Through the Palpa Hills of Nepal
24.09.1966 - 26.09.1966
The climax of this overland journey back across Asia was to be our return visit to Nepal, a country we had been enthusiastic about since our original encounter with it in 1964. In London we had joined the Britain/Nepal Society, in order to meet others of like mind and further our understanding of this remote Himalayan kingdom. Some of the Society’s members were mountain climbers, or had been diplomats, or military officers commanding Gurkha regiments. Others were Nepalis working or studying in London, and meetings were sometimes held in the country’s embassy in Kensington Palace Green. These gatherings always intensified our interest in Nepal and our desire to go back there.
Our plan was to begin with a 130 km trek through the foothills of the Himalayas, from Butwal in the Terai, near the Indian border, to Pokhara, at the foot of the massive Annapurna range. In those days there was no completed road into the Pokhara Valley from outside and everything that wasn’t airlifted had to be carried on the backs of porters from village to village, along time worn trails over the steep hills, through lush valleys, and across fast flowing waterways. Pokhara was serviced by daily DC3 flights from Kathmandu, weather permitting, and it was our intention to continue on to the capital by that means and then leave the country by road from Kathmandu to Raxaul.
The full story of our adventure in Nepal is told in the book Abode of the Gods – Travels in Nepal, author: Adrian Sever, publisher: Gem Publishing Company (Oxon) Ltd., 1980. Reading it again recently, after the devastating earthquake that struck Nepal on 25 April 2015, with an appalling loss of life, I realized that much of the cultural and architectural heritage the book describes must have been severely damaged in the catastrophe. Even though efforts will be made at restoration, it can never be quite the same, and the book becomes a poignant historical document in this new context, speaking as it does of a less turbulent time 50 years ago when Nepal was opening up to the world.
Nautanwa - Butwal - Tansen
Saturday night 24-9-1966
We arrived at the Indian railhead Nautanwa around 10 pm, after a hot, slow, dusty journey by the narrow-gauge train from Gorakhpur Junction. Nautanwa seemed like a forgotten outpost at the end of the line - just three trains a day. The waiting Nepalis, many probably Gurkha recruits, started swarming into the carriage even before we had got off. The station was lit by hurricane lamps, made largely ineffective by the clouds of insects around them. There appeared to be no electricity in Nautanwa, certainly not at that time of night. We talked our way into the locked waiting room, where we found a colonial era, hand-pulled punkah suspended precariously over our heads - useless, as there was no one to pull it. The immigration officer met the train and took us through the very brief exit formalities in the waiting room, writing details on a scrap of paper and sending his assistant to the office for the stamp. Suddenly a piece of the ceiling fell in with a shattering crash. We must have been disturbing all the ghosts of the past. I tried to sleep on what was left of a couch, but the room was stifling hot and I was being eaten alive by mosquitoes. I put on the army lotion from my pack and that seemed to work. Fell asleep at last.
Next morning a battered bus took us a couple of miles to the actual border crossing at Sonauli. We walked through the checkpoint into Nepal and over to customs and immigration in a nearby compound. There was an hour’s wait for the bus to take us on to Butwal and the beginning of our walk so we changed money and then found a bit of shade. While we waited we met Doona Pratap Singh, a Nepalese student heading home to his Chetri village near Tansen (provincial capital and on our route). He spoke reasonable English and agreed to help us find a porter. Once in Butwal we had to cross a rickety suspension bridge over a rushing river to reach Khasauli, the area on the other side and the start of the trail to Pokhara.
Doona led us down a cobblestone street to a simple hut where he arranged food, which came after a long wait. It was a vegetarian meal - piles of rice with vegetables on top and very filling. We ate from platters on grass mats on the mud floor. While we ate he arranged for a coolie to come with us to Pokhara - 5 days, 50 rupees plus wicker basket. This was not that straightforward; the porters usually don’t like to go beyond Tansen, because of the long hike back, and the first two takers, after initially agreeing, quickly had a change of heart. It was third time lucky however, and Kham Bir was our man. Agreed departure time - 5 pm. It was helluva hot in Butwal and I was looking forward to getting into the hills. We each bought a pair of plimsolls in the market, to wear as an alternative to our usual boots, when we needed a surer foothold while climbing or descending.
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We set off from Khasauli on the dot, but 300 yards up the new road under construction were stopped at a barrier - they were blasting. Hundreds of coolies with loaded baskets were lolling about, chatting and smoking. When the ‘all-clear’ went and the barrier was finally raised it was like Piccadilly at peak hour. The throng gradually thinned out as we tracked along the new road for the first few miles, into a gorge with a roaring river below us – past waterfalls, rock falls and occasional huts, the road gradually getting higher. About 6pm we followed Kham Bir as he suddenly plunged off the side of the road and down to the river, then across a narrow suspension bridge that swayed violently. We had to pay a toll for the porter’s load (10 paise), and it was starting to get dark as we came to a group of huts beside the path where people were eating. We had chi, and by the time we moved on a near full moon had risen and it was now light as day. We stopped for a while at one place by a stream where a jolly old woman was sitting on a charpoy. We couldn’t understand what Kham Bir was trying to tell us about eating and sleeping arrangements. It was all confusion, so we moved a bit further along to another place where there was someone with a few words of English and finally halted for the night. These places are called ‘bhatis’ and he had been trying to tell us that if we ate a meal then a sleeping space was included. No food, no sleep. We weren’t particularly hungry after the big meal earlier, but went along with the custom and ate some rice and veg. It was a wonderful house, almost Zen in its simplicity – very orderly, clean and smoothly mudded in the two tone Nepalese manner, burnt sienna at the bottom,white at the top, and with a thatched roof. It was run by a very young couple, probably newlyweds. He seemed about 18 and his wife no more than 14. After the meal, I lay down on the grass mat provided and was quickly asleep.
We were up by 6 am, to a beautiful misty morning, and after a quick wash at a pleasant creek a short distance from the house, and a welcome cup of chi, were away before 6.30. We kept close to the porter and started climbing right away. It became steeper and steeper, but we managed it alright with only a few rests. We kept climbing right to the ridge and then came a slow, precarious descent down to the river again, where we lurched across another swinging suspension bridge over raging rapids before stopping for breakfast at a bhati run by three women. It was 9am. The mud stoves in these houses are built into the fabric of the building and they use an antique pestle and mortar affair for grinding - ageless. There was a steady stream of traffic along the path while we ate and we were greeted by a number of ex-Gurkha soldiers who had a few words of English. The local children were a delight, and so were the cute little village dogs.
After breakfast we walked on the flat for a while and then came the next climb, which was much steeper than the first. It was really stiff, almost straight up at times, but again we managed it, although exhausted at the top. From the ridge we could see the way ahead for some distance, and on the farther hill, with one mountain in between, was Tansen, our destination for the day. Rising far beyond that, and peeking out of the clouds, were some of the great snow peaks, our first view. We did not dally long and plunged on down - a very steep descent - much steeper than the climb and much further down, all the way to the valley floor, at which point we met the new Indian road again and followed it for about 1 ½ miles. We stopped for a while in the hut of some Indian engineers who gave us tea and biscuits and told us something of the road, which they said was through already all the way to Pokhara, though still very rough; it is to be finished in 1968. Turning off the road a bit further along we went to the other side of the river, following the path which brought us into the valley proper, where for the next ½ mile or so we had a very pleasant walk through the paddies, which were like a beautiful green carpet on the valley floor, though of course terraced up the hillsides. We then hit the road yet again, at the base of the Tansen hill, with another hefty climb in front of us, but managed to get a lorry ride most of the way up, which was great. That left us to struggle up the last ½ mile incline into Tansen, where we arrived about 6pm, just on sunset. It wasn’t much of a sky but there was a beautiful view of two valleys. Kham Bir started complaining of stomach pains, and seemed to be indicating that he didn’t want to continue. This was of some concern to say the least. We thought we should seek medical attention right away, and a schoolboy who was tagging us, trying out his English, showed us the way to the United Mission Hospital on the other side of town, where we met a Scots couple, Mr. and Mrs. Stuart. They were the hospital’s administrators and spoke fluent Nepali. We had thought the porter might be trying a ruse to get out of going all the way to Pokhara, but on questioning him, they said he seemed a decent sort and that he wanted to honour the agreement he had made with us, but was genuinely feeling ill. They said they would have one of the doctors examine him in the morning and arranged for him to bed down in the accommodation reserved for patient’s families. They offered us the use of a guest annex for the night, which we leapt at, and invited us to dinner. In spite of our being tired from the day’s exertions, it proved to be a very stimulating evening, and the Stuarts said it was a rare pleasure for them to entertain western visitors. Considering we had unexpectedly copped a great meal, a bath, and a comfortable bed for the night, the pleasure was all ours.
Apart from the sudden problem with the porter, which we hoped would sort itself out in the morning, it had been a very satisfying day’s walk. It had been difficult at times, over some high ranges, but not beyond us, and we were on schedule. Our footwear was working out OK, though the soles of the plimsolls we bought in Butwal were proving a bit thin.
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A village on the first morning of the walk
Breakfast stop coming up
Fellow walkers on the trail, usually with bare feet
Porters prop their loads on a chautara (resting place) before tackling a difficult stretch
Magar mother and child in a hill village, Palpa Province
Path through the paddies of the Mari Valley (note the Pokhara road under construction to the left)
The United Mission Hospital on the outskirts of Tansen
Looking back from the hospital in Tansen towards the ranges we had crossed on the first full day's walking
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