Wednesday, 20 December 2017

Patan Durbar square revisited

One of my favourite places in Kathmandu was Patan Durbar Square, the old palace square filled with ancient temples.  When I was living in Kathmandu in 2013 I would walk here, just to sit there and take in the atmosphere and the culture. It was a brilliant place to people-watch, as the Nepalis love this place too, so there were always lots of people there.

The area was badly damaged in the earthquake of April 2015.  It was interesting, on my return to Kathmandu two years later, to take a walk through the narrow back alleyways through Patan to the old palace square.

Two things struck me;
Firstly there was so much reconstruction going on; old brick houses in the alleyways, some still propped up with wooden struts, some being repaired. In other places there were new houses to replace ones beyond repair. There were piles of bricks stacked waiting for use at the side of the road near sites where buildings had been demolished.

Secondly, in Patan Durbar Square itself the rebuilding of the ancient temples, where, immediately after the earthquake I had observed every brick being salvaged and stacked, every carved piece of wood being removed from the wreckage and stored to await rebuilding. Now you could see the ancient temples being rebuilt, from the foundations upwards. 

Great care is being employed to restore these temples to their original magnificence.  Some are still shrouded in scaffolding or supported by strong wooden beams waiting for their turn.
 The Square itself was busy with both tourists and Nepalis. It will be interesting to visit again in a few years time when all the rebuilding is completed and the square is back to its original state.

The new road


During the long walk up to Phillim I had not particularly noticed the activity for the New Road, possibly because it was holiday time in Nepal so building work was on hold. This road is being built up the Manuslu valley and into the Tsum Valley to link Nepal and China. After nearly 4 weeks in the peace of the upper valley, the noise from the building work was a stark reminder of the twenty first century, as we walked down.

This road is a huge undertaking! The valley sides are very steep, and at present the path, very narrow in places, rises and falls sharply over cliffs and bluffs. The path crosses numerous side valleys on pedestrian suspension bridges, which will need to be replaced by more substantial bridges capable of carrying road traffic.

Men working with drills on the steep hillside.
At present, on one stretch of the lower valley, the steep rocky cliffs are being blasted to create enough level land for a road bed. As we walked down we passed small red air compressors, which must have been imported by helicopter, powering heavy duty drilling tools, being used to cut away the rock.

Whilst walking below on the riverside beach I was startled to hear and then see a very large boulder rolling down the hillside towards me! I moved fast to make sure I was well clear of its path as it crashed onto the beach. There was a drilling team working on the rock face above.

Between Lapubesi and Sotikhola, which is about a one hour walk, the path is shut daily from 6am to 5pm. The alternative route during the path closure is a long detour uphill, of about 3 to 4 hours. Luckily, as we reached Lapubesi, the path was briefly opened for an hour, whilst the workforce ate their morning meal at 11 am. We heard the ‘back to work’ whistle just before we reached Sotikhola.

Near Lapubesi we passed a large number of porters carrying heavy looking cardboard boxes, escorted by army personnel equipped with guns. We deduced that these cardboard boxes being transported up the valley contained gunpowder for the blasting operations.
The new road bed cut from the rock.

It is with some sadness that I witnessed the building of this road. The Manuslu trail is, at present a spectacular walk, unblemished by the 21st Century. In Phillim there are no cars, lorries or motorbikes and the children can wander and play safely around the village. Many children have never seen a car, bus or motorbike. Modern noise pollution is only present with the excitement of the occasional landing of a helicopter. The ever present sound of the river and the occasional sound of domestic animals gives the valley a timeless quality. In a few years time the completion of the road will mean the loss of this tranquillity.

Mitini ceremony


Friendships between pairs of girls and between women are very important in Nepal. So much so that there is a special ceremony to cement best friends, who then become Mitini, very like a sisterhood bond.

The staff at the school were anxious that we attended what they termed “a party and dancing” on a Friday evening. Luckily I returned to the school to see what was happening, and it turned out to be a Mitini Ceremony for two girls aged 16 from Class 10. It was obviously a very special event.

On the platform outside the dining hall, a table had been put, with two chairs, one on each side. On the table were several trays and dishes; a tray containing flowers and a dish containing a rice mixture with possibly sugar to make it sticky. There was a bronze jug filled with white chrysanthemums and a few marigolds. Kata garlands of flowers and colourful Buddhist kata scarves were also beside the table and a bag of sweets was hung on a small hook.

Before the ceremony started an older boy had turned on some music, from a small tablet, and some of the boys were dancing. However when the ceremony began the music stopped and everyone crowded around to watch.

The two girls sat opposite each other on either side of the table, and all the boarders from the hostels, along with all the teachers, stood around to watch the ceremony. The two girls had their hair styled carefully, and wore tartan shawls and lungi, long skirts worn by the Gurung women.

Firstly the girls took flowers from the table and secured them into each other’s hair. Their hands were entwined to do this. They also put a small dollop of sticky rice onto each other’s foreheads. After a few flowers in the hair, they placed the kata garlands and ceremonial scarves around each other’s necks, while the audience clapped.

Then their girl friends from the class proceeded to come forward and honour them both with rice and flowers, and wrapped presents.

Later the boys in the class also stepped forward, one at a time, to put rice and flowers on them. The boys however finished their part by giving each girl a small sum of money, straight into their hands. The surrounding audience clapped with each gift. While this was happening a girl from the class took the bag of sweets around the crowd, offering everyone.

The evening continued with music and dancing, and much merriment, which I could hear long after I had left the school and returned to my room.

Buddha Ma Vi School


Perched on the hillside at the edge of the village of Phillim, Buddha Ma Vi Secondary School is the most northerly secondary school in the Manuslu area of Nepal.  Many students at the school have to stay in the hostels there, as their homes are too far away for them to be day pupils. There are 170 boarders living in 4 hostels. The homes of some of these students are two or three days walk away from the school, high in the mountains, and so they only go home for holidays.

Pupils from the village walking into school.

There are over 400 students in total attending the school, aged from three or four in the ECD class (Early Child Development) through to 47 students aged 16 who will take Secondary Education Exam in the spring. Last year the school had impressive results with 100% pass for this government exam. These students were all able to continue their education at colleges in Gorkha, Pokhara or Kathmandu, but as this is very expensive, most students needed scholarships from outside sources.

Morning assembly before lessons start.

One of the girls hostels.
About 35 girls and 2 teachers live in this one.
Many of the teachers at the school have homes several days walk down the valley, in Gorkha or even Kathmandu. They live up in Phillim during term time, only going home for holidays. In Phillim they live at the school along with the boarding students.  This means that the teachers are always with the students; they work, eat and sleep alongside them, with no time of their own.

The school buildings were designed and built by a Japanese charity in 2008, and since the earthquake of 2015, this Japanese NGO has carried out repairs and rebuilding to damaged classrooms and hostels. There is still the girls toilet block, another student hostel and the teachers hostel to rebuild this year.
Students have slept in this corrugated iron shed since
the earthquake in April 2015.
Three male teachers still sleep in this tent.

The roof and part of the wall is missing on the girls toilet block

Some male teachers are still sleeping in a tarpaulin emergency tent, and the female teachers have to share the girls hostel. Some students are sleeping in temporary corrugated iron sheds.

The girls toilets have a large hole in the wall, and is half full of rubble but are still in use, two and a half years after the earthquake! In autumn 2016 all boarding students were still sleeping in emergency tents erected outside the classrooms in the school grounds, so good progress at rebuilding and repair has been made in the past year.

Outside the primary classrooms.
The school is built of local stone and is of dry-stone wall construction. As well as 4 hostels there are at present 11 classrooms, a store room, office/staff room and a large circular dinning hall. The school building won an award in 2009 after building, for the best new stone building that year.
The circular dining building

This is the kitchen where food is cooked for
170 boarding students
Student being served vegetable curry for supper.

As is usual in Nepal there are almost no resources in the classrooms, except for a whiteboard and desks and chairs. This furniture is more modern than in many Nepali classrooms, but some of it is broken or damaged. There are no displays on the classroom walls, no charts, posters or learning support materials.

Most teaching is done by rote, as is common in most Nepali schools. The teacher stands at the front of the class and frequently reads or says the information to be learnt, which the students repeat in chant mode, sometimes with little or no understanding. Everything has to be learnt by heart. 

Tuesday, 19 December 2017


Two long days of walking northwards up the Manuslu trail from the road end brings you to a village called Phillim, perched on the hillside above the river. The valley is steep and the trail ascends and descends over and around obstacles, whilst steadily climbing towards the high mountains, such as Manuslu at over 7000 metres. 
The village of Phillim, clinging to the mountainside.

Phillim is found at 1800 metres high, up a steep 30 minute zig-zag path from the suspension bridge that crosses the rushing river.

You can hear the river almost anywhere in Phillim, and see it from many of the houses. You can also see the onward trail stretching ahead, contouring the steep valley side, until it goes over a small bluff and into the next village, Chisopani, which means ‘cold water’.
Looking up the valley from Phillim.

In the recent re-organisation of local government, Phillim has been agreed as the administration centre of the new Municipality of the Tsum Valley and Manuslu.  This mountainous area is characterised by steep sided valleys cut by the rushing rivers which feed into the Buddha Gandaki Nadi river, bringing water down from the snowy peaks of the north. It is sparsely populated area with small villages of stone houses, some of which support tourists trekking the Manuslu Trail.
Village houses 

The stone steps lead right up through the village
to the Gompa at the top.

The people are of the Gurung ethnic group, speaking their own language as a mother tongue, and with their own customs and traditions. They are predominantly Buddhist and Phillim along with many of the neighbouring villages have a small gompa, a Buddhist place of worship. Around the village and on the trail there are prayer flags fluttering and small chortens with a few carved mani stones. At the top of the village of Phillim, up many flights of stone steps, is the village gompa.

The decorated inside of the village Gompa.
The eyes on the chorten look over the village.

Inside one of the village shops.

Phillim has a few shops, small businesses selling a huge range of wares; one shop sells material, ribbon, clothes, and wool through to biscuits and bottles of coke. When I asked for paracetamol for a sore throat, the shopkeeper rummaged around in a plastic box to find five left in a plastic strip. He obviously sells them individually as he asked me how many I wanted!

A laden donkey. Notice the river far below.

All supplies in the shops have to be brought by porter or mule up the valley. During the day there are frequent trains of mules passing through the village in both directions. The ones trotting down the valley are often unladen, whereas those toiling upwards have heavy loads tied on their backs. The mules have bells around their necks so you can hear their approach, which is useful so you can get out of the way. We were warned to stand off the path if possible, on the inner hillside, to let the mule trains pass, as if you are on the outside you may be knocked down the steep hillside. I was knocked off the path once, fortunately only down a soil bank, giving me dirty hands but no injuries.

The office of MCAP, the Manuslu Conservation Area Project is situated near the centre of the village. During our visit this seemed to be the only place which had Internet, and we needed to use it to send emails etc. However even here the Internet was weak and it took a long time (45 minutes) to log on and to send an email. It felt strange, in 21st. Century to be completely out of contact with friends and family at home.

On the mend! The foot after treatment.
The village has a Health Post, a sort of rural clinic run by trained medical workers, but mostly without a doctor.  Shamilla, one of the health workers, at our asking, visited a boy in one of the nearby villages, Pangsing, who had a badly infected foot. After treatment for the wound and a short course of antibiotics it was good to see him fit and well and back at school. 
The boy with a broken arm had 3 days travel
to hospital.  Look carefully and you can see
his feet hanging over the basket edge.

However, during the same visit she had to send a younger boy with a broken arm to the nearest hospital in Gorkha, three days walk away!

The village income is mostly generated by providing food and lodging for passing trekkers. There are several small guest houses, with rooms and restaurant and these are usually busy during the main trekking seasons; March and April, and October and November.
The trekking lodge where I stayed in Phillim.