Friday, March 21, 2008

Kathmandu, the cat's scribbles are due

My temporary homestead of Freak street, as the Jhochen Tole street is affectionately called by locals since the 1960's when backpacking hippies flooded the area. Freak street is kinda dead these days, dead & empty of the freak and hippie vibe that it once had.
There now hangs a spirit in the air that contains a whiff of ironic nostalgia in the body of cliche clothing shops for young western travellers following the footpath of the 60's. But beside that there are at least some good cheap local eating spots.
It's not that the place gives bad vibrations, on the contrary. The quietness and peace is true bliss! Much better than the congested Thamel area, the main tourist hood of Kathmandu, where the generalisation of everything western and touristminded really touches nerves beyond irritation through loud bumping music, heckling shopkeepers, tigerbalm hawkers and whatnot. Hence I was happy to be on Jochen Thole, just like other western folks who chose the same pick.

Durbar square, the famous square with about a double dozen wooden-roofed brick temples in different sizes.
Scene. Tour-touted tourists on the side of a nearby square gather around, watch. Photocamera's around their necks, white sneakers and gucci sunglasses. I see a bearded baba in an orange robe screaming out loud against this flock. Did he not receive but but one coin from them or does he experience the apocalypse in his own mind? Poor fella. The tourists step away from him, as if he doesn't exist nor wanting to acknowledge his persona of shouting bravery.

On one of the first days I rented a good mountainbike with suspension to go into the Nagarjun forest. So I did. 16 km's uphill to the top on a dirt road with loose stones. I guess I just like the pain of cycling up to mountain tops. It gets me into this bizarre trancelike state that feels like a thumping meditation while all kinda thoughts cross my mind and I go over them one by one. I reached the top, aching and thirsty as hell. There stood a Tibetan stupa, a place for buddhist pilgrimage. A lot of Tibetan monks and families were gathered next to it, eating self-made food that they had brought in big pans. They saw me in my exhausted state and laughed at me. They kindly offered me food and tea and all the while, especially the sweet elderly, laughed at me and it made me grin too. Laughing at me was a thing they liked doing and afterwards a western buddhist told me that Tibetan people always laugh when they find something sincerely interesting. Riding a bike up to the stupa and being white was a combination of interest apparently :)
On the way down the mountain, I rushed with vivid speed. Cutting corners, shrieking brakes and jumps, adrenaline extravaganza wow! I saw a wild deer who jumped off the road and into the bushes and from high up peeked at me untill it dashed away. I also saw 2 pair of wild lemurs (those sort of monkey styled cats) clutching around a tree.
Back before it was dark, back into the smoggy nastiness of Kathmandu traffic and I was happy to have bought a mouthcap as you do need it, unless you revel in choking on fumes. In the evening, the sisters from Tasmania also arrived in the same hotel as we half had agreed upon back in Pokhara before the Chitwan trip. It's fun to be around people you know better, even just for a little while. For that reason it was also no coincidence that the sisters bumped into some friends that they met in India months before. And so a little group of freak streeters was formed.

Next day I cycled to Patan, a more medieval and quieter city attached to Kathmandu which also has a Durbar square with a whole bunch of temples. Nice place. There were big crowds of local youths hanging around the well, as they were eyeing the young females who were all in line for collecting water for the family home. It was the day before Holi and the young males were bombaring the females with waterbags. Quite a scene, some females took it for granted, some did chase a single male and beated him if they could. Revengeful girl power in effect. At some point when a military police officer got hit wet and the fun was abruptly over as they chased all the youths away. The women were safe again to collect water without becoming immersed in it.

Holi, 21st of March. The day that everyone warns you about; westeners do it with a sense of suspicion and fear whereas the locals speak about it in a gleefully and joyous way. As said in last post, we, the freak street tourists, had prepared and bought an abundant amount of powder and plastic bags to counterstrike in a joyfull manner and so happened. After I left the internet shop in Thamel, I cycled back to the hotel and from the first moment was bombared from all angles with colored water, hilarious! I stopped at some group of teens and got paint smeared allover my face and shirt. It was better get over your western neatness and give into the experience than getting frustrated by it like many tourists did. What gives. There were some real annoyances for the western women though, as many local teens took advantage in the paint smearing on the street by groping their bodies on unwished spots and feeling them up. Not so fun. Some of our female friends threw some righteous punches back at them, whack.
Back in Freak street I went to the hotel rooftop where everyone had gathered from various other hotels and we started our Holi celebrations upon the locals, young, elderly and anyone within range. We did more our best to aim at tourists, especially the clean ones and on the moment that an elderly tour group walked by with umbrella's, well, they had to run for cover. From their safe spot they looked at us with disbelief and you could hear them say "it are white folks!" as if they only expected locals. Some of them probably damned us for being such crazy colorful hippies spoiling their day, while others could see the fun of it and gave us thumbs up. At the end of the afternoon, the colour war came to an end, more from lack of bags, water or powder
Introducing Holi in the west for all, that would be fun for a change. The colours and the general craziness make it a pretty bizarre and splashing day, so next time join your local hindu's back home hah!

The other days in Kathmandu. All in all I was there for 9 days and the days went fast and I did several other day trips.
The day after Holi, I went to the huge Pashupatinath Temple complex, the famous Hindu temple of Kathmandu and they were still celebrating Holi there, but in a mild manner. I sat down for a while with elderly musicians who played temple music with a Holi theme and recorded their songs. They gave me donuts and chai as a blessing and got another rice thika smeared on me.
Then up to Bodhnath, Boudha or either one of the many names it gets called. My luck was that I got lost to find the stupa and instead heard music coming from a buddhist temple. When I entered, it was completely packed with buddhist monks, lama's, guru's and pilgrims, even up to outside! An elderly bald female monk who must have been in her 70's, gave me a pillow and with a nod she asked me to sit next to her. Suddenly the monks in the prayer chairs started chanting their mantra's, clinging their brass bells and the air became filled with a fuzzy vibrations. Then, the hornblowers with their long trumpets in all corners blew their high tones while several big drum of about 1,5 meters were hit with thick sticks. An echo travelled throughout the whole room and its high ceiling, bouncing down from above and back from the walls, such sensation! I felt goosebumps allover and quickly got my recorder ready and so I stayed for more than hour, recording bits and pieces from the whole ceremony. The monks served yak butter tea and little biscuits to everyone and also dropped a spoonfull of liquid of alcoholic nature in the palm of your hand, which you had to lick up. Bittersweet alcohol that tasted like african honeywine. As soon as the ceremony ended, The elderly monkesse had been viewing my recording device with interest and I made her listen to just-captured sounds, which sparked her eyes and made her laugh. I said goodbye to her and she gave me a big hug. Outside I sat down, still reeling from the sensation of sound of the powerfull air vibrations. One of the important guru's came up to me and gave me a slap on the back with a hearthy laugh. He was a short and heavy fella, roundbellied indeed as a cliched buddha. "Are you a saddhu?" he asked me in Hindi and ended it with a loud laugh, pointing to my long loose hair and my shiva shirt. Had a talk with for a little while while he played with some little kids, touching them up in ticklish manners and they hung over him as a playhouse.
I did find the stupa in the centre of town and walked around it, clockwise. Ate at a little Tibetan canteen in a backalley away from the westernised cafe's, getting smilingly stared at by the Tibetans.

On another day I took a southern route away from Kathamndu, to again drive over some hills, mountains and past gorges. It was the road to Pharping, another place in the Kathmandu Valley where many Buddhist monasteries and temples are, as well high numbers of Tibetans. It was a 14 km ride to it and 10 of it was uphill, which was tough on the legs again but way better than the stone track of Nagarjun. At least on the way down it would be a quick ride. The scereny down on the valley and into the gorges were brilliant. I saw some of the temples near and in Pharping, went into some grotto where a lama had once sat for 10 years, ate momo's, let a kid drive my bike (as they all want to). The usual ;) On the way down I halfway stopped to take a picture. A girl stood in the doorway of her house and signalled me to come to her. Normally I'm easier to kindly wave back and drive on, but I stept off and walked down to the house. She introduced herself as Krishna, 22 years old and wanted to talk a bit in English. She told me that she once had met Hilary Clinton and her daughter Chelsea who were walking along this trail and directly she showed me a picture as proof. Indeed, there she stood so, as a small and young Nepalese woman amidst tall western women. I talked with her about the battle Clinton and Obama are having right now in the pre-elections, telling her of my own preference for Obama. She told me that she had been an orphan before being taken in by her foster family and it was a subject that straight went to her emotions as her eyes became shining from the tears that she withheld. She also spoke about her study to earn a Phd degree and that her college costs had all been funded by an elderly Dutch man and his wife. The man had died last year of cancer, with his wife now fallen ill too. How good intentions can backfire on people in unexpected and such unfair ways, one can't explain.
It was getting near dusk and I had to go back to Kathmandu before it would get too dark. We exchanged email and adresses to stay in touch as friends, for Krishankali to improve her English and hoping to find a way to study in Holland.

9 days came to an end and I was about to take an early morning bus at 4.30 to Kakarbitta, the easternmost bordercrossing into India, to go to Darjeeling.
On the last night we went out and ended up in a pillow-seated restaurant where there was a folk-fusion night. Good music. I must admit that although Thamel is a shit place otherwise, a few cafe's like OR2k and Full Moon played good music and had a good relaxed athmosphere compared to all other tourist places where only coverbands played western rock and reggae, or just plain bad eurohouse. I quickly became late and at 3.30am, I hastily was back in the hotel, packed my bag and to the bus station without any sleep. Sleep I saved for the bus ride, as it would become a 16 hour ride.

Quick overview of Nepal.
The Nepali's do like to idle themselves by saying that they are better than the Indians, since they speak in despising tongues about their southern neighbours. After all the chaos and hassle of India, Nepal does feel more relaxed and 'westernised'. That is perhaps the keyword that lulls mosts tourists into believing the Nepali hype, which sometimes is more seen through pink glasses rather than through their own eyes. Western women always speak easily about the hassle and over-attention they receive throughout India, though most of the foreign females I was with in Nepal were just as well hassled by the local Nepali's on various occasions, meaning those traveling without male company. Some even got more hassle in a few weeks Nepal than months in India! Holi was ofcourse the day par excellence that weasely men could run sleazy and up-touching amok on foreign women, which made it less pleasurable for them to be on the streets celebrating, than say, the local women. All in all, as much as Nepali's want to idle themselves, they are just like Indians but with different traits. The most kind people were always the Tibetan people or the mountain folks like the Gurungs and other Tibetan-Burmese ethnic groups, as they were more reserved and sincere in their approach so that you quickly felt comfortable in their company.

The elections are approaching fast too, on the 8th of April there will be the all important government elections and it seems to be a very open race because people are not happy with the current elected government that overthrew the royal family. I haven't looked into all the different parties, but I know there's a party that carries a green banner of a tree (I reckon they're not a Green party like we know it back home), then the Sun party, who has banners with a red striped sun on it (see pics in the Palpa post) and then there's the Communist party with the famous red sickle, which are the Maoists. To me, it seems that the Maoists actually might win it as any building where low-class workers live/work/gather are covered with Maoist flags. Flags that you see striding in the air more than of any other political party.
On the other hand, a lot of people see the Maoists as terrorists since they do still carry out little fights in remote places whereas in the big cities and important area's the cease-fire is respected. The rebels and the politicians however are not one and the same group but do have links with each other. I guess it's best to explain it in terms of the IRA and Sin Fein in the North Ireland.
Should the Maoists win, it will be interesting to see what would happen/change in Nepal on a social and economical level. In regards to tourism, there won't be a severe change as Nepal thrives on tourism and any political party will not want to waste this segment of the economy.
When I was in Patan the day before I left, I stopped at a gathering of Maoists sympathizers, who were getting ready for a normal election march like I've seen any of the political parties doing (either by foot or by car/jeep/bus). I was received with a smile and talked with several people who just wanted a more socialist government, equal pay and better working conditions and pension schemes (as only retired Gorkha soldiers or government workers get a pension). One guy gave me his cap of the Patan communists. 'to keep *sun* away' he said, as a great pun aimed at the Sun party, haha. One election souvenir for the road.

Ah the Nepali folk pop music, how I will miss it. I really have taken a liking to it, especially the modern folk stuff that is Lok Geet and Tis Geet. These newer and mostly classic folk songs are produced through sampling and electronic engineering though they still keep the sound as original as they can, with the effects nor the vocoder having taken control like in a lot of the over-done Hindi and Arabian folk pop. It's bouncy uneven pace and the up-and-down vocals form a good partnership where you can cleary hear the Asian influences being melanged with the Hindi vocal style. The Nepali 'riddim sound' gives a very urban and folkloric feel at the same time, more than any other Asian music style has ever sounded to me. Before I had already compared the faster Lok Geet to certain reggae riddims and a paced, bizarre form of dubstep. I think that a Nepali variation on ragga or dubstep could work really well, if someone's up to it to create it into a unique blend.....

On the cassettes industry, the sleeves are designed with a humble form of tackiness compared to the symbolic designs of Pakistan and the overly colourful ones of India (especially Rajasthan). It's a tackiness that looks quite plain and simple and that perhaps can mislead you on the style of the music if you're not a local.
Photo portraits of the vocalists, a photoshopped background drop with a mountain on it and somewhere a folk scene or a kid in the corner.
The small beauty of the designs of these sleeves is that they put pictures of buses on it, clearly marking it to be designated for bus play and proud of it. 1-0 to the Nepali truck/busdriver musicians for keeping it more real!

-more Nepali music to be uploaded later-

Big hug to the sisters, Krishankali, Ri, Aretha, Aki, Roxanne and all the other fine folks from UK, South Africa, France, Canada, Australia, Mexico etc. etc. during those 9 days...

-more photo's to be uploaded later-

Holi, just at morning time. We were still relatively clean then

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Up and down Annapurna and Chitwan's elephant water massage

A funny thing about the overly courteous Nepalese. Every time I reply them the recurrent *which country from?* question with the answer 'Belgium', they all seem to know Belgium and where it is situated and so on. Remarkable! Or actually not so remarkable at all, because Belgium has the largest Nepalese immigrant population in the west ever since they started receiving a lot political refugees in the 1990's. Especially students currently make up a lot of these numbers and Belgian universities welcome Nepali students by the load. That's what the people here tell me. Good news, Belgium is finally known for something social and positive which is not related to food, drink or painting. I'm happy for the Nepalese, who otherwise have a real hard time getting into the west. I do hope their gained knowledge will be brought back to Nepal, to better conditions here.

Ah yes, the 5 day trek to Annapurna sanctuary, the large mountain region above Pokhara stretching out towards the Tibetan border (perhaps better say 'Chinese border' before they put me down). In the morning we got my permit done and off we were to Nayapul, the starting point. It was just me and Hem, my guide who is born in a village in the Annapurna's. We had customized the trek and made a mix of the 2 famous treks, the Ghandruk - Ghorapani loop and the Jomsom trail, to take a slight diversion so that we could also visit a special hot spring which not many trekkers get to see.
I only took the minimum for 5 days; a small backpack with just a few clothes and my duck down sleeping bag. No need for a porter that many other trekkers would have, to have them carry all their stuff. Stuff which they probably wouldn't even use and had better left behind in their hotel, like me and most younger trekkers had done. Easy goes best, light is even better.
From Nayapul on, there would be no road anymore on our track. Just footpaths that were shared withy mules, the only different transportation system to human porters on the trail to all the villages high up or low down in cut-off valleys. Their bells always tolled a beautiful hymn of broken melodies, rhytmically out of tune, yet so in place on those moments. Echoing from the hills and through the forests. Given my allergy to all horse-like animals (it's a weird one, I know) I wasn't too thrilled to walk behind them, but their cling-clanging pace made more than up for it. 'But was it music?' to quote Henry Miller. Why, gorge-ous!

We walked up along the river, where kids were fishing. With hammers. Seriously. They hit upon the big rocks in the shallow river because the small fish that they were after always seem to hide under rocks. Death through vibration and pressure, food for the table. The mountains slowly started rising, but as this was just the first day we wouldn't see the high peaks for now, smaller mountains still concealing them.
We arrived in Hille end of the afternoon, a little village full of lodges for the trekkers -as every village is filled with-. The mule express overpassed us again, for them their working day surely wasn't over yet. Hot shower, relaxation and waiting for dinner while watching some emotional Korean movie. I met fellow-trekkers there. 3 friendly young folks from the Jersey island in the UK and a Norwegian son and his 74year old mother. Except from the hardship-shaped elderly locals, the Norwegian lady must have been the oldest person I met doing this trek.

2nd day. After an early breakfast we left towards Ghorapani, which promised a be a steep 6 hour walk. It was, especially the first bit. The day before I had met Martin, a kind German man who was giving trekkers a course in film shooting with as less equipment as possible. A creative thing to combine on such a nice trek. He comes to Nepal every year for several months and knows the Annapurna circuit and its villages by heart. He pointed to a nearby slope above a string of houses and told me in an affected tone that last year, there had been a landslide that divulged several houses and killed 17 people. Landslides are a common phenomenon here and we would encounter much more of their traces in the next days. Up on the way near a little village called Tikedungha, we passed a Nepali church that held a service. Vocal music of praise was oozing out of the doorway, kids playing around, making scattering noises. I went inside, not to pray or anything but just to hear and see as I found the sound quite intriguing, very un-western, they sung in Nepali which gave it a special shine. Here a song:

Tikedungha church members - Song of praise
We arrived in Ghorapani quicker than we thought, as our pace was very swift and we constantly overtook trekkers. Sure I knew the pain was gonna come later, ah what did I care. I loved the climbing up, heavy as it was, but it got me into a nice trance of near walking meditation, walking slowly over all my thoughts while focusing on natural surroundings at the same time. In Ghorapani it was cold and foggy as we now were at 2500 meter altitude. Tibetan people hawked their wares on the street and they liked getting into ironic arguments with trekkers about buying their crafts. If you're trekking, the last thing you want to do is to by a solid metal singing bowl or anything else heavy or useless to you. Unless you have porters perhaps. In the lodge we met 2 funny German-Australian sisters from the woods of Tasmania, Elia and Johanna. I nicknamed them the pagan sisters, natureloving and spiritual as they were.
They had been trekking for nearly 10 days without guide, just on their own which was no problem at all as the trekking trails are quit easy to follow. We had a long evening at the fireplace, talking about all things spiritual, natural and creative.

Day 3, early morning wake up call at 5.30am. To see the famous sunrise at Poon Hill, a 3200 meters high peak from where all of the Annapurna mountains could be seen. It was pretty cold and we packed ourselves into layers, wrapped in fleece, wool, gore-tex or whatnot. The sisters also joined us. Walking uphill for 40 minutes does make you warm quickly. But yeah, what is the Poon Hill vibe? In the nutty dialogue that me and Elia made up on the spot, this was Poon Hill:

"Welcome to the Gore-tex festival, the Poon Hill 2008 edition. Yes people, there will be live shows on the left, right, under and above by Korean, German, Canadian and Australian clickety-clackers, snapshot speakers and zany zoomers. They all use special hand instruments and throw poses on this natural stage set under the early morning sky. You are obliged to pose originally. And no, not with the aid of alcohol to loosen yourselves up, but only chia and water will be on offer, at a high cost. As are cakes, crackers or cookies of any sort. Pay up or remain thirsty and hungry at your own sake. The sunlight shall be shared with everyone, like the views and the fresh morning air. The watch tower is for those who care for the VIP treatment. It's not backstage but the abovestage for those higher beings. But alas, everyone is a VIP here! Devil may care, climb up that ladder at your own whim and see for yourself, look beyond the whitest of snow, into that golden trickle of light shining from it!"

Thus ended our Poon Hill stay and we descended down for a much needed breakfast.

The rest of the day was a nice up and down walk through foggy forests, beautifully filled with trees of all sort and we touched upon many packs of blooming Rhododendron trees. We arrived in Tadapani and it seemed as the crossroads for most treks and many people were crowding the lodges. In the evening we were visited by the Gurung mother group, the females of the local Gurung community who have Tibetan roots. They played their traditional songs in a sort of vocal choir, accompanied by a dholak drum. It all were short songs and the local people (and Nepali guides, porters and sherpa's) did traditional Nepali dancing, which looked a bit like Indonesian gamelan dances with a hint of India in it. Ofcourse, the tourists couldn't escape either so me and the sisters got pulled up dancing while others were reluctant to give it a try. Here a song:

Gurung mother group - Gurung folk song

The next day, with limbs starting to ache, we had to do a lot of inconsistent climbs up and down to Jhinu Danda, the special hot spring place. it actually was one of the nicest walks of all days, as we went through even more beautiful forests, covered with moss, ferns and flowers, the smell of fresh earth into our nostrills. Also we passed many little settlements and farms where people were working their fields by hand or by buffalo. The sun shined brightly upon us and we could see all the forested ridges clear and green while we still had the Annapurna mountains in our hindsight. Such air and view. It's too hard to describe it with the right words as that would take up another post, so I'll leave that for your imagination. Just let the photo's put the words in your head. We arrived in Jhinu in the late afternoon and lazied about as we were all tired, the sisters surely even more as they had been walking so long already and were quite fed up of mountains in their sincere honesty. Around 9pm, we went down to the hot spring, about a 20 minute walk. It was pitch dark and through a narrow stone path down into the forest, which was amazing. We heard the river getting louder and it was flowing at a rapid pace. The hot springs were just next to the river, in a cut-out and rock-layered pool of 4 by 6 meters, made by locals. Wow, they were so cosily warm, as if it was nature massaging your limbs and body. We had brought candles for light and it only added more to the special atmosphere. Many shadows flickered on the rocks while the sky above us was filled with stars, so many! We just felt lucky to experience this unspoilt place, especially at the time of the darkened day. The walk up, well, that was a bit harder again after this softening experience. Exhausting we went to bed.zzzzz.

On the 5th day, my camera went *crack* and refused to open and focus again. Like an early eternal sleep, the little cheapskate. The walk down to Nayapul, to get the bus back to Pokhara, was again beautiful just like the day before. This day we passed more little villages and farmer dwellings, more and more beautifully cultivated fields. It was a long but easy walk, as the trail mostly went down. Though I have found out that I rather like walking up than downhill since my muscle pains all came from the irregular downhill walks. Those really kill you more if anything. Back on the road, civilisation and shops. It felt so weird for a little moment to be back out of the wild, as in the days that you are walking, you feel much more in touch with your natural surroundings, the sounds and the crisp clean air. Except for the stunning views that they offered, the villages all were quite bare, except for Jhinu Danda that was more placed in a natural spot. These little villages solely serve as trekking stops instead of beautiful spots, filled with lodges as they are, but it offers the locals a way of income, an income that they otherwise never could earn if it were not for the trekking trails. On the 1,5 hour ride back, all for of us, me, Hem and the sisters, sat on the roof. Such beautiful views again, turning away from the Annapurna's. We did had to stay low and dodge the electricity cables, as they flashed near overhead.

Back in Pokhara, me and the sisters just relaxed. Had a 1,5 hour massage of acupressure and ayurvedic matters. Plush luxury indeed, but I felt revived. In the swell Peace Eye hotel we had some good nights with cheese and red wine (such combination, first time in months!). The sisters bumped into friends that they had met in India and they joined us in the evenings. Raul from Spain, a funny fella like a true storyteller, did a lot of his tricky magician tricks. Hello to Giorgios from Greece too! Travel well etc. I packed all my shit together and decided to move for Chitwan national park on my own, as the sisters were unable to move out of their relaxtion mode yet.

In a packed bus, on a tourist package. That, because the easiest and cheapest way to get to the Chitwan wild reserve was on such a deal. On the too well paved tourist trail indeed. The oh so kind hotel manager of Peace Eye had arranged a too cheap deal to refuse, much cheaper than any of the commission hunting agencies offered.
After a 6,5 hour ride we suddenly were in the tropical bush, away from the mountains. We got picked up by jeep and delivered at our lodging like a packet. There I met an irish couple, Tony and Emma, and a Dutch couple, Ed and his wie (whose name I forgot, sorry!) and with them I would do most of the excursions. The excursions, as corny as they may have sounded to me, I did enjoy them a lot.
In the afternoon we walked around a Tharu village. The Tharu people are believed to have moved all the way from Rajasthan to the tropical Nepalian forests in medieval times, when the mughuls were slayering tribes at will. Their name springs from the Thar desert perhaps? We went to the elephant breeding centre and saw several elephants relaxing. With chains, which make them look sad. In the evening, I met some other tourists in the lodge from Japan and the UK, who invited me for an evening tour to the edge of the jungle. We walked in darkness as the power had been vut off and from far we could already hear the cacaphony of mostly birds and insects. We just sat there silent for half an hour, listening and peeking into the bushy darkness across the river. The next day we had a canoe ride. They didn't let us peddle so I felt a bit useless and once again the typical tourist. We saw crocodiles (gharials and muggers) and many birds, like kingfishers, ducks, maraboe's and storks. The walk into the jungle was promised to be something special. Though we walked a good hour or more in the dense vegetation, we saw only some birds and insects. Only footprints or droppings of the wilder animals like the sloth bear, tiger and rhinoceros. When we came back to the river, they were washing the elephants. That was really why I wanted to go to Chitwan, to swim with the elephants and wash them! I was the only one of my tourist pack who went into the water, and no sooner I found myself looking an elephant in the face upclose and being hosted up into the air by it, woah! I got a tarzan style elephant snout shower while I sat on it's back. The elephant sometimes rolled over and I fell softly into the water, laughing from the sensation. Like a kid, again and again. After my own bath and play, I helped the mahout driver to clean the elephant and he gave me a porous stone. The elephant skin is thick and crusty so only a stone can wash him good. The elephant lay on his side, enjoying the rub and stoned massage. You could hear her groan out of satisfaction, bizarre. In the afternoon we would have the elephant jungle ride, riding in a wooden seat atop the animal, which I didn't know what to expect of. The beginning was boring, but as soon we went into the jungle, it was great to be so high up, getting branches and bush slapped into your face. We soon saw rhinoceros, a mother and her baby. We also encountered 3 different types of wild deer and all these wild animals weren't afraid of us. Because they couldn't see or smell us, sitting high on the elephant and that was the whole trick with having elephant jungle rides and getting so close -right next!- to wild animals. In the evening there was a Tharu cultural programme planned for all the tourists of the different lodges. It was an ok performance, except for the chattering noise most tourists made, ones who perhaps didn't care for the Tharu music or culture but came anyway. The dances and music were very similar to the Indian tribal stick dances of Gujarat and Haryana, places were Rajasthani tribes also have settled in the last few hundred years, if that's not a clear link enough. Also hello to the fellow Belgian person from Antwerp (Essen) that I met, I'm so bad with names sometimes, so forgetful.

That was the end of 3 days and 2 nights in Chitwan. It was long enough for me and I was itching to get to the Kathmandu valley. We entered the city in its most vile and smoggiest form. wow, after all the natural quality of Annapurna and Chitwan, it did feel awkward.

I turned my camera into repair in Kathmandu, to see if first help can reanimate him. Breathe oh little one, breathe!
-and guess what, they fixed it; gone is then asthma and its bad cough, yay-

Today (friday) is Holi, the special Hindu day for coloring one another by throwing powder or colored water on each other. I've already been waterbagged a few times in the last days as a warm-up. But today, me and friends can throw back as we have bought powder and plastic bags. We're prepared, mwhahaha ;)
Ok, time to sign off and run through the water barricades that are happening right in front the internet shop. Many tourists covered in colours have stepped into here looking bewildered. Better be prepared, I'm on my way to get and throw some colours, yeah! :)

More on these savage wet celebrations and Kathmandu's surroundings in the next post.

just photo's of the 4 days trekking....

awareness poster

staring point Nayapul

kitchen at our first stop

where no roads can go....the mule express always delivers. Chickin' on the move!

fishing with the hammer

some views....

local folks

...with baby asleep on the back

gentle german Martin in shooting pose

Nepali church at Thikedungha

first sigh of the red Rhododendron, Nepal's national symbol

elderly woman, breaking for a smoke.

stupa at Ghorapani

the Machhapuchhare just at the first of dawn

view of the Annapurna I

'hereby I declare the Poon Hill gore tex festival 2008, opened!'

the crowd goes mental...

our pose

sisterly hug

a view for the fun of it...(this guy told me I already was the 5th person who asked to photograph him. such copycats we all are!)

been here, done nothing

must admit, the Koreans did the best posing poses!

the forests and its trees

Monday, March 17, 2008

The disdained junkie from Palpa and a playfully pestering ride to Pokhara. And then....Shivaratri time!

I arrived yesterday in smoggy Kathmandu, back into metropolitan atmospheres so it feels. Dirty and foul smelling Kathmandu, crammed to the neck with tourists. Still a lot to experience in the KTM valley in the next full week.
It has been nearly over 2 weeks ago since last letters. Times moves faster than you think, when on the move, on wild treks or enclosed by nature and wildlife.

So, to continue in the steep mountain region district of Tansen, where I found myself during the writing of last post. In the town of Palpa to be exact. I strolled around town, mostly uphill, to see the prime spots that it offered. No sooner had I set off or a young man came walking by my side. It was at the local sport pitch, which was a long plateau where young military men were playing various sports (football, volleyball and cricket) and a carnival had just been dismantled, cabins of rides and plastic animal seat lying all about. He introduced himself as Kiran and offered me to walk me to my desired spots and to tell me something about each place. Sure deal. We saw Palpa’s main temple and its pornographic woodcarvings (see below) on several poles. Wooden erotism, excitingly cut. Then the town square which was empty due to the rain, followed by a demolished palace. Tansen Durbar, as the LP guide had expected me to found it untouched, former place of the provincial governor, built in Rana style in 1927. Interesting info? Nope, very much former indeed as it was now reduced to heaps of red stones and eloquent stone carvings lying about. Kiran told me that the Maoists attacked in January 2006 and destroyed the palace, more about the siege. For a short time there were fights between the few thousand Maoist rebels and the Nepalese army. The army sent more troops and prevailed to regain its controlled spot on the Palpa hills again. Their camps more fortified since then, as I could see with my own eyes. “There still are some Maoist rebels active, but the scarce few are all down in the valley in spot where there isn’t much army”, Kiran said in a common tone. We sat down on a wall for a while, looking at the misty view of valleys and people walking by, talking about his business studies, his life in Palpa, his dreams and hopes. He wasn’t positive or inspired about each subject that passed and instead quite gloomy in all his answers and thoughts. To remain, live and work in Palpa seemed to be his reluctant wish for the future but rather a wish that came from experiences while working in Dubai, UAE for nearly a year. Not good experiences by all means, as he didn't like the spirit of the people and their big money lifestyles so that he resigned and went back to Nepal, back home to Palpa and so his life re-took its slow course.
Kiran invited me to his local hangout, a small, dingy and dark bar/eatery, hazily lit by candlelight and owned by an elderly Gurung woman who ran the place with a still vital energy. Soon his friends joined, introduced themselves to me and it became clear that alcohol was their recurring ritual for ending a day of work or non-work, evening after evening. Here I got my first taste of the local raksy wine, which is not wine as in the red/white tradition, but more like a rice wine made out of millet. Fermentation through moonlight, that sort of natural strong spirited jest. It tasts quite ok for a sip, lighter than vodka, whiskey or rum, but surely heavier than wine. No one knows the percentage of alcohol in it, as every raksy brew seems to vary. Perhaps depending how yellow or heavy the moon shines. I tasted some of the local food, a sort of small donut made out of chickpeas and spicy herbs which I forgot the name of and some crispy cubes of buffalo meat for the novelty. Meanwhile the friends drank beer or raksy in a tempo that speeded past my slow chia orderings. My friend was visibly nervous about something, his hands unsteady and trembling, with a weary look on his face. I nearly felt it was time to go, as I wanted to relax on my own and eat somewhere. And then he confided to me that he had a problem, 'a drug problem', and with bits the story came out of him, pulled from his worried mind. His friends nodded solemnly in confirmation. He was a junkie of the brown, which is the nickname for opium around here. Kiran wanted me to tell him, to advise him what would be best to do, though at the same time he already answered his own question by informing me that he thought of checking into a clinic in Kathmandu. I could only agree and usher him to do such without more to add. We went out of the dim bar and it was pitch dark on the street as the power has failed again -which almost is a daily norm in Nepal between 6pm and 9.30pm, I've learned by now-. He really wanted to show me his house and as he kept acting so nervous and giving me awkward vibes, I didn't really want to. I gave in and I walked behind him over a narrow muddy ridge down past a military post down to his house. Soon enough I found myself sitting inside, in a room with his studying brother and a sister who was sleeping in a bed nearby, with a hot cup of chia in my hands. I stayed about an hour, talking about god knows what with the brother while my man for most part of the time was elsewhere, doing something else until he popped up again. After that, it really was time to go to my hotel as they had the urge to lock the gate at 10pm every evening. Kiran somehow felt compelled to accompany me. "Just for a small moment", he said, "and then I will leave you". Indeed the gate was locked and we had to wake up the moaning Tibetan woman to let us in. Up in my room we talked some more, me trying to butter him with positive subject to make him feel more at easy. Still the nervousness persisted and it came to the point that he wanted to leave with me giving him a souvenir. A personal souvenir. Errr, well you can have this postcard of Pakistan, this passport photo of me if you really must, and some other nicknacks. That all took a while and I became slightly annoyed by his reluctance to accept and go, while I had been as fair to him as I could be while my tiredness was setting in. We exchanged addresses and I did promise to send him some postcards and a cassette compilation. Such promises are no problem. It's more hard talking people into positivity if they can't follow your drift or direction and feel quickly at loss when listening. Perhaps the book of James Frey 'Inot Million Pieces' would be of any help to him, if only I had it with me or to be bought in a non-existent international bookshop. I don't know. I do hope that Kiran will get through this episode and get his life back on track.

The next morning, I woke up realizing that it was my birthday. Not a special day to me otherwise, but the fact being on this trip, alone, and in such a nice mountain area, it did make it more special for once. I bought myself some cakes, a few small flowery banana's, fresh bread and walked up the Srinagar Danda mountain, the high hill looming over Palpa, where my guide and guidebook promised a nice view of the Annapurna's was to be seen. If clear weather. It was clear by a bright sun, but misty clouds shrouded the distant mountains, so I enjoyed looking down into the valley and onto the wall of clouds. Special to me nonetheless in this moment of morning time, on my b-day. In the late morning I took a bus to Pokhara. A busride that should normally take 4 hours, if with a mini-bus and not a government bus. I got into a government bus and the ride lasted over 6.5 hours. But what a ride it was, those views! Valleys, gorges, ridges, rivers, forests and many dwindling roads curving around mountains. The full package of driving in mountain territory. That the whole ride a few persistent gypsy kids were pestering me from behind and next to me, didn't bother me too much. There were 2 poor families sitting in the back who let their kids run aloof on me, perhaps sent with a silent mission to get anything from me. I really didn't mind and actually had fun with the kids, especially with the timid young girl who was most persistent of all. In a dull yet lush begging voice, she constantly said *hey* to me. A voice that already sounded like it had endured rejection beyond a certain limit so that it had become blunt, worn out into a monotonous strain, emptied of any negative or positive emotions. From time to time I gave her an the other little things. cookies, some loose change I found in my bag and pockets. The rest of the time I ignored the begging, reading my book. Except to disrupt it by pulling funny idiotic faces and grins now and then. Or mimick her, which she found brilliant play. Or by tickling her unexpectedly on her arm or fingers when not looking. Pure and free fun. That reminds me, to quickly get rid of the more annoying streetkids -not the sweet ones-, the best method is to tickle them and see how quickly they run away and stay at a safe distance from the tickler. It's harmless and playful. Anyway, I think the girl and her siblings must have thought of me as a weird cuckoo since my behavior was too inconsistent for their own planned tactics. But yeah, 6,5 hours of begging would leave many a westerner crazed so I rather played a play that I could enjoy too ;)

Finally, Pokhara in sight and quick enough I found myself sitting on a motorbike, with all 3 bags heavily hanging on me. I was taken to a better hotel, by that I mean a hotel that is more expensive than a backpacker place but to pay 3 euro's for a huge room, a big plush bed and hot shower, it does not cripple your budget really. And still my b-day, so to refuse a bit of luxury would be very stubborn. At the hands of irony I found myself in company of many Dutch tourists from the southern provinces, the actual owner of the hotel also being Dutch -sigh-. But why should I moan here, out of poised exclusiveness or nomadic elitism? Pah, let it rest. I dwelled easily in my plush surroundings though I kept a low profile either way not to be marked out by the few-week-holiday'ers. There, elitism. I'm flawed and doomed in my own sauce.
My Dinner was served in a small shack where I could enjoy the choice of Tibetan food again. Momo's, thukpe and thentuks. Yum. Up to then, it had been quite difficult -read, nearly impossible- to find any Tibetan food in the previous places. The Pokhara streets were dark and I could not see much of its glory as people told me of. Several shops were open, such as internet cafe's, souvenir joints and luxury supermarkets. Super swell supermarkets I must say beyond my initial detested feeling, as I found cheese. Real cheese. In the big, round shape where pieces could be cut from. Wow. Luxury. And it was yak cheese, the furry Tibetan buffalo animal. Oh so happy, just by cheese. There were many bars in the street, more than I have seen anywhere in the past 5 months and even a cslight shock came to me to see so many foreigners gulping down alcopop of every form. Did I get so strayed away from that to feel that? I sat down in a blues bar, in the hope to hear blues that weren't played and asked for the local raksy, which they did not have. They had to re-import it from the very same shack where I ate my nice Tibetan meal. I might have better stayed there and had more fun. There were all these booming places above the bars and shops, which called themselves *dancing restaurants*. What? The neatly dressed fella at the stairs ushered me up. So I went up to inspect, though I should have known from my first feeling. From the door opening I saw many guys sitting around tables, drinking alcopop and eating bits n bobs. In front of them, a Nepali Asian beauty dancing on a podium, while Nepali disco echoed all around her. Description; very short skirt, luscious moves and entertaining the rowdy males like a monkey doing its taught trick. I was out in a whim and down at the stairs the host fella asked me if I liked it. Or if I would like some more, like some live action with his female employees, like on cue a well shaped Nepali gal walked past and gave me a wink. "No thanks, I got yak cheese", I answered with sincere happiness. I was happy indeed. Cheese! The guy just looked puzzled at me, as if realizing he was dealing with a stoner or some other insanely drugged, out-of-place male creature that was beyond reasoning with and I left him to juggle his jigsawed thoughts. Bzzzz. Off I was, to do some reading and cutting cheese in between pages. Happiness. You find it in the most banal forms or situations while traveling, away from the routines of home.
The next days in Pokhara I spent with buying pirated arthouse movies (legal crime I say!) and planning my trek in the Annapurna mountains with my to-be guide Hem, who I met through the ever handy couchsurfing network. Also I rented a mountainbike with suspension and drove around the lakeside, the big nice Phewa Tal lake and the surrounding hills. One of the days was the day of Shivaratri, which signifies Shiva's birthday and the marriage between him and goddess Parvati. Just search for Shivaratri on youtube and you'll find loads of viddy's of saddhu's and locals getting high and do some spinning dances or other crazed things out of Shiva's holy name. The day is actually all about people, young and old alike, to get severely high on bhang, a brew of a cannabis product. (funny factoid, the pictured Bhang shop in Jaisalmer is actually the place where we got our brew one night in November) So, the day of celebration. The one day in the year that cannabis/bhang is not illegal in Nepal. And the people celebrate with a righteous vigor as if solely ment for spiritual use. Isn't that what drugs are about in fairness? Back to my story. I cycled away from the lake to smaller villages past the hills stretching to the far end of the lake. Slowly raising roads and muddy tracks soon appeared. Having passed a few villages, I could see a little temple in the distance right next to the lake, where a crowd of locals had gathered. I drove up to it and looked at the ceremony. People invited me in straight away and they even wanted to make me drink the bhang, but since it was just morning.....naaah. A cup of sweet chia was good enough. Some people were seated and were making flower garlands while other were cutting fruits, dough and nuts for the offerings. A fire burned in the middle meanwhile. I looked in the small temple, filled with offerings and burning incense sticks. Suddenly an old men inside the small space woke up with a shout and shook all over his body and stood up. "The spirit is in him" somebody told me, and the old men pushed his way past us and ran towards the fire, kneeled down and put his bald head on the bright glowing wood for several seconds, only to be helped up again by others so they could sit him down. An ashen flesh mark decorating the crown of his head, ouch. I stayed a while, seeing the ceremony of reading the Shiva story while the temple bell tolled by people's touches. Kids were surrounding me whenever they could. I think they were still without bhang. Wait till tonight kids, just wait. I took photo's of some scenes, the temple, the kids and the mother with her 2 bug eyed children. I cycled on and went back to the Pokhara lakeside, where I drove to the northern part of the city. I wanted to make it up to Sarankot, a 4 km steep drive into the mountains. I only got halfway since the gears of the bike weren't working well and it was heavier than I expected. Halfway I met some kids driving on self-made carts down the curved mountain road, in the same dangerous barrier-less way that kids do in Southern American countries like Colombia. Action pics below. On my way down, I reached the Bhagwati temple, one of the biggest temples of Pokhara and I saw many people going inside and hearing music. When I came in, what a chaos of sound came over me! On one side a performance of local folk artists, on the other side a open aired temple with saddhu's singing acoustic songs and behind that another temple where 2 priests were playing live temple music, which was amplified to outside. 3 different sounds, 3 angles. Full on Shivaratri temple mashup. I couldn't resist recording it. Here.

Unknown artists - Bhagwati temple songs (3 angles)

Quite special stuff to see and I was the sole tourist there out of the thousand or so people walking around. It was a great experience and folks came up to me to have their pic taken with me in front of the temples, bells or shrines. I couldn't escape it. It was nearly getting dark and it ended. What would the evening bring? I again ate momo's and chowmein in one of those cheap eating shacks, by the guiding hand of my soon-to-be guide Hem. Next morning we would leave to do a 5 day trek in the Annapurna mountain sanctuary. So for the sake of fitness it was out of the question that I could drink alcohol or get hammered with bhang. Not that I wanted to. When I went back to the hotel, I heard people singing nearby. Ofcourse, curiosity could not kill this cat, so what else could I do than to witness it and perhaps take part?
In a courtyard there were about 30 people sitting around each other. The men were playing dhol drums and khartals and sung together with the women next to them. The women took separate turns of dancing to each short song, lasting about 30 seconds to a minute at the time. A young boy around the age of 10, introduced him as Raju and it was clear that he had tasted the vivid virtues of bhang. haha, how high he was, but so positive and enjoying it too! He asked me if I was married and without waiting for my answer and said " here, you can have my sister, she is single". The 12 year old girl next to him looked up in shy disbelief as her brother's spontaneous words. Pure cheekiness from this little fella, though he meant it sincerely. I really think he did. At one dance, a voluptuous women got into a trance and she dropped on the floor, still having dance spasms. The other women just laughed, helped her up and she kept on dancing while several women were cautious enough to keep her up. Soon another women got into a bhang trance and she was more out of control, as she was still too fast to stop and stept on some of the musical males or other folks. Fun! Laughs! The release of spiritual joy! Nothing was spared it seemed. Next to me sat an middle aged English fella, who also wasn't completely sober anymore. Liquor being his spiritual guide. He was utterly filled with love and joy as he spoke livid poetry to me about his soon-to-be wife, "a Nepalese beauty of 32 years of age", according to his own words. "Right now, I am the luckiest man in the world, the luckiest!" The man, having tattooed *love* on his 4 fingers of each hands surely looked lucky and happy for he had experienced 2 badly ended marriages in his life. Sure he could use some luck. So could his woman (a hardworking nurse) and her family. Luck. A good thing by all means, if it works out both ways in this case. The lucky man left as quickly as he had entered the scene. I left soon afterwards, waved goodbye to the Nepalese mothers who had so many times tried to lure me on the dance clearing, but which calls I sorrowfully didn't answer as I was trying to record some songs. Like this one.

Unknown artists - Shivaratri courtyard dance song

That was the end of the night for me, way past midnight and I had to rise early enough to arrange my trekking permit, sanctuary fees and taking the bus with Hem to the starting point. Next post will be about the 5 day trek, the relaxing days of Pokhara and the Chitwan wildlife park. About time I enjoy Kathmandu a bit.

Here some more recordings, taken from the radio. This is the Lok Geet style. Vocal folk with instruments and digital adjustments. As I said, it feels like a happy dubstep riddim with sweet and fast lyrics. I really like it. Especially this female version.

Unknown artist - Lok Geet song (female)
....and it gets rougher, yay to bad reception!

Unknown artist - Lok Geet song (rough)

here the riddleboutbunch of photo's....

dark cloudy view on Tansen valley


The heaps of stone, what once was Tansen Durbar palace

narrow streets of Palpa

Maoist graffiti

Yes, vote for sun! It was allover several walls.

Kiran, the confessed

Tansen - Pokhara ride, our bus had to wait as an accident blocked the road. Took photo of kind father and daughter.

View on river and hills beneath

misty Pokhara at the lakeside

The temple at the other side of lake at Shivaratri

The kids at the temple, peace y'all

Mother with her two children, nice eyes.

View on ridges and road to Pokhara

lake mound view

kids on cart

and cart going down......zoefffff

a sunnier lake, not all days were grey in Pokhara