Sunday Morning

It’s hard to think that just a few days ago we were enjoying exceptionally warm and sunny days for the time of year. This morning the weather is grey and windy and wet, although it is still quite mild.

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That was then…

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…and this is now.

The cats have made it clear they are not going out this morning. One is at the back door obviously pleading with me to do something about the weather. But he always does that when the weather turns bad. And I suppose it makes sense; he knows we give him food and shelter and all the cushions he can sit on, so we must be gods and can therefore fix anything. Surely?

I want to write a review for a book this morning, but I’m finding it hard to get going. That Sunday morning feeling. Getting up late and taking a long time over coffee, indulging ourselves by listening to choral music by Thomas Tallis and William Byrd.

Staring out at the weather.

I am in the process of completing a long poem about a long journey – one that shaped, in many ways, much of the art I practise now. Well, not a long journey in strictly temporal terms, but a bus journey from Delhi to Kathmandu that took about thirty hours, the first of many long bus journeys I have taken in India and Nepal. Sometime afterwards, I had wanted to find a way of recording my impressions of this journey, and toyed with a few earlier poems, and then some watercolour painting, and what amounted to prose in the form of reportage, but nothing seemed to work. This led me to experiment with my painting styles in acrylics, giving rise to the semi-abstract style I have used to paint a number of Indian scenes.

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That was another then. Not the then I was talking about, but another. Quite a similar then, though.

I assumed I’d never get around to recording that journey satisfactorily.

But last month we were travelling home on a bus after dark, going through open countryside near home. I was gazing out of the window into the darkness, when I began to understand exactly how I wanted to write that poem, over *cough* thirty years ago…

And now it is almost finished, with just a bit of tweaking to do.

Annapurna Circuit, Nepal – 4

Part Four – from 30 years ago.

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On the western side of Thorung La, the climate is much drier and in places the scenery is very much that of a desert landscape.

 

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As you descend, though, you soon come across settled areas where meltwater from the snows and glaciers higher up enable vegetation to grow.

 

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Mani stones plus a fine set of argali horns on top of a wall in Kagbeni. The argali are the wild sheep of the Himalaya.

 

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In Tukuche, at 2590m – less than half the altitude of Thorung la, which we had crossed just two days before.

 

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It was in places like this, that we really felt we could be in another century. Buildings of stone and beautifully carved wood, ponies for transport, no wheeled vehicles, and the two fellows to the right of the picture are busy crushing lengths of bamboo to a fibrous pulp, ready to make into paper.

It was in places like these, actually, that I felt I could just leave the world behind and spend the rest of my life. Yes, totally impractical, I know, but…

 

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We came for the high peaks, but the mountains lower down have a breathtaking beauty of their own.

 

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Sunrise on Poon Hill is a treat most trekkers ensure they don’t miss. Unrivalled mountain views, and in the spring the massed flowers of the rhododendron forests.

 

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Ah, yes. Did I just mention the rhododendron forests?

 

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Photos just don’t seem to do them justice.

 

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And then a few days later it was over, and we were back in Kathmandu…

…and that is a different kind of wonderful…

Virtually at Everest – part 2

Part 2 of my virtual trek to Virtual Everest Base Camp, undertaken while my foot is all sympathy-inducing-poorly. Part 1 can be found here

It was interesting watching Bob haggle with our taxi driver, but annoying to have to spend so long finding another taxi. Still, we reached Swayambunath eventually, and began the long climb up the steps towards the temple complex. As usual, we were surrounded by monkeys hoping for tidbits and just generally getting in everyone’s way.

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‘Oh, aren’t they cute!’ exclaimed Bob, reaching out to stroke one.

‘I wouldn’t,’ I warned him.

‘Oh, why not?’

‘Well, possibly rabies, for a start.’

We were seated in a taxi heading back towards Thamel inside half a minute.

‘For the last time,’ I said, exasperated, if you just leave them alone they won’t be a problem.’

‘But you said they had rabies!’

‘I only said possibly. It’s fairly unlikely, actually. You just have to be…careful.’

‘Well, you said!’ He folded his arms and stared sulkily out of the window. ‘I don’t think I want to do any more sightseeing!’

He brightened up when we got to the hotel and it was time to pay for the taxi. The driver had asked for 200 rupees when he picked us up, and I had just nodded at him, while Bob crammed himself into the back of the taxi, casting nervous looks outside all the time.

But now Bob decided it was time to haggle. I watched them for a moment, then went to get a drink in the garden. Bob joined me about ten minutes later.

‘What did you pay?’

‘Three hundred,’ he said, triumphantly.

I left him at the hotel and went off for a couple of hours, wandering around the backstreets taking a few photos, visiting shops and cafes, and generally building up my strength for an evening of Bob’s company.

But, in the event, he wasn’t too bad. He seemed to take a liking to the Nepalese beer, and was delighted to find he could get pizza in the hotel restaurant. We had quite a pleasant evening, and turned in early since the following day would be busy.

After breakfast, we walked out into Thamel. I had planned to indulge myself by taking the bus up to Jiri, a trip of one day, and then walking from there, which adds an extra week onto the trek, but is very much off the beaten track as far as regular trekkers go, but since I now had Bob with me, I supposed we’d have to fly into Lukla like everyone else, and leave the Jiri leg of it until another virtual time.

The first thing to do, though, was get him kitted up. Fearing the worst, I asked him what clothes he’d brought with him.

‘T-shirts, shorts, sandals.’

‘Is that it?’

‘Oh, I’ve also got a sunhat!’

‘Right, you’ll need quite a bit, then.’ There are scores of shops selling all sorts of outdoor clothing in Thamel, and I wasn’t worried about being able to find what we wanted. What did worry me slightly, was that Bob is quite tall, and he is also somewhat overweight. The average Nepali is neither, and my fears that the clothing could be a little on the small side for Bob were soon borne out. By lunchtime Bob was the proud owner of some very smart looking trekking trousers that came down no lower than his shins, and a couple of jackets that came down just to the top of his trousers, and the sleeves of which were a good six inches too short.

Still, he seemed happy enough.

‘How are the shoes, Bob?’

‘Well, a little tight, but they’ll do. It’ll only be for a few days, anyway. It was a good idea of yours to cut the holes in the toes.’

‘Um. Well, no one seemed to have anything your size, Bob. Think of them as a type of, er, mountain sandal. And…a few days? No, the trek takes a couple of weeks.’

‘Weeks? I need to get back for work!’

‘Oh, that’s okay. You needn’t come with me. You can stay here at the hotel and then get your flight home.’ He stared at me in a way that made me feel wretched. ‘Look, I’ll change your flight,’ I said at last.

‘Can you do that?’

‘Yes, it’s my virtual trip, this, so I suppose I can.’

I changed his flight, and then booked us both on a flight up to Lukla. The next morning, we were at the airport ready to fly up into the mountains.

‘Is that what we’re flying on?’

Personally, I love the little twin engine planes that do this journey, and hundreds like it all around the Himalaya, but Bob declared he’d only feel safe on a ‘proper aircraft’ – in other words a jet liner.

‘They can’t land in the tiny airfield where we’re going, Bob.’

‘Why not?’

‘Well, it’s, as I said, tiny.’

‘Oh.’

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He was airsick all the way.

Thank heavens it was virtual sick.

Virtually at Everest – part 1

I’ve not commented much on anyone’s blogs, recently, as I’ve rather gone into my shell for a bit. I do this at times, I’m afraid…engagement feels difficult…

And I’m fed up with having to sit around all the time with my foot in plaster and bandages. Even reading and writing is becoming a bit boring. Probably those two things are connected.

For my previous post, I revived my spirits somewhat by taking a virtual train journey in Sri lanka, so perhaps I should try something a little more adventurous this time, and put my virtually healed foot to a bit of a virtual test.

What about a trek up to Everest base Camp, then? That’d certainly test it out. And since I’ve got all of this virtual time at my disposal, perhaps I’ll do it the hard way.

But to start with, I’ll have a few days in Kathmandu; I always feel better for that. Just walking around Thamel and browsing in the shops there, stopping occasionally for tea or a snack or a beer at the Rum Doodle, ending up with armfuls of books I didn’t really intend to buy, handmade paper to paint on, handmade notebooks with beautiful cloth covers, some wood carvings…

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Luckily, this is a virtual journey, so I don’t have to carry them around with me. I’ll send them back home in a virtual package. But before I do that, I’ll just nip into this inviting looking restaurant for some lunch.

Oh, hell’s bells! Here’s Bob! ‘What on earth are you doing here, Bob?’

‘I heard you were a bit bored, so I thought I’d come along to cheer you up.’

‘Oh, that’s most, er, kind of you, Bob. Where are you staying?’

‘Kathmandu Guest House, Mick. Same place as you. In fact, I got the room next to yours.’

‘Ah. How…nice. Um, have you eaten, yet?’

‘I was just going to order. Oh, they don’t seem to have pizza here.’

‘No, they don’t. there’s a restaurant nearby where you can get one, though. Would you like me to show you where it is?’

‘No, that’s okay. Tell you what, I’ll try whatever you’re having. I’ll have the same.’

‘Really?’ Bob is probably the last person I’d describe as adventurous. I’ve never known him try anything new, and I just can’t believe he’s actually come to Nepal. I’ll ask him why once we’ve ordered some lunch. ‘I’m having the thugpa*, Bob. And a lemon and ginger tea.’

‘Sounds good.’

I order, still slightly shocked, then turn back to Bob.

‘What on earth brought you to Nepal, Bob?’ He looks down at the tablecloth, and seems a little embarrassed by my question.

‘Ah, there was a little, um, confusion, there.’ I wait, but he seems reluctant to continue.

‘And?’

‘I was planning to go to Naples. I think the travel agent must have misheard me.’ He looks up. ‘But it was great to bump into you. We’re going to have a brilliant time!’

‘So it was nothing to do with me being bored, then.’ He looks hurt.

‘Oh, it was! I just thought you’d gone to Naples, too. That’s where your wife told me you’d gone.’ My wife is, indeed, under strict instructions not to tell Bob where I am, and Naples must have been the first place she thought of.

Such is life, though. We chat a little, and the food arrives. Bob looks down at his with an expression best described as ‘disappointed’.

‘They’ve brought us soup.’

‘It’s thugpa, Bob. What we ordered.’

‘But I…’

‘You said you’d have what I’m having,’ I say, firmly. ‘I’m having thugpa.’

‘Oh, okay.’ He watches me eat for a few moments, then asks ‘Can I have bread with it?’

‘You can ask.’

He asks. The waiter shakes his head. Bob argues. He doesn’t want rolls. He doesn’t want brown bread. The waiter disappears, and moments later a boy dashes out of the kitchen and out of the front door of the cafe. A few minutes later he is back with a small package wrapped in newspaper. He runs into the kitchen. After another minute the waiter is out again with a plate, holding two slices of white bread, a knife, and a small mountain of oily butter, which he places down in front of Bob. Then he gives Bob a look that I can only describe as ‘withering’ and returns to the kitchen.

‘See, I knew they’d have it,’ Bob says, triumphantly.

Afterwards, he suggests we go sightseeing. ‘Let’s go to Swayambunath,’ I say, ‘You’ll find that interesting, I’m sure.’

‘Oh, what’s that, is it a castle?’

‘They don’t have any castles here, Bob.’

‘None?’ Sightseeing for Bob means castles. Or gardens. ‘I’ve got my phone with me. Let me take a look.’

‘Oh, I was rather hoping you’d have left that at home.’

‘No fear! I don’t want to get lost in a strange place! Now, what was that name again?’

‘Don’t worry about that, Bob. We’ll get a taxi.’

‘Oh, great!’ His eyes seemed to light up at the thought. ‘I know all about that! You have to haggle, right? For everything. I’ll do that, Mick. leave it to me!’

Well, although I seem to be saddled with a virtual Bob, I’m not going to let that put me off. Although I am painfully aware of the potential for him to offend people left, right, and centre, and possibly cause an international incident.

I suppose we’d better find a taxi.

*thugpa is a Tibetan dish, usually a clear soup of noodles and vegetables

Responsible Travelling – Part 1

In a way, this could be titled ethical travelling, but I would like it to cover cultural issues as well as environmental and other ethical concerns. I don’t particularly like proselytising, but I think that we all need to be responsible for our actions: it makes for a happier world for all concerned.

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So, in no particular order…

Trekking

First of all, when arranging a trek, please try and have a look at the ethical policy of your chosen company. Nowadays, many have a policy of ensuring that porters are properly paid and treated, food is sourced wisely and money makes its way back into the local community. The guides / cooks / sherpas or what-have-yous should be trained to ensure that the environment is treated with respect during the trek. Personally, I feel that from a selfish point of view it makes sense to choose a company that follows these guidelines, because I feel that I will be treated better by them, too. It should not be much more expensive, either.

Secondly, it is not all up to them. One of the most important things we can all do is avoid littering villages and countryside as we trek. Apart from the unpleasantness of spectacular scenery ruined by plastic bags and used loo paper, we can hardly criticise local laxness in this area if we are guilty of the same ourselves.

Deforestation is a major problem in the mountains now, which can only get worse with the effects of global warming. Consequently, anything that we can do to minimise the burning of wood is important, so please do not insist on unnecessary fires to sit around or warm up. You should have brought sufficient clothing on the trek for that. And it seems a minor thing, but if a group of trekkers turn up at a tea house and insist on lots of different dishes, then that will involve a lot of extra firewood to cook them. Try and have the same dish, if possible.

Shopping

Ah, yes. Such an important part of our visit, really. The ultra-cheap clothes, the amazing antique statues, the cheap religious paintings…unbelievable bargains, compared to what we would pay in the west…

…and rather a minefield, unfortunately. Those cheap imitation brand names, as we should all know by now, are usually produced in sweatshop conditions, conditions that would often justify being described as ‘slavery’. As well as being, usually, rather inferior quality. Difficult to avoid them all; after all, who is to say we shouldn’t be buying those attractively embroidered ‘I did the Everest Trail 2017’ or suchlike t-shirts for the equivalent of a couple of dollars?

Well, there is a world of difference between the genuine sweatshop (if I can use such a phrase) and the family sitting around their sewing machines under a tarpaulin beside the stall producing their goods. The latter may be working hard for a poor return, but may be infinitely better off than those with no work and certainly better off than the sweatshop labourer who will earn far less, in conditions far worse. Even today, unfortunately, some of them are bonded labourers.

The antiques…if you go to the Kathmandu valley, you will in many places find the remains of religious statues that have been stolen from their sites beside roads or outside temples. These statues usually find their way to the west to ‘collectors’, or may be sold off to tourists who know no better. In many countries you will need an export licence from the authorities to take antiques over 100 years old out of the country simply to attempt to prevent this sort of desecration. Invariably it is possible to buy modern copies of these items – handcrafted and as beautiful as the originals. It is better for everybody if the traveller contents themselves with these, not least because the smuggler can be hit with a hefty fine or prison sentence. It is also worth mentioning that many of the ‘antiques’ are fakes, in any case.

And the religious paintings. Again, in Kathmandu, Thankas, the paintings that hang in temples, are frequently offered for sale. And again, if genuine, should not be sold. They have probably been stolen. Wherever they are offered for sale, however, there will be bright new paintings for sale – equally beautiful, well made and far cheaper. Spend your rupees on them and support the craftsmen that make a living that way.

BIG or small?

Staying with the shop theme, it seems fairly obvious that by buying from the little shop rather than the supermarket you will be far more likely to be putting money back into the local community. All well and good. Inevitably, though, it is never quite as straightforward as that. Moving south across the border to India, we may find that in the market that we are searching for souvenirs, as well as local traders there may be traders from Tibet or Nepal, Kashmiris and dealers from the city. How you wish to spend your money may pose a dilemma that I cannot solve for you. But at least give it some thought!

The same situation can arise with hotels and trekking companies. I feel that in that situation, the small company or hotel is likely to get my rupees, since, unless I know otherwise, they are more likely to put money back into the local community.

Water, water everywhere…

…but most of it comes in plastic bottles which end up littering the environment, or refilled by unscrupulous rascals with what could be contaminated water, to be sold on again. Avoid this if you can (not always possible, I admit) by taking water purifying tablets and using the local water – read the instructions carefully to see exactly what is required – or using the boiled and filtered water available in some places (See info in places such as Lonely Planet guide books). If you buy plastic bottles, scrunch them up before disposal to prevent their re-use.

In some places, such as Ladakh, you can find environmentally minded laundry shops, where the soapy water is disposed of properly, rather than just poured into local streams. May they prosper and multiply!

 

Kathmandu, Nepal

How on earth have I managed to blog for almost a year, now, and still not put up a single post on Nepal? I think I’d better put that right immediately.
I’m going to start with a selection of pictures from Kathmandu, capital of Nepal.
All of these pictures were taken before the dreadful earthquakes of last year, and I do know that some of the buildings in these pictures (especially in Durbar Square) were sadly destroyed.

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The entrance to Swayambunath. Swayambunath is the main Tibetan Buddhist site of Kathmandu. Sitting on top of a hill overlooking Kathmandu, it comprises temples, stupas and various other buildings, including a couple of Hindu shrines. Here, a Hindu holy man lurks in ambush, ready to dab a tikka mark on the forehead of (especially) western tourists and demand rupees for the privilege.

 

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The sacred and the secular at Swayambunath. In Nepal, as in India, it is almost impossible to visit a religious site without Mammon getting a good look in. Here, in the main Buddhist site of Kathmandu, everything from yak bells to masks.

 

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‘One day, my boy, all this will be yours’ – just as long as you have enough money and all the time in the world to bargain hard. More shops – seriously colourful, seriously prepared to sell you anything. And having said that, the hard sell is a world removed from India. It almost feels as though there is no pressure at all. In Nepal, you feel you can relax again, especially if you have just travelled there from India.
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Nuns lighting butter lamps beneath a row of prayer wheels at Swayambunath.

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Hindu puja at Swayambunath. Probably a private ceremony at the request of the beneficiary, either for good luck in general or with a particular goal in mind (e.g. birth of a son, successful business venture.)

 

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Portrait of a Hindu lady.
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Tourist shop in the Swayambunath complex.
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Buildings in Durbar Square. Durbar (or ‘Palace’) Square is the heart of the old town and the area where the Kings used to live in the 18th and 19th centuries. In contrast to Swayambunath, this area is entirely Hindu, reflecting the vast majority of the lowland Nepali population.

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Side street in Thamel, Kathmandu. The lovely old buildings…beautiful wood carvings…collapsing brickwork…wiring all over the place…speed…calm…old and new…………the only things I can’t bring you are the sounds and smells…you must imagine them for yourselves. Coming soon, scratch and sniff websites!!!

 

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Bicycle rickshaws awaiting customers in Durbar Square.

 

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Balloon seller and hopeful customer, Durbar Square.

 

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Kala Bhairab – an image of Shiva in his most fearsome aspect. Wearing a garland of skulls, the six armed Kala Bhairab tramples a corpse, symbolic of ignorance. Carved originally from a single stone, it was set up by Pratap Malla, king in the 17th century. He was a pious Hindu, but interested in the arts and tolerant of other religions. He even restored much of Buddhist Swayambunath. It is said that telling a lie while standing before Kala Bhariab will bring instant death. It was once used as a form of trial by ordeal.

 

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Pashupatinath, on the Eastern side of Kathmandu, is the holiest of the Hindu sites in the city. It is the temple of Shiva, on the Bagmati river and hence it includes the ghats, the most widely used place of cremation for Hindus in Kathmandu, indeed, in Nepal.