"Full many a ray of purest ray serene the dark unfathomed caves of ocean bear:
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen, and waste its sweetness to the desert air."
from "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" by Thomas Gray

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Kailash 2014 Day 03 : Kathmandu to Nyalam, Saturday Sep 06 2014

When I peeked out at 7 in the morning, the passage was full of duffel bags. We put our duffel bags out as well, and wheeled our suitcases to the lobby. The suitcases had to be stored in the hotel, the duffel bags would be picked up to be loaded into the buses.

As we get done with breakfast, it was 8:45 am. Most people from the Chinmaya group had finished breakfast, and stood in the lobby, waiting to see their bags identified and loaded. Again, had to ask the Travelorg agent at breakfast when the bags will be loaded – he said they were already being loaded. Apparently none of us could see that but him. The buses were not even standing in front of the hotel yet. Most of the bags were still lying around people’s rooms. At 9, I had to ask him to please explain when we are leaving. Finally, he came outside, and we soon realized that he had no plan on how the bags were to be identified or loaded into buses.

Again the Chinmaya discipline kicks in, each person identified their duffel bag, saw it loaded in the bus, identified the suitcases to be left in the hotel, got receipts from the hotel staff and boarded the bus in which the duffel bag was loaded – a simple routine process that the travel agent was not equipped for. He stood and watched as we worked with the hotel staff to get our bags loaded and tagged. An hour late, we took off from Kathmandu.

There had been a landslide in early August so that the bus route from Kathmandu to Kodari on the Nepal border, that takes slightly upwards of 6 hours including lunchtime, would not be navigable. We reached Dhulikhel in a couple of hours, to take helicopters to take us to the border town of Kodari, from where we would walk across the Friendship Bridge over the Kosi to the Chinese consulate in Tibet.

the road from Kathmandu to Dhulikhel, and eventually Kodari
the Nepal countryside
The natural beauty of Nepal invades the senses and pervades the being – the beautiful faces of the local people, the red-cheeked and red-nosed children, the cold mountain air, the simple morning little-town activity in the streets of Kathmandu, the gentle cows and dogs walking around, a passing glimpse of the eyes over Pashupatinath, the sight of the many gold domes as we leave the capital, the lush greenery of the countryside, the rising altitude of the mountains and the mountain road as we spiral away into the skyline, inching closer to the border. As we pass the highest Shiva statue in the world, some of the people in the bus ask the Travelorg/Travelorg India agent about it – he has no clue - some of us have begun to wonder if he has actually come here before, he does not have any knowledge or experience to share about Nepal or Tibet.  

Kailashnath Mahadev, the tallest Shiva statue in Nepal

About 20 kms outside Kathmandu, is the statue of Kailashnath Mahadev, the tallest Shiva statue in the world. 143 feet high, it took 7 years to build this, the greatest challenge in the construction being to build a statue that would not be impacted by landslides. The construction was finally completed in 2011, and this has now become a regular tourist attraction. 

There was a landslide on the Nepal-Tibet border a month ago, that has yet to be cleared. The Travelorg agent had told us it will take 4-6 hours to walk through the landslide, as some groups have chosen to do. Some people could walk if they like. If it rained, we could get stuck – for the Chinmaya group, Swamiji has decided the entire group will take the helicopter route over the landslide – the only alternative to walking across. Swamiji has accordingly decided that the entire Chinmaya group will take helicopters.
walking to the helipad

The helipad at Dhulikhel was a field in a mountain clearing, the size of a highschool football stadium, with stadium seating on one side. There were a handful of police constables who insisted on checking our bags – not quite clear why, because all we were doing was crossing a landslide in Nepal by helicopter instead of a bus. After going through the motions of the security check, the Chinmaya group has the checked bags stacked in packs of five and six, ready for the helicopters – one that carried five passengers, and another that carried six. While we kept up this flurry of activity, a mist had descended upon us.

we are not boarding helicopters anytime soon

no helicopter is landing here anytime soon
Soon, the mist had thickened to a point where we had no visibility at twenty feet. No helicopter was going to try to land here, we were stuck here now for quite a bit. While we were mulling what time we would cross the border now into Tibet, the Travelorg agent came over to say that his additional people that he has forced upon us, be allowed to go into the helicopters first. Why? – well, because some of their family members have already reached the border. How? Because he got them a bus yesterday so they could start walking early morning today and cross over the landslide. I remind him that this is a Chinmaya yatra – he has forced ~20 persons into our private group without approval, and he needed to ensure that the Chinmaya group got what we paid for. He then requested that at least the one person who had raised a ruckus the previous day for not being able to see the Stupa, be allowed to go because he was going to raise a ruckus again. He is a senior citizen, and we let him go with the first helicopter. His bags are lined up for the first helicopter, and the rest of the additional people are to board the helicopter after the planned group is through. 
After the hurried packing and the delayed loading and the bus ride, finally we had time to sit still and enjoy the mountain air or the condensation. There were little boys lurking around asking for candy charmingly, or food or gifts or money – these were not beggars, these were children skipping school to hover around foreign tourists for quick rewards – the tourist season will end in October.  We had many Balvihar teachers in the group to handle such children, soon we had them singing prayers and reciting the Gayatri mantra - a verse that is unique in that it is an object of worship by itself. After a few prayers and hymns, the children had exhausted their stock, and started singing folk songs and movie songs. For some reason, this irritated the policemen on duty, and one of them came yelling, the children scampered away, climbing up the steep wall of the mountain behind us like mountain goats, teasing and taunting and laughing and giggling, challenging the policeman to follow. He sat down among us to thwart any attempts of their return.

Past noon, we asked the travel agent for lunch plans, he says we were supposed to reach the restaurant on the Nepal border by now, there is nothing else. So 4 hours since breakfast, and no idea when the first helicopter will take off, we were stranded in this countryside football field, and Travelorg/Travelorg india has no plans for food or water. I asked the travel agent to get tea for the travelers - he has a bunch of porters hired to carry bags, but they have been sitting around for a couple of hours now, perhaps they can get tea for us and themselves. The audacity of his reply strikes us dumb - there is not enough cups at the tea-stall, you will have to get them yourself. Five minutes later, we see him sitting under a tree, drinking Coke, while the rest of us now wait in the sun, without food or water. Three strikes a day is not enough for Travelorg, this guy goes through them in an hour.

Finally at half past one, the first two helicopters showed up, and the first eleven people got on board, to get to the border.

the lucky five

peering from above at Nepal's beautiful countryside

The helipad on the other side was also a school field, but this time it was not a football stadium, it was more like a basketball court. It was a step cut in the mountain, and as we descended upon it, it felt as if we could easily have missed it.

helipad on a step cut in the mountain, which is the children's playground for the school above

the helicopter rests on the edge of the basketball court

The two helicopters now started flying with regularity taking five and six people alternately to a restaurant on the border where Travelorg/Travelorg india had planned lunch for us. We were running out of time because we had to reach the Chinese consulate by three in the afternoon to get our permit processed. Since it is a group permit, all of us had to reach the border, or none of us would get to enter Tibet today. So does the travel agency have any alternate arrangements planned to stay the night on the border town of Kodari? No.

As the last helicopter landed, and the group made its precarious way down a mountain path to the restaurant, we were ready to go to the border a couple of kilometers away. Many of us had not had anything since breakfast at 8 in the morning, but there was no time. We hurriedly boarded buses on which we found some of Travelorg's additional people whom the agent had helpfully sent to the border the previous day. They say it took them two hours to walk across the landslide. Apparently, Travelorg had misrepresented the truth to us - that it took 4-6 hours to walk across the landslide, so we would be convinced to pay $250/person to take the helicopter. We were not shown the payment receipts despite asking Travelorg/Travelorg India, so we did not know how much was truly paid for the helicopter service.

It was a short ride to the Friendship Bridge that arches across the Bhote-Kosi river and took us from Nepal to China. We had to walk the last half kilometer up to the bridge. Considering it is an international border, there is remarkable informality. It is a small town street with shops on both sides that suddenly ends in a bridge. On the Chinese side of the river, there is much more formality. The bridge opens into a Chinese armed forces building and the Chinese consulate that checked our passports against the group trek permit, and let us through.

On the Friendship Bridge, we were required to line up in the exact order in which our names are written in the group permit, so we are now each reduced to a number. I am #13 in the line. Once inside the Chinese consulate building, still in line waiting for my turn, with all the stress of reaching the consulate in time gone, the physical frailties hit again. The weakness from the fever, having eaten nothing but a handful of steamed rice and yogurt for three days now, having been on my feet since morning at the helipad, the pain of swollen feet and ankles and lower legs for a week now, the immobility of features from the swelling on the face, the heaviness of the swollen eyelids - everything hit at one go, and I had to sit on the metal bench in the consulate to collect myself. And then I saw a staff member measuring temperature across each person's forehead as the passport was presented. What if I still have a temperature?  It was a passing thought, and I decided to let it pass. Sometimes dwelling on a thought publishes it on your face and it is as good as shouting it out from rooftops. As my turn came to present my passport and take the forehead swab, I kept my mind blank - no transmission of thought through body language or telepathy. The moment passed, my temperature was measured, and I passed without objection into Tibet.

On the other side of the consulate, standing in Tibet, we waited for the entire group to come through, then got into buses - two buses for people with Indian passports, two buses for people with American passports. Very odd to get separated by passports. We were prepared for any hardship in the yatra, being separated by nationality was a minor issue. Once in the bus for Nyalam, sleep took over - the relief of having made it into Tibet.

untouched beauty on the Tibet countryside, hundreds of waterfalls falling thousands of feet

The closest town to the border, on the Tibet side is Zhangmuzhen or Zhangmu. The buses stopped for a security check in the middle of the town, where we were asked to produce passports, and an army person checked each person's passport against the permit - the exact same exercise done an hour ago by the Consulate. We were allowed to move forward - the check took fifteen minutes at most - much shorter than our couple of hours' halt four years ago.

from Zhangmu on the Tibet border to Nyalam

It says on the Google map that it takes forty-five minutes from Zhangmuzhen to Nyalam, but there were many buses and trucks parked on the side of the mountain, and it took us close to two hours to reach Nyalam.

Travelorg had talked about booking good hotels for us - but we are exactly in the same place I know from four years ago - the SheShaBangma hotel that I know so well from four years ago - no showers, and restrooms that leave much to be desired. The rooms are slightly better than four years ago - there is crown moulding and new mattresses, and there is some new construction so we have a common area for satsanga and meals. I share my room with seven other women - we are eight to a room, while the rest of the group is six to a room. We also checked the hotel in Nyalam - it had no booking, so there had been no effort on the part of the travel agency to book a better hotel. We ask the person downstairs for hotel rates, this is less than fifty yuans a room - so for having paid upwards of $2K for twelve nights, I am in a room for about $1 a night.

The SheShaBangMa hotel is popular in Nyalam because of its size - it easily accommodates 100-200 tourists by putting them six to a room. There is a shop downstairs run by a lady who can understand a bit of Hindi. The acclimatization trek is on a mountain slope behind the hotel. There was another group in the courtyard having soup and tea - a group of twenty-one people with a travel agent from Mumbai. Another misrepresentation of the truth from Travelorg/Travelorg India is exposed - that China would not give permits for small groups, which is the reason he gave us as having to include the twenty-odd people in our Chinmaya group.

The Sherpa team delivered its first service in Nyalam - soup, tea, coffee and Bournvita for the hapless travelers at seven in the evening, some of whom have last had breakfast in Kathmandu at eight in the morning. Dinner was served at past nine, the hard-working Sherpa team had prepared fresh roti, sabzi, dal, chaval, and canned gulab jamun. By the time dinner was done, I had to again ask the travel agent having dinner - what is the plan for tomorrow, when are you planning to announce it?? He said tea and coffee would be served at eight, breakfast would be served at nine, we would start the acclimatization trek at ten. Had to go to each room and announce, the travel agent was not going to do it unless we pushed it along at each step.

Some people, maybe 3-4 persons from our group of 48 are sick or at least feeling down and out already. The altitude and the lack of altitude medication so far from the travel agent are the major reasons.

The first night at Nyalam brought back many memories from the first night at Nyalam four years ago - this is how I had met Seema and noticed Rajeev four years ago, in a crowd of eighty yatris. Today, again, Seema and I were sharing a room.

Tomorrow is the acclimatization trek, Shiva shall make it happen.

AUM Namaha Shivaaya!


  1. This travel agent sound like amazing person, did he knew he was dealing with DFW Mission yatri

  2. Excellent account of the 8000 ft on this day by foot, bus and air.. An eye opener as to how the journey starts..

  3. An excellent account of travel from Nepal to nyalam by foot, bus and air. A great narration ...