Sunday, 10 January 2016

If you are in Kathmandu and want some adrenaline rush, plan a hike to Kalinchowk

Mountain range, as seen, from Kalinchowk.

I don’t believe in superstitions. But don’t know why, it seems that if I hike and travel on the first day of the year, the spirit will continue throughout the year.

Keeping up with the tradition of travelling to new destinations on the first of January, along with my two friends Dilli and Deb, I set out for a hike to Kalinchowk, a famous religious and touristic spot in Dolakha district.  

One thing special about the trip was no substantial planning involved. Now ask me why I believe in such an old philosophy of procrastinators. Let me tell you – it makes the journey more unpredictable and filled with surprises.  

The unofficial blockade has blocked the veins of economy. But people have no complaints.
The journey to Charikot in a public bus was a memorable one. We started at 9:30 am from the Old Bus Park and it took us seven hours to reach Charikot. On the way, the bus stopped a zillion times to accommodate the local passengers. One of the reasons for such a crowd in the bus was the fuel scarcity due to the unofficial blockade. Half of the bus corridor was filled with 50-litre jerry cans carrying diesel and other half with passengers, packed like sardines. At places people even got up the bus roof-top with loads of firewood. Not to mention, it was already packed with travellers.

As we got down the bus for snacks in the mid-way, the restaurant owner quickly heated the chick-peas and potatoes over a firewood stove. He had no qualms about using up the precious firewood in the wake of the cooking gas shortage and he did not charge more than usual for this extra service.

Back in the bus, the old people, ladies with little children all clung to each other while some rested on the seats. Even little children were standing along with their parents. But still they were cracking jokes – about the hardships they had to face due to the unofficial blockade. They had no complaints – neither against India nor the current government. The whole bus was making its way through the narrow roads in a jolly mood.  

A frog’s leap for locals is more than leapfrogging for outsiders
Entering the Dolakha district, we could see the buildings destroyed by the 25 April earthquake and people living in temporary shelters. The landscape was a beauty to watch but the rubble and the shelters were like lesions on a soft skin.

Finally after seven hours’ ride we reached Charikot. Finding a place for the night was another big task in the New Year eve. Although the hotels were booked and packed with new arrivals, we got a nice deluxe room in a reputed hotel.

Another big and arduous task in front of us was to find the right suggestion to get to Kalinchowk. Everybody we talked with suggested hiring a jeep to Kuri. Although the distance from Charikot to Kuri is only 18 kilometres, nobody advised us to hike. The didi at the hotel where we stayed said that it would take us more than five hours to reach Kuri and additional one hour to reach Kalinchowk from there.

The next morning we set up for the hike – decided not to hire any vehicle to Kuri. However, as we were sipping tea in a road-side cafĂ©, luckily we met the president of the local transporters’ association. He advised us not to go on foot and said it would take seven hours to reach Kuri. The number of hours needed to reach Kuri had increased with each person we consulted. According to the first person we consulted, Kuri was only three and half hour away from Charikot. Thus, after talking to the president, we decided to take a jeep ride one way and he helped us connect to one of the local drivers.    

A tea-house in Kuri.

Luckily, in next one hour we were at Kuri. Everything was happening as per our sporadic plans and in a way it was much better than planning everything in advance.

We saved almost five hours that, otherwise, would have been spent in hiking uphill. For the locals the ascent takes 3.5 hours, but even for brisk walkers like us, it would have taken more than 5 hours.

Thus, we learnt an important lesson: Always add an hour and half to what the locals say it will take, if you are planning an uphill hike. For the locals it might be a frog’s leap but the same, for you, might be a never-ending trek.  

Kuri village, as seen, from Kalinchowk.

Reaching Kuri on time had its own benefits. We utilised the saved time well. Spending more than an hour on the peak, clicking as much pictures as we could were the bonus of reaching earlier at the hill-top.

The Mount Gauri Shankar (7,134m) and other peaks seemed standing just next to us. The cool breeze atop the hill was soothing and relaxing, especially after the tedious, almost 80 degrees climb for an hour.

Bells and bells everywhere - the offerings from the worshipers.

Once you reach the top (3800m), you get to understand why the Shakti Peeths (the place of worship, highly valued by the Hindus) are located at inaccessible places. The place is free from unwanted crowd, pollution and whatever dirt the mankind produces at easily accessible places.

Apart from bells, tridents are offered to Kalinchowk Bhagwati.

We will never get over with the Hindi music
While reaching the hill-top was bliss with no trace of pollution, the bhajans blaring out of the loudspeaker was piercing our ears. And imagine – all the chants were in Hindi language, dubbed copies of latest Bollywood hits. Not to mention, the songs with hints of sexuality.

I wonder when we will start promoting Nepali bhajans. All the time we talk about taking pride in being a sovereign country and banning Hindi movies and television channels but forget that Indian-ness has penetrated skin-deep. It won’t go away that easily.

The black marketers need to learn lessons on humanity from Kuri hoteliers
While the ascent was difficult even for regular hikers like us, descending down the peak was a much easier task.

If you pile up the stones, it will keep away your joint-aches.

Reaching the base, we searched for our Sherpa friend who had accompanied us in a jeep to Kuri from Charikot. To our surprise, everyone in the small bazaar seemed to know each other and they happily helped us find his lodge. What a shame, we had not even bothered to ask his name during the one hour jeep ride. However, a man recognised him as we described his appearance. He said, “Oh, that must be Kanchha!”

And Kanchha Sherpa, he was. He came, leaving behind the clothes he was washing. With a big grin on his face, he said, “I thought you guys won’t be back for lunch,” while his wife cursed him for not telling her to prepare lunch.

In a jiffy she prepared snacks for us. Imagine lighting up the improved cookstove and cooking food. But for her it was a daily chore and in no time we were gulping down the egg noodles. When it was time to pay, we were dumfounded – it was much cheaper than in Kathmandu!

In spite of the unofficial blockade and the difficulty to get the commodities to that height, the prices had not skyrocketed as in the capital. We could imagine how greedy the Kathmandu businessmen had been.

They need to learn a lesson or two from these relatively poor but honest businessmen!

Kathmanduites still need to learn to be social
While we were going gaga over the good people in Kuri, we had to face few thorns in the way.
We knew it would take us around five hours to descend down to Charikot from Kuri as we hadn’t booked any vehicle for the return trip. Luckily, a Bolero with a back carrier appeared from nowhere. 

We were more than happy and excited as we were, asked the people sitting in the front for a hitchhike. Though the jeep had been reserved, they were okay with it and asked us to jump on the back carrier. However, a girl and a boy sitting at the back acted snobbish and said, “No, there’s no place, you guys can’t hop in like anybody.”

And the boy wasn’t even looking at us. As if we were some animals!

We knew the team was from Kathmandu. And the message was loud and clear – they needed a lesson or two to be social!

Climate change is real. And it’s happening.
Saddened by the behaviour of our fellow Kathmanduites, we marched towards the hiking route – as brisk as we could.

Rhododendrons ready to blossom ahead of the blooming season.

The walking route passed through a jungle of rhododendron. To our surprise, the bushes were laden with flower buds – they would bloom in a week or two. And it was just the first day of the year!

The rhododendrons bloomed only in March earlier. Then the blooming season shifted to February and last year the rhododendrons bloomed in mid-January. This year, it would bloom much earlier. The change was there, right in front of our eyes – the real climate change. And it was happening. In the broad daylight!

It’s the motivation that matters. Be surrounded by optimists.
A good thing about walking back was the experience – the walk up the hills and the following descent. On the way, we met three young guys – tired both spirit-wise and fitness-wise. They had been walking for seven hours and hadn’t met anybody to up their near-dead spirit. Somebody had suggested that it was only a three and half hours walk to Kuri from Charikot – same was what had been suggested to us.

Still they were half an hour away from Kuri, the base camp to Kalinchok. We knew, for sure, they won’t be able to make to the top that day as the temple gates closed at 4 pm. Seeing us, their faces brightened up. They were face-to-face with another trio that was returning from the summit!

When we said that they were only half an hour away from the base camp their spirits suddenly charged up. We, too, were happy to meet the youngsters. We told them about Kanchha Sherpa and his lodge where they could put up that night and set for the hill-top the next day. They were more than happy and as they bid goodbye, one of them said, “Dai, had we not met with you, we would have left the hope to get to Kuri today.” Such is the power of optimism and being surrounded by optimists.

The earthquake not only took down the buildings but also shattered the human egos
As we returned to the hotel in Charikot, we had a chat over a cup of coffee with a local hotelier. The couple had left their hotel business after the 25 April earthquake and was sustaining the family from the earnings of a small tea shop.

Most of the buildings near the shop had visible cracks, few had fallen down and people were still getting rid of the rubble. The lady was telling how hard the life was after the earthquake. “The earthquake taught a great lesson to us all,” the man added. “All the tall buildings had been built from bank loans just to compete with the neighbours with high-rise buildings. The earthquake not only took down the buildings but also shattered the human egos. Now all of them are back on the streets.”

How to get there
If you have your own vehicle it takes one hour to get to Dhulikhel from Central Kathmandu and from Dhulikhel you can reach Charikot in three and half hours. From Charikot to Kuri it’s only 18 kilometres but as the road is uphill and bumpy it will take nearly one hour – make sure you are riding an off-road vehicle. From Kuri to the Kalinchowk hill-top is a forty-five minutes steep and arduous walk – if you keep on climbing without a break, otherwise it might take you an hour or more.

If you opt for public vehicle, you can get one from the Old Bus Park in Kathmandu. The journey to Charikot is of six hours and costs NRs 335 per person. The buses run at an interval of an hour and half and the first one leaves the bus stop at 5:30 am and the last one at around noon. From Charikot to Kuri you can either hire a jeep (six people can fit in the vehicle) for NRs 5,000 for a round-trip (but it will cost you NRs 3,700 one-way, if you plan to walk one-way) or hop into one run by the local transporters’ association for NRs 250 per person.  

Accommodation and food
In Charikot there are plenty of good hotels. However, it’s always good to book in advance in special occasions like New Year or any Hindu festival. Kuri has few lodges, tea shops and a grand new hotel. There’s no problem of getting good food. The hotels in Charikot charge a room from NRs 800 – 1200 and it’s much cheaper in Kuri. The food is cheap – NRs 200 is more than enough for a meal.