NEPAL and LO MANTHANG
September - October 2006
After spending a couple days in Kathmandu doing tourist things in this crowded and very polluted city, we flew to Pokhara, the second largest city in Nepal, for one night, then to Jomosom over a pass between the Annapurna and the Dualagiri ranges. As we crossed the pass, the terrain below changed immediately from green to brown and arid. The region is part of the Tibetan plateau, on the ancient Salt route between China and India. Very reminiscent of Nevada, until you gain some altitude and can see the vastness of it. This "kingdom" of Lo Manthang was a separate entity until sometime in the 1970’s, and westerners have only been allowed to visit since the ‘90’s. Many times it was apparent that we were novelties, especially among the children. My traveling companions were all British, friends of a woman who I met in the Grand Canyon in 2005. It was a good group, and I was the oldest, as well as the only one who pronounced the King’s English properly.
We covered about 150 miles in 13 or 14 days on foot. There were four Sherpas, two guides, several porters, one cook, and six mules. As we left Jomosom, we basically entered a culture of a couple centuries ago. There were no power lines, no telephones, no vehicles save an occasional old tractor, no infrastructure of any kind. Some villages had small solar panels to power a flourescent bulb at night. Cooking is done on dung fires. Most of the time we were between 10,000 and 12,000’ elevation. We slept on the ground usually in livestock stables, and bathed in a half-liter of water each morning. Our diet was primarily vegetarian, with an occasional bit of chicken. No beef is eaten in Nepal, though cows have total run of the place.
Villages we stayed in were named Kagbeni, Chuksang, Chele, Samar, Ghemi, Tsarang, Dhakmar, and Muktinath. We had three days of hanging around Lo Manthang (Mustang). The trails were constant up and down, there being no level ground in the Himalaya. Rode horses one day, checking out ancient caves that no one knows exactly the purpose of. We rode almost to Tibet. I didn’t make a photograph for the first three or four days. It became obvious to me that the people were going to be my major focus. I had read somewhere that not everyone appreciated having their photograph taken, so I learned how to ask their permission in Nepalese. About half of the time, the response was, "No, please do not".
We were immersed in Tibetan culture from the beginning of the trek, though officially inside Nepalese borders. The people were gracious and welcoming. They are beautiful, with quick smiles, perfect teeth, and gorgeous features. They look you in the eye, smile, then say "Namaste", which is translated literally as "I salute the god in you". The genetic connection between these Tibetans and our plains Indians and the Inuit of the arctic is really apparent. All engaged in subsistence agriculture, all harvesting done by hand, sometimes with the help of horses. Buddhist shrines everywhere, prayer flags on every mountain pass (we must have crossed a dozen or more) and cris-crossing every village, classrooms full of young monks chanting, cows freely roaming wherever they want. It’s illegal to kill a cow in Nepal, even though cows are sacred only to the Hindus. That’s another thing that really endeared me to these people : Hindus and Buddhists are totally cool with each other, in fact they often worship in each other’s temples, stupas, monasteries. The attitude seems to be, close is good enough ! Ask a person which religion is his, and he will most likely respond, "Actually, I’m a little of both".
From our camp in Muktinath one day, several of us climbed up to Thorung La, an 18,000’ pass between the Annapurnas and the Dualagiris. Our ascent was 5000’, equivalent to our typical Mt Hood climbs. Major difference was the previous day’s tough walk and climb to a 14k pass, and the altitude. It was a tough day, and the highest one can get in the Himalayas without being part of a major climb. I had twisted a knee a couple days before, but the Sherpas were very competent in their treatment of my injury, and others’ sicknesses. I would recommend this adventure to anyone who has good feet, strong legs, and a desire to visit a south-Asian Buddhist culture.
In the words of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, "The rugged landscape of the region and the challenges of the climate make conditions for transport difficult. Consequently, the region has been slower to change than elsewhere. The people who live there place much less importance on time than the inhabitants of the teeming cities in other parts of the world. Taking a patient, unhurried approach to life is a natural part of the local character. …I have observed throughout the Himalayas that people are mild-mannered, easily contented, satisfied with whatever conditions are available, and resilient in the face of hardship. The rigors of climate and environment contribute to this, but another significant factor has been the Buddhist culture that has flourished in the region for more than a thousand years. Himalayan people seem to have an unusually well developed sense of inner peace and hope. I am convinced that our Buddhist heritage, with its teachings of love, kindness, and tolerance, has contributed to this, especially the notion that all things are relative and impermanent."