Lhasa Airport. The pretty Tibetan customs officer in her beautiful black uniform with white piping asks me if I have books in my bag. I tell her that, yes, I have a few 'but no dirty book', I promise in my best Tibetan.
'No, no, we are not looking for dirty books, we are only looking for inappropriate books ...'
'- Inappropriate books ? I exclaim, 'Well, of course not, I don’t have any'
' – Next !'
Did I dreamed the furtive gleam of complicity that lit up her face for an instant?
Ganden Road, North of Lhasa.
Along the Kyichu river, the 'quiet river' in Tibetan language, which crosses Lhasa, an airport-like portico has been installed in the middle of nowhere in this enchanting landscape. Stop the car, full search of our luggage and passage through the gantry detector. At first beep, body search and confiscation of all lighters! Is it really the measure taken by Chinese administration against the immolations of desperate Tibetan people?
When all other forms of protest have been crushed by force and blood, remains only the horror of suicide - and self-immolation is probably the worst of it - to make your voice heard. For the last couple of years, more of a hundred Tibetans have set themselves on fire to demand the return of the Dalai Lama to Tibet, to protest against the massive and sponsored immigration of Chinese Hans, the eviction of the Tibetan language in Tibet’ schools, the treatment of 200 monks of the Kirti monastery that have disappeared since more than 5 months ... The latest, a mother of 3 children, put herself on fire in front of the Jokhang, the most sacred temple of Lhasa. After trying to deny the event, the Chinese authorities immediately label them "terrorists" and "criminals", and for good measure, imprisoned more than 600 people in the Tibetan capital.
So be careful with your Tibet Guide p.342, inappropriate, Lonely Planet p.228, inappropriate or Tintin in Tibet p.23 inappropriate... And not only while entering Tibet: one of my friends’ Lonely Planet guidebook was confiscated at the border to Nepal. True! So if you had hoped to enjoy your trip in Tibet to peacefully read about its history, culture and daily life, forget it. Bring good porn, lit up your cigarette on the cigarette lighter of the car: 'Nothing in the hands, nothing in the pockets, everything in the head' as the old saying goes.
The Kyichu is no longer such a quiet river ...
I should probably explain.
- Haussmann: yes, it is indeed the eponymous Baron, and Paris boulevard, who opened in the 1860s wide avenues in Paris destroying without remorse old districts that changed the face of the city.
- Bahadur: means in nepali language 'mighty' or 'strong'. It’s the war name that many Nepali ethnic groups attach to their caste name, like the royal family for example.
In addition to being one of the historical Maoist leaders and a Brahmin by birth, Baburam Bhattarai, Prime Minister of Nepal, also holds a PhD in Civil Engineering from Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi. After the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly - without a constitution - and waiting for improbable elections, he then embarked in a (military) campaign to transform the streets of Kathmandu into broad avenues, thus Haussmann.
In fact the technique is quite simple: 1 - Find an old code dating back more than 30 years stipulating that it is forbidden to build within 15 m of the center of the street, 2 - Send early morning bulldozers to align the new avenue 3 – Faced with the anger of the residents, interrupt the work half way and start negotiations, 4 - Finally, faced with the exorbitant compensation requests of the inhabitants, resume work avoiding however to align the walls of the untouchable Western embassies ...
In a city where most of the announced measures such as the mandatory wearing of helmets or seat belts, the ban on mobile phones while driving, the elimination of vehicles over 20 years old, the relocation of polluting brick factories or the ban of horns in town never survived more than a few days, the residents of the Nepalese capital were have taken off guards by the minister's determination. Many of them woke up one morning to see the front part of their room collapsing in a cloud of dust in the street below...
Under heavy monsoon showers, the city has become an ocean of mud, bricks and beams, electric wires and opened water pipes turn what remains of streets into pestilential rivers. While residents are hastily collecting a few effects from the rubble, huge traffic jam paralyzes the Nepali capital where cars are trying to find their way through craters and swamps.
Without waiting for the end of the monsoon, the tourist season which looks like a grand cru, has begun: for the next two months, there are no hotel rooms, flights are full, lodges are stormed, prices are blazing.
Life goes on in Kathmandu.
"To walk is to meet oneself every moment" - R. Tagore
After a sharp turn through the cumulus clouds that fray at the top of the Himalayan pines, the small twin-otter of Yeti Airlines finally landed on the tiny dusty airfield of Phaplu, in the Solu area of Nepal. It’s 15:30, quite late for this last Himalayan flight. Just enough time for the 15 passengers to jump to the ground that the engines are already purring because the pilot is on hurry to take off again before the big clouds could block the pass.
On the trail, a mere three-day walk from the Everest region, few or no tourists. Sometimes a flock of schoolchildren on a spree or a group of porters with insane charges, beer bottles or live chickens that they carry in superimposed layers, topped by a small radio and their precious flip flops because they prefer to walk barefoot...
As soon as the twin-otter jumped over the hills, it takes with him the past and the world’ agitation. And you are suddenly hit by the silence and the present moment, stroke by a feeling of exaltation that is a return to your self. In the dry air filled with juniper smoke, like the painter in front of a white canvas, a new, empty vast mind is born, open to all possible. Astonishing conjunction of beauty, magic and mystery, intense moments of fleeting eternity. This feeling, which is the opposite of the expert's spirit, appears when one surrenders to what is, here and now, when all senses awaken, we give ourselves a chance to be intoxicated by the unbearable beauty of nature. The journey becomes a path without return, an eternal present: every step, every moment, every meeting is apprehended with a new and open mind, the beginner's mind.
''Aware that the pursuit of happiness is one of the fundamental goals of humanity, and recognizing that GDP does not adequately reflect the happiness and well-being of the populations... '' With these words the United Nations responded to the request of the small kingdom of Bhutan to put 'Gross National Happiness' on the agenda of the U.N. General Assembly. According to Bhutanese criteria, the components of national happiness, - true wealth -, combine a pleasant environment, good health, strong social bonds, a meaningful life and free time. Despite a standard of living among the lowest in the world, a survey of Business Week magazine has ranked Bhutan as the happiest country in Asia and eighth in the world: ''Bhutan has managed to combine the Buddhist philosophy and a 'barefoot' economy in a unique blend that many countries could learn from’' the report concludes.
To go further, my friend Matthieu Ricard, a Buddhist monk and renown writer conducted experiences on human brain with neurobiology researchers at the University of Wisconsin. By analyzing gamma waves associated with consciousness, attention, capacity to study and memory, developed by people in deep meditative state, they witnessed a never-recorded gamma wave level. They also found functional and structural changes in the brain, an intense activity in the left frontal lobe usually associated with happiness, an increase of the immune system, a decrease in blood pressure and more. 'We studied for 12 years the effects of mind training through meditation on attention, compassion and emotional balance. In short, meditation even practiced twenty minutes a day, can have real beneficial effects on our capacity to happiness.
At Base Camp Trek we have developed over the past years the concept of Trekking and Meditation in the Himalayas which brings together all the components of happiness: why not try?
A campaign to ban the use of plastic bags and bottles in Nepal National Parks and trekking routes.
For more 10 years, Hem Bahadur from Chomrung village a few days’ trek from the Annapurna Sanctuary has benefited from the steady increase in tourist attendance in Nepal’s Annapurna region. He invested the profits of his lodge in bathroom and toilets but Hem quickly realized that he could not do anything about plastic bags and bottles of mineral water that littered his backyard, the village, surrounding fields and rivers. Single handedly he managed to convince the community to ban mineral water bottles on the four-day trek between Chomrung and the Annapurna Sanctuary.
Plastic is one of the worst environmental scourges, especially in mountain regions: it takes centuries to dissolve, is dangerous for human health, livestock and wildlife, and is virtually impossible to recycle. Today, following the initiative of Chomrung, Base Camp Trek and the Plastic Freemalaya Initiative have launched a campaign to ban outright the use of plastic - bottles and bags - throughout the Nepal National Parks.
As Hem Bahadur points out: "We have survived for centuries without plastic bags. And the alternatives exist. As for water, we sell filtered water to trekkers and we earn more money than with bottles. And in addition it is durable! " And nobody has heard any complains form any tourists about the ban implemented since more than 15 years. The implementation of the ban is the responsibility of the National Parks and Conservation Areas which cover all Nepal’ trekking routes and collect important royalties from tourists.
Today the concept of 'sustainable tourism' is in all brochures, websites and ads of travel agencies.
'Sustainable' means ‘’responsible management of human and natural resources, and the ability to maintain and increase tourism for the long term in the best possible conditions’’. If we want the trekking industry to be sustainable in Nepal, to offer good paying jobs and therefore remain a viable alternative to the massive exodus of Nepal youth, it is time for the government and its various agencies to take drastic action on the plastic before it‘s too late. Yes, ‘’to visit Nepal once is not enough’’ as the official advertisement of the Nepalese Ministry of Tourism suggests, but to be sure trekkers want to come back, the government needs to develop the necessary infrastructure - airports, roads , electricity, water, - while Parks and tourism entrepreneurs must offer adequate services food and accommodations to trekkers and porters, and a preserved the environment. These are the necessary measures for Nepal to continue enjoy its invaluable asset of more than 40% of visitors who come back today.
The real question is: how can a village of a few hundred houses can accommodate long-term, growing numbers of visitors and manage its waste in good conditions?
It is now understood that on average 50% of household waste is biodegradable and can be composted while aluminum and tin cans can be easily recycled because they have a real market value. But what about plastic bags and bottles? On the central square of Lomanthang, the tiny remote capital of Mustang, an imposing panel of the Annapurna Conservation Area (ACAP) reminds tourists to respect the fragile nature of these sublime landscapes. But, 100 meters away, just behind the high walls of the small medieval city, lies a huge and smelly open-air dumping cliff all the way down to the river a few hundred meters below. Is not it time to take drastic measures? Or should we wait to take action that the rubbish invades the city and that tourists end up deserting this exceptional destination?
It is obvious that the only ban on plastic bags and bottles will not solve all waste problems of the Himalayas, but this measure would be a first step in the right direction. The tourists are ready to comply to this kind of measure –- and they can easily purchase water purifying pills in the market. It is an would show tourists and local people that preserving the environment is possible, inexpensive and that tourism can be a sustainable economic activity. If informed in advance, tourists will gracefully comply with local rules as they do in all National Parks elsewhere in the world and as it has been the case for more than 10 years on the Annapurna Sanctuary trekking route.
This simple step is a sustainable and cheap way to promote Nepal worldwide as a green adventure destination. And as Hem says, 'by following the natural course of the rivers, we must ban the use of plastic from the top of the mountains to the plains, and not the other way around ...'
- Are you French ? So you might know Montpellier?
- Well, yes, a little, why?
- Because my second son lives there ... I mean he is in jail in Montpellier for 10 years.
This somewhat surrealistic dialogue took place on the doorstep of a Manang hut, a village of 200 houses dominated by the imposing slopes of Annapurna II. Dressed like a beggar to whom you want to give a few rupees, the old man tells us the adventures of his family and business. Manang region being so remote was given a century ago by the Nepalese government, taxes exemption to buy their loyalty to the Crown. Since that time they steeped in all possible business - gold, drugs, real estate, black market, etc. - and amassed colossal fortunes. There was a time when you could see in the evening in the tourist district of Thamel, old village grannies dressed with their shopping basket touring the black market dealers with a few thousand dollars hidden under turnips and cauliflowers. Or watch, outside the airport of Kathmandu, the henchmen of the bigwigs Manangis openly recovering in big baskets, gold brought by conveyors returning from a 3 days paid trip in Bangkok or Singapore!
When one of the young of the village made a big mistake, there was no question of giving him to the Nepalese police; he was exiled abroad and recommended to a previous exile who became his protector. This well -known practice has been proven successful elsewhere…. From Lucknow to the Indian border, the Manangis spread before the World War II to Darjeeling. According to Kessel, Mananguis were found during the war in Mogok (Burma) trafficking ruby and from there, always leaving behind new indebted exiles, they found their way to Singapore, Hong Kong ... and Montpellier!
- Yes, and my eldest son was doing business in Hong Kong. I went to see him once but I don’t like Hong Kong…’’
The story does not say if he is also in jail.
At the end of May, the world was celebrating Edmond Hillary and Tenzin Norgay jubilee of Everest first ascent 60 years ago. But since Marc Batard the fastest ascent without oxygen in 1988 (22 h 20 ') and the first paragliding jump from the summit by French climber Boivin, we expect every season news records, from the most wacky to the most dramatic, on what has become some sorts of Dysneyeverest : the first amputee and the first Pakistani woman, the youngest (14 years old) and the oldest (80 years old), the first blind person and the largest pile of waste ever, the maximum climbers at Nepali Base Camp - 900 this year - or on the summit in one day, 250. And, of course, the maximum number of casualties (9 this season).
But this season another record was beaten on the slopes of Sagarmatha, the highest fight in the world, when a hundred Sherpas and three Western climbers had a little open fight at an altitude of more than 7200 m. Impressive!
Quite a blow to the romantic image of the cute, devoted, hard working Sherpa, and the no less romantic image of big hearted western climbers, respectful of the local populations....
Finally it was probably a classic story of hypertrophied egos due to the lack of oxygen.
As long as the sherpas have not fixed ropes and climbing ladders on the Icefall, they consider that no one should be on the mountain ‘'- We are working, here, Sirs’’. They probably did not appreciate to be snubbed by the three arrogant climbers, - "You and your fixed ropes for tourists" - who carved their own trace without paying any attention to the invectives of the laborious workers of the extreme. At the end, it was probably an ice cube falling down from one group to the other, that overflew the vase ...
But today the monsoon has cleaned up everything on the roof of the world, back to business, records have been recorded in Guinness Book, bookings for next year are up sharply, the government is already cashing its royalties and the high altitude sherpas too. Till next season, where we expect with some impatience the first ascent of the sublime mountain backwards and the images of the first Femen on the top of Everest.
Puré Gurung, guide at Base Camp Trek:
"That day we slept at High Camp, at 4800 m at the foot of the Thorong Pass after 2 days of acclimatization in Manang.
In the morning, some groups left very early but I took my time because I was worried about the weather. It was snowing, the sky was threatening but after consulting with Base Camp Trek office in Kathmandu, I felt that the conditions were not too bad. At 6:30 we started the climb to the Thorong Pass that we reached around 9:30 AM.
From the very first laces, poorly equipped and not acclimated trekkers were obviously suffering from the cold and seemed unable to continue. At 8:00 am an icy wind got up, the snow became more intense and visibility already reduced became almost zero: what we call a white day.
At the Pass, at an altitude of 5400 m, the situation deteriorated further. Exhausted trekkers were looking for their guides, chilling porters were trying to shelter under tarpaulins, groups were trying to warm up by hugging each other, but many were just sitting in the snow, dazed by altitude sickness and unable to decide whether to stay or go down.
For me the solution was clear and simple: get down as quickly as possible. Without letting my clients and porters time to rest, I roped them in and I started the descent encouraging individual travelers to follow us.
The descent was hell. Everything was white, without relief and all traces of the trail had disappeared. Fortunately I know this trek well and I just followed my intuition. Sometimes huge snow plates would slide under our feet, carrying away exhausted trekkers for a few hundred meters. Unable to rescue everyone, the only thing I could do on the way was to shake up, often with sticks, trekkers huddled in the snow, paralyzed by the cold in advanced state of hypothermia ...
After 12 hours, we reached Muktinath, safe and sound, with a cohort of nearly 80 people who had gradually grafted on our little roped party. But many remained on the slopes of the Thorong Pass on this fatal October day for what should have been one of the happiest days of their lives. Too many people forget that humility is the only attitude in front of the mountain ... "
Puré Gurung, Nepalese trekking guide is a shy and discreet hero. 2 days later he left Kathmandu for an other trek in the Manaslu region, without further comments...
Today, I could write about this terrible avalanche that took away 16 altitude sherpas on the Everest icefall and will surely have important consequences on the future of the commercial expeditions ....
I could also mentioned that Chinese authorities have simply banned Kailash's access to Western groups, without previous notice nor official statement, just two weeks before the big Tharboche festival ...
I prefer to tell you a story: It happens in Egypt in the Libyan desert, in another world, in another century, before GPS, satellite phones and the Muslim brothers. One of my Egyptian friends, former aide-de-camp of Nasser, organized for a few Western friends a great trekking expedition between Siwa and the Nile Valley, a first at the time.
The progression through dunes and stone desert was much slower than expected and the water was soon rationed, to a simple glass of water per day per person to wash ... The tension within the group quickly became palpable and the pressure on the guide who seemed visibly lost more and more intense.
Everyone had of course arguments to offer:
Tears, shouts and nervous crisis, etc. Feeling the emergency, my friend took out his old revolver and aim at the group:
The local guide was helpless in front of all these contradictory, intellectual and peremptory arguments and pressures and he had lost all his markers. My friend then took him aside and said, "You're going for a walk alone for two hours and in two hours, you come back here, you show us the way and we will follow you."
Two hours after the guide came back and said confidently: - 'It's this way'. Under the threat of the revolver, the group went off without discussion and finally reached the banks of the Nile without further incidents, the local guide having recovered his intuition and his markers: the humidity of the sand, the texture of a camel dropping, the wind direction and many other signs visible to him alone.