And your strange bewildering time will hold me down…
Nepal shocked me. I’m not entirely sure why as its reputation is undeniable and it’s no coincidence of course that it’s a magnet for a wide cross-section of the world’s travellers and tourists. In Nepal you’ll find your groundbreaking explorers and intrepid adventurers, many of whom have dedicated their lives to the mountainous land, some of whom never left. Their souls left above the clouds, high up on the dense snow-capped peaks, succumbing to the extreme and merciless conditions found up there. The Himalayas doesn’t fool around. It takes no prisoners. In 1996, on one fateful day alone (May 11th), eight climbers perished on Everest and a further seven climbers met an identical fate that same year. No prisoners. For many Hindus the Himalaya region is an extremely sacred place as it’s considered to be the abode of the gods. This also goes for the Sherpas, a sect of the Tibetan Buddhists, who similarly believe the mountains to be inhabited by the gods. The region has eight of the ten highest peaks in the world and thus in religious terms it’s clearly, for many, the closest you can get to a higher spiritual force.
Speaking of spiritual forces, Nepal is also a magnet for another exclusive cluster of travellers. Set foot in Kathmandu and you’ll find yourself surrounded by an army of misplaced souls, seemingly on a mission to ‘find themselves’ deep amongst the narrow streets of the Thamel area of the city. Wrists and necks are overwhelmed with hemp bracelets and beaded necklaces bearing the ancient symbol of Om and Yin Yang. It’s also fair to say that I’ve never seen so much impressive facial hair or quite as many tattoos and piercings concentrated in one small area. Well, aside from Totnes of course. You can’t blame them though. Kathmandu is that kind of place. It draws you in and places a reassuring hand on your shoulder. You begin to wonder why you’d ever want to leave and I guess for some travellers this wonder is too overpowering.
The title for this blog update is actually a lyric from the Cat Stevens’ song, ‘Kathmandu’, from 1970 (see link below). I feel it sums up perfectly the mood and presence created by the ancient city. It houses a fascinating mixture of cultures and there’s a truly international vibe, helped of course by its role as a gateway to the mountain region. The smell of incense permeates the air, and as you stroll whimsically through the narrow streets your ears are filled with the unmistakeable sound of the tabla, the sitar and the flute. With no disrespect to Chittagong, there was just a stark difference in mood between the two cities. The drivers in Kathmandu don’t use their horns nearly as much, and the level of patience and general calmness was in complete contrast to life back here in my current home. You get the strange impression that time somehow just doesn’t quite move as fast in the Nepali capital. As if father time is waiting for you to catch up or slowing things down to allow you to meander along at your own desired pace. This is why the Cat Stevens lyric stood out for me. Kathmandu is strange, and it is bewildering. The myriad of streets and the almost claustrophobic nature of the intense sights and sounds which fill them can leave you lost and disorientated. Yet, somehow there’s nothing at all negative about this feeling. It’s easy therefore to feel held down by the spell of Kathmandu.
In many ways I never imagined I’d set foot in hills that even match those which cover the Rwandan landscape, let alone hills which threaten to etch an even more memorable image in my mind. Anyone who’s been following my blogs for a while now will understand just how deep set my appreciation is for the countryside of Rwanda and the impression it left on me. I suppose if anywhere was going to challenge this, the Himalayas of Nepal was a good place to start. Like Rwanda, Nepal is a ‘hilly’ nation, to put it mildly. The landlocked state is home to eight of the world’s fourteen peaks which sit 8,000m above sea level, and approximately 75% of Nepal is covered by the Himalayas. Due to visa issues I could only dedicate three full days to trekking in the hills but as I hope my photos can testify, this was by far enough time to get a real glimpse into why so many people visit the area each year and, as I said before, why they’re drawn back again and again. When you wake up at 5.00am and step outside to catch a glimpse of the early morning sun rising from behind a snow-capped mountain range, you realise that there are some things you just have to see in the flesh.
The trekking is tough. In addition to possessing a good level of physical fitness, you have to also demonstrate a certain level of mental strength when approaching it. It gave me increased cause to appreciate those feats of absolute endurance achieved by the people who spend their lives doing this. A select few who summit mountains and cover extreme terrains on a daily basis. When standing before an 8000m mountain range (Annapurna in our case), it takes on a whole new dimension. I found it difficult to imagine tackling something as colossal as this and thus photographing it from afar (see photo gallery below) was as extreme as it got for me. It doesn’t stop you dreaming though. I’m sure Fogle wouldn’t shirk the challenge.
So to conclude, as I sit here, back at my desk in Chittagong, I do so wearing a small wooden bracelet made by a Tibetan woman which displays various symbols, one of which is Om. I’m sporting a light stubble on my face which I’m reluctant to shave, and I’m currently listening to an album entitled ‘A Musical Pilgrimage’ by Upendra and Friends which contains song titles such as, ‘Shiva Dance’, Rhythm of Nepal’, ‘Wind of Naeba’, and ‘Himalaya’. I guess I’m a traveller. I didn’t however ‘find myself’ in Nepal as I’d secretly hoped and thus the search continues, and for now it must continue here in Chittagong, where this week I’ll teach my students about the use of stative passive verbs, commas, and modal verbs. The journey continues.