The Annapurna Range behind Phewa Lake, Pokhara (Jmhullot/ Wikimedia Commons) (CC-BY-SA)
Author’s Note: In 1982, after finishing my assignment with the Colombo YMCA in Sri Lanka, I traveled for a month through Nepal and India before returning home to the USA. I flew from Colombo to Kathmandu, and after two weeks in Nepal, traveled the length of the subcontinent to the southern tip of India, and back to Sri Lanka by ferry – averaging about $3 a day – and lived to tell about it!
All roads lead to Kathmandu – really! Very few tar-sealed roads in the this mountain kingdom, and the narrow, winding streets of Kathmandu, stuffed with people in a land of stark contrasts.
I awoke to the sound of vomiting next door. It seems someone is always sick, spitting, gagging, vomiting, or blowing snot from overhanging rooftops. Men, women and children smoking, silver anklets on naked children taking dumps in the street. Old women with boat-anchor earrings, golden nose-rings. Men affectionately holding hands and wearing funny little hats with warm smiles and greetings of “Namaste” everywhere (with wobbling heads).
Many different costumes are worn, depending on the ethnic group. Tibetan women draped in colorful rugs, spitting red betel nut chew (pan), sporting nose rings and ear tacks. Daily baths for the water buffalo. Pagoda-style temples reflect the sense of harmony between Buddhist and Hindu shrines. Nobody hassles you – just pure, simple and open curiosity.
Meanwhile, “Riders on the Storm” throbs on with the typical Doors sense for the ominous in the residual hippy atmosphere of cheap guesthouses and simple eateries where the backpackers hang out – searching for Oriental philosophy, religion, enlightenment, or just an affordable good time with plenty of dope.
Everything was incredibly cheap – at $4 per night my luxury hotel was a splurge. I was new to the traveler scene and had no idea where to stay, where to go, or what to do – but quickly began meeting travelers from all over the world. Many young Australians or Europeans were on year-long and multi-year trips – and this was a real eye-opener for me.
It was a friendly place, and I soon joined a young Aussie couple for a three-day trek to see Mount Everest (Sagamatha) at dawn – rising in a ring of snow peaks all above 25,000 feet, with the great green expanse of the Kathmandu valley spreading out behind us.
We hiked through massive mountains rising out of the greenest valleys painted with meandering streams and morning mist. Tall, sharp, snowy peaks rising above the steep, green terraced and irrigated hillsides of rice and corn, carved and altered all by hand, loads carried on the backs of young and old, usually strapped over the forehead, barefoot.
I carried just a simple day pack with a change of clothes, basic medical supplies and other essentials. In contrast to backpacking in the States, where you carry everything (e.g. food, cook stove, bedding, tent) the villagers living along these mountain footpaths make it easy by providing lodging and food, and for a mere pittance – along these, the main thoroughfares of the region.
It was the height of the rainy season, and leeches were out in force. Rock salt inside our boots did little to deter them, and we carried bottles of salt water and cotton balls in our breast pockets for easy and swift access to dab the blood-swollen bodies that turned up wherever veins were available to latch onto.
We trudged on through the rain, pulling off the blood-swollen worms, skin bloodied with tiny leech cuts. Stands of tall, wet grass were particularly notorious for the tiny parasites which soon became engorged on our blood, and rained down upon us from trees. But the skies cleared on the final morning for spectacular views of the world’s tallest mountain.
Confident, with the first trek under my belt, I struck out on my own to tackle the Jomson Trail – a 21-day trek around Annapurna, the second tallest mountain on Earth. One is never alone on these trails, with a constant and determined following of kids: “hello rupee”, “one pen”, “what’s your name?”
But a week into my solo trek, the rains, leeches, and finally a frightening rain-soaked mudslide sent me packing out of the bush, and I headed for Pokhara, a laid back, lakeside travelers’ haven about an eight hour bus ride from the bustling capital Kathmandu.
Swimming and boating, lazing in the cool shade of the forest, insects buzzing high in the trees – a silent, empty skiff on the glass surface of the deserted lake reflecting explosions of color, life and enchantment all around. No beggars, no leeches, no urchins no hassles – just quiet solitude and nature’s beauty and mountains all around, snow peaks aglow in the evening twilight.
Stay tuned for Part Two, coming soon!