Barely two days into this trip and I’d come to a conclusion. This may be my physically least demanding trip, but it is also my most stressful. Taking care of oneself is challenging enough on any adventure trip. Taking care of two kids with special needs makes it even more challenging. Not losing your own socks with all the hasty packing and unpacking is tough enough. Keeping track of the family’s items is a logistical nightmare. Mentally, this was my Everest. But don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed this trip every bit as much as my kids did.
Most people would stay at least one night in Kathmandu after landing in Nepal. On this trip, we took a connecting flight to Pokhara immediately after arriving in Kathmandu. This was only possible with the arrangement of my old friend Jyoti. It was nice seeing Jyoti again when he received us at the airport and introduced us to the young and efficient guide Avi whom he had assigned to us.
Wasting no time, Avi took our luggage and checked them in at the domestic terminal for us. Meanwhile, Jyoti brought us for lunch at the airport hotel. The kids and I checked out the revolving restaurant on the top floor. As the manager of the hotel was Jyoti’s former classmate, we were treated like VIPs. After lunch, we went back to the airport for the flight to Pokhara. Coming from the land of Changi Airport, the boys were shocked by the condition of Kathmandu’s domestic airport, but they were not quick to judge. Thankfully, there were not many departing flights left for the day, so the situation was not too chaotic. Avi was already holding our boarding passes. We just had to clear security and wait for our bus inside the holding area.
The kids were excited to see such small and cute little planes. They had no idea what a Yeti is, but if they knew, they might be expecting the crew to be dressed in furry costumes on Yeti Airlines. The boys took single seats on the port side of the aircraft and with parental control not within arm’s reach, they helped themselves to the sweets and soft drinks which the air stewardess offered with a smile. The propellers spun noisily, but the kids were unperturbed. The little one even smiled when we encountered turbulence and the plane yawed.
We landed safely in Pokhara. The kids were totally lost, seeing three very different airports in one day. We checked into the Kantipur Hotel some distance from lakeside and after a quick wash, we went boating. The little one enjoyed himself the most, smiling and chuckling as we rowed around Fewa Lake. The Holi Festival was in full swing. Youths everywhere had their faces and clothes covered with coloured powder. Many tourists joined in the fun and with everybody’s face smeared with the colours of celebration, it was difficult to tell who was local and who wasn’t. Even the younger Chinese tourists smeared their faces. I guess there is hope for integration here.
We were out of our bed before the sun was up and after a quick breakfast at the hotel, we headed for Pokhara Airport again. Three flights in two days. The kids didn’t question my crazy itinerary. I guess they trusted me to make it fun. While waiting for our flight, we went to the rooftop to catch some ultralight action. The plane bringing us to Jomsom 2743m was even smaller than the one who took us from Kathmandu to Pokhara. Barely 15 minutes into the flight, we were hovering over the bosoms of white Himalayan giants. Looking down, I saw vast stretches of treeless, earthy plains. This is a barren, surrealistic realm, lying in the rain-shadow area northwest of the Annapurna massif; a gateway into the mysterious, forbidden kingdom of Mustang (now called Upper Mustang) with its alpine deserts, cave monasteries, Tantric Buddhism and an exotic “city” called Lo Manthang. Presently, the wheels of the plane found a bare stretch and landed safely.
Far less chaotic than Lukla, Jomsom Airport stands in the shadow of the Nilgiri Himal (Nilgiri North 7061m, Nilgiri Central 6940m, Nilgiri South 6839m). It was late morning and the temperature felt like about 4oC. Apart from this Himalayan giant towering over this settlement, there is not much else at Jomsom. We had a quick meal at a lodge and started walking towards the jeep station. The kids had their first walk on a Himalayan suspension bridge. Once we’d boarded the jeep, we were off on a rattling, bone-jarring ride to Muktinath, a pilgrimage site for Hindus and Buddhists in India and Nepal.
The otherworldly landscape of Lower Mustang spread out before our eyes. This was like a scene from the movie Samsara. The distant peaks were clad in snow. The lesser hills were grey, brown, stark naked and incredibly beautiful. The jeep descended to the riverbed of the upper Kali Gandaki River. It was a vast stretch of loose rock and gravel. As we forded the river, our jeep proudly spread water in every direction, reminding me of some macho cigarette advertisement I saw in my childhood. Out of the riverbed, our jeep wove round and round the dark, snow-clad hills, spinning huge clouds of dust on the lifeless terrain. If not for the power lines or the occasional trekker, someone who had just woken up might think that he’s on a Mars rover.
Avi pointed out some cavities in the sheer sandy-looking cliffs. Archaeologists believe that they were caves which were once inhabited. I wondered what kind of resolve one would need to live in this unforgiving realm. It was still early spring and as we approached Muktinath, we also crossed the snowline. The kids were excited and couldn’t wait to touch the snow. Unfortunately, the snow wasn’t fresh and was more ice kachang than powder. From the jeep station, it was a short walk to Muktinath proper. At the lodge, we ordered some food, but nobody had much of an appetite.
Swiftly dragged up to 3700m by plane and jeep, the effects of altitude began to show in the kids. I was hoping to do a quick hit and run, descending to Marpha 2650m to spend the night before altitude sickness set in. We ascended to the temple at 3800m and in spite of some complaints of breathing difficult and “not enough air”, both kids reached the temple without too much coaxing. An important lesson I learned is that while discomfort in unavoidable on trips like these, children, even though with special needs, are often able to take matters in their own stride. Grouchy adults are the most difficult.
It was another long, bumpy ride back to Jomsom after I decided to abort Kagbeni which is situated at an altitude of about 2900m. As we got out of the jeep and started walking towards Jomsom proper, I realised why there are no flights in the afternoon. It gets really windy (and cold) by then. In fact, a punishing wind sweeps through the entire Kali Gandaki river valley in the afternoon. The wind chill made a supposedly warmer part of the day seem colder. We settled down at the lodge, helped ourselves to some hot tea and tried to regain our senses. After a short wait, our jeep to Marpha was ready. Another long and bumpy ride and it was late afternoon when we arrived at Marpha – the apple capital on the Annapurna circuit.
Many villages and settlements in Lower Mustang crop up in the most unlikely places – like oases in the desert. Marpha resembles a warrior in defence mode, with his back against a wall, looking out for intruders. This makes perfect sense as the cliff above Marpha protects the settlement from the whipping, sand-laden winds.
From afar one would notice that Marpha has the build of a fortress with a prominent Tibetan gompa jutting out of a cliff. The small population here is chiefly ethnic Thakali and they have always been multi-lingual people, speaking fluent English, Nepali and Tibetan in addition to Thakali. That’s because Marpha was an important stopover on the trade route between India and Tibet. The lodges today used to house merchants and traders on both sides of the Tibetan plateau. They came with horses loaded with salt and tea. With a tradition of providing accommodations for weary traders, Thakali cooking is said to be good and Marpha’s organic apples are rumoured to be especially tasty. As it was not apple season then, the trees stood like grey, bare finger bones on the lifeless fields. Only dried apples were available and each packet costs less than $1. How can you go wrong with that?
Marpha’s exterior belied the standard of accommodation we had. There was an attached bathroom complete with hot shower and bathtub. Dinner was not easy for the kids. The lights in the dining hall were dim and the food was getting boring for them, but the vegetable and mushroom spring rolls I ordered were quite a treat. Without eating their normal fill, the kids went to bed early and needed no coaxing. I guess kids are normally able to take in the discomfort of adventure in their own stride. Grouchy adults are far more difficult to deal with.
It was the coldest night for kids, sleeping at 2650m. The mercury was bobbing slightly above and slightly below the zero mark, but with the thick blankets provided, our sleeping bags were better off as pillows. The next morning saw us walking through the quaint, stone-paved street of Marpha to catch our jeep to Tatopani.
Soon, we were back on track for another bumpy ride. I had thought that this would be a sissy trip, but make no mistake, you need buns of steel and a stomach that can withstand some blender action to tolerate this.
The scene changed dramatically as we came out of the screening, rain-stopping effect of the Annapurna massif at Tukuche. The skies turned cloudy and there was some greenery on the mountain slopes. There was even a hint of rain at Kalopani. We were finally pulling away from the arid rain-shadow area of Lower Mustang.
At Kalopani, Avi received news that there was a strike going on at Beni. Jeep drivers were called to boycott Indian tourists. Even though we could never be mistaken as Indians, Avi felt that the target group could include all tourists if the strike escalated. To be on the safe side, we decided to go all the way to Pokhara. It was a tough decision as we were already badly shaken up by the bumpy ride from Marpha. I had no problems spending a night at Tatopani, soaking in the hot spring with a can of cold beer to recuperate.
Unfortunately, the little one wasn’t taking it well at all. He doesn’t talk much because of his condition, but he kept saying that he wanted to go home. That was reason enough to head back to civilisation, but as he was running a fever, it was difficult to weigh out the benefit of Pokhara’s amenities against the possibility of his condition deteriorating with a further 4-hour drive.
We went for it anyway, lunching on momo and chicken steak at Tatopani, then continuing our trip to Pokhara. Incredibly, nobody threw up. With appropriate medication, the little one’s fever had broken. The rocky, punishing track gave way to sealed metal road at Beni – the usual starting point for treks in this region. The jeep sped up but it was almost dusk when we arrived at Pokhara.
For the record, we were on the road since 8.45am. This was pure madness. Annapurna on wheels is definitely no sissy trip. Nevertheless, the bigger boy had forgotten completely about “not enough air” and was somewhat disappointed that we left the mountains so soon.
After a sumptuous dinner at the hotel, everyone slept like a log that night. But the long, jarring trip had taken its toll. The sky was crystal clear the next morning, but we felt like bags of ball bearings, walking around as if our skins would burst through any moment. With an extra day since we skipped Tatopani the day before, Avi decided to bring us around Pokhara. In retrospect, that was a bad idea. We should have stayed in bed the whole day – to recuperate. Anyway, we managed to get to Devi Falls – rather unspectacular this time of the year even though we had quite a bit of rain these few days. The visit to the cave would have been quite interesting if not for the crowds that made it decidedly stuffy and claustrophobic. The most worthwhile place we visited that morning was the International Mountain Museum. The place was huge with many exhibits from ethnic costumes to stunning mountain photography, tributes to mountaineers as well as a Yeti suit and some rubbish taken down from Mt Everest. The bigger boy liked it.
Avi tried to entertain us with more programmes, but we decided that rest was what we needed most. I only remembered sleeping a lot. The next day saw us on the road again – this time towards Lumbini. Mercifully, the roads were all nicely sealed, the numerous switchbacks notwithstanding. A point to note is that even though Pokhara is closer to Lumbini than Kathmandu, the road conditions are very different.
We stopped for lunch at the ancient capital of the Magar Kingdom, Tansen. Situated at an altitude of 1091m some distance from the highway, almost every road in this hill station was an incline. Like the older part of Kathmandu, Tansen had many traditional buildings exuding with charm and character. It was sunny but chilly. Avi brought us to a restaurant that was full of Newari flavour. I loved the décor which included many traditional household appliances and vessels of all shapes and sizes. A kind of snack, resembling coils of colourful beehoon, was on sale here. You fry them until they are fluffy before eating. There were also apples, oranges and grapes being peddled on the streets. The fruits were weighed with archaic balance scales.
We left Tansen and pulled into our hotel at Lumbini. We washed up and headed for the historical park. I call it a historical park because the main significance of Lumbini is a historical park. The Buddha himself would not have wanted his birthplace to be considered sacred. But the Mayadevi Temple was a lot more crowded this time. There were Thai and Sri Lankan pilgrims. One Thai group, all dressed in white, was even guided by a monk who sounded like a tour guide on a commercial tour. After chanting (Pali) and encircling the coveted birth spot of the Buddha, his group went out to the pool and starting worshiping the water. His devotees scooped water out of the pool. Some merely dabbed the water on their hair. A few even washed their faces while our monk/guide reassured them that the water in the pool is “inexhaustible”.
Later, the monk/guide gathered the group around the Asoka Pillar and chanted in Thai that they will not be reborn after this life. Are they talking about instant Buddhahood with a visit to Lumbini? How convenient. At another side of the Asoka Pillar, was a contingent of Thai monks, seated and apparently preparing for another chanting session. Another group of lay followers, also dressed in white, was seated above the pool facing the Mayadevi Temple. I couldn’t hear what they were chanting, but they took a lot of group photos. Where is the peace and quiet if one wishes to meditate? It was clearly my little one and not the bigger boy who was fascinated with Lumbini. With the setting sun on his face, he walked pensively among the ruins as if he felt a strange connection with them. I left him alone until he started throwing broken branches into the pool!
We visited the Chinese temple and the Thai temple, but by then, it was dark and the temples were all closed. We decided to call it a day. It was a 30-minute drive in darkness back to the hotel. The bigger boy kept asking me why there were no streetlights. I told him that Nepal can’t afford it. We take too many things for granted in Singapore, but the lesson I teach here is not that we should appreciate what we have and stop complaining. The more important lesson is that we humans don’t need an awful lot to survive and be happy. The Buddha taught that greed, selfishness and attachment to impermanent things are causes of suffering. We don’t have to keep punching above our weight, stretching ourselves to buy a bigger house than we can afford, aiming for the sky and be obsessed with upgrading to be happy. If there’s no MRT, we take the bus. If there’s no bus, we walk. It’s better to live poor and free than to live like a rich man’s dog.
We had a feast of tandoori chicken and Kashmiri pulao back at the hotel and again the hyperactive little one needed no coaxing to get into bed. The drive to Kathmandu took up the whole of the next day. We had lunch of dhal baat and fish curry at Malekhu and continued our scenic drive along the Trisuli River. It was late afternoon when we checked into the Holy Himalaya Hotel. Jyoti greeted us and gave us some complimentary snacks and drinks. His two girls showed up later. They were studying in the British school and languages they learned included English, French and Nepali which they learned in very interesting and down-to-earth ways. They studied very simple and basic things in school. They took their time to learn things properly and had homework only once a week. The result? They were probably more articulate and street smart than many of our students. I figured out why bilingualism has failed in Singapore. We have been overloading our kids with complex academic things which don’t snap into real social situations. Language, especially Chinese, withers like an unused limb after the exams.
Later, the little one had a lot of fun spinning giant prayer wheels and pinching coloured balls of wool at Boudanath. At the Holy Himalaya, I also met Ripu, who left Jyoti to start his own trekking agency some years ago. Running a business must have been too tough for him. He was back and working at the hotel reception. Once a jovial, talkative guide like Maduk, he seemed to be much more sedate than the last time I saw him in 2009.
As for the kids, they found the computer room and they asked for nothing more. I brought the bigger boy out to Revolution Café for dinner that night and we did some serious shopping the next morning before we flew back to Singapore. He was fascinated with all the high tech trekking equipment and he seemed to know exactly what he needed. He sure is going back to Nepal. When he told me that Singapore is too hot for him and he wished he could go somewhere cold, I had wanted to teach him a lesson by bringing him to Nepal. It didn’t work.
But my biggest reward from this trip comes from my little one. After seeing how Daddy managed to bring him in and take him safely out of such an enjoyable yet harsh and dauntingly alien environment, he has gained quite a bit of respect for me. He has become more obedient.
My original plan for this trip can be found here. Please like and share this page. Your recommendation will be very much appreciated. The Knapsack spirit is beautifully summed up by this Andy Lau song.
© Chan Joon Yee