Picnic Trekking

We arrived in Nepal in early February, when serious trekking in the high mountains is not really possible. We still wanted some exercise, so we set off for a couple of days hiking in a nature reserve just outside Katmandu, in the foothills of the Himalaya. The nature reserve is run by the military, who use it for exercises and keep an eye on Katmandu's water supply, so you need a pass to get in. We soon learned to recognise the military installations by their extreme neatness and the red and white painted stone borders along the paths. As we entered the reserve, the weather was dull and looked likely to rain, but it was fairly warm, almost muggy. We had with us one guide and one porter, and were told that the 'kitchen staff' had gone on ahead. The guide insisted that the porter carry Mike's bag, and proceeded to carry mine. As we had just arrived from Europe, this was our first introduction to the local concept of service, and the discovery that we were not supposed to do anything ourselves.

Eventually we reached a Buddhist monastery for women which was sited on a narrow plateau. The residential quarters of the monastery were modern appartment blocks about three floors high in yellow painted concrete, quite similar to buildings at home in the Alps. The flats faced out into the valley and the view would probably have been quite inspiring if there had not been a thick fog. The women wore warm clothes such as heavy woollen skirts and thick sweaters all in the same deep Burgundy colour. Many lines of washing were hanging in front of the flats, without much hope of drying on a day like this. Of the women themselves, the ones we saw seemed very young, and when they saw us of course they giggled. At one end of the monastery was the temple painted in red and yellow. This also seemed like quite a new building though I am not so sure about some of things inside it. It was very richly decorated with painted walls and golden statues. Most of the floor space was taken up with two groups of low benches facing each other. Rice, and what looked like people's personal belongings were scattered liberally around this area. The strangest things in the temple were inside a glass display case and looked like very beautiful and brightly coloured abstract sculptures. The woman who showed us around did not speak much English but I think she tried to tell me that these were rice cakes placed there as offerings. The closest Western art I could compare this to would be the most elaborate kind of sugar confectionery, except that ours is usually not abstract. Next to the temple was one of the most impressive trees I have ever seen with hundreds of prayer flag streamers radiating out from it as though it were a maypole.

We were to have lunch at the monastery and the kitchen staff were waiting for us. This led to two more small surprises, the first being the discovery that we were expected to eat by ourselves at one end of the monastery's field whilst our various porters ate at the other end, and the second being the sheer quantity of food we were presented with. For a moment east fought with west as we contemplated the effects that politely finishing our food was going to have on our figures and then common sense and cultural education stepped in and reminded us that the others were probably going to be eating what we left. Sure enough, it did seem that they didn't really start until we had finished. It goes without saying that we felt pretty uncomfortable, but that's all part of travelling.

After quite a long lunch, we climbed some more and it began to snow. Our 'staff' was composed of five people, but at first I had no idea what any of them did except for the guide. Those of them who had loads to carry had the traditional conical type of wicker basket supported round the forehead with a strap. It was not long before Mike wanted to experiment with lifting one of these loads and discovered that, yes, it is very heavy. Apart from us and the guide, one other man carried next to nothing and at the time I even wondered if he was with us. One young lad was carrying a load of pots and pans about three times as big as himself, but apparently, this is not too heavy. Being very inquisitive types, it did not take us too long to find out a lot about the business end of trekking. There is a very rigid hierarchy amongst trekking staff which goes something like this: at the bottom the porters who carry things, set up camp and wait on the customers, then the kitchen boy (the one with the light but large load), then the chef, then the guide. To become a guide you need experience and the ability to speak English, at least. The guides are responsible for showing people around and ours took us on lots of detours, whilst our porters took the short cut. They are also responsible for safety and rescue, which is more important on higher-altitude, longer treks. I think cooks also have a pretty responsible job. As you might guess the Nepalese, including trekking staff, don't think all that much of trekking as a hobby. I'm sure they think we're all crazy for paying to go on treks. Among the comments they made about the job were that they considered it risky and had no insurance (meaning life insurance to protect their families, I assume), that they were away from their families for long periods and that it is very seasonal so their income is irregular. It seemed to turn out that our group were not too unhappy to be taking us trekking since this is out of season and also it is what they call 'picnic trekking'. Picnicking is definitely a very popular activity here, as it seems to be also in India. Picnic trekking is of course where you spend longer eating than you do walking, which is what we did.

Eventually we reached the place where we were going to camp for the night which was a relatively sheltered and flat clearing. It was still snowing. We discovered that setting up tents was one of the things that we were not expected to do, so we snuggled under a bush and used the last of the light to read by until they were ready for us. Our camp was no simple affair: we had two bivouac tents, one for us and one for the guide and the A porter, a toilet tent, and a sort of sheltered kitchen area complex enough to produce delicious three course meals. Once we got into our tent they brought us hot water to wash with, followed by tea and by the time dinner was ready they had lit a huge fire and the snow had stopped. Although it had been reasonably warm during the day, the nights proved to be quite cold and we were glad of all the warm clothes we had brought, even though they were going to be so much extra baggage once we got to India.

Trekking continued...

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