#19 An Old Man with Aching Bones

Sent: Wednesday, December 05, 2001 11:18 AM

The feats of civil engineering necessary to eke out an existence in the mountains are outlandish. Every slope of less than 1:2 is terraced: haunches in the valley climb for 500 metres all of which is under cultivation. I can't help but think of those tacky calendars that pastel-pullover wearing golfing fathers used to get at Christmas called something like 'Great Golf Courses of the World.' The months would show a golf course spread across a range of mountains with a tee on one peak and a green on another separated by a huge chasm. Well the rice paddies appear in places every bit as improbable, jutting out of the forest in the most ridiculous, improbable places that leave you scratching your head about how a farmer gets up to the paddies and how the hell he gets the harvest down again.

It is the time of the year of the rice harvest which means that I can at last find out where rice comes from. For too long my knowledge of rice has started with knowing what a rice paddy looks like, replete with stereotype image of a woman up to her knees in water wearing a Chinese Wishee-Washee style hat and ended with a pile of rice on my plate but has contained absolutely nothing inbetween, which, considering that it's the world's most important foodstuff, is a pretty big gap. So, for my benefit more than yours, here is what happens between field and plate.

Rice paddies are constructed to work as a cascade allowing water stored at the top to flow downwards in gullys at the edge of each field that can be unblocked and blocked to irrigate each paddy as required. If there isn't a natural water supply at the top then rainwater is retained in small reservoirs.

At planting time the fields are flooded and the plants sown at regular intervals. Rice grows looking similar to wheat or barley, reaching a maximum height of about a metre. As we walk through the mountain valleys every terrace is covered in rice either swaying in the breeze or lying drying having been harvested.

When the rice is ready to be harvested it is a case of all hands on deck and we pass lots of family groups with everyone from 4 to 80 pitching in. The rice is cut using short handled scythes that require their users to bend double. The product of each plant is laid out separately on the now dry earth so that a harvested paddy looks a little like a parade ground with lots of separate bundles all laid out in regimented lines.

The rice is left to dry until the entire stem is golden yellow. If the fields are close to the farmhouse then the stems are bundled together into apprentice haystacks and carried by the women of the family (as ever the women are the packhorses) to the yard of the farmhouse. If the paddies are some way away then the next stage is carried out in the midst of the fields.

A person will pick up as big a bundle of rice stems as they can hold in two hands and, holding it at the root end, swing the sheaf up into the air and slam it down onto the floor which dislodges some of the husk covered rice kernels. As the sheaf is swung upwards it is deftly rotated by a quarter turn before being slammed down on the earth again. We frequently see four people stood in a square facing inwards slamming sheaf after back-breaking sheaf down onto an ever-growing pile of rice.

Two piles result, one of hay which is stored for use as cattle feed, and one of rice which is subsequently laid out to dry in the hot sun. When the husks have been dried the pile is worked over again to remove the husks. The rice is picked up on shallow, almost flat round wicker baskets and thrown up into the air to dislodge the husks, rather like an old-fashioned gold prospector panning in a river bed. The pan is emptied on to the ground and the resulting pile is fanned using the wicker baskets which serves to separate the rice from the husks.

The whole process is both labour intensive and very hard work and I know I shall never look at a grain of rice in quite the same way again.

The length of each day trekking is determined by the location of the bhattis and on Day 3 we have a choice of either a 3-hour or a 7-hour day. Neither of us considered this to be any kind of a choice at all, so 3 hours it is! > Our pains this morning are different to yesterdays. Today we creak and groan like a pair of old sofas, our springs complaining initially but quite quickly settling into a reasonable accommodation of the day's stresses.

We climb gently but steadily upwards through rhododendron forests and by early afternoon reach Tadopani which as we arrive is playing its' cards very close to its' chest. Perched on a ledge jutting out from the surrounding forest it looks like it may offer stupendous views but by the time we arrive the cloud has already swaddled the hill in its' moist, dense blanket which is striving hard to chill our bones causing us to take refuge in the dining-room. There we find one huge table occupying almost all of the room, a table that has carpet affixed all the way round its' edge hanging down to the floor. Carpet that, when parted and placed on your lap, allows a huge gush of hot air to escape from the burning coals glowing brightly in a brazier located in the centre of the table. The heat is very welcome, the carbon-monoxide headache less so, but I guess for every up there is a concomitant down.

We are sharing the bhatti with a group of 10 English trekkers, their guides and porters with whom we have frequently overlapped during the day. Most of them had never met before setting off and they make a funny bunch. There's Ian, the gangly, skinny, pale, enthusiastic physicist, always at the front with his long pale legs hanging like pieces of pink cotton off his too-short shorts. Martin, Dennis the Menace in adult form, always messin' abart and making mischief and Nicky, very improbably Martin's wife and quite the moaniest, wettest, 'Maaaaaaaaartin-est' woman I've met in a long time. Then there's Val a lovely woman in her mid-fifties, plodding along at the back, always worrying that she is holding everyone up and the possessor of a snore that could warn shipping away from the rocks at 20km. I spend our third night separated from Val by an inch of vibrating timber and can feel only sympathy for Ray, Val's ashen-faced, exhausted roommate who had never met her before the trek, though he may have unknowingly heard her on still nights in their shared hometown of Tunbridge Wells.

After a very cold night which saw Sausage sleeping in hat, socks and gloves (she knows how to get her husband going!!) and me sleeping in Val's shipping lanes we are woken early by the sound of a knock on Val and Ray's door and we obey the suggestion whispered to them by their guide to get up and look at the sunrise.

Nearly all the previous day's cloud has disappeared revealing a fantastic view of rolling Eastern foothills and the majestic peaks of Machhapuchhre and Annapurna South. There is just enough wispy cloud to refract the rising sun's rays that first of all colour the hazy foothills in a manner as unreal and as beautiful as a Turner painting. When the rays hit the mountains they light them in the darkest of oranges, shades that lighten imperceptibly and continually over the next 20 minutes while I stand with my jaw sagging at what is one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen.

Day 4, a day, we are warned, of tough climbing, reveals the hidden virtues of Days 1 and 2 which enable us to view today as a gentle day, all things being relative and our muscles now getting used to their daily routine. So we climb steadily through a wooded valley crossing and recrossing a gurgling stream while the trees dapple the strong sunlight all around us.

At lunchtime we bump into Jodie and Stuart who are doing a slightly shorter circuit than us in the opposite direction. Stuart is bearing up well under the strain of carrying all the luggage but Jodie appears weighed down by their camera. Mrs Robinson does not carry baggage! > After lunch we emerge onto a high ridge offering tantalising glimpses of the Annapurna range through the trees. At 3200m this is as high as we will climb and Sausage is feeling the classic early symptoms of altitude sickness, shortage of breath, burning lungs and a headache and she is glad when the short steep descent to Ghorepani begins.

We check into the Super View Hotel which proves to be an exemplar of its' kind. It is as though every cowboy builder in London got on a plane to Nepal where they all had a horrendous argument about how to build a hotel out of plywood and 4" x 2". The place has an undisputable children's treehouse charm which will last until someone drops a fag or there is the mildest of geological tremors.

The hyperactive manager reads the title of Sausage's book and spends the next 3 hours chanting it over and over as a pidgin' mantra: "Life isn't all Ha-Ha, Hee-Hee" No, it bloody isn't mate, now will you please stop racing around like a tom-tit on a marble and shut the chuff up! > We meet Joe, Steph and Chris who are coming to the end of a 16 day trek around the Annapurna range. Joe and Steph are at the end of 6 months travelling and are the first people we have met who have been to the South Pacific. It is their favourite place, which is very welcome news to us as we know less than nothing about the region despite having included it in our itinerary. Many useful tips are obtained.

Sausage retires early, still under the weather, and remains in bed when I get up at 4.30am the next morning to climb Poon Hill. The Lonely Planet Trekking guidebook describes the walk up Poon Hill as "probably the most done thing in the trekking universe" so it would seem rude to come all this way and not do it.

Poon Hill is an anonymous little tussock which would go entirely unnoticed were it not located a stone's throw from Ghorepani and if it did not offer a spectacular panorama of the Dhaulagiri and Annapurna Himalaya. So I join the many others huffing and puffing up the moonlit ascent and we all of us sit or stand, stamping or feet in the cold air, waiting for the sun to rise. The view is spectacular, 13 peaks across 180 degrees, but unfortunately there is no cloud cover whatsoever which strips out all the reds and oranges from the sun's palette. When the sun's rays hit the peaks it is rather as though someone has switched on a neon light in a daylit room. Little does Sausage know, asleep in her bed, but she saw the best of it the day before at Tadopani.

Day 5 is 7 hours spent descending 1100 metres. Everyone we speak to finds the long descents harder work than the long climbs, which is certainly how we feel as we limp into Tatopani in late afternoon (confusingly there tend to be lots of places with any given Nepali placename, at least this one has one letter different from Tadopani).

An hour into the day Sausage slips, falls and gets up largely unhurt but with a bothersome small tear in one of her calf muscles. It gives her gip for the rest of the day and she puts a very brave face on what is clearly an uncomfortable 6 hours. As we descend the landscape changes. We leave behind the tree-covered rocky slopes and walk down into agricultural terrain built on crumbly, flaky mica which shelves and landslides at the drop of a hat.

At the end of the day slightly acrophobic Sausage faces the longest, highest suspension bridge yet spanning a broad raging river. She brooks no delay or interference and fair belts across looking straight ahead with an expression that threatens serious physical harm to anyone who gets in her way.

We are too tired to walk the 30 metres from our bhatti to Tadopani's hot springs, but the hard work is now all behind us and all that remains is the walk back to civilisation and there are no mountains in the way.

Day 6 is probably our favourite day, a long pacy walk alongside a wonderfully turbulent river amongst the most beautiful butterflies. It is also a day of mule trains, long caravans of up to 80 mules which are used to transport small heavy loads such as crates of drinks. Each train is sub-divided, one man looking after 10 to 20 mules and the front 4 or 5 of each section wear garish knitted headresses which make them look like they have dived into the Traveller's Dressing Up Box.

We hear their approach before we see them, the bells around their necks clanking out a tuneless tattoo which hopefully gives us the chance to scramble off the path because these guys stop for nobody or nothing except a juicy plant on which to chew.

Day 7 should be another 5 hour walk to Baglung, but there is good news for weary Sausages, the road now reaches as far as Beni a mere 45 minutes stroll away. We rise early and by 9am we are climbing aboard the bus from Beni to Pokhara, at which point the script takes a darker turn.

There are only two seats left on the bus and they are on the back row where every bump is amplified to the max. As we pull out of Beni and look forwards down the long snaking river valley two things are immediately apparent, the road has indeed arrived at Beni, but it isn't metalled.

So we set off along a dirt track that would present a challenge to a brand new 4x4 let alone an antique bus jammed to capacity and entirely lacking any suspension. We grab onto anything that comes to hand as the seat rises and falls beneath us entirely randomly slapping our arses like a vitriolic headmaster.

The Nepalese are appalling travellers and within 10 minutes the woman sat in front of Sausage has her window open, her head out, chucking up. This is in addition to the stench provided by this family of three sat in front of us which smells like it has been months in the making. All of this is bad enough, but when the woman fails to get her vomit outside the window and Sausage's coat starts to dangle in a puddle of the woman's vomit. Well, let's just say that the phrase 'completely freaking out' just about covers what happens next.

It takes an hour and a quarter before we hit tarmac and a village where enough people get out to enable us to move seats. Three further hours sees us in Pokhara where a very strange coincidence is revealed when Joe, Steph and Chris climb down from the roof of the same bus. We had set off from Ghorepani in different directions, finished at different points and they had climbed onto the roof halfway through our journey. We refuse to ignore the hand of fate and arrange to meet them for a beer later.

Trekking has been the hardest physical challenge that either of us has confronted for many years but the pain, Sausage's blisters, the utter exhaustion, everything is made worthwhile by the scenery we have seen. And the other good news is that independent trekking is straightforward and very cheap, we couldn't spend more than 12 pounds a day between the two of us no matter how hard we tried.

On the recommendation of a couple of Aussies we met in the hills we march into the Blue Heaven Hotel and knock them down from 750 Nepalese Rupees a night to a bargain 450 NR (4.05 pounds) for a lavishly big room with all the jump-for-joy pre-requisites plus, PLUS nothing less than a proper BATH. We haven't seen a bath since we left London and to find one now, at the end of our trek is luxury beyond our wildest dreams.

Days ebb away achingly, indolently and we get used to the darkening of the skies each late afternoon as vigorous electrical storms swoop down from the mountains, up the lake and over Pokhara firing lightning as they approach and despatching raft upon raft of huge fat raindrops down onto empty streets.

Just about every Westerner we have spoken to has had some kind of infection while in Nepal and I fail to break the mould taking to my bed for three days with a bizarre cold that swings from torpor through excruciating headaches to rivers of green while Nurse Sausage mops my brow.

Determined to break our bus and coach hoodoo we pay $10 each to travel to Kathamandu on the Green Line bus, a premium rate luxury service which as well as supplying creature comforts also manages to get us to our destination without breakdowns or accidents, a first for us in Nepal.

The lesson we learnt from our accommodation fiasco in Chitwan is that if something is wrong then do something to fix the problem quickly. So it is that after one noisy, sleepless night in Hotel Lily we hastily decamp around the corner to Pilgrims Guest House where our large airy room offers peace and quiet and a hot shower that nearly knocks you off your feet.

We have 5 nights before our flight to Bangkok and we meet up again with Jodie and Stuart who depart shortly for China and with Joe, Steph and Chris who depart shortly for Upholland (that's posh Wigan to you and me) and Belfast.

With each passing day the atmosphere builds towards 14/11/01 when the whole city will celebrate Tihar, better known as Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights. So it is that my 39th birthday is marked by city-wide fireworks and festivities. There is noisy fun everywhere with people letting off fireworks and all the Hindu owned shops, businesses and homes are garlanded with string upon string of marigolds and bedecked in candles.

In addition each shop or home has a trail of a muddy brown substance laid neatly from its' doorway out into the street. For first floor businesses or homes this involves the trail leading from the street along the hall and up the stairs! Where the trail meets the road a circle of brown stuff is carefully marked out and bright symbolic patterns are laid out using coloured powders and seeds all with the purpose of attracting the attention of a particular god in order to bring prosperity into the house over the year to come. Gangs of kids go from door to door singing and chanting in exchange for small gifts in an uncanny parallel of Halloween.

We pass through all this on our way to a birthday meal with Jodie, Stuart, Joe, Steph and Chris. Jodie and Stuart go to the trouble of making a card and a present. Some of you will have been present at Planet Sausage when a talking stick has been necessary to maintain some small semblance of sanity. Well we told Jodie and Stuart some of the stories and they made me a Talking Stick as a present which is a lovely thought and may well prove vital on nights yet to occur.

Days drift by filled with books, book swapping, sightseeing, writing and emailing and soon enough it will be time to climb into the taxi to the airport. But not before the latest episode in Jon's Self Mutilation Project which involves stabbing myself in the right index finger with a penknife causing blood to spurt sufficiently vigorously to hit two walls and the ceiling of our bedroom. Fortunately my hemoglobin seems now to be in a permanent state of high readiness and the bleeding lets up shortly before the point at which I was planning to pass out. Nurse Sausage to the rescue again, needless to say.

The taxi journey to the airport is a microcosm of our experiences in Nepal, a fair price is easily agreed and the driver chats away throughout the journey like he has known us for years. On parting he wishes us a genuinely friendly goodbye and hopes to see us again. We hope to see him and his beautiful country again too.

Lots of Love
The Travelling Sausages