George Best’s eyes

A Norwegian once taught me a very simple technique for taking photographs using eye and brain. We were awaiting the sunrise at Masada, the ruined cliff-top fortress situated high above the dead sea. The sun, though some 93 million miles away, looked as if it was just about finished toasting Jordan’s capital Amman just over the horizon and would be arriving any minute.

The technique was very simple. Position your head correctly so that your eyes were pointed at the most pleasing view and then close them for a minute or longer. Then briefly open your eyes, soak up the light, and close them again for a while. To the mind of the Norwegian artist, and the person who taught him the technique, this was a sure way for the cameraless to burn the image onto the photographic plate of their memory for ever. I do remember that view from Masada fairly well though this mental ‘photograph’ was taken over 13 years ago. It could also be though that the landscape was surreal: the warm morning light on this raw, unforgiving landscape; the salt flats below like a frozen desert lake; the expectant waiting at the site of a legendary mass suicide. And it could also be due in part the faulty wiring in this super-charged region where even the rocks we sat on seemed to be connected to the mains supply.

Another recipe for burning an image permanently on to your retinas, is to associate it with some prickly negative emotions. A tiny bit of embarrassment tinged with fear is enough.

I met George Best, who’s face will live in my head for ever, at Geneva International Airport. I was volunteering at a winter camp for children who’d had organ transplants. Best had a legendary football career behind him that had slowly morphed into a legendary drinking career, which had recently culminated in a liver transplant. The camp organiser invited him and his young, attractive wife Alex to the event as they would of course bring attention to the issue of transplantation, that it makes otherwise lost lives livable, and the fact that more donors are always needed.

I drove to the airport in a rented Mercedes limousine and waited a while for them to appear through the arrivals gate. There was no need for a sign, there could be no mistaking the bearded form of this famous and aged-before-time man with an attractive 27 year-old by his side.

I took them to the car. George elected to sit in the back instructing Alex to sit in the passenger seat. We’re ready to go. It’s my first time driving an automatic and I realise I don’t know how to get the damn thing in reverse to get out of the parking space.

Alex assists, finding the hidden button that allows the stick to shift into the R position. I put my hand on her shear-stockinged knee in a reflexive friendly gesture. My eyes feel drawn to the rear-view mirror, and there I see a pair of stunning blue, alpha male eyes staring straight back at me framed by the mirror’s surround. ‘Please take your hand off my wife’s knee,’ they politely but firmly demand. And in that single second it takes to remove my hand, George Best’s eyes join the permanent image of the sunrise over the dead see at Masada.

Korean cock

There right next to the micro bus stand for Tokha, bathed in the golden, dusty dawn light was the Korean Cock stand. To me the phrase Korean Cock brings only one image to mind and this stand, manned by a young woman, could not possibly be selling it. It turns out to be an imported Korean waffle machine turning out some rather tasty looking waffly fish with chocolate coated heads for a reasonable 10 Ruppes [sic] each. Why cock then? “Cake,” says the boy to the right. That’s a really, really bad and lazy spelling mistake, I think to myself. That or Kathmandu’s advertising industry has taken a great cynical leap forward trying to lure in the returned South Korean female migrant workers market. I explain the meaning, to the two loitering guys, and it takes a good ten seconds before they will let themselves crack up. Bahini, the stall manager, does not want to be in the picture.

korean cock cakes fish

You mean Korean cake? A lazy photo of a spelling mistake

Interview with Sano Babu Sunuwar – the man who jumped from Everest

Sometime last year I was lucky enough to meet and interview Sano Babu Sunuwar. Towards the end of last year, thanks probably to his friend Kimberly who was tireless in her efforts to share his story, Babu and his buddy Lakpa Chhiri Sherpa made the shortlist for National Geographic Adventure’s “People’s choice adventurer of the year.”

It’s a title they deserve I think. I had a conversation over email with the micro-adventurer Alastair Humphreys, another of the short-listed. He wanted to know who I though would win and why. After reading through all of the entries, I was a little confused about what ‘adventure’ meant to me and which of the entries embodied it. Ultimately, I was very impressed by the kayakers Jon Turk and Erik Boomer. Their adventure was a classic – long, dangerous, lonely and at utterly at the mercy of mother nature. And they were classic adventurers: patient, tough without bravado, and prone to terse and memorable statements – “Bears scare us. We scare bears. The wind scares us. We don’t scare the wind.”

Still, I just love the fresh attitude of Babu and sidekick – just a couple of guys who each had a dream and together simply went and did it.

Read the unedited article text below, or click the image below to download the Action Asia magazine (draft) version.

interview-with-sano-babu-sunuwar-local-heroes-action -asia

On the wings of dreams...

We’re sitting together on a table of the ‘Fire Wood Pizza’ restaurant as a monsoon storm threatens lakeside Pokhara, and we’re trying to figure out why Babu has an adventurous streak. “I always wanted to find new things to do, to find new opportunities,” is his response, which is particularly unsatisfying given his most recent expedition.
On the 21st of May 2011 he and his climbing partner ran and jumped from the summit of Everest and paraglided, between the jet stream raging just above and flashing electrical storms in the valleys below, to the small airstrip above Namche Bazar some 20km away.
They were neither the first to paraglide from Everest, nor to do it tandem. But in an elegant reverse of Australian Tim Macartney-Snape’s 1990 Sea to Summit expedition, Babu and Lakpa Chhiri Sherpa glided and kayaked their way to the Bay of Bengal – in just over a month from Summit to Sea.

With a little more probing, it is clear that this adventurous streak started early. Born an only child on the 30th May 1983 in the district Ramechhap, Sano (small) Babu Sunuwar’s childhood adventures in his village on the banks of the mighty Sun Kosi river were ample preparation for flying and kayaking.

“I learned to swim by myself in the Sun Kosi. I didn’t know about safety then. I drank a lot of water. I know now that when we were at school we used to swim grade-five rapids. We lost a friend this way – drank too much water and was gone.“ That was Babu at 12 years.
When he was just 8 years old, with a face that tells of the rotting stink, he recounts the time he found two vultures gorging on the carcass of a dead cow. He crawled up the steep hillside towards them before grabbing a leg of each. The startled birds extracted their heads from the innards and flew carrying him with them. When he finally let go, it was already a long drop. “Big problem!” he laughs, indicating a fall as high as the hotel across the road.

He was middling at school, and put his energies elsewhere, “wanting always to do something that no-one else had done before, exciting things.” At 15, after completing his SLC, the general school leavers’ certificate, and with rural Ramechhap devoid of opportunities, it was time to move on. He travelled to Kathmandu, where he knew no-one, with a small bag and Rs. 500 in his pocket “trying to find new opportunities.”
There he took what work he could find, firstly as a bus assistant, taking fares and washing vehicles, in garment factories, a furniture factory and a multitude of other desperate jobs that paid only just enough to eat, and with 18 hours work per day, that barely gave time enough to eat too.

His dream, like many Nepali youths was to work in tourism and after a year of toil, he headed to Pokhara with this time Rs 20 in his pocket where, “it would be easy to get a job working with foreigners.” After searching for work by day and sleeping in bus-stops by night, he struck lucky with a trekking porter job – if carrying loads of 45kg for wages of Rs 100 per day can be called lucky.

As he, unlike many Nepalis, knew how to swim (in the white-water sense at least) his target was to become a rafting guide.

Despite being told frequently that he was too small for that, he did find a job with a rafting company, but only delivering flyers to restaurants and other odd-jobs. The wished-for experience came when he was asked to work “cooking and chopping” as rafting kitchen crew. The company collapsed shortly afterwards, but this was the necessary foot in the door. The next job offered by Charlie of the famed Ganesh Kayak Shop, brought real opportunities: learning to kayak, a professional rescue qualification, the chance to paddle and guide rivers all across Nepal, a connection with a future equipment sponsor.
At 17 his family arranged his marriage to a girl of 14. It’s perhaps indicative of how taken Babu was by kayaking, that he helped his wife become the first female kayaker in Nepal and two times national champion, even travelling to compete in Switzerland. This is probably not what the parents had in mind at the ceremony.

Entering competitions however, and thus doing the same thing as everybody else, was not his interest and besides, he says, “my life is already a competition with myself.” He’s paddled 31 of Nepal’s rivers and describes himself as more of an “explore paddler”.
In 2005 Babu met David Arufat, a Swiss national, on a kayaking trip. They became friends realising they both were drawn to new and difficult things on the river that nobody else attempted. David later offered Babu a job at his company and taught him to paraglide and later to become a qualified (and naturally talented) pilot and teacher.

In February 2010 came Babu’s first expedition the Cross Nepal Paragliding Expedition. Eighteen pilots were attempting to fly from West to East across Nepal and his company joined in this highly demanding challenge.

The group started in Baitadi on Nepal’s western border with India, and after the first day his Blue-Sky team members had become separated. With no way of regrouping, they all had to make their own choices.

After 1½ weeks Babu and his cameraman reached in Pokhara, almost half way across Nepal. Learning that he was several days ahead of the next pilot, and that most others had given up or crashed landed (with one even stuck hanging tangled in a tree for 24 hours), “I thought ‘You have to go Babu!’” and pressed on eastwards.

After 35 days, 18 of which were flying, Babu and cameraman arrived on the eastern border with Nepal. It was a great achievement attempted by a number of renowned pilots in the past, and made all the more noteworthy by the fact they were using an old tandem paraglider with a total payload of 180kg. They faced many difficulties including the canopy collapsing twice, hard landings and strong winds, which resulted once in landing backwards.

“It answered the question, ‘what’s my country like?’” says Babu, “There are so many things that have to be done, roads, education, political system and so on. It’s the only way to see Nepal, and it’s many different cultures and castes.” Seeing Nepal’s impossibly hilly landscape from the aeroplane is one thing, he explains “but paragliding is something else, it’s much more hugging the landscape.”

His best memory was traversing 125km crossing eight districts of Nepal in one day. That in addition to the daily meeting of villagers astounded at seeing two of their own descending out of the sky. “The only other human form we know of that flies is [the god] Hanuman,” exclaimed one older man.

The dream to fly from Everest was born in 2006 on an exploratory trip with a kayaking team to the Dudh Kosi, the famously churning river flowing from Everest. While he loosely planned to try in 2010, no company wanted to sponsor it due to the risks involved. “Sponsorships give tension,” he laughs, “then my brain doesn’t work!”

In February of 2011, he met with Lakpa Chhiri Sherpa who was looking to learn to paraglide because, “I am a climber but I want to be able to fly from any peak I climb.”
Not long later Babu suggested to him, “You take me to summit and I’ll take you to sea. We made a deal and started to do it.”

Four and a half months later, on June 28th, their toes were in salt water.
There were many difficulties, but leaping from the summit was the least of them. “There were no options on the summit, so no need to worry!” he concludes with a smile, referring to the lack of take-off space, and the fact that their spare oxygen bottles had been stolen so that walking back down would be extremely difficult. That and the fact that one unpacked he’d have to either use his wing or leave it behind.

The bureaucrats in government were unable to give permits as there were no rules yet made governing what they were doing. “We told them, ‘first we’ll go and explore and give you information, then we can make the rules later,’ and we went.” He says, “Adventurers are sometimes operating outside the rules.”

While the physical and technical challenges were in Nepal, not least one man in a two-man kayak who could neither paddle nor swim on a river with notorious white water, it was planned and in control. India was the tough part. “We had 45° heat, bad food and water, our hands got infected, dead bodies of people and cows floated past, thieves stole all our money, it rained and our tent was broken.”

But none of that would overshadow the moment that, “I will never forget before I die! It was my dream since 2006. Wow! This is really Mount Everest!”
As you might imagine there are quite some plans for the future, beyond earning a living. He’s been selected for the 2013 Red Bull X-Alps challenge for which he asks, “can you teach me mountain running?” and there is more than a passing interest in paraskiing which will require learning to ski, perhaps in Kashmir.

His dream is to mix up many adventure sports together in an adventure race event in Nepal.

“First I wanted to do multi-sports and combine trekking, climbing, paragliding, rafting and so on. I noticed climbers don’t talk to other adventurer people, and that rafting guides don’t really do other sports. All of these activities should have a friendship, share experiences and respect each other’s professions.”

It would be his way of doing something for Nepal, he feels, and for others in general as “social work”. Of his work at the paragliding centre, he says, “I see lots of people with ‘new generation’ lifestyles,” referring to their appearance, globe-trotting and endless electronic gadgets, “but they don’t seem happy. They want too many things. I hope helping people do these kind of action adrenaline activities can help people forget everything and feel the real life.”

As we wrap up I reflect that there’s hardly any sense of ego about him and none of the macho posturing typical of many rafting guides. He’s always on the verge of a smile, quick to laugh, bright eyed, respectful – a boyish grownup. Despite the evident natural talent and dogged determination that brought his achievements to pass, I sense he feels that he is nothing without the people around him, and those in his past who helped him along the way, and that his achievements are just experiences to be shared with others much like a birthday is shared with a party.

The monsoon rain is now pouring down and a jacketless Babu generously offers me a lift. We ride on his motorbike travelling at a snail’s pace because, he says, “we must be careful as it could be slippery!” and the caution shown by a man who jumped from Everest makes me smile.

After decades of foreign adventurers coming to Nepal to explore and ‘conquer’ its natural landscape, it’s pleasing to see that Nepal has developed its own adventurous talents, but talents very much in the same humble Nepali style that has famously served the ‘conquerors’ for so long.

Babu’s next adventure: to compete in the Red Bull X-Alps. He needs your help to do it!

Rs. 99,999

Hats off to the staff of Mandala Book Point. Not only did they have the apparently fabulous Robert Bolaño book 2666 in stock when it was not to be found elsewhere in Kathmandu, even if it was a little bit grubby, but they made it gift-worthy.

Rather than trying to scrape off the unstickable sticky-glue price-sticker on a 650 Rupee book that might not be liked, or even read by the recipient (as was the case), upon suggestion they replaced it with something much better – a sticker of much higher value.

With much mirth, the labeller was set to the highest value, and out popped a lakh – or just a Rupee short. Rs. 99,999 which at about 1000 Euro exchanged is surely enough to please the most critical recipient of a birthday book.

mandala_book_point_2666_price-0177

2666 for 99,999

 

 

 

Skateistan at the Russian swimming pool in Kabul

I found this picture next to this one sent to me of the old Bibi Mahru swimming pool built by the Russians. Apparently it was abandoned after they discovered they couldn’t get water up the hill to fill it.

Now it is sometimes used by skateboarders and is also used by the Skateistan project. Still I prefer this picture of nine children jumping from a wrecked tank. That kind of thing you don’t see every day.

Old tanks overlooking Kabul www.skateistan.org

Caption: “Discarded military hardware litters Kabul’s surrounding hills. Using an old tank as a spring board for the purposes of a photograph is a much better use of it than its intended activities we think…”

Measured thrice – the world’s new smallest man

khagendra world's smallest person

Khagendra - now 18 and the world's smallest person

A very happy 18th birthday to Khagendra who today turned 18 years old and skipped into the record books as the new world’s smallest man. Republica reports today that he was “measured thrice” for Guiness World Records – morning, noon and afternoon to get an average height for the 22.04 inch (56 cm) high man.

Khagendra has been doing good work promoting Nepal for the upcoming tourism year in which the tourist arrivals figures have to be cooked up from half a million to a full million. There is a fabulous picture of him in New York with a leggy blond.

For some really great and intimate pictures of Khagendra, see those taken by Kathmandu-based photographer Tom van Cakenberghe. His website is at http://www.tomvancakenberghe.com/.

The Halfhog tries an ultra-marathon

“An ultra-marathon is just an eating and drinking competition with some exercise thrown in.” In case you were wondering what an ultra-marathon is, there you have a definition from famed US sport nutritionist Sunny Blende. I though of this as I, a vegetarian, stared at the noodley chicken soup on offer at the first checkpoint of the 2010 Annapurna 100 ultra-marathon race.

I took the water on offer and slipped over to a small pasal for a packet of Parle-G, the world’s biggest selling (and consequently most littering) glucose biscuits.

My first ultra-marathon was going to be a long, slow chicken-soup-less day out full of eating and drinking with a backdrop of the immense Annapurna range. No racing, just keeping moving, enjoying the scenery and just keeping smiling, however forced that smile might need to be at times. And more or less alone – 71km split between a field of 40 doesn’t suggest a jostling pack.

The race starts in Pokhara and runs all the way to the famed Poon / Pun Hill view point and then a good part of the way back. In between runners are treated to a 2050m climb part of which clambers up 3080 stone steps. All in all there’s of 3584m of up and 3346m of down. This challenging physical aspect along with the Himalayan views and the sultry, blushing-blooming rhododendron forests make the race a truly unique event.

Annapurna-100-ultra-trail-race-january-1st-2012

Click to download our race brochure PDF thing (1 MB)

The race started at the centre of hotel-strewn Pokhara lakeside at 6.30am. The majority of the runners sped off as if free ice-cream was on offer at the end of the street. Within a kilometre or so the tantalising morning view of Machapuchare (Fishtail mountain) had disappeared behind the foothills and the hotels thinned out to reveal real lakeside lake and local residents going about their business. The flat jogging ended abruptly with a turn up to Sarangkot, 700m higher than the lake and the first checkpoint. Already at this point, the leaders were already 30 minutes ahead. A woman wished, ‘best of luck!’. A small boy shouted, ‘you’re last!’

The race was first run in 1995 with a collaboration between, artist Jan Turner and ex-Ghurkha Ramesh Bhattachan and some help from British cricketer-turned-walker Ian Botham and some money from Nike. Only two other races have since happened in 2000 and 2009 due to the political upheaval in the country and subsequent difficulties in finding sponsorship for such an offbeat sport.

This race was the 4th Annapurna 100 race. The 100 refers back to the previous races’ distance of 100km, and the name stuck as it sounds pretty catchy and there was a website domain to consider. A big change this year was that distance was reduced to 71km to ease difficult nocturnal logistics and the burden on the runner’s legs (who apparently actually complained last year). Next year it will be back to 100km.

Additionally, a lot of the route was shifted onto trail from road. This was down to Roger Henke, director of the Summit hotel in Kathmandu who stepped in at the last minute to provide the sponsorship to make the event happen. Henke is himself a keen trail runner and is very familiar with the tourism industry and the potential niche tourism markets that Nepal is able to serve.

“I wanted to develop the race and turn it into a trail race because I believe that trail running has future from an adventure tourism perspective. So I convinced my board to sponsor this year’s event – to make it happen – and use the experience as well as the visuals and contacts for designing a better event next year, with much better international exposure.”

This years event had around 40 competitors, mainly drafted in from police and army sports clubs though running-novice locals from villages along the route entered too. Consequently the race had a wonderfully intimate atmosphere among the runners and the volunteers and villagers at the frequent refreshment stations. There were a number of international runners, including Jo Schoonbrood, the over 55 world record holder for distance covered in six hours.

At the second station at around 15km, there was a little fatigue to be felt in the legs, but just a little. The bananas were hard, but the noodles plain, thus edible. The path undulated and local residents looked on bemused. With most runners probably in one and twos, sweating profusely, it probably looked like a jail break as in Nepal, running is generally for thieves.

The trail markers thinned out here and directions had to be asked from locals. The route, to my dismay, headed downhill along a road. Down now meant up later. At around 25km, the soup lost its noodles an became spinach soup, well known for its high calorie content. Four kilometres further on after a clunking down hill to a river, we’d reached Birethanti, arguably the real start of the race.

Here was race organiser Ramesh Bhatterchan with an enthusiastic pep-talk and a bottle of water while the TV cameras, filming for Transworld sport, rolled.

This was the 31km in the bottom of a river valley and surrounding hills towered above, which implied that our destination of Poon Hill would also be towering above somewhere.

I caught up and ran for a while with a local boy called Santosh entering in his first ever running race (he finished in around 12 hours). Together we started the steps up to Ulleri. This was a meditation. Keeping a manageable rhythm, not stopping other than to drink, and deliberately keeping happy (‘Wow, look at the view!’). Being local, Santosh lagged behind having to talk to all the people he met and knew. I caught up with a man called Nand and we continued together. At Ulleri checkpoint we asked ‘How much more up?’ The reply came, perhaps a fundamental of life in this area, ‘Everything is up!’

This stage of the race enjoyed one of the big attractors of Nepal which is the rhododendron forest in bloom. Through this knotted forest we stumbled, across waterfalls of clean, clear water – things utterly foreign to the Kathmandu resident. The canopy glowed red. A rumour has it that some of the arboreal inspiration for Lord of the Rings came from this area long ago. The Mothers’ group representatives of [name forgotten] gave tikka and a Malla of Rhododendron flowers and the red power immediately mixed with sweat and dripped from the end of noses. In such surroundings, it seemed wasteful to dwell on the condition of the body, which actually, after a hill ridden marathon distance, felt surprisingly good.

There are a growing number of scientists who will tell you that we are born to run. Being able to run for long distances after prey (who became exhausted before us) gave us our competitive advantage over Neanderthals. Our foot is designed as the ultimate shock absorber (and our comfy running shoes do nothing but to make our feet weaker and encourage injury). Our lungs, not connected to our gait like many quadrupeds (front feet down, innards slam forward, lungs squeezed empty) allow for regulated oxygen supply for long distances (man always beats horse over 50 miles). Our success in finding meaty protein however lead to our big, highly-developed brains which told us to conserve energy (be lazy) whenever possible.

Still, marathon and ultra-running have grown rapidly in popularity in recent years. American research has shown that interest in running rises most during times of difficulty such as recession or after a disaster. Since 2001, ultra running has become, at least in the west, more popular than ever.

The Annapurna region attracts over 70,000 visitors per year to its trekking trails, with some creativity and adequate marketing, the Annapurna 100 should be able to attract a sizable field for 2011, which is the Nepal Tourism Board’s fingers-crossed-for-tourism year. But such a race doesn’t only offer something for tourism. A much bigger prize is the realisation of sporting potential.

“I believe that a bigger better race will have much more chance of attracting bigger sponsors, which will make the prize money pot bigger and thus support local athletes training,” says Henke.

Yes, Nepal might one day have an ice-dance champion, but in the meantime, a mountain running champion should surely be a no-brainer. There is world class talent here worth getting excited about.

“To be able to run that fast, at that altitude, up those steps and just keep on going, in that time – and still look good and fresh at the end – I think it’s spectacular,” offered British athletics coach and ultra-distance adventure Rob Cousins.

Rob Cousins originally came from the UK to train athletics coaches with the Nepal Olympic Committee. Unfortunately the offer of free, professional help proved too much for the NOC to accept. Now he has teamed up with Annapurna 100 race organiser Ramesh Bhattachan to train a two promising mountain runners for the prestigious Davos ultra-marathon race in Switzerland, the Nepal of Europe*.

Cousins believes there is potential that has not been properly exploited. “After two or three months I think I can get them faster,” says Cousins. “I was out with some of the army running team before the race. They were doing things I was doing when I was aged nine on the rugby pitch. I think their training is probably making them slower and so I think there really is potential.”

The athletes confirm, “We train mainly on track and road as most races are on road,” says 4th placed Raiwat Dhahal also of TAC, “we train just one day a week on hills on the Trisuli road.”

Ethiopia might not be the dominating force in distance running it is today had a Swedish coach, Omni Niskanen, not been in the right place at right time with his then state-of-the-art training knowledge in 1946.

But Nepal is not the blank slate that Ethiopia was then. Nepal’s trail running future is perhaps just around the corner. Last year’s 100km Hong Kong Oxfam Trailwalker event was convincingly won by the Nepali, Ghurkha-linked Group 4 Security (G4S) team. The team of four, including Khatri, won in a record time of 11.42 minutes, a full two hours before the second team’s arrival.

With some tailored training, including nutrition, core strength and race strategy, there are more potential victories waiting to be seized. But here Nepal’s international trail running potential remains just potential.

The stick wielding, khaki-clad leader of Tribhuvan Army Club, who was reluctant, as you sometimes should be, to be on record, demonstrated enthusiasm but limited vision. He said that while his men train every day and they win everything – but only in Nepal. He’d be proud if they won a big mountain race abroad, but then “but I don’t think they would get that opportunity.” So what are they training for?

One exception is Dacchiri Sherpa who now lives in Switzerland and also represented Nepal in the Vancouver 2010 winter Olympics. “Yes some Nepalese take part in races sometimes but not regularly, and yes in Nepal the people they have big capacity but there is limited investment for the sport, and there is not much support from our country”

Dacchiri Sherpa showed stunning strength to win the 1000km Himal race from Annapurna basecamp to Everest basecamp in 2002. This was a 23 day stage race through rugged terrain with 38,000m of ascent. Born into this terrain, runners like Dacchiri have a definite advantage, as annual Sherpa record breaking antics on Everest attest.  But the support of a coach, and a club or a nation are necessary to compete internationally these days. Time will tell if Rob’s training programme bears fruit.

At the summit of Poon Hill the mountain view was obscured with cloud and a chilling wind was blowing. Mallas were presented (earlier seen discarded in trees lower down), photographs were taken and biscuits were stuffed into pockets for the decent. The warmth of the (relatively) frozen checkpoint volunteers was admirable. They were truly excited to be part of this small running event in which there were far more volunteers involved than runners.

With the knowledge that the hard work had been done, the 20km run home, which would itself normally be a rather long run, seemed like it would be a piece of cake to be savoured and enjoyed.

I think few understand about ultra-distance running. Few understand running come to think of it – its what we’re designed to do after all. In such a race, it’s really just about keeping moving, enjoying the scenery and keeping smiling. And eating and drinking too.

“Khanus! Khanus!” ordered a very senior member of Ghorepani mothers group offering biscuits,  Chinese apples and hot noodle soup. Ah – of course mothers understand everything, even the necessities of ultra-distance running.

* 15th April 2010: Scant news just in from the Everest Ultra Marathon which finished yesterday in Lukla.  To quote Rob Cousins:

“what a story for the winner!  A local porter who decided to do the run the day before, had to run to the start, then beat the Army team hands down!”

Read a shortened version of this waffle here:

http://nepalitimes.com/issue/2010/04/14/Nation/16976

And see trailrunningnepal.org for some pictures and reports in Japanese.

Nepa.li -a Nepali blogger worth reading.

The Internet is a big place. It’s rather like Kathmandu in some respects. While busy and colourful, there’s lots of needless noise, there’s a lot of rubbish everywhere, a lot of time can be wasted getting from A to B, it’s pretty disorganised and no-one is really in control. And then every now and again you discover a small quiet courtyard of the main super highway / gulli. In this place its neat and tidy, thought and consideration have been given in ample proportions and you find it’s a place you want to visit time and again. This place is http://nepa.li

Well that all sounds a bit sycophantic and over the top, and it is, but it’s too late because I’ve typed it now. Anyway, take a visit and see what I am talking about. It makes a great antidote to reading the Nepali press. Try:

http://nepa.li/kumari-cinema-halls-unhygienic-security-guard/

http://nepa.li/only-in-nepal/

http://nepa.li/appa-sherpa-for-prime-minister/

for starters.

Dolpa trekking map online

screenshot of trekking map of Dolpa

Zoomify version of trekking map of Dolpa online

Maps are one of those things that people love or people don’t want anything to do with. I am in the former category. I have been working a little with the Great Himalaya Trail project, putting together a website and working out how to promote the trail and less-trekked areas in Nepal.

I have often wondered if looking at maps make a difference to peoples decision about where to trek. Does looking at the trails, the place names and the shading affect a persons desire to visit the place where pictures and text might not? I don’t know. And do people prefer to go to Annapurna region along with 70,000 others every year rather than the stunning Dolpa area where the visitor numbers hover around 1500 per annum.

There is a price difference for sure, but if you are going to spend so much on flying so far to get away from it all, then why do the same as other like minded people.

There was an article written in the New York Times recently regarding the demise of the Annapurna Circuit, headed by a beautiful picture of Poon Hill at dusk where I will be next week. Perhaps demise is a little strong. But roads are advancing everywhere in Nepal. Whereas not so long ago the pilgrimage to Muktinath used to be a very long walk indeed (unless you flew), now you can get there by bus and jeep. For trekkers this means sharing the trails with buses: enduring ‘horning’ and holding a cloth over your mouth. Additionally the quiet and historic winding trails are exchanged for a dusty dirt track, simply because it is level and thus easier and faster. That is if people choose to walk at all – many cross the Thorung La and motorise themselves home. Long established lodges now stand empty a few tens of meters from the roads.

On the flip side, food prices in villages have dropped massively, Jomsom can now export its apples by road, hospitals are now just a day and a few hundred rupees away.

This is life and progress. The Annapurna Circuit has changed. Now those looking for the experience that it was twenty years ago, as seen in this article, will have to look a little further, but it is there to be found. Maybe this map will help them find it.

You can buy this Dolpa map here online. It is extremely difficult to find this map in book or maps shops in Europe and the USA, simply because of a lack of distribution network / demand. Click the button below, fill in the details and I will post it to you, wherever you might be in the world, usually within a day. Please fill your address in carefully! Any questions before buying, just add a comment below and I will get back to you as soon as I can.





I’m in the cinema

“Hello! Wot? I’m in the cinema! THE CINEMA! Naa! It’s Rubbish!”

And so went the genius social commentary and comedy from an otherwise so-so British comedian, Dom Jolly.

To make sense of the above you need to picture a man stood up in one of the front rows of a cinema hall silhouetted against the screen which is showing a film that increasingly irate, paying cinema-goers are trying to watch.

He is shouting into his phone, which is an scale model of an early Nokia handset complete with its original piercing Nokia ring-tone. The scale model stands one meter tall.

(Unfortunately said clip is not available on the web, although plenty of  clips with the brick can be found here.)

Those were the days in the UK when mobile etiquette was still taking baby steps (and now it is an irritating teenager) and you can still see that now here in Nepal.

In the cinema, people will answer their phones much as they might do if they were on the street or in their living-room back home.

This extends to musical concerts, meetings and even during the pinacle of business professionalism, MS PowerPoint presentations. The needs of the many are every time trumped by the need of the individual and their caller to discuss banalities.

Blogger Nepaliketi (Nepaligirl) ranted about this on her blog some days back, along with men pissing against walls in the street, queue barging and lateness. Her point was “Let’s not stand for this. Who is in with me…”. “I’m in”, I said.

A few days later, and a few comments later on her blog. This message was somewhat retracted under the title of ‘Major on the major, minor on the minor’. Its good college wisdom: focus on the important things.

But I disagree that, while these behaviours are minor inconveniences, in the big scheme of things, they should just be tolerated.

Too much tolerance can also be bad, as sharp-as-a-tack commenter MoveAnyMountain once said on the Comment is Free section of the Guardian website.

To me the word tolerance sounds like a virtue. That we should accept, nay embrace, others’ differences, seek to understand them with empathy and live together side by side the best we can. It’s the rather biblical definition.

There is also the less compassionate side which says “You have your rights, do what you want and I will tolerate it, but don’t bother me with it.” and the Dutch must surely be the world leaders in this.

And of course, a younger I heard my mother shout many times, “I will not tolerate this behaviour any longer!” proving that tolerance can often be hard work.

But then there are a list of many things that we absolutely (not quite so absolutely in reality) will not tolerate and society is arguably better for it. Drunk driving, speeding, racism, homophobia, misogyny, mistreating of children, smoking in someone else’s personal space, dropping litter in public places, breaking the law even when no officer of the law is watching, corruption… the list of things UK society does not or tries not to tolerate is long.

Eating with your mouth open, spitting, not washing your hands after visiting the toilet, pissing on the street, picking your nose in public, talking in the cinema, arriving late for a meeting. Do any of these to frequently and you’ll find the distance between you and everybody else slowly increasing towards infinity, but more likely someone at some point will let you know that you are being anti-social.

Is there a thread in Nepal connecting tolerance of, say holding a loud phone conversation in the cinema spoiling the film for everyone, and tolerance of, for instance, the corruption or ineptness of public officials, spoiling the country for everyone?

Before I step further into a deep cultural waters without the lifebelt of an Anthropology degree to save me, I’ll stop.

However, Nepali Keti, I’ve got all the arts and crafts materials needed to build an oversized turn-of-millenium replica Nokia brick. On second thoughts, a spangly modern clam-shell “Hello Moto” moterola would be better. Are you ready to make a point?

“Ke? Sinema ma! Siiinneeeemmaaaa! Film Herchhu! Ke bhaneko? “


I guess social behaviour has to find its own balance over time. I don’t know why Nepali’s seem to care less about each other in public. I don’t know if it matters. Certainly worth further pondering.

In the case of the cinema, perhaps a more effective approach would be to slip a little public information in before each film. Slowly it might soak in. This is quite good. Perhaps Kiran Joshi could animate a Nepali version.