AN IRISHWOMAN'S DIARY

 

IT was the dream of a lifetime about to be fulfilled. I was on my way to Nepal and the Himalayas. Kathmandu, the Nepalese capital, is a mediaeval city of breathtakingly beautiful architecture, narrow streets and dark alleys. In the eighth century, master craftsmen and traders, the Newars, established this city, thereby controlling the important route between India and Tibet.

Studded with ageless temples and shrines, its streets smoulder beneath an incredible crush of humanity. The incessant honking of car horns and ringing of bicycle bells is deafening. Every street reeks of incense, spices, sewage and exhaust fumes.

Music, too, fills the air. After a night of coughing and spluttering, I bought a nose and mouth mask and wore this every day. It helped. Kathmandu, dug into a valley of the same name, is surrounded by mountains. The air is warm and humid. The pollution in the air is mind boggling. Bangkok, said to be one of the most polluted cities in the world, is healthy by comparison.

Magnificent Temples

In spite of the pollution, Kathmandu is a beautiful city. Its temples are magnificent, drawing a constant flow of worshippers bearing flowers, incense and saffron to their favourite gods. Nepal is 90 per cent Hindu. Effigies of gods are everywhere. They, too, have a Trinity: Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Preserver and Shiva the Destroyer. The elephant headed Ganesh, the god of wisdom and good luck, is a particular favourite. Rats are also omens of good luck. The city appears to have a plague of them, but nobody cares.

Buddhist temples abound, too. Pilgrims queue to spin the prayer wheels, reciting the words Own Afane Padme Orn (Hail to the Jewel of the Lotus).

The 2,000 year old temple at Swayambhu, perched on a hill overlooking Kathmandu, is the most profound expression of Buddhist symbolism in Nepal. Here, at night, I watched the saffron robed monks walk softly round the dome throwing saffron paint and murmuring mantras. Afterwards, I knelt with them in meditation. Peace, tranquillity and harmony filled the air.

After four days I secured a trekking permit from the immigration office. This cost 20. We were heading for Pokhara, a bus ride of 140 miles which took seven hours.

Trek to Annapurna

At nearby Surket I and some fellow trekkers began what was to be one of the most exciting experiences of our lives. It would take us six days to travel to the base camp on Annapurna, one of the great peaks of the world, standing at 18,000 feet. Porters accompanied us each step of the way to the camp. The trekking route is one of stunning diversity, ranging from the sodden bamboo forests and paddy fields of the south to the wild, windswept and barren land of the north. We ambled through steep and lush hill country, sometimes calm and inviting, most of the time treacherous. All eyes propelled forward, watchful of the dark ravines, chasms and gorges. At regular intervals we rested at teahouses to sip the hot sweetened local brew.

Ethnic groups in the Himalayas are as diverse as its land, ranging from the tough Sherpas of the highlands to the Magars and Gurungs from which the elite Gurkha soldiers come. Each of these groups has a unique language and culture.

The forests are havens to thousands of flora and fauna. Nepal has more than 800 species of birds. Eighty species of mammal roam freely in the nature parks: tigers, lions, snow leopards, red pandas; and there is a preponderance of monkeys.

Frugal Conditions

It was imperative that we got from village to village during daylight. Darkness fell at five. The lodges provided us with food and bunk beds. There was, no electricity and no telephones. A bucket of water for 20p provided a luxurious scrubdown. After a candlelight dinner of rice and chicken - sometimes goat - we trekkers would be cuddled up in thermals and sound asleep by 8 p.m. The nights were freezing. A nature call left me shivering but delighted with the sight of millions of twinkling stars above the snow capped mountains. The peace and the beauty, though sometimes eerie, was indescribably beautiful.

At 5 a.m. each morning, layered with woollies, we carefully made our way, with the aid of flashlamps, to the base camp on Annapurna. Two hours later the sun rose red above the mountain. The views of the glistening white peaks were unspeakably beautiful. It is forbidden to climb to the summit of Annapurna, which is said to be the resting place of the gods. I believed it. Icicles the colour of the rainbow hung like stalactites. We searched for the Yeti. No luck. No trace either of the Abominable Snowman.

After the six days we retraced our steps to "civilisation". To cars, buses and noise. Over two days in a little lodge at the lake near Pokhara I gathered my courage to take yet another dangerous bus journey across the country to Lumbini, the birth place of Buddha.