Travels with the Beard – Nepal and Beyond

Our travels, chickens and surviving life

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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The Garden of Dreams, Kathmandu

Over the past few years we’ve spent many days wandering the streets of Kathmandu. We’ve seen the sights, dodged the sprawling piles of rubbish, avoided the pools of rancid, smelly water, and marvelled at the enduring testaments to bygone splendour tucked away round every corner.
How we feel about Kathmandu can be neatly split into two:
We love it. We love the now familiar sights and sounds; we love the all pervading smell of incense; we love the smiling people who endure so much simply to survive.
And we dislike it. We dislike the all too pushy shopkeepers (who have forgotten the government dictate that they must not hassle tourists); we dislike the corruption that sends creeping tendrils into every walk of life. And what could you find to like in the fact that the only water available to the residents of Kathmandu is delivered in water tankers once a week, and that electricity is rationed to the bone.
The latest in a series of general strikes kept us trapped here 2 days longer than planned. We wanted to be away, up to the small village of Salle in the Everest Region, up and out of the Kathmandu Valley smog, up to see our friends once again – after all, that is why we are here.
Our large, heavy rucksacks are packed with presents for the children and villagers of the small, isolated village where we attempted to teach English for 5 months, 4 years ago.
This will be our second return, but exactly as before, actually getting back up to the village is fraught with problems.
So we wait and wait. The ultra grimy heat begins to get us down – you can taste the polluted air in your mouth. We begin to cough, and the constant disturbed nights sleep takes its toll.
I fall over the straps of our rucksacks which wait by the door of our room – Tod’s fault for leaving them there; I drop the only towel on the dusty, dirty floor, rendering it unusable – Tod’s fault for, well, some reason or another; I can’t find my hairbrush – Tod’s fault again; My face cream shoots me in the eye under pressure from the altitude – the final straw.
I’m lucky.
“We need to go & spend time at the Garden of Dreams” Tod says, and smiles that smile of his that makes everything ok again.
So we go, walking slowly and carefully along the narrow, morning streets, avoiding the water that most shopkeepers are throwing down outside their shops to keep the filthy dust at bay; swaying out of the path of speeding scooters; jumping out of the way of dashing taxis; politely refusing rickshaw rides; and laughing as Tod is offered drugs for the umpteenth time.
“Do I look as though I smoke it?” he asks me, peeved,
“Yes!” I tell him.
We leave the tourist area & walk along a wide boulevard lined with street sellers, beggers, and tiny crying children who may or may not have parents. We walk in silence, weighed down with guilt.
A high wall, high enough to block any view of what is behind it, suddenly looms on our left. We walk along to the small, arched doorway in it. ‘Garden of Dreams’ is etched into the brickwork above our heads, and we pass through the doorway and turn sharp left.
The ticket seller smiles at us and asks for 400 Rupees, surprisingly less than on our last visit. We pass our money through the glassless window & take the proffered tickets.
We walk half a dozen steps and enter the Garden of Dreams.
As on our previous visit 4 years before we stand and stare around, marvelling at the sight that has unfolded in front of us.
The noisy rush of sound from the street outside is suddenly so muted as to be almost excluded; the filthy, grime filled air that habitually blankets Kathmandu is kept at bay here by the tall trees and gentle breeze.
We breathe deeply.
A couple of nosey chipmunks rush across to us and then race each other up and down the thick trunk of an impossibly tall, exotic looking tree. We smile.
And then we stroll over sloping grass to what looks just like a perfect Victorian band stand, and settle down on the seats around the inside.
We sit in peaceful silence and stare around.
The ‘Garden of Dreams’ is described as ‘a neo-classical historical garden.’
It was created by Field Marshal Kaiser Shumsher Rana in the early 1920s.
We gaze at pavilions, fountains, pergolas in a mixture of ancient Greek style beauty & European colonial style facades.
The large pond is classical, and through its clear water we watch fat, slow moving goldfish weaving in and out of the floating water lilies.
After Kaiser Shumsher’s death the Garden fell into disrepair. Its eventual renovation was financed by the Austrian Government, and the Gardens were opened to the public in 2006.
It is worth noting that the 200 Rupee entrance fee means that probably only foreigners will benefit from this wonderful, unique Garden.
We strolled about & then sat under the high, cool columns of one of the pavilions. We had coffee, served to us by a friendly, softly spoken waiter who told us he was proud to work in the Garden of Dreams. We understood.
Some time later, when we felt refreshed and renewed, when the Garden had worked its magic on us, we left that peaceful, elegant oasis of calm, and walked once more back through the teeming, airless streets of Kathmandu, ready for our forthcoming trip to the village of Salle.


A Welcome Return to Kathmandu

We forget, don’t we?
The brain has a crafty mechanism designed to obliterate those most difficult or uninspiring memories – memories that you don’t want to revisit, whether you know it or not.
Things you swore you’d never do again; situations you prayed you’d never have to face again.
So, here we are again, back in Kathmandu!
The trip was, well, tiring. I swear I will never do it again. If only there was an easier way to get here from the UK. But if there was, maybe Nepal wouldn’t hold the attraction that it does, and wouldn’t reach out and drag us back here again and again.
We saw within 5 minutes of settling into the micro bus outside the airport, and setting off towards Thamel, that things in Kathmandu had changed during our 2 year absence. Not for the better.
The roads were in a worse state of repair than 2 years ago, and God knows they’d been bad enough then. We crashed, bumped and crawled along, avoiding the moving mass of humanity that thronged the route, and peering through the clouds of grimy dust at the all too many shades of humanity that sat or lay at the side of the roads.
Sad eyed women with tiny babies wrapped in filthy cloths; elderly men seeming abandoned, and staring into space; unwashed children chasing each other through piles of rubble and old bricks that seemed to be scattered everywhere.
Somehow, there seemed to be more people, more rubble, more decay than we remembered.
We arrived at the hotel in somber mood.
But we cheered up when the staff recognised us and made a fuss! Well, they made a fuss of Tod and his beard. We laughed.
We spent our first full day wandering round, renewing our aquaintance with various shopkeepers & drinking Nepali tea as if it was going out of fashion.
The worsening economic situation in Kathmandu has forced several of them to relocate over the last 2 years to smaller, cheaper premises off the tourist track. They bemoaned their fate, and the fate of their country.
It seems that the Nepali parliament is still in uproar, making any semblance of governing the nation unrealistic.
And, what do you know, there is a general strike today and tomorrow.
4 years and 2 years ago we sat through several general strikes, unable to travel, unable to do anything at all – all shops and offices were closed.
One shopkeeper who had the temerity to open up was rewarded by having his shop burned down.
This time however, maybe 25% of shops in the tourist area are open for business, in defiance of the strike. They have had enough.
But there is little electricity in Kathmandu – certainly not during the day. 2 years ago the noise of generators struggling to provide light to the shops and offices was a constant background roar. But now they are all but silent, having fallen victim to the worsening financial situation. Petrol comes in from India, and it is expensive.
Now here’s an odd thing:
Nepal is usually 5 hours ahead of the UK. I say ‘usually’ because believe it or not, some fiendish quirk of fate has provided Nepal with an extra 15 minutes. Yes. I kid you not. It is now 5 hours and 15 minutes ahead of the UK. What on earth has happened? Where have they nicked it from? Has Nepal somehow moved through space faster than us? Have we in the West stumbled and lost a quarter of an hour somewhere? Is our 15 minutes floating around in the ether, discarded and lost?
Will an astronomer spot it one day heading in our direction?
Or is there someone amongst us who should have been famous?

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