Climb­ing back

On the post-quake re­cov­ery trail in Nepal

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - TRAVEL & INDULGENCE - TOM CHESSHYRE

Ruby-red rhodo­den­dron trees with trunks adorned with del­i­cate white or­chids line the path to the re­mote vil­lage of Pan­chase Bhan­jyang. Be­low, the moun­tain­side plunges to crop ter­races and clear­ings with wa­ter buf­falo. Smoke rises from far-off dwellings. Lu­mi­nous clouds scut­tle across the val­ley, cool­ing us as we pause after our five-hour hike.

We are on the edge of the An­na­purna re­gion of moun­tains in cen­tral Nepal. Some­where to the north is Fish­tail moun­tain (ac­tual name is Macha­puchare; 6993m), which re­sem­bles a half-sub­merged fish de­scended from the heav­ens. Some­where to the south­east is Ever­est (8848m), the grand­daddy of the Hi­malayas. All around, snow-capped peaks lurk be­hind clouds.

We con­tinue up­wards, tack­ling a steep rocky sec­tion. My guide, Su, pauses to ex­am­ine leop­ard drop­pings. “About a month old,” he says. Only once has Su spot­ted a leop­ard here, when the crea­ture dis­ap­peared in a flash after en­coun­ter­ing a group of back­pack­ers. Since the morn­ing we have passed a mere hand­ful of hik­ers — French walk­ers with porters head­ing to Pokhara. And when we ar­rive at Pan­chase Bhan­jyang, hav­ing cov­ered 13km, we are the only guests. Maya, one of the three sis­ters who own the Happy Heart Ho­tel, ush­ers us to a perch in front of the wood fire in her smoky kitchen so we can warm up with tin cups of lemon gin­ger tea.

As she tends the rudi­men­tary stove she tells us about April 25, 2015, when an earth­quake mea­sur­ing 7.9 on the Richter scale struck Nepal, bring­ing the loss of al­most 9000 lives, de­stroy­ing tens of thou­sands of homes, turn­ing cen­turies-old tem­ples to rub­ble and in a few ter­ri­fy­ing min­utes ru­in­ing the tourism on which so many parts of the na­tion de­pend. “It was big shak­ing,” she says. “Our main house col­lapsed.”

The costly re­build­ing of this prop­erty took a dozen work­ers three months, but the ho­tel it­self es­caped se­ri­ous dam­age. Yet since then guest num­bers have halved at its 10 well-ap­pointed, but sim­ple rooms —$7 a night, with elec­tric­ity, clean toi­lets in sheds and pictures of the Hindu ele­phant god Ganesh on the bed­room walls (he is said to bring luck). “Peo­ple are too scared to come be­cause of the earth­quake,” says Maya. Nepal has been through a lot in the past two years, not least a pair of pow­er­ful af­ter­shocks soon after the ini­tial quake, which brought down many more build­ings. Now, how­ever, with re­con­struc­tion of some (but far from all) tem­ples and the im­me­di­acy of the trauma fad­ing, tourists are begin­ning to trickle back. I have signed up to a 10-day tour, begin­ning in Kath­mandu, with vis­its to sights in the Kath­man- du Val­ley and Chit­wan Na­tional Park (to the west), and cul­mi­nat­ing in our mag­nif­i­cent An­na­purna hike.

The coun­try is still a long way from nor­mal and the ef­fects of the dis­as­ter are ob­vi­ous on the drive from the air­port to the cen­tre of Kath­mandu. Build­ings with pre­car­i­ous-look­ing sup­port beams, great piles of rub­ble and roads with teams dig­ging up cracked pipes (au­thor­i­ties are mod­ernising the wa­ter sys­tem) cre­ate an im­pres­sion of barely sup­pressed chaos height­ened by the aw­ful traf­fic jams. The earth­quake came as the cap­i­tal was strug­gling with a pop­u­la­tion in­flux from the coun­try­side. In re­cent years many young­sters from ru­ral ar­eas have sought more glam­orous life­styles glimpsed on the in­ter­net, turn­ing their backs on the hard grind of work­ing the paddy fields. The re­sult is that Kath­mandu is very busy, and the pol­lu­tion from ve­hi­cles and build­ing sites is dread­ful. So much so that my city guide, Archana, reg­u­larly loses her voice after lead­ing tours. She hands me a face mask to keep out dust. De­spite this, my lungs ache at night after a day’s sight­see­ing.

See the sights we do, or what’s left of them. In Dur­bar Square, in Kath­mandu’s medieval cen­tre, the white walls of the old royal palace are cracked and crum­bling, with crude sup­port beams and a seclu­sion zone in case the crip­pled ed­i­fice de­cides to call it a day. Be­yond, many of the tem­ples are lit­tle more than con­struc­tion sites be­hind cor­ru­gated metal walls. “This is the tem­ple of Vishnu,” says Archana. “At least, it used to be.” Near here I get talk­ing to a cou­ple from Syd­ney. “We sat up there where the pil­lars were last time we came,” says Jill, a re­tired teacher. She’s look­ing at a pic­ture on a dis­play board. “Now ev­ery­thing looks like it was hit by a bomb.”

Yet there is a still a huge amount to see in Kath­mandu. The Syd­neysiders and I chat for a while, and they tell me how they were asked for do­na­tions by “very po­lite” Maoist in­sur­gents when they went trekking in the moun­tains in the 1990s (Nepalese pol­i­tics has had a roller­coaster ride in re­cent years). Then we go to see the beau­ti­ful tem­ple of Ku­mari. This is home to the epony­mous “liv­ing god­dess”, who is now aged 10 and who was selected for her un­usual role when aged three. When she men­stru­ates for the first time, Archana says, a new god­dess will be selected. No pho­tos of her may be taken in the tem­ple.

On our visit, Ku­mari comes to the win­dow of her bal­cony, dressed in a red and gold robe and wear­ing Cleopa­tra-style eye­liner. She re­gards her au­di­ence (us) dis­dain­fully, pouts and re­turns to an in­ner room. After­wards, we visit nearby “Freak Street”, where hip­pies hung out in the 60s, en­joy­ing the Hi­malayan na­tion’s plen­ti­ful marijuana, which is now il­le­gal, al­though the waft of weed is not an un­fa­mil­iar smell in Thamel, Kath­mandu’s tourist dis­trict and very much back­packer cen­tral.

Then we drive to see the re­mark­able cre­ma­tion tem­ple of Lord Shiva, known as Pashu­pati­nath Tem­ple, on the Bag­mati River, where funeral pyres, or ghats, are ablaze by the murky wa­ter’s edge. Cows graze by the river and mon­keys skip about on rocks. Palm read­ers, who are Hindu priests in saf­fron robes, sit cross-legged by a path, pa­tiently wait­ing for cus­tomers. On an im­pulse I have my palm read by one. He clasps my right hand with his turmeric-stained hands and says I “could be very rich”, “will travel a lot” and may have “two or three chil­dren, but not with fam­ily plan­ning”. With this, the priest winks and asks for 500 ru­pees ($6.70).

We go to see the great white stupa of Boud­hanath in the city’s north, which has had part of its golden tower re­paired since the quake. Shops around the stupa sell knock-off branded shoes and climb­ing wear — North Face jack­ets avail­able for $25 are known lo­cally as North Fakes. Monks in ma­roon robes jos­tle past. Lo­cal cou­ples cir­cle the stupa for good luck. About 12 per cent of the Nepalese are Bud­dhist, while 80 per cent are Hindu.

So con­cludes our fi­nal af­ter­noon in Kath­mandu, but be­fore head­ing north­west for the An­na­purna trek, we have three stop-offs planned — each re­veal­ing the state of Nepal’s post-quake re­cov­ery. The first is the medieval city of Bhak­ta­pur, about 13km south of the cap­i­tal. The labyrinthine red-brick cen­tre of this much smaller city, which was the cen­tre of power in the coun­try un­til the late 15th cen­tury, has been pre­served over the years, yet its frailty meant it took a bad hit two years ago. Now just about ev­ery build­ing is propped up by wooden beams. Many of the cen­tral tem­ples are still be­ing painstak­ingly

Or­ange and peach light rises in heav­enly shafts, form­ing a fiery blaze above the icy peaks. The tip of Ever­est can be seen in the dis­tance

re­built. Parts of the re­cently re­opened Na­tional Art Mu­seum are off-lim­its be­cause of cracks in the walls. This mu­seum is home to fan­tas­tic medieval paint­ings of Hindu gods, as well as por­traits of Nepalese kings, begin­ning with the founder of the King­dom of Nepal in 1768, the much-loved Prithvi Narayan Shah, and end­ing with the last king in 2008, when the monar­chy was brought to an end. This de­ci­sion came after the royal mas­sacre of 2001, when Crown Prince Dipen­dra went on a shoot­ing spree, mur­der­ing his fa­ther, King Biren­dra, and killing him­self. The fi­nal por­traits have a spine-chill­ing qual­ity.

Tin “earth­quake vic­tim shel­ters” are still in Bhak­ta­pur, as are faded blue tents supplied by China. Some fam­i­lies are liv­ing in build­ings that are not con­sid­ered safe. “They are tak­ing a risk,” says Su, who is ac­com­pa­ny­ing me from here to An­na­purna. On­wards we go, driv­ing up a moun­tain over­look­ing Bhak­ta­pur that rises to 1950m, and the hill town of Na­garkot. We pass army bases where Gurkhas who later join the Bri­tish Army are trained and can be seen run­ning along the steep track carrying ri­fles and heavy packs (no won­der their fit­ness lev­els are renowned). We check in to the Sun­shine Ho­tel, get an early night after a power cut (Nepal’s elec­tric­ity sup­ply is still in a par­lous state), then wake to watch the sun rise, which ev­ery­one does at Na­garkot. At 5.45am we are on the ho­tel roof with binoc­u­lars to see the sun slowly ap­pear be­yond the jagged ridge of the Hi­malayas. Or­ange and peach light rises in heav­enly shafts, form­ing a fiery blaze above the icy peaks. The tip of Ever­est can be seen in the dis­tance. We look on in awe be­fore hav­ing break­fast, where Subbha, the waiter, tells us how his grand­fa­ther died in a col­lapsed build­ing on this hill­side in 2015.

Al­most ev­ery­one has an earth­quake story. Su is no ex­cep­tion. When the ground be­gan to move he was in a street in Kath­mandu, and imag­ined he was sim­ply ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a dizzy spell. Then, when moped rid­ers be­gan to top­ple in the street, he re­alised some­thing sig­nif­i­cant was afoot. Phones were not work­ing, telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions tow­ers had come down, so he rushed as quickly as he could to his vil­lage to check that his wife and son were OK. This took nine hours, in­clud­ing a 24km hike. His wife and son were, thank­fully, fine, but their house was badly dam­aged. He bought a tar­pau­lin to act as a tent in their gar­den. A month later he was al­lo­cated a tin emer­gency shel­ter, in which they still live. “I need $25,000 to buy a house,” he says. “Ev­ery­one in my vil­lage is in the same boat. We are all in it to­gether.”

It is a seven-hour drive from Na­garkot to Chit­wan Na­tional Park where we check in to the Jun­gle Villa Re­sort over­look­ing the Rapti River. As we do, staff at the ho­tel wave us over to a deck. A sin­gle-horned rhino, of which there are about 500 in the park, is wal­low­ing in the shal- lows. So be­gins a marvel­lous two days, wit­ness­ing rare sloth bears, more rhi­nos, ghar­ial and mug­ger croc­o­diles, and fi­nally, and best of all, a Ben­gal tiger. The crea­ture is pac­ing through shrub­land and, when it sees us, turns and dis­ap­pears al­most im­me­di­ately. Yet for a few sec­onds we have wit­nessed the elu­sive beast, of which there are about 120 in the park. It’s worth not­ing that when I ar­rive there is just one other ho­tel guest. Sa­ho­dar, the ho­tel man­ager, tells me busi­ness is down about 70 per cent since 2015. In 2014, 127,000 for­eign­ers vis­ited Chit­wan Na­tional Park. Last year this fig­ure was 56,000. It’s an ex­cel­lent time to go to Nepal if you want to avoid tourist crowds.

This is true on the trekking trails too. At the Happy Heart Ho­tel, I get to know the hand­ful of Span­ish, Amer­i­can and Ger­man guests be­fore we all head our own ways next day. Su and I tramp for 30km through beau­ti­ful rhodo­den­dron forests and vil­lages grow­ing gar­lic, cab­bages and spinach, all the way down to Pokhara, with its back­packer hostels and bars. We are ex­hausted and, to cel­e­brate, we go for Ever­est beers and chicken cur­ries at a bar in the mid­dle of the strip that was un­af­fected by the quake. Hardly any­one is around. Rolling Stones and Bea­tles songs play out across empty bar stools as we raise our beers to our ad­ven­tures. Nepal is back … even though the moun­tains never went away.

Stun­ning vis­tas in the An­na­purna re­gion, main; monk at Boud­hanath stupa on the out­skirts of Kath­mandu, above; ghar­ial croc­o­dile cool­ing off in Chit­wan Na­tional Park, above right; liv­ing god­dess Ku­mari, be­low

Tau­madhi Square in Kath­mandu, above left; ele­phants and their keep­ers in Chit­wan Na­tional Park, above; sun­set views from Na­garkot, above right

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