The dolorous chant of “Om Mani Padme Hum” competes with thumping pop music and live Nepalese drumming. Honking horns and the repeated call of “madam, madam”, as touts of various sorts try to catch my attention, add to the din. Taxis, motor bikes, rickshaws and people all jostle for space on the narrow, winding streets. Small shop fronts display their wares – trekking gear, genuine Gurkha knives, 100% wool pashminas and richly symbolic Tibetan Thangka paintings. Scores of adventure companies advertise themselves on bill boards and in windows – trekking, rafting, canoeing, bungi jumping, safari trips and flights to see Everest. (This was something I had been considering prior to the fatal plane crash of 28th September whilst I was there.) Offers of massage and spa treatments do their utmost to entice the weary traveller off the street.
I feel a tug at my hand. Looking down, a small street urchin is showing me that he’s hungry and wants some food. I’m not one who usually gives to beggars but I am moved by the hunger in his eyes. I hesitate and try to withdraw my hand but he is determined. He tugs me towards the entrance of a supermarket and refuses to let go. I give in and follow. He boldly ignores the shouts of a stick-wielding guard and just points at me – his entry ticket. He has been saying “biscuits, biscuits,” but once we’re inside, he takes me straight to the shelves stocking Nestle’s powdered milk. “Baby” he says, rocking his arms. His mother needs milk for the baby. Now I am in another dilemma. Surely his mother can’t afford Nestle’s powdered milk, she would be too poor. Anyway, I have been campaigning against this multinational for years because of their marketing tactics for powdered milk in third world countries. Is this a scam? I refuse to buy the milk but instead buy him a large packet of biscuits. He runs out of the shop with them before I’ve even paid.
This is the Thamel area of Kathmandu. A chaotic assault on the senses when you first arrive and the beginning of many dilemmas facing a Western trekker.
Hinduism, Buddhism and Tourism are said to be Nepal’s three main religions. The first two co-exist harmoniously as do the 102 different castes and ethnic groups. When I first arrived I went walking in the valleys to the NE of Kathmandu. I didn’t see another foreigner for a week and stayed in the homes of the Tamang, Sherpa, Yolmo and Newari people, all of whom had their own language. I was therefore surprised that the Civil War, which ended in 2006, had taken a huge toll on the lives of the majority of rural people.
“The Moaists would come late at night you see,” said the school master owner of one of the home stays. “Maybe 1 or 2 in the morning. Sometimes as many as 50 of them, demanding food. My wife would have to get up and feed them all. If we resisted we would have been beaten or killed. It was very frightening and we never knew when they were coming.”
Another woman told us of a nearby village where 21 people had been shot by the army – old people, women and children – accused of supporting the Maoists. The war, which lasted from 1996 to 2006, yes, that recent, took the lives of 17,800 people. I knew that there had been a problem with the Maoists demanding money from trekkers, but I had no idea as to the scale of the killing. It didn’t really affect the main tourist routes and hardly hit the headlines.
My guide was very gloomy about the prospects for young people. There was still no constitution, even though the Maoists had been voted into power in 2008. Corruption is rife and poverty the main reason why many Nepalese seek work abroad. “It is the money that they send home that’s keeping the country going,” he told me.
The main trek that I did was the Annapurna Circuit. It was a fantastic three week trek starting in Besi Sahar and following the Marsyangdi valley to the north of the Himalayan massif. We then crossed the Thorong La Pass at 5,416 m and returned via the Kali Gandaki valley to finish in Naya Pul. The main dilemma facing trekkers in Nepal is one of responsibility for the people and the land. Being such a poor country, trekking numbers are not restricted – witness the number of people going up Everest this year.
I did my trip at the beginning of the season and didn’t find crowding a problem except for some obvious places near the pass or on Poon Hill. With the numbers of trekkers comes pollution and littering. I didn’t buy bottled water so as to avoid leaving plastic in the area but the Safe Drinking Water Stations weren’t particularly convenient or frequent. I asked for boiled water to fill my platypus each night but I’m not sure how many tea houses used kerosene or fuel-efficient stoves in the Annapurna region. Some of them advertised if they did but I was relying on the reputation of the travel company I booked with to have done their homework. Certainly on my first trip everyone cooked on clay stoves and used wood. The depletion of forests for firewood is a real problem and responsible for flooding lower down on the plains.
Another dilemma was what to give to the children. Obviously trekkers had been told to bring sweets with them and the common greeting from the children was “namaste sweets”, said all in one breath. This only added to the problem of bad teeth and they certainly didn’t have access to dentists . I gave my pen to one bright child in one of the homestays but then realised he didn’t have any paper to write on.
I wasn’t the only one facing dilemmas. During my stay in Kalopani, with spectacular views of Annapurna 1, Fang and Annapurna South, I met the ex minister of Foreign Affairs. It was his guest house and his constituency. He was a bright, extremely well educated politician and told me that he had pushed for many years for the road to be built on the Western side of the Annapurna Circuit. Eventually it was given the go ahead. What he had not realised was that the trekkers would not like it. It’s not much fun having dust blowing into your face from buses and motor bikes when your walking. Therefore many trekkers ended the circuit in Jomsom and flew or drove down the remainder of the trail. This had resulted in many tea houses having to close because of lack of business. Mr Thakali was full of remorse and was now doing his utmost to create an alternative path, avoiding the road, trying to link up the existing paths on the other side of the river. He urged us to insist that our guide took us on it. Indeed we had to insist because it took longer and our guide had never used it before. Balancing the needs of the local community and tourism is always a tricky one.
Despite the constant dilemmas, I will not forget the breath taking views of peaks such as the Annapurnas, Ngadi Chuli (Manaslu 11), Dhaulagiri and Machapuchre (Fishtail). I will treasure the memories of moving from the lower tropical regions, where bougainvillea, poinsettia and marigold ran riot, through the “rodeo villages” of Bargachap and Chame, coming eventually to the dry, dusty Tibetan areas of Lower Pisang and Manang. Buddhist chortens, gompas and monasteries marked our way in the higher regions and fluttering prayer flags guided us safely over the snowy Thorong La Pass. It was a beautiful trek and I feel so lucky that I was able to complete a walk that I had dreamed of doing for so many years.
My final dilemma was to do with a bird. A frozen White Throated Kingfisher flew into the kitchen of our tea house in Ghorepani at 9,105 ft. He was way off course. What could we do for him? I warmed him up in gloved hands and we decided to carry him down to the river with us. After quite a long way, Dawa, our Sherpa, thought we should hide him in some rocks near a stream. We set him down and he hopped away for cover. Dawa noticed some people were watching us and told me that the kingfisher’s beak is highly sought after as a good luck talisman and that they would kill the bird. We pretended to walk on and then Dawa crept back to see if they had followed. Luckily they hadn’t and we just hope that the bird survived.
To see my photos of the trek go to: https://picasaweb.google.com/112780009095358904804/AnnapurnaCircuit
Also photos of Kathmandu and other places: https://picasaweb.google.com/112780009095358904804/2012Nepal1KathmanduVillageTrail