Friday, 31 October 2014

Trek up the Langtang Valley

The bus ride from Kathmandu to Syabrubesi and the start of the trek was  “the worst ever experienced!” according to my son.  A single track road with hairpin bends and switchback corners, huge ruts and muddy uneven surface, yawning drops down the mountainside with no safety barriers and half cleared landslides was extremely scary – it took the bus about 9 hours to cover 120 Kilometres!

The trek, which takes about 6 days of hard walking, follows the river valley of the Langtang Khola steeply up into the mountains and close to the border with Tibet (China).  At times we could see the snow-capped mountains of Tibet.

We began by crossing a suspension bridge over the river and then walked through forest for the first day, hearing below us the rushing of the river at all times.

We passed fabulous waterfalls and enormous boulders, the size of houses, suspended on the hillside where they had been left many thousands of years ago by ice, water or landslide.
My grandson sitting on top of one of the enormous boulders near Langtang village.
Surprisingly, a tea-house we passed mid-morning had a bakery selling croissants and delicious homemade biscuits – which gave us fuel for the steep four-hour climb that followed. We were tired and relieved to reach Lama Hotel, our accommodation for the night. That day we climbed 1000 metres taking about 7 hours. Well done to Solli, my nine-year old grandson for that achievement!

Next morning we left the forest and steep path, continuing through upland grassland with grazing yak and gently ascending all day. We reached the village of Langtang, that day’s destination, by mid-afternoon. 

Yak grazing

Towering around the top of the valley were snow-capped mountains, peaks ranging from 5000 metres to the highest Langtang Lirung at 7246 metres.  Truly awesome, in the correct sense of the word!

The inhabitants of the upland valley are mostly Tibetan and Buddhist, so we passed many strings of prayer flags, prayer wheels, mani stones and stupas.  I particularly liked the mani stones – long lines of flat stones, many hundreds of years old, carved with symbols and prayers arranged into a wall along the side of the path.  We had to be careful to pass them in a clockwise direction as is expected in this religion.   

Also interesting were the prayer wheels powered by the mountain streams tumbling into the valley.  Each had a small house built around it to protect it and every time the wheel turns the prayer inscribed on it is sent.  

All along the valley, often at conspicuous places, were Buddhist stupas.  Many of these were painted with gold tops and colourful decoration on the lower parts. Some had the boulders around painted with Buddhist signs too. Streams of prayer flags surrounded each one.

We stayed overnight at the topmost settlement, Kyanjin Gompa, and visited the small monastery there.
Despite the stunning mountains all around us, we were saddened by this village, which seemed to cater only for tourist trekkers and not the local inhabitants.  

Next morning the sunrise was worthy of the early start - by 6.30 a.m. we were above the village and watching the first shafts of sunlight fall on the summit of Langtang Lirung. Magic!

On the last day of our return we took an alternative high path instead of the one we had come up, and were rewarded with a walk through alpine type pastures, with interesting flowers and butterflies, and of course fabulous views back up the valley. We stopped for lunch in a small lodge high in the hills, which, we decided, would be an ideal place to stay if you wanted to get away from the 21st Century for a few days.  

As we descended back into the valley, to Syabrubesi, at the end of our trek, it was interesting to see a road snaking up the hillside on the opposite side of the valley - so many hairpin bends!

How far we felt we had travelled during our week of walking, and what great memories we had to take away with us.
(Many thanks to my son, Chris, for the use of his photos. I carelessly lost my camera on the last day, containing about 500 photos of the trek!  I was not happy.) 

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

'fants - big and small

My three year old granddaughter loves elephants ('fants) so this blog page is especially for her.
I recently went to Chitwan National Park with my son and grandson who have been visiting Nepal. Here there are lots of working elephants as they are used to patrol the park and also earn income by giving tourists rides.

We saw some being taken down to the river for a bath - which they obviously loved, rolling around and spraying water.  One mahout had to get cross, as his elephant didn't want to get out!

We visited the elephant breeding centre and saw
lots of young elephants, the youngest being only one month old. He was lovely - so small that he was able to walk under his mothers belly.  We saw him play with some of the slightly bigger elephants, but he didn't go far from his mother.
One of the slightly older elephants, about 3 years old, kept moving the barrier, climbing over and running off to try and find his mother.  She was working nearby carrying sacks of elephant food to the shed to be stored.
Another female elephant carrying sacks had her baby trotting along beside her as she walked back and forth.

The next day we had a ride on an elephant into the jungle, which was great as we were able to see wildlife that would have run away if we had been on foot.  There were steps for us to climb so we could just step onto the elephants back and sit down, but the mahouts were able to climb up the elephants trunks, holding on to their ears.  Then they sat just behind the elephant's head and steered by moving their knees and feet against its neck.  The ride was interesting with a swaying motion, but we felt quite safe.
After our ride we were able to feed bananas to the elephant. We noticed that she hid some of them in her trunk, rather than eat them all at once! What lovely creatures!
More bananas please!

This elephant liked her spotty trunk rubbed!

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Changu Narayan Temple.

During the time I was staying in the Kathmandu Valley last year, there was only one World Heritage site, out of 7 in the valley, that I did not visit; Changu Narayan Temple.  Now, back in Kathmandu for a few days, I've had time to go there with some VSO friends. 
The temple contains some of the oldest statues and carvings known in Nepal, and friends had said it was worth the effort to get there.  The journey involved two bus rides, the first taking us out of the city to Bhaktapur, and then the second climbing the 6 kilometres, steeply uphill through winding lanes, to the small village where the temple is sited.  Luckily the buses connected well and the total journey of two hours cost us about 35 pence!

We walked up the paved path through the village, passing the usual small shops selling items aimed at tourists; thankas (Buddhist pictures), shawls, singing bowls and Nepali tea. “Tourist hoina!” (I’m not a tourist!) I said and hardly stopped to look. The photo below shows the main street with rice grains, newly harvested, spread out to dry on tarpaulins on the path. 

Changu Narayan Temple is sited right at the top of the village on a ridge, with views of the Kathmandu Valley on all sides.  The Temple is beautiful, with a two-tiered pagoda as the central building, and the surrounding courtyard has many statues and carvings, some dating from as early as the 5th Century AD.  Very few ‘biddeshis’ make it this far on their sightseeing tours, but today we were not alone at the temple.  As it was a Nepali public holiday there were many Nepali couples and family groups out for the day, which gave the place a happy festive atmosphere.

The temple is dedicated to the Hindu God Vishnu who, as Narayan, is thought to be the creator of all life.  Many of the statues and carvings show Vishnu in his various incarnations.  One particularly interesting and very old one shows the 10 headed Vishnu lying on a serpent.

Vishnu, the statue pictured on a
10 rupee notes.

 One of the statues from this temple is pictured on a 10 rupee Nepali banknote; Vishnu sat astride Garuda the flying vehicle of Vishnu.

A stone pillar, with carved inscription, is the oldest known script in the valley, dating from AD 464.  It tells the story of the king of that time, who persuaded his mother not to commit ‘sati’ after the death of his father.  Sati was ritual suicide, and was the practise for wives at that time when their husband died!

The huge metal conch shell on top of another tall pillar creates an interesting image. 

By the golden doorway a very old statue from the 5th century, depicts a figure, Garuda, kneeling. It was covered in red powder, tikka, because of the festival, as were most of the other statues we saw at the temple.

Lion standing guard at the golden door.

The temple building itself is guarded by pairs of animals on each side; elephants, griffons, sarabhas (half lion, half bird) and lions.  I noticed there were interesting doors on two sides, one beautifully decorated in golden coloured metal and the other of carved wood.  What craftsmanship!

Intricate designs on carved wooden door.

As we weren’t Hindus, we could not enter the temple, and photographs of the inside are forbidden.  However there was plenty to see outside! The roof at each layer, has carved wooded struts of intricate detail, featuring Hindu Gods, each one different.  

Looking up at the roof struts carved as Hindu deities.
Many armed deity on one
carved wooden roof strut.
Roof strut painted in gold depicting
 a mythical animal

My attention was caught by a row of small gargoyle-like heads decorating the wall of another small temple. Wherever I looked there was something different to see.

In one corner of the courtyard there was a small temple, which again we could not enter.  The guardian of the temple was even unhappy that I should want to take a photo of the outside.  This temple is dedicated to the Goddess Chhinnamasta, who beheaded herself to feed Dakini and Varnini, two bloodthirsty Hindu deities.  The name Chhinnamasta translated into English, literally means "beheaded one"! This bloodthirsty theme was still evident at the temple, as the blood of recent animal sacrifices was dried on the ground outside, and from a brief unofficial glimpse of the inside, in there too. (No photos you will be glad to hear!) In Nepal during Dashain, the special Hindu festival in October taking place at the moment, many millions of animals are slaughtered for sacrifice, before being eaten.

Around the edge of the courtyard is a shaded platform.  Stored in one part and not really on display, I discovered a beautiful miniature chariot, which is probably used during a special festival to transport an image of Vishnu. Pulled by carved elephants and with a decorated wooden and metal structure, I was intrigued by this small replica.

Later we had an eventful journey back to Kathmandu.  Because of the public holiday, many people were returning from their day out and catching the bus. We were fortunate because we boarded at the terminus and therefore got seats, but as the journey progressed, the bus became more and more crowded. Packages and even small children and babies were passed in through the windows, and we had them sitting on our laps, whilst the mothers were squashed in the aisle and on the steps. Even the roof was laden with passengers, until we came to the outskirts of Bhaktapur, when the roof travellers had to get down and walk or squeeze inside, as roof travel is no longer permitted in Nepal, and they would have been caught by the police in the town.

Changu Narayan Temple, part of the rich cultural heritage of Nepal, was definitely worth visiting.