Thursday, May 12, 2022

China is closed so I went to Nepal in the footseps of Bill Tillman

 More than two years since the pandemic started and like everyone else I haven't been doing any international travel. I'd become so used to flying cheaply to Kunming and Chengdu from Sydney that I began to take it for granted. With travel restrictions starting to be lifted after Christmas 2021 I was itching to get back into the mountains. Unfortunately China is still closed, so I plumped to go to Nepal instead. Reasons: mountains and trekking, obviously, but also few restrictions such as permits, isolation/quarantine and entry requirements.

I decided on trying the Langtang valley trek, as this seemed the nearest and most convenient for Kathmandu and a simple hike to acclimatise/acquaint myself with Nepal and its trekking scene.

I flew to KMD from Sydney with Malaysian, via KL. Wouldn't really recommend Malaysian - they were a bit sloppy and indifferent, kind of like a slightly better version of Garuda. After a few hassles with online covid forms and apps I arrived at the  very basic Kathmandu airport and paid my $30 airport tax and was granted a visa on arrival for $50.

I took the bus to Syabru Besi, which was a hopeless joke. I'd always assumed Nepal was a functioning country, given its popularity with western trekkers and mountaineers, but the bus service to Langtang was a chaotic, decrepit mess. The whole experience reminded me of travel in China in the 1990s - a boneshaker bus hustling for passengers at the side of a dirty road, no proper bus station. And a terrible stop-start journey over dirt track potholed roads that took eight hours to cover 80km. Just horrible.

I did the seven day Langtang trek, which was three days up the riverside track to Kyangjin Gompa and two days down, with two days at the scenic alpine area. Did a few side hikes, and it was nice, but the whole area is simply devoted to trekking and you kind of feel like you're just another a customer in a conga line of trekkers. There were a surprisingly large number of trekkers from the US, Europe (including Eastern EU) and the UK. Despite criss-crossing paths and leapfrogging each other between tea houses, the foreigners were not particularly friendly. A lot of them were just wankers with their trekking poles and flash gear, bashing along to a strict itinerary. There were also quite a few divvies who had fallen for the Namaste hippy culture, as if it were still 1974. You know who you are, you with your Kathmandu loon pants, Jesus beard and red 'tilak' dye smeared on your forehead. Don't greet me with 'Namaste', I'm not Nepali, dickheads.

The teahouse system meant I didn't have to take a tent or sleeping bag [good], but it also means you are locked in to the boring set menus of dal bhat [lentil curry] and dull variations on chow mein, fried rice and fried eggs/omelettes/momos. I don't want to eat another egg for a while.

I shouldn't be such a grump. The Nepali people were nice, especially the Tamang (descendants of Tibetans) living in the Lantang area. Not so keen though on the constant hassling and hustling [You have guide? Where you stay?] and the bullshitting when things don't work ['bus needs mechanic, maybe leave tomorrow'].

The highlight of the trip was a variation I did on the Tamang Heritage Trail. At Tatopani ['hot springs' that lost their thermal power after the 2015 earthquake] I hired a local guide to motorbike me up along the Sanjen Khola river to the border with Tibet. It was an 8km ride along an ugly construction road, now dominated by a Chinese hydro dam project that seemed to be making no progress - maybe because the border has been closed during the covid pandemic?

At the top of the valley we parked the bike at a messy worker's camp and legged it up an old track into what looked like the upper reaches of a glaciated valley that eventually reaches the moraine coming down from a mountain called Ganesh. Weirdly half the valley is Chinese (Tibetan) territory, while the lower reaches are in Nepal. At the point where we reached the Chinese border, Nepal territory was on the left hand side of the Sanjen Kharka river while China was on the right bank. The track crossed it via a very flimsy bridge made of planks and sticks. Given that this is a closed valley that can only be entered from Nepal, I doubt there are any Tibetans in residence.

I'd surveyed the route by Google Earth, on which it looked straightforward and relatively, but in reality it was a tough scramble up a boulder-strewn trail. The track was not always very obvious, and in early may there were still sections that crossed snow slopes, which had to be traversed very carefully, as they descended steeply into the boiling torrent below.

We walked for a few hundred metres into Tibetan/China territory just to say we'd been there, but the trail was very precarious and the weather foggy and damp, with little visibility, so we didn't proceed further up the valley.

The only Chinese people we encountered were the foreman and supervisors at the hydro site on the Nepal side. They were surprised and delighted to find that I could converse in Mandarin with them.

The scenery was nice but my overall impression of Nepal was not great. I have been spoiled by travel in remote parts of China where the roads are now uniformly good, the buses modern and well equipped, and the local villages all have reliable and high standard electricity, sanitation and mobile phone systems. And even the most remote yak herders hut has decent food! Nepal is unfortunately still a Third World country by comparison. In China it's possible for me to converse with and engage with local people on an equal footing. In Nepal, with its decades long reliance on trekking as an industry, I felt like I was just another tourist - and not a very capable trekker, come to think of it.

So I'm looking forward to returning to south west China whenever the country opens up again. Unfortunately Xi Jinping's cult of personality and increasing micro-management and mismanagement of the pandemic means that might be some time off.

In the meantime, here's a link to the 1949 book written by the weirdo British explorer Bill Tillman and his travels in the Lantang area.