Nepal  2019

 

I visited Nepal in October 1997. Immediately on arriving at Kathmandu International Airport I felt comfortable: as a person of short stature I am used to being surrounded by tall people, but here it was the opposite, I was one of the taller people in the airport. I liked that!  

 

I had read my Lonely Planet guidebook, so I knew where to go.
"The Royal Hotel please" I told the taxi driver.
"I'm so sorry, sir. The Royal Hotel was burnt down last month. But my uncle owns a hotel in the city. First class. I can take you there."
Actually, the uncles' hotel was nice. The next morning I went for a walk, just exploring the city around the hotel. Only a block away, there was the Royal Hotel! Not burnt down at all! Strange...

 

I found a friendly internet cafe, run by a Nepali brother and sister. The brother was easy to talk to, but I could not engage the sister in conversation. A few days later I visited the cafe in company of an English girl. "Now I can talk to you" was the sister's comment. There were many other things about the local culture which were different from my home in Australia. I learned that you could address a stranger, a woman, as "didi", meaning "big sister". This turned out to be quite useful. However in one cafe run by a Nepali woman and her daughter I addressed the daughter as "bahini", meaning "little sister". This caused the mother to frown and then raise her eyebrows...  although the girl smiled sweetly. 

 

On a later visit to the Kathmandu internet cafe I found the sister arguing with an Israeli girl. The girl had made a phone call home but only talked for five seconds, leaving a brief message on an answer phone. She only wanted to be charged for 5 seconds, but the sister explained that the telephone company charged in 30-second blocks, so she, the Israeli girl, must pay for 30 seconds. That didn't go down well, and the argument continued. As I left the cafe, I interrupted their dispute for a moment, telling the sister "Don't worry about it. If she doesn't pay, I will pay her bill". The next day I enquired. No, the girl had left without paying. "Of course you should not pay her bill, Jon". It was only $2, so of course I paid. Much later, to my surprise, the brother and sister asked me to dinner at a cafe, and at the end of the evening they would not let me pay!  

 

The Nepali people dress in a conservative way, with a minimum of bare flesh showing; especially in rural areas. Women often wear colourful clothes, sarees or salwar kameez..  A casual outfit will consist of a long-sleeved dress, often deeply cut on each side, with loose trousers, and a scarf. I have heard this called kurta salwar. I think the saree is a brief long-sleeved shirt which reveals the woman's midriff, together with a long skirt and scarf.  The scarf can also be used to carry a baby on the woman's back. Cities are more 'westernized'. In my 1997 trip I did not see girls wearing tight jeans; however this had changed by my 2019 visit.

 

In 1997 I spent time in Kathmandu and Pokhara. I walked the Annapurna Base Camp trek. I was struck by the generally welcoming and generous nature of the Nepali people. Even after decades of high-intensity tourism, it seemed to me that most Nepali still regarded tourists as honoured guests.

 

The tea-houses, or trekkers' lodges, were dotted along the ancient walking paths which both the locals and the tourists used. The lodges were no more than a few miles apart (in 1997) so there was never a problem about where to stay for the night. I started the walk with a moderately heavy backpack. As I was depending on the lodges for food and shelter, I figured I could carry all my gear, which included a couple of 35mm cameras: my old Pentax Spotmatic with a collection of lens (with monochrome film), and my new Olympus (with colour transparency film). 

 

However I did not realise how steep the climb would be. Although the paths are largely paved, I was struggling. I stopped at a lodge for lunch. I asked the woman running the lodge "Would you be able to get me a porter?" She returned with a glass of water. "Not water, porter" I explained. She smiled and nodded, and in a surprisingly short time returned with a young man, perhaps 18 years old, dressed only in jeans, a T-shirt, and flip-flops.  His name was Dunbarhadou, and he spoke no  English. Knowing the lodge at ABC (Annapurna Base Camp) was at an altitude of 4130m (above the October snow-line) I was a little worried at his lack of warm clothes, but as he did not seem concerned we set off together, with Dunbar carrying most of my gear. This was a huge relief for me.  In the days that followed I bought him gear at shops along the track.

 

As the days passed, the air got colder, and the forests, villages and terraced fields of the hill country gave way to U-shaped glacial valleys, with near-vertical walls reaching over 300m into the sky, right beside the track. Really impressive scenery. "There's got to be snow leopards living up here somewhere" I said to myself. The terrain looked impossibly difficult for a mere human. I wished that I could talk with Dunbarhadou. There were fellow trekkers, of course, mainly Germans, Israelis and Canadians. They knew no more than I did. At night we sat around large dining tables typical of the high-altitude lodges, with a small wood fire underneath the table, and a strip of blanket hanging from the table's edge.

 

At ABC I found the "base camp" was (as I should have guessed) not a base camp at all, but a collection of trekkers' lodges, surrounded by snow and ice and spectacular mountains. Nearby was a huge glacier, once magnificent but now in massive retreat. I got out of my bed in the middle of the night. Everyone else was asleep. There was no wind, the sky was clear, the world was totally silent and icy cold. I could feel my body heat being sucked up into an almost black sky. There was a full moon. I had never seen air so clear. Mountains several kilometres away looked so close I felt I could touch them. I started shivering, and it was not just the cold. The scene, with the brilliance of the full moon reflecting off the jagged snow-covered landscape, was actually a little frightening... certainly awe-inspiring. I stayed there, alone, watching the scene for as long as I could. Thanks goodness I had a warm bed waiting for me!

 

I enjoyed the trip in 1997 so much I returned in October 1998. This time I arranged a guide through the Three Sisters Adventure Trekking Company (Pokhara) and walked both the Annapurna Base Camp trek and a lower altitude forest trek.

 

Back in 1998 Nepal was, essentially, a dictatorship, with the royal family in charge. According to my guidebook, Nepal was ruled through the middle-ages by local war-lords, who called themselves kings. This arrangement was not unlike that in Europe at this time. Of course war-lords still exist today in places like Libya and Afghanistan. Unfortunately, in my view. In the late 1700s Nepal was 'unified' by one of the kings, doubtless with considerable bloodshed. This led to a period of stability.

 

However, in 1998, terrorists were causing considerable trouble for Nepal's government, attacking army and police. They also robbed tourists. That is to say they extracted money through armed robbery, usually $US100. They issued a receipt for the robbery, so that should the tourists be held up again, they could produce the receipt and would not be robbed twice. These terrorists were referred to as Maoists. 

 

A few years after I left Nepal, the royal family were massacred, with the king's uncle the only survivor. Exactly what happened remains unclear to this day. As the immediate benefactor of the crime, the uncle became king, and also in many peoples' view, became the chief suspect. Another theory was that a nephew went crazy, shooting the family and then himself. Others believe the Maoists were responsible.  At any rate, the king abdicated a short time later, and a provisional government, including the Maoists, was formed to oversee the nation's first democratic election. The Maoists did well in the first election, and became the governing party, although this situation did not last. 

 

Returning to the country in 2019, I hoped to see signs that peoples' lives were improving. I was disappointed. Almost everywhere you go, if you look carefully you will see families living in makeshift shelters, cobbled together from salvaged materials. I don't mean to give the impression that these are the majority: certainly not. There are also wealthy families living in houses that look well-built and well cared-for. Most families live between these extremes.  There are regular blackouts in the power supply, across the nation. Both rural and urban roads are in truly terrible condition, causing huge delays and wear on vehicles. Air and water pollution are serious problems in the larger cities. Reading the English language newspapers creates the impression, which is almost certainly correct, that the national government is both corrupt and incompetent.  All the locals I queried on the matter agreed that life was better under autocratic government. This is very disappointing. Some Nepali people told me they hoped for a military coup.

 

According to my guidebook, there are serious human rights issues in Nepal today. Some families in poverty sell their children into indentured labour (a form of slavery) although the practice has been outlawed for many years. Both girls and boys end up exploited in terrible ways, suffering disease and malnutrition which effects the rest of their short lives. Nepal is not alone in having progressive laws which are never implemented: in my time working for AusAID years ago I saw this throughout the developing world. Nepal desperately needs good government prepared to create a society based on the rule of law, with a universal education and health system reaching into the remote parts of the country .

 

Part of my reason for returning to Nepal was to re-connect with old friends, Bhim and Radhika, whose daughter was getting married. I was pleased to see both Bhim and Radhika looking healthy and happy. Their two children have overseas jobs, a doctor and an nurse. They have done well. 

 

Comparing my experiences in 1998 and 2019, some things (like fashions in clothes) had of course changed. But much remained the same... too much. What did the Australian government have to say in their Nepal Travel Advice?  Their primary heading (2019) was "extreme caution required". They warned of a sharp increase in dengue fever. There were other warnings. Road travel is dangerous. Bus accidents occur regularly. Aircraft carrying tourists crash occasionally. Petty crime has increased, for example bag-snatching, and armed robbery of trekkers in remote areas. Unscrupulous trekking agents, in league with helicopter hire companies, feed trekkers contaminated food, resulting in "false" helicopter evacuations. There were other warnings...

 

On arriving in Kathmandu in late September 2019, my immediate impression was of traffic chaos. Traffic did, it must be said, generally keep to the left hand side of the road. But past that it seemed to me that the only "rule" generally obeyed by drivers was "go slow, but keep moving."  The general idea seems to be to honk regularly, giving drivers around you notice that you are there, even if they aren't looking at you. The roads in Kathmandu, most daylight hours, are packed with cars, buses, trucks and scooters. Vehicles tolerate other vehicles very close... within a few centimetres. Pedestrians cross the roads at random. Amazingly, I never saw a collision, even though I expected one hundreds of times. 

 

The rural roads are something else. You might think, looking at pictures of the Himalayan Ranges, that the country is made of solid rock. This is not the case. It is not unusual at all to glance to the side of a rural road, and see a cliff right beside you, 200m high, composed of avalanche debris. In other words, unconsolidated sediment. In this situation you would expect frequent landslips and road collapse, and yes, that's what happens. On my 1998 trip, I travelled from Kathmandu to Pokhara by public bus. The roads often follow river valleys. I remember seeing the crumpled remains of two buses, lying upside down, half-submerged in a river a hundred metres below the road. I queried my driver about this. He did not seem concerned, and pointed to a small plastic "shrine" glued to the bus dashboard. He seemed confident that this would guarantee our safe arrival. And, yes, we did arrive safely. 

 

I read a newspaper report during my 2019 trip. A bus, packed with passengers returning from the Dashain festival, slipped off the road and plunged 60m to the river below. Dashain is a bit like Australian Christmas... it's a time for families to be together, so many people working in cities return to their villages in the country to re-connect with family. This bus had seating for 38 passengers, but at the time was carrying 113. Eleven were killed and over 60 seriously injured. The driver was one of the fatalities. It is thought that the brakes failed.

 

Hinduism and Buddhism are the two most common religions. There are apparently 36 major ethnic groups within Nepal (divided into 125 minor groups) within two major classifications: Ayrian and Mongolian. There are different dialects. I was told that, historically, intermarriage between ethnic groups was discouraged by custom, but this has started to break down in recent decades. Many Nepali work in India, and many Indians work in Nepal. Arranged marriages are still common. My 2019 guide, Asmita, is one of 7 daughters; six are married, and three of these marriages were arranged.

 

I mentioned air and water pollution. During my 1998 trip, a fellow traveller made the remark that Nepal needed pollution control experts from developed nations to advise them on control measures. This remark did not seem persuasive at the time, as major improvements could have been made with simple, obvious changes, given the political (and public) will.  On my return to Nepal in 2019, I observed 'sacred' rivers still full of rubbish and sewage, and open burning still widely carried out and contributing to Kathmandu's polluted airshed, trapped as it is in a bowl created by surrounding hills. On the subject of pollution, in 1998 many trekking paths were lined with empty plastic containers, discarded both by locals and tourists. On this trip, at least within the Annapurna Conservation Area, the litter problem was much reduced - clearly there has been an effort to remove much of this unsightly debris. In Pokhara I bought a "LifeStraw" drinking bottle so I could use local water supplies. I am also planning to buy a "SteriPen" although these are rather expensive. 

 

In 2019 I travelled to Nepal with Sophie. We flew from Kathmandu to Pokhara (less than an hour's flying time towards the west) on September 26, with the intention of arranging a low-key trek through the Three Sisters company. 

 

The effect of the Himalaya mountain range on rainfall is dramatic. The monsoons approach from the south, and drop their moisture as they are forced upwards by the mountains. The resultant snowfall provides dry-season river flow as the ice and snow slowly melt during the summer. In the image below, the pale green to the south (lower) part of the image is largely flatish tropical land, farmed areas, with many small highly modified wetlands. The darker green to the north of this zone is the hill country lying to the immediate south of the mountains, largely under terrace farming, with highly modified forests on the steeper slopes. If you look carefully you'll notice the colour green in Bhutan is darker still. I believe this difference in shades of green can be substantially attributed to the degree of modification of forests, which throughout Nepal are highly modified from their pristine condition, while in Bhutan much less so.

 

 

Below is a typical street scene in Pokhara's commercial district. Note the mass of black electrical cables. I have no idea how this system works, but it does deliver 220v AC power to customers. And phone and internet. While there are regular blackouts, the system is more or less functional. Note also the old man (carrying the walking stick) wearing traditional dress (a skirt and distinctive cap), and the young man in western clothes. A high proportion of the vehicle traffic is commercial.

Years ago, on brief visits to Egypt and New Delhi, I found harassment by street sellers irritating. I never experienced this behaviour in Nepal, except for one street in Thamel (where there are lots of overseas tourists). Beggars are rare. Our hotel had a sign reading "do not give money to beggars".

 

Scooters are popular. This is Lakeside Drive at Pokhara. Lakeside is the tourist precinct of Pokhara, just as Thamel is for Kathmandu. 

 

The outskirts of Pokhara. Note the terraced fields, and roofing iron held down with rocks. In the right-hand foreground is a cafe serving locals. In tourist districts, most cafes are geared towards travellers. The cheapest lunch we had cost $US 3 (for two) at a street stall away from tourists, while the most expensive dinner we bought cost around $US 30 (for two) at a tourist Japanese restaurant. 

 

All trekkers must report their movements to the Trekkers Information Management System. Here an official is assisted by her two daughters.

 

A typical hill country farm. Some of the farm buildings have timber flooring made from planks 20cm wide; (planks in Australia are generally 12cm). Clearly there were once large trees available to produce such timber. None of the trees in the image below could be sawn into planks of any size. Australian forests which could have produced such planks have also almost disappeared, surviving now only in a few national parks. Pristine forests all around the world have disappeared, and are unlikely to ever be replaced while Homo sapiens survives as a species.

 

According to my guidebook, Nepal's written history dates to the 12th and 13th centuries (by our western calendar) but settlement goes back much more than 2000 years. The stone-paved paths which connect hill country settlements are clearly very old. A lot of work, and organization, must have gone into their construction.  Typical construction is illustrated below. There are flat paved areas, steps, and walls, often with a steep drop-off on one side. The walls (and the steep drop-offs) keep goats, sheep and ponies on track. The sedimentary stone from which they are constructed is widely but not universally available. How exactly was the labour organized, given that prior to the late 17th century Nepal was governed by many small kingdoms? With the obvious care which has gone into their construction, the paths are durable. However damage occurs both through landslips and water erosion, and appearances suggest that damage over the last few decades is NOT being repaired, except where it occurs close to or within villages.

 

These stone seats provide a place to rest. The centre stone often contains inscriptions indicating the family who built the seat.

 

I mentioned that, in 1997, trekkers' lodges were spaced every few miles. On the popular trails they are now spaced every few hundred metres. There are too many.  Having so many lodges, operating over a trekking season of only a few months, means that the economic viability of most of the lodges is compromised. There are simply not enough tourists to keep them all going.

 

Many of the smaller lodges, like this one, have been abandoned.

 

The Dashain festival in early October provides hill country shepherds with an opportunity to sell their goats. Here you can see a few mountain sheep travelling with the goats.

 

With the monsoon just ending, the many mountain creeks were spectacular.

 

As are the oak and rhododendron forests...

 

Tourists enjoy hot showers, and their supply has resulted in deforestation around the trekking paths. To encourage the use of gas rather than wood, the Nepali government has subsidised the purchase of gas water heaters, which as you can see below can be installed at any angle. This photo was taken at our Ghorepani hotel. Ghorepani is the location of a famous viewpoint, Poon Hill, where trekkers watch the rising sun light up snow-covered mountains.

 

The view from Poon Hill, looking northeast. 

 

From Poon Hill looking southeast: a sea of clouds. The Himalayas lie to the north.

 

A family house north of Ghorepani. Note the gate, made of two wooden poles. There's a satellite TV dish, although the house does not have access to town power. The original roof, made of carefully crafted slate, has been repaired with second-hand corrugated iron. The winter wood supply is partially stored in the open, and partially at the front corner of the house. The house has no glass windows, wooden shutters serving instead. There will be a cooking fire on the floor in the centre of the house; the smoke is ventilated simply through gaps between the roofing slates. This exposes the residents to high levels of pollution; however the tradition has persisted for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years.

 

If you ask for "buff fried rice" at a cafe, the meat is buffalo. Many buffalo are confined, with their owners gathering grass each day. After slaughter, the meat is often dried in strips. The buff pictured below is roaming free, but that's only because there are no crops nearby.

 

Given the many rivers and creeks in the hill country, suspension bridges are common. The design below is typical. This one bears the inscription "British Ghurkhas 1997".

 

This looks to me like a project funded by overseas aid money. A two-lane concrete bridge, without any connection to the uphill road. Indeed the terrain is so abrupt that it's difficult to see how the bridge could be connected. I saw many crazy projects during my time working with AusAID. The recipients of overseas aid generally do not pay for the product, and the people who pay (eg: Australian taxpayers) generally never see the product. Such an arrangement provides a fertile breeding ground for corruption and incompetence.  

 

The hill country village of Shika. Crops such as millet, rice, beans and corn are grown on the terraces, and tomatoes in the small greenhouse.  I had hurt my left foot (inflamed Achilles tendon) and decided to catch a bus from Shika to the town of Beni. There was a minibus parked near a small (but closed) health clinic. The bus was not going to Beni. I asked the driver, who could speak some English, when the next bus would be. "Tomorrow, maybe, maybe not". "What about the day after tomorrow?" "Maybe, maybe not".  So Asmita and I spent the night in a trekkers' lodge. The next morning we could not obtain further information, so we decided on a slow downhill walk to Gharkhola, which was on a connecting road to Beni. 

 

Chooks at Shika. To pass comment on the animals of the hill country: Birds and monkeys were seen only from a distance. Free-ranging chickens appeared happy and well-fed. Cattle (often tethered) tended to look under-nourished, as did street dogs, although a few buffalo and dogs were fat.  Goats looked fat and happy. Ponies looked sad and over-loaded. Cats looked slim but content. 

An American tourist told me about "goat packing" in her home country. I had not heard of this. Apparently she hikes with a goat which carries a substantial amount of her pack. I wonder how this would work in Australia?

 

 

Asmita and I reached Gharkhola after a pleasant and shady walk, with hardly any fellow-travellers. That was where our safe and enjoyable travel ended. The town of Gharkhola turned out to be small, but bustling with activity. As we had expected, there were many buses travelling the connecting road, but all the buses were hopelessly overloaded. Asmita arranged a taxi, a small 4-seat Suzuki Swift. The taxi already had two passengers, so even it was overloaded, but at least it was going in the right direction. The narrow, rocky, deeply rutted dirt road followed the Kali Gandaki Nadi river as it tumbled south. On this stretch the river grade was steep; it seemed to be a continuous grade 2-4 rapid for a hundred kilometres. The road was cut into the edge of the steep river valley, and so eroded that in many places it was only the width of a single vehicle (although carrying trucks, buses, cars and bikes in both directions). The drop from the road to the river was 60-80m, unprotected, and near vertical. On a road danger scale of 0 to 10, this road is a 8, surpassed only by roads through areas of war.  The road was quite unsuitable for our small two-wheel drive hatchback, and we were regularly scraping the car's underbelly against rocks in the road. The trip seemed to last forever, although in fact it was only two hours (and a lot of it at only walking pace). 

 

The city of Beni was bigger than I had expected, and very busy with travellers. We stayed there the night and got up early to (hopefully) get a seat on a bus heading to Nayapul, where we had arranged to meet Sophie and her guide Aspa. There were "jeeps" (Mahindra 4WDs) everywhere, packed with passengers. I thought I counted 16 in the jeep below, including babies. The women nearest the camera are wearing traditional dress. 

 

 

I took this photo from the bus on the way out of Beni. A tiny establishment, the Immortal Sacred Memorial English Boarding School. What on earth goes on behind it's closed doors?  Australia used to have boarding schools which looked much more presentable than this establishment. Some of their staff are still serving prison sentences...

 

On the subject of mistreatment of children, the number of orphanages has, apparently, increased dramatically across the developing world as unscrupulous people have found that tourists will pay for the privilege of "volunteering" to help care for children.

 

At Nayapul we were picked up by the 3-Sisters minibus, and returned to Pokhara, and then by air to Kathmandu, where we lodged at the Kathmandu Guest House in Thamel (the tourist district). 

 

We investigated ideas of making short trips to Tibet (China) or Bhutan. Entry to both countries is only granted to tourists on organised tours... really just what I didn't want. A bit like going to a zoo. We also checked out making a 5-day visit to Chitwan National Park, in Nepal's tropical low-lands.  There are interesting animals there like the rare one-horned rhino. However after googling the dengue fever risk, we decided against making the trip.

 

While doing my investigation, I became interested in the mountains lying north of Arunachal Pradesh. Viewed from Google Earth, these mountains appear to offer the largest snow-covered area in the Himalayas, connected to the south with a very large area of forest. Scenically spectacular, and perhaps home to the large forest/mountain animals which in former times were widespread.

 

We hired a scooter to visit the ancient city of Baktapur. Here is a pond dedicated to the snake god. Although the pond seemed overgrown with algae, it did contain living goldfish.

 

Detail from the snake god's pond. This site is hundreds of years old, apparently. Clearly the idea of eating goats has been around for some time.

 

Baktapur has lots of wood, stone and metal sculptures and carvings, as well as ancient temples and other monuments. Repair work is still progressing following the 2015 earthquake.

 

Detail in stone

 

Detail in wood:

 

On the way home from Baktapur, we called in at Patan's Durbar Square, also full of old buildings, many of which were damaged in the earthquake.

 

The Nepali firm Buddha Air runs one-hour dawn "mountain flights". The plane is half-empty, so everyone has a window seat. These planes are also used for inter-city flights, eg Kathmandu to Pokhara.

 

The plane does not really get close to the mountains, but you do get a good impression of their size and majesty.  The cruising altitude is apparently around 7000 m, so actually lower than the higher peaks. The highest peak is Mt Everest, or Sagamatha, 8848m above sea level. 

 

And returning to Kathmandu, you get a good view of the city.

 

We liked the Kathmandu Guest House, which has a good reputation. The staff were friendly, the included breakfast excellent, and in over-crowded Thamel, the luxury of the courtyard garden was very relaxing.

 

 

There is a large Buddhist Stupa on a prominent hill to the southwest of Thamel. There are a lot of stalls selling souvenirs to tourists. I was attracted by rather beautiful brass handles in the shape of dragons, but I was worried about the weight of my already heavy suitcase.

 

At the stupa there's a pond. It's only shallow, and you can see that the pond's bottom is covered with coins. Apparently, if you can throw a coin accurately into the jar below the statue, you will be granted one wish. Amazingly, at my fifth attempt, my coin landed in the jar! Even the statue seemed to raise an eyebrow. Most of the visitors were Indian, with just a few whites.

Sophie visited several jewellery shops in Kathmandu and Bhaktapur. The best was Saphira Gems, in Thamel. The guys running the shop appeared both knowledgable and honest. Honesty is not something you can assume in all Thamel shops. In Nepal, silver and precious stones are not so expensive. A beautiful little silver and garnet pendant cost only $AU45, and garnet earrings $AU50.

 

We decided to spend a few days on the outskirts of Kathmandu. There's a national park on the northern edge of the Kathmandu bowl called Shivapuri Nagarjun, and not far from the park there's a sister hotel to the Kathmandu Guest House, called Park Village Resort. It's about the same price as the Kathmandu Guest House, and has enough open space and trees to provide cicadas, and even, briefly, what we thought was an owl calling. On the map below our location was Budhanikantha. Our apartment at the Resort was bigger than my apartment in Hobart. 

 

Locals can enter the national park quite cheaply, even with vehicles. However tourists pay a lot, and must hire a guide. Our entrance fee was $US40, which would not encourage a return visit, even though the forest is beautiful, quiet and relaxing. The guide seems totally unnecessary, as the park's few roads and tracks are clearly negotiable without such assistance. We decided to visit the Nagigumba Monastery within the park. Our guide explained that sometimes Nepali families can't care for their children, and place them in orphanages or monasteries. This particular one looks after young girls. We were introduced to a monk who, at the age of 54, had lived there for the last 20 years. With our guide acting as interpreter, we were able to share tea and biscuits with her. 

 

Most of the young girls looked happy. We left a donation.

 

A typical forest path. A poster at the park entrance showed a picture of a clouded leopard... in my opinion the world's most beautiful cat. Apparently they once lived in this forest. The decline of the world's large cats in one of many environmental tragedies which have occurred in my lifetime.

 

During our Nepal visit I have been using Google Maps and another app called Maps.Me. I found Maps.Me excellent; in fact I really can't imagine how it can be so accurate. It's also easy to download maps for offline use, which is a great help. Maps.Me told me a car journey from Kathmandu to Panauti should take 20 minutes. Of course I knew this was wrong as soon as we got on the bus. It took 90 minutes, and would have taken longer in peak traffic conditions. 

 

My Nepali-Australian friend Prakash suggested that we visit his home town, Panauti, which lies just outside the Kathmandu bowl, to the southeast. We arranged two homestay visits through the communityhomestay.com website.  Staying with a local family is a great way to get to experience ordinary life in Nepali towns and villages, eat ordinary food, and meet Nepali people. A woman named Shila Amatya started the homestay network in Panauti. I highly recommend it.

 

Our first stay was with Anita Shrestha and her mum. Anita's family is from the Newar ethnic group. Anita's dad (and family) built the house we stayed in; unfortunately he passed away. Anita has one brother, now working in the UK.  Typical modern houses here are constructed largely from reinforced concrete and brick, and are usually rectangular in floor-plan, and 2 to 4 stories high, with a flat concrete roof. Houses are not generally insulated. Some, like Anita's have both solar photovoltaic and solar hot water systems.  Most houses have hot and cold water, and sewage connections. Letters and parcels are not delivered to houses, so the houses usually don't have street numbers. As you would expect, access to the internet has been a great help as far as communication goes: in fact the community homestay organization could not run without it.

 

Below: the township of Panauti seen from Anita's house. Panauti is a substantial township. Occupation here dates back hundreds of years at least. The open fields are terraced and cropped.

 

One of the guest bedrooms at Anita's house. I really enjoyed the colour scheme: no boring off-white here. It's common for Nepali rooms to have four colours.

 

Anita and her mum have two main meals each day: the first at about 10am, then dinner at about 7pm. Both meals will often be variations on dhal bat: rice with dhal (lentil soup) together with cooked vegetables, and sometimes a meat curry.

 

Our second homestay was with Kumari Tamang and her family. Kumari is from the Tamang ethnic group. Her sister works in Australia (Perth) and money she has sent home has been instrumental in allowing the larger family to buy land and build a house. The Tamang preserve a dialect: for example they don't say "namaste" as a greeting, instead "lasho".  Tamang food too is slightly different from the Newar.

 

Some buildings in the old part of Panauti township apparently date back to medieval times. 

 

 

 

A freshly planted potato crop.

 

Farming here is labour-intensive. Below: harvesting rice; a small electric machine is being use to separate the grain from the rest of the plant. Both men and women are at work.

 

Fruit and vegetables can be bought from shops or street stalls. 

 

Trucks and buses are sometimes dressed in ribbons. 

 

Traditional costume of the Tamang.

 

Patan street market, Kathmandu.

 

The most popular treks for tourists are Annapurna Base Camp (around 4000m peak elevation), Annapurna Circuit (over 5000m) and Everest Base Camp (also over 5000m). However there are hundreds of trekking routes, such as some through Mustang. 

Mustang is a region lying in the rain-shadow (north) of the Himalayas. It is essentially high altitude desert. Although the landscape is arid, inhospitable and intimidating (with the inevitable savage beauty of such places) it has been occupied for thousands of years, and communities still remain leading traditional (herding) lives. We did not visit Mustang, so my exploration of this area will have to wait for another trip. 

Recommended: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SnNBehayHbM

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Photos are from my Samsung phone. None are retouched.

 

 

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