Categories
Essay

The Call of the Himalayas

Narrative and photography by P Ravi Shankar


Pokhara with Annapurna towering in the backdrop

Pokhara, Nepal is one of the few places in the world where towering snow-clad mountains are easily seen from a subtropical setting. The town is at a height of around 900 meters and within a span of around 40 kilometres, the land rises to the summit of Annapurna at over 8000 meters. The view of colourful poinsettias and bougainvillea against the blue sky and the white peaks creates a picture postcard setting. The soft limestone rocks are easily eroded by powerful glacial-fed rivers creating deep gorges. The hills surrounding Pokhara have many charming villages and one can also follow the river valleys to the Annapurna Sanctuary (a pasture situated between the Annapurna peaks) and to the land of Mustang.

I was at Kalopani in Mustang. The morning was bright and sunny, but the air was still chilly. The dining room was heated, and many tourists were having their breakfast before continuing their treks. The Nilgiri Himals (snow-covered mountains in Nepali) were clear in the bright morning sunshine. We were waiting for our pooris to arrive.

My friend and I were hiking up toward the Thakali (the major ethnic group in this area) settlements of Tukuche and Marpha. The dining room was big, and the glass windows had spectacular views of the pine forests. We were at the Pine Forest Lodge in the twin settlements of Lete and Kalopani. The settlement continues for over thirty minutes on both sides of the trail. The lodge is big by trekking lodge standards and has sixteen rooms. Run by the Dhawlagiri Technical school, this facility is often used to train tourism students. The manager informed us that the number of tourists they can accept every day is limited due to an agreement with similar businesses in the area. Now, it also offers free wi-fi services. When we visited in the early 2000s, cellular and internet services were still in the future.

Our pooris finally arrived. They were fluffy and brownish red. A potato and peas gravy accompanied the pooris. The dish was thick and spicy. The small hill potatoes were tasty.

The lodge constructed of stone can be cold during the nights, but comforters are provided to guests. I always had pleasant stays at this lodge. I never had the opportunity to meet trainee students as usually they started their sessions only after nine in the morning. By that hour, we were already out on the trail.

The Village of Kagbeni with the Kali Gandaki River
The Tibetan shrine with the five foot statue of Buddha in the background

The Red House Lodge in Kagbeni is a bewildering warren of rooms and passages. Kagbeni is on the way to the holy shrine of Muktinath and hikers without the expensive permit to Upper Mustang can watch the trail meandering through the Kali Gandaki River and the barren brown hills. The Red House Lodge is an iconic establishment and several stories and blogs have been written about it. The lodge is a traditional, red-coloured Tibetan house and was started by Pema Doma in 1997 when the region was opened to tourists. She developed a beautiful friendship with an Australian lady, Sydney Schuler. The small house that served as the lodge did not have a name and she then decided to install a signboard inscribed with ‘Red House Lodge’. There are Tibetan religious texts and a Tibetan shrine with a five feet statue of the Buddha at the centre. Firewood and provisions dry in the harsh sun on the flat roof and there is a large pole with prayer flags flapping in the wind.

From the roof, you can gaze at the dreamy landscapes of upper Mustang and watch the constantly changing play of light on the barren hills. By mid-morning strong winds roar from the Tibetan plateau. Tibetans use both the wind and water to carry their prayers far and wide. The lodge was used to store rations by the Khampa resistance fighters, who struggled against cultural hegemony in the mid-twentieth century. Kham in eastern Tibet was one of the three traditional provinces and the Khampas (the inhabitants) have a reputation as tough fighters. They eventually migrated to Nepal along with other refugees and waged armed resistance to free Tibet till they were eventually disarmed by the Nepalese army in the 1970s. Kesang in the Mustang region was one of the main centres of the Khampa resistance.   The food at the lodge in Kesang is excellent and it is a good place to rest either on your way up to or down from Muktinath. The sense of history is strong in this lodge as a comfortable familiarity with the past blends into the present.

Ghandruk is a large Gurung village near Pokhara and the headquarters of the Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP). Gurungs are an ethnic group dominant in the hills around Pokhara. Along with other ethnicities they constitute the famous Gurkhas known for their courage and valour. Gurungs are believed to have originated in Tibet and practice a mixture of animistic, Hindu, and Buddhist religious practices. They live on the southern slopes of the Himalayas in central Nepal and call themselves Tamu. Many serve in the Nepalese, Indian, British and other armies and police forces and have seen action in several conflicts.

Due to the civil war, many Gurungs migrated from their villages to settle in Pokhara. Ghandruk (also called Ghandrung) is the second largest Gurung village in Nepal after Siklis. The village sprawls over a hillside with terraced fields. From the road head at Nayapul (new bridge), Ghandruk is a four-to-five-hour trek initially along the riverbank and then through well-maintained stone staircases. The Himalaya Lodge (a Kerr and Downey resort) is located right at the top of the village. This lodge lets out rooms to independent trekkers if not occupied by those who have reserved their rooms through Kerr and Downey.

The lodge has spectacular views of the Annapurna Himals. The dining room is decorated in the Gurung style. The food at the lodge served in traditional copper utensils is excellent. The freshly plucked green leafy vegetables and the radish pickle are tasty. The rooms are well-appointed with attached bathrooms. You sleep between freshly laundered white sheets. The lodge provides guests with slippers and down jackets for their use during their stay. There are tables and comfortable chairs placed in the stone-paved courtyard for al fresco dining and you can watch the clouds gather and eventually cloak the Himals. Butterflies and birds flit among the flowers. The lodge also has different handicrafts for sale. I was first introduced to the singing bowl or the Himalayan bowl here.  The traditional bowls were originally made of a variety of metals including mercury, lead, silver, iron, gold, and copper. I found it fascinating that by moving a wooden stick around the bowl a rich harmonious note could be produced.

Ghorepani at around 2800 m is famous for the views of the Annapurna and Dhaulagiri Himals. The viewing of sunrise at Poon Hill is a highlight of the trek. I usually stay at the Snow View lodge located close to Poon Hill. The lodge is made of wood and has an excellent solar hot shower. They have a single room with a window providing excellent views. The cast-iron stove in the dining room is warm and the food is excellent. Ghorepani is a long day’s climb on steep stone staircases from Nayapul and Birethanti. Climbing to Poon hill from the lodges using flashlights in the predawn darkness is a unique experience. Ghorepani was a watering hole for horses till it was discovered by tourists. The settlement has several lodges both down in the main village and higher up at Deurali (the pass). The rhododendrons during spring bloom in various shades of red and pink. The cornbread baked at Snow View lodge is excellent and is my breakfast of choice.   

      

The last few years have been hard on the trekking lodges. First, there was the devastating earthquake of 2015 which damaged the infrastructure, and then the global shutdown due to the coronavirus pandemic. The lodge owners are resilient and resourceful. The lodges offer comfortable alternatives to staying in cold tents and also contribute to the local economy. Now, as the world is beginning to open its doors again to tourism and travel, I look forward to returning to the magic of the Himalayas and revisiting these wonderful lodges.

Sunset on Annapurna

Dr. P Ravi Shankar is a faculty member at the IMU Centre for Education (ICE), International Medical University, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He enjoys traveling and is a creative writer and photographer.

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Categories
Musings

The Great Freeze

P. Ravi Shankar shuttles through winters from Everest to New York to Kerala to Aruba in the Caribbean

My friend and colleague was turning blue. The cold wind hit me with the force of a sledgehammer. We both had on all the warm clothes we could bring. I had on me a woollen blazer, a full sleeve sweater, my shirt, a half sleeve sweater, and underneath it a thermal. The freezing wind cut through these layers like the proverbial knife through butter. I was beginning to lose sensation on my nose and extremities. We were in freezing weather for less than a minute crossing the road to where the car was parked. We were inadequately dressed for a February morning in New York city. A nor’easter had hit a day before and the temperature was below minus 24 degrees Celsius. The news channels mentioned it was the coldest day in over two decades. Luckily for us, the car was heated, and the seats could also be warmed. We slowly thawed after the flash freeze.  

We had flown from sunny Aruba (Dutch Caribbean) the previous day. Miami had perfect weather, but New York was freezing. Manhattan is full of skyscrapers. There is no direct rail line from the airport to Manhattan. New York has a decent public transport infrastructure but no airport metro. The city’s infrastructure does need some serious investment on upgrade and maintenance. The hotel room was warm and toasty. Outside, it was snowing. I saw the homeless on the freezing sidewalks trying to shelter from the bitter cold. Poverty amid opulent wealth.

I have mostly lived in warm places where your major concern is staying cool in the humid heat. In Kerala, in the south of India, a mundu or a lungi wrapped around the waist was the common male attire. The mercury in most areas never goes below 20 degrees Celsius. In New York during winter, the major concern was staying warm. Suddenly, common English expressions began to make sense. Warm welcome, warm greetings make sense when you are coming in from a freezing weather. When you are all hot and sweaty, the warmth seems unwelcome. Also, the European style of dressing was designed to minimise heat loss. Socks, hats, gloves, coats, tie, scarf. The buildings all had double doors to keep out the cold and keep in the warmth. Central heating kept the inside warm.

Keeping warm is expensive. I did some rough calculation and worked out that I would have to spend USD 1500 on winter clothing and over USD 250 monthly on heating bills. The tempo and rhythm of life changes in the northern latitudes with the change of seasons. Winters mean short days and time spent mostly indoors. The wily COVID virus is capitalising fully on this human behaviour. Summers translate to warm temperatures and long days. With global climate change, the highs in summer and the lows in winter are becoming extreme.  

On another occasion I was strolling by the shores of Lake Michigan in Chicago enjoying the early morning view. There were gardens and walking paths by the shoreline. Suddenly a cold wind blew across the lake from Canada. Despite all the winter clothing I donned, I was frozen. In cold weather, it is important to have a waterproof and wind proof outer shell. These are expensive however, and as occasional visitors to cold climates, we were unwilling to invest in such clothing. Upstate New York is even colder than New York city, and Rochester is said to be among the snowiest cities in America.

New York city is relatively well-prepared for snowy weather with double doors, central heating, winter clothing and snow ploughs. So is Chicago. Some of the southern cities in the US also experience snowy weather due to climate change and are not prepared for occasional winter storms. The plains of northern India experience cold weather from December to March. A thick layer of smog blankets the plains. Trains and planes are delayed, and driving could become hazardous. Air pollution rises and the air becomes dangerous to breathe. The sun succeeds in clearing the fog only after ten in the morning. Kathmandu in Nepal also experience fog and increased pollution during winter. Pokhara is a Nepalese city without fog in winters. I have often wondered why. With beautiful views of the Annapurna range, winter mornings in Pokhara are occasions to be savoured. In these places there is no central heating. Quilts are widely used. I enjoy the quilt which slowly warms you up using your own body heat.

In the mountains of Nepal, external heating devices are common. In the Everest region, there is the yak dung burning cast iron stove in dining rooms. In the Annapurna region north of Pokhara, wood burning stoves are common. In Thak Khola, charcoal burning stoves under the table are used. The bedrooms, however, are unheated and freezing. I had stayed in Lobuche in the Everest region, at around 4900 m for over a month for a research project and the nights were freezing. The water bottle used to freeze. If you wanted something to not freeze, you kept it beside you on the bed inside the quilt.

Watching snow fall is relaxing. The snowflakes glide down and blanket the trees and the ground in white. The cold reduces a bit. Rain is more noisy and violent and often accompanied by thunder and lightning. Walking on snow is difficult. Soon the snow melts during the day and refreezes again at night and turns into ice. Ice is extremely slippery and dangerous to walk on. Snow is a rare treat for persons from tropical climates. However, living in snow covered regions is challenging.

Near the equator the climate is constant throughout the year. The rains cool down the atmosphere, but the hours of sunlight do not vary much. Life is not influenced by the seasons. The further north or south you go from the equator, seasons begin to colour your life. Summer brings long days, sometimes extreme heat and more time spent outdoors. Winter brings longer nights, snow, and more time indoors. In both New York and Chicago, in winter, the trees were totally bare, bereft of leaves. I could not believe they were still alive. With the coming of spring the green twigs would sprout again and the cycle of life resumes. The writing of poets and authors from temperate countries about the dreariness of winter and the warmth of spring and summer began to make sense to me — a person from and living in the tropics.      

      

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Dr. P Ravi Shankar is a faculty member at the IMU Centre for Education (ICE), International Medical University, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He enjoys traveling and is a creative writer and photographer.

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL