08.10.2015 - 18.10.2015 27 °C
"Yes, it's Mt Everest"! My eyes flutter open and I become aware of a stir of excitement in the aisle of the plane, as the air hostess and a group of passengers are peering towards the windows next to where I am seated. I turn my head to the right, and there it is, the white snow stark against the clear blue sky, the mountain range of the Himalayas continuing on endlessly. I sit there, on top of the world, marvelling at this spectacular sight.
As our Malaysian Airlines jet hurtles toward the unknown that is Kathmandu, the emails from my government's foreign affairs department continue to land in my inbox; now every second day a reminder that this is indeed a risky venture. In my fatigued state, having spent the night at Changi airport, with a couple of hours sleep in an overpriced lounge, I fluctuate between excitement at this new territory and sheer terror that all the things the Australian government predict might go wrong, will go wrong. This is not helped by chatting to a Nepalese man we meet in transit at KL airport, who warns us that this is not a good time to be visiting Nepal. There are shortages of fuel and other things; he adds that he can't believe tourists are allowed in at this time. This ominous statement settles in my gut for the remainder of the trip, only lifting when I wake to the resplendent vision of Mt Everest. The emails from the Australian government also warn about fuel shortages, protests that close roads, not to employ surrogate mothers (no chance of that) and for many regions of Nepal, apart from the area we are visiting, to 'reconsider your need to travel'.
After spending a month in Singapore and Malaysia, only seven hours flight from home, it is a wrench to be once again flying further away from Australia. As we come into the final stretch of our seven months away, we are both experiencing pangs of longing to return home. This flight feels like I am caught in an elastic band, reluctantly being stretched yet further away from where my heart is urging me.
Kathmandu airport is as chaotic and basic as I expect it to be; everywhere are piles of luggage and large cardboard boxes; many obviously containing flat screen TVs or other electrical items, having arrived with their new owners on the China Airlines flight which landed just before ours.
After an interminable wait for David's suitcase, we depart the airport and spy our hosts standing outside holding the expected sign 'Himalayan Social Journey'; the tour company with whom we are booked. Our tour guide who will be on the trek with us, Binod, welcomes us and takes us to our hotel the 'Holy Himalaya'. Our trip to the hotel takes us through dusty, crowded streets, past mostly standing buildings, some with wooden supports, and many piles of bricks and rubble. Our hotel is in the tourist area of Thamel, where the streets are very narrow and lined with shops selling hiking gear and beautifully bright clothing hand made in Nepal. Everywhere we walk we are accosted by locals, keen to sell us something, anything. 'Come look at my shop, buy jewellery/scarf/pashmina/painting/hat". The poverty is pervasive and I would love to help each and every one of them by purchasing something, but we have no desire for souvenirs, and absolutely no room in the suitcase.
The next day, Friday October 9, we are taken on a day tour of Kathmandu. We begin at the monkey temple, which features Buddhist stupas and Hindu temples. Nepalese people are either Buddhist, Hindus, Christians or Muslims, and all four religions co exist peacefully with intermarriage common, and temples often right beside one another. It is heart warming for someone whose home town is being besieged by anti Mosque protests planned for the following day. The monkey temple is so named because there are monkeys everywhere, scampering all over the ground, up the trees and swimming in their own pool! They mostly ignore humans, but one does run up and grab a packet of hand wipes out of a woman's bag; obviously thinking it is food. I bet he got a shock when he put that in his mouth!
We visit an art studio which houses thousands of canvases, all Buddhist paintings. Most of these are Mandalas; two dimensional paintings of the stupa from above. These are used for meditation and there are strict rules that govern when and how they are created. The artists paint the Mandalas as part of a ritual involving meditation. We are shown a variety, from those created by students to the professional works of art, painted by the grand masters, and often taking months to complete. As we wander around the complex, eagles soar high above, and we see evidence of the earthquake in various buildings supported by scaffolding and roped off from the public. Our guide tells us that he was here on the day of the earthquake, when everything was swaying, but Nepali people are grateful that it occurred on a Saturday, when there were no children at school. They also felt humbled and overwhelmed by the sympathy and assistance that flooded in from the rest of the world.
Our next stop is Durbar Square, which again features different faith temples alongside one another, some intact, others under repair. As we emerge from the mini bus the women are on us, thrusting necklaces, scarves and hand made bags under our noses in a desperate attempt to make a sale. Again we see some evidence of damage by the earthquake with some structures supported by poles and others roped off completely. One temple has only its base remaining.
From here we travel to a roof top terrace restaurant for our lunch; after a morning of standing and walking in the warm sun, everyone is keen to find a shady table. The terrace overlooks the Great Buddha Stupa, which was badly damaged in the earthquake, with all of the top section having to be dismantled and now in the process of being rebuilt. This is a significant site in Kathmandu and is world heritage listed. We wander around the outside and view an exhibition which documents its appearance before the earthquake, the damage done, and the work that has been undertaken to repair it.
Next is Pasupathinath temple, and the banks of the Bagmati River where Hindu funerals take place. Our guide takes us to the other side of the river to watch a funeral ceremony, which consists of the body of a man being placed on a flat stone beside the river, and the black plastic in which he is covered is removed and cast into the river. The river is regarded as holy and pure, like the Ganges. I wonder at this as I observe its murky brown colour and the rubbish floating downstream. Water from the river is collected and poured in the dead man's mouth, his feet are washed, and then he is wrapped in a white shroud converted in orange fabric and flowers, ready for the funeral pyre. We then pass the holy men who cover themselves in ash as a reminder of human mortality and the impermanence of life; we all end up as ash. These are men who have given up all their possessions and who spend their days in meditation.
From here we pass right beside two bodies burning on funeral pyres, watched by a crowd of onlookers. It is all very matter-of-fact; no grief is on display. The Hindu acceptance of the impermanence of life is part and parcel of this public display and burning of the body. In Hinduism once you die, your spirit moves onto inhabit another body, your body is nothing more than an empty vessel. So it's public display and burning is not an issue. For us it's a little more confronting as the smoke is thick and the smell unpleasant. With eyes watering, we dutifully follow our guide through the clouds of smoke, hoping to escape soon.
The next day we have to ourselves, so we walk to the nearby 'Garden of Dreams', which was established in the late 19th century, then fell into disrepair before being restored. It has some beautiful colonial pavilions, some of them earthquake damaged, and the gardens themselves are lush. A grassed area is furnished with mats and pillows, and we settle there for a while to contemplate in the warm sun, while tiny squirrels run up to us, before quickly darting away. It is a tranquil respite from the chaotic streets of Kathmandu, where bikes, taxis and motor bikes constantly toot, narrowly missing pedestrians, and every shop owner exhorts you to enter their shop. Their desperate poverty and reliance on tourists for their survival is all too clear.
After months wondering at the wisdom of visiting Nepal after the earthquakes in April, it is now clear that rebuilding and restoration is well underway. While there is much evidence of the devastation, there is also a bustling optimistic city, the wheels of life actively turning and depending on the return of tourists. There are many other westerners in the hotels, streets, restaurants and at cultural sites, and the souvenir shops are full of beautifully hand made pashminas, scarves, clothing, toys and jewellery.
What has created more problem however, is the lack of fuel throughout the country. The Nepalese government has recently passed a new constitution, which has been met with disagreement in a couple of the southern provinces bordering India. As all of Nepal's fuel comes by road from India, these provinces, supported by India, have blocked the border. Everywhere are long lines of cars, buses and motor bikes, queuing to buy fuel. Because of this we have to catch a public tourist bus to Pohkara, instead of having our own private deluxe coach. Our guide tells us that many restaurants are closing, owing to the scarcity of gas for cooking. Many hotels have closed their kitchens and provide accomodation only. Our hotel in Thamel regularly has power blackouts; this is par for the course in Nepal. All establishments fortunately have emergency lighting for these regular events, which kick in to provide dim lighting in public areas. In your room though, a torch is necessary, and this will be even more important up in the mountains where power blackouts are longer and more frequent.
There are 15 of us in our tour group, and we all climb on the bus around 8am on Sunday October 11. The bus is now full, with our group, Nepalese and other tourists, and we trundle through the streets of Kathmandu, stopping and starting in the heavy traffic until we stop at the side of the road. We look out the window and see the driver and his assistant with a large barrel and hose, siphoning petrol into the tank. Once this is done we are on our way, our bus driver regularly tooting the horn, which emits a short melodic motif. Each bus has its own horn jingle, and a musical conversation continues through our entire journey, as they all call to each other, when overtaking, approaching, or even passing. It is a noisy and chaotic trip, along a bumpy winding road. In order to save fuel we have no air conditioning, and despite the fact that it is only around 25 degrees, the bus becomes warm and stuffy as many of the Nepalese do not want the windows opened. We are crammed on, with bags in the aisles and Nepalese standing at the front. We have many stops at roadside restaurants, and we all clamber over the bags each time we get on and off the bus. This 5-6 hour journey of 200km ends up taking seven hours, and by the end most of us have decided to fly back to Kathmandu after our four day trek.
Finally we arrive at our very comfortable hotel, complete with swimming pool and spa. Our entire tour group of 15 are all Australians, all doing the same package through a Melbourne company, 'Luxury Escapes'. Already we have noticed that one member of our tour group is a slightly more demanding traveller than the rest. On the bus journey she has sat in the front seat with our Nepalese guide, Binod, holding forth in a loud voice, giving instructions to the bus driver and his crew. At the lunch stop a television blasts away overhead, and she asks the owner to turn it off. He refuses. As we check in to the hotel she asks for an upgrade, which is denied. After checking in and a shower, we have a meeting with Binod at 5.30, while he explains the program for the next four days. Halfway through the one traveller interrupts to say she has a headache and is going to her room. The rest of us start to realise that this is going to be an interesting week!
We are supplied with a duffle bag between the two of us, and fill this with the things we need for the next four days. This will be carried by a porter. The next morning we leave the hotel in a mini bus, and after a forty minute drive, we are dropped off at the beginning of the track. This is actually the Annapurna circuit, which we will be walking a portion of. The next three hours are spent climbing straight uphill, thousands and thousands of steps. Our two guides, both named Binod (thereafter called B1 and B2) are fantastic, being so patient and constantly reminding us to take our time, relax "you're on holiday!". One woman is unwell, she has had a stomach upset for a couple of days, so she struggles along at the back of the group, accompanied by B1, who makes her stop and rest frequently.
Our porters carry our bags on their backs; some place the band around their head, which looks like headache material to me. Always they are patient, smiling and considerate.
Along the track we see many interesting things and meet a lot of Nepali children on their way to school. Sometimes they hold out their hands and say "chocolates please", but usually they press their hands together, prayer-like and greet us: "Namaste".
Eventually we arrive at our guest house at noon. It is like a school camp; small twin cabins; each with its own bathroom, which we were not expecting. We order our lunch from a reasonably wide menu, and are told this will take 1.5 hours to cook, so we have free time until then. I attempt to have a shower, but can only get cold water, so I have a very quick cursory one. While undressing I discover a fat blood engorged leech on my ankle, which I quickly flick off, only to have a large volume of blood continue to run down my leg until I cover it with a bandaid.
For lunch we have vegetable dumplings; in Nepal they are called 'mo mo'. Other options include curries, fried rice, spring rolls, pizza, pancakes. The kitchen is tiny, with a wood fired stove, but somehow at 1.30 sharp, they begin serving all our meals, which are hot and tasty. The serving and cooking is all done by our guides and porters.
After lunch we all set off on a short walk where we wind along stone paths through a local village. Cute Nepalese children welcome us with their hands outstretched, "chocolate?" they beg. The glimpse of a simple agricultural lifestyle is fascinating; corn cobs stacked under a shelter with cactus underneath to prevent the mice from eating it, chooks goats and buffalo roam the fields and paths, and live beside or underneath the houses. Everywhere there is dung, and we take care to avoid stepping in it.
Returning to the camp we sit up on the roof terrace drinking 'Everest' beer. Suddenly the clouds part to reveal three majestic snow covered peaks, towering far above the closest mountains. We had no idea they were there. "Snow!" shouts someone. "I see snow!" As the clouds drift around we continue to have glimpses of this awe inspiring sight, and gain an idea of how amazing our view would be if all the clouds disappeared. "Tomorrow morning", promises Binod. "Sunrise at 6am, you will hopefully see all of the mountains".
Around 6pm the intermittent power supply goes off, and the temperature begins to drop. We go downstairs to the small, cozy dining room and sit under the one flouro light while in the adjoining kitchen our dinner is cooked in the dim light. "Can we have a bonnie?" someone asks Binod. "Bonnie?". Someone else explains to Binod that this is a bonfire, and in no time our amazing Nepalese workers have built a magnificent bonfire just outside, surrounded by a circle of chairs. Out we go and sit in the warmth until dinner is served. By now the group has gelled, and apart from the one isolate, the rest of us get along like a house on fire; the puns, teasing and laughter flowing constantly. The Aussie sense of humour really comes to the fore when a group of Australians get together, and we are nearly all in the baby boomer age bracket. It's wonderful to be laughing so much and have such a great group, as we will be together a lot over the next few days. After dinner we return to the bonfire and someone asks Binod how old he is. "28" he replies. I reflect on how hard it must be for him leading a group of people all his parents' age. His calm, friendly smile pervades all the time however, and he also joins in the jokes, having picked up our Aussie sense of humour very quickly. He teaches us some of the Nepali terms; 'Namaste' means hello, how are you. 'Nepali flat' means the walking won't be straight uphill, but up and down. 'Jam jam' means it's time to start walking again. And another word for 'goodnight' which I have no idea how to spell.
The next morning we peek out of the curtain in our room to see that the cloud is covering the mountain peaks, so we don't bother getting up to see the sunrise. After an impromptu yoga session, led by David, we have a huge breakfast of omelet, chapati (Nepalese bread) and coffee, then the cloud clears a little to reveal the mountains, so group photos are taken.
We set off to the Australian base camp, which is only a short 5km walk, but mostly uphill. It is a beautiful sunny day by now, and the tranquility out in the forest is very calming. This is called the Australian base camp because Australians used to camp there before trekking to Annapurna base camp. Now anyone can camp here, but tonight it's an all Aussie crowd. Binod tells us we are staying on home territory tonight.
By 11am we are there, and again we find we have quite comfortable rooms with bathrooms included, and simple single beds. We sit outside in the warm sunshine, laughing constantly. Binod tells us there is free wi fi here, but it doesn't work, and soon the Nepalese are asking us if anyone knows how to fix it. No one does, but we don't care that much; we are enjoying one another's company. We eat lunch sitting at a long table out in the sunshine, then go for a short walk to see the view and sit on the grass enjoying the warmth. The clouds roll in and suddenly the mountains have disappeared again, so we return to our cabins for a shower and bit of down time, and pretty soon it is raining. The rain does not last long and later we all get together again, sitting outside the row of cabins before we head to the dining room for beers followed by dinner. Suddenly Joe announces that he has wi fi! The word quickly speeds, and in no time, all fourteen of us are trying to connect. Its too much... just as my emails start to download, the signal disappears. We never see it again. "We should have organised a wi fi roster", I say. 'Trust a teacher to come upon with that", responds Julie.
At dinner many people have ordered too much food, which they can't eat, so start offering David their leftovers, which he readily accepts. We then remember that we ordered apple pie for dessert, and pretty soon it arrives; a whole pie made with similar pastry they use for spring rolls. It is delicious but we can't possibly eat it all, so we start offering it around.
During that day I have told Binod that it is David's birthday the following day, and ask him if it would be possible to have a cake in the evening when we stay at Sarangkot. He puts his hand on my arm and said "it's Lynne's birthday tomorrow as well, and Julie has also asked me to organise a cake. Don't worry, leave everything to me". That night after dinner Julie announces that as it is Lynn's birthday tomorrow, the birthday girl will be doing a birthday streak at 6am. I call out that she will have company, as it is David's birthday too.
In the meantime our isolate group member has spent the day in self imposed solitude. She walks way ahead of the group, grabbing her preferred upstairs room as soon as she arrives, where she sits and smokes, and takes her meals. Later in the day we see her bustling around to the other camps nearby, and introducing herself to the other trekkers. At dinner time she is nowhere to be seen. It is an interesting but sad display, and one which none of the rest of us can fathom. As her reputation and eccentric behaviour builds, she earns the nickname 'Blondie'. When she is with the group she is bossy and demanding, particularly of the guides and porters. She also spins some fantastical stories. But increasingly she keeps her distance, walking ahead of the group each day on the track.
So Wednesday October 14 dawns, with the clouds again obscuring the giant peaks beyond. Everyone wishes the birthday couple many happy returns, and David takes another yoga session.
After breakfast we set off on our longest walk; 17km to Sarangkot. The first 90 minutes is straight down hill, with steep stone stairs winding through the jungle and past small villages.
It is our longest walk, and some people find it challenging. One member of the group has caught the stomach virus that is circulating, and another has artificial knees, so he finds the constant downhill steps very difficult. We reach the road and David gets talking to a Tibetan man. We all stop for a coffee a little further on, and the Tibetan man appears again, unfurling a bag full of goodies to sell. He tells us how his parents fled Tibet in 1959, and he cannot get a work permit for Nepal because he is considered Tibetan, so he ekes out a living selling Tibetan handicrafts and being a guide. I feel so sad hearing his story, and so I buy a colourfully woven 'Free Tibet' belt, and give it to David as a birthday present.
For a time we are walking along a road, and after the peace and quiet of the jungle, our senses are jarred by the reappearance of tooting buses and motorbikes. Some of the buses carry some rather unusual cargo. We wonder how the goats get up on the roof, and then how they stay there!
The two group members who are feeling under the weather decide to take a taxi for the rest of the day's journey. When our isolate friend hears of it, she is desperate to get in the taxi as well, as her main aim each day is to arrive first and grab the 'best' room. The men have waited behind for their taxi to arrive, and eventually we see them coming up the bumpy, potholed road, in their taxi. The driver slows down, and our desperate group member sees her chance for a ride. However the rest of us can see there is no room, and find it all too ridiculous. "Go! Drive on!" we all yell at the taxi driver. He takes off, leaving her complaining bitterly that she wanted to ride in it. "Are you sick too?" one of us asks her. "No, just lazy" she responds.
The rest of the route is pretty flat, and it tries to rain a couple of times. Along the way we see more interesting people and gorgeous views. At one point we pass a small child holding a baby monkey. The monkey is desperate to escape, but the child maintains a firm grip, usually holding the monkey by one arm, so tightly that as it wriggles and squirms I fear its arm will be broken.
Evelyn discovers her T shirt sleeve is soaked in blood, and investigations reveal she has been harbouring a leech under her arm. Two Nepalese women stop to watch her partially undress by the roadside.
Around 3pm we arrive at Sarangkot. Unfortunately we can't all fit into the one guest house, so three couples have to stay up the road at another guest house. Binod 2 asks us all to select what we want for lunch, which will be ready in 90 minutes, at 4.30pm. Reaction to this is pretty unanimously unfavourable, so I suggest they just make some vegetable noodle soup with bread for everyone, which will only take 30 minutes. David and I volunteer to stay in the guest house up the road, so we head up there for a much needed shower before lunch. This place is luxurious compared to our previous nights; all the rooms are inside a building, we have a mat on the floor, bath towels and hot water. The piece de resistance is working wi fi! On David's birthday! He receives lovely messages from his daughters and is able to speak to one on Skype after lunch, before we head back down to the other guest house for drinks and dinner.
While I am having a shower we hear an altercation outside our room, between two members of the group and 'Blondie', as she has been nicknamed, who has attempted to steal their room with the mantra: "I was here first!". Her attempt fails, and peace is restored as she surrenders and heads down to the other guest house for a second attempt.
Like every night on the trek, drinks consist only of 'Everest' beer, which Joe always orders at 'Everest Tea'. During drinks we discuss the complex question of tipping the guides and porters. The Nepali's wages are extremely low, and the guides and porters only work for around six months of the year, during the two tourist seasons of April/ May and October/November. So their income relies on generous tips from tourists. We have been given a very rough guide of how much to tip, but it is complicated by currency conversions, tipping the porters as a group, how much extra to give the guides, and when our last opportunity to all be together will occur. In the process of this I count up the number of people, as we have decided to pool our money to tip the porters and Binod 2, so we are working out how much each person will contribute. 'Blondie' quickly interjects to tell me not to include her, because she has already given her tips. "Oh", exclaims one of us, "how much did you tip, and how did you work it out?" 'Oh, I worked it out, its done', she dismisses our questions. It is obvious to all of us that we are sponsoring her in our tipping calculations.
By now it is getting dark and the power regularly cuts out, to be replaced by a couple of dim emergency lights. The two forms of lighting interchange so frequently we name it the 'disco lights'. As usual Joe and David are wearing their headlamps inside, competing to see who can look the biggest dickhead, alternating the white continuous light with the red light and the flashing light. The porters and guides join us, Binod 2 offering everyone a glass of raksi (local rice wine) out of a large lemonade bottle. We discover one solitary bottle of red wine behind the bar, so Terry buys it, to celebrate the two birthdays. For the first time there is a traditional Nepalese dish on the menu, which consists of rice with small bowls, each containing chicken curry, spicy potatoes and Dahl. A few of us choose this, and it is delicious. The disco lights continue through dinner, then after dinner suddenly all the lights are switched off, and Binod enters carrying a cake with two candles. We all sing the traditional happy birthday, then the cake is cut up into many small pieces. We give the guides and porters most of the pieces, and they accept with enthusiasm, as they have not yet eaten their dinner, because they always eat after serving us. By now they have drunk a fair bit of raksi, and they launch into a traditional Nepali song, into which they insert the lyrics 'happy birthday'. Binod 2 plays the bongos, and they continue singing, then some of them get up and dance, taking turns at the front of the group doing a dance solo. Binod 1 does a number of solos, arms pointing and hands twirling, then suddenly out of the kitchen enters another man we have never seen before, who also does a solo. The whole experience is wonderful; Lynne and David are touched to have such an enthusiastic celebration of their birthday. Julie tells me that Binod sent two men from the hotel down the mountain to Pokhara to pick up the cake on a motorbike!
By now there is a huge thunderstorm raging outside, and the lights are continuing to flash on and off. Everyone starts to head off to bed and Binod tells two of the porters to walk us up to our guest house. We tell them we'll be fine, and to go and have their dinner.
This is the traditional place to see the Himalayan mountain range at sunrise, and our last chance to do so. Binod tells us that he will send a porter to wake us at 6am to see the sunrise.
We emerge from our room the next morning to see clear blue sky and the most magnificent sight. The whole mountain range is on display in all its glorious splendour. Having previously only glimpsed fragments of the peaks, the entire vista is overwhelming. We climb up to the viewpoint to discover the rest of our group, along with about 40 other tourists. We had no idea there were this many people staying in Sarangkot, which the previous night was very quiet. This is a small village in the mountain above Pokhara, but suddenly there are people everywhere, with cameras on tripods snapping every minute, three drones buzzing around, and a group of Japanese tourists waving and shouting at the drones as they fly past.
After breakfast we pack up and start walking down the mountain until the two groups separate; the larger group of paragliders remaining, while ourselves and four others have elected to walk down the mountain to Pokhara. It is a steep and long descent, with the track quite narrow in places, but Phil has lent me his walking sticks, and David has borrowed Leanna's, so this makes it a bit easier on the knees. The views on the way down are spectacular, and I enjoy the walk immensely. Binod sends four porters with us, who shower us with attention. Because all the large bags have been transported by car, the porters insist on carrying our small backpacks. Regularly we stop for breaks in the shade, and the porter carrying my backpack pulls out my water bottle and brings it over to me. Such service! Occasionally we see our friends paragliding down overhead, but they are too far away to distinguish.
Finally we reach the foot of the mountain, and then it is another hour's walk to the hotel, along beside the lake.
We arrive around 1pm, and it feels so luxurious to be in a hotel with a pool, wi fi, with a hot shower and a comfortable bed and pillows! After lunch Binod takes a few of us out on a tour of Pokhara, to visit an underground caves and waterfalls. The rest stay behind top enjoy their free massage.
We enjoy a free group dinner that evening at the hotel with Binod 1 and at the end the porters appear, having been summoned by Binod. Lynne presents them with our pooled money, to be split between them, and we all give them a hug to thank them for their amazing care of us over the past five days.
The next morning most of us fly back to Kathmandu; the $US120 pp deemed well worth it, in preference to another hot, seven hour bus journey. The 25 minute flight is hilarious; we are crammed onto this small plane with our knees up around our ears, and we even have an air hostess, who has to bend over under the low ceiling as she walks down the aisle distributing drinks and lollies. "You'd think they'd get a shorter hostess" Joe mutters to me.
We are checked into the Hyatt Regency, which is right beside an enormous tent city, where the remaining homeless earthquake victims still live, six months after the earthquake. The flimsy plastic sheeted showers and toilets, and children playing in the dust contrast sharply with the opulence and grandeur next door, with its enormous manicured gardens, security entrance and huge swimming pool. Staying here is a nice luxury after the basic accommodation on the mountain, but we feel uncomfortable given the continuing situation for the local people, who despite their terrible living conditions are all so happy and friendly.
Late in the afternoon the bus travellers arrive, full of stories about how 'Blondie' threw a tantrum just outside Kathmandu when the bus stopped to refuel, and demanded an immediate transfer to the hotel. Poor Binod had to ring the company who sent a car to bring them to the Hyatt. This in the midst of a fuel crisis, when petrol prices are going through the roof. On arrival she demanded a smoking room with a balcony, and was given a two room suite on the top floor at no extra charge. As regular rooms are $US200 a night, we can only speculate on how much this is worth.
The rest of us spend the next two days together, enjoying one another' company. Binod organises us a mini bus to pick us up and he takes us on a tour of the palace museum, where most of the royal family were assassinated in 2002, and the Garden of Dreams. Finally we bid him farewell, and give him our tips. I have also written him a letter on hotel stationery, to express our gratitude for all he has done. Its been a fantastic time and we are all going to miss his smile and great humour.
After a group dinner on Saturday 17th at the hotel, we meet again for breakfast the following morning, and say our goodbyes. Most of the group are being picked up at 10am for a 1pm flight, so we farewell them all, having already swapped email addresses to share photos. David and I are on the 11.30pm flight to Kuala Lumpur with Lynne and Julie that night, so the four of us have a leisurely day by the pool, then after lunch David and I go to the local cinema to see the film 'Everest'. It is quite surreal sitting in a cinema in Kathmandu watching a film showing Australians and New Zealanders arriving at Kathmandu airport, just as we did ten days before. The film itself has spectacular scenery, and keeps you on the edge of your seat. It also cements my determination to not visit Everest base camp. However we would like to return one day and do a longer trek to Annapurna Base Camp.
So after a somewhat apprehensive arrival, my departure from Nepal is tinged with sadness. I have enjoyed our ten days here immensely, and I think I have fallen in love a bit with this amazing country. To meet such a strong, resilient race who exude a calm and smiling demeanour in the face of such adversity, is truly inspiring. It seems so unfair to me that on top of the devastating earthquake, they now have a horrendous fuel crisis. Apparently the Indian government has blocked their fuel supplies over the border before; this is what it does when Nepal displays too much independence. India's intention to take over this country is potentially behind their actions, but as many Nepalese have told us, Nepal has never been a colony, it has always been an independent country, and it is determined to continue as such. The strong connection with Tibet is also clear; there are many Tibetan handcraft shops, restaurants and people who live in Nepal because they cannot return to their homeland. There is so much sadness and tragedy, but people get on with life in a simple and matter-of-fact way. At the airport that night David gets talking to an Australian man who has been in Nepal to help the new Prime Minister with the earthquake recovery. Apparently the government is going to build housing for all the people made homeless by the earthquake. The previous Prime Minister did not know what to do with all of the millions of dollars donated from other countries, so it has just been sitting in government coffers for the past six months. We feel inspired to return someday and do a longer walk; perhaps the 11 day trek to Annapurna Base Camp, again with Himalayan Social Journey.
I depart with every hope that the fuel crisis will soon be resolved. Its ramifications affect not only Nepali people; our plane has to land in Bangladesh to refuel on the way to Kuala Lumpur.