When I was a kid, we used to play a boardgame at my parents’ cottage called ‘Geo’. You would land on a country and have to guess the capital city, language or flag. For the flags, you would have a cardboard with all the country flags and would have to guess which is the right one. One of the first times we played, I landed on Nepal and tried to guess the flag. I was probably no older than 7 or 8. I looked at the country on the map and said: “Well, it’s a small country, so it must be a small flag”… That’s how I correctly guessed the little weird shaped Nepali flag the very first time. Ever since, there’s been the ‘small country, small flag’ running joke in my family and Nepal has stayed on my mind…
It must have been a sign because after less than 48 hours in this beautiful country that is Nepal, I had already decided that I’d be back here one day…
Here’s a very short summary of the wonderful six weeks spent here:
I was picked up at Kathmandu airport and driven to Millenium guesthouse to meet Badri, the man behind the not for profit organisation I had organised my volunteering experience with. I had one day to spend in Kathmandu before jumping on a tourist bus to go to the monastery where I’d be teaching so it was organised for me to visit Monkey temple and Pashupatinath with one of the guys from the hotel. I jumped on the back of his motorbike and off we went. Monkey temple was, well, full of monkeys on a temple and stupas! Pretty straightforward really. As for Pashupatinath, it is the place where Nepali Hindus do the cremation of bodies. I sat there with my guide to watch the ceremony of two bodies, which they first dip in the river’s water, before undressing and burning. It was strange to see… to say the least. We left just as it started smelling more than I could handle it…
After some delicious ‘momos’ (the Nepali dumpling!), I walked around Thamel, Kathmandu’s tourist spot where colours, sounds and crowds are assaults to the senses. Kathmandu is alive!
Pema Ts’al monastery
The next morning, I was off for a 7-hour tourist bus trip going west to Pokhara (about 206km away from Kathmandu… the road conditions are not the best in this part of the world!). From Pokhara, I was picked up and driven to Pema Ts’al monastery where I’d be teaching Tibetan Buddhist monks for the next two weeks.
The monastery is located 30 minutes north of Pokhara, overlooking the amazing Annapurna range of Himalayas, and is home to about 80 monks aged between 4 and 27. They study English, maths, Nepali, Tibetan, science, social science, music and Buddhism. The monastery’s temple was re-built this year and dorms added to the site, creating a striking set of beautiful burgundy and gold buildings along with the butter lamp offering house and the monastery itself. Waking up every morning to the sound of the gong and the sight of the Himalayas and gorgeous buildings… Oh, I can deal with that! 🙂 Add to this the choice of attending morning puja (singing prayers) in the temple or an early run through villages and mountains and I’m in heaven! Most morning, I would also go for a walk after breakfast in the neighbouring Tibetan refugee settlement with one of the volunteers. The very first morning we did, four kids from the village ran towards me and jumped in my arms! I was so surprised! We played with them a little before realising we’d be late for class. So we played the ‘let’s get to the monastery as quickly as we can’ game with them. They loved it! 🙂 Some mornings, I would also attend a Tibetan buddhism philosophy class offered by one of the monks, which was really interesting.
I was told upon my arrival that a visiting Lama Rinpoche from Australia – but originally from the Tibetan refugee settlement next door to the monastery – was at the monastery with a group of Australians to conduct a meditation retreat in the temple over the next two days… And I could attend! How lucky! I had always wanted to do some sort of meditation retreat and being given the opportunity to do it in this part of the world with a Lama Rinpoche and monks and in a temple… Awesome! So that’s what I did for the first two days at the monastery, which was an incredible experience. I also got to visit the neighbouring Tibetan refugee settlement guided by the Lama Rinpoche and visit his 92-year old mother who still lives in the village. It was a special moment.
About the teaching… I was meant to teach English, but was given two science classes along with another volunteer. Luckily, we had a science book to follow as my high school science classes were quite far in my memory! As it turned out, exams were about a week away anyway which meant that we only had to teach three classes of new content and then review old content with them for a whole week.
All the volunteers were amazing people from around the world and the monks were so awesome! I had an incredible experience at the monastery and it was difficult to leave… The people (monks & volunteers), the place… I’ll keep them all in my heart forever and hopefully will get a chance to go back to that very special place that was home for two weeks.
During my stay at the monastery, I did a couple of trips with other volunteers including going to the summit of the mountain behind the monastery, called Sarangkot, to stay overnight and see the sunrise the next morning. We also walked to another summit a couple of hours away called Kaskikot. Back in Pokhara, Sandro (one of the volunteers) and I decided to stay overnight so we could go paragliding early the next morning. It was an absolutely amazing experience, quite different to skydiving which I had done already. You feel like a bird… So free… So beautiful up there! My pilot got me as high as 1,800m using the thermals. Unfortunately, turning around again and again made me feel sick towards the end of my flight… And I was sick from the air! Gross, but at least we were above a forest and I didn’t get myself or my pilot! Sandro wasn’t feeling too rosy either when we landed… One of the pilots said that everyone that day had been sick and she blamed the lack of horizon for that (it was a foggy day, which is good for gaining more altitude but not so much for our vision and balance). It was an amazing thing to do, regardless.
Another side trip three of the volunteers and I did was going to Panchase, a village and superb viewpoint (about 2,600m) for sunrise. We trekked up the mountain starting at about 1,000m altitude. We went up and up and up and up… Those stairs were never ending! It was incredible! We actually started laughing deliriously. Considering the fact that Adam’s Peak in Sri Lanka has 5200 steps and people take 3 to 4 hours to climb (with stops) and we took 5 hours to climb pretty much non stop except for a quick lunch… We climbed a LOT of steps (and bits that were simply hilly)! The view the next morning was certainly worth it… Sunrise next to the Annapurna range of mountains… Stunning!
After two weeks at the monastery, I was back in Kathmandu with a couple of days to chill before starting the Everest Circuit. I visited Durbar Square, walked around Thamel… and got sick! I went to the medical clinic with a big sore throat and no energy, hoping for a quick remedy that would get me back on track in a day (hey, I wasn’t gonna give up on Everest)! The doctor gave me antibiotics just in case I wouldn’t get better, but I started taking them straight away anyway on recommendation from my trek leader (who’s also trained in altitude medicine).
I transferred to the Radisson, the nicest hotel in Kathmandu, where I’d meet my group for the start of my Everest Circuit expedition. After four months in dodgy hotels around Asia, it was pure bliss to find the Radisson’s luxurious treatments! A day tour of some of Kathmandu’s attractions was organised for our group of 14 (mainly from Australia, but also one Pom, one Kiwi, one American, one Scott and one French Canadian – not me, someone else!), but as I was sick, I stayed in bed all day hoping to get better quickly. Luckily, I was feeling unwell only the first day of our trek and got back on track afterwards.
For the trekking part ofof my trip, it’s best to tell the stories in person and with photos. But overall, it was an absolutely amazing three-week trek. As we were getting higher, I could feel my lungs and legs asking for more oxygen, which meant we were walking more and more slowly (to the point where, going up Kala Patthar, we were doing a third of a step at a time… that was the highest point of our trek at 5,545m… or apparently maybe 5,643m according to other experts). The altitude made me feel slightly nauseous at the beginning of the trip (and surprisingly at the end as well). Apart from that, I was fine. We slept in permanent campsite for most nights, a few eco lodges here and there and two wilderness campsites. The food was excellent (I’ve never eaten so much carbs… The record was 5 types on a plate!!! And most of us still managed to lose weight!?!). My favourite day was crossing Cho La pass (5,360m) which involved walking on ice with crampons. We were like a bunch of kids again! Walking on Everest Base Camp (5,360m) was symbolic (however unglamourous Everest Base Camp may be) and going up Gokyo Ri (5,357m) was phenomenal with the view of the Everest range and its 8,000m plus peaks. Our leader, sherpas, kitchen staff and porters were amazing. Our sherpas were so much fun… Liz, another trekker, and I learnt a bit of Nepali from them. All essential words like ‘tagora manche’ (‘strong men’… good to say to the porters!), ‘pistari pistari’ (‘slowly slowly’), ‘hani pugno lagio’ (‘are we there yet?’) and… ‘gunda’ (‘smelly!’ After three weeks without a shower, it certainly was a good word to learn!). A lot of laughters as well as more serious conversations and plenty of card games were had among the group on the trek.
It was a challenging (for some days) but so rewarding trek. I’m proud and incredibly grateful I’ve done it. I can’t wait to tell you more about it in person!
Now, final destination: India.