Wednesday, March 30, 2016

nepal: last bits

(One last one on Nepal, which surprisingly seems to be quite a popular bucket-list destination)

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That, I think, is what Nepal wants the world to know.

Yes, the earthquake which struck in April 2015 killed over 8,000 and injured over 21,000, but the fallout from the loss of tourist dollars is making it worse for people who are trying to rebuild their lives.

Our guides and tour agency owner took pains to emphasise repeatedly: Nepal is very safe, no earthquakes. Prince Harry visited Nepal at the same time we did, and the locals made much of his trip. It was a huge deal.

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Ratna our guide - always frowning and grave in demeanour as if there is nothing much in life to laugh about - made a personal appeal for us to send friends and family his way so he can earn more. His mountain abode was split in two during the earthquake and his wife, 15-year-old son and 13-year-old daughter now put up in a small, dark, temporary hovel with a tin roof and tin walls. He wants to re-build his home. They sustain themselves on his earnings as a trekking guide as well as his takings off a meager plot of land and six goats. The Nepal Government has not provided any support.

On trek, the effects of earthquake were not apparent. The Annapurna Base Camp circuit – which our trek was a part of – was largely untouched.

But parts of Kathmandu city itself was still in shambles, especially the old temples which are centuries old and which were not exactly built to standard.

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* Pieces of fallen wood, laid out like a huge puzzle to fit together in reconstruction which will take place God knows when

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* Parts of the fallen temple

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* Tarpaulin protecting the old wood

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* The rubble next to Choon is the remains of a huge temple, Kasthamandap, which collapsed completely.

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* Life goes on

Everywhere, Before and After photos attempt to fill in the tourist's imagination.

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* The top of the stupa is gone

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Still, the raw, authentic appeal of Nepal – even when one is not in the mountains – is apparent.

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* Phewa Lake, Pokhara

Kathmandu itself is chaotic. A maze of wires, possibly growing in number as telecommunications and all sorts of networks are created, criss-cross the city in a mindless manner, roads for stray monkeys which use the wires to safely traverse the city without getting run over by the horning streams of vehicles. The local people occasionally lean out of their windows to smack the monkeys on their butt. 

(On chaotic traffic, I was hit by a motorbike as I was trying to hobble my way across the road with my stick post-trek. The biker stopped just in time, but I was nearly knocked over)

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It is so dusty the first thing shopkeepers do every morning is to throw water on the ground outside their shops. Their wares are coated with dust, dust which the shopkeepers ineffectually try to get rid of by flicking long-tailed brushes. When I blow my nose on Day 2, the tissue is blackish. After my bath, dust worms gather on my comb when I comb my hair. Some people wear masks.

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* Dusty air makes for small, red suns

It is also an incredibly spiritual place, where Buddhists co-exist with Hindus, where everyone gathers for picnics for a day out in the local park to watch public cremations. What can I say? I found that very interesting and would have stayed to watch until the burning was complete, only my brothers were not too keen.

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* A body being prepared for cremation at Pashupatinath

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* Arranging the base of the pyre

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* One body per wooden platform. The remains, wood and bone, are all swept into the river which is ... dried up. It hasn't rained for months. Which begs the question of where the remains all go.

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* Someone wading in the same river

Nepal is a world away from countries with an endless panorama of MacDonalds and Starbucks Coffees and quaint cafes and upmarket shops, in which I sometimes struggle to find anything unique or different from Singapore.

I suppose that's why Nepal stays in my heart. (although honestly speaking, the locals probably wouldn't mind having a few big malls and fast food outlets around)

Monday, March 28, 2016

nepal: trekking

Rule of mountain: Walk like tortoise, fast like rabbit. The tortoise always finishes. Even the fat tortoise.

So said our guide, Ratna, who has led 82-year-olds and five-year-olds on trek, as well as parents who brought along a five-month-old. (baby was carried by the porter I think)

I’m not sure if we were tortoises or rabbits, but in line with the animal analogies, here’s what I think we were:

Teng: Penguin

Every time we went downhill, he flapped his arms like a penguin. I think he does that for balance.

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* Teng, flapping up. Note drying socks on his backpack, and umbrella in his pocket

Choon: Crab

Every time we went downhill, he went sideways, like a crab. “So I can use new muscles,” he said.

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* Choon crabbing his way down with Ratna in front. Ratna is very bored. He says he sometimes falls asleep while trekking. He must be fed up of all these slow urbanites.

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* Ratna, sitting and waiting for us to come up the stairs

Me: A very old crab

I had it real bad. I had completely over-estimated my abilities, forgetting that I’m no longer 23 when trekking was pure joy all the way.

I had also stupidly wore my old track shoes (the type that moulds around your feet like a pair of socks and allowed me to painfully feel every rock in Nepal) instead of high-cut trekking boots which protect your ankles (I didn’t want to pay for an expensive pair which I’d probably not use again for a long time), and used a haversack which was markedly heavier than Choon and Teng’s. Because the two were faster than me, I probably walked faster (bad) than my comfortable pace.

After Day 1 when we had to mount something like close to 4,000 steps up to Ulleri, I was whacked.

By Day 5, the last day, my Bus Number 11 (ie my legs) were two puddles of painful jelly. I’d stand still, sway alarmingly and collapse. There was no way I could squat to pee, which was often the requirement. Once, I tried to squat and keeled over in a muddy toilet. It wasn't pretty.

Trekking was agony. I actually had to fight back tears when on Day 5, I stood at the top of what looked like thousands of steps going down. My entire leg from the top of my thigh to the tips of my toes (which had been ramming into the front of my shoe) hurt.

But. I did it! One painful step after another!

* My Old Lady video. My back, my butt, my thigh, my calves, my toes, hurt. I absolutely could not bend my legs.

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* Ratna carrying my red bag on Day 5

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* Trying to yoga it out, didn't quite work for me

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* Nightmare! Nightmare!

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* My big toe nails post-trek

Our five-day trek was the Ghorepani-Poon Hill circuit. There are many different walking trails in Nepal, this is one of the shortest. We didn’t go very high (3,210m above sea level at our highest) and we didn’t see snow.

What the trek is, is walking from one mountain village to another, going up and down, up and down, lots and lots of rough stone steps. We start early, 7-ish, and trek for between five to seven hours, with a tea break in between.

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* Tea break in tea house with a view

Thank God for Ratna and Saita.

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* Saita, who is from a Chinese-looking caste, and Ratna, who is an Indian from the Chhetri caste.

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* Ratna and us

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* Saita, carrying his 20kg burden (our luggage and sleeping bags)

Going uphill was agonizing, but what really killed us was going down. Logically, going down seems easier because gravity is on your side. But the aftermath of going down told a different story. It’s a lot more painful and damaging on the joints and muscles.

Teng also had the dubious distinction of being the only trekker we saw to carry an umbrella. The umbrella was mine: I brought it for rain. But when he realized on Day 1 that it was going to be hot – he had no hat and he refuses to apply sunblock - I passed him the umbrella and it became part of his trekking uniform. Nepalese girls laughed at him. But that umbrella always made for great photos.

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* Choon's sun protection, and Teng's


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Along the way, we appreciate the scenery, which is, well, great, especially since you work so hard to see it. It’s not like taking a tram or a helicopter up to see a mountain, which is kind of meaningless.

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* Sunrise on Poon Hill

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* Ratna shows us things along the way, this fruit being something the mountain folk use to make soap

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* Rice terraces

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* Trekking through villages with the ubiquitous snowy peak in the background

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* Waterfalls and streams, which Teng loved

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* Suspension bridges aplenty

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* They demanded I take their picture, then chorused: Money! Money!

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* Mountain kids who scamper up and down 4,000 steps every day to get to school. Along the way they pick fruits for tea. For them, its really just a neighbourhood jaunt, not an arduous physical and mental challenge.

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* Er their school timetable which I found interesting. In Nepal, the year is 2072.

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* And er, a page from what looks like their Health Education textbook which I also found interesting

Because it was spring, there were also heaps of beautiful wild flowers. I like.

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* Blooming rhododendron trees (white, pink, red)

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* A pink rhododendron close up