I write from Surkhet, western Nepal, on an ancient PC which took about 45 minutes walk to find. The smartphone revolution has killed the cyber cafe, my usual email haunt, and there’s plenty to catch up on. I arrived in this regional town from a big trip to the remote Rara Lake. Not many people make it there, around 200 foreigners and 800 Nepalese tourists for the whole year, and I came in as the second tourist for the season, which runs from September to December with the odd intrepid snow trekker after that.
From Pokhara, where I stayed for three weeks, the trip involved a 19 hour overnight bus to Surkhet -including a surprise bus swap 5 or 6 hours in which left me perched in between two bouncy back row seats, before a few people got off hours later to give me a proper space to try and sleep in – then a night in Surkhet, a 12 hour jeep to Jumla on the world’s most dangerous highway – which was surely dangerous but a bit generous to call a rutted 4wd only dirt track a highway – then three day’s walking. I arrived after dark on the third day after covering maybe 30km and at a guess at least 2km of hills climbed. The journey, which it was, was a huge redemptive experience after my foot injury last year – I was really happy with the Langtang Valley hike as I hadn’t done a proper hike since early 2018, but had to rest a lot there. This time I pushed on for the three days over really rough terrain and long distances so despite dealing with ongoing soreness on the walk I’m confident in my foot again. It feels good to be able to trust my body will do what I need it to after this long.
The lake is spectacular; a gem in the high country at 3000m, and the water is exceptionally clean. No fishing, a few zodiac paddlers, no swimming allowed and they’ve reforested the entire surrounding catchment since declaring it a national park in 1976. They relocated two whole villages from the lakeshores to the Tarai region, and I’d be interested to find out how they are getting on, and how consensual that process was – I understand they were granted more land, with road access, so presumably have become more prosperous, but by the same token no longer live in this special place.
The only old village in the area, Murma, is a ramshackle place that I felt quite confronted by, for everyone there seemed unwell, snot hanging out of nose after nose, the woman I bought a cup of tea from haucking and coughing as she passed it to me, and the paths covered in a putrid combination of mud, donkey dung, rubbish and scraps. But, like many of these places, it was also full of life – children everywhere, playing with a punctured soccer ball, animals roaming free, smoke rising from the stovepipes and drifting over the hillside in the afternoon light, people busy in the fields which terraced the slope down to the river and old men and women sitting, squatting, watching and talking while they smoke ganja from old metal pipes.
This village remains as it sits outside the lake catchment, and it is places like this that show the ancient way of life, the houses made of mud and stone, everything built for a purpose with the roof space for storing and drying grain, hay, produce for the harsh winter to keep the people and animals fed.
I stayed up there for four days, writing up a storm with no distractions in the form of English speakers or technology, until making friends with a group of four Nepali men for a night who had come up to see the lake, but left early the next morning. I wasn’t keen on the walk back for two reasons, one the amount of descending and my tired legs, two the travesty which has been wrought on the Nepali hills by government policy. A change from some federal level to local level control of roads has meant that local governments have started cutting roads everywhere you look, and with absolutely no planning involved. They put a bloke in a big excavator and send them from one town to the next, on steep, unstable slopes – the result, in the valleys I walked through north of Jumla, is a mess of landslips, unusable roads covered in fallen trees, boulders or washed away, huge areas of farmland for crops and grazing destroyed as well as the old tracks, used by herders and locals for centuries, being covered in the process.
After the first half day’s walk climbing out of the Jumla valley and reaching an amazing saddle between the high hills, I hit the first valley with such roads and it was a lonely, devastating walk to the town I’d stay for the night. The fact that the locals own no vehicles and couldn’t use them even if they did is a cruel thing, for they now see these gashes instead of the green hills they always lived with. So I wouldn’t recommend anyone to walk this route, which is a shame as only a year or two ago it would have been magnificent from start to finish. Nepal is destroying their hills which most tourists come to visit – a case of ‘you’re too late’, which is the way of the world in many many places. It reminded me of Vicforests action last year when they logged a section of forest earmarked for the Emerald Link walk in East Gippsland – so it’s not about Australia being any better in this regard, but a sad reality of travelling in a destructive age.
I walked out via Talcha, where I managed to get a jeep for eight hours to Jumla, an amazing passage but the knowledge that the road should not even be there as I was hurtling along it was a curious thing to inhabit. Now I’m back in Surkhet, and am about to undertake a Vipassana meditation retreat in the nearby pine forest hills. From there I will go back to Kathmandu, catch up with a couple of friends there and fly to Delhi to begin the next leg of the trip in India.
I fly out on of the final day of my 90 day visa here, which I never would have expected, but Nepal is that kind of country – full of fascinating cultures, people, incredible diversity in those and the landscapes and for a vegetarian, great food. Next stop is India, moving from north to south en route to Maharashtra to see my friends from 2018 in Narur.
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Until next time,