by Roberta Sotonoff
It’s a ho-hum flight until the pilot directs our attention to the right-hand side of the plane. At 29,028 feet, awesome Everest is almost level with the aircraft. Mt. Everest and the Himalaya make Nepal a vertical kingdom. It’s 560- by-110-miles wide, but if it could be flattened, Nepal would probably be the size of Australia.
Buddhism and Hinduism make it exotic. Cows and water buffalo have the right-of-way in the lower elevations, and yaks have it above 10,000 feet.
Annapurna, Pukara, Nepal
We arrive in clamoring Katmandu, and then seek tranquility in the foothills of the Himalaya. Our trip includes four days of trekking in the Annapurna region, a two-day rafting trip down the Madi, Kosi and Seti rivers and two days in Royal Chitwan National Park. It is classified as “easy.”
The itinerary reads, “The trek starts with a short climb.” Luckily that wasn’t written in stone. What is in stone are 1,000-plus steps. Villagers hauling huge loads in dokos (baskets) anchored to their foreheads with a namglo (rope belt) pass us. Most wear only flip-flops. They leave me and my high-tech hiking boots in their dust.
After flirting with cardiac arrest, there is a lunch break, followed by the “big easy,” the ups and downs that continue to our campsite near the village of Bhumdi. Its heavenly view is overwhelming: the soaring Annapurna II, III, IV, South, Hunchuli, Lamjung Himal and the sacred fishtail mountain, Machhapuchhre. Leaving the clouds floating below, these giant white massifs reach for the sky and then disappear into a haze.
Dinner is followed by drumming. The eight Sherpas, who have just prepared our dinner, carried our luggage, tents, porta-potty, shower, cooking gear, and supplies on their back. They still have energy to sing and dance under a shower of stars. Dancing–a combination of hand and body gestures– go from the simple to the elaborate. Our cook, Pasang Sherpa, spreads his arms like a bird and makes a loop. By 8:00 p.m., my husband and I are exhausted.
A 6 a.m. wake-up knock on the tent comes with tea and warm washing water. Our Sherpas take incredible care of us. Water is always boiled and the camp is kept very clean. This is very important in a country where amoebic dysentery is a popular tourist souvenir. The Sherpas disassemble the camp and the trek becomes a matter of avoiding water and buffalo chips, and figuring out how to fit our foot on each stone.
“This is much harder than the last time I did it. The rocks were smoother,” says our guide, Rajeesh Shrestha. Raj keeps a running commentary about Hinduism, movies, music and corny jokes. The path snakes up, around and down in a misty rain forest of ferns, berries, moss, slippery rocks, roots and rot.
“There was landslide,” says Namgyal, the head Sherpa who quietly treks alongside us. (Comment on how this makes you feel coming from the head Sherpa).
Tonight’s campsite is a vast open field surrounded by mountains and greenery. Cascading steppes look like a platter of carefully arranged slices of meat. The night is cold and rainy. Drumming begins and the Sherpas dance, once again, into the night.
The next morning is shrouded in fog. The ground is slick. Every now and then shadows of the mountains and small villages peak through the mist.
“Today we take a few steps up,” says Raj.
Annapurna Trek, Nepal
He means 350. Colorful Buddhist prayer flags billow at about 9,500 feet. Each color represents an element – earth, water, fire, air and sky. Below is our lunch stop, the Gurung village of Bhangjang. Beside stone and thatched-roofed houses surrounded by chickens and water buffalo, smiling villagers pose for pictures. We move past some boys playing chess toward more roots, mud, water, buffalo droppings and stairs. For three days, the mountains stay wrapped in a fog envelope.
On the last evening, the Sherpas bake a cake. “Hope you had a nice trek, Namaste (good-bye),” it says. They insist we dance with them and laugh as we klutzily move around in the circle.
The last trekking day is a down day, figuratively and literally. Villages are a flurry of activity – children running off to school cows; water buffalo and roosters running amok; people working the fields and some even building a house. My very last step is into a giant water buffalo chip. Namgyal bends down, removes my shoe and cleans it.
Since our legs are now shot, we next labor to destroy our upper body. The two-day rafting trip begins near Pokhara, at a popular Madi River beach and sometime Nepalese laundromat. Down the river, mountains surround the water. Monkeys and birds like kingfishers, eagles and kites are everywhere.
Bhim, the guide, shouts paddle commands,” Forward please, forward, stawp!” He directs the raft through plentiful rapids and riffles. The Class III rapids elicit screams and icy water-soaked clothes.
The sun starts to sink. The raft stops at a lonely beach. Two bulls are fighting on the sand.
“We need eggs,” says Bhim.
Lou my husband and Raj the guide getting ready to launch the raft
He sends his assistant. Disappearing into the wilderness, his helper soon returns with a dozen eggs stuffed between two pieces of lumpy cardboard. They are placed atop the gear as we re-enter the water. It is now my job to keep the eggs from breaking– a daunting task through three sizable rapids.
The eggs survive unbroken. We camp on a remote beach. Across the river, people march up the trail like an army of ants. Then they sit to watch the show — us. Kids magically appear at the campsite. They don’t speak, just stare. The group multiplies to eleven by the time dinner is prepared. It includes yak cheese garnished with sand. As we settle down to rest, the sound of flowing water brings sleep in the foggy, chilly night.
We stay put in our down sleeping bags until dawn. Then it is, once again, “forward please, forward, stawp” down the rapids until the raft hits a rock. Raj makes an unscheduled exit, crawls back in. The rest of the trip is an easy paddle.
Incessant mist follows us to Chitwan National Park. Located in the southern, sub-tropical Terai region, tall elephant grasses cover its scrubby flatland. It teems with 45 species of animals.
The Terai elephant safari is unforgettable. Our elephant, who could use a set of shock absorbers, silently labors through the grass. There is rustling. A huge rhino passively looks up from about 25 feet away. We later spot wild boars, bark deer, monkeys and crocs. Resident leopards and Bengal tigers elude us. The sun begins to set and the elephants plod across the river to the lodge.
Elephant Safari, Chitwan NP, Nepal
Soupy morning fog brings zero visibility. When the haze dissipates, we paddle in a dugout canoe amid a flurry of egrets, kingfishers, storks, peacocks, mallards and crocodiles. An afternoon jungle walk to a crocodile refuge yields little wildlife.
From feet to beat-up jeep, we bounce down the pockmarked road to a Tsarovillage. Animal pictures decorate their small, clay and cow dung houses. Tsaros do not read or write, marry young and lead a simple farming life. On the return trip, children wave and yell, “Bye bye.” Their only English word is a reminder that it is time to return home, where the mode of transportation is a Toyota and yak cheese and water buffalo chips are scarce.
Editor’s note: Original World Travel offers voyages to India and the Himalayas year-round, including Ancient Cultures of Indian Himalya, the Hemis Festival in Ladakh and the Paro Festival in Bhtuan.