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In March 1996 my wife Alex and I went trekking in the Khumbu region of Nepal . We were on the trail about ten days, camping at night or staying in the homes of our Sherpa guides.
My friend Jeff Larsen , then a staff photographer for the Seattle Post - Intelligencer, had lent me a Nikon and a brace of amazing lenses. We brought back a lot of pictures. In selecting a few to present here, I found some with a common theme. I've always been interested in language, and writing in particular. Except for a couple of post-card views at the end, all these images have written words in them somewhere.
1. To begin our trip in the mountains we flew from Kathmandu to Lukla where our Sherpa staff met us and gave us lunch at an inn with a light, airy room upstairs where we could watch arrivals and departures at the tiny airport and commerce in the street below. Here's a picture of the counter at the end of the room, where one of our party bought the last Snickers bar we would see for some time.
A farewell to accustomed comforts. . .
2. We had seen a mani stone and possibly some prayer flags while still in Lukla, but it was on the trail north toward Phakding that our sirdar, Pemba, explained to us a bit about their working. In most religions worshipers convey messages through speech, but Buddhists rely heavily on the written word as well; thus the use of prayer wheels, which broadcast the meaning inscribed upon them or contained within them over and over in a wonderful use of automation. But the wheel must turn clockwise; and the traveler encountering a chorten or collection of mani stones must pass to the left. On our journey we encountered only one shrine where clockwise travel was not possible; Pemba took the only reasonable course, pretending not to be aware of it.
Here is the first stone that we honored.
3. Two or three dozen languages are spoken in Nepal, including Newari, Bhutia, Tamang, Lepcha, Magar, Maithili and Hindi. The symbols we have seen so far, both at the inn and on the chorten, are those used to write Tibetan, a language important to the Buddhists who live in this region.
The lingua franca and national language is Nepali (formerly known as Gorkali for the Ghurkas who unified the country centuries ago). Nepali is written in a different script, Devanagari, as are Sanskrit and some of the other Indian languages.
The only Nepali I remember seeing on the trail was painted on a rock at one end of a suspension bridge:
A tired Alex on her way to Namche
4. Apart from religious works, most of the writing we saw on the trail was in English, the universal language of tourism. I suspect this is because non-tourists either already know where they are going, or will find out by asking. Though there are absolutely no vehicles in this part of the world, and animals are used for carrying burdens and not for riding, the populace is surprisingly mobile. Travel is common and is done on foot, so there's a chance to speak with everyone you see. The universal greeting of course is "Namaste!" (I honor the god within you).
Though Portugee and Poriangi brought us hot water for washing three times a day before meals, at Tengboche we took advantage of the local version of the hot shower, seen advertised on the sign in the background of this next picture. There is a mechanism by which one can have water fall from the ceiling of the small wooden enclosure, but it requires filling a large plastic bottle on the end of a hose and hoisting it up on the rooftop. Most choose simply to take the large bucket and the small bowl in with them and pour, rather than spray. Remember to pay at the inn across the way before leaving camp.
Tengboche from inside the tent
5. Who carves all those mani stones? Well, at Pangboche, in the shadow of Ama Dablam, it's this gentleman. My guess is that he gets a lot of opportunities to pose -- note that his chisel here is poised at a letter that would seem already to be finished. A small gratuity is expected; for a few rupees more, you can have a small stone of your own. The common inscription is "om mani padme hum" -- "Hail, O Jewel, Lotus-borne!"
The sculptor's hands
6. We spent a couple days west of Namche, where the country opens up a bit and on the south slopes at least starts to resemble the landscape in the American west -- you can picture cacti and horses here.
Morning in Kumjung
7. At Thame, we camped outside the home of our cook, Sarki, and some of us hiked up the ridge you'll see on the right of this picture.
New snow on Thame
8. The obligatory picture of Mt. Everest. Chomolungma in Tibetan, Goddess Mother of the World, but Sagarmatha in Nepali. Sound like English? -- both the latter are Indo-European languages. Everest is the high peak on the left at the end of the cloud; most of the mountain is obscured by Nuptse, which is closer, as is Lhotse, the peak on the right.
If you've seen the new IMAX "Everest" movie, you saw a shot that looked exactly like this. That's because the IMAX film crew was at Tangboche on the same day that we were, and were filming at this same moment.
We did more in Nepal than trek in the mountains. Our very first experience was a bike tour to a beautiful place not far from Kathmandu called Nagarkot. The BIKEMAN, Lokesh Sharma, now has a web page with a lot of nice photographs, including some of Alex and me. The page is by his brother Sunil, a computer expert in Singapore, who helped with our bike trip. Here is my snapshot of Lokesh.
Here are some places to find out more about Nepal: