Travels with the Beard – Nepal and Beyond

Our travels, chickens and surviving life

Yogic Swan

Chitwan is a hot, dry area in the south of Nepal, running along the Indian border. In contrast to the mountainous north of the country Chitwan is mostly flat, with vast flat-floored valleys, and jungle areas criss crossed by a number of rivers.
It is probably best known for its National Park which attracts foreign tourists, who come to bask in the considerable dry heat of the jungle, and stare at the crocs, rhinos, and snooty camels who live there. (I have never crossed the path of a camel who has not given me a haughty stare, so I do not feel that this is an unduly unfair observation.)
But our friend Karma also lives in Chitwan, although she and her husband are newcomers there.
Two months ago they relocated from Kathmandu when Karma was offered the opportunity of supervising the opening and then the running of a new brick factory.
Her husband was also given a supervisory position, allowing them both to work; and to work together.
She rang us in England shortly after starting her new life in Chitwan,
“It is good here, yes, but boring,” she told us, “the villagers all go to bed at 6pm!”
“Why?” we asked,
“Because of the rhinos!” she said, and laughed.
I wasn’t sure laughter was entirely appropriate at that juncture, but hey, what do I know about rhinos – maybe THEY have a sense of humor.
“They come out of the jungle at 6pm,” Karma went on, “and eat the sugar cane.”
Right oh. I like an animal with regular eating habits.
I remembered what Karma had told us as we borded a Chitwan-bound bus in Kathmandu, and squeezed ourselves along the Nepali size aisle, and into the Nepali size seats. We were looking forward to our visit.
We did a bit of relocating ourselves a couple of hours into the journey – Tod discovered an army of small, biting red ants clambering all over him, so we settled down on the back seat of the 18 seater bus for the rest of the trip.
It was wonderful to see Karma again. The bus took us into the middle of nowhere, and right to the new, not yet working brick factory.
We discovered that 2 new one storey buildings had been constructed next to it, providing Karma and her husband with a room to live in, an office to work from, and a spare room too.
The other key workers in the new business had settled into rooms of their own.
The heat was dry and breathtaking. Karma, her husband, Tod and I sat down outside and drank lemonade.
The land was perfectly flat as far as the eye could see, and it rolled out in front of us, shimmering below a thick heat haze.
Rice and potatoes were growing all around, and a river ran sluggishly behind the compound.
Karma had started to make good use of the spare land her company had bought, and had dug a large pond and already stocked it with fish, with a view to providing some extra food for the workers.
A colony of frogs had moved in too, and demonstrated their amazing and amusing ability to run across the surface of the water. How cool is that? Frogs who can walk on water!
Goats and chickens played around, and a rather lovely large white bird that Tod and I thought was a goose, but Karma assured us was in fact a swan, stood on a grassy mound, gazing into space,
“If you watch, he’ll do yoga for you,” Karma said, grinning.
We watched, and he did.
Would you believe, the swan slowly raised one leg and stretched it out behind him, pink web neatly pointed downwards. Then he slowly stretched the wing on the same side, until it was completely extended, each feather clearly visible and neatly aligned.
He remained staring slightly upwards, towards the sky.
Oh boy! A yogic swan!
So there we have it. A very brief glimpse of a hot, remote area – a new home to a pleasant group of people and a seemingly content group of animals.
Oh yes, and a yogic swan.
But the nearby small, isolated village is home to a number of families with ‘issues’ shall we say. Just the day before we arrived a villager in her 60s had been beaten up by her own family and thrown out of the house onto the track outside, where a number of other villagers also beat her, to within an inch of her life.
Why?
Because they say she is a witch.
This is not an isolated occurance, and there are other similar examples.
Karma’s brick factory, although not yet up and running, will be fully automated. There is housing (of sorts), water and a toilet for the workers.
Karma will supervise 2 meals a day for them.
She took us across the river the next day to see round a neighbouring brick factory. It is worked entirely by hand. There is no water supply for the workers and no toilet.
The temperature was already in the 30Cs at 9am as we walked around the factory. All the work is done outside, and our horror mounted as we saw the conditions there.
Bricks were laid out everywhere as different family groups worked on them by hand in the searing heat.
Ponies pulled carts laden with bricks from one place to another.
We saw many children working there, one as young as 4 years old.
A brisk burning wind fanned brick dust over everyone, everywhere, and we covered our mouths as best we could.
The workers and children had no masks and several children had eye infections. Some of the adults seemed ill.
We wanted to give money to some of the workers who seemed most in need – actually we wanted to give money to everyone there – but Karma was very firm,
“I’m sorry,” she said, “you can’t. There are 300 workers here, and it may well cause a riot.”
Protesting did no good. She was sensibly adamant.
We walked slowly back across the river weighed down by helpless guilt.
Even the revelation that Karma was personally helping some of the families there did nothing to alleviate our guilt.
Nothing could.
Life seemed suddenly a little bit darker. As well it should.

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Bhutan 2

On the day we tackled the Tiger’s Nest climb our two young Bhutanese guides arrived at the hotel to pick us up exactly on time.
We, unfortunately, were 15 mins late, due entirely to that damn rogue 15 minutes, which had tricked us yet again, and managed to add itself onto the rogue Nepalese 15 minutes! It’s a long and confusing story….
The two lads just laughed. In the land of Gross National Happiness what’s 15 minutes between friends?
Our first impression of Bhutan was that it is neat and ordered, with magnificent scenery of towering mountains and deep valleys.
They told us that it teemed with wildlife, and we found that easy to believe. We had the impression of neatly cared for remoteness, and for sure tigers and yeti roamed the thickly forested slopes of some of the world’s highest mountains.
I already knew that I would be able to ask (and I DO mean ask) a horse if he/she would carry me a third of the way up to Tiger’s Nest.
I had the awful feeling that the horse I’d ask might look at me with horror or disdain, and decline.
What would I do then? Ask another, less discerning horse the same question? Risk another embarassing refusal?
Tod thought it was funny.
But when it came to it I couldn’t do it, and I can honestly say that part of the reason for my decision to attempt the whole climb under my own steam was fear of equine refusal, of equine laughter, and fear of the look that said,
“You must be joking; you need an elephant, not a horse!”
Well, I don’t think there are any elephants in Bhutan, so off we set.
It was very quiet and still as we stood and stared up at Tiger’s Nest Monastery.
We had never seen a sight like it. The mountain face upon which it balances is mostly bare rock, which is itself unusual, as the area is almost completely covered in forest elsewhere.
A couple of very large black birds floated on the currents, circling each other on a level with the Monastery. They looked like moving black specs at that height.
My breathing refuses to work on any upward inclination, and believe me, this wasn’t just ‘any’ upward inclination – this was the side of your house.
Of course taking deep breaths doesn’t achieve a great deal because there isn’t as much oxygen in the air at that height – 10,000ft.
We seemed to be alone on the track and our two guides eventually gave up tut tutting sympathetically and trotted on ahead.
I struggled grimly on with Tod by my side.
We eventually realised that we were late starting the climb, and we began to pass a steady trickle of fellow climbers who’d already reached their goal and were now descending.
They were in various stages of exhaustion, although none as bad as I was! That really didn’t bode well, and there was a great deal of sympathy extended in my direction.
Now I’ve said it before, but I really do have to say it again; if you want an ice breaker in any part of the world take a Tod with you.
It’s not JUST the beard, it’s the smile above it too.
There was not a group, not an individual that we passed who did not stop and chat, shake hands, smile, laugh.
I was glad – it gave me extra time to catch what breath I could.
While we sat waiting in Kathmandu airport for our flight to Bhutan we realised that the ‘Departures’ board in front of us was showing incorrect information. One of the many passengers who we warned about this was a young Chinese-looking man who grinned broadly and thanked us.
We ‘met’ him again as we visited the site of the world’s largest sitting Buddha in Bhutan, and he and Tod greeted each other like long lost friends. We all laughed.
So it was perhaps not entirely unexpected that we bumped into this young man yet again, as he and his guide came down the track towards us at Tiger’s Nest.
We all sat down and chatted. He told us he was from South Korea, and was going on to Darjeeling to check out the green tea plantations there. We too were on our way to Darjeeling.
But before that I had to get to the top here!
Two hours later I reached the ‘Horse Car Park’ and just after, the ‘Canteen’.
We sat down at a table outside the wooden dining house, and the lads brought us cold lemonade. I hope you won’t feel jealous as I tell you that we sat drinking the lemonade staring across at the Monastery. We were on the same level, and felt we could reach out and touch it. It was breathtaking.
However, in order to actually REACH it we had to descend quite a considerable distance, and then ASCEND the other side of the ravine that separated us from Tiger’s Nest.
We had a wonderful lunch first! while I whinged about being a condemned man….
From that point on we were alone on our climb – everyone else had finished and gone on down.
I puffed, panted and sweated, but was absolutely determined to get there. I did NOT want to see an ‘I told you so’ expression on any horse’s face.
Tiger’s Nest is built over caves in the rock face where monks meditated in ages past. It has been rebuilt twice following destruction by fires. The last fire was blamed on villagers who, having harvested their crops in the valley below, then set fire to the stubble. Whether or not a spark, or glowing ember actually travelled so far up the mountain as to set fire to the Monastery will never be known, but the villagers accepted responsibility, and rebuilt Tiger’s Nest.
Oh the feeling of achievement as I actually set sweaty foot in the Monastery!
Tod was disgustingly bright and unsweaty….
As you might expect, there is little to see inside, and the 11 monks who live there have no comforts, save the knowledge that they are truely closer to God.
Our 2 guides did not bother waiting for us, assuming that I would need another 4 hours to get back down, so off they went.
Imagine their guilty surprise when we trotted into the forest clearing at the mountain’s base no more than 30 minutes after them! They both jumped, and switched their mobiles off, staring at me as if Tod had descended the mountain with another woman.
I just don’t have the problems going down as I do going up!
Tod and I stood for a while in silence, staring up at Tiger’s Nest, that Gem, that Marvel, and thanking the chance that had posted a certain magazine through our door one cold and rainy winter’s day.

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Bhutan 1

Towards the end of 2010 on a cold winter’s day in the north of England, a magazine dropped through our door. It wasn’t for us – our friend who lives with us subscribes to it, so the magazine lay untouched for a day or two until Tod picked it up & flicked idly through it.
We were sitting in the conservatory at the time, and the rain was hammering on the roof, reminding us how bleak an English winter can be.
I glanced across at Tod and the photo on the front of the magazine caught my attention. I craned my neck to see better as Tod closed the mag and himself stared at the photo.
I went over and sat by him and together we looked closely at the photo of probably the most amazing Buddhist Temple we had ever seen.
It was perched on the side of a mountain, hanging on above a sheer drop of thousands of feet, clinging by some miracle to rock and thin air.
“Where is it?” Tod asked, and I just knew that he didn’t really care WHERE it was, he just wanted to go there.
“Strangely, it doesn’t say” I told him, “I’ll email the mag and find out.”
So that was it. This remarkable spine-tingling, soul-touching Monastery was added to our list of ‘things to do’.
It is known as Tiger’s Nest, or Tiger’s Den, and is situated at 10,000ft in the country of Bhutan which, oddly enough is near Nepal.
We knew next to nothing about Bhutan, except this:
In 2009 while we were living and teaching English in the remote village of Salle in Nepal we spent a lot of time with Kalyani, who was then the village school headmistress.
As I’m sure I’ve mentioned before laughter was never far away when the 3 of us were together.She has a wicked sense of humour.
There were already 3 teachers at the school, and a fourth joined while we were there. He was a young man from Bhutan, who came with a sad story.
He and his family were refugees now living in Kathmandu, following a land slip in Bhutan which had completely removed the family house and land.
We do not know why they then relocated to Nepal, but they did so, and he then got the job as a teacher in Salle.
Unfortunately he was a somewhat gauche and difficult young man, who did not endear himself to the village by demanding 4 sacks of rice for his monthly salary, rather than the standard 3.
“Maybe he has a piggy appetite!” Kalyani told us, “How can he eat so much?”
Her aggrieved tone made us laugh, and we had some fun speculating on what he was doing with the extra sack of rice.
But unfortunately for the young man the food in the village, or it might have been the water, did not agree with him, and he seemed to be constantly suffering from an upset stomach.
His route to the school passed by the house we were staying in and he took to waiting for us outside, and walking with us. Of course we collected Kalyani on the way, so that meant the 4 of us would walk together. It was not a happy troupe – the young man complained constantly about his health, and managed to get on Kalayni’s nerves in a big way,
“How is your stomach today?” she’d ask him, and he would moan & groan and provide far too much information for our comfort!
Tod and I would fall about laughing just watching Kalyani trying to remain polite with the poor chap, but it eventually reached the point when Tod, Kalyani and I would hide in the mornings, and wait for him to walk past the house, before we set off for school.
Early on Tod had named the unfortunate young man
‘Bubbly Bum’ (for obvious reasons) and Kalyani just loved that name. I am ashamed to admit that the 3 of us were often to be seen, and heard, walking along one mountain track or another singing:
“Bubbly Bum, Bubbly Bum, here comes Bubbly Bum!”
Oh dear.
We flew from Kathmandu to Paro in Bhutan early one bright, warm morning.
Now I don’t consider myself to be a particularly sneaky person, but I do sometimes work on a ‘need to know’ basis with Tod where our adventures are concerned.
This was one of those times.
I hadn’t mentioned to my better half that the runway at Paro airport would probably fit into our back garden, and that there were only a small number of pilots trained to land there; oh, and that the approach was along a valley just about wide enough for the plane to fit wing tip to wing tip, with a sharp bend at the end.
Actually, I didn’t mention that to anyone, and certainly not to my friend Maria (H) who often says something along the lines of “What are you getting poor Tod into now?”
We landed ok, although you are certainly aware not just of the proximity of mountains outside the windows, but of the sudden rush and squeal of brakes as the plane struggles to stop before the end of the runway.
We all got off & nearly everyone took photos – you don’t often see a plane standing at the very end of the runway.
There was a lot of nervous, relieved laughter.
I mentioned to Tod that I had been a little economical with our transport details – he took some photos.
A day later we drove to the base of the Tiger’s Nest mountain.
We couldn’t see the Monastery at first, the mountains are thickly wooded right up to the tops, and we didn’t have a clear view.
We walked closer, uphill through the forest, across a sloping clearing and into the forest again.
“There they are,” Tod said, pointing to a surprisingly silent group of 30 or so horses standing amongst the trees. They almost seemed to be holding their breath, wondering who was going to ask for their help to reach Tiger’s Nest.
They were small, sturdy creatures, each wearing colourful blankets as saddles. I noticed how big their eyes were, how long the lashes.
The moment of truth. Would I ask one to carry me half way up? Or would I give it a go under my own steam?
I dithered.
“Come on,” Tod said, and reached a hand out, “You can do it.”
I took his hand and prayed he was right.
I am so glad I did.
10 minutes later and I was already out of breath. The effects of altitude are many and horrendous & would fill a blog on their own. But ok, I was also not quite as fit as a butcher’s dog.
We emerged from the forest again and WOW!! There it was. So far above us that we had to crane our necks right back to look that far up.
Surely there cannot be anywhere a more spectacular sight, a more majestic sight, rising from the calm quietness of a silent forest, up into the perfect blue of a clear sky above.
Tiger’s Nest – a Marvel.
Sigh. I knew I wouldn’t get up there.
Surely only mountaineers and mad people get up there. And Buddhist monks who spend a month getting there, and never come down. Why would you?
It took me 4 hours but I made it.
I reached the Temple and stood in front of the Buddha; I stared down from the unprotected edge of the rock; I wondered at the dedication of the 11 monks who live there, and I envied them their peace.
Getting down was a doddle!

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Fun In the Village

That afternoon was great fun!
Kalyani helped us to make sure that everyone there in the room got something, and also took something away for others in their family.
The hair shampoo and soap were probably the most popular, but the socks, hair clips and watches ran them a close second!
This time we’d brought some make-up for the girls, and Kalyani took charge of the distribution, oohing & aahing at the eye shadow and nail varnish colours, and pinching a couple for herself! We all laughed!
The village lady who’d given us Lucky the cockerel on our last visit wasn’t able to join us. She was ill, but she’d sent her eldest daughter and youngest son to say hello to us.
We’d brought a warm pullover for the little boy, working on the assumption that he’d have grown somewhat in the intervening years. But actually he didn’t seem to have grown at all, and was still the adorable small, shy boy he’d been than. The pullover hung down to his knees! Not to worry, he’d eventually grow into it!
He came over to Tod and stood leaning against his leg, smiling shyly. I spotted the tell-tale glint of a bit of a tear in Tod’s eye.
We sent a bag full of goodies to the young lad’s mother, and quite a bit of money too. She was still bringing up 9 children without a husband, and therefore without an income. Her husband had become very ill a few years ago, and had committed suicide.
The room filled up with newly picked rhododendron flowers – nearly everyone brought us a bunch.
I asked Kalyani who the 2 lovely young girls sitting quietly in the corner were,
“You know who they are!!” Kalyani laughed, “They’re the youngsters from the house next to where you lived in 2009!”
“NO!!” Tod and I both said together, amazed. We couldn’t believe it. These were the 2 tomboys who had been a constant presence outside, and often inside, our room 4 years ago!
They had even climbed the tree outside at the back, and thrown peaches in our window!
They had danced & sung for us, & took every opportunity to practice their English.
They were loud, sweet and funny, and made us laugh.
Now here they were all grown up, & so far removed from the tomboys of the past that they positively drooled over the make-up.
The village yak/buffalo milk man came over to shake our hands & give us cups of milk. His granddaughter is Susila, Parbatti’s best friend. We learned that Susila was now at school in a village 30 miles away. Of course she was living there, and hadn’t been able to come & see us.
In 2009 Susila had had a white rash all over her legs & her mother asked us if we could cure it.
We took photos of the rash and I eventually asked my Dr in the UK what it was. It seemed it was a fungal infection, and when we returned to the village in 2011 we took with us a possible cure for it.
Now Susila’s grandfather told us that the rash had completely cleared up, and he thanked us.
We gave Parbatti a bag of goodies for Susila, plus the presents Sue and her girls had sent for her, and Parbatti promised to deliver them in the next few days.
We’d brought a lovely frilly, baby girl t shirt for Laxmi’s (Kalyani’s sister’s) baby, and handed it over with soap and shampoo. Oops!Bit of a bloomer! The baby is a boy!
But Laxmi was thrilled anyway, and stuck the t shirt on her baby right away.
Our friend Carolyn had sent half a dozen beautiful baby outfits & word of their arrival had already gone outto the families of the three tiny new additions to the village. They arrived, and were duly dressed in the new clothes. We have some fantastic photos!
During the afternoon our room filled up with bottles of Raxi, the local home brewed firewater.
Most of the villagers have some in their houses, and this is really the only present they can give us.
We politely took each container, and stood them all in a row.
When we left the village we asked Kalyani’s Mum to give them back, and apologise that we hadn’t had time to drink them!
Grandfather came in with some honey he’d just liberated from his bees. He is such a kind hearted man & knows we love honey.
But, as with the Raxi, we asked Kalyani’s Mum to return it to him with our apologies.
Grandmother tried it on again! I made a point of giving her a goody bag early on in the day, but later she told kalyani we’d forgotten her.
She did exactly the same 2 years ago, so we all played along and gave her more soap and shampoo.
The daylight eventually faded and the room emptied.
We suddenly realised it had been raining all day.
Molly invited us to her house, and we all traipsed over the mountain peak and down the slope to the little house with the fantastic view over the valley.
Molly’s son Buddha Llama thanked us for the dog biscuits we’d brought, and positively forced his elderly dog to munch a couple in front of us.
I felt sorry for the creature, but haven’t forgotten that this is the canine who attacked poor old Woolly Dog on the occasion he’d followed us to school.
I glared at him. He glared back. No love lost there.
Kalyani, Tod and I left the village the next morning.
We walked to Lohrimani, where for the first time ever we could take a bus back to kathmandu.
Parbatti was waiting there to see us off. Bicass, a happy friendly boy from our class, was also waiting there for us. He was wearing the fleece pullover we’d brought for him, and wanted to thank us.
An assortment of villagers, children and Kalyani’s aunts & uncles milled around, waving to us.
Molly appeared and hugged us. She touched my face and asked Kalyani to thank us both for coming back to the village, for remembering them.
We got on the bus, all of us close to tears.
Parbatti stood at the bus window looking miserable. Every so often she looked up & waved to us. We waved back.
As the bus began to move off we heard her shout,
“Fiona! Tod!”
and craned round in our seats to wave again, to wave goodbye to her. She was crying.
An hour later we stopped in Maina Pokhari for 5 minutes to pick up more travellers.
I jumped as someone banged on the window next to me. It was Susila!
She had rushed out of class to meet the bus & say hello and thank you to us.
She had become a lovely young lady, and we were thrilled to see her again, albeit for a minute only.
She stood waving after the bus as it pulled away, in much the same way as her best friend Parbatti had done.
I’d like to take this opportunity to thank all those of you – too many to name – who contributed in any way to the goodies which we took to the village, and who also gave us money for the villagers and children.
Believe me, your generosity was much appreciated.

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