingers, laughing all the time. Another old lady on the track, babbled away, asking me a question. She mimed sneezing and blowing her nose. Trekkers are warned against giving local people medicine. (90% of the population of Nepal has no access to health care and suffers from malnutrition).
The vast majority of the countryside in Nepal is still inaccessible by road, hidden behind ridges and valleys. These tracks are used by pilgrims, trekkers, traders and locals. The more we walked, the more we wanted to see of this life – it’s the essence of Nepal. We decided to trek to Poon Hill – one of the most spectacular vantage points in the Himalaya. The most enduring image of this trek has to be that of porters, moving up the steep hillsides carrying enormous loads. The thick strap of the conical wicker baskets tight against their foreheads, their backs bent under their burden, their feet clad often only in flip-flops! Porters are often poor, poorly educated, and unaware of the potential dangers involved in their work. Several porters die each year, left to fend for themselves, wearing inadequate clothing, they simply sit in the snow, get hypothermia and die.
We trekked alone, without a porter, without a guide. The paths are easy to follow, lodges numerous and comfortable. Flimsy, many seemed to be built entirely of plywood – it’s a strange sensation to feel the floor wobble like jelly under your feet when you walk – but the showers were hot, and the food basic but good. At Tikhedhungga we stayed at the River View Lodge – family run, extraordinarily hospitable, it was like spending the night in a Nepalese family living room. A wood fire in an oil drum provided tremendous heat. A young girl – seven or eight years of age, and the grandmother (who continuously flashed a toothless smile) took it in turns to walk a gorgeous baby with a shock of black hair and chubby cheeks around on their backs. The lady proprietor explained that she’d found the baby in the forest – abandoned with her umbilical chord still attached, covered in blood. She cares for the child as if she were her own.
The trek to Poon Hill was a physical challenge – we climbed 2,200m in all – including a very steep 500m over a 1 km stretch, to reach a height of 3, 200m. But it was certainly worth it. Magical to watch the first rays of sun hit the peaks. An ever changing show of light and cloud, the mountains playing peak-a-boo, but were none the less spectacular for it. Spellbound we left only when it became too cold to stand still anymore.
Nepal won our hearts. The natural beauty of the country is spectacular but the people are it’s real treasure.