Nepal

Posted by Ellen

For at least the past fifteen hundred years, Swayambhunath Temple atop a high hill west of Kathmandu–the Monkey Temple–has been a holy site for Buddhists and Hindus both.

Hundreds of pilgrims climb the hill every morning before dawn (we're told), up a flight of more than three hundred steps to reach a temple plaza guarded by wooden lions. As the sun rises, the faithful start circling the huge white-domed stupa with its golden spire, spinning prayer wheels as they greet the dawn beneath Buddha's all-seeing painted eyes. Tibetan Buddhists circle the stupa clockwise; Nepali Buddhists go counter-clockwise. There are lots of both.

In addition to the stupa, the Monkey Temple complex features numerous shrines and temples, a monastery, and vendors selling everything from strawberries and tiger balm to postcards and mandalas.

One of the most popular shrines is to a Hindu deity, Heriti, the goddess of smallpox and childhood diseases. Apparently, Heriti is a fertility goddess who developed a niche specialty: keeping children alive till the age of twelve and curing smallpox even in adults. Because divine protection of this sort is much in demand but Buddhism lacked a deity with expertise, Heriti was borrowed from the Hindus. At her shrine, people bring flowers and gifts, both to enlist her aid and to thank her for good work. A donations box has been set up directly in front of her statue.

The whole hill does swarm with monkeys. People who live nearby complain that monkeys venture out into the neighborhood and eat everything green in people's gardens.

Posted by Ellen

There's a lot going on up on the rooftops around Kathmandu–clotheslines and gardens and solar water heaters and stovepipes and a lot of other stuff beyond my understanding.

This scene was in Bhaktapur, capital city of one of the three ancient kingdoms of the Kathmandu valley, about half an hour's drive from Kathmandu proper. Americans might understand Bhaktapur as a sort of Nepalese Williamsburg, where old buildings and crafts and cultural traditions are consciously preserved and displayed for tourists. No cars are permitted in town. However, Bhaktapur is about a thousand years older than Williamsburg, and it was no colonial outpost; for hundreds of years, it was the political and religious center of a wealthy royal court, with palaces and temples on a grand scale.

In the late eighteenth century, Bhaktapur lost out to an even wealthier kingdom in Kathmandu, and today the 30,000 townspeople get by on tourism and pottery-making; the pottery specialty seems to be wide, low bowls designed for culturing yogurt. An art school in Bhaktapur teaches ancient Buddhist thenka painting, and a paper factory follows traditional paper-making technology utilizing the inner bark of the lokta bush.

Below, in one of Bakhtapur's central squares, a woman walks past a Hindu temple guarded by a god with a mustache.

Posted by Ellen

There are two kinds of trekking in Nepal: teahouse trekking through populated countryside and tent trekking, which can venture into uninhabited mountain realms of rock and ice. Both kinds involve a group of tourists walking on trails for days or weeks, led by a guide and supported by porters.

The trekkers in the group usually carry only daypacks as they walk, containing bottled water, a fleece and rainjacket, toilet paper, and little more. Porters for teahouse treks carry duffels containing clothes and sleeping bags; for tent treks, they also carry food, camping gear, and perhaps mountaineering equipment. For a teahouse trek, there is one porter for every two or three trekkers in the group. For a tent trek, the ratio may be much higher.

Porters are ridiculously strong, fit, sturdy, reliable people. Most but not all are male, though they are not big men; some are barely five feet tall. They load up with 60 or 80 or even 100 pounds on their backs and oftimes finish the day's hike long before the lightly-laden trekkers. Many of them come from extremely remote villages, where subsistence farming is still the mainstay of life and there is little or no opportunity to earn cash income. Many porters, like most Nepalis, are illiterate. Work with the trekkers is seasonal and extremely irregular, and the pay is poor.

The two porters who accompanied our little group came from the Forbidden Kingdom of Mustang, high in the Himalayas near the Tibetan border. The provincial government of Mustang keeps the district almost closed to foreigners by charging so much for visas that only the wealthiest tourists can visit. Each year, as trekking season comes around, would-be porters in places like Mustang have to somehow come up with cash money--often borrowed--for bus fare to Kathmandu, where they gather in the airport parking lot to be looked over by trekking guides and perhaps chosen for work.

The guide for our group, Binaye, a Nepali who usually worked for a German tour company but who handled our trip on his own, went out to the airport to hire porters a few days before we were scheduled to arrive. He knew nothing about the two men he chose and had never met them before; he liked their attitude, he said, and they didn't smell of booze. From their homes in Mustang, they had walked four days to the bus stop and then ridden the bus for three days to Kathmandu, with no guarantee of work.

Both of them were among the pleasantest, hardest working people I've ever met.

After three days' trek, we reached the village of Ghorepani, a trekking hub. Many routes lead out from Ghorepani into the high Himalaya around Annapurna. The place bustled with trekkers coming and going, and over the years, trekking-related income had apparently led to public amenities not evident in smaller villages. Ghorepani had electricity and a medical clinic of some kind, and also a school.

Outside the school was a playground, a paved yard with a basketball goal and a volleyball net. Mule trains and horse caravans trooped across the back of the lot. Wastewater from a restaurant kitchen spilled in from the front.

As we settled into town to catch our breath and wait for dinner, porters were out in the playground playing volleyball. They had set down their loads, taken off their boots, and somehow found the energy to run and jump and dive and enjoy the late-afternoon sun.

Porters and trekkers eat separately and mostly have little communication or contact; per tradition, we come together for drinks the last night of the trip. That's when I learned that Beem, the porter with a hat and scarf and permanent smile, had five children, just like me.

Posted by Ellen

I had hoped that our days on the trail in the Himalayan foothills would include views like this, and such expectations were fulfilled many times over. This is Machhapuchhre–Fishtail–a holy mountain that no one is allowed to climb. The flowering tree is a rhododendron, Nepal's national flower, which was just coming into bloom in early March.

But the scenic vistas were really the least of the experience. Nepali footpaths are essentially highways for the villagers who live in the hills; they have no railroads, no cars or trucks, certainly no airports, so if they want to order a little refrigerator from town and bring it home, somebody will have to walk up the trail with the refrigerator on his back.

If they want to bring a squawking chicken to a nearby village, somebody will have to tuck it under her arm and walk with it. If they want to bring in sacks of rice, or buckets of sheetrock, they will have to load up a donkey caravan and walk behind it with a loud voice and a big stick. They may have to walk for days and days and days, first on the floor of the valley, trudging upstream alongside a river, and then steeply up the side of the hill, on a rocky staircase of sorts built up over the centuries with rocks pried loose from the soil of terraced hillside fields and vegetable gardens.

One of these staircases had more than 4,000 steps–think four or five Empire State Buildings on top of one another. More of which to come.

The villages are agricultural in character, but they all have commerce now, thanks to the trekking trade. Restaurants feed the visitors, souvenir stands sell them stuff, and lodges put them up for the night–accommodations are "basic," with outdoor facilities, but tourists don't have to carry their own tents or food. To feed us trekkers, somebody from the village walked down the hill with an empty basket on his or her back and then walked back up again with a basket full of bottled water and other Western goodies. Nepalis don't use backpacks; they carry even the heaviest loads with the aid of straps across their foreheads.

At least one inn in every village is called Shangri-La. Rooms go for about 200 rupees–$3–a night.

Posted by Ellen

WWBD? (What would Buddha do, in his tattoo studio?)

Most Nepalis are Hindu, but we're told that their understanding of Hinduism is expansive enough to include the Buddha and his spiritual ways. Up and down the streets of Kathmandu are ornate, pagoda-style Hindu temples, little curbside chapels associated with one or several deities, modest "resting places" for the spirits of the departed, and big, bold Buddhist stupas like this one.

It is against the law to kill a cow, and cows do wander around town, especially out near the airport. But Nepalis have other cowlike animals--water buffalo and yak--that provide them with meat, milk, fiber, leather, and, um, horsepower, thus facilitating the religious exclusion of cows from these sorts of roles. Buffalo and yak look well-fed; the religiously venerated cows appear to be starving.

A substantial number of Nepali men, especially among the many who ride motorcycles, show a certain veneration for Western-style leather jackets, presumably made of cow leather. The tattoos, body piercings, and dreadlocks, however, are for tourists.

Posted by Ellen

The guidebooks say that Nepal is a "quirky" place, where people use thousand-year-old statues to hold up their clotheslines. The guidebooks are right.

As this photo suggests, Nepalis use a confection of spit and wistfulness to hold up their electrical grid. It works about as well as you'd guess. In the capital city of three million people there is not a single functioning traffic light.

After spending four days knocking about in Kathmandu and another week trudging very slowly through the Himalayan foothills, I filled up my camera with curiosities and have of course become an expert on all things Nepalese. I've got stuff to share in upcoming G'mornin's. But the world has gone on spinning, so Kathmandu cannot always take priority. Glad to be back, hope everybody's well, look forward to hearing everybody's news.

Posted by Ellen

It is obvious to some people that Nepal's Gorek Shep plateau--the world's highest sizeable plateau, abutting Everest Base Camp at 5,165 meters above sea level--is shaped exactly like London's famed international cricket ground, the Oval.

British mountaineer Richard Kirtley, for example, took one look at the Gorek Shep and concluded that it was so "perfectly cricket-field sized and shaped" that "the locals" must be using it as a pitch. He was wrong; nobody ever played cricket there, presumably because few people remember to bring their cricket gear along for nine extremely arduous days of trekking en route to Everest Base Camp.

 But some people really like cricket. Kirtley organized a 50-man expedition that trekked to Gorek Shep in April 2009, cleared the pitch of rocks ("sometimes with pickaxes"), and contested the world's highest game of cricket, the Nokia Maps Everest Test. Team Hillary beat team Tenzing by 36 runs, with 6 balls remaining.

I wouldn't know a cricket pitch if it jumped up and bit me, and I am way too old and timid and out of shape to imagine venturing to Everest Base Camp. Still and all, I'm leaving for Nepal in a couple of days, and I'll be away from the computer and off trekking till the middle of March. It was my sister's idea, and also her frequent flyer miles. Details and pictures to come.

Be sweet while I'm away.

Posted by Ellen

This birdseye view of the town of Biratnagang, Nepal, was captured from ?????