That time I went with locals up a mountain in the Himalaya to stay in the Ghalegaun community.
Where? Besisahar, Nepal
When? November 2015
With whom? Alone
I had been doing some charity work with a school in a town called Besisahar, or Besi, and staying with a family who worked with me. Chandra and Sanu were both teachers at the school and became my adopted sisters for the three weeks that I stayed there. You know when you just bond immediately with people and it’s as if you’ve known each other your whole lives? That’s how it felt with the sisters. Their English was fantastic and they tried their best to get me to learn some Nepali. One weekend they offered to take me up to their family who live much higher in the Himalaya in a place called Ghalegaun. Moutains, authentic local experience, a chance for them to show off… Obviously the answer was yes!
As a result of a national fuel shortage, queues at the petrol station would stretch as far back as the highway (this was a really long way) and people would wait for days to get their hands on some petrol. I saw many buses that were so overcrowded that people had climbed up onto the roof in their suits to get a ride to work. The bus I found myself on was no exception. You think it’s bad on your London armpit tube commute? Try a Nepalese arm pit and sweaty crotch bus ride! You gain a little perspective as to what you can tolerate. The bumpy hole-ridden roads quickly lost their charm and I found myself regretting the decision to forego the sports bra that morning. In fact, the whole experience was a little startling, we were crammed in like sardines on a floor decorated like a shrine while earsplitting Nepalese music pumped out of the bus’ dodgey speakers. On the way up into the Himalaya mountains, as Sanu and I were chatting, the bus driver heard my accent and asked me where I was from. It turned out that he served for nine years in the military about 20 minutes from where I lived in the UK! It’s a small world.
He told me all about the Gurkhas and how the British military treat them awfully but it’s still better than most jobs they can do in Nepal so it is most men’s aspirations to become one and move to Britain. This was refreshing – I get the feeling sometimes that most countries seem to hate the Brits: the French, the Germans, the Spaniards, the Italians, the Americans… The Chinese are super proud to have never been part of the British empire and we’re even hated by the Scots, who are British! When you consider our history the hatred is justifiable even if it feels unjust at the time, so it was nice to be somewhere that actually felt positively towards the UK.
Once we hopped off the bus we had to walk very quickly as darkness was swallowing up our vision. Sanu and Chandra grew up here and were uncomfortable walking around this area, so if you go, make sure you have a guide. We walked for half an hour to the most adorable cottage I’ve seen. It was small; the floor space was maybe the size of three single beds, and it had two storeys. I met the family who had no knowledge of English so most communication was done by third party or gestures. It’s amazing how simple gestures are universally understood and I felt like we started to make progress communicating. Despite the cold outside, sitting downstairs was very warm thanks to the lit fire. Two kitties roamed the floor as if they owned the place and took an interest in me. I was obviously thrilled at this, and everyone else found it hilarious as they blended into my trousers. We drank some heated home-made wine together and chatted into the evening.
The stars from up here were incredible. Without my glasses the sky was a stunning Van Gogh, and when I put them on I could clearly see thousands more of the bright specs, way more impressive than any photo or computer-generated image of them. The three of us climbed a dodgy ladder up to an empty room with wooden flooring the size of one single bed, realising that this is where the three of us would sleep. As the smallest of the three (story of my life), I got the short straw to sleep in the middle. Between the elbowing, kicking, snoring, and spooning from either side of me, I managed to get some sleep.
When morning finally came, I climbed down the ladder and hopped over a tied up goat and some grinders to get a view of the Himalaya. It was spectacular. I stood in awe as the mountains loomed around me, peaks upon peaks, as far as I could see. I went exploring up to what looked like a viewpoint and was apparently where a rescue helicopter landed one time.
Sanu and Chandra joined me and walked me down to their cousin’s house. The older cousin was chopping wood at the side of the house, being one to always immerse myself fully in everywhere I was keen to give it a go. I think he allowed it thinking he could do with a laugh as he handed over the weapon with a snarky look on his face. I was way better than I expected to be, I would go so far as to say I potentially missed a calling in life to be a logger and got away with only a few laughs from the spectators. With a few tries, it became productive and he found himself another axe so that we could work through the logs together.
After our axe sesh, I was handed some tea and I sat down once more to enjoy the view. From the corner of the scene I could make out a rope with a thin log tied to the bottom; a swing. Yes, I was having a go. Shotgun. As I got higher and swung further it felt like I was swinging off the edge of the world. The steep drop below me didn’t faze me as I was still so drawn in by the view of the jagged edges from the tops of the Himalaya. Occasionally I look back on some of the little things I’ve done like playing on this swing and I just grin despite myself of the sheer recklessness of it all. I can maybe, a little bit, slightly understand why my mum worries.
My next job was back up at the first cottage and involved a rice grinder. Despite its misleading name, it peels rice. (Disclaimer: I am using the words that I was told at the time, apologies if they are not technically correct – English was their 4th or 5th language!) It was a pedal action task and I was left to get on with things, so I dutifully did until I was called in to help make the breakfast.
I went with the uncle to choose a chicken from the yard, and we slaughtered it together before chopping the whole thing up to eat. Yum, fresh chicken. If you were wondering, cooked chicken organs are brown. The spices were thrown in as we cooked and eventually we all sat around eating it. It was so delicious! We carried on chatting and the kitties came for me and sat on my lap. It was divine. Before I knew it, I was handed a local beer! I’m not the kind of girl to turn down a beer, so I gratefully took it and tried it. I think it was milk based and it was so grim. I tried my best to give a smile but my expressive face gave me away. Luckily it was received with good humour and a few giggles.
It was time to walk down. Chandra took a bag of charcoal about the size of me and placed it on her head, casually balancing this huge weight as she walked down the mountain. Sanu and I followed, sharing the weight of the same thing between us and taking much longer. Without me noticing (and without telling Chandra), Sanu had texted one of her friends to meet her on his bike, so as soon as we were back on to paths we were able to give him our bag of charcoal! Sneaky. We felt so smug until we reached the next village and were given another bag of charcoal each! To help us, we had flat headbands so that we could balance the bags more easily on our heads. For the next few hours, I can say with a small sense of pride that we were the slowest Sherpas in the Himalaya.
The trail got precarious at times, and at one point I noticed that my view of the mountains looked as though I was looking through a kaleidoscope. Drink more water. Eventually it became a race against the sun as we frantically tried to get back down the mountain before dark. It was a big challenge but we just about made it! I loved the taster I had of experiencing the rural, simple way of life; it felt enriching. There’s something tranquil and satisfying about being part of, if only momentarily, something so pure and honest. I wouldn’t choose it as a permanent life style but by experiencing it I’ve found I can appreciate a lot of the things I see on my travels.
Info: Nepal was going through a pretty horrendous time back in 2015. The fuel crisis was pretty limiting on what anyone could do and where they could go. People struggled to get to work or to visit their family. I got lucky – I knew the right people who got me on a bus to the charity work and then back to Kathmandu afterwards. On top of that, the crippling earthquake meant that anyone who made their living from the tourist industry was struggling to make ends meet because there simply weren’t enough tourists going. There is so much to do in Nepal from the obvious of hiking through the Himalaya, paragliding, safaris, white-water rafting, to mountain-spotting flights. Plus, the people are so friendly and helpful. If you want to get the best prices then have a walk through Thamel, the tourist part of Kathmandu, where there are loads of tour agencies who can book you in for paragliding or get you to the Everest trails/Annapurna circuit to do some hikes. These guys really know what they’re talking about.
Product of the week: In Nepal, the Cadbury chocolate was REALLY good. I think it still has the old recipe before Kraft took over, and they had flavours that I haven’t seen in the UK (or anywhere else). My favourite was this delish Dairy Milk Silk, which comes in a range of flavours but the best is the normal chocolate but none of the crappy stuff that Kraft produce!
Tip of the week: Get stuck in! Don’t be afraid to make a potential fool of yourself. Picking up the axe was asking for people to laugh at me but it definitely added to the whole experience of seeing what it’s like to live in the Himalaya. I see all the time when travellers say no to things because it will be embarrassing – my tip is to say yes. It’s so much more fun that way.