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Wed 8 Oct 2014

Tsogyal (meaning "Lake Queen") is the proprietress of this new Tibetan handicraft shop.

Tsogyal (meaning “Lake Queen”) is the proprietress of this new Tibetan handicraft shop in Pokhara.

I informed the Hotel Nirvana that I would be checking out tomorrow morning, with plans to spend tomorrow night in Sarangkot. On Friday I would go to Bandipur and spend the weekend there, returning to Kathmandu on Monday to be sure I would easily be able to make my Tuesday afternoon flight to Bangalore, India.

As I was wandering about Pokhara today a Tibetan shopwoman started a conversation with me. She explained that she had just opened her shop, and was eager to show me her merchandise in hopes that I would buy something. I was determined not to acquire more “stuff” and therefore was not a good customer but I did stop to chat with her and I took some time to appreciate the beautiful hand-made jewelry created by skilled Tibetan artisans.

As we talked we learned that we were both born in the same year! Her parents had left Tibet in 1959 as refugees and settled in Nepal, where she was born. Her name was Tsogyal, which she said meant Lake (tso) Queen (gyal) in Tibetan.

If you should find yourself in Pokhara sometime, visit her shop! The name is Vangpachen Tibetan Handicrafts.

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Tue 7 Oct 2014

This charming young lady was waiting tables at a cafe.   She is also in college and I hope she will have the chance to continue studying.

This charming young lady was waiting tables at a Pokhara cafe. She is also in college and I hope she will have the chance to continue studying.

Back in Pokhara, I explored my options as to how I would spend my last week in Nepal. While several people had recommended I go to Lumbini (Buddha’s birthplace) I decided I wasn’t up for the ten-hour bus ride there. I decided I would spend a few more days in Pokhara, going through my photos and catching up on my blog, then spend one night in nearby Sarangkot. Finally I would make my way back to Kathmandu, stopping on the way for a few days in Bandipur.

A few weeks back I had met a young girl who served me at a local Pokhara restaurant — she looked no more than 15 years old. She appeared shy and not completely confident of herself – she said she was new. However she was very attentive and was trying very hard, and when her manager asked me if she was doing well, I told him honestly that she was doing a great job. When I paid the bill I gave a small tip which she was reluctant to take, smiling shyly and saying, “Oh no sir, it is OK!” Finally she took the money after her manager nodded. Was she as young as she looked? Was she in school? I was curious about her story.

Today I ended up having lunch at the Newari Cafe where she worked and since it was not busy we chatted for a while. She said she was 17 (older than she looked) and I was glad to know she was in college (11th Standard). She was very fluent in English. I complimented her on her English and encouraged her in her studies. She said she was the eldest of four siblings and that they and their mother had arrived four months ago in Pokhara, to join some other family members. I had assumed she was a Nepali Newari (it was after all the Newari Cafe!) but I learned she was from India — Nagaland to be exact.

India or Nepal, girls face many more challenges than boys, even before they are born. In Nepal, for example, female literacy significantly lags that of males, girls are less likely than boys to be enrolled in school, and girls are more likely than boys to be working at a young age (UNICEF). Nagaland has similar statistics.

I suspect that this young woman can go far if given the opportunity, so let us all wish her well in hopes that she may continue in her studies and reach her potential. (She gave consent for me to take her photo, and I gave her the address of this blog).

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Mon 6 Oct 2014

Some Cute Nepali Chicks, Under the Wa

Chicks & Mom, at Magar Family Home

Back to civilization today! We walked for about three hours in the morning today, reaching a tiny village around noon, where we had lunch at a Magar family home.

There was a baby there named “Enji” who was being carried around by an older girl cousin. Enji was very interested in my sunglasses and gazed curiously at me. Eventually we shook hands and did a few “high fives” which she found very exciting. She had six teeth (I counted).

We ended up at a town called Phedi, where a taxi was waiting to take us back to Pokhara. The rest of the day I relaxed, tired from six days of intense physical activity.

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Millet in Foreground, Black Lentils in Background

Millet in Foreground, Black Lentils in Background

Sometimes we think too much. So I was very relieved to see this sign stating, "No think will be available for some time,"!!

Sometimes we think too much. Imagine my relief when I saw this sign stating, “No think will be available during some time,”!!

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Sun 5 Oct 2014

Beans Drying in the Sun

Beans Drying in the Sun

The weather got warmer as we descended. I enjoyed passing through the villages, where we would stop for tea, lunch, or to stay for the night. It seemed that the villages were quite self-sufficient in many ways.

As I mentioned earlier, they got their water from the mountain rivers and streams, and their power from hydroelectricity. (In fact, while Nepal’s two largest cities, Kathmandu and Pokhara, experienced daily power cuts — called “load shedding”– many of the villages boasted of “24 hour power”).

They grew rice, millet, corn, beans and vegetables like mustard greens and cabbage. They grew some lentils (for the Nepali staple of dal bhat) but Mane said most of the lentils grown in Nepal came from the southern Terai region. They also kept chickens, buffaloes and cows. And of course, these villages on the trekking routes generated a significant amount of revenue from providing food, lodging and other amenities to trekkers.

Terraced Rice Paddies

Terraced Rice Paddies

"24 Hour Dal Bhat Power" -- a slogan I saw on t-shirts here.

“24 Hour Dal Bhat Power” — a slogan I saw on t-shirts here.

From the beginning of the trek, I found one of the biggest challenges to be Dodging Donkey Dung. The donkeys on the trails had managed to spread their “fertilizer” left, right and center, so that it was impossible to walk a straight line on certain portions of the trail. Why were there so many donkeys on these trails?!

Beast of Burden

Beast of Burden

Only later did I become aware that it was because of the donkeys (and horses and mules too) that I was able to enjoy certain amenities at the restaurants and lodges. Since in the mountainous terrain wheeled vehicles were of no use (and indeed there were none), everything had to be transported by people or beasts. So these animals made their living transporting lentils and potatoes, toilet paper and soda, soap and towels, biscuits and chocolate, batteries and bulbs, and so on. I felt more compassionate towards the donkeys (and their dung too) once I developed this awareness.

Pepper Growing at a Village Guesthouse

Pepper Growing at a Village Guesthouse

Red Hot Chili Peppers, Sunbathing.

Red Hot Chili Peppers, Sunbathing.

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Sat 4 Oct 2014

My Competent, Professional & Protective Guide, Mr. Mane Gurung

My Competent, Professional & Protective Guide, Mr. Mane Gurung

We continued along our trekking route, and at some point Heebeom and her guide veered off in a different direction, pursuing the ABC trek route. I learned more about Mane as we spent more time together on the trail.

He was just a few years younger than I, but our paths in life were very different. His mother died when he was five, followed by his father several years later. Mane was raised by relatives but they had no money to send him to school, so he received no formal education. When he was old enough to accept responsibility, he tended the cows in his village. Then, when he was in his late teens, some friends with more education and connections helped him get a job as a porter serving international tourists on various Himalayan trekking routes.

He worked as a porter for about five years, at times carrying over 45 kg (100 pounds) over the steep mountain trails, for several hours each day. He eventually became certified as a guide, and had been working in this capacity for 22 years. During the worst of the Maoist conflict, for six years he worked as a cook on trekking expeditions in Ladakh, India, for several months of each year.

With no family support to rely on, in a society in which arranged marriages were the norm, he found his own wife and married her. Since he was Gurung and she was from the Mustang area, they spoke different native languages, but as they both spoke Nepali, that was their common language.

It was clear to me that Mane couldn’t read in any language, though he made efforts to feign literacy. He never directly admitted it, but one time I overheard a laborious phone conversation he was having with a colleague, in which he was trying to convey a telephone number and other details, after which he said, “Very difficult — he cannot read either.”

He and his wife had three children: a girl, 19, and two boys, 17 and 13. He explained that he had saved no money over the years, as he spent every extra rupee on his children’s education, including two years of English-medium secondary education in a boarding school for his two older children. He did this because, “No read — very difficult.”

He reported all his children were fluent and literate in Nepali, Hindi, and English; that his daughter had completed two years of post-secondary education and he hoped his sons would do the same.

So despite having no formal education and not being literate, by the most important measures this was a very successful man. I sincerely told him I was impressed with his accomplishments and in his modest way he acknowledged his satisfaction with what he had accomplished thus far.

A basketball court at 3000 meters. Could this be the highest court in the land? *Note that they are actually playing football (soccer)!

A basketball court at 3000 meters. Could this be the highest court in the land? *Note that they are actually playing football (soccer)!

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Fri 3 Oct 2014

Dawn View from Poon Hill, Ghorepani

Dawn View from Poon Hill, Ghorepani

“Sir! Sir! It is time!” Mane’s vigorous door-knocking and urgent cries roused me from a deep sleep. Bracing myself against the cold night I had pulled the covers over my head and only now I reluctantly peeked out into the…complete darkness. Was it such a big deal to see the sunrise? Doesn’t it happen daily?!” Well, I acknowledged to myself that I probably would regret not going, so I slowly got out of bed, pulled on my boots and rubbed my eyes.

“Lady is waiting!” What on earth could Mane be talking about? If there were any phrase to get a man moving, this would be it. But one of the huge benefits of traveling alone was to avoid this very scenario. I thought he must be saying this just to get me to move faster, but when I got downstairs Heebeom was ready to go.

Indeed, despite being on a 10 day trek where there would be no heat or hot water for nights on end, where the accomodations were literally wood shacks with cardboard-thin walls between the rooms, where there were no commodes, only squat toilets…she was still very clearly a “lady.” I had been impressed with how light she was traveling (one small backpack) until I noticed that her guide seemed to be carrying a larger load than the others, including a very girly pale pink pack and a duffel that had “South Korea” written in English across its side. When she asked anyone to take a photo of her, the shutter button could not be pressed until she had opened her compact to peer into her mirror, rearrange her hair and touch up her makeup. Before sitting down at a rest stop on the trail she would place a flowery seat cushion on the flat rocks. And she had furry striped socks and house slippers to wear in the evening. I found all this very amusing.

Anyway, along with the rest of the sunrise crowd we climbed up the steep hillside, reaching the peak in about an hour and a half. Now I was grateful to Mane for insisting on an early start, because we were some of the first ones there, and had our pick of the prime spots to get the best views. (A half hour later the area was crammed with tourists from around the globe jostling each other with their huge DSLR cameras, trying to get that perfect sunrise shot).

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We returned to the guest house around 7:00 a.m. and had a good breakfast, to prepare for the long trek to the next town where we would break for the night.

Sunrise

Sunrise

Still Sunrise!

Still Sunrise!

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Thu 2 Oct 2014

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There is Water Everywhere!

We continued trekking along the route to Ghorepani. Heebeom, my new Korean friend, and her guide were heading the same direction so she and I ended up chatting a bit more. However communication was difficult as her English was not as good as I had initially thought. At one point she said, “Sorry — my English very small!” I told her my Korean was even smaller than her English. The only words I knew were “Kamsamanida” (thank you), “Oppa/Unni” (big brother/big sister) and “Kimchi” (kimchi!). She giggled some more, then said , “Bibimbap!” Still, I was able to learn that she was almost 40, worked as an accounting manager in Seoul, and had saved up two years’ of her vacation days to enjoy a 20 day tour of Nepal, including her trek to the Annapurna Base Camp.

The Trekkers & Their Guides

The Trekkers & Their Guides

We continued to climb, up, up and further up. The trails were well established and often paved with flat stones quarried from the hillsides. These same stones had been embedded into the steeper parts of the trails, creating a seemingly endless spiral stone staircase that we would climb for hours at a time, with frequent rest stops and water breaks.

Climbing Higher and Higher...

Climbing Higher and Higher…

A few more words about water in Nepal. Water is both abundant and scarce here. I witnessed this abundance in the torrents of water streaming down the mountains and hills into powerful rivers that often thundered down towering waterfalls. Throughout my trek I could almost always hear water: the trickling of a stream, the distant white noise of a river somewhere, the roar of a nearby waterfall. Several times each day we would cross a bridge over a deep river or walk across the rocks of a shallow stream. This abundance of water combined with the mountainous terrain creates a huge potential for hydroelectric power.

Mini Hydroelectric Installation

Mini Hydroelectric Installation

While water itself is plentiful, oftentimes villagers have to trudge kilometers to reach the nearest stream or river. In the villages we passed through water never seemed to be a problem — it was obtained by diverting it through hoses or pipes from a nearby uphill stream or river. However not all villages shared this luxury, and in the lower hills and valleys with higher population density and increased sources of pollution (industrial as well as human and animal waste), potable water was in short supply.

Water Millhouse

Water Millhouse

Water Mill Grinding Corn (note the corn falling from the funnel onto the grinder)

Water Mill Grinding Corn (note the corn falling from the funnel onto the grinder)

With this in mind I tried to be mindful of my water use, making sure to completely turn off spigots, take shorter showers than usual, and flush minimally and only when absolutely necessary!

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After several hours on the trail we reached Ghorepani where we spent the night. Mane explained to me that in Nepali “ghore” means horse and “pani” means water, so it seemed likely that this village had its origins as a rest and watering spot for horses on the trail. I learned that many villages in the area had “pani” in their name, another reminder of the importance of water. For example a village further down the trail was named “Tadapani”, meaning “far water” — according to Mane, in the early days of the village its residents had to walk a long way to fetch water.

Before dinner I sought to refill my water bottle, and the young man of the house pointed me toward a spigot. He pulled off a hose that was connected to the spout, allowing me to fill my bottle directly from the spigot. When I had filled my bottle halfway, I suddenly heard, “Pani, Pani!” from the kitchen window. Apparently in order to fill my bottle we had cut off the water flow to the kitchen when we removed the aforementioned hose! A good example of how our actions impact others. In fact, also a good example of how our own actions impact ourselves, because among the other activities taking place in the kitchen was the preparation of my own dinner.

We retired early to prepare for a 4:00 a.m. Friday departure to reach the Poon Hill lookout at sunrise. At 3000 meters the night was cold and I wore my thermals, sweater, hoodie, and anything else I could find in my pack, and quickly drifted off to sleep.

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