First steps in the country
Crossing the border from India is ridiculously easy. I am delighted to be stepping into a new country that promises to be fascinating and full of breath-taking natural wonders. Coming from the often-frantic atmosphere prevalent in India, I can’t wait to enjoy a more peaceful environment for some time. My first stop in Lumbini, Buddha’s birthplace, lends itself perfectly for this purpose. As a tribute to Lord Buddha, dozens of temples have been built thanks to international donations in a large park where cars are forbidden.
Resuming my tour of the world’s religions, I’m curious to witness Buddhist customs and culture for the first time. Two ceremonies take place on a daily basis in the monastery where I stay: one before sunrise around 4:30AM and another one in the late afternoon at 6:00PM. The ceremonies are led by a monk who chants and hits a hollow wooden objet with a stick while worshippers perform their prayers.
I make the most of my few days in this haven of peace to update my notes about India and to visit other temples. I also make the acquaintance of some nice and surprising people: Lucas, a young American guy who came to Nepal on a spiritual quest, a Chinese girl suggesting we should create an international sect (we kindly turn down the offer), Tolga, a traveller from Turkey… When chatting with him, I find out that we are both going to volunteer in the same school and that we are starting on the same day, how unlikely! Tolga is not against hitchhiking and we decide to team up. After a break in India, I am excited to put my thumb back into good use and I am curious to see how the Nepali will react.
Hitchhiking in Nepal turns out to be quite easy. Locals however are not very familiar with the concept and we have to explain ourselves on several occasions: “It’s fine thank you, we’re not taking the bus…” Different kinds of vehicles give us rides: rickety tractors, a couple of cars, a crowded van, and finally Jeep that takes us to Pokhara. What a great feeling of freedom as we lie at the back of the Jeep and watch the lush green hills pass before our eyes!
Pokhara is Nepal’s second largest city and yet it feels quite peaceful, at least near Feva Lake where we are dropped off. Soon we understand that it is the touristy part of town: trekking shops are to be found everywhere along the lake. In fact, I need to get some warm clothes as it gets cold during the night. Moreover, extra layers will be essential for next month’s trek in the Himalayas. The rest of town is strikingly different and doubtless more authentic. Although far from being as chaotic as a regular Indian town, you can still feel you find yourself in an Asian city where pollution and dust are unavoidable.
The traveller coming from India will notice that faces are changing, complexion is brightening and eyes are getting more slanting. Nepal is indeed at the junction between the Indian and Sino-Tibetan worlds. Culinary specialities are another sign of the double influence of the big neighbours. The traditional dal bhat: rice, lentil soup and vegetable curry reminds of an Indian thali. On the other hand, you can find more and more momos (vegetable or meat dumplings) and chowmein (fried noodles) that give you a foretaste of Tibet and China. Religion is also prone to surprising syncretism. With over 80% according to official statistics, Hinduism is prevalent in the country. However, Buddhism is present as well and the two religious spheres sometimes overlap. It is for instance common for a Buddhist to worship Hindu deities and the Bhrama, Shiva, Vishnu trinity is sometimes seen as incarnations of Buddha. Conversely, Buddha ranks among the deities worshipped by Hindus as an incarnation of Vishnu.
We hit the road again on the following morning. One ride in a truck takes us all the way to Dhumre, a market town on the way to Kathmandu. From here, we have to go on a small road leading up to the village and finish the journey on the roof of an overcrowded minivan.
Our new hosts give us the warmest welcome. As we cross the gate of Mirlung Star Xavier’s English School where we are about to volunteer for a month, Chhabi, the school manager along with a few pupils greet us with large smiles and garlands of flowers. The school is located in a stunning natural environment near a small river surrounded by wooded hills. There is even a suspension bridge going over the schoolyard. What a place to receive an education! And the perfect place to get some energy back for the rest of my trip. I was initially thinking of spending only a month in Nepal and then head to Southeast Asia but I have changed my mind. It gets tiring to be moving from one place to another so often. Instead of visiting superficially a couple of countries, I would rather explore Nepal more thoroughly for this time.
The school is composed of a dozen classes, providing an education for about 200 pupils. Tolga and I sleep on the ground floor of a bamboo and clay hut. Above our room, the kitchen and dining room are overlooking the schoolyard. Two cooks employed by the school, Chitah and Sarmila, prepare every day local delicacies for everyone. Dal bhat tarkari, the archetypal Nepali dish, is served everyday twice a day, for breakfast and dinner. During the first few days, it feels strange to be eating spicy first thing in the morning, but you end up getting used to it. The relationship to food is different, more pragmatic. Eating here is less of a treat that should be diverse than a mere physiological need. Fortunately, lunch changes from one day to the other, bringing some variety to our diet.
We find out soon that the Nepali calendar, according to which we are by the way not in 2018 but in 2074, is full of holidays and festivals. No need to start working right away, we have a couple of days to get acquainted with the place and our hosts. Chhabi, despite his basic English, is a very kind man who is always keen to share his culture with us. His wife Laxmi is discrete but nice too. Djebi and Felix, their two sons are full of energy and never fail to keep us entertained.
We are given a free rein to teach English to the pupils. The freedom we enjoy is total to the point that no one will attend one of our lessons to make sure we work properly. Strange… Anyway, I decide to focus on spoken English practice and foster conservations through a number of games. Most of the kids actually speak good English already and it is easy to talk with them. I am surprised to find out that only one subject is taught in Nepali and I can’t help wondering whether this strong emphasis on the English language is not somehow detrimental to the knowledge of their mother tongue.
A typical school day starts with a military-looking ceremony in the schoolyard. The pupils are aligned by age and sex and first perform some physical exercises. Then they strike up the national anthem with their right hand on the heart:
« Sayau thuga phulka hama, eutai mala Nepali
Sarwabhaum bhai phailieka, Mechi-Mahakali … »
The life at school is as peaceful as it is revitalising: a perfect sedentary interlude. In the morning before I start teaching, I enjoy reading on a rock near the river. I got a book about Tibet from Heinrich Harrer, an Austrian mountaineer who escaped from prison in India during the Second World War and found asylum in Tibet for nearly seven years until the Chinese invaded the country. A nice story between adventure tale and ethnographic observations that fuels my own dream of going there to continue my overland journey after Nepal.
The river is also the place where we shower and wash our clothes. The first showers feel a bit cold, but then again you end up getting used to it. Actually, it is nice to do for a while without the Western comforts we usually take for granted. Here everyone showers in the river, it is a convivial moment shared with friends. Besides, how can you pretend understanding a country and its culture if you remain a mere observer? Watching is a first necessary step, yet imitation, namely taking part in local customs, is the decisive approach.
In the evening before dal bhat, we usually meet up in the small bamboo cafeteria (yes, everything is made of bamboo) with Chhabi, Tolga and the other volunteers for a glass of raksi, homemade millet liquor with a random alcohol level. Chhabi is always keen to share Nepali traditions with us and we are lucky to attend a number of local festivals and celebrations. A few days after we arrived, we are off to celebrate Shivaratri, the Hindu festival dedicated to Shiva. The village folks gather for the occasion after sunset in a local temple lit up with flickering oil lamps. Repetitive songs that always follow the same pattern are sung all night long. First, someone spontaneously starts singing a tune during one cycle. Then, the rest of the crowd and mandel players (cylindrical percussion that you hit on both sides) jump in for four cycles and eventually stop abruptly. The mandel is hit twice as a conclusion. A few people dance also and of course, the foreigners are pushed to the centre of the circle. Judging by the villagers’ never-ending bursts of laughter, they can’t get enough of our clumsy attempts at imitating the local dance. During our stay we attend several other Pujas organised for births, birthdays, weddings, etc. that unfold similarly.
Chhabi, Djebi and some other kids are delighted to teach me some Nepali and I increase my vocabulary every day. To practice, there is nothing better than taking a walk around the bazar. I wander from one shop to the next, chat with the locals and strike a few portraits. Once again, I come to realise that in order to take good photos, it is incredibly helpful to know the basics of your subjects’ language. People are so much more inclined to open themselves to your lens if they see that you are interested in their language and respect their culture. During my little excursions, I often get invited for chiya (tea), a glass of raksi or something to eat. The Nepali are kind, peaceful and welcoming. The more time I spend here, the more I think Nepal will rank among my favourite countries. Luckily, I have a visa for three months, and I am planning to make the most of it!
From watching how people live in Chandrawati, it appears that rural Nepali society remains patriarchal and the allocation of roles depends primarily on gender. Women tend to work harder than men do. They carry heavy loads such as crops or firewood on their backs in a basket supported by the head. I have never seen a man taking care of it. It is true however than men do carry heavy loads as well when it comes to construction works. Cooking is the women’s job and I remember a stereotypical scene that illustrates perfectly those disparities. As I strolled around the bazar, I noticed on the left side of the road a group of about twelve women busy peeling potatoes and preparing the evening’s dal bhat. On the right, idle men, probably their husbands, are playing karambol, sipping raksi and smoking cigarettes.
It is soon time to celebrate Holi, a Hindu festival sometimes dubbed “the festival of colours”. During that day, everyone throws coloured powder at everyone else. At 6:30AM, we wake up because Djebi comes in our room to spray Daniel, another volunteer. We also crawl out of bed to take part in the huge water and colour battle raging in the schoolyard. After an hour or two, we are hardly recognisable, much to the delight of neighbours of the school who are happy to see foreigners taking part in local traditions.
The never-failing Nepali hospitality is proved one more time during a short hike through the area with volunteers from the school. As we approach our goal of the day, a modest summit called Mirlung Kot, dark clouds start filling the sky and thunder roars in the distance. It is obvious we are not going to get away from the storm. Our plan to camp and make a bonfire dramatically loses its appeal. Fortunately, we meet a boy in a small village who tells us we can probably stay in the communal building for the night. The village chief swiftly comes along with a large set of keys and lets us in the building just before the storm breaks. In the meantime, another neighbour rushes to bring us water and a gas cooker… Without asking for anything in return!
We only have a few days left to spend in Chandrawati, this tiny village that I have grown to love. Last table tennis games with the kids in the schoolyard, last shower in the river while the shepherd and her goats make their way from one rock to another, last stroll around the bazar that of course ends on a glass of raksi… I feel already somewhat nostalgic as I watch the wooded hills and the rice fields pass before my eyes from the windows of the bus. The month in Chandrawati was a perfect introduction to Nepali culture and a necessary revitalising break for the rest of my journey. Nostalgia nonetheless slowly gives way to growing excitement: the mighty Himalayas are calling!
Trekking around Annapurna
High mountains generate an energy comparable maybe only to that of a tumultuous sea. Thus a different kind of energy at the same time, being produced in spite of their static posture, their impassive serenity. The immensity and inhospitable nature that define them fascinate me because they count among the few things that still remind humans of their vulnerability and insignificance compared to the scale of our world. I feel even more drawn to them as they are mostly unknown to me until now: I have spent most of my life at sea level. The three-week trek that we are starting today with Tolga is therefore a big leap forward. The highest point of the circuit, the famous Thorong La pass, is located at 5416 meters above sea level.
There is a long way to go until then. After a short stop in Pokhara to get our permits, we start the first day of walking from Besisahar (820m). Upon exiting the little town, we cross a first suspension bridge to get away from the Jeep road. Our path goes through rice fields whose shape of gigantic steps allows an easy irrigation. A river flows at the bottom of a valley surrounded by green hills. So far, the landscape is very similar to the environment of Chandrawati. We come across a few dwellings and the first interactions we have with locals confirm my fear that the high touristic activity in the region tends to alter human contact. Here the kids seem to have been trained to ask hikers for chocolate and adults barely speak to us unless they want to offer a room in their guesthouse. Fortunately, we can now get by in Nepali, which usually attracts the sympathy of locals.
On the following day, I have a lengthy conservation with a very friendly young Nepali on his way home near Ghermu (1130m). Like a number of people we will get to speak to during the trek, Leo thinks that the new road from Besisahar to Manang (3540m) doesn’t benefit everyone. “It is of course useful in case of emergency if someone has to be brought to the hospital for instance, but generally speaking, only a handful of people are reaping the benefits.” The influx of trekkers in the lower parts of the circuit is reduced, leading to lower activity in the guesthouses and fewer employment opportunities for guides and porters alike. Leo would like to become a guide himself, but it is not an easy venture. First, he would have to work as a porter for a few years, which means carrying heavy loads for several weeks at a time, at altitudes sometimes above 5000m. Real backbreaking work. Nevertheless, benefits in terms of salary are very attractive, and would allow him to build himself a future while also supporting his relatives. His parents’ house was demolished during the earthquake of 2015.
Over the next few days, we make slow yet steady progress through ever-changing scenery. The snowy tops can already be spotted in the distance even though we are still surrounded by lush tropical vegetation. After 2000m, rice fields, banana trees and bamboos have given way to pine tree forests. We walk an average of fifteen kilometres per day. The natural evolution of our surroundings goes hand in hand with significant cultural changes. Since the village of Thanchowk (2570m), Buddhist influence is increasingly noticeable. Colourful prayer flags flutter in the wind, praying wheels and rocks engraved with Tibetan inscriptions are now part of the landscape. We go through several picturesque villages. Among my favourites, Upper Pisang (3310m), Ghyaru (3730m) and Ngawal (3680m) are made up of old rock houses and are home to various ethnic groups including large Tibetan communities. Unfortunately, it is hard to chat with locals as the narrow streets are usually deserted.
And for good reason. The temperatures have dropped significantly, probably forcing the dwellers to stay at home near the fireplace. Tolga’s thermometer shows -4°C in our room of the guesthouse in Ngawal. We changed our shorts for proper trekking pants and wearing our jackets in the evening is not a luxury. At this altitude, the amount of oxygen present in the air gets scarce and any physical task requires more effort. On the following morning, after leaving Ngawal, we take the wrong way and don’t realise it until we have reached some sort of huge cliff at 4000m. No real regret for having hiked a detour of several hours, the views from the top were worth the climb, and we got to see our first eternal snow! Back on the marked trail, we resume our hike towards Manang (3540m), the largest village of the eponymous district.
After Manang, we decide to go on a side-trek to Tilicho Lake, the highest lake in the world located at 4919 meters above sea level. Halfway through towards base camp, we stop for the night near Shree Kharka (4000m). Until now, we have slept mostly in mountain lodges present all along the circuit and have camped only once. Here the ground is flat, the sky is clear and the scenery absolutely amazing. Let’s try camping again. However, as soon as the sun starts setting behind the unbelievable panorama of snow-capped mountains surrounding us, the temperatures are plummeting to nasty levels. “It’s fucking cold my friend…” Tolga makes a fire and although it is harder to boil water in high altitude, we manage with some resilience to cook dinner. We devour the half-cooked noodles and swiftly seek shelter in our sleeping bags. Despite wearing numerous layers, it is biting cold and gets worse throughout the night. When Tolga’s alarm finally goes off at dawn, I realise that my bottle of water has frozen. Exhausted and shivering, I drag myself out of the sleeping bag and start packing my bag. No need to have a lengthy debate on that one, we are not camping anymore. If it gets that cold here, I can’t imagine what evil temperatures we could have cope with beyond 4000m.
We swallow a cup of boiling tea in the first lodge that we come across and carry on towards Tilicho Base Camp. The sun is on its way up and temperatures become suddenly more bearable. I can already see in the distance what must be the “Grande Barriere” named as such by Maurice Herzog, the French mountaineer who first summited Mount Annapurna I, the tenth highest mountain in the world. It is some sort of huge cliff tilting at about 70° or 75°. The upper part is composed of twisted rock formations. The rest is made up of a steep slope where gravel or small rocks sometimes fall down. I can make out a line that goes all along the cliff at mid-height: that’s the “path” we are about to take. Looking from here, it is hard to fathom that you can actually stand on the narrow line. From a bit closer, I realise it is doable, yet by no means easy or without risk. I take a deep breath and step onto the perilous path. To my right, the huge cliff towers in the sky. To my left, the void. The best thing to do in these conditions is not looking down. Obviously, I give in to curiosity and steal a quick glance at the abyss. One quick look is enough however and from now on, I pay the utmost attention to each and every step that I take. Once again, the trekking poles turn out to be very helpful in maintaining a good balance.
After nearly three exhausting hours, not so much physically than mentally, we can catch a glimpse of Tilicho Base Camp a few hundred meters away. The setting is as inhospitable as it is splendid. Beyond 4000m, vegetation becomes scarce. The panorama is now solely composed of abrupt black mountains almost entirely covered in snow. On the following morning, we start the ascent towards the lake. The sky is clear and the first sunbeams shine their orange light onto the snowy summits. As planned, the snow that sometimes covers the path is still hard and therefore not very slippery. The day before, we tried the ascent but had to turn back halfway through towards the top. Tolga had a growing headache most probably linked to high altitude and for my part, I was worried about the risk of falling down due to melting snow. However frustrating it was to turn back having covered half the distance, it was doubtless the best decision. The conditions are now optimal. The more altitude we gain, the less oxygen there is and the harder it gets to breathe. One inspiration and one expiration are required for each step forward. Little break: Tolga’s altimeter shows 4700m. Only 200 vertical meters to go! We resume our gentle ascent towards the highest lake in the world, and despite our slow pace, I feel good and perfectly capable of making it to the top.
The sinuous path eventually ends, giving way to a large plateau softly covered in snow. In the background, glaciers and abrupt peaks are looming with unrivalled whiteness. Above us, the deep azure of the sky applies the final coat to the splendid minimalistic painting exhibited before our incredulous eyes. We trudge through the eternal snow surrounded with this magnificent scenery for nearly half an hour and finally reach Tilicho Lake. The lake is frozen and covered in snow for the better part of the year, and I must confess it looks more like an unexceptional white surface than an actual lake. As often, the journey was worth more than the destination.
Our performance of the day feels brutally trivial when I hear the achievements of a trekking guide in our lodge that evening. The Sherpa originally from Lukla has summited Mount Everest on four occasions along with other mountains of over 8000m. What strikes me most however, is the tremendous humility that the experienced mountaineer shows when we flood him with questions. “It’s just my job” he declares simply, as though he was leading a perfectly ordinary life.
Emerging not without difficulty from my warm bed on the following morning, I take a quick look through the window and realise that the entire base camp and its surroundings have been covered in snow by an overnight blizzard. The place looks now even more isolated than it already is. I am barely awake, my mind is still wandering and I feel like I have just landed on a scientific base in the midst of Antarctica. It is still early when we tackle the Grande Barriere again and the snow covering the path at times presents no hazard. To be honest, the way feels a lot safer than the first time we crossed it and we make it to the other side before I even realise. The landscape is transformed by the presence of snow, it almost feels like we are going through a new region. The snow moulds the shape of the crooked rocks and at the same time, its immaculate whiteness stands in stark contrast to their dark tones. We keep moving forward through this surprising monochromatic landscape and soon the path forks towards Yak Kharka. Only two days left until Thorong La, the highest point of the trek!
We spend the last night before the final ascent in the only lodge of High Camp (4850m). Since yesterday, we have seen more and more helicopters flying hikers suffering from altitude sickness back to Kathmandu. This does not bode well. Yet I don’t think we should have any issues as we have really been taking our time to acclimatise.
4:40AM: Tolga’s alarm goes off. The night was short and not very restful. At nearly 5000 meters above sea level, it gets hard to breathe even without doing any exercise. We swallow a hearty breakfast of Tibetan bread and eggs while the first silhouettes with headlamps are moving away in the morning darkness. Visibility is already much better when we set off on the snowy path ourselves. The cold however is hardly bearable. After about ten minutes, I have no choice but to empty my flask, as the water inside is freezing and is likely to damage the filter. I have no way to check the temperature, but my guess is around -20°C. Tolga soon has to stop because his hands are literally freezing. Having nothing better to offer, I give him a pair of smelly socks that he hastily puts on over his thin gloves. Beggars can’t be choosers, sorry dude. Luckily, it doesn’t take so long until the sun starts emerging from above the mountains and the cold becomes less fierce. Slow as ever, we keep moving forward and finally reach Thorong La located at 5416 meters above sea level around 10AM. The place itself is not so special compared to what we have seen on the way. Never mind, we enjoy the culmination of two weeks of intense physical and mental effort. “We made it!”
After a long descent of nearly seven hours, we arrive in the town of Muktinath (3800m). We enjoy a much-needed hot shower, and then celebrate with friends we have met on the way our achievement with pizzas and beers: pure bliss! Muktinath looks interesting and we decide to stay here for two nights to rest and have a look around.
During a walk around town, I meet a group of Indians who tell me they are completing their pilgrimage to the Hindu temple of Muktinath today. They suggest I should come along and I feel like I am suddenly back in India. The Baba leading the group explains to me that he has been walking barefoot all the way from the state of Andhra Pradesh in southern India. Now that’s what I call dedication. At the entrance of the temple, I spend some time with the smoking Babas. Later on, I climb the steps leading to the upper part of the temple where pilgrims perform ablutions in small pools in order to purify their souls. The atmosphere is strikingly similar to that of Varanasi in India, another holy city of Hinduism.
We are now in Mustang, a district at the border with Tibet where Buddhist religion and culture are also prevalent. The latter are besides probably better preserved here than in actual Tibet where decades of Chinese colonisation, cultural and religious assimilation have threatened Tibetan identity and triggered massive emigration.
In terms of nature, Mustang is known for its vast and arid plains and plateaux. We walk a whole day towards Kagbeni (2800m) without encountering the slightest form of vegetation. In the late afternoon, some sort of green oasis looms in the distance: here are Kagbeni and its neighbour Tiri. These two medieval Tibetan villages are both surrounded with wheat fields at an early stage of maturation, whose vivid green colour provides a sharp contrast to the dominant ochre tones of the region. Kagbeni, with its monastery, its rock mansions and narrow streets, is probably one of my favourite villages of the whole trek as it gives me the feeling that I travelled a few centuries back in time.
The road that leads down to Marpha (2670m) is just a grey area full of gravel. Truth be told, it is probably the least scenic segment of the trek so far. To top it off, the wind blows in strong gusts and it is nearly impossible to hold a conservation. I must say I am losing motivation. After seventeen days and about 250 kilometres of walking, my feet are full of blisters, urging me to rest. On the following morning, we take the decision to cut the last few days of the trek short. Having missed the bus, we walk for another hour or two, and start hitchhiking. The road is in a truly appalling state. Lying at the back of a rickety truck among rice bags, we drive over five hours, jumping in all directions at every pothole.
Little break in Pokhara for the night and we head back to Chandrawati to pick up some of our belongings. I almost feel like I am coming home as we arrive at the school. Our hosts greet us warmly once again and remind us that we are part of the family. We enjoy a few days of rest under the early summer sun and give a hand to paint the walls of the school. Soon we hit the road again however, and we are bound for Kathmandu this time.
After two months in Nepal and a nice break between villages and nature, we are finally on our way to the capital. I am now excited to spend some time in a city. Tolga and I will go separate ways from here. He was a great travel buddy, I wish him all the best for the rest of his trip! He is off to the east of Nepal for another Workaway and I am staying in Kathmandu where I shall organise the rest of my trip. My efforts to find a cheap way into Tibet prove unsuccessful and I will have to contravene once again the rule I had set myself, and book a flight to China. From Chengdu, I will hitchhike to Beijing and then take the train through Mongolia and Russia back to Europe. But that’s providing I manage to obtain all my visas. As I soon find out, it is a real administrative struggle. Contrary to my usual travel style, I have to book in advance all train tickets, hotels and so on. The Russian embassy even requires the original of an invitation letter sent by an agency based in Russia… Luckily, I should be able to cancel at least the hotels once I get the visas, recovering some freedom by giving a chance to the unexpected.
Besides the paperwork, I discover the city. Before coming to Kathmandu, everyone I had spoken to, foreigner and local alike, had been very negative about the city: “Kathmandu is polluted, it’s dusty, it’s dirty, etc…” Yet, having spent two months in India, I find the city not so strikingly chaotic or dirty. Everyone is driving motorbikes or scooters around, so the air is quite polluted, but not to an unbearable extent. One thing I do regret is the almost complete absence of green areas. Anyway, the city is full of life and I come to like it. Besides I can take up urban street photography again. Like a provincial going to London for the very first time, I notice myriad little differences with the countryside. The atmosphere is now that of a capital city, everything is more modern, people walk faster, most youngsters wear Western clothes… I also meet local musicians and we play together quite a few times. It is pleasant to have a routine for a couple of weeks. I start knowing the people of the neighbourhood with whom I now can chat a little bit in Nepali.
It was real struggle and a race against the clock, but I finally manage to obtain all my visas for the rest of the journey. What a relief! The adventure can go on, soon I will be taking off for China.