Johnny Marr is in Sete.

你好/ Ní hǎo / Nín hǎo / Hello / How do / S’mae / Namaste,

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16th February 2019

Boarding the Yeti Airlines flight, under the colours of Tara Airlines, I lifted my feet onto the steps. The DHC-6 Twin Otter at Tenzing–Hillary Airport stared vacantly and without emotion at the asphalt. The 11.7% gradient didn’t faze the lifeless tincan with wings. Nor did the altitude of 2,845m (9,334ft). Many surprised and excited voices could be heard. Some had landed here on the journey. None of my accompanying 11 passengers had made this take-off. The pilots, with their minimum of 100 short-takeoff-and-landing (STOL) had. Thankfully. The excitement of my first flight from here came back. I sat back, looked out the window and enjoyed the moment. In less than the full length of the 527m (1729ft) of runway, it was over too soon. It had begun what seemed like only yesterday.


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22nd January 2019

Returning to Kathmandu gave me an oddly warm feel. It was familiar territory and a place that has acted as a gate for many journeys. Early expeditions to map the region started in the 1850s and continued as such until 1953, when a beekeeper called Edmund Hilary arrived with Tenzing Norgay, and around 400 men – including porters, guides and mountaineers. Anyway, here I was, once again, at the brickwork of Tribhuvan International Airport (1,388m/4,390ft) and passing the cremation grounds of the Pashupatinath Temple. The holy (to Buddhists and Hindus) Bagmati river flowed under a severe-angled concrete bridge as the hotel pick-up car drifted over it. Many bodies have had a triple-dip into that river prior to cremation. The chief mourner also takes a quick dip before setting his or her lost relative on fire. Relatives also bathe. If the Bagmati river purifies them the source in the Letter Himalayas must be the reasoning. Somewhere downstream of the source, inside Kathmandu itself is the Tukucha Khola tributary. The sewage levels are unbelievable. The city’s eight rivers are sad sights in many places.

As the Hotel Horizon car rumbled into Thamel, over less-than-smooth tarmac, I noted that the central entertainment and shopping area was now closed to cars other than taxis or those with right of way. A wise move. The streetworks that had been taking place when I left in January 2017 had been completed and smoother tarmac took hold on two or three streets. The rest was a tad muddy. New Road (another shopping district) and a road approaching Thamel looked almost new or refurbished since my last visit. My initial thoughts were surprise and pleasure in seeing Kathmandu’s partial regeneration.

At Hotel Horizon, Deveraj, the manager, that I had met on my last trip and since kept in touch informed me of a possible jeep to Shivalaya village or even as far up the trek as Phaplu. I didn’t fancy going so far up the route. Villages such as Sete and Kinja, not to mention the challenge of Lamjura La (a pass at over 3500m high) were great memories. So, I agreed to a jeep to Shivalaya, missing Jiri out completely. The bus journey last time was uncomfortable and numerous accounts show that some dangerous rides have been had. Part of me didn’t want that. How bad could a jeep journey be?


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24th January 2019

Departing at 7am, following a day of last-minute provision buying, our car departed. The backseats of the jeep, covered in a carpet, had no seatbelts. The driver was jolly but not a huge conversationalist, however, the journey was pleasant enough. By pleasant, I mean, he steered away from sheer drops and perpendicular plunges. He gave us a break here and there, about 30 minutes in total throughout nine hours of driving. The intense and terrifying journey comes with 100-metre or so vertical gravity-testing points here and declines that I for one decline to experience. Burned out wreckages of buses, cars and flat-packed former vans can be seen like rare leaf-litter. Not rare enough to ignore. Frequent enough to add as landmarks. Without a crowd of people, animals and baggage, the jeep was mildly more comofortable than the bus journey.

At least we weren’t taking our morning exercise running along the dusty Kathmandu smog-filled roads, like many groups of school students and the ever-numerous morning traffic. Over time the Kathmandu valley fell-away and we went up and down the Lower Himalayas on the Tibet-bound highway. The double-laned road occasionally filtered into a narrow single-laned road. Often our pathways went above cloud levels and passed signs of roadway expansions with Nepal advancing new bridges between communities previously cut off. Wide gorges, huge valleys, glacial stonebeds, and tree-lined foothills baked in sunshine could be seenm throughout. Clouds broke away to reveal sunshine and the traffic lessened with every kilometre covered. Soon, the odd bike and very odd car was noticed. In the final few hours as we neared Jiri, new concreted roads, patched in places broke away into muddy tracks and back to smooth concrete lanes. At Jiri we stopped, to check the road to Shivalaya was open. It was – despite very heavy rain the day before.

On arriving at Shivalaya (1770m), sunset was fast approaching. Knuckling down at the Kala Patthar lodge, enjoying the second dal bhat of the journey, the excitement set in. I stood outside for a moment by that first blue bridge of my previous Nepal trek. It felt good to be back. Eating in the lounge, with doors wide open, and cool fresh air drifting in, Maria and I met Srirang and his porter-guide-friend Ishwor. At that time, we didn’t know that we’d share parts of the journey, but here we were, an Indian, a Nepali Sherpa, a Chinese and a Mancunian. Talking with the lodge proprietor Padam Jirel, we were introduced to his son and daughter, their local schoollife and the family home. A warm night’s sleep followed a few chapters of Jonny Marr’s Set the Boy Free.


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25th January 2019

In the morning breakfast consisted of chapati, eggs and porridge. Waking up to a misty valley around the quaint village of Shivalaya (27°36’25.7″N 86°17’53.4″E) added extra emotion to the air. The feelings in my mind weren’t far off those that swpt over me in January 2017. Registering for the Gaurishankar Conservation Area & National Park and handing over NPRs, the trek began in Dolakha District, Province Number 3. Longleaf Indian pine trees, rhododendrons, alien-looking Woolly-leaved oak trees and other temperate forest species lined the mountain climbs. Within only a few hundred metres of walking and an elevation gain of not much, a few breathers were needed. The respites were quite often. My knees ached. My feet strained. The pauses and rests weighed on my mind. Had two years aged me so much that I could no loger climb or walk in the Himalayas? I tried to focus on seeing Himalayan Thars, red pandas and part of me would have welcomed a Himalayn black bear. It could have made a comfortable seat with a cuddle.

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After a wee while, a brew was needed. At this point, we’d hooked up with Srirang and Ishwor, and as we went to stop, a striding brunette with large eyes strode up, sporting two natural trekking poles of bamboo. Introductions were had, and now Linda (U.S.A.) joined us for a brief while. Soon after meeting Linda, just before Deurali Bazar (2800m), we met Livia (carrying a house or two worth of weight on her back) and at this snow-threatened top we ate lunch. The snow-dusted rooftops of a dozen closed buildings faced a lovely modern and bright façade on the chosen lodge for lunch. The cat and dog in a state of stalemate over territory and positioning were both equally cute. Srirang gave both some noodles. The lunch hour was a more than welcome hiatus. That reduced the amount of meowing and sniffing for food greatly. On full bellies, we headed downwards towards the village of Bhandar (2100m) under the cover of thick heavy grey clouds.

#1: SHIVALAYA 0830 – BHANDAR 1730: ~12km.

In the evening, at my second stay in Shobha Lodge, the great owner and her family cooked us a delicious dal bhat (#3 of the journey) and Maria roasted some small potatoes on a fire outside. A jolly evening was had and lots of conversation with Linda, Livia and Srirang revealed their reasons for hiking this trail. I stood looking at the buildings around this lodge. Two years ago, most were serious ruins. Now many appeared rejuvenated. Against one such building a red rose stood in shadows against a dark wintry sky.


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26th January 2019

The next morning gave bright light and some showered upon footing, but the weather wasn’t bad all day. We set out as a band of six, downwards with the destination aim being Sete. After crossing a delightful vale with a wooden bridge, here the old pathway faded and became swept over or completely consumed by a new carved out road, unpaved and muddy as hell. Every now and then you’d resume the old pathways, but quite often the new road zigzagged the old meandering ways. Soon after passing a small waterfall, I slipped on loose earth where the old met the new path. The devris flung over rocks and coating the unclar pathway made me twist my left knee, striking it on a rock and bending my leg in a way that my right hamstring brought my other leg under my back and bag. I tentatively stood up. I suspected in that moment that the rambling was over. After the shock, I carried on, carefully and slowly. Warning taken. As the path neared Kinja, it broke into a fork. The right fork headed to the muddy and dusty new road. The left fork appeared a tad overgrown. Linda, Maria and I carried on left. After 400 metres, the path disappeared. A chasm with the new road was presented before us. In the end we doubled back and scrambled down the right fork onto the road but the latter section was pretty messy and difficult to get over.

 

The walk into Kinja, was terrible compared with the route two years ago. The road has dismembered too many houses, farms and forested areas. A new hydro-electric plant in a mine has added to the dichotomised region. Many of the crumbling earthquake buildings have vanished. The two new bridges are seldom used. The old wooden bridge is sealed off. The new road dam-cum-bridge allows easy footing into Kinja but feels like a building site. Work in progress may mean new logistical advantages and easier access but it will probably deter hikers. It was now 1300hrs, so at Kinja we stopped for lunch over an hour’s break. The Riverside guest house and restaurant had a sky blue and white sign. What’s not to like about Manchester City colours? Oh, and it had a western toilet, of sorts. It was a ceramic squat hole.

With lunch in our bellies, the climb up from Kinja (1630m) was long and hard but easier than the previous day. The aches of yesterday faded and early conditioning of muscles was felt. Rays of sunshine, refurbished ruins and new settlements lined the upward pathway. The rise steadied and fields of green, shaped like steps leapt out from the hillsides. If enough coins could be found, it’d resemble a penny-arcade machine of the greatest scale. As light faded, we arrived in Sete. Dal Bhat (#4) was served. The Sunrise Lodge was once again my place to stay, in the Sete (2900m).

BHANDAR 0930 – SETE 1800: ~15km.

In the village of Sete, I left my Johnny Marr autobiography copy. I Set the Boy Free. So, if you haead to the Sunrise lodge, expect to find the illuminous green cover. And like me, you’ll find it hard to put it down. The former Talking Heads, Black Grape, Kirsty MacColl, Brian Ferry and Billy Bragg collaborator worked with Pet Shop Boys, Beck, Modest Mouse, andmovir composer Hans Zimmer. Not bad for a Mancunian born and raised in the supposed rougher parts of our fair city. Actually, the boy did good, working with Hulme-born Billy Duffy, having a great connection to Portland throughout his expansive and colourful music life – and being not far from where we both witnessed City’s 3-2 win over QPR on that day. Playland is one of my favourite albums ever. The marathon man was also in a lesser-known band called The Smiths. Anyway, just beyond the multi-layered poster on the wall, featuring Barmouth Bridge, that’s where Johnny’s book is.

 

To be continued…

 


 

再见/ Zài jiàn / Bài bài / Ta’ra / Goodbye / Hwyl Fawr / Dhanyabaad / Alavidā

Kathmandu – a gateway to…

I landed at Kathmandu’s airport expecting a lift as arranged with my pre-booked hotel. It never came. I tried calling the Parawar Hotel via the phone number provided on the Booking.com website.  o joy. Swarmed by taxi-drivers expecting an easy fare, I eventually fell under the waves of the sharks and opted to get a taxi myself. 700NPR to the centre of Thamel, Kathmandu later and we could not find the address or Parawar Hotel. After 20 minutes of walking around aimlessly I stumbled on Horizon Hotel, as recommended by John and Will. I immediately bumped into them, like an awkward unintended stalker. I checked in. The staff of Horizon Hotel were supremely friendly, helpful and bowed to my every need without question. They went out of ther way. The showers were lovely and warm. The rooms cosy and a balcony felt most luxorious. The garden was green and warming. I enjoyed a bowl of cornflakes outside and many cups of tea. A large bag of laundry was done for 210NPR. I had a lift to the airport arranged and used the hotel’s computers to print my flight tickets. If I return to Nepal, I will book this place in advance.

That evening we went for food at the Kathmandu Steak House Restaurant. It was good, the cocktails aren’t perfect but the Everest beer wasn’t bad. I recommend the steak selections, there are many to choose from.   Later that evening I grabbed some water on the way back. During the night I was sat on the toilet, almost every five minutes for hours on end. Time and time again. I drank more water, discarding the bottle purchased the night before. It looked like a re-sealed bottle with bits in the water. I hadn’t noticed. Tuesday the 24th of January was written off. Two small pieces of banana cake and a litre of pure orange juice made up my evening’s dinner.

The afternoon and morning of the 25th involved wandering on a private tour of inner-city Kathmandu, shown by Surnesh, paying only in food and provisions for his young family. It was most friendly and cooperative. I ate a Mexican breakfast at Northfield Cafe and even at dinner struggled to tackle the aubergine dish, as Will ate is Burger blend and John a delightful looking Thai curry at Frens.

Frens has an outside location that is quaint, warm and the staff are friendly. The food is good. The starters, mains of aubergine went down well. The Gurkha beer wasn’t bad.

My second breakfast in the city was at Northfield Cafe because quite-frankly the food was good. On entering Northfield Cafe, I was tended to, given a good seat and told to relax. I was guided to a seat beneath a patio window, I was told it was warm. It was. The sun shone above but not in my eyes. I was presented the menu and shocked to see such variety, many Mexican style breakfasts and simpler choices sat there. I ordered. In fact, I returned for two more breakfasts and one evening meal with live music from a band called Samundra, playing the wonderful Sarangi (think Erhu meets violin).

I visited three temples: Swayambhunath, Pashupatinath Temple (Lord Shiva), and Boudhanath.

I visited Swayambhunath, having strolled from Thamel on foot. After exiting the dusty streets beneath, the climb between giant Buddha statues was wonderful. A step for every day of the year led past the 200NPR entrance fee booth. I paid as a Rhesus macaque pair dashed over my feet, keen to get up the top few steps before me, no doubt. At the top of the steps, I turned left, through the stalls of shiny and plasticy things for sale. From this I met a man, who I figured worked in a store, but expected nothing and he shown me each point one by one. I explained I did not want nor did I need a guide. I had read much on the temple in advance. That said, he was blooming informative, very much like the Vajra thunderbolt scepter, he stood out. His crooked few teeth and big bold eyes, friendly and inviting. He explained how the valley was once a huge lake and Swayambhunath self-created into a central lotus. He was impressed by my knowledge and thanked me for not just calling it the “monkey temple.” I did comment how wonderful it was to see monkeys and man co-existing. He introduced me to a pair of friendly monkeys, from the 1500 that occupy the area. He said these particular two monkeys were young and kept coming to him to look at him. I said, with no disrespect, that they liely saw comfort in his facial shape. He had a monkey-shaped face. I said I think this is a kind and caring blessing by nature. He laughed. I don’t think he took offence. We carried on our tour, the tour I hadn’t booked.

Some of the temple looked rough, following lightning strikes in 2011 and the April 2015 earthquake. As I toured renovation work was under way at almost every quarter. The stories of a collapsed monastery on that site, were sad to hear and the rubble still visible.

Used by both Hindus and Buddhists, this site is truly wonderful. The domed peaked stupa is cubical in places, has Buddha’s eyes looking in four directions. Torans, shaped perhaps pentagonal, carry massive statues and engravings. Thirteen tiers stand behind these and a Gajur above that. The details on all are mind-blowing. Pure enlightenment in Buddhist symbolism and deep detail. All around the main stupa there are temples, such as the Ajima Temple, and more prayer wheels than I thought was possible to construct. For me this was a proud feature in the Kathmandu Valley World Heritage site. I’m not religious but I could feel the special and sacred connection of man with belief here. It didn’t carry any pressure, just like my impromptu tour guide. I visited his stall after my tour, on my own accord. I invested in two artworks as gifts for friends.

Dr. Strange was filmed in many locations all over Kathmandu such as these three temples. I was lucky enough to see a fan dressing up as the title figure of the movie, Graphic Novels, showing even Marvel movies etc can inspire the odd person to travel and see sights from flicks. This will be most beneficial to Nepal where tourism, especially ecotourism, can booster a country in need of the world’s support. Geek Pride!

I hated the tourist experience of Pashupatinath Temple. As much as I respect the religious aspect, 1000NPR for that experience (or should I say inexperience?) was steeper than the Himalayas. I saw little. Non-Hindus are not permitted in most parts. In fact even western-Hindus are not permitted in many parts. Without clear signage, expect to walk beyond the boundaries and get shouted at. It is embarrassing and shameful. If you open your doors to guests, be clear. I was massively curious and ultimately disappointed. I’m not religious and this was the equivalent of opening a Christmas present, only to lose the ability of eyes, hands and ears to know what the gift was. Also, for the whole of the paid experience, I was tailed by several beggars. I did not enjoy it.

For lunch that day, I opted for Fire and Ice Pizzeria. It was worth a try for lunch. Good portions, amazing homemade crisps and a good side salad with my panini. The gnocchi was also very good, but lacked flavour even though I opted for butter and herbs.

Having read good reviews about Blueberry Kitchen & Coffee Shop, I decided to treat John & Will from Australia. They were flying out that day and had been most hospitable and welcoming throughout my month’s trek in Nepal. We enjoyed the breakfasts, I opted for Eggs Benedict with a great Hollandaise Sauce. It was probably the best breakfast I have eaten in Asia, including Hong Kong and many good western restaurants. Full on two great cappucinos and the main breakfast, I bid farewell and promised to write a fine review on TripAdvisor.

If walking in Thamel, firstly, try to use landmarks based on say fish for sale, signs that are unique, names that stand out. Secondly, enjoy it, push away buskers and hawkers politely. You must be mindful of pickpockets and scams but relax as much as possible. The streets weave here and there and seem to lack roadsigns or names. There are shops, cafes, bars tour operators galore. Actually, almost every alleyway masks the odd tucked away temple, with doors far shorter than the people – ghosts cannot bend, so cannot enter.

With a rucksack, now almost empty, I went gift-shopping, opting for several pieces at a shop called Beni, a recycling cooperative that handcrafts items. Beni Ghale and her team collect rubbish from the streets, old rice bags, and bike inner tubes to create something fashionable. Mostly functional too. The money goes to providing work for women in need and raising environmental awareness. They even many sanitary pads from natural materials.

Throughout my journey I had learnt much. Scenery, history, culture, and adventure had formed one delightfully exquisite and awe-inspiring view of Nepal. There were days, I witnessed the underprivileged of the country, the fragilities of a country emerging from political instability and rising from the ashes of two tremendously devastating earthquakes, but the experience remained eye-opening in many ways. My batteries of inspiration are charged to full.