Ten Days in Nepal
15.10.1964 - 26.10.1964
Thursday 15-10-1964 to Monday 26-10-1964
Our contact in Muzaffapur was B.K.Sinha, a wealthy grain contractor. We were soon roped into giving a talk to the local Rotary Club on Wednesday 28th, after our return from Nepal. We went with a friend of our host to see the four and a half hour Indian musical epic Sangam, in three parts, finishing at 2 am. If that wasn’t enough, we had to endure our companion humming along with every song in the film. We then stayed up another two hours, watching the local Dusserah festivities, and were invited to the roof of a nearby police station, an excellent spot to see the elaborately decorated floats of gods and devils being dragged to the river to be immersed, amidst spectacular sword dances and mock battles in the streets. With the drums and the music and the smoke from fireworks it was a heady atmosphere. We stayed two nights in a guest room with its own entrance on the ground floor of B.K. Sinha’s large house and set off on Saturday 17th for Raxaul on the Indian-Nepalese border. Slept there on the verandah of a rest-house occupied by the Canadian Military Attaché in Delhi, plus family. Nice chap, they were just returning from Kathmandu. Next morning, Sunday 18th, we went through border formalities and were finally in Nepal. From then until now has been one of the finest periods of my life.
Nepal - Birgunj to Kathmandu
We obtained a ride on a truck and set off for Kathmandu at about 9 am. It was not long before the environment had changed totally. The contrast was sudden and complete. We started to climb through beautiful forest scenery. We saw the first clearwater streams since leaving Australia, winding their way in similar fashion to those in the Snowy Mountains. The road is a masterpiece of engineering, the path it takes, but it is only loose gravel and the bushes and trees beside it were covered in a fine coating of white dust, testimony to the fact that it is the only road into Kathmandu from the outside world. At every turn or hairpin bend, of which there are many, another vista of the ever higher foothills of the Himalayas. My excitement increased and has stayed high through virtually the whole of my visit to Nepal. The abundance of timber is in striking contrast to India, where all you find are a few half-hearted attempts at forestation. We passed through our first Nepalese villages, just as I had imagined them after reading National Geographic articles on Himalayan areas. They have so much more of a strong rugged character than Indian villages, and with fewer people and their setting amongst rushing mountain streams and soaring hills, they are such a pleasant and picturesque change.
We continued to climb, and at one stage must have gone up a thousand feet in a mile or so, as we negotiated a series of ten zig-zag hairpin bends. Higher still we passed a huge rock with LOVERS CHAIR written on it, named by the foreign construction engineers, and I saw the first heavy machinery since leaving home. There were harrowing moments as we passed other trucks on narrow stretches of road. In mid-afternoon we were up in the clouds, literally, above 6000 feet, and it was suddenly quite cold. We observed with eye and camera (I hope) superb scenes of mist-shrouded pines.
Eventually the highest point of our climb, the pass called Shimbanjang at 8162.9 feet. We could not see any snow-capped peaks, but we still had ten days for that.
The descent was as interesting as the ascent. Beauty everywhere. Valleys of patchwork fields and neat, well spaced peasants’ cottages, all similar in style, painted sienna on the lower half and ochre on the upper half. Towards evening, the sun shining in rays through openings in the western clouds lent a master’s touch to the painting like beauty of the valleys and range upon range of mountains. As evening fell, a brilliant red sunset and rolling grey misty mountains.
Friendly Nepalese greeted our waves with wide grins as we went down into the Kathmandu Valley. The checkpoints along the road were a novelty, so not really a nuisance. The 11 hour journey was tiring, because our senses were saturated with the beauty of Nepal. We have discovered, as relatively few people have, the greatness of the highest country on Earth.
In and around Kathmandu
Kathmandu, capital city of Nepal, is more like a country town in size. It is fascinating almost beyond description, a city of countless pagoda style temples and enchanting market places. Compared with India it is clean, the number of people far less, and they seem happier and friendlier. We ate at only four restaurants constantly: The Globe (converging spot of most foreign visitors of meagre means); Juanita (nicer than Globe, but less well known); Tibetan (three table job, not bad, but too far away); Imperial (the best setting and the highest priced, safest place to eat, but only if you decide not to worry about spending a little more). We stayed in a hotel called the Hillview, in a room with four others: Mark & Eric, travelling in a Land Rover from England; Ian, a fellow Australian from Kirribilli, huge chap, nice bloke; and Tony, a terribly English chap who went into the importing business while he was there. It was really amusing to watch him go to work with the dealer. The tariff was 2.13 N rupees per night, and the place was hardly worth that; stinking toilets and showers, a room with straw mattresses on the floor, a rat which constantly ran across a ledge on the wall, water dropping constantly into a smelly alley outside, a window which did not allow enough light into the room to see anything even at midday, and an electric light which was periodically turned off by the management. Still, it was not bad enough to stop us from getting a decent sleep, and the company was good. The manager was a slimy fellow who kept walking into the room to check on how many were staying there. The hotel was a United Nations den of travelling bums, mostly American, but every other travelling nation was represented. Inevitably, the hotel soon became the black market centre of Kathmandu, and bargaining in cameras, watches, sleeping bags, film, clothes and money went on virtually 24 hours of the day. All this made the hotel bearable, so we actually had a fairly good stay for our money . Best rate I got for the dollar was 11.5 N rupees. Kathmandu was a city of endlessly absorbing experiences; I never became tired of walking through the market places and looking in the curio and craft shops. I bought a Nepali hat under the guidance of a young Nepali called George, who showed us around the town the first few days, and who asked us for a dictionary (English - Nepali), which we gave him. I feel perhaps he really got a better deal than we did. I also bought a Sherpa jacket for 25 N rupees. I would have liked to have bought prayer wheels, Buddhas etc., but I spent a fortune in Nepal as it was. First day we saw King Mahendra and Queen Ratna drive past towards the palace from the airport (returning from non-aligned countries conference in Cairo).
As soon as we had arrived in Kathmandu we had checked into the local Jesuit High School, run by American Jesuits, and more particularly by a Father Moran, who is a fanatical radio ham. We sat in while he tried to contact somebody, but there were too many people on the air. Apparently when Hillary was on Everest on the original climb and on later expeditions, Moran was his only contact with the outside. Hillary is at present up there, and Moran acts as mediator each evening when he calls his wife in New Zealand. We found out later that he is a very influential man in the country, and gets anything he wants. Second night we stayed with a contact that didn’t work out too well, and it was only on the third night that we moved into the Hillview. We took cycles one day and cycled throughout the town, looking at temples, streets, people etc., and another day rode horses out to the Buddhist Stupa at Boudnath. We went all over the valley, to Baktapur, Patan (with its superb Durbar Square), etc., but to me the best place in Kathmandu was Swayambanath, the Stupa on the hill outside the city.
I was lucky to be there on the most important day in one of their religious festivals, and the sights and sounds were unforgettable. Tibetan bands and chants, pilgrims offering food and flowers to Buddha, the unbeatable views of the city, the priests, the monkeys tormenting the pilgrims and stealing the offerings, the gambling being carried on around the Stupa, the extraordinary beauty of the Stupa and surrounding shrines and buildings, the flat faced Tibetan children, the steep steps leading down, the restful atmosphere among the trees below, where the sun filtering through the leaves fell into rays when striking the smoke from offerings, the peace and beauty of the countryside on the way back. This country is so wonderful. Saw a funeral crossing the river on the way back, and burning pyres on the banks.
We went in Mark’s Land Rover up to Nagarkot to spend the night. It was a very scenic, but quite hazardous and bumpy ride up. We drove out through the beautiful fields and up into the hills, past neat little villages and grazing cattle. We turned a bend around dusk, with restrained apprehension, and there in the distance, though looking very close, was a huge pyramid peak rising above the evening cloud. Our excitement burst. We moved further and saw a full range of mountains in the hazy distance. We were positive Everest was one of them. We slept the night up there in most comfortable lodgings, and next morning hurried out to take full advantage of any break in the clouds. For a couple of hours we had occasional glimpses of the majestic ranges, but at 9 am, the mist suddenly cleared completely, and for an angle of 180 degrees we saw the profound majesty and unsurpassable beauty of the greatest peaks in the world, the Himalayas, Everest among them.
An ambition had been fulfilled and I was satisfied just to have experienced this.
Another wonderful experience in Nepal was the friendship we struck up with some musicians in a back street. Eric had bought local drums, and the drummer tried them out. This first visit was good, but it was capped by the second visit two nights later. It was a different drummer, and the subtlety of his playing was superb. His hands and the sounds they made were hypnotic - the old organist was superb too. To this local religious music and prayers, they gave their whole souls.