Category Archives: Travel

Pyongyang Marathon … It’s a thing

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has recently grabbed global headlines – from hydrogen bomb tests to recently declaring it had “invented” hangover-free alcohol.

Now the country is promoting an international event, inviting foreigners to run across the capital Pyongyang on April 10.

This is only the third year that DPRK has allowed foreign nationals to participate in the marathon. Last year, though it initially banned foreigners from running the marathon because of the Ebola scare, they later relaxed the ban.

Chas Pope, who ran the Pyongyang Marathon last year, described it as a “fascinating experience.”

For Pope, who works at Arup — a British engineering and design consultant firm in Beijing — the marathon was also an opportunity to see the country through a different lens.

“When you go to North Korea, you’re always with a guide,” Pope said. “But this was a chance to see the city – and run – on your own across the capital.”

Comparing this to his first visit in 2012, he said there was a “slight change” in the capital.

“A lot of people were taking photos on their mobile phones as we ran,” he said, describing the marathon scene and referring to a growing number of cellphone users in the country.

In a bid to boost its economy that has been hit hard by international sanctions, DPRK has established 20 special economic zones allowing foreign firms to invest. Companies like Egypt’s Orascom Telecom Media and Technology Holding, one of the largest investors in the country, has opened up communication links to 3 million people. In late December, DPRK also opened a new tourism zone across the Chinese border in Sinuiju, targeting more tourists from the mainland.

Currently, about 100,000 tourists visit the country. However, it has set a target to welcome one million visitors by 2017 and wants to double that figure by 2020.

DPRK’s tourism is dominated by Chinese tourists. However, the marathons are more popular with non-Chinese, said Simon Cockerell, a general manager of Koryo Tours that has been organizing trips to the country since 1993.

“It’s a kind of place which is a great paradox,” Cockerell said. “Everyone knows so much about it and yet so little. So if you want to scratch the surface, understand the country, taking this trip is perfect, whether you run or not.”

As with all tours to DPRK, participants for the marathon also need to sign up through an authorized travel agency. China-based Koryo Tours, the marathon’s official travel partner, is offering tour packages starting from 900 euros (983 US dollars). Other agencies as Young Pioneer Tours and Uri Tours are also providing marathon packages.

Pyongyang Marathon started as a men’s marathon in 1981 to mark the 69th birthday of Kim Il Sung, the country’s first leader after its formation and grandfather to current leader Kim Jong Un. He allowed women to participate in the marathon in 1984. Also known as the Mangyongdae Prize International Marathon, it opened to foreigners in 2014 and now participants can run full, half and a 10 kilometer marathon along the 10 kilometer loop of the city.

Cockerell from Koryo Tours said about 1,000 foreigners — up from 200 and 600 in the last two years — are expected to run in Pyongyang this year.

Cameron Petie, a 37-year-old Australian teacher in Beijing, is one of them.

A sports and travel enthusiast, Petie said the marathon will provide a “unique opportunity” to combine two of his passions.

“North Korea was on my radar for a while,” Petie, who has ran six other marathons, said. “The marathon gave me an extra boost to travel.”

And for past runners like Pope, Pyongyang has been an important milestone in their travel and marathon history.

He remembers the enthusiastic bystanders cheering, running through Pyongyang’s landmarks and quiet streets – as compared to Beijing – and being greeted by a gigantic roar as he entered the Kim Il Sung stadium where the race begins and ends.

“I thought 50,000 people were cheering for me,” Pope said. “But they were waiting for the football game to begin after the match. I also got my personal best time in Pyongyang.”

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In Accham

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“We have to cross several hills like these,” said my driver Ranjit as we drove from Dadeldhura to Accham in far-west Nepal. “It will take us about six hours.”

Those mighty green hills, overlapping one another, with the snow-capped Appi Saipal range towering above them, would suit perfectly for an artist’s canvas; flying over them, if no turbulence, is always a joyride; but driving through the narrow, serpentine strips literally carved cutting those hills, is dizzying.

“This is where a bus plunged recently,” Ranjit said. I rolled down the window and looked – I couldn’t see anything but a steep hill rising from hundreds of feet below.

Just getting to that point had been exhausting. I had started my journey the previous day. The flight from Kathmandu to Dhangadi — the longest domestic flight — was delayed, and so I landed in the far-west plains as the sun was ready to settle down.

Ranjit was there to pick me, and he recommended we drive to Dadeldhura, a hilly town that would be our stopover for the night. During the four-hour drive, the vehicle broke down three times – the first time, it was closer to Dhangadi and we managed to get a mechanic. The other two times, it was in the middle of the highway – thanks to the friendly truck drivers who helped us out.

Driving through sections of the snow-covered Bhim Dutta Highway in pitch dark, we finally reached the destination for that night. I checked into a hotel and tried to make myself cosy in a cold room – I put on three layers of clothing plus my socks and hat and covered myself with three blankets for the night. I went to sleep with no expectation of what this cold town would look like.

In the morning, when I opened the curtain, it was a magnificent view. With only an hour to spare, I went to have a close look at the Himalayas. Walking through the bazaar, I made my way to Toofan Danda (Windy Hill) and captured the sight in my camera before starting that long drive to Accham.

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During the six-hour journey, we passed through Doti district – small settlements scattered throughout the highway where cattle grazed freely and children played fearless of the speeding vehicles. Life in these settlements reflects rural Nepal, a stark contrast to the progressive pockets that tends to define modern Nepal.

As you enter Accham district, a typical big concrete gate welcomes you. One of the first boards I noticed was about safer practises to prevent HIV. The pictorial illustrations highlighted safer sex, discouraged sharing needles and also encouraged people to get tested.

Accham is one of the districts with the highest prevalence of HIV/AIDS in the country. With a majority of Acchami men leaving to India for employment, they have unknowingly brought home the virus that has largely been transmitted to the women, and also children, in the district.

During my stay, I talked to some men who said they got the virus from India, but had “no idea how they got it.” I also talked to women who told me they got the virus from their husbands. But amid a crisis, which they term as the “Bombay Disease”— because most of the men go to Bombay for work and bring the disease— people have started to come out and speak about it. I met a woman who was infected by her husband and now passionately advocates about HIV/AIDS – she thinks it’s important to spread the message and encourage people to get tested. Early detection and being on medication, she said, will help them live “an easy life.”

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For most Acchamis, everyday life is not easy. With an average household income of Rs 6,125, limited employment opportunities and infrastructural development, challenges are apparent. As soon as you reach Sanfebagar, one of the emerging marketplaces in the district, you get the sense. A stretch of rickety tin-built shops cluster the area serving as a transit point for buses departing to Dhangadi, Kathmandu and the neighboring district of Bajura. Apart from that, there is nothing much to this area until you reach Airport Bazaar, where a thriving marketplace exists, even better than the market in Mangalsen [pic below].

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Twelve years ago, after a Maoist attack, this place was one of the casualties of war. A friend who had visited the place during the conflict time told me about the devastation. But now, though the airport remains dysfunctional, this small marketplace is on a slow road to recovery. People are making investments, taking a risk and starting small-scale businesses.

Here I met people like Lalit Kunwar and Shankar Bhul who have taken loans from the cooperatives and microfinance institutions that they’re members of. With limited banking services in the district, a majority of Acchamis have turned into cooperatives and microfinance institutions that have allowed them to save and also borrow money at lower interest rates. With 202 cooperatives and three microfinance institutions, locals said they have a better access to finance – people have been prompted to make small investments and in this process, women are also coming forward, taking control of their financial ownership.

But while women are actively taking a lead, it’s hard to ignore the issues that are plaguing them – the tradition of Chaupadi is largely prevalent, pushing women into a time machine forcing them to follow the rules of the past.

In the district headquarter of Mangalsen, I met some women who still practise Chapudai, where they spend five to seven days of their menstrual period in a shed, isolated from the main household. Most of them were young, going to school, but said they couldn’t question their traditional beliefs and speak against them. These women still see themselves as “impure” during menstruation, a belief that has been ingrained and passed on from generations.

The district headquarter of Mangalsen, though it serves as a center of commerce and the seat of government offices, looks primeval compared to the other remote places I’ve visited: A majority of houses are built from mud, stone or tin, electricity is scarce and the slushy streets is an inconvenience for someone from the city, though Kathmandu’s streets are pretty similar at the moment. However, there is a black-topped road that links Mangalsen to the rest of Nepal, which locals said have played an instrumental role in the district’s development.

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Also, one of the notable progresses in Accham is the resurgence of its public hospital in Bayalpata, a small settlement in between Sanfebagar and Mangalsen. In a public-private partnership with the Government of Nepal, Nyaya Health, a local NGO, has revived the once dilapidated hospital. The hospital that serves about 52,000 patients yearly looks like a miniature of a private hospital in Kathmandu with first-class, free service to the people of Accham. No wonder, the medical facility is a darling of many Acchamis today and has been declared Nepal’s best hospital for 2013.

During my four days in Accham, it was difficult not to think how this place and the people have actually moved past the death and destruction during the decade-long conflict that stalled any development. During a short span of time, a mere seven years since the war ended in 2006, the peace dividend has seemed to paid off quite well for places like Accham, which were literally cut off from rest of the country.

In these seven years, Nepal has been politically unstable, and quickly scanning from what we’ve achieved, it looks like the country hasn’t really gained a lot. But if we dig into Nepal’s rural pockets that were ravaged by the conflict, it really gives a little bit of hope and optimism. The progress being made on a community level and the people’s enthusiasm to drive their district’s development is hard to ignore – just like that drive up to Mangalsen.

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When the dense fog that blocked the view up to Mangalsen suddenly vanished, the mist of uncertainty cleared into a sunny spell. Standing up the hill, I looked down – the hills below looked beautiful despite the fact they were covered in a thick blanket of clouds. In the next hour, as I stood still, admiring the beauty, the clouds cleared, giving a picture-perfect view of the valley.

In these seven years, this place where I was then standing, I thought, has been cleared of the fog. However the clouds still linger, but I’m sure they’ll pass, giving a way for the sun to shine.

STORIES FROM ACCHAM [Will post stories as they’re published]

Bridging the financial gap [Republica The Week]

Crowdfunding platform Nyaya helps raises cash for health care for Nepal’s poor [South China Morning Post]

Q&A: Mark Arnoldy, Executive Director, Nyaya Health [Republica The Week]

Nepali women still plagued by archaic practice of imprisonment during menstruation [South China Morning Post]

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A mega investment in one of Nepal’s remote districts

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Lama Brothers: Jampal Lama (front) and Norbu Lama are Jumal’s new entrepreneurs.

In Jumla, Norbu Lama isn’t a household name, but his hotel is.

An ambitious, multi-million rupees project, Hotel Kanjirowa is unlike any other facility in this valley in one of Nepal’s most remote districts. While a semi-finished and semi-functional two-story stone house gives an initial impression of the proposed three-star hotel, the architectural skeletal of the work-in-progress structure sprawling over 19 ropanies (9,666 square feet) of land maps the project’s grandeur.

“I want this to be a landmark in Jumla,” says Lama who has teamed with his cousin Jampal Lama on this endeavour.

There aren’t many landmarks as such in Jumla apart from the golden dome of the Chandan Nath Temple with Mt Patarasi peeking in the backdrop in Jumla Bazaar. But once completed, according to Norbu, their hotel would stand as Jumla’s modern-day marvel, which would highlight the pace of development in this district, often regarded as the poorest and most backward.

The Lama brothers’ personal story, as they say, attests the very notion.   They came from a poor family of the neighboring Mugu district and struggled to make a livelihood. While Jampal, now 47, left for India at an early age with his mother, Norbu, 55, migrated to Jumla and made it his home. He started working as a porter and then a trekking guide while his younger cousin worked in construction in India before returning to Nepal in his mid-20s.

“It was high time to come back, and start working in your own country,” says Jampal who worked independently as a contractor in Kathmandu following his return. “Then I heard about my brother’s plan in Jumla a few years ago. I jumped in because I believe it will be a good investment.”

While Jampal’s share constitutes his financial investment and construction expertise he gained from India, Norbu says he has poured his entire saving to see his dream project become reality.

“I carried people’s load and worked as a guide for 26 years  — all the money I saved has gone into this,” Norbu says as he sits outside the makeshift dining hall behind the main wing of the building.

Hotel Kanjirowa, according to its owners, will be Jumla's next landmark.

Hotel Kanjirowa, according to its owners, will be Jumla’s next landmark.

For a place like Jumla, the hotel’s capital is staggering.  The brothers estimate the total cost would come to the tune of more than Rs 100 million. The land itself cost Norbu about Rs 30 million. The business partners have also borrowed some capital from the bank.

Though it’s a big risk, the tall man with a thin but fit body structure, Norbu says he takes this venture as a challenge.

“Rather than buying a land in Kathmandu unlike all my trekking [guides] colleagues, I thought I’d buy land here,” Norbu explains his vision. “I want to invest in this place where I belong and contribute in its development.”

A commercial hub of the Karnali Zone, one of the country’s least developed pockets, Jumla is famous for its apples and herbs like yarsagumba, or the Himalayan Viagra. While apple trade contributes Rs 40 to 50 million to the local economy, herb trade generates up to Rs 500 million, according to the United Nations Field coordination Office’s report.

Like 93 percent of Jumla’s people, Norbu’s family is also involved in agriculture, but he is also in the one percent bracket that has steered into the hotel business.

The Lama brothers are offering a 24-room facility with modern amenities. Hotel Kanjirowa, according to them, will supersede all the other hotels that currently operate in Jumla and its periphery.

The hotel will not only contribute to the local economy but also generate local employment, Jampal says.

With a proposed plan to start a trekking expedition from Jumla to Lake Rara in Mugu district, it will create some 150 jobs with additional positions for the daily operations of the hotel. Currently, 15 construction workers, wood carvers and painters are working to meet the 2015 deadline for an official inauguration.

Situated strategically within minutes from Jumla’s airstrip, Hotel Kanjirowa overlooks the towering hills crowded with lush pine trees and the Tila River right beneath.

“We couldn’t have found a better location,” Norbu says. Initially what started as building something “bigger and better than their grandfather’s house in Mugu” has taken a new turn for Norbu. Having ditched several opportunities to migrate to the United States, Norbu says he takes pride to have “invested all the savings” in his village.

Also, he wants to prove that projects as such can materialize in places like Jumla.

“If we do something of the same magnitude in Kathmandu, our efforts will go unnoticed,” his younger cousin adds. “But this is our community, and we’re trying to uplift our place and people. Our accomplishment and the acknowledgement we’ll have here will be priceless.”

This article originally appeared in Republica The Week, November 22.

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Pushing the limit

Last month I travelled to Pokhara for a series of stories — being a freelancer or a reporter in general, you always want to bring home a bag full of stories when you travel.

Before leaving for Pokhara, all I had were a series of interviews for this particular story I’m currently working. But meanwhile I just thought I would get hold of more sources for the Gurkha story I was working on — little did I know then that this would in fact turn out to be a full-fledged multimedia story and a string of stories for three media outlets.

When I first saw these young Nepali men training to prepare for the British Gurkha recruitment camp, I thought the story would have more impact visually. As they trained in the rain and under the scorching summer sun, pushing their limits, I was in fact pushing my limit too.

With a DSLR camera — the only equipment I had — I ran along with them in the rain and the sun, capturing their rigorous regiment. One of my friends travelling with me offered to help, which was a great relief during interviews.

Two days of shooting, a hard disk that ran out of space and almost three hours of footage, I wrapped up the Gurkha story and started working on the other one I was originally there for.

Being a freelancer, though its flexible, there is always this fear of not finding a home for your story. But you have to try to convince your editors, you have to be persistent in pushing your story. And I’m glad that I’m at a point where I can comfortably do that. But this doesn’t mean, it’s easy. I still have to pitch and persuade my editors. However, the process becomes a bit easier in the long run.

For the Gurkha story, I sent out e-mails and got rejected. Despite that I continued my e-mail pointing out different angles. When one publication didn’t work, I looked for another. My editor there in fact suggested to take a different angle, which actually worked for the best.

But it wasn’t just the text I was trying to get published. I had worked on a video and I had to get it out there. Honestly, I did persuade my editor and finally convinced the multimedia team to go through my video — it worked out well.

While working on a Gurkha story, I also came across a British colonel who had been living in Nepal for more than three decades. A permanent Nepali resident, he had given up his British citizenship and was waiting to become a Nepali national. I thought it would be a good profile and then pitched it to two more outlets.

The first two passed the idea but the foreign editor from the South China Morning Post called me and said it would make an interesting story. And the rest is out there.

At times, being a freelancer does makes me a bit lazy. But it’s at times when I start working on stories as such and see the potentials they have, they keep me on the go.

It’s exactly been a year since I’ve worked on some multimedia project — last time it was my final project for grad school. Though it was daunting, I thoroughly enjoyed the one-man project, and with the Gurkha story too, I’ve enjoyed working on them and also learned a lot while working.

Here’s the list — one story, multiple mediums.

The National: The Gurkhas of the British Army

The National: Training to be Gurkhas [VIDEO]

South China Morning Post: Retired British Gurkha, 88, stateless in Nepal as he waits for citizenship

Republica The Week: I will be a Gurkha [PHOTO FEATURE Pages 8-9]

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A vacation, totally connected

There’s this button that says switch off – it would actually unplug you from almost everything. It would check you out from the virtual world and bring closer to the real world. That’s what I thought I would do during my week’s vacation, but to my own dismay, I thought I was more consumed by the device which I should have left home.

As soon as I landed in Bangkok, cheap sim cards with unlimited Internet was sort of irresistible. I got one to keep in touch with friends traveling along and navigate places in a new city. Little did I know that it would actually take over me.

And trust me, I was not alone. Some of my friends were more connected to their devices than I was. It did make me feel a bit better. At least I shut down my phone momentarily or the battery ran out too fast. And at two instances I left my phone in the hotel — that was an accomplishment!

In today’s day and age where everything is “connected” 24X7 and we have to make our presence felt in the virtual world, it might be hard to detach ourselves from all of that even if it’s for an hour or so. A lot can happen in that hour — you might miss out on so many important comments and “likes” on Facebook and Instagram; you might be  too late to tweet and retweet something, and more importantly you definitely don’t want to miss out on posting the best vacation photos and count the “likes” that those photos generate.

But it can get ridiculous, especially when you’re in a group and then a friend posts a photo on Facebook from that very location and without making any real comments or conversations or having your say, you actually press the “like” button on Facebook to show your approval. And everything ends then and there. As lame as it sounds, this is true.

Though we did make interventions and said to ourselves that we would not be using our phones, which only worked for an hour or so.

I think we’re so obsessed with our virtual personality that sometimes that it overshadows who we are. Also we have this tendency to “keep in touch” with the world even when we don’t need to, especially when we’re on a vacation. Reflecting on that week, I cant help but ask myself, “Why did I really need to be connected all the time and why not just be free and enjoy?”

I think we all might have our own versions, the answers that would satisfy us and not take us on a guilt trip for whatever reason.

For me, there was this week where I could have forgotten everything, unplugged and enjoy what was around without having to look for more. But I made a choice to not get away from the things which I could easily have. I know it’s sad.

Well, maybe next time … I’ll make the right choice.

Up toward Everest Base Camp

In a two-day’s notice, I had to leave for Everest Base Camp. My colleague who was on assignment to cover the Everest Marathon couldn’t make it and so my editor passed on the duty to me.

Excited is the first word that comes to my mind if I were to define that exact moment — just four months into my first journalism gig, and I was being sent to EBC. And excruciating is how I would sum up the trek; but every little step I took toward the base camp of the world’s highest peak and all the running I did  to meet the deadlines is worth remembering.

As the world celebrates the 60th anniversary of the first ascent to Mt Everest by Tenzing Norgay Sherpa and Sir Edmund Hillary, the climbing season has been marked by a number of conquests and controversies — from the world’s highest brawl to the world’s highest agreement on that brawl, the world’s highest garbage site, the world’s highest traffic jam … and not to forget the deaths and notable human accomplishments.

Every year people come to climb the mighty peak. Each year records are made and also broken. Here’s a paragraph from Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin’s Three Cups of Tea, which I think subtly summarizes mission Everest.

“Everest is a harsh and hostile immensity. Whoever challenges it declares war. He must mount his assault with the skill and ruthlessness of a military operation. And when the battle ends, the mountain remains unvanquished. There are no true victors, only survivors.”

Personally speaking, it’s a treacherous but a rewarding trek. With every meter, you’re stepping into a higher territory without knowing if you’ll be able to resist the altitude. However, it’s always comforting to reach the stop for that day, to be welcomed by a different peak and a sight to remember.

For a majority of us, Everest is a remote though – well, it’s not even a thought perhaps. And for most, I think base camp is the closest we can get. I’m glad that I did it but quite not sure if I’ll ever go up there again.

So when I say ‘a trip of  a lifetime,’ I think Everest Base Camp is what I would actually be referring to.

Here’s a collection of photos from my 2010 trek to Everest Base Camp. 

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The Record Setters

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Seven Summits Women (L to R): Shailee Basnet, Maya Gurung, Asha Kumari Singh, Pujan Acharya, Pema Diki Sherpa, Chunu Shrestha. Nim Doma Sherpa is missing in the photo.

Last week, I met seven women – we talked, laughed and shared their stories from around the world. While my stories spin around sightseeing, hotel stays and everything touristy, they talked about climbing mountains — the highest peak on every continent.

At a first glance, it’s difficult to fathom that they have climbed the highest peak on earth, Mount Everest, along with the highest mountains in Australia, Africa and Europe. By 2015, the Seven Summits Women, as they’re collectively called, are on a quest to  ascend the remaining three – the tallest points in South America, North America and Antarctica.

During the past two years, like the Seven Summits Women, I’ve talked to many Nepali mountaineers who have climbed the summits and set records.

I met Apa Sherpa, also called the Super Sherpa, who has climbed Everest a record 21 times before calling it a quit.

I travelled to Syangja in western Nepal to meet Sano Babu Sunwar and Lakhpa Tsheri Sherpa, who climbed Everest, paraglided from 8,848 meters and then kayaked all the way to the Bay of Bengal in India following the Koshi River in Nepal and the Ganges.

I also met Mingmar Dorji Sherpa, who started off as a porter but then assisted film crews and later started reporting about the mountains from the mountain peaks for state-run Nepal TV.

Then recently I interviewed Chhurim Sherpa, the 29-year-old who climbed Everest twice in one week.

It’s always fascinating meeting these courageous, adventurous people. And every time I meet them, I question what is it that makes them go atop a mountain, battling snowstorms, breathing thin air and risking their lives.

“You have to experience that yourself,” said Maya Gurung, one of the seven from the Seven Summits Women. “It’s some sort of addiction.”

I couldn’t agree with her more. But it’s not that I haven’t climbed a mountain. I know what it feels like – trekking up to the Everest Base Camp and also Kalapatthar seemed more than enough to me. The treacherous trek up to 5,500m, though worth it, is still very tough.I can’t think of going beyond that.

And here I talk to them who tell me their Everest stories as if it was just another trek up a small hill.

“I just sang a song all the way up,” Lhakpa told me of the Nepali tune that was his motivation – “Gorkhali ko Choro Hu Ma, Gorkhe Mero Naam (I’m a son of a Gurkha, Gorkhe is my name).”

While the Sunuwar-Lhakpa duo climbed, glided and sailed for the “sake of adventure,” for Apa, the 21-time record setter, climbing Everest, he said was “strictly a profession.”

“When I started climbing, it was to support my family,” he said. His latter climbs had a mission – to raise awareness about climate change and to raise Nepal’s profile in the global map through his record.

Others also share similar views — they all have their motives too.

The Seven Summits Women are on a mission to promote girls’ education and empowerment and Chhurim’s climb was centered around her childhood dream to summit the peak and to raise the profile of Nepali women mountaineers. She wants women to come forward and explore this business that is very much male-dominated.

All the mountaineers I have met have their personal stories, and at the end of the interview, I only get more inspired through their courage, determination, commitment and not to forget the success. I’m not sure if I can ever do what they’ve done, but I’m glad that my job allows me to meet people as such who are passionate about what they’re doing. And in the end, it makes me happy realizing that I’m also passionate about what I’m doing.

Stories

Seven Nepalese women have lofty ambitions to scale seven summits

‘Super Sherpa’ sets record with 21st ascent of Everest, then calls it a day

Childhood dream leads climber up Everest — twice in one week 

The men who leapt off Everest and paddled all the way to the sea 

From porter to reporter 

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On the road to & from Palpa

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In Nepal, travelling can be excruciating. However, spending hours on board an overcrowded bus, crammed in a small seat with minimal leg space as it makes its way up and down the winding roads that cuts through the hills can be an enjoyable adventure provided if you’re with a group of good friends.

And that was what my trip to Palpa in west Nepal was like — full of unanticipated adventure with a great group of friends.

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The journey from Kathmandu started with the usual wait. We were told to be at the bus station at 7 am but we didn’t hit the road until 9 am. As we complained about the “hard seat” and the “eight-hour drive,” we were unaware of what to expect in the hours and days to follow.

The drive to Pala was scenic, and also scary. From a distance what looks like curvy lines sketched on the hilly terrain are actually the roads that connects towns and villages.

When we got to the bus station in Tansen, the district headquarter of Pala district, we were welcomed by further waiting time. We had to take this 13-seater van to Harthok, a small village that was our final destination.

As we waited for an hour inside the van, there were seven people who had been waiting there for almost three hours. The van wouldn’t move unless it was full; and when I say full, I mean without any space for anything or anyone.

When the van finally was on the road, there were 20 people plus a baby. There was this woman who started talking to us, gave tips and later kept insisting visiting the temple. Then there was this teenage boy who was sort of excited to see our “white” friend on the van. Then there was the man who was sitting in the middle and had to lean over two people to reach the window so he had could spit. And of course the baby, who thankfully didn’t cry at all.

As the van twisted and made swift turns through the narrow roads, my eyes were stuck on the window, trying not to think that a minor miss would lead us hundreds of feet down the hill.

But then, this ride and the twists and turns were nothing compared to the one we would be having the next day.

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Speeding kills and all seven of us couldn’t stop thinking that as our driver sped his way through the winding blacktopped road that later turned into a dirt road en route to Rani Mahal, the 124-year-old palace in Palpa.

While a friend said that she felt like it was some sort of “death ride,” others thought of making some confessions or declaring our last wishes just in case. But we weren’t serious about that, of course not.

As our driver made swift turns, we screamed – it was like a rollercoaster ride. There were instances we thought that we might just miss that turn. And at times, while his eyes stared at passing women and not the steering, we were sort of concerned. But the driver was experienced enough to tackle those roads, and everything else, including the flat tire we had.

As we drove through the small settlements, we picked up people, the ones who needed a ride downhill. They included an elderly Canadian couple who were sightseeing in Palpa and locals, who suggested us things to see and do in their village.

On our return after our short hike, I think we were tried to feel the bouncy ride or notice the narrow roads. Our driver dropped us off in the same speed, and in no time we were sitting by the bonfire talking about “one of the most bumpy rides ever.” Meanwhile, we thought that we would have a smooth journey to Kathmandu the next day. Well, that’s what we thought. But not really.

***

The 12-hour return to Kathmandu was adventurous; I think that’s the best way to put it.

Thinking it would be best to take the night bus and reach Kathmandu early the following day, we opted for the 5 pm bus. The first 30 minutes was a joyride. The bus driver played his English play list—Rhianna and other dance anthems included—that tempted us to dance. It made us settle in a happy mood.

Soon the English songs faded and the Hindi and Nepali music became overpowering. Still no complains until the empty seats and the aisle started filling.

Usually night buses don’t cram passengers, but this had people everywhere – some were sitting on small stools and suitcases while others stood. It was pretty shocking that there were a few who were ready to stand up all the way to Kathmandu, and they did as well.

While people in the aisle shared their stories of the need to get to Kathmandu at the earliest, two women right behind my seat were the center of attention of the entire bus. People keenly watched them flirting with the man behind them (well, the man was flirting with them too), and listened to their conversations that revolved around music, movies, relationships and their personal lives. Well, by the first hour nothing remained personal. As the night progressed inside the bus, we also had to bear one of the girls picking on fight with some of the men in the bus. And we thought it couldn’t get worse until the bus was parked outside a small teashop in the middle of the highway.

The bus stopped exactly for two hours. From 1 am until 3 am, the driver took a long nap. To justify why he’d stopped and slept, he said that he didn’t want us to get to Kathmandu at 3 am—the city was roughly two hours away. Good point and pretty logical, but still it was pretty annoying to be inside a motionless vehicle for two hours. Good thing, we were close to a hotel that was serving tea.

Finally, after all that fuss, we reached Kathmandu at 5:30 am.

***

The journey was long and exhausting, but the destination was worth everything.

Palpa isn’t a famous tourist destination unlike other places in Nepal; it’s not the first place that comes to the mind like Pokhara. But it’s different: it’s a mix of nature and culture.

While a walk through the old Tansen bazaar is a good way to experience local culture and see old architecture, minutes away from this bustling town are small settlements, which is a good escape from the periphery of anything city-like.

We preferred to spend the few days in one of the villages in Harthok, and opted to stay in a local farmhouse, and not a hotel. A young venture, Srijana Farm Pvt. Ltd in Khasyauli – 5 is a locally-run guesthouse set up in a three-story mud house.

In fact it was a great choice – the local food and the hospitality was above excellence, and we were in the middle of a farm, away from all the dust, pollution and the chaos of the city. And this is what we actually wanted – a mini break.

So despite complaining about the journey and the excruciating bus rides, I think we’re taking comfort in the time spent in the village under the blue sky and starry nights. For us, this time, it’s the destination that mattered more than the journey.

Instagramming Kathmandu

I’ve been on some sort of a writing break – haven’t really wrote anything or even have had the thought of writing anything.

I spend my days soaking up the warm winter sun in Kathmandu, mostly. Once bored, I usually go for walks – sometimes planned and at times just random.

As I walk, I usually complain about most of the stuff I see – no proper sidewalks, ill road manners, the stinking mountain of garbage, the dust, the smoke, this weird spitting habits of people …

But at the same time, I do appreciate the beauty of this city. And here are some shots taken from my cellphone, and of course Instagrammed.

 

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Greetings from Kathmandu

ktmSo I have moved to Kathmandu, once again- back to my roots. This Nepalese nomad is on a temporary break from all the travelling, at least for a while.

Now, since I’m in this amazing city, this space will be home to my life and times in Kathmandu – this will include the good, bad and the ugly side of my hometown, and more.

Meanwhile, I will be continuing my reporting endeavours from Nepal. And of course, I will be on a lookout for another adventure in some part of the world.

For my past posts on Nepal, you refer to Notes from Nepal

If you’re on Instagram, you can follow me there: bibek_bhandari 

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