Since my first visit in 2012, I have become deeply attached to this unique land. Coming from the world’s “flattest continent”, Australia, gargantuan mountains with all their airy, ethereal mysteries and with their rock solid dangers hold a mystical appeal for me. I touched down in the land of Sagarmartha (Mt Everest) for the first time six years ago with no great preconceptions apart from a desire to see some spectacular mountain scenery, but I have been held in the spell of Nepal and her close Himalayan neighbours ever since.
Nepal is a small but wondrous land of approximately 30,000,000 people, wedged in between India and China (Tibet). Its defining landscapes as well as many aspects of the rich cultural and spiritual life of its people, have been created through both the privations yet also through the magnificence of the towering edifices of the Himalayan ranges. The mountains, which form the border with China, have bestowed upon Nepal immeasurable natural beauty. It is a country in which the unique mountainous terrain begets the deep spirituality of the ethnically varied inhabitants and provides the backdrop for a plethora of diverse and splendid religious festivals and rituals which take place throughout the year. Even from the hot jungles and fertile plains of the lowlands adjacent to the Indian border known as “The Terai”, the imposing peaks of the famous Anna Purna Range are clearly visible under clear skies. Mt Everest, 8884metres, known as Sagarmartha in Nepali and Chonmolongma in Tibetan, is Nepal’s most renowned sight. Nepal may possess on her border with Tibet an enviable jewel in Earth’s highest mountain, but Nepal is still a poverty stricken country. The partially impenetrable mountains and the rugged, undulating terrain contribute in part to this situation. Life for most of the people consists of a constant, wearying physical struggle just to meet the basic human needs of food and shelter. The provision of education to all people has also been hampered in large part because of Nepal’s topography.
What a paradox! The land is blessed with many natural beauteous treasures, yet her people are amongst the most impoverished in the world. The geophysical conditions of the region which have created the mighty snow clad mountains, the steep green slopes, the deep ravines and gorges through which surging river torrents pour, fed by melting snows and the monsoonal rains, also compound the challenges of life for most of the population. Access to many remote mountain villages in the past was always only on foot along well - worn mountain paths, which is why the country has been known in recent decades as such a desirable “trekking” destination. Even today, access can be difficult after been heavy rain during the June to September monsoon season. The movement of two major tectonic plates, which created and is still causing the Himalayas to continue to edge heavenward, makes Nepal earthquake prone. In the most recent catastrophe, around 9,000 people lost their life in the April 25 2015 earthquake and aftershocks. The ensuing landslides also massively disrupted the supply of essential provisions and medical aid to the many mountain villages which suffered virtual decimation during this major geophysical event.
But how did I discover Encounters Nepal? As with many of life’s richest offerings, it was a random, completely unplanned, and also complex set of circumstances, that caused me to stumble during a power failure on a darkening Sunday evening into the office of EncountersNepal.com in Thamel, the tourist hub of Kathmandu, in early March 2012. The illness of a close family member back in Australia had suddenly taken a new and bleak trajectory and I felt I should no longer participate in this new leg of our trip which had started with a small group jaunt through parts of colourful North India two weeks previously. Fully booked flights from Delhi back to Sydney had determined my need to continue the planned route on to Kathmandu with two empathic, kind and humorous friends, a married couple, who understood how painfully I was torn. I wanted to return at once to be with my brother, yet now that I was by necessity there in Kathmandu, I also was longing to at least see something of the wonderful Himalayan landscapes and to experience just a taste of the rich cultural and religious life. A compromise could be that I return to Sydney earlier than originally planned, prior to my travel companions, but somehow manage to still squeeze in an aerial view of the world’s highest mountain. Experiencing the Himalayas had long been a dream of mine.
Upon arrival at Tribhuvan Airport, with my Nepal visa already having been acquired in Sydney, I exited the immigration queue approximately 45 minutes earlier than my friends, who were obtaining their visas in Kathmandu and who had a queue ahead of them. A touting yet pleasantly mannered, English speaking taxi driver approached me, not necessarily lured by my charmingly rotund middle years’ looks, but certainly by the prospect of imminent business. A solo woman with a suitcase yet without any obvious means of transportation, is clearly going to want to exchange a ride to her accommodation for some hard to procure Nepalese rupees. I agreed to allow him to drive us to our hotel once my friends cleared immigration. We chatted amicably whilst waiting and he bought me hot green tea served in a small white paper cup. I explained to him that I may have to curtail my stay in Nepal due to my brother’s deteriorating illness, but now that I was there, I would love to at least to go on a flight to see Mt Everest, if that were possible. He told me he had a delightful friend with a travel agency who could organise such a “Mountain Flight” for me. He could take me there too, but on foot, after we had checked in at our hotel. To wrangle with the chaotic traffic, vehicular, pedestrian, feathered and four legged, in the taxi for the whole 1.5 kms from the Shanker Hotel to the centre of Thamel, would be more trouble and probably take longer than walking it he advised me.
Kathmandu, that first Sunday evening, was a teeming scramble of rutted roads filled with brightly clad women, scuttling along in colourful knee length kurtas with voluminous contrasting pants and matching shawl, or semi floating in everyday, simple yet alluringly coloured and patterned saris; jeans and shirt wearing men; ambling cows and fruit and vegetable stalls collapsing under the weight of mushrooms, leafy greens and mountains of firm, white cauliflowers. Dented, dust shrouded cars honked constantly. They swerved, they stood and belched smoke, they wended their painstaking way between all obstacles as people and animals meandered along the shared road with no footpath. Masses of motor bikes careened with agility through the swarming stream of life along the streets. Sometimes they carried not just the driver and a passenger, sometimes they had a whole family piled on the seat, the women sitting sideways, holding on tightly to one or two small children as shawls fluttered, or sequins on saris glinted and iridescent black pony tails streamed in the air. Nobody apart from newly arrived me, looked at all perturbed by this traffic mayhem, although after two weeks in India, even I was becoming inured to the South Asian random rules of the roads. Packed to the rafters handicraft and jewellery stores lined the roadside as we entered Thamel. The light was fading fast as my taxi driver and I snaked vigilantly on foot through the bustling narrow streets, past trekking supply stores, past clothing shops with racks bending under the weight of brightly dyed yak hair shawls and children’s woollen beanies, knitted into cute animal faces, hoisted high to catch the passing tourist’s eye, past carts laden with hands of golden bananas or almost luminous with the lurid orange and brilliant yellow of marigold garlands. Rickety rickshaws energetically pedalled by wiry, gaunt men with deeply lined, unshaven faces passed us with their ageing wheels fighting through the ruts and potholes. Contented looking chickens, quite oblivious to their ultimate fate, were pecking in the dust of the narrow unsealed inner city streets, nonchalantly negotiating all the surrounding commotion. The entire colourfully crammed scene was swathed in the intensely fragrant incense infused air. Suddenly, kerosene lamps and candles were dimly illuminating points on our path. Darkness descended over the city as the sun set and the power supply failed, a common occurrence in Nepal.
Finally, we reached the building sought. In the early evening gloom, I could just make out that hundreds of necklaces and earrings were on display in the window of the ground floor premises. The entrance was a black hole to a deep, unexplored treasure cave. No light illuminated what lay beyond the doorway. I thought with a moment’s anxious nostalgia of the stern lessons given to me by my mother when I started school at five about not trusting strangers. My taxi driver companion entreated with a grin of triumph, “Come this way through here! My friend’s office is up the stairs.”
I lunged, in my ungainly trekking boots, into the inky stairwell and gingerly climbed the two flights, valiantly swallowing my anxiety. Would Rhonda and Mark know where to begin to look for me if I didn’t return this evening to meet them for dinner at the hotel? Will I leave this precinct with my money and passport still mine to administer as I please? Is there a demand for middle aged, fair haired Western women in the South Asian slave trade? Adrenalin determined thoughts tumbled raucously round in my head. My pulse was fast. At the top of the stairs, I veered left, trembling.
My eyes adjusted as I walked into a cosy, well lit, two roomed office space, whose cheerful sunset orange walls were decorated with examples of trekking paraphernalia and beautiful scenes of the Himalayas and a huge poster of the imposing Potala Palace against an azure high altitude sky in Lhasa, Tibet.
A friendly English speaking young Nepalese man with a mop of thick black, wavy hair over the crown of his head and a gold earring in one ear, was seated behind the desk. He listened attentively as I explained the current predicament with my brother’s illness. He expressed concern for the situation I found myself in and proceeded to make a couple of phone calls to local airlines, speaking in Nepali. As I recognised my name in the course of the second call and as he indicated to me with signs and facial expressions across the table, he was able to arrange an Everest “mountain flight” for me for the morning after the next, weather permitting. I handed over two crisp fifty Australian dollar notes. He admired their aesthetic appeal and appearance of durability with a smile. He photocopied the front page of my passport. I left the office thirty minutes later, not just unharmed and with all documents and valuables in tact, but feeling I had just had a most pleasant chat with a very sympathetic tour operator. I had his card in my wallet: EncountersNepal.com, Mr Rishi Prasad Nepal Proprietor. With the taxi driver’s continued assistance, I made it all the way back to the hotel, unscathed, indeed energised and wanting to get out again as soon as possible to explore more of this exotic jumble of a city!
The said proprietor of EncountersNepal.com, Mr Rishi Prasad Nepal, had already arrived at my hotel very early while it was still dark on that crisp Tuesday morning. As soon as I entered the lobby, I spotted him seated in the gloom wearing a warm woollen neck scarf and a jacket. He had brought my ticket for the flight and would accompany me in the car to the airport to depart at 8.00am. He was unable to come inside the airport as only bona fide airline passengers are permitted inside. Takeoff was delayed for about an hour and a half due to fog, but as it turned out, the wait was certainly worth the short period of crowded airport terminal boredom.
Every passenger is seated near a window on these flights and once the plane reached its cruising altitude, the panoramic views of the snow capped peaks of the Langtang Range of the Himalayas were astoundingly beautiful in the early spring morning light. Each peak was identified by the crew as we flew alongside the ranges. When Everest came into view, one by one, passengers were even allowed into the small cockpit to get a full view of Everest, Lhotse and the other surrounding mountains. A joyful sense of exhilaration overcame me at the sight. Here they were, these legendary heaven - brushing giants, magnificently visible in all their craggy, white, morning softly sunlit grandeur, unfolding before me in a gentle blue sky. It was at that rapturous moment I determined that I absolutely must soon return to explore this region further.
Upon landing at the end of the 45 minute flight, I was met again by Rishi. On the return 20 minute cab trip through slow morning traffic back to the hotel, we chatted not only about the amazing experience I had enjoyed on the flight, but also about the other many wonderful experiences of landscape and culture to be had in this small but geographically and ethnically diverse land. Soon a marriage would be taking place in his wife’s family and he asked whether I might like to attend, to experience all the colour and ritual of a Hindu wedding. This is typical of the open hospitality of the Nepalese people and also indicative of the pride with which Rishi Nepal would like to introduce his guests to the religious and cultural riches of his homeland. I mentioned to Rishi my work in Sydney as a teacher of languages and my interest in doing some voluntary teaching of English overseas. He then mentioned that he was involved with a small school in the Kathmandu area and that they would welcome me warmly if I would like to try a little teaching there, maybe sharing with the kids something about life in Australia. My time for this trip was already spoken for, but if I were to return to Nepal some time, I would consider it. My friends hadn’t planned to go trekking on this trip but when we reached the hotel, I also inquired as to whether there might be a small trek one could undertake in the Kathmandu area, just to get a feel for the hills and the trekking experience. Rishi immediately came up with some enticing ideas for me to consider.
My stoic and generous brother was adamant that I should not abort my planned stay in Nepal, assuring me that he would be both well and happy enough to see me when I returned, as planned, in another nine days. As my friends had already made some plans for our time there, it eventuated that I was not to return to Kathmandu in time for the wedding to which Rishi had invited me. I sent an SMS from Pokhara to let him know. No reply came.
Upon my return to Kathmandu, late in the afternoon of the day prior to our departure back to Sydney, I decided to phone Rishi to explain my lack of follow up with the wedding invitation. During the two short meetings I had already had with him, I thought it unlikely that Rishi, who presented as a very genuine client focused tour operator, would not respond to my text message, if he had received it. Indeed he hadn’t and therefore he had also been wondering what had happened to my friends and me. We all met up in the hotel restaurant a short while later and, over a large pot of hot freshly brewed ginger tea, discussed the idea of returning to Kathmandu again soon for further exploration of Nepal and for me to undertake some voluntary teaching of English at the school. As I am a teacher of German and French in Australia, this was going to be a new and wonderfully exciting opportunity in which I could practise my language teaching skills in a totally new context. This led on to talk about education in Nepal and the needs of most of its schools in general, about family life in his country, about weddings and arranged marriages and the impact of dire poverty on a child, on a family, on a community, on a country. We invited him to stay to dinner, but he politely declined, not wishing to inconvenience us, nor his wife, who would have already prepared the evening meal. With dazzling impressions of the beautiful and enthusiastic school children, a deepening acquaintance of the architectural beauties of the old squares and shrines of Kathmandu and a personalised experience of one of the great Nepali festivals, Teej, I began my second visit to Nepal in September, six months later. It ended with a memorable trek with my son through wild mountain desert landscapes in Lower Mustang, past ageing white Bon shrines and Buddhist chortens, past glistening white mountain edifices into the courtyard of the 108 spouting cow heads at the sacred temple of Muktinath. We bathed in hot springs at Tatopani, crossed frighteningly deep gorges on suspension bridges and breathed in the richly beautiful and varying scenery each day.
I have returned to Nepal many times since and you may too, once you discover the endless enchantments of this Himalayan country through the kindness, hospitality, reassurance and reliability provided by Rishi and his employees at EncountersNepal. They gave me that sense of safety and security that enabled me as a widow, to literally “climb mountains” and experience the richness of a vibrant, new culture in a way I would never have thought possible.
MRS Julia Ruhl