Meg Noble Peterson

Author of Madam, Have You Ever Really Been Happy? An Intimate Journey through Africa and Asia

Category: Nepal (Page 1 of 5)

OUR FINAL PUSH ALL THE WAY TO SHIVALAYA

The last day of our trek in the Solukhumbu…

December 17, 2016

We headed out of Bhandar, climbing to the top of this ridge before then descending down to Shivalaya. It was straight up for three hours, past terraced farms and fruit trees all cultivated by farmers whose homes lay destroyed or were in the process of being rebuilt.

We saw different kinds of technology in action… from a parabolic mirror that heats water in a tea kettle, to save on burning wood… to a massive bulldozer creating a road that will forever alter the village as buses and trucks will now have access.

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The children have simple games. These two children had so much fun sliding down a steep meadow on pieces of cardboard.

As we went through a family courtyard of packed dirt, we stopped to watch two boys playing marbles, expertly flipping the marble off the thumb and index finger. They scrambled about in the dirt like old pros, and gathered others to watch the impromptu match.

The Nepali children are full of energy, and we have observed them playing various games with old balls or rocks, including imaginative forms of cricket or baseball. Kids are ingenious and “make do” with what is at hand. Bless them!

It was a long way up, and we were happy when Jean Jacques, who had left the guest house later, caught up to us. We passed many mani walls, crossed the road several times, and continued up the rocky steps of the trail, with a beautiful vista behind us.

At noon we finally reached the delightful town at the top of the ridge, and had lunch next to some mani walls. The town had sustained damage as we had seen with farms all along the way, but was rebuilding. No one talked in a depressing way. They just kept working and accepting what had happened as part of life. I found it quite distressing to see the big houses in ruins and whole families relegated to squalid shacks on the hillside. I stopped taking pictures after awhile.

After lunch it was up and down and then began a relentless, five-hour downhill. The trail went from flat rocks, often jagged, to big boulders, to smooth clay potholes and water-damaged slides, to walkways next to a precipice.

Jean Jacques overtook us again with his 120 lb. pack and pointed out several large abandoned bees nests that were swinging from a sheer cliff way up high.

They reminded me of the active ones we had seen on the Melamchi trek last year. I loved this part of the trail, enjoying going in and out of the forest with its blanket of pine needles covering the rocky trail.

At last we reached the final grinding switchbacks high above the river. I really was amazed that I didn’t take a header, for we leapt from one boulder to another, wary of every twist and turn that greeted us.

What is a bit disconcerting is that you can see where you’re headed way down below, but it never seems to materialize.

At last—ending on a veritable landslide—we dropped into town. Dusk was fast approaching. Telltale remnants of the earthquake damage were visible in the many tin roofs of the small village.

What a greeting we received when we arrived at the Riverview Lodge! There was Jean Jacques, who had already showered and was waiting to celebrate our achievement with rakshi and dinner. And who could ask for a more beautiful waitress to serve us?

I can’t resist a comment about the challenges of some of our guesthouses. Like this one and the Riverside near Melamchi, the second floor rooms are reached by an outside open flight of stairs. Railings are non-existent, which, for me, is just a continuation of the open trail. This particular place was quite fancy in that it had a western toilet off the courtyard and a shower next to it with water constantly running from an open spigot into a bucket. With the river flowing by, apparently no need for water conservation here.

It was a long and jolly last evening in the mountains! Who cared about the arduous trip home? We’d face that tomorrow….

TAKE HEART! IT’S ONLY FIVE HOURS “UP” TO BHANDAR

Continuing with the final days of the trek in the lower Solukhumbu last December…

Dec. 16, 2016

Before leaving Kinja, we discovered that parts of the Shree Buda Kinja Basic School had been destroyed and the library, especially, was in need of books and supplies. The school was in the forest not far from the guesthouse, so we walked there and were able to give money from my friends, Lynn and Robert Rubright. The librarian was overjoyed!

Here is a slideshow of the school:

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After visiting the school, we headed out of town, crossing a long bridge over the river, and then following it up the valley.

It was nice to give our “downhill” muscles a rest for a day as we wound our way uphill through small mountain villages and lush forests. We passed many farms, and one in particular with delicious freshly picked oranges.

Big orange tree

We enjoyed a wonderful rest stop of eating those fresh oranges, learning about cardamom, and relaxing in the sun.

The trail turned steeply up high above the river.

Cittra with his beard shaved

Coming to the top of a steep incline we were greeted by Chittra, whom we hardly recognized, since he had shaved his dark beard. He was a friend of the owner of a destroyed guesthouse complex in the process of being rebuilt by Nepali friends and an Australian volunteer. It was wonderful to see these people all working together.

It was a beautiful place with terraces and forest all around the cluster of destroyed buildings.

When I asked Buddhi to ask the owner if he ever was discouraged, Buddhi indicated that this was not something a Nepal thought about. He said, in effect, that they just picked up the pieces and went on. Quite a telling attitude, I thought. He lives with his family in Bhandar and comes every day to work on rebuilding his property. That’s quite a daily trek!

It was wonderful the way the men cleaned up the half-built dining room, set up chairs and a table, and served us the best dal bhat ever. (I know, I’ve said it before, but since it’s always different, I will say it, again).

Added to the dal we had superb buffalo milk yogurt. I was so full I’m surprised I lasted four more hours up to the lodge. But I was mightily contented.

It’s hard to believe how many steps we climbed. It went on and on ever higher. The views from every angle were glorious and it was fun to watch as we rose above the turbulent river on endless switchbacks.

We had a few downhills before reaching a huge meadow—an amazing expanse of farmland dotted with the remains of large stone houses. In some of the abandoned shells we found tomatoes or rosemary or turmeric flourishing. Obviously, there were absentee farmers tending their crops. There were also orchards and terraced fields of wheat and barley. And interspersed with all this were the ubiquitous mani walls. I still had pangs of sadness when I saw the tin shells and makeshift dwellings where families were living while rebuilding.

At last we were approaching our destination! We had entered the district of Ramechhap, and were warmly greeted at the door by the owner of The Shobha Lodge and Restaurant.  It had been refurbished and was partly rebuilt of wood and aluminum siding. The beautiful young cook, Sujata Pradhan, who is part of the family enterprise, is also a teacher of Nepali at the secondary school for 600 students, located thirty minutes farther up the mountain. We ended up spending time with her and making a donation along with our friends, Stephanie and Jesse King. It will be used to buy books, pens, and other necessary school supplies. She was overjoyed by our gift.

The only other guest that evening was a charming Frenchman, Jean Jacques Quinquis, a retired negotiator for Air France. We would spend quite a bit of time with him over the next couple of days and even meet him for lunch in Boudhanath before returning home. He was one of the nine men we met on this trek, who were traveling alone and had returned to Nepal many times.

Need I say that we slept well?

BUCKLE UP! IT’S A KILLER RIDE TO KINJA

December 15, 2016

The night was a down vest, down jacket, long underwear, and extra sleeping bag lining night…bitter cold. We headed down the trail following close to a roaring river, and as we continued our descent the sun became downright hot. By noon we were in T-shirts.

Some climbers say that the stretch between Lamjura Pass and Kinja is the most challenging downhill of the entire trek between Jiri and Lukla, the original route to Everest Base Camp before planes started flying into Lukla. I believe them!

We went down down down!

As we began we met a tiny caravan of sherpas carrying impossibly heavy loads as they did years ago before the Lukla airport. There used to be thousands of porters like this making the trek to Everest, now just a handful still do.

We also encountered more donkeys, or mules, this time laden with hay and straw, probably for farm animals in the higher altitudes. At times the trail was like a deep carved passageway lined with rock walls and at other times it fanned out like a trampled thruway for animals.

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I was amazed at the number of houses and guesthouses we passed, that had been destroyed by the 2015 earthquake. So many more than at lower altitudes. And it was sad to see the shacks where the displaced families still lived, usually on a piece of land above the ruined house. After awhile I just stopped taking pictures. It felt like an invasion of privacy. I had not known that over 1,000 dwellings had been destroyed in the Solukhumba, alone, very similar to the Helambu/Yolmo region we visited last year.

The trail was complicated and varied, and I was fascinated by the change in landscape and terrain from the day before. I stumbled upon a small pond hidden beside an old mani wall, the ferns and trees draped in white katas. And there were vast fields of native plants, like the highly-lucrative cardamon, a plant with large green leaves and flowers sprouting from its base. Cary went crazy taking pictures of the huge variety of vegetation spread out before us—bananas, barley, bamboo, fig trees, oranges, lemons, and ground apples. It was amazing to me that they thrived in this climate.

After beginning our day at 8:35 am, we arrived at the Sherpa Guesthouse in Kinja at 6:30 pm, just as dusk was settling in. We were sure neither Buddhi nor Chittra thought we’d make the entire 6,000 ft. straight down in one day. We sure fooled them! But just in the nick of time…it wasn’t long before the sun began to set.

We were so happy to see the guest house! The evening was spent in front of the fire talking with Philip, a handsome silver-haired Canadian from Calgary, who travels alone with one small pack and a change of clothes. He is an air quality engineer, has two major projects a year, and combines his love of the wilderness with his desire to improve the environment and find ways to promote clean energy. I learned more than I ever wanted to know about fossil fuels.

What a great night!

HEADING TO OUR FIRST MOUNTAIN PASS…LAMJURA

Note from Cary: I’m continuing to publish posts written by Meg about our trip in Nepal last December. She is currently in Mongolia and all is going really well. Look forward to her sharing that trip, but in the meantime, here is more about our trip in the lower Solukhumbu.

December 14, 2016

I know I sound like a broken record, but these next two days were killers, especially the 6,000 ft. downhill into Kinja. Pretty soon you’ll be admonishing me to stay home and do stairs if it’s climbing I want! But think how this is exercising the old brain. I have to concentrate big time as I carefully negotiate every jagged rock if I want to keep from falling on my face. So far so good.

We stepped out of the Sherpa Guide Lodge early the next morning and after a quick farewell to Marcus, we started up the steep and rocky trail. What a view greeted us! It wasn’t long before the monastery we had visited yesterday, and Junbesi, faded into the distance, making us realize how far we’d come.

The trail was pretty much out in the open until lunchtime, which was the usual garlic soup and dal baht. In the afternoon we passed quite a few Nepalis and foreigners (Australians, British, Canadian…no Americans), which gave us a good excuse to stop, swap stories, and take a breath. I was struck by two different local baby carriers. One father carried his toddler in a fancy western backpack, and one mother carried her baby in a much larger type of “boodle buggy” or bassinet, holding it safe by a thick strap around her forehead. It reminded me of the way Chittra carried our bags.

 

It seemed that I would never get away from stairs! The last time I’d seen so many was on the Inca Trail in Peru. But they are truly beautiful, as are the fences and rock walls. And I never tire of them.

Before ducking into the forest, we passed a large field where monkeys scampered, stealing grain and causing great consternation among the farmers. They were cute little buggers and seemed to be daring you to catch them.

Another lunch of dal bhat sustained us as we made our way up to the Lamjura Pass.

The trail up to the pass was amazingly varied—rolling hills, mountains, vast forests, and rhododendron, as well as areas where the trees had been cut down.

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On the other side of the 10,000 ft pass, we passed through high rhododendron forests and the trail became littered with large, dark stones—a geologic phenomenon similar to the vast cliffs and overhanging rocks dotting the valley.

The only guest house was a rather forlorn place nestled near a damaged stupa. We were totally isolated. No town around. Just two solitary houses and a stone courtyard, with two outhouses, both long walks from the house. A black dog slept outside, curled against a blanket.

But what a warm environment inside! The fire in the large clay stove was blazing as we stepped into the primitive cabin, lit only by one hanging bulb. The beautiful young woman in charge seemed quite modern, and was an excellent cook, managing to multitask in what seemed to me like semi-darkness. A stooped old man with gnarled hands wandered in and sat by the fire. He was no relation, but evidently came to eat and sleep. People cared for one another in the mountains.

We took turns sitting on long benches with lacquered tables in front of them, and enjoyed good conversation, Buddhi’s dancing, and an excellent Sherpa stew…accompanied by homemade mo mo’s compliments of Buddhi. We were offered rakshi, a millet liquor made in the mountains by our hostess, and sure enjoyed it! On top of running the kitchen and rakshi businesses, she also tended a garden in a small greenhouse, where she grew the veggies used in the stew.

There is nothing like a sunset in the mountains!

Now the Day is Over,
Night is drawing nigh;
Shadows of the evening
Steal across the sky.

A HIKE TO THUPTEN CHOLING MONASTERY

December 13, 2016

It was a strenuous slog to the monastery which, though there were a few monks,  was primarily a nunnery for Anis (nuns) in retreat. We traversed a dusty, circuitous road that was both rutted and wet, rocky and steep. The landscape was filled with fields of barley, metal poles where kiwi fruit is grown, and dry winter wetlands  with watercress still growing.

Looking back on Junbesi, our guesthouse is the building with the red roof in the center left, and the house that Jwalant helped build is above the town in the upper left with the green roof.

Along the way:

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We arrived at the monastery at noon and went into the large temple where low chanting was taking place.

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It was a perfect time to arrive, since lunch was about to be served. We were led to some cushions lining one wall of the elaborate main temple roof and offered lunch as well. What an unexpected treat! After the chanting , the Anis (all with shaved heads and beautiful, sunny faces), took out plastic bags and various-sized bowls. They were served by nuns going up and down the aisles with enormous containers of food.

Before serving the rice, a large panful was put on the altar. Then the Anis ladled the rice into their plastic bags and the dal, veggies, and yogurt into their bowls. Each Ani had one small spoon for eating. Our food, however, was served on metal plates. Everyone ate in silence, making small balls of rice and dipping them into the other food. And all the while the Anis were smiling and gesturing at us in welcoming fashion. It was a lovely experience.

After we had finished eating, cleaners came by, sweeping and mopping the floor between the rows of mats. Then the Anis arose, quietly, filed out, and went about their various activities while we went to the altar to receive strings and necklaces that had been blessed by the Anis.

We made our way around the monastery and down the stone steps. I climbed more steps on this day than in my entire lifetime…or so it seemed. Until I had reached the bottom of the many-tiered monastery I had not realized how steep the climb up had been! I got a kick out of the animals, especially a couple of massive cows, trying to negotiate the steps, as they worked their way to the small patches of grass and garden tucked away on each terrace.

Halfway down we came upon an open field and stopped for tea at what looked like a greenhouse. There were colorful tables filling the room, and benches covered with rugs. The floor was packed dirt, which the owner sprinkled with water to eliminate any dust….an interesting touch. A woman was sitting outside in the sunshine, weaving bamboo baskets. It was a quiet, reflective time.

I was glad when we branched out onto a short cut, which I wish we’d used on the way up. It was a winding, rocky trail and went over a roiling creek by way of several wooden bridges.

The woodland trail ended at the longest mani wall I’d ever seen, not far from the house Jwalant, our trek director, and his friends built for a family whose previous home had been destroyed in the earthquake.

New home for a family

Continuing on to Junbesi, we passed monasteries with brightly painted windows, in various states of repair and disrepair after the earthquake.

As if that wasn’t enough for one day, we decided to hike up the steep hill above the guesthouse to see the other house that Jwalant had helped build for a family who had lost their home in the earthquake. We had a lovely cup of tea with the Mom and her daughter, and Buddhi and Cittra before heading back home.

That night after dinner we talked with another new friend—an Englishman, Maurice Possner. We covered Brexit and Trump, as well as the financial problems in India. Then we started relating our extensive Nepali adventures. Like him, one of our favorite places was Langtang, so we compared notes and realized that we had both been through the charming little town shortly before it was obliterated in the 2015 earthquake. It’s still hard to believe that 600 villagers and 250 trekkers perished in a matter of minutes. Maurice has been back and told us that those who were away at the time of the disaster have returned and are looking to the future and rebuilding higher up. My, I do love this country and its people. They have such courage.

I lay in my bed, a colorful Tibetan curtain behind me, and looked at the same full moon as last night. The events of the day played in my mind. I cannot do justice to the feelings I have as I struggle up the trail each day. I feel so alive and so aware of the natural beauty all around me. And so at peace….

HANG ON, IT’S A ROUGH SCRAMBLE FROM RIGMU TO JUNBESI

December 12, 2016

The next morning we said farewell to our beautiful hostess and started an intense seven-hour trek to Junbesi. Well, for me it was seven hours… the guidebook time is 3-4 hours, but remember you need to add an hour per decade above 50 years.

Not too long after we left, we crossed a high bridge over a river with spectacularly painted enormous mani stones below, which Lhakpa had told us her family had painted.

We climbed for several hours over trails with scary exposure, deep valleys, icy patches, and steep inclines, where you had to be vigilant every moment.

By midday we had reached a great restaurant recommended by a German couple we had met in Ringmu, The Everest View Lodge at Beni 7, Phurtvang.

There we enjoyed an exquisite curry made from fresh orange squash that looked like pumpkin, and had been picked right out of the garden. It was served by a peripatetic cook, who seemed to be on roller skates as he flew form one task to the next, with three pots going on the open stove.

We chatted with a father and son from Huntington, Long Island. They, like us, were trying to stay off the subject of our recent election, but that wasn’t to be. We would meet them several times down the trail as they forged ahead.

A range of snow-capped mountains followed us all day. Over on the left was Everest, but, as usual, it was so far away that it looked smaller than the rest.

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We knew we were getting close to Junbesi when the road reappeared, and we saw construction work. Chutes for the river water were being built to generate hydroelectricity, and it was definitely tearing up the river and its banks.

Junbesi had been hit hard by the earthquake, which had mostly spared the areas we had been in the previous days. The stupa in the center of town was destroyed, as well as the school. Both were being rebuilt.

It was dinnertime by the time we reached our guesthouse in Jumbesi and I was all excited about writing up my feelings and observations after what, to me, was the best hiking day ever…when in walked Victor, a charming Norwegian gentleman. Two hours later we were still talking. I was struck by something he said that has been true of my travels for the last thirty years. It’s the people you meet along the way that add meaning and depth to the trekking experience. I always had this feeling during my earlier days when I was traveling alone with no contact with the outside world, whatsoever, and had the choice to write about the day’s excursion or interact with those with whom I came in contact. I usually chose the latter.

Something else also struck me during the next six days. This was the first time in all my trekking that I had encountered so many men traveling alone, most of them coming from Lukla and heading for Jiri. They were middle-aged, fit, and many returned every year to be alone in nature, get off the hamster wheel of their busy lives, and recharge their batteries to go back to “the world of restless men.” We met at last eight such men, some in the guesthouses and others on the trail. One fellow said he always starts around ten in the morning, after everyone else has left, and walks until dusk. If he can’t find a place to stay, he simply pitches his small tent in the woods for the night. These are men who love solitude and love being immersed in the wild.

Just before bedtime we were treated to a full moon over the mountains. No wonder we’re all a bit hyper. And I thought it was the clear mountain air!

 

A GLORIOUS DAY HIKE TO TAKSHINDU… WITH ITS DONKEYS AND VIEWS

                                                                                                    December 11, 2016

Although we were headed to Junbesi, we decided to take a day hike in the other direction towards Lukla and go up the mountain to Takshindu with its beautiful views.

By the time we arose the next morning, the temperature in our room had dropped to 41 degrees. We had a delicious breakfast–a veggie/cheese omelet made with the family’s nak cheese–and Lhakpa explained that she used the term nak cheese, since nak is the female yak responsible for the milk. Her family cheese factory, for which the guesthouse is named, is a six-hour trek from Ringmu, because that is the altitude suitable for the naks. Can you imagine such a commute? But there were several family members in the area, who all worked together in the cheese business, as well as providing wood and bricks for the new houses in the Khumbu, so the burden was shared. A very enterprising, closely-knit family.

By the time we started on our day trip it was warm and sunny once more, but our initial uphill climb was treacherous due to lingering ice covering the rocks and cracks in the trail. We noticed a number of roofs being reconstructed, using tin to replace the cedar shingles. The metal roofs are more expensive, but last a lot longer and do not necessitate the cutting down of so many trees. The blue tin roofs were a lovely accent to the white houses with their windows of bright blue trim. Farther up, Sherpa Buddhist monks were replacing an old prayer pole with a new, taller one.

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After a long and peaceful climb up the mountain, we approached the top and crossed the road used by the noisy, heavy tractors to pull supplies to Takshindu, a major transportation hub. There the road ends and donkeys are used to transport the supplies, such as rice and sugar, on to Lukla.

When we arrived at lunchtime there were dozens of donkeys and mules milling around and waiting to be outfitted for the climb to the higher elevations. Buddhi told us that two thousand of these animals are used every year to pack in supplies.

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After a lunch of garlic soup and egg veggie-fried rice, we wandered over to the magnificent view point.

We said goodbye to the donkeys about to head off with heavy loads to Lukla, and headed back down to Ringmu.

On the trail back, carved out between high embankments made by the monsoons and winding its way through a forest of cedar, rhododendron, and deciduous trees, we met a doctor and his family. They were headed for Lukla to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the hospital established by Sir Edmund Hillary. The family included six and eight-year old grandchildren. How well I remember visiting that hospital in 1987.

In the late afternoon we arrived in Ringmu to be greeted by Lhakpa and treated to a sumptuous dinner of Sherpa stew and an evening of jollity in front of the blazing stove.

An uncle came to visit

As the evening went on we all took turns sitting on the bench by the fire, telling stories, and savoring the sunset as it slowly set behind the watchful Himalayas.

SLOW, BUT STEADY… FROM PHAPLU TO RINGMU

                                                                                             December 10, 2016

That was my motto for the next week as we trekked in the wilderness that is the Solukhumbu, one of the Eastern-most districts of Nepal. Yes, it was great to be in the Everest region and away from so much of the recent tourism flooding into the Himalayas. I had not pictured it as so pastoral and quiet, but we were at the end of the trekking season and going in the opposite direction, away from Lukla and the Everest trek, and toward Jiri.

Cittra all loaded up and ready to go!

We headed out from Phaplu accompanied by the occasional sounds of planes flying from Phaplu to Everest. You can see the airport in the distance beyond the prayer flags. This has completely changed the transportation in the region.

Where thousands of porters used to make the trek to Lukla, these days only a few do. The trail from Phaplu to Ringmu is now mostly a road, and seemed to be either dusty or muddy, with the occasional tractor creating more dust or mud.

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We were so delighted when we went off the road onto a trail in the countryside!

Here is a video Cary took on her iPhone… the music was playing in the fields!

During that first day I was amazed at how many new, and large, houses there were, with lush farms nearby, mostly terraced.

I was also surprised at the amount of tree-cutting, which Buddhi, our guide, said was on the rise due to the lucrative business of selling boards to the Everest region, where hotels and guesthouses are proliferating. The boards were airlifted there by helicopter! What a difference from my base camp experience in 1987, when there were only a handful of primitive lodges at the base of Kala Pattar. Not the luxury hotels of recent years. Mine was a real wilderness experience.

The milled wood was stacked in big piles that were then airlifted by helicopter to Lukla… a hazardous journey! In the distance in the mountain view is the helicopter on with its load – impossible to see!

 

Helicopter with load of lumber swaying below.

 

Here are some scenes along the way

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After ten kilometers of a steady uphill, we reached the Numbur View Cheese Factory Lodge and Restaurant in Ringmu. Embarrassing as it was, Chittra beat us by two hours! When we arrived, we were treated, immediately, to our favorite garlic soup. Buddhi always spearheaded the making of the soup for he is convinced that it staves off altitude sickness. And so are we!

For two days we stayed in this delightful lodge, run by Lhakpa Sherpa, a beautiful young woman and a fabulous cook. Her husband is a trekking guide on Everest, so she holds down the fort during his absence and cares for their adorable four-month old baby, Kunsang…fat-cheeked, sunny, responsive, and good-natured. What a great time I had “talking,” singing, and playing with him.

Our simple sleeping room was quite chilly, but, fortunately, we all ate together (dal bhat, what else?) in the kitchen kept warm by the earthen stoves fed by shoving sticks of wood into a floor-level opening in the front. We all took turns keeping it “fed.”

Getting ready for bed in the mountains is often quite challenging! First you visit a separate toilet, then move to the adjoining shower to wash your face. Then you can choose any number of places to brush teeth, including the outdoors, if you want to brave the freezing temperatures. But I loved the silence and the peace that surrounded us, and I slept long and well.

SCROLL BACK TO LAST DECEMBER AS WE MAKE OUR WAY THROUGH DELHI TO KATHMANDU….WE’LL GET THERE YET!

On December 5th we headed for the small airport in Kangra, two hours from Suja, where we boarded a plane instead of taking our usual long taxi ride back to Delhi. I have to admit that it was a lot more comfortable and afforded us quality time to chat with a new-found friend, an anthropologist and her extended family, as we waited four hours for the plane to arrive. Patience is a virtue I am finding indispensable when traveling in Asia. “On time” is not finite. It can mean most anything!

I never tire of the classy new Delhi airport and its elephants who greet us:

Our adventure in Delhi with a prepay taxi driver from the airport was classic. Not only did he not know the destination—a very popular hotel close by—but he refused our meager tip, throwing a fit when we wouldn’t reward him half of the entire fare. We should pay for his mistakes? To our surprise he followed us into the hotel lobby, where nobody had any small change due to the monetary crisis. Even fellow Indians seemed appalled by his aggressive behavior. Fortunately, Cary unearthed a fifty rupee note and thrust it into his outstretched palm. With an ‘haruumph’ he stomped away.

At dinner we met a charming gentleman living with his wife in Shanghai. Their plan is to adopt Chinese children and move to Australia. He then told us about the more than fourteen million “ghost children” living in China…second or third children, mostly girls, who were born after the one-child policy was instituted in 1980. These children are not recognized by the government, have no official identity, cannot get an education, cannot legally marry, and cannot get medical services. They live outside the institutions of a regulated society. It is an horrendous problem known to very few people outside the country, but there is extensive information about it on the internet. Yet, until government policy changes, these children will continue to live in the shadows.

The next day we flew out of Delhi, and it turned out to be a sad one for voters, especially women, in the southernmost state of Tamil Nader, whose capital is Chennai. The much-beloved chief minister, Jayalalithaa, died, triggering mass grief and leaving a political power vacuum in southern India. As I’ve written before, there is much interest in politics and political personalities in India. It’s a young democracy full of problems, but it citizens are intensely vocal and active!

Before boarding Jet Airways for Kathmandu, we met the head steward and one of the stewardesses, both from Sikkim, and started chatting. They showed a great deal of interest in the post-earthquake situation in Nepal and our desire to make a contribution, however small. In a gesture of compassion they gave money for one of the schools in Solukhumbu and asked Cary to light butter lamps at the Boudhanath stupa for those who were still suffering. It’s gratifying to see such generosity from total strangers. These new friends also arranged for us to sit on the side of the plane with the best view of the Himalayan range. Is it any wonder that Jet Airways is our favorite airline?

Here are a few shots of the vast display of natural wonder we observed from 30,000 ft.

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How great it was to get back to Kathmandu and be met by Buddhi, our guide, and Ram Hari, both from Crystal Mountain treks. The director, Jwalant, had returned to  the mountains to help deliver supplies for his ongoing school rebuilding projects. The Kathmandu Valley as we evidenced on our drive to Boudha, was in a constant state of repair, from road widening and resurfacing, to shoring up a crumbling infrastructure, to house building. And traffic had resumed its chaotic spider web after the gas shortage of last year had subsided.

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The Shechen Guest House staff greeted us with open arms and we spent the rest of the day and the next checking out the continued construction around the temple, the refurbished stupa, and our favorite shopkeepers. The stupa had just been consecrated after a year and a half of restoration, and it was magnificent.

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At dusk we walked kora and delighted in the variety of faces and native dress of the people walking alongside us, fingering their malas and murmering their chants. Cary lit butter lamps for the Jet Airways flight attendents, and for many friends who requested prayers from the Boudha stupa.

As we left, the colored lights, strung all around the stupa, had come on and a half-moon hung in the night sky.

I’m glad to relate that, finally, I’m getting used to the roaring motorcycles outside the stupa grounds. I just keep walking slowly and let them dodge me. I’ve been lucky so far! It’s hard, at time, to keep your cool, but easier than trying to second-guess the drivers.

Early the next morning, December 8th, we headed for Phaplu, a ten-hour jeep ride over roads ranging from marvelous (built by the Japanese, and similar to the fly-overs outside Delhi, built by the Chinese)…

…to horrendous (result of monsoons, landslides, and the 2015 earthquake), with a superb driver who seemed clairvoyant as he wound around the narrow mountain roads, unable to see who was coming, but squeaking by buses and maneuvering sans guardrails to keep us from diving over a cliff. I tend to be dramatic, but so would you…had you been sitting in the front seat!

There were times when the road was washed out and we simply went through streams onto higher ground. There were also those drivers not so skilled, who found themselves stuck in the river. Here are some photos of our journey as it unfolded.

 

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As we made our way into the hills we beheld a panorama of the world’s most famous Himalayan peaks. This is the first time since my Everest Base Camp trek in 1987 that I saw Everest, Lhotse, and the Nuptse Ridge all lined up. It was thrilling! White, crisp, clear with piercing blue skies.

Nearing our destination, we were treated to another array of stunning mountains, Numbur Mt. being the most outstanding. It seemed to follow us for the next few days.

At 6 PM we arrived in Phaplu in the Solukhumbu region, and stayed at The Everest Hotel.

Our traveling companion was a young woman, Passang, who had come to fill out the necessary documents for a student visa to study in the U.S. She was hoping to receive a scholarship to Knox college in Illinois. Passang spoke excellent English and had a knowledge of government and history not unlike so many other young people we’d met in Nepal and India. She also knew a lot about our election and was concerned about our new president and his impact on the world stage. She wondered, also, how she would be accepted in the United States, as a foreigner.

Tomorrow our trek would begin. But tonight it’s a hearty meal and a very comfortable bed!

ASIANA, HERE WE COME! FROM BUCKETS OF RAIN TO BASKETS OF SUNSHINE….

A good reason to go to India and Nepal in late November. We also needed to get away from the chaos of the recent election and concentrate on the chaos of Asia. But, alas, that was not to be. We were bombarded on every side by, “What happened to your country? What is going on? Why did you do it? (Who… Me?) Not even in the high ridges of the Himalayas did we escape questions about our election results. I couldn’t help noticing that many of our Nepalese and Indian friends knew more about our government and its legendary philosophy than a good portion of voting Americans. They were used to feeling helpless in the face of quixotic leaders and national disruption. But they thought we were different. Amazing how we are beginning to adopt Third World strategies and rhetoric as the weeks unfold. Meanwhile, moving right along….

This was our first foray onto Asiana Airlines through Seoul to Delhi. I kept thinking, “I must have forgotten something, because my bags are so much lighter.” Yes, they were. At last I had put into practice what I had learned thirty years ago on my first backpacking trip around the world. What you take you carry. There ain’t nobody else gonna’ do it!

Never before had I flown over Russia, and it was exciting to look down at the pristine wilderness—mountains glistening with ice and the Sea of Okhotsk, the Bering Sea, and the North Pacific Ocean rolling out before us in rapid succession.

Luxuriating in our business class seats, thanks to Cary’s skillful maneuvering of our frequent flyer miles (they’re all gone, now, folks), we slept our way to Delhi, so were wide awake at 1:15 AM when Ashwani, our Indian friend from Bir, picked us up and drove us to Dharamsala.

Many of the roads and “fly-overs” leading out of Delhi are new, having been built by the Chinese. Still, we had the predictable wild ride when we reached the outlying areas, racing around the hills and taking chances by passing trucks on curves with the usual Indian aplomb. But I always enjoy the drive up the steep hill (seven kilometers) from Lower Dharamsala to McLeod Ganj, past numerous tall buildings hanging onto every cliffside, and ending as we come upon the Namgyal Monastery where the Dalai Lama lives. It was like returning home when we moved into the Pema Thang Hotel, high on a hill overlooking town. It was already Sunday, November 27th. We had skipped a whole day!

A lot had changed since last year. A new parking garage had been built on the cliff opposite the Ten Yang Café, our favorite coffee shop, and the road to town had been freshly cobbled. Businesses seemed to be flourishing with new ones springing up along the way. But it was still perilous to walk on the sidewalk-less roads, dodging cars and trucks and wishing horns had never been invented.

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Excitement prevailed on our first morning. The Dalai Lama was returning from Mongolia and within the hour would arrive by motorcade at his temple gates. Huge crowds lined the streets, many of them Tibetans, dressed in their native garb. The Chinese had forbidden them to stay in India and go to the Kalachakra empowerment at Bodhgaya, but the Dalai Lama had promised them a special spontaneous lecture that afternoon, and they were thrilled. We were also privileged to attend the lecture.

After the excitement of seeing and hearing the Dalai Lama, we headed up the street to see if we could change some money. Little did we know what was in store for us! We had heard about the demonitization of the Indian rupee before we arrived (stripping a particular unit of currency of its status as legal tender), but had no idea of its impact on foreigners and Indians alike. Fortunately, Ashwani, our taxi driver, who runs a small convenience store in Bir, had put aside 10,000 rupees in 100 rupee bills for us, knowing we would be unable to get small denominations when changing money upon arrival. What a favor that was!

All 500 and 1,000 rupee notes had been taken out of circulation and the government planned to replace them with new ones. This was Prime Minister Modi’s surprise move in the hopes of eliminating black money—illegal, untaxed money that is earned on the black market—and moving the country to a digital economy.

Unfortunately, it was ill-planned, according to many people, and sorely affected the poorer segments of the society and those who needed small bills to do business. Lines at the bank wound through the street and down the hill, reminding me of our gas crisis in the ‘70s. And by the time people had waited for eight or ten hours, there was no more money left. Chaos was the operative word.

We headed for our usual money-changer. Forget it. He was closed. No money. Eventually, and luckily, we were able to find a shopkeeper that had a side business in exchanging US $ cash for rupees. Where they found all those 100 Rs notes we will never know, when the banks and regular money changers had run out.

We used some of our precious rupees at a lovely handicraft store owned by a charming Indian/Kashmiri woman, Sunanda. As with so many of the businesswomen we met, she was well-informed, highly intelligent, and had a wide circle of friends around the world. Her handicrafts were lovely and one of her handwoven runners is now gracing the dining room table in Cary’s new home at Upper Langley.

You may remember my writing about another friend I’ve known since 2011, Bilal Ahmed Gunna, who runs the Paradise Arts shop, with beautiful Kashmiri tapestries and rugs, and says that I’m the toughest bargainer he’s ever met. High praise, eh!? Here is a photo taken in 2014.

We stopped by his shop, eager to see him again, but he was in Srinigar getting married, and his friend, Jacob, was holding down the fort. We talked for a long time with this charming gentleman, getting an overview of Indian-Kashmiri problems and the custom of arranged marriage and family life from his perspective. We live in a varied world, indeed.

As we always do on our first day in Dharamsala, we walked kora around the temple at dusk, and headed up the hill, bathed in the orange glow of the setting sun.

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