For Whom the Gongs Toll in Nepal


For Whom the Gongs Toll in Nepal
Story by Marco Ferrarese. Pictures by Ferrarese and Kit Yeng Chan

In the mountain villages of Nepal, losing the hiking trail can be a good way to experience cultural differences... and get a bit tipsy, too.

Nepal travel

"I think he's trying to say that we have to get across that hill," I concluded, tired of interpreting the man's gestures.

"Sure, but look: there's a river right there, and no trace of a path. Don't you think we are already too lost to keep listening to strangers?"

My fiancée and travel companion had a point: that Nepalese shepherd kept indicating the hill ahead of us with his right arm, while nodding his head upwards and sideways—the typical South Asian head movement that looks like a no, but most often means yes. It wasn't the best guarantee to get us back on the hiking trail we had lost.

"Surkey," the shepherd kept repeating the name of our next destination, pointing at the spot where a small river washed over the path. "Surkey!" The language barrier, of course, was not helping to understand. We had tried to reach that village since 8am that morning, and it was now almost 12pm - knowing it was only about a two or three hour walk, we were clearly lost. With stomachs gurgling, a GPS that refused to show our position, and the bisyllables of a shepherd as the only guarantee of success, we started thinking that striking off on one of Nepal's less trafficked trails without a guide nor a rudimentary knowledge of the local lingo hadn't been the best of ideas.

Beautiful scenery of Nepal

Hiking Where Few People Dare

The Indigenous Peoples Trail opened in 2011 to help highlight the great cultural diversity of Ramechhap district, a hilly area about 120 kilometers east of capital Kathmandu. Starting from the village of Mude, the trail continues 70 kilometers to the southwest until the Sun River's valley. Along the way, it passes through Sherpa, Newari, Tamang, Lama, and Majhi peoples' settlements, each one with peculiar ethnic and religious differences. It's a top to bottom, gentle trek that starts at 3100 meters at the Sailung Mountain Pass, snakes down through fluttering prayer flags and animal-shaped sacred rocks to the Buddhist monastery of Rajveer, and continues down hills and valleys. It touches the villages of Surkey, Doramba, Galwa, Dongme and Lubughat.

The Indigenous Peoples Trail has unfortunately lagged behind other more famous high-altitude treks in the Annapurna and Everest regions. In the past six years, only about a thousand people have walked this route—nothing compared to the hundreds of thousands who choose other more celebrated Nepalese mountains.

For sure, the devastating 2015 earthquake also helped send this region into travel oblivion. Most of the pre-existing community halls built to host trekkers were badly damaged. The entire Bhutanese-styled Rajveer monastery collapsed and several of the homestays had to be rebuilt with nothing more than a few plywood planks and corrugated iron roofs. This forgotten trail may be in dire straits, with confusing signage and basic facilities, but it also offers a chance to get to know a part of Nepal that, instead of only welcoming tourist dollars, is happy to open homes to travelers. That is, if one manages to stay on the right trail.

Surkey or Bust

When the shepherd left us behind to continue herding his animals up a slope in the opposite direction, the best thing we could think of was to start walking back to where we thought we had lost the way. Soon enough, a man and an older woman appeared before us from behind the road's bend. They were dressed pretty well, as if they were going somewhere important.

"Surkey?" I asked, assuming that adding any other English would have just created more confusion. To my surprise, the man replied "wait a moment", and turned around to have a good look at the series of interconnecting hills behind us. His female companion gave him a chastising look, walked past us without looking, and murmured something in a language we didn't understand. But the man didn't follow her. He came closer to us, indicating once again that lonely path washed away by the river.

Hiking through flowers in Nepal

"Please follow me," he said, half smiling, before storming off in the direction of the water. His female companion had already jumped over the stones that emerged from the stream, and was climbing on the other side. Indeed, there was a fork in the road we hadn't noticed before.

We didn't have much choice but follow. The man grabbed my partner's backpack and slung it over his left shoulder as if it was weightless, jumped on the rocks across the river and turned around to invite us to do the same. We managed to get across without getting drenched and continued uphill, panting and sweating to keep up with the man's quick walking pace.

"Where you from?" he said.

"Malaysia and Italy," we answered. He looked back at us for a moment before saying "Malaysia...many Nepali there." He was right: Nepalis, indeed, make up for a big chunk of the foreign worker population that flee Nepal's limited job opportunities to better paying Malaysia.

As we continued following uphill, clouds came down from the sky, enveloping us and the path, making it look like somewhere beyond the realm of the living. Pearls of sweat rolled down the back of my neck as I tried to keep up, weighed down by my pack. I was tired after all those hours navigating small and slippery paths. A few other mountain people were coming down the hill and going past us. Their silhouettes broke out of that wall of thick fog like ghosts going across walls, and they gave us strange looks, as if the dead also knew that we shouldn't have been there.

"Surkey... one hour," said our nameless guide as if he perfectly knew that we both needed a break. "Don't worry: we rest first, twenty minute only. Then, Surkey."

We were glad to hear it, but we certainly wouldn't have imagined this would lead to a funeral.

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