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Introduction to 'A Nomad in Nepal'

Published
June 30, 2021
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Nepal, some of its landmarks, and surrounding lands in the Indian subcontinent. North at top.

TEN years ago, I really knew nothing about Nepal, its neighbouring lands, and the great Himalayan mountain range they share.

I knew that Sir Edmund Hillary and the ever-smiling Sherpa, Tenzing Norgay, had been the first to conquer the mountain we call Everest. And that was about the sum of my knowledge.

Most of what I know now is what I have learnt from going to these lands in the years since.

When I was in a hiking club, sometime around 2010, I sat through a presentation on the Himalayas. I sat in front of a screen where photo after photo of great peaks such as Everest, Annapurna and Ama Dablam were projected. And the people I saw in these photos were different from Tenzing.

Nobody was smiling. People were suffering from either altitude sickness or frostbite, and they looked miserable. There was talk of yak poo on the trails, and of staying in tents. Goodness, I thought. Why would anyone even bother to go there? It did not sound appealing.

Hiking presentations did nothing to make me want to go to Nepal. I had spent a good part of my life trekking in New Zealand, and I didn’t see the point in going to Nepal. That is, until a couple of friends invited me to join them on a group tour. The tour sounded ridiculously cheap, only $1,500 for seventeen days plus $1,150 for the return flight (American dollars, that is; though New Zealand has its own currency, all references to dollars in this book are to US dollar prices). I hadn’t been out of New Zealand in a while. Suspecting that I have a wanderlust gene in me, I thought I might as well spend six months away. So, I asked, why should I confine myself to Nepal?

The tallest Himalayan peaks lie in Nepal. But the mighty mountain range traverses five countries. If I were to go to that part of the world, I was going to go to as many parts of it as I could. So, I went to Sikkim, which used to be a separate country until India annexed it in 1975. I went to Chitral in Pakistan, to Kashmir and to Dharamshala, in the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh. And I’ve gone three times to Nepal, so far. (Tibet and Bhutan are still on my to-do list.)

I saw and learnt a lot in Chitral. The Hindu Kush mountain range is majestic, and the scenery is breathtaking. The people are lovely — they’re hospitable and peaceful. It’s just a shame to see what the war in neighbouring Afghanistan has brought about.

I certainly enjoyed Kashmir, a territory divided between Pakistan, India and China. I was enchanted by Sufi Islam and how its followers practised their religion by celebrating music. It was quite different from the more austere kinds where women can’t dance, and music isn’t celebrated.

And it was a special experience to visit Dharamshala, in the nearby Indian state of Himachal Pradesh, where the Dalai Lama is based.

Nepal was wonderful, so much so that I visited more than once. I love the Tibetan Buddhism which the Sherpas practise, and their view of life. I love the smiling children — the children smiled a lot! But not so much the smiling Sherpas, because life there isn’t much about smiles right now. The movie Sherpa highlights the hardships they face, brought about in part by the death of many males in that community. These days, the people of Nepal, including the Sherpas, are being devastated by Covid-19. If the more prosperous countries insist on fully patent-protecting their vaccines and don’t roll them out cheaply to the rest of the world, the politicians of these countries will have blood on their hands and will be setting their own populations up for further outbreaks and the evolution of new strains, as well.

I have had my share of disappointments in Nepal, and I have had uplifting moments. I have been to the bases of some of the world’s highest peaks and seen some of the most majestic landscapes on the planet.

I absolutely loved Sikkim. It was a magical place. I celebrated Gautama Buddha’s birthday there and attended a funeral, getting a taste of everyday life. I saw beautiful sights and met wonderful people.

Statue of Tenzing Norgay at the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, Darjeeling, India. Photo by Colin Ashe (2006, cropped by PPlecke), via Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA 2.5

Buddhist Prayers creating a ‘Mani Wall’, near Mount Everest. These have to be passed on the left side, in order to respect a sacred principle of clockwise movement as viewed from above.

Buddhist prayer wheels at Rumtek Monastery, Sikkim. These are rotated clockwise as well, as viewed from above. I saw similar ones at Tengboche, and smaller prayer wheels were very common. Photo by Sivakumar (2012), CC-BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons.

Wayside Shrine (top) and Mountaineers’ Memorial (below), both in the Khumbu region, near Mount Everest

In all these places I felt safe most of the time, though I am the kind of woman who can feel unsafe in the centre of Auckland or Queenstown at night when it is not well lit. I think it is about how someone approaches these things; it's about how people travel and where they travel. I have always lived my life the way I wanted to and so I have done my fair share of travelling. The Himalayan region forms a strong part of my travel experience, and I would suggest that people go there.

Having said that, in the second-to-last chapter I describe some unpleasant guiding experiences based on real first-hand knowledge. The quality of trail guides in Nepal is quite variable, and although the guides and porters have very legitimate grievances (which I go into in Chapter Six), at the same time, the trekker can be taken for a ride, or even propositioned, as I was.

Someday, I would like to trek on the Great Himalaya Trails – to travel this formidable mountain range from one end to another. You can't get enough of the Himalayas!

The Great Himalaya Trails (branded as such) run most of the length of Nepal: from Kanchenjunga, the world's third highest mountain, on the border of Nepal and Sikkim, westward to western Nepal. There is a high trade route and a low (cultural) route, though the word ‘low’ is relative here.

Life is in the mountains. They say that people force themselves to live in the moment by climbing mountains. Do we want to touch God? I have no idea.

Yet not all of Nepal is in the mountains! The capital, Kathmandu, is 1,400 metres above sea level (4,600 feet), but I travelled down from there to the Chitwan National Park on the border with India. Chitwan is an area of meandering rivers that is only about 200 metres or 600-odd feet above sea level. The national park is a famous wildlife preserve, literal tiger country. I talk about Chitwan in my final chapter, ‘Batons for the Beasts’, after the batons we were given in case we needed to fend off wild beasts!

I highly recommend the great many videos that are now on YouTube, and elsewhere, as the next best thing to being there wherever ‘there’ might be, and as essential preparation, these days, for going there!

Finally, make sure that you get all the relevant travel advisories, vaccinations, and insurance!

Note: My online versions of parts of A Nomad in Nepal will generally have more images than the book. Where they have videos, these will be extras, not in the book as well.

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