Wednesday, 23 April 2008

Trekking to Gorkha, Nepal

Yesterday morning, Tuesday, my guide, Kamal, and I visited the Manakamana temple again at 6am, to see the early worshippers in a more subdued atmosphere before the crowds of pilgrims arrived (the cable car starts operating at 9am). After breakfast we headed from Manakamana towards Gorkha, a six hour trek through terraced farms, small villages and areas of forest. It was a delightful day's walk, with no sign of any tourists and the locals most friendly and interested in me. We stopped many times to eat small, rich-tasting yellow berries that grow in prickly bushes everywhere in the region. The track varied from an easy, wide, gravel path, to a narrow track through farmland, to steep, rocky trails. We said hullo ("Namaste") to all the locals, and many chatted to Kamal, asking where I was from and what I was doing there.

A bloke from a pretty, traditional farmhouse waved to us and invited us to have tea with him. We accepted, sitting on the ground that acted as his front porch, with chickens hopping over us and goats nudging our backs. There were only two men there, the 64 year old father and his son. The women were out working in the fields, as all women do during the day. We drank tea and then a couple of cups of raksi, a fermented millet drink. It was very pleasant, and the bloke allowed me to look inside the tiny, unlit house. Though electricity was connected, it operates for only limited periods, as everywhere in Nepal. The building was constructed of stone and rendered with clay and with a thatched roof. There was a fire going in the one room, with just a single, tiny window, so it was smoky, blackened and with many cooking implements. The views from the "porch" were fabulous, looking over a deep gully of terraced green fields, dotted with orange and lime trees

We continued with our trek, stopping in a small shop in a tiny village for lunch. We drank Cokes while the lady who ran the shop (most family-run businesses are run by women) prepared the traditional, and by now, very familiar meal of daal baht (literally, "lentil soup with rice"). The husband just sat and did nothing (again, this seems to be the occupation of many Nepalese men while their wives work). Within a minute of us arriving and starting our Cokes a horde of primary school children surrounded me, just staring and occasionally chatting to themselves. I don't think they'd ever been so close to a "gora" or white person before. We ate lunch around the back of the shop, seated on the dirt (swept and spotless), as we were served from pots on the clay fire. The food was very nice and the people could not have been friendlier.

After lunch the track descended several hundred metres through forest to a small river where a group of naked young boys were jumping from rocks, swimming and generally having a great time. On the far side of the river the track became a rough road. As we started to climb a truck loaded with rocks came up and offered us a lift to the top. We hopped in the cabin, making eight men, plus the hapless driver, and several more on the rocks in the back. The truck was an Indian-made Tata, and must have been 40 years old. The driver appeared to be skilful but the truck was blowing oil and struggled up the steep, stony road. Eventually the driver decided to stop to make some running repairs, so Kamal and I continued on foot.

At the top of the hill we reached a sealed road, and we caught a small, crowded local bus for the last four kilometeres into the town of Gorkha, our destination for the night. I stayed in what appeared to be the best hotel in town, and had toilet and shower (could get only cold water) as well as a fan. It was very comfortable for the two nights we were in Gorkha. I noticed that there were other westerners there: the European Union Election Observer team with their large 4 wheel drives (the only ones I saw outside of Kathmandu). Kamal is from a village not far from Gorkha and knew the town well. He soon found a good restaurant where we ate dinner of mutton soup, tasha (fried, marinated mutton, with dry-fried rice, pickles etc) and chicken momo, washed down with a couple of bottles of Tuborg beer brewed in Gorkha.

This morning, Wednesday, at sunrise Kamal & I headed up the steep hill behind Gorkha to the former royal palace, built in the 17th century, that is also a Hindu temple and for which the town is famous. The palace was also a fort, and sits astride a narrow ridge on the mountain, a fabulous setting, and with striking architecture. No cameras were allowed inside, but there were worshippers there, as usual with their livestock for sacrifice. Stone steps have been constructed by a later king from the palace to the highest of the mountain. We continued to the top, with hardly anyone else around apart from a small army base, monkeys and wonderful bird life. The forest was thick, and reminded me of botanic gardens. We headed back down the mountain, stopping for a small breakfast of curried peas & lentils and tea at a small restaurant beside the stone steps. I was back at the hotel by 9:30am.

The remainder of the day has been relaxed, having icecreams with Kamal and a friend (30R for the three) and walking around the town. Unfortunately it was Loktantra Day, the second anniversary of the restoration of democracy to Nepal, and a public holiday. As a result the Gorkha museum, housed in another former palace, 160 years old, was closed. I chatted to one of the European Union Election observers, a friendly pommie bloke, about the Constituent Assembly election in Nepal three weeks ago. He confirmed my impression from reading the papers that the election was, in the main, as free and fair as could be expected under the circumstances. He also told me that there quite a few instances of violence, mainly instigated by the Young Communist League. However the re-polling that has been underway since, and which finished on Wednesday had overcome the problems from election day. Kamal and I returned to the same restaurant as last night for dinner for a similar, and similarly tasty, meal.


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