Good horn, good brake, good luck.
– Niraj Maharjan, group leader and Nepalese saying
POKHARA NEPAL, 2700ft, 5 Oct: I travel in a country where Royal Nepal Airlines is now just Nepal Airlines but with only one plane left to fly one of its most popular routes. Sita is in the same boat due to crashes. And many of their airports are so poorly maintained, potholes on the runways prevent larger planes from landing. Distance is measured in hours, not km. They measure how many days it will take to walk as there are no passable roads. Our distinction is 132 miles but we must think in terms of time. On Nepalese roads it will take us at least six hours.
Today is the first day of a 10-day family-oriented Dashain/Mohani festival replete with feasting, donning of new clothes, kite flying, and animal sacrifice. Newspapers say a half million people will leave Kathmandu to rejoin families. Numbers would hardly be noticed except most will be traveling the same two lane Tribhuvan Highway we use to reach Pokhara.
I do not believe there is anything in Nepal that resembles a road for any stretch of distance. We travel in our little bus over dirt, rocks, potholes, deep ruts, thru mud and over bumps surrounded by honking motorbikes, buses, trucks, cattle, goats and people. And because of some rain – mud, mud, mud. It is wide enough for two lanes of traffic, a couple motorbikes to squeeze past a man and his buffalo. Then the passing truck who honks his intention to pass. The very few traffic lights are only for ornamentation. I swear I have only seen two or three. The center line is a waste of paint. One can ride in the back of the bus called ‘road rafting’ or the front ‘chicken seat’ facing oncoming traffic. The saying is “Good horn, good brake, good luck.”
The scenery is beautiful. Expanses of rice terraces, trees, and cloud-shrouded foothills. We drop a couple thousand feet out of the Kathmandu Valley along a winding, crowded road with some driving too fast (which means 35 miles an hour), some passing, goats tied to the top of buses and actually keeping to their feet, and a steady stream of trucks carrying Indian goods to Kathmandu (and most returning empty.) There are wide, silt-filled rivers rushing down the mountains and all benefiting from the 118+ inches of rain each year and providing opportunities for rafting and kayaking.
I am happy to be in the country away from the crowds of Kathmandu, the constant spitting in the streets, endless shops, clogged streets, uneven sidewalks, and stray dogs. As we bump along I can watch the rural life. It’s seems cleaner, simpler, and quieter. But what a hard life for the women as they tend to household chores, and carry heavy baskets of wood, water or grass on their backs.
On the bus, our leader speaks about the Royal massacre in 2001. He expressed the doubts of many people, too many questions were never answered. Doubt the Crown Prince killed family. Of all the people killed, none were from the future King Gyanrendra’s family. A mystery and people do not trust government. Feel close to India but wary of China. Hated the Rana leaders (kept Nepal’s borders closed into the 1950s when the Shahs took over). Nepal soldier earns $150 a month. Gurkha soldier earns more and their homes much nicer, have pension, have homes in other countries. Many rural people, and girls, joined Maoist to get revenge on the soldiers. Again expressed the economy relies on money sent from sons working in Southeast Asia and the Middle East. Every rural home has a son working in the Middle East.
We stop to visit a typical family home. Simple, dark, toilet in back, son’s room with wide-screen tv, cooking room filled with smoke, other nearby houses and rooms for extended family. It is a hard life for the women. All is neat and clean but I notice the house does not appear to have sealed windows and doors and must continually be cold and damp.
We enter Pokhara, its welcoming sign proudly informing us it is the “First defecation-free zone of Nepal.” I stay at the ShangriLa Village Resort. Our speaker for the evening talks about our upcoming trek. First, he bursts our bubble by explaining trekking is walking the mountains with no real destination. Hiking is going from lodge to lodge. Trekking is graded from A to H; ours will be an A/B hike of rocky trail with uneven stone steps that loop around. It is called the “Gin & Tonic” trail. Hill people we meet will be Tibetan-looking and friendly. Finally, the difference between mountains and foothills – mountains have snow. Much of what we hike will be tropical, much similar to Florida. Which means there will be leeches, though he feels we should only meet a couple.
Regardless of his definitions, we are all eager to get on the mountain to do our trekking of the Annapurnas. I’ll leave the gin and tonic for happy hour.