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Narrative Travel Writing Contest

2009 Narrative Travel Writing Contest Runner-Up Winner

Pokhara Valley, Nepal

Mountains in Nepal

The small, single engine plane carried only a few passengers. We arrived mid morning. While coming in for the landing I was startled by a strange wailing siren. I looked out the window and saw several men running around a grassy meadow shooing away a herd of cows, while another man cranked an old siren. After the cows were rounded up we made a rather bumpy landing in Pokhara valley. 

This isolated valley lies 3,500 feet above sea level and 96 miles NW of Kathmandu in an area known as the “Switzerland of Nepal.” From Pokhara, if clouds don't obscure them, one can see the entire Annapurna range, Machhapuchhara (the fish-tail mountain), and even Mount Everest. I was fortunate to visit this beautiful valley in 1962 when I was on vacation from my State Department assignment in Dacca, East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). 

The Royal Nepalese Airlines stopped there twice a day – once in the morning en route to Mustang on the Nepal Tibet border, and again in the afternoon before returning to Kathmandu. The only other way to reach this isolated area was by foot or horseback, a trip that took several days. With neither cars nor electricity, Pokhara sounded like a modern-day Shangri-la. I was determined to see it.

Beside the "runway" was a small, corrugated tin shed over which flew the Royal Nepalese Airlines flag. Next-door was a mud and wattle structure, which turned out to be a livery stable run by a Tibetan family. These two buildings and the water spigot they shared were the only signs of civilization. Off in one direction ran a well-worn path. Fanning out across the meadow several other paths, less well defined, meandered who knows where?   

I was excited as I got off the plane. I love mountains and a chance to see some of the world’s highest had drawn me to this very place. However, I also felt somewhat frightened as I watched the plane take off again for Mustang. I was alone, didn't speak the language, and was not sure what to do next. Would the plane come back? Would I be OK? Would I find my way to the village and back? Screwing up my courage, I headed down the path the pilot had assured me led to the village.

After a short walk I came to a cluster of charming, mostly 1-story houses. A couple of simple shops selling basic supplies made it clear Pokhara was no tourist town. Colorful flowers twined around the old wooden doorways and the rock and mud buildings with their simple thatched roofs made wonderful subjects for my camera.  

Pokhara Village

I noticed some children playing on the steps of one of the houses. With a start, I realized they were playing jacks. Instead of balls and star-shaped metal jacks they were using small pebbles, but it was clear that their game was the same I had played as a child back in Tacoma. Nepalese children are beautiful with round happy faces, honey colored skin, and sparkling brown eyes. While these children's clothes were quite ragged and worn, they were charming and seemed as curious about me as I was about them. Before long a gaggle of children followed my every footstep but no one asked for bakshish as they always had in Dacca. I felt like the Pied Piper.

Tibetan child in Nepal

After a couple of hours of wandering about and picture-taking, I headed back to the "airfield."  I did not want to miss that return plane to Kathmandu. Peeking through the window of the small tin shed beside the "runway," I could see a narrow charpoy or cot was the only piece of furniture. It did not look very inviting. The shed turned out to be a rest house for airline pilots grounded by bad weather, a fairly common occurrence so high in the Himalayas.   

Squatting against the rock wall beside the livery stable were several fierce looking Tibetan men. Tibetan women with their shiny black hair pulled back in braids, heavy coral and turquoise jewelry, and wearing colorful patchwork aprons over long traditional dresses are quite lovely. While Tibetan men also wear colorful clothing, they look fearsome with their large mustaches and piercing black eyes.

Tibetan men in Nepal

I was surprised to see a western woman and a little girl seated on the rock wall apparently also waiting for the plane. The woman said she was an American photographer. She and her daughter had just returned from visiting a Tibetan refugee encampment about a 2-hour hike up the valley. One of first groups to escape the Chinese invasion, they had arrived just a few days before me.

The more she talked the more excited I became about the possibility of visiting them. Ever since I was a kid, I have been fascinated by Tibet. I clearly remember hearing Lowell Thomas announce on the radio: "This is Lowell Thomas broadcasting from the top of the world." I had planned to travel there but the Chinese invasion in 1959 had squashed that dream. "It would be the chance of a lifetime!" the woman said, urging me to stay and take the plane back the next day. She and her daughter had stayed in the rest house and taken a meal with the Tibetan family at the livery stable and she convinced me I should do the same. 

If she and her daughter had stayed in that shed overnight, surely a healthy, thirty-year-old woman like me should be able to do it as well. I was only wearing a light cotton dress, but luckily I had bought a large pashmena shawl in the bazaar the day before. Fearing the plane ride might be chilly, I had brought it along.  Since I now had a "blanket," I decided to stay. The wailing siren announced the arrival of the plane as I dashed up the hill to the livery stable to make arrangements. Later, watching the plane take off, I nervously waved goodbye to the woman and her daughter and turned to settle into my new accommodations.  

My evening meal consisted of Tibetan tea (a spicy brew of milk, tea and pepper), chapattis, and boiled potatoes eaten with the Tibetan family while sitting on the floor around their communal cooking pot. I relished the plain but filling meal because I was hungry. While the modest meal was not memorable, the rest of the night was. Until the sun went down and the birds found a place to roost it sounded as though they were tap dancing in wooden shoes on the corrugated tin roof of the hut. Huddled under my shawl trying to keep warm, I did not sleep much. It gets cold at night at that altitude. 

The dancing birds awoke me the next morning at sunrise and I hurried outside to try to spot the mountains. The valley was beautiful in the early morning sunshine, but the mountains still lay hidden in the mist. I washed my face and hands at the water pump and headed to the livery stable for a breakfast of more "chapattis" and Tibetan Tea. I was getting to quite like that spicy brew. 

The man who ran the livery stable spoke some English and agreed to rent me one of his ponies. He suggested it would be better, however, if his young son led me to the refugee camp. He was afraid I might get lost. His wife, concerned about my lack of trousers, loaned me a pair of baggy green cotton drawers with a drawstring waist. She also insisted I carry her big black umbrella to protect my fair skin from the sun, which is fierce at those high altitudes. As the day wore on, I was very grateful for her thoughtfulness.

Dressed in my red and white checked cotton shirt dress over the green baggy drawers and carrying the big black umbrella, I must have looked quite a sight perched atop the colorful Tibetan rugs which served as the small pony's saddle. In addition, since I am pretty tall my legs dangled down the pony's sides and my feet nearly touched the ground.  

As the boy and I slowly wound through the lovely countryside, occasional glimpses of Machhapuchhara and the Annapurna range appeared as the clouds cleared. Once I even spotted the tip of Mt. Everest – at least I think that's what the boy said. We made many stops along the way to photograph the colorful flowers crawling over the crumbling stonewalls which flanked the path beside a crystal clear brook. The clopping of the pony's hoofs on the stone path through the village announced our presence. Our little caravan must have been quite an unusual sight, as villagers frequently ran out of their huts to wave.

After a couple of hours, I spotted several white Tibetan prayer flags waving from long bamboo poles perched high on a hillside. I dismounted from the pony and started walking towards the flags just as a crowd of women and children came running towards me. When we met they stuck out their tongues and bowed deeply from the waist, which is a traditional Tibetan greeting.  The children grabbed my hands and the bowing and giggling women seemed thrilled to see me. I felt like an honored guest. A white-haired woman in a nurse's uniform stepped out of a nearby tent and introduced herself. This kindly-faced, Swiss woman was the manager of the camp. She invited me to explore wherever I liked.

Old Tibetan man

Suddenly a group of fierce looking men came running towards me. Many had huge beads of turquoise and coral clasped around their necks and threaded through their earlobes. Instead of the traditional brightly-colored, pieced-leather boots, dark red woolen jackets thrown over one shoulder and clasped around the waists with a wide leather belt, many wore camouflage jackets and pants along with western-style boots.  

I was even more startled when they lined up like schoolboys indicating they wanted their picture taken. Obediently I whipped out my camera. After several snapshots, they crowded around demanding to see the results. I realized that the American woman photographer who had visited the day before must have had a Polaroid Instamatic. I was hard pressed to explain why my camera didn't produce similarly amazing results. They must have thought I was holding out on them, as several got quite angry. Given their already wild appearance, their fierce scowls made them look even more formidable. The Swiss woman came to my rescue by explaining the difference in the cameras and assuring the men that I was not cheating them.

Refugees in Tibetan camp

While she gave me a tour of the camp, she explained that after the Chinese invasion of Tibet in the late 1950s, receiving areas like hers had been set up near the Tibetan border in both northern India and Nepal. This particular group of refugees—who had been herdsmen and nomads—were going to be trained to weave rugs. She hoped to eventually relocate them as a group closer to Katmandu. 

The repression of the peaceful and gentle people of Tibet was a sad chapter in the world's history. "Over 1 million people out of a population of 6 million died at the brutal hands of the Chinese and Tibet's vast forests were cut down and the wildlife almost totally massacred" according to Sogyal Rinpoche, author of The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. "The vast majority of its six and a half thousand monasteries lie gutted or destroyed, and the Tibetan people face extinction, and the glory of their own culture in their homeland has been almost entirely obliterated. Spiritual masters, monks, and nuns were their first targets, because the Chinese Communists wanted above all to break the spirit of the people by wiping out all traces of religious life."  

Today thousands of Tibetans live in exile, with hundreds right here in the Seattle area. According to the Dalai Lama, there are now more Tibetans living outside their own country than within its borders. While my story takes place 46 years ago, hopefully the world will never forget what was done to these people by the Chinese.  

Thinking back to my adventure off-the-beaten-path in Nepal, I realize whatever dangers were present evolved mostly out of my own fear of the unknown. Admittedly, it was harder in those days to let people know where I was or call for help since there were no cell phones and email did not exist. However, there were usually radio hookups in remote villages like Pokhara. I also knew the Embassy staff down in Katmandu would respond if I got into real trouble. But, of course, that resource is also available to travelers today. Restaurants and motels were non-existent but I have always found there are kind people and make-do accommodations if you look for them.  

On the other hand, guerillas and pirates who kidnap travelers for ransom are a new phenomenon. Sometimes, however, these stories are really just overblown accounts from some reporter's vivid imagination and need to be carefully checked out. I remember dozens of occasions when I had to reassure my mother that I was safe after she had read some scary article in the paper. In the sixties Americans were pretty much admired in most parts of the world, which made travel to remote places less risky. While this is not universally true today, most people still like Americans as individuals. They just do not like our politics. 

The things that make travel really dangerous are war and disease—elements that one cannot really control. I always carefully research the situation and avoided it if the risk seems too great. That is a lot easier to do today with using the Internet. Dangers that are mostly in the mind—fear of the unknown, fear of feeling foolish, and fear of being seen as "different"—hold many travelers back from the possibility of a great adventure. I try to go with what I call a "vacation mindset, not some preset idea of what I want to happen." For me, the real fun of travel is keeping oneself open to possibilities. 

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