A tribute from Ravi Shankar to a fellow trekker& a recap of their adventures in the Himalayas
A very fit and energetic person strode into my office. My good friend, Varun, accompanied and introduced him as a newly joined faculty member in the Physiology department at the Manipal College of Medical Sciences (MCOMS), Pokhara. My friend always called himself Ashutosh though he quickly became famous at MCOMS by his surname Bodhe.
Bodhe was always in perpetual motion. During our five years of close interactions, I rarely saw him sitting quietly in one place. He was a member of the college mess but rarely ate from there. I sometimes saw him around 2 or 3 pm having noodles and eggs from the private food stall located within the mess. He was fond of repairing things. He could put back together nearly everything — except maybe, broken hearts. His tool kit consisted of a soldering iron, screwdriver, screws, insulation tape, clamps, and a multimeter; rather strange appurtenances for a doctor.
During my conversations with him, I came to know that he had always wanted to be an engineer and had secured admission into a premier engineering college in Mumbai, India. He also later qualified for admission to the medical course and his family insisted that he switch over to medicine. He would walk around the city of Pokhara, Nepal at strange times of the day and night. He would walk from the lakeside to the college campus after 10 pm. This seemed strange in a city that usually goes to sleep by nine.
Bodhe, on occasions, also joined us on day hikes in the Pokhara valley. Pokhara is a trekker’s paradise. The walk up to the Shanti Stupa on the hill slopes overlooking the Fewa lake can be a good Saturday morning activity. Rowboats are available on the shore of Fewa Lake and are mainly used to visit the Tal Barahi temple located on an island in the middle of the lake. The stupa was built by a Japanese monk with the help of locals in the early 1970s. The stupa stands on Anadu hill in the onomatopoeic village of Pumdi Bhumdi and is a good hour’s climb. After the visit, you can climb down to Damside, continue to Lakeside, and return after a delicious lunch.
Occasionally, Bodhe would join us on our Saturday walks to Lakeside. The walk would take about 90 minutes. We continued along the lake to a ‘Korean’ restaurant. The restaurant constituted of small huts by the side of the lake with tables and chairs. It was a magnificent location for a feast! We used to have Nepali daal bhaat tarkari maasu (lentil curry, rice, vegetables and meat, usually chicken). In many Nepalese restaurants, food is usually prepared fresh after you order. The food takes around an hour to be prepared. This leaves plenty of time for conversation. The food by the lake was always fresh and piping hot. The country chicken was beautifully spiced, and the green leafy vegetables were perfect.
Our other go-to place for lunch on Saturdays (the weekly off in Nepal) was the Pokhara Thakali Kitchen. Thakalis are originally from the Thak Khola (the upper Kali Gandaki River) around the Nigiri Himals to the north of Pokhara. They are successful businessmen and run some of the best hotels and restaurants in the country. I simply loved their rich, thick green daal and their potatoes fried in ghiu (clarified butter). The other specialty was dhido (a thick paste) made from either corn or buckwheat flour.
Bodhe, me, and a group of students hiked to the Everest Base Camp and Kala Pathar. We flew to Lukla (from Kathmandu) and the Tenzing Hillary airport at around 2800 m. This is one of the most dangerous airports in the world and accidents were not uncommon. The runway was only around 600 m and then it is a steep drop to the river below. We had lunch at a lodge in Lukla while we waited for our porters. Most hikers spent the first night on the trail at the settlement of Phakding. The first thing we noticed was that the Everest region was much colder than the Annapurna trekking region just north of Pokhara. A large portion of the hike is at heights of over 3000 m.
The peak autumn trekking season was underway and there were large groups of hikers on the trail. We were racing against each other to find a place for the night. Those were the days before online booking and land telephone and internet access were still not available in Khumbu.
Namche Bazaar, the ‘Sherpa Capital’ was packed with tourists, and we were lucky to find rooms at a small lodge. The next morning dawned clear and frosty and the views of the Himals were spectacular. Bodhe, while chewing tobacco, was busy clicking photos and we were dancing vigorously to various songs. He really liked the song Kaanta laga. He would reminisce about the wild morning and mention the ruckus we had created, chewing his usual wad of tobacco for he seemed addicted to the stuff.
Bodhe was a man with tremendous energy and a useful person to have on a long trek. He was impulsive and a practical joker but a kind soul with the energy to get going when the going becomes tough. He sprinted uphill on hikes and then climbed a tree or went off sprinting into the bushes. He did not reach a lodge or a settlement early as he was easily diverted by wayside attractions. He was fascinated by the term boche which stands for a flat land seen from a hilltop. In a very rugged and mountainous landscape, flat land is a coveted commodity. There are many boches in the Everest region – Pangboche, Deboche, Dingboche, Pheriche Tengboche among others.
We eventually reached the settlement of Gorak Shep at 5300 m. The weather was cloudy and freezing. The temperature was well below zero. We were shivering under our quilts in the lodge. It was the eve of Kojagiri Purnima, and the moon was beginning to rise. Bodhe motivated a group of students to carry and pitch a tent on the slopes of Kala Pathar (Black Stone) in the freezing cold. They donned all the winter clothing they had and spent the night on the rock photographing the world’s highest mountains in moonlight. The cold chilled their marrows and sleep was out of the question. They arrived around eight the next morning with wild stories of their hair-raising night.
We eventually returned to Lukla and reconfirmed our flight tickets for the following morning. Our flight was scheduled for eleven am and the last night at the lodge was a wild one. Bodhe was in full form and we were all relieved that the trek was over, and we were flying back to Pokhara. It was raining heavily the next morning and our flight was repeatedly delayed. Flights to and from Lukla are notoriously fickle. We were the last flight to take off as rainy weather closed in.
It was a long drive in the rain from Kathmandu to Pokhara. Clouds and mist draped the hills. Soon after reaching the hostel, one of the students who had joined us on the trek mentioned that the next day was a holiday as the roof of the Manipal Teaching Hospital had collapsed. We chided him for his fertile imagination but slowly realised that he was telling the truth. The hospital roof had collapsed that afternoon killing a few patients in the waiting area and seriously injuring a few others.
We hiked with Bodhe, some other faculty, and a few postgraduate students to the village of Ghandruk. Ghandruk (also called Ghandrung) is the second largest Gurung village in Nepal. The hike was along a rocky riverbank and then through stone staircases. The sun was up full force and our trek to the village was hot. Mule trains raised dust clouds as they move up and down the trail. The village is the headquarters of the Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP). There are several excellent lodges in the village and the Annapurna South and Hiunchuli Himals can be viewed from there. One of the finest lodges in the village was the Himalaya lodge, a Kerr and Downey resort located at the top of the village. The lodge was an additional twenty-minute hike, but it is well worth the effort. The views are stupendous and the rooms beautiful. They provide down jackets and slippers for the comfort of their guests. There was a good porch and a magnificent lawn in front. Bodhe absolutely loved this place.
Sadly, Bodhe never stayed in touch after he left Pokhara. There were rumours of him working in the Caribbean, in Mauritius, and in different places in India. In a circuitous fashion, I came to know about his death last year. We do not know the details yet. Looking back on his life, I am reminded of so many unfulfilled promises. The man had a first-rate intellect and boundless energy. He could have achieved much only if he had been able to focus and channel his God-given gifts. But, he lived his life in his own terms. Dear friend, I sincerely hope you are finally at peace. Ashutosh Bodhe – tujhe salaam!
 The restaurant mainly catered to Korean tourists and used to serve primarily Korean food but also cooked Nepalese dal bhaat
Yesterday, it was cloudy.
Today, it's my cup of tea.
It's died in me.
You can see
It turned into the desire of the sea.
The desire of the sea just splashed through me.
I sensed the loss without the key.
But, why am I anticipating the next cup of tea?
As if I am not fulfilled. No idea. No key.
I wish this could be my last cup of tea
with no desire to go cloudy.
Prasanta Kumar B.K. is a Ph.D. candidate in International Relations at Sichuan University, China. He holds master’s degrees in both English literature and international relations and diplomacy from Tribhuvan University, Nepal. He has been working for Nepal Airlines as a senior officer.
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL
Jim Goodman, an American traveler, author, ethnologist and photographer who has spent the last half-century in Asia, converses with Keith Lyons.
Jim Goodman is something of a legend in Southeast Asia and Eastern South Asia. His definitive guide to southwest China’s Yunnan province was the most sought-after travel book for any intrepid backpacker wanting to get off-the-beaten-track in the ethnically-diverse province bordering Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar and Tibet. That’s how I first came across Jim, through the well-thumbed pages of his The Exploration of Yunnan. Back then, I marvelled at his ability to venture into areas that were only just opening up to foreign travellers, and the breadth and depth of his knowledge of different ethnic minorities. It was almost 20 years later that I finally met Jim in person in a cafe inside the old city gates of northern Thailand’s Chiang Mai, where he has been based since 1988. Later, on a media trip to the Golden Triangle’s eastern Shan state hill-tribe villages, I saw how Jim’s interactions, appearance (and conversation in ethnic language) endeared him to local minorities.
He has published books in Nepal, Singapore, Thailand, China and Vietnam, and also worked with ethnic minorities, including on textiles with Newars in Nepal and northern east Indian Mizos, and on traditional handicrafts with Akha in northern Thailand. “Besides acquiring new labour skills—I was the dyer and designer—the work gave me valuable insights into the different cultural norms and ways of thinking of traditional societies in this region,” he once wrote. “My writing, research and photography reflect my fascination with history, traditional cultures and ethnic minorities, not just in the ethnologies, cultural studies and histories I’ve published, but in my fiction and poetry as well.”
You were born in the US capital Washington D.C. and raised in the Midwest in Cincinnati, Ohio. Growing up in the US, what do you think contributed to your interest in different countries and cultures?
As a kid I was fascinated by American Indians, especially those from the western plains and the southeast. My father taught Latin American history at Xavier University in Cincinnati. He and my mother were members, later chairmen, of the Foreign Students Welcoming Committee. Every American holiday — 4th of July, Thanksgiving, Christmas, etc — we had foreign guests. They were from India, Nepal, Tunisia, Thailand, Colombia and Nigeria. They aroused my natural curiosity.
How were your first experiences of ‘foreignness’ in the US and then overseas?
I stopped believing in my parents’ Catholicism by the time I was in high school and for the next few years felt like a foreigner in my own family and neighbourhood. In later years, when I was living in Europe or Asia I was always conscious of being foreign, especially in things like double pricing, but I integrated socially enough not to let it bother me. Occasionally, that worked in my favour. In Korea in the 70s, males were forbidden by law to grow their hair over their ears or past the collar. Every four or five months the police carried out widely publicised roundups. But foreigners were exempt.
What was it like growing up in the 1960’s in the US?
It was very exciting. Thanks to the civil rights and anti-war movements it was easy to challenge the system intellectually and practically. The drugs and music, a very new kind of music, also contributed to this sense of the times are changing everywhere and lots of options were possible. It was an amazingly optimistic decade.
How did you come to be in the army, and what was your experience as a soldier in Germany and later South Korea?
I got my draft notice in the summer of 1967, at the peak of the Vietnam War, when 80% of those drafted were sent off to Vietnam after training. So I took the enlistment option, signing up for an extra two years, with one year at the language school studying Arabic. War might be over by the time I finish the course, I thought, and anyway they wouldn’t need an Arabic translator in Vietnam. But the Army inserted a little clause in every contract, “subject to needs of the Army,” that let them do what they liked. When I arrived at the language school, after basic training I was told my orders had been changed. I had to go back and wait for new ones. Eventually they put me in a tank training unit, but by the luck of the draw I was in the company sent after training to Germany, while the other three were dispatched to Vietnam.
In Germany, I served in an armoured unit which was very often in the field. However, this was 1968 and I managed to get a pass to go to Paris in early June and marched down the avenues with the students and workers singing L’internationale over and over. I still know the first stanza, in French. I also met Arab officers from Jordan and Libya and took a month’s leave in the autumn to have my 21st birthday in Beirut. On my first night in Beirut, a South Yemeni staying in the same hotel told me there were three good reasons to travel. The first was to meet the different kinds of people living in this world. Second, was to try the various local foods and drinks. And third, was to appreciate the scenery and historical monuments. I never forgot the order in which he listed those attractions: people first. Throughout my trip, I wore a button on my shirt that said Restore Palestine to the Arab People, which guaranteed a good reception everywhere in Lebanon and Jordan. I was very active politically by then and the following spring published the first anti-war newspaper by a soldier in Europe. That later got me transferred to Korea, the only place there was no organised anti-war soldier activity. In Korea, I was in charge of the Photo Lab, where I learned the basic principles of photography. Also joined rock bands as a singer, so I wasn’t very political in Korea, except for some of the song lyrics.
After your time in the army, how did you get back to Asia?
I was discharged in Seattle in January 1972, went to San Francisco to live and later got a clerk-typist job with General Services Administration. Then my boss recommended me for a low-ranking administrative position. I would have been in charge of the installation of furniture in the California offices of the state’s two senators. Not exactly exciting work, but anyway I had to get a security clearance, starting with answering a questionnaire with things like ‘are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party’ and ‘do you advocate the overthrow of the US government by force or violence’.
I answered no to everything, but within 24 hours the office got back a disapproval of my application “for security reasons”. After that news got out, everybody in the building thought I was a terrorist, and that was before terrorist was a household word. It was doubtless my activity as an anti-war soldier but it meant I would really have no future in my country. I went to Korea that autumn on a one-way ticket without enough money for a round-trip. (I don’t think that’s even possible anymore.) I met other ex-GI’s in Seoul who gave private English lessons, so I did, too. In the second year, I got hired by Language Teaching Research Center, which didn’t use textbooks and so I made up my own lessons. I spent free time among soldiers on the army base and in off-base bars and would listen carefully to their conversations. Whatever they said that I thought my students wouldn’t understand, I wrote down and worked it into my lessons. It was a wonderfully creative job and made me especially conscious of my own language.
What happened for you to leave Korea and ending up almost dying and in jail in Nepal?
My last summer (1976) in Korea, I met travellers who had been to India, Nepal and Southeast Asia. Later that year I got busted for a small amount of grass and, near the end of the year, was expelled from Korea. India and Nepal seemed a natural place to go next. It wasn’t easy in the beginning and once in Calcutta, I got robbed of everything and went over three weeks without eating. I was kind of resigned to dying by starvation but a Muslim street merchant recognised the situation, paid my bills and lent me enough money to get back to Kathmandu. Everything seemed fine but when I finally ate a meal I vomited it all a few minutes later. Body won’t take food, eh? Guess I’m going to die after all. He said don’t worry, wait a little and try again. He had witnessed the same thing with starving Bengali refugees during the break-up of Pakistan. He was right. The next meal was fine and ever since then, I’ve not worried about, for one reason or another, missing a meal or two. I missed meals three and a half weeks and got by.
And you spent some time in jail, not just in Kathmandu but in Korea?
I was three weeks in Korean solitary confinement until my girlfriend bailed me out. Longer, about four months, in the holding centre in Kathmandu, where those arrested awaited trial. I was busted for a lot of hash but charged with both possession, 10,000 rupees fine, and exporting, 100,000 rupees fine (about 70 to a dollar then). I pleaded guilty to possession only. The judge dismissed the exporting charge because the hash was found in my home, not at any border. However, to save face, the prosecutor appealed the acquittal for exporting. The appeal had to go to the special court, which only met once a week, so cases piled up. In Nepal, you don’t bribe the judge. You bribe the clerk to put your case before a sympathetic judge. I wasn’t going to hurry up the case because then I would have to leave the country afterwards. The prosecutor wasn’t going to speed up the proceedings because he still would have no evidence and would lose again. Meanwhile, I was free to continue my Nepal life. For over a year the government’s attitude to me was like a joke. They thought I had figured out how to beat the system. The following year, I became an embarrassment and the year after that, with a new government, it became an issue and I finally got a new passport and left Nepal for a month’s holiday in Thailand.
What took you to Assam, and what made you later leave?
It was one of the few places in India I hadn’t visited yet. It had an interesting separate history from the rest of the country and was surrounded by many fascinating ethnic minorities. My first trip was in the autumn of 1979, when I was paid to take an American woman and her daughter, whose tutor I was, to Darjeeling, Sikkim and Kaziranga, the rhinoceros park in Assam. The Assamese anti-immigrant demonstrations had already begun, so I kept up on news then and afterwards. In 1980, I made two trips to cover the movement for newspaper articles. I only got to visit hill people (Khasi) in Meghalaya, as the other states, and parts of Assam were closed to foreigners. I bought a lot of books about them, anticipating freer travel sometime soon. Instead, I got blamed on my third trip in May by the Delhi government for organising the Assam movement (as if they couldn’t organise themselves) and banned from re-entry.
After moving to Chiang Mai Thailand, what did you concentrate on?
The skills I learned in Nepal were those involving weaving and dyeing. I used natural dyes and designed the patterns for the looms. I had worked with both Mizos from Northeast India, who used a back-strap loom, and Newars, who used a stand-up frame loom, like that of the Thai. I began working with the Karen, who used back-strap looms. But after meeting the Akha, I conceived the idea of making Akha jackets, which were cut like Western jackets, using my colours from natural dyes and bigger to fit Western bodies. I soon dropped the work with the Karen and found enough customers for Akha jackets and shoulder bags to cover the expenses of a modest lifestyle and my research on them.
What made you decide to go to Yunnan and southwest China? When did you go, and what was the experience as the region just opened up to travel by foreigners?
One of the sub-groups I worked with in Thailand, the Pamee Akha, came directly down from Yunnan. I met a relative on one of my trips who was in Pamee to make money picking lychees for a season. He invited me to his village in Xishuangbanna, if I could ever come to China. Not long afterwards a flight opened from Chiang Mai to Kunming. I booked one for July 1992. After a few days around Kunming and Lunan County, I flew to Xishuangbanna and found out from Akha in Jinghong how to find my friend I met in Pamee. After some time there, I returned to Kunming and embarked for the northwest for a quick look that did include the Torch Festival in Ninglang. I couldn’t speak much Chinese then, but in Xishuangbanna, the Akha enjoyed the fact that the first foreigner they ever met could speak their language. People were friendly everywhere and once I started repeating visits for research, I got introduced to English-speaking locals who could assist me.
When you first went to southwest China, did you feel you might be documenting some people whose culture would be wiped out by modernisation, and if so, has this happened?
From the very beginning I felt ethnic cultures were having a true revival but wondered how long that could last, not because of politics, as in the past, but because of the greater exposure to outside modern influences, including mass tourism. Certainly, that has happened, but not to the same extent everywhere. And mass tourism has been more disruptive. Lijiang and Lugu Lake are two obvious examples. I was lucky to have chosen those places to fully research before they completely transformed into tourist traps. In other places, like Ailaoshan, parts of Lincang and Pu’er prefectures and even much of Xishuangbanna, modernisation has been less noticeable and the traditional culture and lifestyles still strong.
What have been some of your most memorable experiences in Yunnan?
After watching two little Lisu girls at Lishadi cross the Nu River on the rope-bridge several times, for their own amusement, without adult supervision, I concluded:
1. It can’t be dangerous.
2. It must be fun.
Next trip to Nujiang I had a Lisu friend in Fugong get me the harness and cable hook. Made my first crossing, just for the fun of it, at Damedi south of Fugong and over the next few years carried my cable hook and rope harness to Nujiang for more rides at more locations.
The other unique, to me anyway, research experience was my repeated visits to Lige village, Lugu Lake. Mosuo culture is matrilineal, the children belong to the mother, but also Tibetan Buddhist and each family has a resident monk. Women were definitely in charge of domestic affairs. At Lugu Lake, my friends, the folks I hung out with, got high and drunk with and had the most experiences with, were mainly women. Many of them introduced themselves to me. I only knew a few men. With every other minority, I only met women because they were my friend’s wives, daughters or sisters, whom he introduced to me. The Mosuo were really special.
From your experiences across Southeast Asia and eastern Southern Asia, what are some of the most interesting things you’ve learnt about hill tribes, their customs, societies, and beliefs?
They are very attuned to nature, with a cultural sense of ecological balance. Most of their festivals are concerned with important junctures in the agricultural work cycle. Their societies are very collective-oriented. Everyone has relationships with everyone else. No one ever has to feel alone.
How has learning languages and assisting local craftspeople enabled you to get inside like an anthropologist?
Learning an ethnic minority language is a clear indication of special interest in them. And they respond very favourably to that. Involving them in handicrafts production shows appreciation of their traditional arts and crafts, like a form of flattery. It also means getting to know them more personally and becoming an accepted part of their existence, making research easy.
What’s your personal approach to meeting new people, and why do you think it works?
As that pertains to my research work I always made clear to the people what my interest in them was and that I was going to write about them. Always had a positive response and when I indulged in their hospitality I followed four rules I set for myself: eat whatever they give me, drink whatever they give me, smoke whatever they give me, and sleep wherever they put me. As a result, I’ve had some really spicy food, very powerful liquor, pretty raunchy cigarettes and even opium and some pretty uncomfortable sleeping conditions. But I figured nothing can hurt me much for a day or so and the effect on them was that they thought I was a great guest. Everything they did for me seemed to work. They didn’t have to make any adjustments.
What’s it like to be the first outsider or ‘white person’ that some groups have seen?
That happened mostly in Yunnan and was never a negative experience. I remember once about to enter a Yunnan village that was definitely off the beaten track and when children spotted me they ran back to the village shouting, “Weiguo pengyou lai!” (“Foreign friend comes.”) And then the adults came out to welcome me. I never found any animosity or impolite, intrusive curiosity anywhere I went. The local attitude seemed to be ‘here’s a chance to make a foreign friend’. Minorities were as curious about me as I was about them. And being American in China or Vietnam, in their context I was a fellow minority person.
For many of the groups you’ve studied and spent time with, they are spread across countries and borders. Are there differences on different sides of the borders, or does close contact mean the groups retain their traditions?
I made my first trip to Vietnam precisely to answer that question. I was researching the terrace builders in Honghe between the Red River and the Vietnam border. Many ethnic groups lived on both sides, so I travelled through the border areas in Vietnam to meet sub-groups I knew in Yunnan. Lifestyles and cultural traits were very similar. The minorities in Vietnam seemed more conservative, more resistant to modern influence, while the same minorities on the Yunnan side seemed better off economically.
Your other interest is Vietnam. What fascinates you about Vietnam?
I was already familiar with Chinese culture when I first visited Vietnam, as well as Southeast Asian culture. It didn’t seem like such a strange place and I was able to discover what was unique about Vietnam, its separate cultural characteristics. The people were uniformly friendly, even though I came from a country that bombed the hell out of it. Yet the Vietnamese I met regarded all that as the past and now it’s different so no time for resentment. I made close friendships there easily (eventually married one) and found new topics to write books about—what was unique about Vietnamese culture, the special history of Hanoi, and how the country became one entity.
Why do you have a fascination and affinity with ethnic minorities, particularly hill tribes?
Hard to really say, but I suppose it was because I like their very different kind of living environment, the way they look and the way they act. Always felt comfortable with them.
How do you feel about the changes that have happened to minorities, such as becoming tourist attractions, or having to move to towns for economic opportunities?
It was probably inevitable. Traditional agriculture, the shifting cultivation type, was no longer sustainable due to population density growth. Roads are better and more numerous, too, so those who do move to cities can still maintain links with their villages. Becoming tourist attractions can be more of a lifestyle change. Everything cultural seems to become a commodity, something to be paid to do. In some places, the culture on display is not even their own. For example, in Sapa Vietnam, many Hmong girls dress up in fancy clothing of the Flowery Hmong because their own Black Hmong outfits are not as colourful or photogenic for tourists, who pay them to take photographs.
When did you know that you wanted to be a writer?
When I first started reading world literature as an early teenager and started fantasizing about one day becoming one of the literary giants.
How do you go about your writing process?
I begin by thinking about it for many sessions, then, when it’s a book or a lengthy article, make an outline and start adding details before I actually write anything. When I do get going I often inspire myself by fantasising what a positive review might say, then add or revise something to justify the imaginary praise.
How has photography integrated with your writing?
Most of what I write requires illustration and some of it was because I had a set of photographs that sort of made a story. When doing cultural research, I photographed anything I thought might be relevant, whether it was photogenic or not, because then I would have a reference. I wouldn’t have to write down or have to remember what I saw. The photo was the record.
Yes. It was set up by a young friend many years ago. I don’t make any money from it. It would have been nice to have sold all the site’s articles, but I continue it because it represents my self-image of contributing to the sum of human knowledge concerning the topics I write about. Regarding books, I have had publishers in several cities: Kathmandu, Bangkok, Singapore, Kunming, Hong Kong and Hanoi.
What projects do you have on the go currently?
This year’s project was Peoples of the Mekong River Basin: The Ethnic Minorities. It covers 23 ethnic minorities and over 100 photos, 90% mine. The publisher is World Scientific Press, Singapore and it should come out in or maybe before October. I would like to do one more book, on Lamphun and its first ruler Queen Chamadevi, the most interesting and accomplished woman in all of Thai history. But I have to find a publisher interested before I start work on it.
*Photographs provided by Jim Goodman
Keith Lyons (keithlyons.net) is an award-winning writer, author and creative writing mentor, who gave up learning to play bagpipes in a Scottish pipe band to focus on after-dark tabs of dark chocolate, early morning slow-lane swimming, and the perfect cup of masala chai tea. Find him@KeithLyonsNZor blogging at Wandering in the World (http://wanderingintheworld.com).
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL
These lines from a recent article on conquests carried out by the Indian subcontinent in ancient times brings to focus that earlier countries or nation-states as we know of them today did not exist till the industrial revolution set the concept in motion. In the month many countries in Asia celebrate their independent existence or rather the drawing of borders based on colonial mapmakers’ whims, we should perhaps relook at the way the world stands divided.
Is this what we want as humans? Where are we headed? While conquerors write the history, we tend to gloss over what is left unsaid. The millions who died crossing borders, in race riots and of hunger, starvation and disease in refugee camps is overlooked, or worse, used to justify the divisions that still hurt the residents of the sub-continent and try to destroy any sense of oneness among the human species. We tend not to forget the atrocities of the colonials but we overlook the violence of the mobs that incensed with hatred instilled by politics annihilated and murdered. Their story is reduced to “us” and “them”. In our mood of jubilation, the recent bombings in the Middle East and the Ukraine-Russia war have already been delegated to the newsreels. But these are all people who are killed and displaced without any justification for the need to do so. One of the things that George Orwell had depicted in 1984 was an acceptance of a constant state of war. Are we stepping into that frame of mind with our cold acceptance of the situation worldwide?
In the last century, many united against the atrocities of the empire builders. They wanted to rise above the divides. At least greats like Nazrul vociferously objected to the basis of divides that were used to draw the borders. Translations brought to us by Professor Fakrul Alam showcase such poetry as does much of Tagore’s own writing and actions. Tagore organised a protest march against the colonial proposal of Partition of Bengal in 1905 by taking a procession in which he encouraged Hindu and Muslim women to tie rakhis on men from the other community and make them their brothers. Tagore put the welfare of humanity above nationalism as can be seen in his writings and speeches. Reflecting on humanity, we have Munshi Premchand’s powerful story,Pus Ki Raat or A Frigid Winter’s Night, translated from Hindi by C Christine Fair, dwelling on the sad state of peasantry under the Raj. In a bid to rouse people like the protagonist of Premchand’s story, Tagore wrote inspirational songs, one of which, Hobe Joye(Victory will be Ours) has been translated on our pages. We also continue sharing Rabindranath’s humour with a skit translated by Somdatta Mandal from Bengali.
Humour is also stirred into Borderless by Rhys Hughes with a series of mini sagas in his column and a trip around the world in eighty couplets. These couplets actually are more in number — I tried counting them — and are guaranteed to make you laugh. We have travel stories in plenty too. Ravi Shankar again treks to the Himalayas and brings us wonderful photographs of his journey and G Venkatesh stops over at Istanbul airport to find a friend from across the border. Meredith Stephens travels to a French colony called Lifou Island — sounds unbelievable as in the month we celebrate the independence of so many countries across Asia, there is still a country in the Pacific that owes allegiance to a democratic European power! But other than writing about the beaches, Stephens talks of a temporary pet dog while Suzanne Kamata gives us cat talk in her notes from Japan in a lighter vein — a very pleasant glimpse of life. Devraj Singh Kalsi brings a grin when he talks of his stint at trying to run a restaurant.
An excerpt from B. M. Zuhara’sThe Dreams of a Mappila Girl: A Memoir, translated from Malayalam by Fehmida Zakeer, brings us close to a community we know very less about in the Southern part of India. Meenakshi Malhotra has reviewed Tagore’s Four Chapters translated from Bengali and introduced by Radha Chakravarty, a book that is a powerful voice against violence in the name of nationalism touching on the independence of women, a theme that is reiterated in another book that has been visited by Rakhi Dalal. While exploring Neelum Saran Gour’s Requiem in Raga Janki, Dalal contends that the book familiarises us with a singer “who carved her own destiny and lived life on her own terms, in times when women were generally subjugated and confined to roles given by society”. Gracy Samjetsabam has visited Mamang Dai’s Escaping the Land, a novel that tries to weave issues faced in the Northeast of India and integrate it with the mainstream by stirring human emotions. Bhaskar Parichha has reviewed Rakesh Batabyal’s Building a Free India, a collection of powerful speeches from the past.
Within the confines of the Raj, there was a long court case where a prince who had been declared dead resurfaced as a Naga sadhu, a claimant to the throne, this time not to abuse his power as of past but to be a sympathiser of the people in their tryst to fight the Raj. Aruna Chakravarti has woven a historical fiction around this controversy centring around the prince of Bhawal. In an exclusive interview, she tells us the story behind the making of The Mendicant Prince— her novel that was published just last month. Her responses could well teach us how to write a historical novel.
We have much more than the fare that has been mentioned here. Pause by on our contents page to take a look. My heartfelt thanks to the whole team at Borderless for helping with this issue, which we managed to get out in a shorter time than usual and Sohana Manzoor for her wonderful artwork. I am grateful to all our contributors as well as our readers. We could not have made it this far without all of you.
In the spirit of uniting under a borderless sky, let us look forward to cooler climes and happier times.
The puppies’ mother accepted the baby girl, who was left in an alley unknown to anyone. The puppies all saw the baby girl and licked and jumped atop her. When it rained, the mother dog provided shelter for her and the rest of her pups. Then night fell, and the Nepalese streets were beset by dangers.
The alley was ripe with evils in the form of thugs and perverts. The mother dog knew that she had to guard her puppies. The men weren’t interested in the dogs, though. They were only interested in the tiny girl being protected by them. They wanted to hurt the girl. They enjoyed such distractions. However, the mother dog saw the girl as her own and growled at the men, baring her teeth. They got scared and ran away as the mother dog curled against the child, keeping her safe and warm until morning.
In a lowland region in southern Nepal, a girl child was a very different proposition for the human mother. She had not wanted to know the sex of the child. When she gave birth and the doctors told her that it was a girl, the entire room fell silent. There would have been celebration and adornment if it had been a boy. A hard decision would need to be made for the newborn girl that rested in her arms.
The mother wasn’t from a rich family and having a girl was forbidden. It was considered a curse on the family. Going home with the daughter would have caused an intense strain. Her husband would have deemed her a curse for giving him a daughter instead of a son and possibly leaving her for another woman that would give him a son. That didn’t include the intense financial strains to raise a girl in such a patriarchal ambience.
The mother looked down at the newborn daughter and knew that she would be living a harsh life no matter what. If she kept the girl, she could be left without money or resources to care for her. But as it was her daughter, she contemplated fighting for her. A girl in Nepal wasn’t only a curse to her husband’s family and her family. They would berate her and possibly disown her, leaving her with no husband and no family in her life.
First, this girl would not grow up with an education, for money would not be spent on educating a woman as she was seen to add no value to family coffers. On the contrary, the family would have to pay a large sum for her dowry. So not only would her daughter be subjected to illiteracy, but she also wouldn’t be able to marry a man who could care for her.
She left the hospital with the girl still in her arms tightly and was trying to make up her mind. When she came across an alleyway, she saw a mother dog taking care of all her puppies. This made the woman smile and cry. This mother didn’t need to think of the hard choices like she did. She knew she had to protect her puppies from harm, and the rest would work itself out, whether the puppy was a boy or a girl.
She felt lost staring at the dog protecting her babies. She looked at her own baby. She silently cried as she approached the alley and started to lower the baby to the ground. She didn’t want to leave her newborn baby. But, she felt left without a choice. She didn’t leave the newborn because she herself thought it was a curse for her and her family. She felt the baby would be unfortunate for being part of a family that couldn’t give her what she needed. She took off, walked fast, fearing that she would change her mind and turn around to grab the baby.
She lied and told her husband that a boy had died during childbirth.
Back in the alley, as the sun was rose, the baby was wailing, and the mother dog didn’t know what to do. She wouldn’t latch on like the other puppies and knew she couldn’t take care of her still, though she had compassion like a mother and tried to calm the baby down the best she could. Even her puppies didn’t jump and play rough, knowing that the human child needed a gentler touch. Finally, the noise from the crying baby drew the attention of a woman, who approached the child. The mother dog was weary and started to growl at the strange woman.
The woman only smiled and gently picking up the baby. The baby stopped crying. This woman didn’t know the baby or the dogs but saw what the mother dog was trying to do, though it belonged to a different species.
This woman had money and knew she could pay to educate the newborn and give her a decent life.
Santosh Kalwar’s new non-fiction, “Why Nepal Fails”, is forthcoming. His recent works have appeared in Every Day Fiction, Vine Leaves Press, 50-Word Stories, and Molecule. For more info, please visit: kalwar.com.np
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL.
The Sun had already set behind the hills. Dark clouds were gathering all around us. We could see occasional flashes of lightning and peals of thunder. The trail was getting difficult to see and was rough and slippery. The forest was dark. It started raining. Our only option was to continue till we came across a lodge. Eventually, we reached a clearing and a lodge by the trailside. The room was fine but the toilets were not in good shape. Trekking articles about Nepal always talk about toileting. Over the years we have got used to comfortable and hygienic toilets and want our time spent there to be as pleasant as possible.
Cellular services were now available. The night was peaceful, and we got up early the next morning. We set out early the next morning as we had a long way to hike. Our target was to reach the settlement of Tiwari and walk to the road head at Syarubesi, the following morning. The hike was long, and it was only after sunset that we reached the Bob Marley guest house at Tiwari. The last part of the hike was along the newly constructed road. The guest house is colourful and located on the banks of the Langtang River. The lodge is well designed but may be past its days of glory. A variety of factors ranging from new road heads, alternative trails, and different trekking groups can make a lodge less popular and lodge owners usually cannot do much about it.
Nabin Ban (Nabinji) is our all-purpose man at Kathmandu Medical College in Lalitpur and has been with the institution from the very beginning. He is a musician, videographer, farmer, craftsman, and small businessman. He is from Bhaktapur in the Kathmandu valley, and his village is on the way to the tourist resort of Nagarkot. He farms his land and raises chickens and breeds dogs and other animals. He is a resourceful and kind person and very useful in an emergency. I was back in Nepal after a long gap and was doing the Langtang trek, the nearest trek to Kathmandu which puts you among the snow-covered mountains.
The 2015 earthquake had hit this region hard and the old Langtang village was still buried under the rubble. We stayed in newly built lodges in the village. The views of the Himalayas were spectacular. I was finding the going difficult. The trail was rough, and I was carrying my winter gear and other necessities. Nepalese usually trek lighter and manage with the clothes they have on them. A large group of Nabin’s classmates were also hiking and planning to visit Gosainkund, the holy lake.
Nabin loved to travel and had hiked in various regions of Nepal. In the less touristy areas, the trails are rougher and the accommodation more basic. Nearly a decade ago we had hiked in the Gauri Shankar region. This trekking region was newly developed and had community lodges built in different villages. Each lodge would also serve as a gathering place for the villagers and had a local store. Dr David Wells, a chiropractor and applied kinesiologist from Singapore accompanied us on our trek.
We took the local bus to the village of Barabhise and started climbing and our first night was in the village of Karthali. The community lodge is situated among smiling mustard fields. Each lodge is built along similar lines. They have a store, a kitchen and dining room on the ground floor, and three bedrooms with bunk beds on the first. There is a balcony on the first floor. Organic fruits and vegetables are grown around the lodge. Karthali is in the gently sloping mid-hills. The next day we climbed steadily to the lodge at Dolangsa, a Sherpa village. The mountainous terrain has both blessed and disadvantaged Nepal. The crinkled landscape ensures a much bigger surface area for the country. There are several hills of around 5000 m in height. People who follow Hinduism stay at the lower elevations in caste-based villages while people of Tibetan descent reside higher up the hill.
From Dolangsa it is a steep and difficult climb to the Thingsang pass. The forests looked dark and menacing and prayer flags and stones were everywhere. David mentioned that he could sense evil vibrations and the shrines were to protect the valley from evil forces. The path eventually reaches flatter grasslands dotted with ponds. It often rains here. The Hindu shrine of Kalinchowk is nearby. On a clear day from the pass, the Gaurishankar and Rolwaling massif can be seen in the distance.
The descent to the settlement of Bigu is long and you descend through a hillside charred by a forest fire. The community lodge at Bigu painted a dark orange is my favourite. The didi at the lodge prepares delicious food and I enjoy having pooris and aloosabzifor breakfast. The settlement is dominated by the Bigu gompa. Most visitors start their day with a trip to the gompa and attend the morning prayers. The gompa is huge and has an interesting history. After the devastating 1934 earthquake, a Drukpa lama along with the headman of Bigu constructed the monastery. There is a huge population of nuns in residence. The nuns had played an important role in the construction of the monastery and were said to be engaged in long-term silent meditation retreats in caves high up the mountain.
After a heavy breakfast, we set off to the Chettri village of Loting. The lodge is surrounded by fields and is in the middle of the village. Nabin and David were engrossed in playing Baghchal, a Nepalese board game. The lodge has good views of the settlements on the surrounding hill across the river. Laduk is a large village, and the lodge is next to the village school. David was attracting a lot of attention from the village children. We passed through the old farmhouses of Bulung and the settlement of Orang. The sky was cloudy, and it started raining. Just below the lodge were the fields and a farmer was carrying a huge plough on his shoulder. The clouds parted and we had a clear and spectacular view of Gaurishankar. A young lady studying in Kathmandu had come home for the Dusshera holidays and efficiently took care of us.
Singati at 1100 m is the headquarters of the Eco Himal project and a major local centre. Red flags were everywhere, and I later read that the area was an important base of the Maoists during the civil war. With increasing access to information and travel people are becoming aware of the world beyond their villages. They become better informed and unhappy with their lot. There has been a population explosion in the hills and most young people are unwilling to till the land and live the meagre life of their parents and grandparents. There was a landslide on the road to Charikot, and the road was not passable to buses.
We stayed in a hotel and took a jeep to Charikot the next morning. From there we took an extremely crowded bus to Kathmandu. Many were returning to the city after the Dashain celebrations. Trekking with Nabin is always fun. He is adaptable, resourceful, and enterprising. He has travel in his blood and music in his soul. I look forward to more journeys with Nabinji!
 Elder sister literally but here used as a term of respect
I ran through the dark narrow corridor into the cold night air. I had been having a pounding headache since my arrival and lacked the appetite for my evening meal of spaghetti and eggs. My stomach churned violently, and the bile rose in my throat ejecting the contents into the frozen ground surrounding the lodge. Vomiting always makes me uneasy and brings back unpleasant memories of my early childhood when vomiting accompanied most maladies. Luckily this was the only serious episode of altitude sickness that I had during my high-altitude travels.
We had broken most rules of acclimatising to the altitude during this trip. We had flown to the Humde/Hongde airport at Manang from the lakeside town of Pokhara, a day before. Pokhara is at around 800 m above sea level while Humde is at around 3400 m. Most flights to Manang are from Kathmandu and many Manangis are rich and sophisticated traders. The pilot did a visual inspection tour walking around the twin otter aircraft. He seemed satisfied and we were soon skyborne. The view of the Annapurna Himal (snow mountain in Nepali) in the morning sunshine was breath taking. We had lunch at the Airport Hotel in Humde and then hiked up to Khangsar at 3800m. We spent a night at a lodge run by a relative of our Humde didi and started walking to the Tilicho Tal after a substantial breakfast of buckwheat bread, late in the morning.
A cold wind was blowing, and the trail wound through scree slopes. The hike was becoming treacherous, and we did some of the worst sections on our hands and knees. The mountain views were becoming spectacular as the Himals closed in on the valley. Our heavy backpacks threatened to unbalance us and push us over the edge to the Khangsar Khola and Marsyangadi river far below. Thorny bushes grew in the arid landscape and snagged our down jackets. We were worried about the condition of these jackets that we had rented in Pokhara. The shop owner was a patient of my fellow trekker, Dr Praveen Partha.
We could see the Tilicho base camp lodge far below. The descent was along sheer scree slopes. The soil was loose, and the ground could vanish at your feet! Running descents down 45-degree slopes were battering to the knees. Time seemed to stop as we negotiated the vertigo-inducing slopes. Eventually, we reached the valley below and the final stretch was a short level walk. The lodge was dusty and cold. There was some problem with the solar lights and only the dining room was lit.
The next morning dawned cloudy and grey. It had snowed the previous night and I was still feeling nauseous and light-headed. The lodge owner told us about an ultra-marathon race being held that day and that we might meet the runners on our way up. It was a long climb to the lake. The trail initially wound through scree slopes and then climbed more slowly through snowfields. A freezing wind was blowing, and we wore sunglasses with side blinders to protect our eyes from the reflected sunlight and avoid snow blindness. My nose was becoming numb due to the cold. We were struggling at the high altitude (above 4500 m) and in my weakened state, I was finding the going difficult.
The runners were racing through the landscape. Their fitness was astounding. The ones we had met during the early stages of our hike were now returning from the lake. We saw the trail to Yak Kharka and Thorung La in the distance. Our plan was to cross the pass and descend to the holy site of Muktinath and the city of Jomson on the other side.
The mountains provided a stark contrast. The north-facing slopes were cloaked in the snow while the south-facing ones were bare. The power of our star, the Sun even at 152 million kilometres was awe-inspiring. We continued climbing. A steep climb along a snow-covered slope and the dark blue waters of the lake could be seen in the distance. The race organizers had set up stations for the runners and race flags and posters were seen on both sides of the trail. The wind was bitterly cold. The snow-cloaked landscape was breathtakingly beautiful. The lake is located at an altitude of 4940 m. No aquatic organisms have been recorded in the lake.
Tilicho lake is believed by Hindus to be the ancient Kak Bhasundi lake mentioned in the Ramayana. The sage Kak Bhasundi told the epic to Garuda, the king of birds near this lake. The lake was also the location of the highest scuba dive by a Russian team in 2000. A trekking route skirting the lake and reaching Thini Gaon in the Kali Gandaki valley is becoming popular.
This route requires at least a night of camping as there are no lodges (tea houses) after Tilicho Base Camp till you reach Thini Gaon. I have never camped during my travels in the Himalayas. Camping gives you more options but may be more challenging in terms of logistics. Many lodges also have well-maintained camping places.
The trekking lodges in Nepal started as converted tea houses. They were places to have tea, exchange gossip, and eat food. They had been around in the hills for a long time. People hiked the trails for different reasons ranging from trade, visiting family and friends, and pilgrimage. As trekking became more popular many of these started offering travellers a place to sleep. They used to charge only for the food. Later the rooms became more elaborate and private accommodations were created. In big towns and popular locations, some have become hotels.
The cold soon drove us down from the lake and the descent was easier on the lungs. Runners were still running up the slopes. The weather was becoming cloudy, and the sun was soon cloaked by clouds. Light snow started falling. In the mountains, it often snows around noon. I was beginning to feel better but was still weak. It was around four in the afternoon when Dr Partha and I reached the base camp lodge. My appetite was slowly returning.
The next morning, we started mid-morning to the settlement of Khangsar and eventually continued to Manang village. The village has some excellent hotels and spectacular views of the Gangapurna glacier. Manang is at 3500 m and the plan was for me to rest here and see how I felt the next morning and then decide whether to continue to do the circuit trek through the pass or return down to the road head of base town of Besishahar. My bout with altitude sickness had sapped my confidence and we decided discretion was better and slowly headed down. I felt bad for Praveen who was keen to do the circuit before heading off to the greener pastures of the United Kingdom.
The Thorung pass still remains on my bucket list. Hopefully one day I will be able to do it. The Annapurna circuit trek has steadily contracted over the decades as roads have made deeper inroads into the mountains. The trek used to start from Dumre on the Kathmandu-Pokhara highway, then the trailhead shifted to Besishahar, and with the construction of the new road to the district headquarters of Chame. On the other side, there are regular buses from Pokhara and Kathmandu to Muktinath.
Tim Cahill, a travel writer from Montana, wrote, “A journey is best measured in friends rather than miles.” Praveen was perfect company. We gelled well together, we were adaptable and took the rough with the smooth. We did some interesting treks together and I am sure he must be continuing his walks in the cold English air as he thinks about medicine, health, love, happiness, and eternity!
The water was hot and the pressure optimum. For me the shower was a moment of pure bliss. I had heard poetic descriptions from fellow trekkers of the shower at the Eco Lodge. The hot water condensed in the cold air forming a welcome cocoon of warmth around me. Unfortunately, the shower duration was limited to five minutes. The water was heated using gas as was common throughout the Everest trekking region of Nepal. In the Annapurna region, north of the city of Pokhara, solar water heaters were common. Gas heaters always make me feel guilty about the environmental impact.
The water washed away the accumulated grime and sweat. The shower was expensive, and I was on a tight budget. My funds only permitted a shower once every ten to fourteen days. We were researchers involved in a clinical trial on high-altitude illness. The participants were enrolled at Pheriche more than 700 meters below and the study end point was at Lobuche (4900 m). Participants received two medical check-ups at high altitudes and two cups of tea/coffee for participating.
The Eco Lodge was an upmarket lodge in Lobuche in the year 2007 and we were staying there for over a month. Participants came to the lodge to complete the study and receive a second medical check-up. We listened to their chests, provided a physical examination, and measured their blood pressure and oxygen saturation. We had received a discount on the room rent but the food was expensive. Lobuche is situated at the foot of the Khumbu glacier. Everything had to be hauled from below.
For a long time, Lobuche had an unwelcome reputation due to the poor quality of the lodges. The restrooms were dirty, and the bedrooms flimsy. Maintaining hygiene in the cold dusty environment was a challenge. The Eco Lodge was the first upmarket lodge offering wood-panelled bedrooms with glass windows and clean toilets. The lodge had night toilets inside and day toilets outside. We were allotted an inside room in the main building. Dr Anup and I were the two doctors at Lobuche. The rooms were unheated and freezing though the main dining room had the ubiquitous cast iron heater burning yak dung. Yak dung is precious as fuel at these altitudes. It burns well with minimal smoke and residue and the flame is hot.
We were also the only doctors camped at Lobuche though some of the larger groups did have a doctor and the Sherpa guides were well-versed in altitude sickness. We did receive occasional calls for assistance. The Mountain Medicine Society of Nepal (MMSN) and the Himalayan Rescue Association (HRA) conduct clinical trials in the Everest and Manang regions of Nepal every fall. These provide medical students an opportunity to work with foreign experts and develop an interest in the subject. You receive transportation to the site, the services of a porter and a subsistence allowance.
Participants in the study had been instructed to check in with us after they had settled in Lobuche. In the evening we used to go around the other lodges looking for participating trekkers who had not yet met us. The evenings were chilly, and a freezing wind blew from the high Himalayas across the glacier. On climbing the moraines of the glacier there were spectacular views of the snow peaks. Sunset on Mt Lobuche and Mt Nuptse is not to be missed. The peaks turn golden yellow, then red, different shades of pink and finally the light is slowly extinguished.
The dining room at the Eco Lodge was smaller than the one at Nuru’s place in Pheriche and there was no green house. Dining rooms are the beating hearts of trekking lodges. At Lobuche the Sun was often covered in clouds and a cold wind blew off and on. The lodge did have glass tiles in the roof to capture the Sun. At night the dining room was cosy, and we met some interesting persons there during our stay. In those days there was no telephone service and no internet. A satellite phone was available in case of emergencies.
Nights in the room were freezing and I was reminded of Peter Matthiessen’s descriptions in the book The Snow Leopard of the long freezing nights in his tent at Shey Gompa in Dolpa. Our room was inside and out of the wind, and we also had a glass roof to catch the Sun. Anything kept outside in the room would be frozen solid by the morning. You had to keep stuff with you inside the quilt so that it could be gently warmed by your body heat. The long silent nights were conducive to meditating about life (and death).
From Lobuche it is a four-hour hike to the Everest Base camp at 5400 m. The hike is through the Khumbu Glacier and through stones and boulders. Some of the boulders were larger than a house. Global warming has resulted in significant shrinking and drying of the glaciers and the Khumbu and Ngozumpa glacier in the Everest region have both retreated significantly. The hike passes through the settlement of Gorak Shep and the weather can change dramatically in a few minutes. I had started my trek on a clear, sunny day but halfway through clouds gathered and the mountains were shrouded in white. Soon it started snowing heavily. The boulders became slick and slippery in the snow and walking became difficult.
During a previous visit I had visited ‘The Pyramid’, a scientific research station run by an international consortium in association with the Nepal Academy of Science and Technology (NAST). The research facilities were great, and the station is located at a 20 minutes’ walk from the trail. The station is entirely powered by solar energy. The location is spectacular, and the station is located far from the trials and tribulations of our imperfect world.
Staying in a trekking lodge for over a month is a different experience. Trekkers come and go but we continued to remain in the lodge. The cold was our constant enemy. The tips of your fingers became numb after a few minutes in the cold wind. The ultraviolet rays were strong at the high altitude, and I was soon tanned a dark shade of brown. Lobuche was the highest altitude at which I had stayed for nearly 40 days. All things considered I still preferred staying with Nuru at Pheriche where the climate is more hospitable, and life was gentler.
My friend Anup left at the end of the month. I had changed my place of work and still had some time before I joined a new medical school being set up in the Kathmandu valley and could stay longer till the next group of doctors could reach Lobuche and manage the study. The settlement of Lobuche was set up to meet the requirements of trekkers to the Everest Base Camp and to Kala Pathar (black rock), a famous Everest viewpoint. I was alone in my room, and it felt strange. The second team soon reached us, and I briefed them about what had been done and handed over the study material. Soon it was time to trek down to Pheriche, Pangboche, Tengboche, Namche Bazar (the Sherpa capital) and eventually fly out from the Tenzing-Hillary airport at Lukla to Kathmandu.
As mentioned, Lobuche for a long time had a terrible reputation. The quality of the lodges has steadily improved from bunk beds in dormitories to individual rooms. I was searching for lodges in Lobuche on the web recently. Many lodges now offer free wi-fi. The Pyramid also offers lodging at the 8000 Inn. With all these welcome developments, Lobuche can confidently and maybe, indignantly shrug off its reputation as the ‘arm pit’ of Nepal!
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.
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL
The windows were getting misty. Outside it was freezing cold and rainy. However, the cast iron heater kept the dining room hot and toasty. We were enrolling trekkers/hikers for a study on high altitude. The Himalayan Rescue Association (an organisation catering to the health needs of trekkers, mountaineers, and the local population) conducts various studies in high altitude locations in Nepal. These studies are usually conducted during the peak trekking and mountaineering seasons in spring and autumn. The participants (trekkers) were enrolled either at Pheriche or at Dingboche, in the Everest region of Nepal. We had just finished dinner and were discussing the how the studies were going. We were happy. The room was warm, our stomachs full and the company interesting. The owner of the lodge, Nuru Sherpa often joined us. Other trekkers were seated at neighbouring tables and could join in. The atmosphere was relaxed and friendly. Our study leader had brought dried apple cider sachets from California, that could be reconstituted with warm water. The apple cider was delicious.
Pheriche had been originally a yak pasture situated at a height of 4300 m in the Everest/Khumbu region of Nepal. There are several place names ending with ‘boche’ in this region. ‘Boche’ means a flat land seen from a hilltop. In this mountainous region a plateau like area is a rarity. As tourism developed in the Khumbu, several lodges were constructed. Pheriche however, is mostly overcast and windy. Most trekkers prefer to stay in Dingboche, 150 m higher on the other side of the hill. The place is higher but gets more sunshine and is warmer.
The research team had split with two of our colleagues staying at Lobuche uphill at 4900 m. We had flown to the Tenzing-Hillary airport at Lukla and then hiked uphill acclimatizing along the way. There is a 700 m ascent between Pheriche/Dingboche and Lobuche and different studies have been done on this stretch of the trail. The Himalayan Rescue Association runs an aid post at Pheriche to provide medical treatment to trekkers, guides, porters, and locals. The post was established in 1973 and has seen extensive upgrades. It has been equipped with oxygen concentrators and has the ability to manage most cases of altitude sickness. The doctors volunteering at the clinic have been giving talks on staying healthy at high altitude every afternoon. We attended these talks, which even helped to recruit trekkers for our study. Later, we would hike uphill to Dingboche and visit the trekkers staying at different lodges. Even in 2007, Dingboche had more than twenty-five lodges spread out along the trail.
We were staying at the Himalayan Hotel in Pheriche. The hotel was run by Nuru Sherpa from Kunde who had studied interior design in Karnataka, India. The rooms were cozy but cold. In the tea houses (lodges), only the dining room is heated during the evening and sometimes during the morning hours. The lodge had squat toilets and Nuru used to mix some kerosene in the toilet water to prevent it from freezing. I saw a recent photo and the lodge has been expanded and now has private rooms with attached western-style toilets. There has been a lot written about toilets at trekking lodges. Some are luxurious, western-style flush toilets while others are just a hole in the ground. Most do not have a sewage system and the environmental consequences may be high. Lobuche had a terrible reputation for its toilets and was widely known as the armpit of Nepal. Things have improved significantly since then.
Most lodges have a greenhouse where you could sit, and lounge comfortably protected from the wind during the day. We used to take full advantage of the greenhouse. As the temperature inside was significantly higher, we could sit in our T-shirts. This was a great luxury in this cold and windy locale. Pheriche is often used as an acclimatisation stop by trekkers before heading higher. The hotel had a good collection of books and we used to spend hours in the greenhouse reading and chatting. People came and went but we stayed on. Staying put in a place in constant flux was a strange experience. Days coalesced into weeks and weeks into a month.
Pheriche had suffered damage during the earthquake of 2015 and rebuilding was mostly by local efforts. Today there are internet and phone services and websites allowing you to book lodges in advance. In the 2000s, you had to book the rooms physically. The lodge owners sometimes used satellite phones to access the internet, but it was expensive. During the peak trekking season in the fall, the lodges could get incredibly crowded. The global pandemic has negatively impacted tourism, and the economic consequences have been bad. Lodge owners often take loans at high-interest rates to renovate and expand their facilities and if the number of tourists drop, they can easily go into debt.
The landscape was barren with a few shrubs struggling to grow in the high altitudes. There are spectacular mountain views from around Pheriche. These are among the tallest mountains in the world at over 7000 m. Pheriche and Dingboche are over 4000 m. The village of Pheriche is on the banks of the Tsola river. The wind roars across the valley and clouds, rain and snow follow. Tibetan Buddhism is dominant and mani walls inscribed with Lamaist prayers and cairns of towers of rocks are scattered all around. Prayer flags send the Buddhist law riding on the wind. On a sunny and warm day, the land is at peace and a hike through this landscape is enchanting. However, at these altitudes, the weather can change rapidly. As you climb towards Dughla and Lobuche, there are spectacular mountain views. There is a memorial to those who have died on Everest as you climb out of Dughla. There are a variety of memorials to climbers in this region. There is one on the grounds of the Pheriche hospital/aid post.
Sherpas are the inhabitants of the Khumbu and have earned an enviable reputation as mountain guides. Sherpas originally migrated to Nepal from Tibet several centuries ago. Namche Bazar is the unofficial capital of Sherpa country. Potatoes play an important role in Sherpa cuisine. The introduction of the potato from the South American Andes made settled life possible in many mountain regions globally. Potatoes are used in several ways. Rikikur (potato pancake) is a breakfast staple. There is a small restaurant by a waterfall serving potato pancakes called rikikur on the hike to Namche Bazar. You wait and enjoy the scenery as your pancake is freshly prepared. A spicy chili sauce is a usual accompaniment. There is a type of red round chili grown in the Himalayas called dalle khursani or jyanmaara (life-taker) khursani. The chili is extremely spicy and can literally take your life away, hence the name.
The Khumbu region at an average height of over 3500 m is one of the most spectacular on the planet. Getting there may not be easy, and you need to plan your journey properly. Acclimatization is important. Compared to other treks in Nepal this is more expensive and has a risk of altitude sickness. However, the spectacular views of the highest mountains on earth cannot be matched elsewhere. Things have certainly changed with the advent of cell phones and the internet. Roads have also made steady inroads in the surrounding regions. In the good old days, there were no roads in Nepal outside the Kathmandu valley and the early Everest expeditions used to start their walk from the outskirts of the valley. It used to take well over a month to reach the Khumbu region.
Hopefully, the pandemic will stay controlled. This will allow us to hike this autumn in the Khumbu region and enjoy Sherpa culture, religion, fresh air, cold winds, and the spectacular mountains!
N.B: We miss our friend Dr Ashutosh Bodhe who accompanied us on several treks. He passed away in 2021. His raw energy and passion for life will be missed!
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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"I wish you survival,
And the closed sky above you."
— Refugee in my own Country/I am Ukraine, Lesya Bakun
Despite this being the season of multiple new years around Asia, we cannot close our eyes to the skies that connect all the world like a blue dome. Though celebrations and humour continue to lighten the darkness of war, while Ukraine is being wrecked, can we turn our faces towards only festivities?
I had an interesting anecdote about how before the onset of the Gregorian calendar, new years in the world were celebrated around March and in some places in September. The Earth would turn fecund and green with spring, a beautiful season sprinkled with love and nostalgia as Michael R Burch tells us in his poetry. However, despite all the opulence of nature, it is hard to watch a country being bombed and families splintered to man a war that supposedly guards a human construct called ideology and blocs. Ukranian refugee, Lesya Bakun, in an interview says: “It is not a clash of ideologies. It is a fight for our country and nation to exist.” Listening to Lesya’s stories makes one amazed at the bravery of the Ukrainians battling what seems to be cultural hegemony. It reminds of the war in Bangladesh in 1971. Though incredibly courageous in voicing her experiences, Lesya is traumatised and has a psychosomatic cough as she sends her voice and text messages from her mobile through Telegram. There were times when she was just weeping or angry for the questions asked, and justifiably so, as her home in Kharkiv, where she lived was under attack, and the town of Mariupol, where she was born, has been wrecked by the war.
The refrain of the pain of a refugee continues to reverberate in a book reviewed by Rakhi Dalal, Ramy Al-Asheq’s Ever Since I Did Not Die, written originally in Arabic and translated by Isis Nusair. The Syrian-Palestinian poet refused to clarify whether his writing was prose or poetry — perhaps these borders and boxes drawn by humankind are breaking down in reality. Perhaps, this new year, the time is ripe to look forward to a new world that transcends these borders. This is also the first time we have had the privilege of carrying reviews of translations from Arabic and also from Turkish. Gracy Samjetsabam has reviewed a translation of a Turkish novel by Iskendar Pala called The Tulip of Istanbul, translated by Ruth Whitehouse. Bhaskar Parichha has reviewed a book by Kiran Manral, Rising: 30 Women Who Changed India while Candice Louisa Daquin has drawn our focus on a poetry collection by Marjorie Maddox, Begin with a Question, where the perceived divisions do not matter while the poet questions the larger issue of faith in quest of answers.
Is it the same kind of quest that has led Strider Marcus Jones to create the Lothlorien Journal, named reminiscently after Tolkien’s elvish ‘Lothlorien’ in Lord of the Rings? Find out Jones’s views and flow with his fluid poetry in the featured interview. Keith Lyons has been in conversation with Ivy Ngeow, an upcoming writer and the editor of a recent anthology of Asian writing where she has retained different styles of English across the world in a single book. While this could be beneficial to writers, would readers be comfortable reading stories with different styles or dialects of English without a glossary?
We would like to thank Sohana Manzoor for our cover painting and Gita Viswanath for her artwork. I would like to thank our wonderful team who with their contributions make this journal a reality. All the contributors deserve a huge thanks as do our loyal readers.
I wish you all a wonderful start to a non-Gregorian new year and hope that peace prevails over parts torn by wars and dissensions.