13th Feb 2010 - Our arrival in Varanasi airport was memorable in that the main departure doors were stuck, as we meandered around looking for some logic to the chaos, you start talking to anyone who isnt scary. Travel is a great way to meet your fellow man / woman and you always come away feeling good. Your faith in humanity restored. So I started talking to a young New Zealand couple who were starting in India on a years journey around the world, Then a New York photographer for the 4th largest newspaper in that city who after seventeen years had been made redundant along with nineteen fellow workers. Tim had travelled the same path in India and was now venturing for five days into Nepal.
I even told him the story of, the Khajuraho horse and man, Tim smiled in a polite sort of way. I smiled back thinking why did I say that.
Our Air India flight was late, the doors were still stuck, we departed at noon for our forty five minute flight to Nepal.
Unlike Varanasi, Kathmandu airport was quiet, clean, even quant and the traffic outside calm unlike India. The Kathmandu Guest House had provided a taxi, and again, all calm, no horns, no blessings, and they even adhered to the flow of traffic. We were amazed.
Kathmandu Guest House, in the heart of Thamel, sounds great doesn't it. It had history, travellers abounded from all four corners of the globe to drink and exchange tales, and above all it was cheap. Our room 301 overlooking the gardens was 50 USD per night, divided by three, perfect.
Sunday 14th Feb 2010 - Durbar square in the early morning light after topping both Mick and Simon up with yet more temples I think they were culturally beyond help we had decided that they would set off on a seven day hiking and white water rafting adventure and I would spend my time on a three day hike and four days exploring Kathmandu. Visiting yes you have it ......more temples. Now did you know that you need a trekking registration card, its a card with your photo, passport number, trekking area and entry and departure dates. A tax on walking.
In the hotel bar I started up a conversation with PJ ( James ) a plasterer from Manchester. Once met never forgotten. He had purchased a motorbike in Mumbai for £800 and had set off to Goa then east to Hyderabad North to Agra then East onto Darjeeling finally into Kathmandu. PJs stories were real boys own adventures 1400 miles driving a motorbike in India certainly get's my respect.
PJ was sending weekly blogs back home they were amazing, his journeys end was to ride his bike to the foothills of Mt Everest then to reach basecamp and his bet was to spend a night in his £6 Blacks tent and in the morning have his photograph taken doing a hand stand wearing just his hat and hiking boots. Now thats a bet.
We followed PJ to the Celtic Bar as he had arranged to meet some travellers he had met yesterday we continued listening to his stories all of us roaring with laughter at his encounters on the road. Following a funeral procession with the body tied to a roof rack, and the deceased hand flapping either side of the car, guest of honour at a wedding, teaching monks how to ride a motorbike or breaking down in a remote village and having your engine rebuild on the road side for the princely sum of £2. Mick and Simon left early as they were setting off at 6am, I continued talking to PJs friends who mentioned that they knew a guy in Hanoi Vietnam who owned a factory making jewellery boxes, the person who they were talking about was my brother in law. What a small world. So from after two more beers I left then spent the next two hours trying to be sick, sleep finally came at 2am my three day trek started at 8am.
Now when your friend leave at 6am taking with then all of the tablets and you have two hours to stop your diarrhoea and you vaguely remember seeing two tablets in your suitcase, panic sets in. You cannot move from the bathroom for longer than ten seconds so dragging my suitcase next to the toilet I found my salvation tucked in the corner, two white little pills, not the best way to start a trek.
15th February - Trekking in Nepal Amrid my guide drove through Kathmandu there were huge traffic jambs due to a Tuk Tuk driver being killed in a road accident. We arrived late at our starting destination a small village Sundarijal. Amrid carrying two rucksacks and sleeping bags set off at a brisk pace. Now my mind was full of crazy notions, two hours sleep, what would happen when the effects of the tablets wore off and when would we stop walking up this staircase. As far as I could see the stone steps went on and on. Running parallel to our path were two large steel water pipes. Its crazy seeing little old ladies walking hours down a mountain with their large plastic containers to collect water. And even more embarrassing when they pass you carrying 5 litres of water.
I have never been so exhausted, I was dehydrated, swallowing painkillers, my legs were seizing up 5 hours of walking and we had yet to reach the summit. This was the slowest time recorded Amrid was kind and patient he even managed a smile from me with his tale of his fellow sherpas carrying a dining table and a set of carver chairs to K2 for a group of American climbers. Their only comment was that the chairs were to small.
The hotel was basic, my room a cell of 6 x 7 foot a plank for a bed and small window complete with glass, a naked light bulb and the bathroom, across the landing, consisted of a sink with cold water only with the waste discharging onto the floor then through a hole and a wc . In the next room was Carin she was Swedish living in New Zealand I had met her in the morning on the staircase to hell as she passed she commented that she had asked for a gentle relaxing hike. We met again later in the main hotel room, Our late lunch was black tea and noodles. The hotel front door was wide open so were the windows, it was so cold The hotel owner bought a small heater and plugged it in under our table. Watching the sun setting over the Himalayas and the galaxy of stars emerging was wondrous it made the pain of the day nearly worthwhile
Bed time in a freezing cold room, complete with sleeping bag, a blanket and fully clothed is more like an endurance test but at least it was peaceful and I had the stars to look at.
16th February 2010 Early morning on the balcony watching the sun's rays striking the mountain brought to start of a great day, in the shadows it was frosty but walking in the sun a delight and best of all we were walking down hill. This soon ended as our hotel for the evening was the the highest in the valley. Room 111 a double bed hot water and hot food with a Everest beer. And an upset stomach.
17th February 2010 I woke at 5am then to the rooftop view point. It was packed with Chinese and Japanese trekkers cameras at the ready for the 6.30 am sunrise. Now have you ever in a morning stopped off at the Britney Spears tea house, photographed a girl carrying a basket of dung, watched in awe as Nepalese women past me carrying bundles three times their size and marvelled at school children skipping with joy on their way to school. And the joy of two children playing with a hose pipe. At the bottom of the valley our bus arrived it was full, 50 Rs each then onto our final hotel. It was cold, dirty and dark. My meal, black tea and noodles, bed again fully clothed waiting for the morning so I could leave this place.
18th February 2010 The taxi back to the Kathmandu Guest House was memorable for seeing the non touristy sights of Nepal. Brick factories belching out smoke from their huge chimney stacks , polluted rivers. From the heaven of the mountains to this man made hell in a short taxi ride.
My weekend in Kathmandu was filled with breakfast in the gardens at the back of the Pilgrims bookshop, it was a perfect start to the day, then travelling to the World Heritage sites, Durbar square, the great Stupa of Boudhanath and the famous monkey temple. And of course I had to fly around Mt Everest on Buddha Airlines. At the airport my 7am flight was delayed due to fog so over the two hours I spoke to a group of four elderly women from Hereford England and a retired gentleman from Blackpool who was a medic in the Gurkas. He had returned to Nepal to meet up with his comrades and was obviously moved by the parade for him by his old regiment but the star of the show were the four ladies. They were retired teachers who had grouped together to spend four weeks in Nepal teaching infant school children. They were delighted by the kindness shown to them by the schools and had the highest praise for the children. There visit was marred by an incident when a teacher was beaten up by Maoists. In order to bully there way into power daily strikes are being announced, all shops, schools etc are to remain closed for the day, so this dedicated teacher decided to go to the school early collect books to take home so that he could mark them. As he was walking across the school yard he was spotted, beaten and hospitalised. Over the weekend vehicles with loudspeakers were driving around with the Maoists announcing that Monday was another strike day. And as for my fellow travellers old, grey, but young in heart and so kind in spirit.
The flight around Mt Everest was majestic
Monday 22nd February 2010 Strike day, all the shops were closed, no taxies so I walked into Durbar Square and there was a wedding where children were being married off to Bael fruit.
This is a ceremony in the Newar community in Nepal in which pre-adolescent girls are "married" to the bael fruit (wood apple), which is a symbol of the god Vishnu, ensuring that the girl becomes and remains fertile.
The ‘fruit marriage’ ceremony is called Bael Bibaha or Ihi Newa girls are routinely expected to undertake three ‘marriages’. The first is the fruit marriage, and this happens before puberty. This is followed by the Barah ceremony in early teenage years, which marks the ‘marriage’ to the Sun God. The custom requires the young girl to be barred from seeing any males, including her own family, and confined in darkness at home for three weeks. This is seldom performed as it’s just not practical ‘How would she be able to go to classes at school?’. Finally, the young woman marries a man.
Even today in Nepal, up to half of Nepali girls are married by the age of eighteen. Some observers regard the long-standing Newar tradition of the three stages of marriage as a shrewd way of legitimising the delay to their young girls marrying. The practice is thought by some to have stemmed from a need to keep young girls safely ‘married’ and therefore unavailable. Away from the roving eyes of the men in the powerful and wealthy Rana clan, who were the ruling dynasty in Nepal from the 18th Century, right up until the 1950s.
Another theory is that the practice of first marrying a fruit means that, symbolically, the woman is always married. Thus meaning that if her husband should die before her, she will be spared the social disdain that commonly befalls widowed Newar women. In a country with no social services and a very poor healthcare system, the bael fruit marriage provides a woman with an essential means of retaining support and community ties in the event of her widowhood. A socially compelling argument for the fruit marriage some might say.
So what became of Mick and Simon my desperate adventurers. Well they were whisked off to the raft and started when my diarrhoea moment also afflicted them. They spent the next two days and nights in the bushes. When they emerged the worst for wear their trekking was marred by countless Chinese and Japanese trekkers.
Our final night in Kathmandu was one of reflection and laughter. Three men in a suitcase were finally going home.
You have heard the saying mad dogs and Englishmen well several weeks later I opened my email and there was PJ in the morning light at Everest basecamp in the snow doing a hand stand wearing nothing but a big grin, his hat, hiking boots and it looked cold.