Walking Home

reveries of an amateur long-distance hiker

Feb 25-27

February 27th, 2016

Feb 25 – 27

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Daily life in Kathmandu: I have taken off my trekking shoes for a few days to take care of some trek planning, catch up on correspondence, and get some writing done. Daily life in Kathmandu is now an exercise in familiarity, in part because my habits are so regular: waking early, checking the news or sometimes even watching it, if the hotel electricity happens to be on (there is no clear pattern to the daily outages that I can discern, and the only Internet site that I have found which lists it is written in Nepali). Morning coffee and writing at the Himalaya Java–2$ omelette, 1$ coffee, take that Starbucks– followed by midday running errands, a quiet late afternoon and dinner, usually at the New Orleans cafe.

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I am a familiar face in those haunts and so am greeted warmly. Also I’ve met a number of expats who follow a similar pattern– interesting folks all. It is a narrow form of living, but for now, comfortable and productive. Soon enough I’ll be back in the wilds of the Himalayas.

 

Feb 24

February 25th, 2016

Feb 24

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Woke in my favorite hotel with no electricity which is of course a regular occurrence in Kathmandu–power is only on about half the time. That is as much as I am roughing it back here in the city after my warm-up trek in Helambu. Technological differences tend to be what we first notice when visiting other places. The deeper into the mountains, the fewer conveniences, the simpler the life. Many writers, including some I highly respect, will often describe this as stepping “back in time.” I understand what they mean. In isolated rural areas, the daily practices of the people living there are often quite similar to those of their ancestors. A farmer tilling narrow terraced fields with a short-handled heavy hoe is a scene that has been repeated for centuries if not millennia, so for visitors, it is of an antique simplicity. However the “back in time” attitude is the result of a parochial sense of modernity. Yes, without doubt, the people living in, say, Melamchigaon are not working in sanitized, hermetically-sealed, climate-controlled environments staring at computer screens all day, but they are living in the 21st century, surrounded by artifacts of that era including the ubiquitous steel and aluminum sheathing, cell phones, quallofil polyester jackets, airplanes and helicopters circling, soldiers patrolling with automatic weapons. While they may not be in a high-tech envelope, they, like the vast majority of the world’s population, are in the true or larger modern world. The place where they live and work is a hybrid of high tech and traditional practices that a narrow, hyper-modern view overlooks. What the “back in time” trope brings is a sense of distance from and a concomitant blindness to the hybrid nature of all our modernities. Silicon Valley daily life is also full of activities long practiced by humans but overlooked in pursuit of a digital totality. Ezra Pound’s plea to “make it new” starts with an “it” that is modernized, but the “it” and all its deep history is sedimented in that “new.” Stepping into Melamchigaon is not a temporal disjunction. It is spatial. It is stepping into a different modern world.

 

T. Hugh Crawford

Feb 23

February 25th, 2016

Feb 23

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A restless night, punctuated by snuffling dogs, moaning cattle, and some early rising Nepalis. The hike out for this part of the Helambu trek is pretty much all road walking and it turns out Timbu is the first stop for buses heading to Melamchi and even on to Kathmandu. Hmmm, the adventure of a famous Nepali bus ride compared to a dusty 18 km road walk to Melamchi– easy decision. The man at the bus stop said the first one left at 5:30 am with the others starting at seven and running on the hour. He added that the 5:30 was a fast bus to Kathmandu. Although I’m in no great hurry to get back to the city, it seemed a good idea to catch a bus that wouldn’t take all day, so I set my tent alarm early, though the livestock served that purpose just as well. For a moment it was just like being back on a New Zealand trail, waking in my tent, efficiently packing up my gear, folding the tent, and setting out in the early morning light, but my walk was just up to the stop where a bus was parked. First to arrive, I walked around the bus and was startled by the voice of the driver sitting in the darkened vehicle. It operates with a team of three men who sleep on the bus. They take up the seats and make beds on the floor and in the driver’s area. I was early and disturbed their last moments of sleep, but they soon were bustling around putting things back in order, starting up the bus, collecting 280 NPR from me, then honking their horn loudly and repeatedly. Apparently the entire village is awakened every morning at 5:20 with the imminent departure horn. Soon we were on our way, the bus tossing and rocking through deep ruts, around huge boulders recently rolled into the road, and horn blaring more often than not. One of the team stationed himself at the side door which was held open by a u-clamp. They stopped wherever someone flagged them down, occasionally piling into the aisles huge bags of grain to be taken to Melamchi. Many of the early passengers were schoolchildren, so for a while it felt and sounded like a schoolbus. Given the circumstances of their homes, which often remain temporary steel shelters with the cooking and washing done outside, the students’ school clothes were crisp and clean as if straight from the dry cleaners. Soon the bus filled up so I had to sit with my pack on my lap as I’d didn’t want to risk putting it on the roof (which was managed by one of the team– they tended to rotate stations). Of course the seats are small and my shins banged hard against the one in front with every bump. The windshield was decorated with red tassels, and soon Nepali music blared loudly accompanied by the horn. We made stops that were barely stops– the bus would slow a bit, some hopped off, some on. The three drivers were particularly adept at snagging the rail while the bus was moving fast, like freight-hoppers nailing a drag. Down the river valley we went, bouncing on a deeply rutted dirt road. The first time we changed drivers I learned why it was the fast bus. They drove the same route as the others, only faster. The main driver would speed up, blast the horn, go into a controlled drift in the gravel, then accelerate on the short straights. As the morning wore on, the school children were replaced by older workers on their way into the valley and those like me going all the way to the city. I found myself sitting for most of the journey with a fascinating man who had been in Melamchi visiting his parents and was on his way back to his office in Kathmandu. An active leader in one of the major political parties, he also was active in helping the rural communities get back on their feet by building schools and other town structures.

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We talked on across the landscape which, as we circled east of Kathmandu changed, flattening out geographically and clearly not as heavily affected by the quake. We passed many brickyards where I could see workers molding and stacking clay bricks and tiles, soon passing a valley with tall pot-bellied brick kiln chimneys smoking away, surrounded by bright red bricks. A lot of building needs to happen here. After a few hours, we turned onto a road paved by the Chinese government connecting Tibet with Kathmandu. In a short while the bus began to make a noise that sounded like a worn-out bearing. The driver turned into a lot next to a truck dealership, one of the three picked up some wrenches and in about twenty minutes switched out the universal joint on the drive shaft. Most of the passengers didn’t even get off the bus, and soon we were on our way. Arriving at the city, my new friend showed me where to find a taxi to get back to Thamel, and we parted reluctantly, such a kind man. With my backpack, dusty shoes, and five-day stench, I found an outside table at my favorite coffee shop, ordered lunch– a club sandwich, not Dal Bhat– and arranged lodging at my favorite hotel for the next week. Kathmandu feels more comfortable now, and all the folks at hotel smiled at my return, making me feel welcome. Had a good talk with former mountain guide who had not been in the Helambu region since the quake and had many questions I was happy to try to answer. Hot shower, great dinner at the New Orleans Cafe and of course early to bed in a place that did not feature cattle.

T. Hugh Crawford

Feb 22

February 24th, 2016

Feb 22

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An early morning gong booming, the singing of prayers by my friend, and the crowing of roosters stirred me out of bed. Today’s goal was Kakani, which should have made for a short walk, though I was having trouble reconciling my GPS device with the published Helambu map. On the map, Kakani is a town with full amenities (school, monastery, and a guest house), but it does not even appear on my GPS, nor does the trail for this section. Not worried about getting the Helambu merit badge, I plotted a route to get me generally in the place I needed to be. The Helambu track is basically a hike up and down a river valley (the Melamchi River). Starting on the western side, it follows high ridges until Thadepati, then drops down to Melamchigaol which is at the headwaters, so today’s trek would be down the eastern side of the river valley. I lounged in my cot for a while before starting to pack and then was called to breakfast which definitely included “free range” eggs as they were from the yesterday’s rice-eating chicken. Couple that with a pancake covered with honey and two cups of black tea, and I was ready for the day. Not anticipating a long day’s walk, I roamed the village a bit, peering into the wreck of the monastery. One room not completely destroyed had a huge prayer wheel, still there but tilted and unspinnable.

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There was a Buddhist monk in robes and some high tech running shoes- such is the modernity of Melanchigaon. After saying warm goodbyes to my hosts, I turned my head south. The descent out of the highlands was not easy. The path was clear, but the way was steep. Just below Tarkeghyang there were two routes south according to my map. I chose the one to the right hoping it would lead to Kakani. It was a well-formed road that was no longer used by vehicles because of rockslides. On the way out I stopped by a stream for water. Many of the people living here will make a small pool in a falling stream, four or five inches deep, and then punch holes in the base of a half-liter plastic soda bottle and attach a hose coupling to the top. Place it in the pool and run the hose to the house and, voila, instant plumbing. Taking care not to disturb anyone’s water supply, I filled my Nalgene and then steri-penned it, missing those days on the South Island of New Zealand where you could scoop a liter of icy water from a stream and drink it down without concern. On the road, I soon passed a very old, slow-moving man who was partially deaf. I startled him as I passed giving the traditional “namaste.” He then smiled and asked “where?” I replied “Timbu” as it was the primary place-name on both maps. He nodded, saying he was going there too. We walked together briefly, but clearly our paces did not align, so bidding him goodbye I went ahead. The roads have many switchbacks sometimes cut short by footpaths. Very soon after parting, I heard a sharp whistle, and the man stood there gesturing toward the footpath just in front of me instead of the road. I smiled, bowed, and thanked him as best I could from the distance. He saved me a kilometer or more, and it was a path well-worth walking, going through a series of recently cultivated terraced fields, including some full grown with winter wheat. Still, most of the day was a long road walk and the dust was inches deep. There were wide flat spots, but when slides occurred, it became steep and narrow, requiring serious concentration. I lost altitude all day, and one point found myself going down a steep switchback just behind some teenagers. There was a youth camp nearby and they were on their way to a ceremony dressed in their absolute best Nepali clothes but still goofing the way a group of teenagers does. As the day wore on, I considered going straight to Timbu which was clearly a decent sized village, but my map did not show lodging there. It did indicate a small trail heading up to Kakani from the road, so at a cluster of houses I asked about the town. According to my GPS I was only about 2 km from Timbu, but it was midday, plenty of time to find Kakani. Some men pointed toward a steep path which I followed for more than a half hour. Walking was difficult because they were preparing the fields and the dirt was soft. Halfway up were a number of women with short heavy hoes working their way through the narrow terraces. They waved, signaling I should continue climbing. Near the top, the path gave out, and I made my way to the edge of a set of freshly planted terraces. With some difficulty I climbed up (they are an unwieldy height) and found myself at the back side of a village. Walking around, the entrance to Kakani (or maybe Gangyul? It is unclear as the maps conflict) was a stupa and a school on a hill. A sign for a hotel and cold drinks greeted me, but walking up the path revealed only rubble. At a nearby house, a young mother said there were no guest houses in town, but she sold me a cold Mountain Dew. I’m fairly certain its been at least 45 years since having one of those. I shared a little with her young son who drank with a frowning seriousness, then set off for Timbu which now was over six km by the road. My choice was to go back the way I came, or hoof it hard down the road. Putting on my seven-league boots, I took off, descending rapidly. Down lower the plants became tropical, including what looked like banana trees. Just outside a house near town, an elderly woman walked out as I passed giving me a very loud and happy “namaste,” and then said “Timbu!” pointing down the slope. It seems the only words I share with the Nepalese are greetings and place names. Another kilometer brought Timbu with only one hotel that had no rooms available. They offered to let me sleep outside on a small patch of grass next to a pen with some large black Nepalese cows (they made a strange grunting sound all night).

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After pitching my tent, I opted not to hang out with the cattle and instead returned to the hotel for drinks and dinner, starting with a large cold beer which just then was indescribably delicious. I sat in the setting sun watching a crew of men hand-hewing beams for floor joists. They only flattened two sides and didn’t worry if the log was crooked as long as the two flattened sides were in the same plane. It was fascinating work, reminding me of hewing beams with broad axes on the Thoreau House Project some years ago. The hotel had a large kitchen garden and the owners had many children. The older ones were harvesting large roots they called taro while the younger ones whooped, hollered, and fist bumped me while I tried to write. An uncle showed up with a freshly caught fish–looked like a Nepalese catfish–which he cleaned with a large cleaver sharpened on the concrete curb while, on the hill above, an old woman sat cross-legged winnowing grain with a large flat basket. There was too much to see. They offered fish for dinner, but the younger children were so excited about it, I had dal bhat instead (again). The sun set and I made my way to the barnyard, now joined by some stray dogs, and crawled into my tent content.

T. Hugh Crawford

Feb 21

February 24th, 2016

Feb 21

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A light rain last night cleared the wood smoke and haze from the air, and the sun shone on a bright morning at Hotel Namaste. I breakfasted outside on pancakes with yak butter which tastes much like cow’s butter only more oily and has a tang– that might be because they have no refrigeration and it is a bit rancid. After making my farewells to the family, it was off to the longest ascent of this trek–over about ten kilometers going from 2470 to 3670 meters. For a little context, that is 12,040 feet. Mt. Katahdin is 5269 while Mt. Rainer is 14,409. This first bit was fairly level and good walking, and I soon arrived at a small village, more like a checkpoint, complete with automatic rifle toting military personnel charging 3600 NPR to enter the next part of the trek. Money is something of a concern as there is no way to use a card and most places places will not even take a 1000 NPR note. After the checkpoint, the path was very steep for about two hours. My cold (which has gotten worse) and the altitude forced many short breaks. Even though the sun is shining and I am sweating in just a t-shirt, there are patches of snow in the shadows and occasionally the trail ices over. The forests have transitioned from oak and beech to pine and juniper, but still have the ubiquitous rhododendron. By 11:00 I arrived at the outskirts of Mangengoth, stopping for lunch at the GreenView Lodge, a place run by relatives of the Namaste Hotel family. Like most larger buildings up in the mountains, the lodge has strings of prayer flags across the surrounding open space, and their fluttering always triggers old memories. When I was growing up in the valley of Virginia, the gas stations (what we called “filling stations”)–Esso, Sinclair, Cities Service — had traditional street signs but also decorated their lots with guy wires strung with multi-colored flags and spinning propellers. It was always easy to find a station because of the color and motion. Catching that moving color here out of the corner of my eye, I get a twinge of recognition. But here, up in these mountains, resting on a stone wall beside yet another ruin, the flags make it sound as if someone is still there rustling about. The descent from Mangengoth took me across fields past empty but still functional buildings, then the path got serious as it climbed up from 3420 to 3690 meters. That is definitely higher than I have ever been, but here it is still not above tree line. The forest remained primarily pine and juniper, though becoming more scrub-like as the afternoon progressed. Ahead was a peak the path would go around, but I could see that a recent rockslide had sheared off most of its face. As I feared, the trail rerouted at that point. The foot stones were fresh and there were small cairns signaling the way, but as it turned out, in order to get past the slip, the path went almost to the top, and my altitude sensitive muscles went on full alert. Until this point, the hour estimates printed on my map had been spot on, but the walk from Mangengoth to Thadepati Bhanjyand was listed as one hour and had taken 2 1/2. Not sure what the kilometer’s were, but at this altitude that is of little consequence. On that path I did scare up two magnificent birds which I think were pheasants– large, with bright blue head feathers that ruffled at the crown. Finally made it to Thadepati and debated finding a room there or descending to Melamchigaon. The latter was only another four km and all downhill, but it would be very steep. Not wanting to start something I couldn’t complete, I rested and evaluated my physical status. The Te Araroa had many long afternoon descents so I understood my limitations but needed to factor in altitude. At the top was a lone man who ran the lodge. We sat and talked as best we could, but mostly enjoyed the warm afternoon sun on those high rocks. I pushed on. It was a steep descent that took several hours moving rapidly through microclimates finally settling into a beech forest, a tree I’ve always loved though near the bottom the piles of leaves obscured the path which made me wonder if the beech here, like those in Georgia, hold their dead leaves until spring when the new leaves push them off. That would explain why here in late winter there are so many intact leaves obscuring the path. After crossing a rickety swinging bridge and climbing a hill, I found Melanchigaon, excited about visiting the Buddhist monastery there. Walking down the alleys–there is no main street–all was rubble. This town too was severely hit by the quake with barely a stone building left standing. The monastery was perhaps the saddest, with its beautiful multi-layered roof tilted and fallen.

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The Himalayan Lama Lodge had also fallen in, replaced by a wooden structure with a corrugated roof. I was met in a tiny entry yard by a man with a welcoming glint in his eyes who called himself a lama. His wife joined us, her face framed by a copper-colored head scarf, and we all three watched as one of their chickens pecked up the rice that had just been dumped on the bare dirt. I arranged for a room and dinner, and she kindly showed me my room, a space defined by 3/4″ boards set out under the large metal roof. It had several narrow cots and a breeze coming through the cracks and knots. Glad I carrying a 0-degree sleeping bag. Next door were the toilets, showing a certain humor in the face of such devastation. One labeled “Eastern toilet” was a traditional porcelain footprint over a hole with a bucket of water and dipper nearby. The other door, labeled “Western toilet,” opened onto a pile of rubble. For dinner, the woman offered a menu but her husband definitively said “Dal Bhat,” so it was settled.

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Still suffering from a cold, I took a short nap, then joined them for dinner. Like the Namaste Hotel, the room was low and dark. Toward the back were piles of bedding. This building was corrugated steel like so many others– hard to keep warm and equally hard to keep cool. Across the front wall were wooden shelves holding all of the food storage, condiments, and utensils. Along with huge teapots, the primary cooking pots were pressure cookers polished to a high sheen. All the metal pots, cups, and plates were scoured to a high shine, which I have a hard time understanding. Back in my Boy Scout days, cooking with aluminum cookware over an open wood fire would blacken a pot beyond cleaning. Here the brightware is bright and they seem not to even use soap. In the middle of the room by that wall was a wood stove. Set on a concrete slab, it was a u shaped low masonry rim about six inches high topped by a sheet iron plate with a large hole in the middle and a hole at the back for the steel pipe chimney. Wood was fed through the open front under the iron plate. I was invited to sit on the rug-covered floor next to the stove–the only warm place available–though I was careful to leave the space right beside the stove for my new friend, the somebody lama. He sat close, put his hand on my knee and smiled deeply, such a warm and welcoming man. We shared few words but were able to determine relative ages –I’m 59, he’s 63–and then we both settled into the quiet while his wife prepared the meal. She did most everything though he would occasionally hop up to stir things or bring in more wood. She talked the entire time she was cooking, though I don’t think it was directed toward anyone in particular. Rather it was part of a marvelous choreography of gestures. There was no kitchen–no granite countertops (though I bet granite mined here finds its way into upscale American kitchens), no Sub-Zero refrigerators, gas range, or microwave, not even cabinets–but her skill and dexterity was a show, and of course the meal was excellent. We sat there together, huddled around the dying stove, each glowing according to our own satisfactions. Reluctantly I took my leave and groped my way in the dark back to my cot for a good night’s sleep.

 

T. Hugh Crawford

Feb 20

February 23rd, 2016

Feb 20

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Slept straight through the night and woke at 6:00, courtesy of my fellow hotel guests. The people of Nepal tend to be early risers, one of the things I most like about the country this far. Went to sleep at 8:00 so that was 10 hours plus the three or four of my nap– I hope it is the altitude, otherwise something is really wrong with me. Definitely plan to take it slow today. Sima, the daughter of the hotel manager was also up and at it early. Yesterday in the car the driver was playing traditional Nepali music though by modern musicians. It was fascinating but will require some diligence to appreciate. In the hotel this morning, some young Nepalis started their day with the Grateful Dead — quite a contrast but somehow fitting. Electricity here is usually off, and the hotel’s backup light system is on the shelf– a trickle charger and a car battery. I’m stiff this morning, feeling my age. These last weeks I’ve questioned these treks, wondering if I’m being selfish or even foolish, but then I look out at these mountains and realize that in a few years I won’t be able to explore them on foot which is the only way to do it. The construction workers, young and old, squat over piles of rubble, picking out bricks and cleaning them with masonry hammers. When they get a good pile, they load them in baskets with shoulder straps and a tump line (a strap that goes across the forehead), squat down and slowly rise, carrying the load to the mason’s building the wall. Leaving Chispani was an easy walk to Pati Bhanjyang along a dirt road. On the road I kept seeing lines of small caterpillars. They looked like little wooly bears nose to tail in a line ten or fifteen long with a leader burrowing through the dust. A Land Rover passed me and offered a ride, but I’m not ready to yellow blaze this one just yet. At Pati I started to go the wrong way, but some men on the hill yelled and pointed the right direction. Turns out the trail was a set of steps going up to a hotel, and then curving around it to go straight up a steep hill. Since much of the rest of the day would be spent climbing, I stopped and had a Coca Cola, the first in at least a decade. It was pretty much the only thing in the window, and I thought a little caffeine would help my head. It was a Saturday so there was a crowd in front of the restaurant part of the hotel (more a counter than a restaurant) and the woman behind the counter overcharged me for the drink. I hiked on out and at some point made a wrong turn and ended up walking a path parallel to the Helambu for a few kilometers taking me through the village of Chipling before rejoining the true path up on a high pass. Altitude for much of the day was around 2400 meters, and I seem to be adjusting fine to it now (which is good as tomorrow will be spent around 3600). My navigational difficulties result from my iPhone GPS program spelling the names of the towns differently than my paper map. The map does not have enough fine grained information to help me decide which way to turn at an intersection which makes the phone valuable, so coordinating information between them requires patience. That’s the price I pay for not using a guide. Clearly it is an unusual choice (everyone is surprised that I am alone) but I so prize my walking solitude.

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The entire day smelled of smoke as the farmers are burning off the terraced fields in preparation for spring planting. Some people had finished burning and now were turning their fields with short-handled, heavy hoes. Part of the day was through a bamboo forest, and just outside Chipling a man was splitting bamboo with an axe that had a bit with a lengthened, curved heel tapering to a point. I watched him split for a while, and he then showed me a curved knife similar to a machete he uses to cut the bamboo. Much of the day was hiking through an agricultural countryside. At one point I inadvertently drove some stray cattle back along the road to a village. Unlike in the States or New Zealand (with its almost mythic no. 8 wire), here there are no fences. Most people’s livestock are a cow or two, maybe half dozen goats, and some chickens. They keep them tied, sometimes turning them out to forage. Chickens peck around the yards, but are also kept individually under large baskets. They just plop the basket over them–instant chicken coop. My plan for the day was a short hike to Golphu Bhangyang which the map lists as having several guest houses. Most of the town was rubble, so I pushed on. I’m curious what the villages looked like before the quake. It is easy to see the effect it had on large buildings that are now on the ground, but I wonder how the individual houses were constructed. Today they are mostly wood frames sided with corrugated steel and seem temporary. I slept in corrugated steel huts hiking the Te Araroa. They keep out the wind somewhat, but are very cold. They do not retain heat in winter and are like ovens in the summer–a point confirmed by a woman I spoke with in a village here. Hiking out of Golphu, one of the last houses I passed was a low structure. As I walked by, I saw a counter displaying sodas and candy bars. Through the door were two men sitting at a table eating heaping plates of some dish I did not recognize. I think it was rice, vegetables with eggs mixed in. They motioned me in, and I took my place at the next table sitting across from a very old woman with a deeply lined face and legs as thin as sticks. I asked for tea, and the proprietor went outside with a pot, presumably to get hot water from a open fire. Accompanied by the loud lip-smacking and belching of my dining partners, I had a delightful conversation with the old woman though the only words we shared were Chisipani (my starting point) and Kutumsang (my ending point). The rest of the conversation was her talking and me signaling how I looked forward to sleeping in Kutumsang. The tea room had a dirt floor and the inside of the corrugated steel siding was lined with split bamboo, perhaps the handiwork of my axe-wielding friend. Every one there told me Kutumsang was a two hour walk which turned out to be accurate. Measuring distance here by kilometer makes no sense. You can toil an hour just to walk up a half kilometer’s worth of steps. Near the top of my long climb out of Golphu, I passed what must have been a small village complete with a guest house. It was arresting as all the buildings were now on the ground, and the place was deserted. Eight thousand people died in the quake, but I wonder now how many have been displaced and moved to the city. Most of the fields seem to be well-tended, so there are plenty of people here still working, but I did pass ones that were abandoned near the deserted village and wondered where the people went. There was an eerie silence there, save the rustling of faded prayer flags.

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On the map, Kutumsang is a village of some importance, but it too was devastated, so much of the “downtown” is rubble. This morning on leaving Chisipani, I discovered there were several hotels a little further into town which looked more inviting than the one where I stayed, so I made a mental note to walk most of a town before settling on lodging. In Kutumsang, I got to the Namaste Hotel and stopped. There a young woman with a baby welcomed me, we negotiated a price that I hope was generous, and once again I took a nap. That evening I was invited to sit with the family in the only warm room while the mother of the young child made Dal Bhat, clearly the dinner of choice on the Helambu trek. A wood stove is set into the floor in the room, and the baby’s father sat on a pile of rugs on the floor next to the stove keeping the one year old entertained while his mother and grandmother worked on the fire and cooked the meal. The child has one Western toy– a plastic friction powered car that looks like something you would get from a gas station promotion. He played with it, or rather his father played with it as he turned to all the bright colored plastic buckets on the lower shelf– small chaos ensued. Later the grandmother brought in more wood for the fire. Some small pieces were cut from old boards, and she set them up like blocks for the baby to knock down, a gesture accompanied by loud giggles. The mother kept singing “baa baa black sheep, have you any ool?” (she really didn’t need that “w”). It was fascinating watching the meal being prepared. Lots of big teapots and pressure cookers were placed over the holes on the flat top of the wood stove where flames from the fire shot up. She understood the heat and let things cook as if they were on a temperature controlled stovetop. She ground her spices and garlic with a mortar and pestle, scooping the material out deftly with a large silver spoon, one of many beautifully decorated ones which were hanging on the wall. I ate with the family, all the time laughing at the antics of the child. Such warm people, living so well.

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T. Hugh Crawford

Feb 19

February 23rd, 2016

Feb 19

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The combination of a upper respiratory infection, being out of shape, and altitude changes made for a short hiking day. I took a car from the center of Kathmandu to Sunjarijal, a small town out on the edge of the big city’s sprawl. It was a national holiday, and the traffic was bumper to bumper the whole way out, my driver zigging in and out of his lane. Actually “bumper to bumper” sounds much more orderly than it was. There were lines at the gas pumps, hundreds of motorcycles filling the street looking like the start of a long distance race. There was garbage being burned in the gutters, and even a dead cow on the side of the road along with a number of live ones lying in the gutters on top the garbage–quite the scene. The Helambu Trek is in the northeastern part of the Kathmandu Valley, an area hit very hard by last year’s earthquake. I was grateful to be outside the city finally, though it does go on for miles. The trail today was up through the Shivapuri Nagarjun National Park starting out around 1200 meters and topping out at 2430 before descending down into Chisipani (that is 7972 feet which is a good bit higher than all the East Coast mountains). The path was not so much a nature trail as it was the path that people living in these mountains use to get around. It passes through a number of settlements which are primarily subsistence farming, growing winter wheat and then corn on terraced hillsides. Many goats and some cows are tethered by the buildings, most now eating corn stalks or forage cut from beech trees. After the first long set of steps, I was stopped at a military installation to buy the permit to hike an Eco center. It was a little intimidating at first since the soldiers carried automatic weapons and frowned the way you would expect them to. I talked to several and all were surprised I was hiking without a guide. They asked if I had children (a very common question) and soon one young man wanted to come along. We all laughed a bit stumbling through language. After the ticket agent finished his mid-morning meal, I got my pass which was immediately checked by the military man I had just finished talking to. The nature preserve is supposed to have leopards, monkeys, Ghoral, Himalayan Black Bear, and wild boar. Listening intently and watching carefully, the only thing I heard was a large animal moving through the jungle at a pace more closely resembling a domestic farm animal. On my way out of the park I did see a cow in the woods chewing beech leaves. The forest included oak and rhododendron, so parts resembled the “green tunnel” of the Appalachian Trail. In Mulkharka, a small village, I sat for a while at a “tea room” front porch. It was a stone building with a lot of packaged drinks in the window and some plastic chairs out under the porch. Across the way a woman was boiling water in a huge kettle over an open fire to wash clothes. The proprietor of the tea room, who only spoke Nepalese, was cooking over an open fire in the front yard. Her cousin, who lives in the city, was visiting for the holiday, and we talked about the many dialects spoken across the country. A handsome young man whose phone would go off occasionally but still he seemed right at home in this distant place. Like the others, he asked why I walked alone. I told him I liked the solitude, and he said “solitude makes for thinking.” By noon, after climbing what my phone said were 250 floors, I was unusually exhausted and found myself taking breaks every couple kilometers. The last two into Chisipani were downhill, but I was still feeling it. The town has several large masonry hotels but the earthquake hit hard, completely destroying several of them. Two were still intact, but had moved off their foundations and were sitting crooked in a field.

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I went to the Hotel Annapurna Mountain View–Annapurna was nowhere to be seen given the smoke and haze. The proprietor, a nice 22 year old man with a beautiful 2 year old daughter named Sima, showed me to my room which was bare concrete with a few very hard beds– exactly what I expected. I got out my sleeping bag, put my sleeping mat down and immediately fell asleep from mid-afternoon until six. They called me for dinner — Dal Bhat (Nepalese lentil curry)– and brought many extra helpings. After a quiet meal I went straight back to bed. This altitude is kicking my ass.

 

T. Hugh Crawford

Feb 18

February 18th, 2016

Feb 18

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Kafka taught me years ago to fear bureaucracy. Today I dutifully walked down to the Nepal Tourism Board to get trekking passes. I used to be puzzled by people wearing surgical masks in cities, but here they are pretty much required. The dust when walking the streets gets deep in your lungs. Couple that with the sheer craziness of motorcycles, scooters, cars and people moving at different rates in the same space, and at times it feels like one of those car race video games where I keep waiting to see the accident unfold in front of me, but everyone veers off at just the right moment in a bizarre human-machine ballet. The road bordered a large field where the Nepalese Army was parading, complete with horses. I arrived at the NTB just when they opened and soon filled out three lengthy forms for the various required permits. I carefully entered all the information required, happy to have plenty of ID photos and all the proper documents. Still, it was with trepidation that I presented my forms to a staffer who barely looked at them and instead took my 4000 NPR, stamped some cards and handed them back with a smile. Kafka should have let Joseph K come to Nepal; it would have saved him considerable anxiety. I later stopped at my Himalaya Java for a coffee where I met a San Francisco dentist who was originally from Nepal. Good looking guy with bright white teeth he seemed to like to flash, a good advertisement I suppose. Turns out he is here interviewing women to be his wife. He had been sitting talking with an interesting and engaging woman, though I’m not sure if she was a candidate for matrimony, guess I should have listened to their conversation more closely. Then I ducked out for lunch having now found some good street food stalls– had a large plate of dumplings for $1. On the way back I stopped to watch a crew of kids working in a pile of rubble that had once been a multistory brick building. Apparently they were doing some new foundation work, wiring together rebar grids. A young boy was cutting it to length with a dull hacksaw. Rebuilding is a slow and arduous process. I’ve arranged for transportation to Sundarijal tomorrow morning. It’s about 25 km from Kathmandu and the starting point for the Helambu trail. It works its way through some not too-high mountains north toward Tibet. It is a highly recommended trek and a good warm up for the Annapurna circuit which I’ll start near the end of the month. After picking up some snacks and toilet paper from the “super market” I laid out my equipment to be ready to leave first thing in the morning, then spent a few hours finishing re-reading Peter Matthiesson’s magnificent Snow Leopard which is about a trek north west of the Annapurna circuit in the Dolpo region. I wanted to follow his narrative of trekking in Nepal as a student Buddhism. Instead I found myself studying his style, hoping to learn his descriptive energy. Then I made my way back to the New Orleans Cafe, a place that for some reason makes me think of Hemingway. Sitting in the courtyard tonight I better understand the name. Along with a jazz soundtrack and occasional live music, the structures rising up around the courtyard give a real French Quarter feel, though it is clearly Nepal as the heavy wood columns supporting three stories of brick are intricately carved, the capitals depict scenes from some version of the Kama Sutra. Tonight the black cat prowls on the tin awning above the courtyard while a boxer mongrel patrols the ground floor.

Feb 17

February 17th, 2016

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Another early morning, still without electricity, I spent the early hours running down my iPad checking internet sites planning my hike. I’m still not sure why the wifi works when the electricity is out but they do have a low voltage backup which I guess powers the router. Himalaya Java was calling me though, so a breakfast of pancakes and a couple of cups of coffee were a great way to start the morning. CNN was on the television so I got all up to date with the current US political controversies — today it was the republicans blocking any Supreme Court appointment Obama would dare to make and the Kendrick Lamar Grammy performance. Race pervades it all. I wandered a bit, happening onto a shop in a narrow alley where many women were stooped over, carving prayers on stones. Nearby were wood carvers, keeping alive the art so in evidence in the partially ruined temples I walked through at Durbar square. And of course, at every turn someone wanting to be a guide or to sell me hash (or both). Thankfully checked out of the hotel and carried my pack a few short blocks to the Hotel Amaryllis– a clean, well-maintained place at the end of an alley just off the street with most of the trekking stores. There is a little plot of grass out front, the only green I’ve seen just yet. I’m hoping it will all lighten my mood– the past few days I’ve been a bit down, worrying over paperwork from school, messages, etc. and not yet embracing the adventure I’m beginning. Finished out by visiting the Kathmandu Environmental Education Project where I spoke a long time with the director about planning treks– a really helpful conversation that will guide my decisions in the coming days. That also stoked my enthusiasm to get back out on the trail.┬áHad dinner at the New Orleans Cafe, an interesting courtyard restaurant bearing almost no relation to New Orleans except vegetarian jambalaya and a jazz soundtrack. Their specialty seems to be wine and meat cooked on a smokey grill on the edge of the courtyard. A black cat prowls the dining area, crying for scraps. It was on a very quiet alley, primarily populated by tourists or expats. A lot of American accents but they seemed to be discussing relief efforts and the like, not planning to bungie jump the next day. After dinner, I ordered a second glass of wine (been avoiding alcohol these past days) to listen to traditional Nepali instruments playing jazz–a trio on Tabala (drum) Basuri (wooden flute), and sarangi (a lute-like stringed instrument played with a bow). It was a magical place to end the day.

T. Hugh Crawford

Feb 16

February 17th, 2016

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Woke very early– still on Malaysia or maybe Wellington time. Actually I woke up a few times in the middle of the night as well. The Silver Home Hotel is cheap, so I’m saving money, but it’s also pretty low-rent. My room has a strange smell I just can’t quite get used to, the ensuite bathroom is a little rough (though I guess it’s better than the one I stayed in the Dolomites which had a board over the floor-level toilet where you stood to take a shower). When anyone else runs water at the Hotel Silver Home it sounds as if its flowing through my bathroom. So, to continue in the mode of overly fastidious American tourist, I’ll note that the city is full of dogs who eat the garbage piled in the streets. They are everywhere (as I’m guessing are the rats but I haven’t seen them just yet).

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Most of the night the dogs were howling– first one, then another, and finally a third. They seem to prefer trios. Toward morning, when it just started to get light, they stopped, but then in started birds that sounded a lot like crows. I could not see them, but just like dogs, one would start, then the crew would join in. I left the hotel around seven to walk down Thamel Marge and get a feel for the city. No tourists were out, just people hurrying to work. The street was much easier to walk than later in the day when it gets very crowded, with constant honking from cars and scooters, so you have to jump out of their way. The streets are narrow with no sidewalks. People were watering the street in front of their shops presumably to keep down the dust (it doesn’t work). There is still plenty of rubble from the earthquake and dust settles everywhere. Many cook and heat with wood so the air quality is very bad, people cough a lot and spit everywhere. I passed a stupa where people feed the pigeons, great crowds of them (pigeons) circle amongst the prayer stones. On passing a fairly major intersection, the traffic was disrupted by a couple of cows wandering about. I made it down to Durbar square, then cut over east to the parks which are covered with rubble from earthquake excavation. There are large buildings that must have once been grand but now are in disrepair. I passed one with huge gardens in the front that have gone to ruin. Even the trees seemed dead. Circling back into Thamel, I passed a Himalaya Java, the local sorta Starbucks. Couldn’t resist what turned out to be a great cup of coffee, and a pleasant time with some wifi. It seems to be a gathering point for foreign trekkers or expats. Not tourists, but also not locals. Later in the day I toured Durbar Square, home to many temples and Royal buildings, most severely damaged by the earthquake. The wood carving on rafters and window casements was amazing, as was the damage suffered because of the quake. Most of the structures are brick masonry which vibrated into piles. All very sad. Later I wandered a bit in the area where all the treks are organized, going to have to make some decisions soon about starting the Annapurna Circuit, but want to get a good understanding of how things are here before committing to any course of action. Spent some time reconsidering my hostel– the electricity is almost never on, which might be a citywide issue but many of the places I have visited seem to have it more often. Continuing in fastidious mode, I opted to book an upgrade for the next two nights at what appears a nicer place– it has a great coffee shop right out front. Then went to the Roadhouse Cafe which is no way resembled any restaurants in America that might be called roadhouse, but it did have really good wood fired pizza. Pizza, a necessary food wherever you find yourself. I sat at a table in the window, quietly eating and reading Peter Matthiesson while two cute children who were obviously beggars tapped at the window only to be noisily chased from the front by the cafe maitre’d. An early night again, still adjusting to time change.

 

T. Hugh Crawford

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