In the northern summer of 68, I climbed aboard a truck in the town of Birganj, just inside the southern Nepalese border. With me were two young fellows, one a German architect, the other a Kiwi who like me was ”travelin.” We were a motley crew on that old Mercedes Benz - locals who couldn’t afford the bus fare, men, women and children with their chooks, feet tied together, and their goats, which bleated incessantly and left their small black droppings all over the truck floor. From time to time, the truck stopped at roadside villages. Some folk got off. Others got on, with a new lot of goods and chattels. I could not understand a word that anyone said.
As we gained elevation, and the truck began to wheeze up the mountains on what can only be described as a very long snake path, I was invited by gesture to go sit up on the tray which hung over the cabin. So there I was, Miss Australia in her sarong, thick specs and beads leaning against her backpack, ringside view of the greatest mountains in the world, sandwiched between two laughing little brown men, with unbelievably creased faces.
Two days later, we fell off the back of the truck in the dusty quadrangle of “the vehicle station” in Kathmandu.
For the next ten days I searched fruitlessly for someone who was travelling north, someone that I could accompany into Tibet. For years I had read everything about Tibet that I could get my hands on, starting with the Lobsang Rampa Series.
“The Marching Wind” written by intrepid adventurer and surveyor Leonard Clark quickly followed. This was his account of the expedition he had led to a mountain in remote Tibet called Amne Machin. His brief was to measure its’ height trigonometrically as word had somehow reached England that there was a mountain higher than Everest, in the far reaches of the northern Tibetan plateau.
James Hilton’s novel “Lost Horizon”, the story of a utopian Shangri La high in the Himalaya came into my hands. Written way back in 1933, it fired my imagination. It was twenty years later that a “true account” of the fabled land was published-Heinrich Harrer’s “Seven Years In Tibet”. One of the most riveting tales I’d ever read, I devoured it, promising myself that some day, I too would get to the fabled land.
My two last resorts were immovable.
“I’m not going there,” said Johnno the Kiwi.
“Nor I, “added Fritz the German.
We boarded yet another truck and rolled downhill, in half the time, all the way to India from whence we had come.
Now I was back, Mrs Mainstreet, forty three years on.
Right on schedule, the plane touched down at Tribhuvan Airport, Kathmandu.
In all, eight of us, four men and four women, drawn together under the umbrella of the Northern Rivers Bushwalkers Club in New South Wales were to meet at the airport under the leadership of Linda St Clair.
After the usual fandangle that all travellers experience when hooking luggage off the carousel, passport control, and customs, we emerged into the airport forecourt.
The din of the multitude touting for your body to” stay at my hotel, Sir,” “get into my taxi, Sir,” “change your money, best rate” almost deafened us. Swept up in this stream of humanity, we were guided, entreated, and pushed eventually right to the door of the Mountain Monarch minibus. Our luggage was loaded on top. Gail paid the luggage loading screamers. We breathed a collective sigh of relief and sank into our seats.
An unbelievable noise accompanied us from the airport to the Hotel Shakti. Kathmandu appears to have no traffic rules with pedestrians, cyclists, motor bikes, cars, buses, trucks, scrawny dogs and the odd sacred cow or two all mixed in the same traffic stream. We could not see the sun at all. Smog, heat haze, smoke from wood fires, vehicle exhaust fumes, and the nature of the wide basin valley in which the city sits supreme, prevents that. The heat inversion factor reminded me strongly of Lima. I could not imagine me finding my way anywhere on foot in such a sprawling cacophony.
Just as we were attending to our gear, Mr Pradip, principal of Mountain Monarch Trekking, made his appearance. A short chubby man with olive complexion and a ready smile, he still retained the measured gait of the trek guide that he once was. Immediately he ordered tea for everyone, suggesting that we take ourselves and our cuppas into the side garden. There he gave a short introductory chat, touching briefly on our route along the Tamang Heritage Walk to the Tibetan Border, linking up with the trail to Kyanjin Gompa. This trail follows the Langtang River back to Syabrubesi. Then to business. The balance of our trip payment in crisp US dollars quickly found its’ way into Mr Pradips’ money belt. After the issue of receipts, we tried the down jackets for comfort and size, took up our essentials of sleeping bag, liner, two date rolls, and surprise! surprise! a large plastic bag for “grubby clothes”. These items were all inserted into a huge orange coloured duffel bag which the porters would carry from the time we got out of the bus at Syabrubesi till we returned there, twelve days later, unscathed, we hoped.
Our chief guide, Sunil, he of the black eyes, flashing white teeth and perfect English, had met us at the airport with the minibus. When he offered to take us to “honest moneychangers”, and a supermarket selling “good water”, we accepted with alacrity. It took less than five minutes for me to utterly lose my bearings. Once out of the hotel precincts, the twists and turns of the narrow alleys replete with broken pavements, honking traffic, and bustling throngs of humanity, I was completely lost. My salvation was following the pink blouse of Linda bobbing ahead a few paces. After a short time, we returned to The Shakti, me armed with a sizeable pile of Nepalese rupee notes in exchange for US$200, and two litres of bottled capped water.
Edith and I shared a twin room of reasonable size that was fitted with a western sitdown loo, the thinnest toilet paper I have ever seen, a miniscule bar of soap (only enough to rinse out one pair of undies, two at the most), a couple of reading lamps, a desk and two chairs. There were hooks on the wall for coats, and a small wardrobe with two blue coat hangers languishing inside. Our beds were narrow, wooden based with thin matrasses, reminiscent of the Bhutanese beds I’d slept on in 2008/2009. Later, when we were in the remote villages close to the Tibetan border, I realized just how luxurious our lodgings at The Shakti had been. But in those few days in Kathmandu I thought them rather ordinary.
We soon found out that in the Capital, the power outage was 14 hours a day. During that period certain facilities were not available. No battery charging, no hot water, and horror! horror! no internet on mains power, was available. The hotel generator would be “fired up” so that one light only would be working on the secondary electrical circuit in the guest rooms.
I lay still in my truckle bed, watching the light creep into the room, waiting for Edith to stir, waiting for the day to unfold, ready now to go north. Around sevenish, we went downstairs for a delightful self service breakfast of omelette and vegies, followed by pancakes with ample honey. Toast was ready with sugary sweet jam, washed down with endless tea or coffee.
At eight thirty, the eight of us set off on foot for Durga Square. Hurrying pedestrians and traffic were playing dodgemdare in the narrow lanes. Hawkers of every shade and description were desperately trying to off load their wares onto tourists. They descended on us like blowflies on fresh meat. I had learnt to say “No thank you” in the local language. It had no effect whatsoever. Finally, I was forced to just ignore their entreaties to buy, walking on with closed ears.
On the Hindu calendar, the day was a holy day holiday. A strong police and military presence, armed to the teeth, began to enter the Square. As tourists, we paid a fee, valid for some time, to get into the area. After a while we tired of the sights, sounds and odours of the Durga, and were taken by a fellow who had attached himself to our group as “guide” to a rooftop café for morning tea. From there we had a fine view of all the goings on and activities below. At one point, Edith, who was peering over the parapet announced that she had just seen the first animal sacrifice, by knife, of a water buffalo in front of the main temple. Later on in the day, we were to see four severed goat heads resting side by side on a nearby platform.
The Temple Palace where the living goddess Kumari dwells was open, and so we made our entrance and sat down to wait. Just a child, she is selected in accordance with her physical features-a roundish cowlike face, pale skin, big eyes, and perfect teeth. She shows herself in the window of the upper floor of what is really a prison.
Kumari at the moment is a little girl of five or perhaps six. When she reaches puberty, as happened to her predecessors, she will be cast onto the street without hope of marriage or normal life-for what man wishes to sleep with a former goddess?
She made her appearance for a minute or two, and then was gone from her window.
Somewhere along the maze of streets, we got lost. The streets and alleyways are not signposted, you see. We knew that the former Royal Palace (now a museum) lay close to our hotel, so we decided to ask or somehow find the way there. That would be our reference point for return. After a few enquiries, we found the impressive gates and the queues. Immediately a uniformed man ushered us to the foreigners window to purchase an exorbitantly priced ticket and the key to lockers for our gear. Backpackers do not like leaving their gear in unfamiliar situations, but as it was a baton carrying policeman who had escorted us to the window, we put aside our reticence, handed over the fees, and took our keys. We kept our personal documents and slyly slipped our cameras into our pockets, though the signs said that photos were forbidden once inside the precincts.
As we went through the segregated gates, ladies on the right, men on the left, we were patted down by police officers, I gather for weapons. The woman police officer gave
me a rough hand across the chest which failed to show up a flick knife or luger, and so I passed through.
Built in 1969, the Palace has certainly seen better times. Nowadays, there is a rather desolate air about it. Once inside, the queues are constantly moving forward. There is not time to really look at the exhibits, the portraits of former Shahs, kings, regents, and their families, visiting Heads of State, furnishings, draperies, views of the Himalaya, gifts brought from afar. Alert attendants ensure that no one steps out of line or walks in the “wrong” direction. No one is permitted to loiter by an intriguing painting. The opulence of the Banquet Halls, Throne Room and Reception Rooms, are in marked contrast to the poor who throng the streets and alleys just five minutes quick walk away.
I came out of the Palace itself into a flat expanse of weeds and ruin, and sign posts which told me “This is where Her Majesty died”, “This is where The Princess Was Killed” . There were more than a dozen signs, each one a reminder of the demented Crown Prince who did such a dreadful thing in 2001. The newspapers called it The Palace Massacre, but I am sure that it affected the national psyche then, and continues to do so today.
By this time, a feeling of famine had set in. Quickly we retrieved our goods and chattels from their lockers, and took off in search of the Fire and Ice Pizzeria. It was like being let into heaven. Never have pizzas tasted so good, washed down by the local Everest Beer, real coffee, and watermelon slushies.
That evening we negotiated the alley in the darkness, as the “power cut” came on earlier than usual. At the crossroads, we passed by the schoolteachers who were wrapped up for the night at their protest sit in outside the gates of the Education Offices. Their numbers had been greater earlier in the day when we had seen them on our way back from the Palace Museum. They were peacefully agitating for permanent rather than casual employment status.
Shortly after seeing them, Sunil guided us up a narrow staircase to our destination-an authentic Nepali restaurant. We all ate the national dish “Dahl Bhat.”
Each person was served a silver platter with several smaller dishes of white rice, black lentil soup, curried vegetables, chicken, yoghurt, chillies, and for me a single omelette as I’m a vegetarian. The Everest beer began to flow, the conversation level began to rise, and we all tucked in to what was a nice hot meal. After an hour or so, three musicians setup and we were treated to a music and dance performance of traditional Nepali entertainment. Our return to the Shakti was rather subdued as the bustling streets and alleys were now deserted, our head torches did not throw much light, and some of us were a little unsteady on our feet.
Next morning, there was a ripple in the air, a travelling ripple. By the time I got my duffel bag out of the room and downstairs, the minibus was there, waiting for us and our trekking crew. I had a pretty good idea of what was in store. Recent travel literature touted our journey from Kathmandu to Syabrubesi as “on the worst road in the world”, but I’d been over the Elburz Mountains from Tehran to what used to be called Bandra Shah on the shores of the Caspian Sea, in a rattletrap in 1969. Many years later, I took a huge breath and boarded a real boneshaker of a bus which conveyed groups from the Sacred Valley of the Incas to an outstation called Mollepata high in the Andes.
The scene is the same… high mountains, steep descents, dirt roads wide enough for one and a half vehicles, hairpin bends, bald tyres, loose gravel, honking horns at every corner, the odd rusted car or bus lying on it’s back halfway down the ravine, and a narrow ribbon at the bottom of the valley, glistening in the sunlight.
I chose to sit in one of the single seats on the left hand side of the bus. That way I could doze off, wriggle around, or merely shut my eyes if the dizzying spectacle out of my window became too much. Once we got underway, it was quiet in the bus. Our duffel bags were packed into the back seats. The five porters sat in front of the luggage, and spoke little and very softly. When they boarded, I found myself looking twice at them.
“Good heavens!” I thought in astonishment. “They look about sixteen.”
The Northern Rivers Bushies parked ourselves in the middle. Up the front of the bus were the three guides, Sunil and his two assistants. I quickly decided that I would not call them Mr A and Mr B, but by their proper names, Amrith and Bejay. The driver and his gofer made up the rest of the personages on board.
As we left the city behind, I thought that I would tick off the main villages and towns on my map. I soon gave up that idea. There were no signs in English to indicate the name of the habitation through which we passed. There was nothing that I could relate to on my map, except the blue line of major rivers. Once out of the Kathmandu valley, and past the brick walled estate of the deposed king who lost his throne two years ago and now lives as a private citizen, we began the twisting turning journey, sometimes up sometimes down, to the end of the road at Syabrubesi. About a nine hour journey my Lonely Planet Guidebook informed me. As we turned into the hairpin bends, my eyes gave me the impression that we were going over into thin air. I did my tortoise act- pulled my head down, and closed my eyes.
The bus stopped. I opened my peepers to brilliant sunshine in a very busy town stretching either side of the congested dirt road. In a second or two, we were ushered into our lunchtime café. The ladies made a beeline for the dunnies upstairs. On the way, we passed a lad squatting in front of a running cold tap, rinsing plates and cups. Each item was wiped with a dark looking rag, and added to the stacks on the cement floor.
” I hope my secret weapon against the trots works,” I muttered, as I went up to what are commonly referred to as squat drops.
We were all served heaped dishes of Dahl Bhat, with single omelette for me instead of chicken. Black teas topped off everything nicely. It was the quickest and most polite food I’ve ever been served. Considering that this particular tuckerbox was jam packed with eager eaters the turnaround time was most impressive.
We made our purchases from the food stalls, and clambered aboard.
I sat back in my seat, relaxed and open minded, and just let the scene roll on. Some mechanism within my tiny mind decided that : here is the journey of a lifetime, enough of this dizzy anxiety, this going over the edge melodrama. You’ve done it before. Just shut up and enjoy it. Marvellous what hot food and a decent cuppa will do!
By late afternoon, we were pulled up at the police checkpoint, our second of the day, in Dhunche, a very large settlement on a sharp ridge. Dhunche (pronounced Doon chay) lies within the Langtang National Park. It reminded me somehow of a spaghetti western movie set. Some of the houses were wooden with two or three stories. Many buildings had the words “Hotel Such and Such” in a prominent position on their fading facades. There was much activity, bustle and shouting as this is a transport hub of sorts, with trekking routes and tracks to remote villages passing through the town.
Drizzle began. Our porters quickly hopped out of the bus, scrambling up on top to cover goods which a verbose little man persuaded Sunil to carry for him. The next appeal for transport came from three very attractive senior schoolgirls. They wriggled and jiggled at the bus doorway, flapping their eyelashes at Sunil till he agreed to let them on board as they too were bound in the same direction as us. When Amrith returned with our stamped police papers in order, we drove away with four extra bodies inside plus a tarped load on top.
Not long after we left Dhunche, altitude 1950 metres, our descent began. Fortunately, the drizzle ceased. From my window seat, I could see far, far below the gorge in which I knew the Bhote Kosi, the river which flows out of Tibet, hurtles southwards. The closer we approached the edge of the gorge, the steeper was the descent. The road went down in long switchback loops like the sleeve of a woollen jumper unravelling. To my intense surprise, this section of the road was newly bitumised. Our ancient bus gears ground to a crawl. Then we were down, crossing a shiny steel bridge over the river. Old Faithful on four wheels chugged slightly uphill to our destination – Syabrubesi, elevation 1503 metres, gateway to snowy peaks, glaciers, and mighty rivers.
Our hotel was a concrete four storey box. Compared to most of the buildings straddling the dirt street, it was rather flash. My first impression as we entered was of comfort and cleanliness. We sat down in the reception area whilst our bags were taken upstairs by the porters, with Amrith leading the way. Soon he came down, and took Edith and me up to the second floor. With a flourish, he opened the door giving us a wide smile. His smile soon vanished.
“Amrith,” Edith said firmly, “we need a room with two single beds!”
“Oh!” he said looking at the double bed,”Oh, I will see, I will see.”
We went downstairs to wait. Our six companions were duly allocated their rooms.
Amrith returned and led us up to the third floor.
“Ok?” he queried, opening the door.
“Oh, yes,” was our reply as our eyes feasted on three single beds. One for our gear, no bending over knees on the floor with heads down and bums up, searching for an elusive item. One bed each to catch up on our sleep.
During the evening meal, Sunil gave a mini briefing on daily practices and routines which are designed to ensure that a great time will be had by all. Sure enough, at seven o’clock next morning there was a knock on the door. Bejay came in with cups of black tea on a tray. I needed that cuppa as I had not slept well. The town dogs set up their barking just as I was drifting off. All night they kept up conversations that echoed up and down the narrow valley.
Quickly we began our packing for the first day of our trek on the Tamang Heritage Trail. Our small back packs took the barest essentials for the day. Everything else was stuffed into the duffel bags. These were to be placed in the passageway for the porters to collect and take downstairs before we went for breakfast.
Another routine centres on drinking water. This can be a critical health issue. Clean drinking water for tourists, and trekkers in particular, is a “fussy” business. Our trekking company boiled water every evening and every morning for clients. Our instructions were to take our empty water bottles to the dining table morning and evening. While we were eating, water was boiled, and the bottles filled ready for collection. As an added precaution against Giardia and other nasties, some of our folk added water purifying tablets.
Just as I was putting my duffel bag in the passageway, Allan emerged from the room he shared with Peter.
“Morning, Alan,” I chirped. “How are you?”
“Very ordinary,” was the reply.
Gail opened her door as Alan took off downstairs.
“What about you, Gail? How’s things?”
“Oh,” she sighed. “Ian kept waking me all night going out to the toilet. So I’m a bit tired.”
At breakfast, the news was that half our mob, the male half, had all been bothered by the trots or chucks or both during the night. The girls were fine both ends.
I wandered outside and watched the porters “loading up”. Four of the boys lashed their two allocated duffel bags together with twine or straps. Another cord was attached in a loop at the top of the bags. This flat cord is called a tump line. Each porter hoiked up his load, passing the tump line across his forehead. The fifth porter carried a woven wicker basket. I never got to see the contents, but heard someone say that a small stove with fuel, and a Hyperbaric chamber were the main contents, along with porters’ personal items.
Without further ado, they crossed the dirt street and disappeared up an alley between two tatty buildings. Soon I could see them climbing directly up the steep slopes of the gorge opposite. With a bit of a jolt, it registered that shortly we would be following them.
Looking closely, I could see that a very rough narrow road was winding up that hill in long switchback loops. I breathed a sigh of relief.
Sunil briefed us on our day.
“We go up,” he waved an arm in the direction of the slope, “not up that jeep road. Straight up. “ He paused. “We’ll get there, to the top much quicker, in three hours maximum. The way from the top, where those prayer flags are waving, to Gatlang is fairly level. Along the way, we stop for a long lunch. You will enjoy the views. We will stop often to rest. No one is to pass Mr A. He will set the pace. Let’s go.”
Amrith led off. We fell into line with Bejay in the middle carrying the medical kit and Sunil bringing up the rear. I realized that we eight were being tested for our stamina and sociability, that these young men needed to know at a very early stage whether all of us, or some of us, or none of us could cope with this “strenuous teahouse trek.”
After about fifteen minutes, we came to a small hamlet where we met the first loop of the jeep road. Ian had to duckoff the trail to attend to nature’s call. Anxiously, Gail went with him. While we were sunning ourselves, an elderly lady emerged from her dwelling, and indicated that she had sore eyes, and could someone please give some relief. Conjunctivitis is very common in these parts. Sunil was called upon to open the medical kit. He quickly put some drops in her eyes. As he was closing the kit, Gail and Ian returned. Soon, Ian was getting a dose of something that, “will fix you up in one to three hours”. My heart went out to him. He was wearing a lemony green shirt which perfectly matched his complexion. Bejay took his day pack, and Gail, supportive person that she is, carried his two litres of water.