Greetings! I made it back to Kathmandu late Monday evening, but I've just now managed to successfully load the website editor for updating this blog.
Some memorable moments from the past week include the twice daily helpings of Dal Bhat at almost every stop along the way, enjoying the simple pleasures of watching the planets set over mountain ridges from rooms without electric light, and sharing in the joy, awe and wonder that many older people from the village expressed upon passing one of Nepal's first skyscrapers under construction through the dusty window of a local bus.
Though many of the places I stayed this past week were scant in such amenities as Wi Fi, electric light, and indoor plumbing, I did manage to take a lot of hand-written notes interspersed between moments shared with various local people and cultures I encountered along the way. Yet, in spite of all of this, the pace of infrastructure development in Nepal is absolutely astonishing. I couldn't believe how many new roads had been built since the map I have was published in 2013, let alone how much the region has changed since I first traversed the western rim of Melamchi Valley on a trek seven years ago. Below is a brief synopsis of how I experienced some of the events in the itinerary I listed in my previous post.
Day 1, March 1: Thanks to my mis-pronouncing the Nepali name of where I was headed, I ended up taking a circuitous and confusing cab ride before eventually being dropped at Sundarijal, on the edge of Kathmandu. Here the swift-moving Bagmati River leaves the steep and rugged terrain of Shivapuri National Park to enter the Kathmandu Valley. After a steep and sunny slog up the slope, I cross the Borlang Bhanjyang Pass to descend the village of Chisopani - a village I had first crossed through, but did not stop in, seven year prior. Damage from the 2015 earthquake is prominently visible. Many new structures have been built, but few of the old ones have been demolished. A four story building is off its foundation completely and titled at a 45-degree angle. Elsewhere people continue on in new structures built in the shadows of the old, most of which remain standing.
Day 2: The upper forests of Shivapuri National Park are fresh, fragrant and full of chirpping birds, but otherwise silent. Unlike national parks in the US, there exist a few small villages within the park boundaries, and local residents are able to use the forests for collecting wood and plants in accordance with local customs. However, the upper ridgeline where I hike lies far from the nearest village, and signs of human activity in the steep upper part of the Bagmati watershed near Shivapuri Peak are almost non-existent. Shortly after arriving back in Chisopani, the blue sky turns a sickly grey and out of nowhere comes an intense, but short-lived, thunderstorm. I marvel at the double rainbow that follows the brief storm and am thankful I was off the ridgeline before it hit. After a full day in the sun, I sleep soon after dusk fall.
Day 3: Leaving Chisopani, I leave the established trekking route used by trekkers heading to or from Langtang National Park a two-day's walk further north. Instead, I head east into the rising sun, following a meandering ridgeline down to Melamchi Bazar. It becomes apparent I have left a route frequented by foreign travelers by the faces and reactions of the villagers I meet along the way. The air thickens. The temperature rises. The humidity soars. The trail becomes a 4WD road and the density of dwellings increases drastically as I approach the valley floor. I arrive in the dusty crossroads of Melamchi Bazar mid-afternoon - a settlement at the confluence of the Melamchi and Indrawati Rivers, downstream from the Kathmandu Valley diversion. Near the confluence of these fast-moving rivers are several deeper pools where people bathe, women wash clothing, and kids dive and jump off of rocks into the pools below. Nearby a group of water buffalo splash and bathe. I spend the night in the only true hotel-style accommodation of the week and enjoy fresh mutton curry with my evening helping of Dal Bhat Tarkari.
Day 4: Spotting a clearly visible footpath rising steeply up the eastern valley rim, I decide to walk rather take a bus or jeep up the Melamchi Valley. The path soon becomes a seemingly unending steep stone staircase. About an hour's ascent up from the valley floor, I step aside to let a Hindu funeral procession pass on their descent down the stone steps to the Melamchi River where an open-air cremation will take place. First come four men carrying the deceased down the stone stairs on a makeshift bamboo stretcher fully wrapped in orange cloth. Behind them, comes a line of several dozen men each carrying large logs for the pyre. The procession continues and continues for quite some time. During the second half of the day, the stone stair case opens up onto a wide, flat ridge punctuated with the blazing red of blooming rhodedenrons. Hindu shrines intersperse with Buddhist Stupas, Gompas, and Mani Walls before eventually becoming almost exclusively Buddhist. The dress of the local women shifts significantly, and I immediately recognize the heavy brown skirts as traditional Sherpa dress (most men wear western style jeans, or trousers so there is little difference in styles for them). I stop just short of Ghangyul in Sermathang, well over a vertical mile (1750 meters gain) higher than where I started that morning. After my evening Dal Bhat I realize thay my headlamp batteries have worn out and there is no electricity in the room. Little problem, as my bedroom faces west, and I soon nod off watching Venus, Mars and the Moon slowly sink over the western rim of Melamchi Valley.
March/Day 5: Got detained briefly by the Nepal Army. Leaving Sermathang, I opt to take a higher, less-traveled footpath to avoid walking along the rough 4WD road first thing in the morning. About an hour later I walk straight into an army barrack that is most definitely not on the detailed topographical map I have of the area. The map clearly depicted three army outposts in Shivapuri National Park, all of which were in the precise location that the map indicates. Thus, I am surprised to see soldiers popping out from every which way an hour's walk up from Sermathang. They take my passport and start playing 20 questions. I tell them this is my 3rd time in Nepal, that I am here to study and do research, and then, speaking slowly, proceed to tell them about my previous trekking and mountain experience step, by step, by step, by step. The soldiers soon become much more friendly and upbeat and try giving me directions to an out of the way Monastery by tracing the route over and over again on the palms of their hands. The walk onward from the barracks turns out to be one of the most dramatic of the week. There are sweeping open vistas of the entire Melamchi Valley, and I can visually follow its course from its source all the way down below the diversion. I have a slightly easier day of walking and spend the last night in a guest room in a small Sherpa family home, watching over their three small children as they run around and throw scraps of paper into the wood-burning stove in the middle of the living room. Once again, without electric light or a headlamp I fall asleep soon after dark.
Day 6: Back to Kathmandu. On my final night in the Melamchi Valley area, a relative of the family comes over for dinner. It turns out he is a bus driver and has been driving the morning bus to Kathmandu ever since the road to the village was completed two years earlier. The bus is a Tata model made especially for regions with unpaved roads. It is a steep climb onto the bus, which stays stationary in the village for a good half an hour, trumpeting its horn for 30 minutes straight to let residents of all of the surrounding areas know that it will be leaving soon. Nepali pop music blasts for the first part of the long, bumpy, dusty ride back to Kathmandu. About half way back, the music changes to latest Bollywood hits. When we pass a construction site on the outskirts of Kathmandu where a 15-story building is under construction -set to be the tallest in the valley - many of the older villagers jump up and press their faces against the glass bus windows, clearly in awe and marvel at such a large structure being built, whispering to each other excitedly. I get back to the city where I eat two dinners before crashing, exhausted from five full days of non-stop walking through the hills.
Note: I will be spending much of the next few weeks working on producing academic writing in support of the requirements for the graduate program at UC Santa Cruz. For this reason, the format and structure of these blog entries may change somewhat in the weeks ahead, and will almost certainly be less travel-oriented for a while. At some point, I hope to take and post more pictures, especially when I eventually head back to Melamchi, but posting updates is always a crap-shoot, given the relatively low-bandwidth here. I have had no difficulties at all checking email on the WiFi that is available, but the website editing/creating features require a faster connection than is sometimes available.