07 June 2008

Nepal: towards Annapurna

I suppose I should continue writing up my notes from my overseas travel in 2006–7. So, here, in much abbreviated form, are sketches from my time in Nepal.Chook at Tolka

Thursday 8 March 2007
At Kanti Path bus stand the hawker tries hard to sell me things I've already bought from someone else. He drops his price for a Snickers bar to 80 Nepalese rupees.
“You have 100?” he asks. “I give you change.”
Of course, he doesn't have 20 rupees.
“Okay,” I say, “I give you back the Snickers and you give me back my 100 rupees.”
Immediately, he discovers a 20 rupee note folded and slipped in among the larger denominations.
“Oh, look! I find 20.”
The bus journey from Kathmandu to Pokhara takes about 7 hours. I look out the window, at a dark brown face in a dark doorway; thePhewa Lake, Pokhara brilliant white of even, gleaming teeth, almost disembodied. A woman nurses her child in the morning sun; another raises her arms to drape a shawl across her shoulders. Moments transformed into memories. Like all moments—gone the instant they happen, but existing eternally. For us, they're gone until we remember them.
A ute drives past the other way, “UN” in large letters on the bonnet, “Human Rights” on the side. Buses overtake us, Maoist flags thrashing in the slipstreams. Vermillion, with a simple white hammer-and-sickle—the tools so common here; women wielding sickles and carrying giant loads of cut foliage; men breaking rock or cutting iron rod with sledgehammer and steel cutter. At Pokhara a huge collection of buses crowds the stand, the vermillion-and-white flags everywhere; some distance away, around a corner and out of view, a squad of police sits, waiting. Flak jackets, batons, riot shields emblazoned with “Armed Police”. Grim faces.
The Dutch woman with dark hair and sea-green eyes looks at me.
“I think you are a lucky man to live in New Zealand,” she says.

Friday 9 March 2007
Perhaps memory is an act of recreation—re-creation. If something, someone, some event, has been forgotten by everyone and everything, can it be said it still exists? The thought strikes me as strongly resembling Berkeley's philosophy, which says nothing exists unless perceived; perhaps also, because we seldom if ever know Kamal & friend at Tolkawhat we're about to remember, it might be one interpretation of the Russian saying, “The past is unpredictable.”
I go walking at 6:30 in the morning and see the legendary peaks for the first time. Annapurna; Macchapuchare, still tinged with pink, rising from the morning haze, behind the town, behind the power lines, the rooftops, the signs advertising pizza and trekking equipment and adventures. Down at the boats, rafts of ducks float on faintly wrinkled water beyond the coloured craft. A reflected fragment of Annapurna near the shore. Already the North end of the lake has begun to fade, the haze conferring an exaggerated sense of distance. By the time I return to the hotel, Macchapuchare has almost disappeared and turbulent cloud has begun to form.

Saturday 10 March 2007
At Tolka the day darkens; clouds turn from white to grey to the colour of portent. Thunder rumbles in the distance. Finally the first drops arrive, heavy and deliberate, and everything scurries for cover—the fowls, the women clutching laundry, the trekkers. Now the rain's steady on the iron roof and for the first time in ages I'm cold. Well, I was, and my fingers are still numb as I write, but I'm warming up now the fire's going in the dining hall. We walked for roughly five and a half to six hours, stopping some time Rain arriving; Tolkabetween 2:30 and 3:00 p.m. The shower was just warm enough to splash over important areas, and I relaxed afterwards with a cup of milky tea. Soon after, the rain arrived.
I speak with the big, young Japanese guy returning after having reached Annapurna Base Camp (ABC). I ask him where he's from.
“Sapporo,” he says.
I remember Ino's Place and those few days in Sapporo; the time at Abashiri; the evening at Sawa after which I'd walked back to my hotel utterly unable to think of anything that could have added to the joy I felt, everything perfect, even the enormous distance between me and my friends and family in Aotearoa something to be relished because it conferred the delight of expectation, of eventual reunion. Now, here, high in the Himalaya, this Japanese man from Sapporo with his marvellous sense of humour and almost no English links me to those places where I might never return but hope I will. He looks as if he could be a son of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, and his journal's a work of art—a beautifully hand-drawn map of the Sanctuary Trail, in several colours, the lettering clear and exact. We talk, stumbling over our lack of shared language, communicating mostly by intonation and place names and laughter. Later in the evening, after the rain had arrived and the deep cold had enveloped everything but the room where we gathered around the stove, he nods off to sleep in a chair, his feet propped on the lukewarm fireplace. But someone stokes it. I smell burning rubber and we Toilet block at the Himalaya Hotelwake him—he checks the soles of his shoes and yelps when he touches the hot spot. Then he laughs with us.
A delightful little dog, small and healthy followed us for some distance along the last section of trail. Now it sleeps curled up on the lap of a young Scottish woman, each warming the other.

Sunday 11 March 2007
Breakfast comprises excellent porridge with milk, Tibetan bread with honey, a cup of tea, and marvellous views of the Annapurna massif and Hiunchuli. Clear sky, clouds moving fast over the summits. We leave at 8 o'clock. The walking begins easily, mostly a gentle downhill which eventually takes us to the river, a river strongly reminiscent of New Zealand—in fact, the whole environment resembles parts of New Zealand except in three respects: the vegetation, which here is more sparse and lacks the southern beech I'd associate with this kind of landscape; the terraced hillsides; and, of course, the settlements. In New Zealand, no one lives in this kind of country; while many of us feel at home there high on huge mountainsides, in wild country far from roads, no one makes of those places a permanent home; no one is born there, no one grows up, lives, and raises a family there, and one dies there as a visitor, not as a resident.
Soon after starting out, we stop for tea. A pint of it in a big glass handle; the best tea I've had for a very long time. Kamal seems very much at ease with the woman, as if he knows her well. I suppose the guides get to know all the locals along the trail, and Kamal seems always to be well received wherever we stop. Is it just a matter of bringing customers? Certainly that would be part of it, but not all — he seems to be welcomed because of who he is, and the more I get to know him, the more I understand how this is entirely to be expected. Something about his quiet, almost slightly shy manner seems to encourage those he meets to relax and enjoy his company. Perhaps people like this allow you to be yourself At the Himalaya Hotelbecause their gentle manner presents no threat, particularly to the ego; free from the lurking fear of being somehow considered of inferior status, competitiveness simply vanishes and is replaced by simple enjoyment of your friend's company.

Monday 12 March 2007
Two things surprise me about this region—the number of people who look more Indian than Nepali, and the apparent dominance of Hinduism over Buddhism. Other than the faded, fluttering prayer flags, I've seen no obvious signs of Buddhist influence. The British women at the guesthouse in Chomrong had also noticed it, and the thin young British man points out how different this is from the Everest Base Camp trek, where stupas and Buddhist monasteries abound. The women are from Bristol; the young man has, or is doing, a degree in marine biology and flies remote-controlled sailplanes for fun. Buzzards often check out his planes, he says, and sometimes crows attack them.
Andy and Rachel from Australia, the other guests at our hotel, have reunited after Rachel had been forced to descend from higher along the trail because she'd suffered Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS). Andy had carried on to ABC. They've visited Nepal several times, but this is proving to be the trip from hell. Apart from Rachel's AMS, they've been dogged by misadventure: Andy's well-worn boots have blistered his heels, they've miscalculated the amount of money needed for the trek Himalaya Hoteland must watch their expenditure carefully; things like that. Still, they seem able to joke about it, able to shrug and, if not enjoy it, at least accept that sometimes things don't go the way you wish.
We leave at 7:30 and make good time, stopping for lunch at Bamboo—an omelette on gurung (Tibetan bread); a big cup of hot lemon and another of milk tea. As we leave, I stroke the affectionate cat and it leans against my hand; I scratch its chin and it rolls its head around in ecstasy.
Beyond Bamboo the rain begins. Kamal quickens his pace and we reach the Himalaya Hotel at 1:45, as a large contingent of trekkers from ABC set off downhill. Soon after, heavy snow begins to fall.

Tuesday 13 March 2007
Lightning—a flash of brilliance through closed eyes in the middle of the night; seconds later the huge roar of thunder reverberating from immense mountainsides. It continues for much of the night, and once I hear rain on the roof. When I step outside in the morning I see snow falling—big, wet, heavy flakes—and a Himalayan forestlayer a couple of inches thick over everything. Annapurna Base Camp is out of the question, and, like all the other trekkers, we decide to head back down the valley.
One of the guides comes in to the dining room.
“Avalanche,” he says, nodding in the direction of the downhill trail.
I follow him and stand with several other guides, trying to locate the sound. Finally the guide who'd alerted us points at the nearby mountainside and I see a river of snow pouring steadily over a bluff and down towards the trail—the trail we'll have to cross on our way down. Still, I think, I'd rather it avalanched now than while we were crossing.
Kamal and I leave last, mostly because I've been busy photographing rather than packing. Monochrome patterns of bare foliage; a crow sitting hunched in a tree; backdrops of mountainsides, rock and snow, disappearing into cloud. A line of footprints in snow.
The staff at the Himalaya Hotel remain, of course, but as we, the last of the visitors, leave, I'm struck by an air of strangeness; as if nothing exists beyond the small area around the hotel, beyond the enveloping snow, the drifting mist. An air of abandonment, of emptiness; all that remains are the mountains and the snow. And, perhaps the staff who remain are, in one sense, mountains and snow.

Looking towards the entrance to the Annapurna Sanctuary

... to be continued...
Photos (click to enlarge them):
1. Chook at Tolka.
2. Boats at Phewa Tal (lake), Pokhara.
3. Kamal, my guide/porter (seated), and one of the other guides at Tolka.
4. Rain arriving; Tolka.
5. The toilet block at the Himalaya.
6. Kamal, the Korean woman with a wicked sense of humour, and another guide lark about in the snow just before we headed back down the valley.
7. Morning at the Himalaya Hotel.
8. The way into the Annapurna Sanctuary. Not a safe route in this kind of weather.

Photos and words © 2008 Pete McGregor


Zhoen said...

Thank you for taking me, since I would have AMS.

Wonderful people attract the same.

Emma said...

I agree with Zhoen, on the second point. Your writing is so rich and lovely, Pete, I look forward to it eagerly.

Bob McKerrow said...

Kia ora Pete

You warm the cockles of my heart. So good to read, see and feel what you did. I worked there for a year in 1975 working on disaster preparedness in the remote parts, often 10 days walk from the nearest road. Then between 2001-and 2006 I visited at least three times a year to assist in further development of Nepal Red Cross and guide them through the difficult Maoist conflict period that has turned out well. No King but a sort of unity.

Pete, wou are a wonderful travel writer and thanks for sharing it.


Anonymous said...

Dear Pete,
I have read your blog for several years now, it's provided a secret garden where I go to rest and replenish my soul.

I was delighted to see a new post today since yesterday was especially difficult for me. My daughter Katie-Jay Scott is an activist with Stop Genocide Now and despite coming under attack by rebels last February, she returned to the Chad/Sudan border yesterday to continue her quest to bring a face to the numbers of refugees trapped in the desert. They will be posting news and blogs on their site stopgenocidenow.org by June 10if you want to check it out.

I've taken a long time to ponder your post about the end of the world as we know it. I think it has always been the "end times" here on earth- the Huns, or the Romans, or the Plague, or the Russians have always been "coming". So it is with global warming and the terrorists now. I've come to the conclusion the only power we have is love. We don't even have the power to choose what we are going to fall in love with- be it a bird in flight, a mountain, a people far away, or something ordinary like building cabinets. We just have to take it up and do what we are called to do- love what we love. And then, when we are filled up by loving our beloved, that love will spill over to others and if we all did what we loved at once, maybe it would put the entire world right. But maybe not. Peace of mind seems to come from doing what we can to make a difference and tip the balance from hate or disdain or indifference to love.

Just know that you have made a difference in my life and I hope to continue to see the world though your eyes.


Ruahines said...

Tena Koe Pete,
Kia ora for re-creating your memories here. I agree with Kathleen, that you are helping to make a difference in my life as well through your writings, perspectives and photos. A place I return to often. Cheers Pete.

pohanginapete said...

Thank you Zhoen. Actually, I gather it's very difficult, perhaps impossible, to predict accurately who's likely to suffer from AMS. You might be surprised; you might thrive at altitude. My limited experience suggests the cold would finish me before the AMS ;^)

Thanks to you, also, Emma. I'm glad my writing does good things for you :^)

Cheers Bob. I felt Nepal, and particularly the environment I mention in this post, to have almost a familiar feel to it. Partly, I suspect, that was because India had been mostly so different, but I'm sure it also arose substantially from the feeling of being among mountains and the sense that the people who lived among them belonged there. I hope Nepal can keep most of its past troubles truly in the past, and that it can develop in a way that retains most of what's wonderful about the country and its people.

Kathleen, thanks for leaving the comment — and such a lovely and thoughtful one, too. Your daughter's departure to return to a place like that must have been agonising for you, and my heartfelt best wishes to you, and her, and all the friends and family who must be struggling with such complex emotions. I'll keep an eye on the website, trusting the news will be good.

Robb, many thanks for your continuing support and encouragement, and for your own insights. It's so good to know people like you and Tara, and the others who comment here, value similar things and, each in our own ways, make the world a better place. Kia ora e hoa.

Gustav said...

Kia ora Pete

Like I have said before your blog is a sacred place in my garden.

I do not always comment on each post but I had to commend the Russian quote above "The past is unpredictable".

Peregrina said...

Sketches (verbal) and photographs (saying much), Pete. Both give flavour to your journey.

I've been looking at that stone wall behind the chook. What is it dividing from what? Is the viewer on the inside or the outside?

It looks solid, in spite of the small gaps. I keep wondering who cut the stones, who built it with such skill, and who made that wee, ill-fitting door and for what purpose?

P.E.A. said...

Wonderful verbal and visual images, especially the contrast between the first and last photographs. I agree with Peregrina about the intriguing wall with its beautifully cut stones. But I'm not sure about the 'chook' - it looks like a hen to me!

pohanginapete said...

Thanks Gustav. I was keen on The Unpredictable Past as a book title, but then discovered it's already been taken.

Peregrina, those are intriguing questions and I'm very pleased the photo prompted them. I do like photos that ask questions rather than telling everything. But I'm sure this won't work for some people, who might just wonder why on earth I wanted to photograph a chook and a wall. Some interesting parallels there between poems and photos — including the diverse reactions.

P.E.A., thank you — and yes, the contrast between those photos is substantial. Ironic, I suppose, given they're from the same environment — but I guess that reinforces what I said in the post about the way the people there seem to belong to, or be so much a part of, that environment. I must say I'm impressed with how healthy that hen (or chook, for those of us in the colonies ;^P) appeared to be.

Anne-Marie said...

Kia ora Pete, and thank you for showing us this place through your eyes. The photos are, as always, stunning. I too like the one of the hen and the wall; but the one of the boats is probably my favourite. A lot of mystery in that image. I like mystery :-)

pohanginapete said...

Kia ora Anne-Marie. I have a few photos of the boats at Phewa Tal, and had a hard job choosing which one to post. I was lucky with the light, I think — enough haze to confer that sense of mystery; also with the calm water so the distinct reflections balanced the soft distance. And yes, I'm a big fan of mystery too.

Kathleen Scott said...

Pete, Thank-you for your kind reply. I didn't mean to post my comment as "anonymous" last time but I'm just learing my way around the Blog World. Astonishing we can connect Nepal, New Zealand, the US, and Sudan together with such seeming ease. KTJ is now in Chad, on her way to the Darfur refugee camps hopefully tomorrow, where they will post video by bgan-sattellite. Lots of mixed feelings, I'm glad she's found her vocatio, but wish she didn't have to take so much risk. If the UN had done what they voted to do, it would be unnecessary for her to go at all.

Thanks again for your words and expecially for the comfort of your beautiful images.


pohanginapete said...

Kathleen, I guess KTJ's presence in Chad is a strong reminder not to confuse this so-called 'virtual' world with the real world. Blogging has many wonderful aspects, but it doesn't let us feel desert wind and heat, or sand under our feet, or the taste of water in a dry mouth. When I write and photograph I try to convey some of those kinds of things, but they'll always be second hand. That you find comfort in some of these is a great honour. Thanks, Kathleen, and I hope KTJ stays safe and well.