Wandering the World Part 30
Volunteering in Nepal
In the years since I started travelling around the world a lot has changed. One of the most notable things was that in the beginning I’d be lucky to find free internet access anywhere — it’d usually be expensive.
Now the internet is everywhere. The internet, or social media to be precise, is how I found out about a company who were organising a marathon in Nepal as part of a relief effort following their recent earthquake.
On the 25th April 2015 Nepal suffered a magnitude 7.8 earthquake that killed nearly nine thousand people on top of the twenty-two thousand it injured. In addition to this massive loss of life, the damage to the country was significant.
It would cost ten billion US dollars, half of their domestic product, in order to rebuild everything.
This earthquake was centred between the cities of Kathmandu and Pokhara. It was a disaster for them for both day to day life, and their heritage. The damage was widespread, including major damage and destruction to Buddhist temples, even in their famed Kathmandu Durbar Square.
On the morning of my flight to Nepal I went out for one last short run. It was through the torrential downpour that had been named “Storm Angus”, but I felt it necessary. Then after a roast dinner I headed to Heathrow airport to begin my Himalayan adventure.
During my time in the USA a month before, my passport had been ripped during an accident involving my laptop and a little impatience. The only page that had been damaged was the photograph page, and that was enough for it to be flagged as an issue during check-in.
The lady took my passport away as she was unsure I’d be able to fly with it. A few minutes later she returned, and told me it’d be okay this time; but that I should replace it when I return.
The flight to Istanbul was the first of two, and during this flight they served a warm meal. At least, it was supposed to be warm. I’d been served chicken that was still cool, and was pink inside. I wasn’t going to eat that.
In Istanbul I made it just in time for my flight to Kathmandu due to a delay disembarking the aircraft. I was hopeful I’d get to see Mount Everest on the way in to Kathmandu, but the flight attendants requested that the blinds were closed for the arrival.
Kathmandu airport is small. It took almost two hours to go through immigration due to the semi-organised chaos that was the visa application process. Firstly, you need to queue to use a machine which will take your picture and requests details for your visa. At this time there were only two machines working and a lot of people needing to use it.
The next step is to queue, and I use that term loosely, for one of the three cashiers who you’ll then pay the visa fee to. On the noticeboard it indicated I could pay either US$25 or £20. With the exchange rate at the time, the dollars option worked out a little cheaper. It’s pretty common for countries to favour US dollars in currency exchanges as they’re more useful to them.
Due to how long the visa process had taken, my luggage was sitting on one side when I made it into the arrivals hall. At last I could meet up with Nick from the marathon company, and some of the others who would be part of this adventure. One of them was a skilled videographer who would be joining myself and a couple of others for the second week.
On the way to the hotel, our driver got pulled over by the traffic police and it looked like he was given a ticket for something — I’m not sure what. The driving in Kathmandu is similar to the busy cities in India and China, so his driving didn’t seem out of the ordinary; but I know he had to show some sort of identity.
My best guess was that it was for him blocking the flow of traffic in one lane when he changed his mind about where he was going. Seems odd, but that’s what it looked like.
Before moving on to the athletes village, the group had one night in Kathmandu. When I got to the room I was sharing with another runner I’d not yet met, I found that the marathon company had left personalised notes welcoming each person individually. It was a nice touch, and I think it’s their attention to detail that really made this trip feel special.
I’d got time before the evening meal so changed some money into Nepalese rupees, and set off exploring alone. I wanted to see if I could find Durbar Square.
From the hotel it was a little more than two kilometres to Hanumandhoka Durbar Square. As I got closer to the square, the roads got narrower, and the cars were replaced with mopeds and bicycles weaving through the busy streets.
Seeing people travelling around in rickshaws reminded me of Beijing. In some ways the style of these streets reminded me of China as well. It was becoming commonplace for me to find similarities between places.
Another reminder of other countries was the frequent hassling from people trying to sell me their wares. I’ve long since learnt that I should keep moving unless I’m interested. It may sound impolite, but the frequency of it means a five minute walk could easily turn into an hour.
When walking down Freak Street I wasn’t being hassled as much as I expected to be. I could see other tourists being stopped, but I was mostly left alone. I wondered if it was because I was walking quickly by myself, or if it was because it looked like I wasn’t carrying anything.
Hanumandhoka Durbar Square is also known as Kathmandu Durbar Square and is one of three royal squares in Kathmandu. After it’s construction in the Licchavi period, it was the seat of power for numerous Shah Kings between 1484 and 1896. None of the buildings that stand there today are from that time though.
For tourists there is an entry fee of one thousand rupees, but locals are allowed to walk straight through — it’s one of their holy sites.
I knew this square had been badly affected by the 2015 earthquake, though I also knew that the admission fee for this square was helping to do some restoration work. Sadly, there was still a lot to do.
The square covers a large area and is more like three squares connected by a path. The temples and palaces were either in state of disrepair, being propped up by wooden beams, or obscured by some new ugly street lights. Hopefully one day soon the remaining buildings will be restored.
It’s a busy square with cows roaming freely in places. Most people there are on foot, but you get the occasional moped driving through as well. I moved around as quickly as I could to get pictures before sunset so I could leave in daylight.
Back at the hotel I got to know some of other other people who would be running. It was a casual event with waiters wandering around with plates of deep fried vegetables and chicken momos.
This was a little like a starter for the evening meal of dal bhat — a staple food for this area. As we ate, a film crew from one of Kathmandu’s national news stations arrived to interview Nick about what we’d be doing in the coming days.
The events of the evening was a good way to get to know people who would all be working together over the next week. After the food there was a briefing first from Nick, then a member of the local community, and then finally from the Street Child charity.
The briefing was to let us know exactly what we’d be doing, and the impact it would have. Many stayed for drinks after this, but I chose to sleep.
The first day of volunteering would be local, but the group I was in had the earliest of starts. We were in the breakfast room at 06:00, and on the road just thirty minutes later.
We were driven to a nearby private square where we drank lemon tea, and waited for other volunteers to arrive. Once the others arrived we walked down the road to an area called Boudha.
We were led down a path between buildings to an open space between privately owned buildings. This area was filled with rubbish that had been dumped by the locals instead of them paying for a refuse collection.
Although the ones in this immediate area likely could afford the 25 rupees, there’d be many that couldn’t. Many of the residents also don’t understand the consequences of this sort of pollution either, so the action needed to be two-fold: clean-up, and education.
The problem is that nobody knew who the land belongs to, so could not order for it to be cleaned. Myself and others were there to clean up, and hopefully help to change the mindset of those around.
We were each given a face mask and gloves and were then set to work on picking up rubbish. It wasn’t a nice job, but we were there to help, and it’s what needed to be done.
After a couple of hours we’d run out of bags and it seemed like there was an incredible amount left to do, but after comparing it to how it was before we realised it was actually a tremendous difference.
One of the locals invited us into her house to wash our hands. It was a dark room with a concrete floor, and a tap part way up the wall. It was really kind of them to offer.
The remaining work would be done by a couple of hired labourers in the near future. In the meantime, a sign was erected to show that it’s illegal to dump rubbish. There would also be some lights put up, and a guard hired to patrol at night to make sure it remained clean. Sounds like overkill, but that’s what they claimed.
Lunch was at a nearby restaurant called Vajra. Once again it was dal bhat, but with some variation from the night before. Our goal was to finish lunch as quickly as possible so we’d have time to visit a nearby stupa before our school visit.
The Great Boudha stupa, Boudhanath, is a UNESCO world heritage recognised site; but is one that had suffered during the earthquake the year before. What stood there now was a new concrete structure which had only just been reopened to the public by the Prime Minister that morning.
We completed one clockwise lap of the grounds, and also got to see some of the inside. This stupa is one of the most important sites in Kathmandu, so it was nice that we’d been given the chance to visit it.
We walked from the stupa to a school where we watched a play they were using to educate children in the importance of proper waste disposal. I didn’t really understand what was going on for most of it, but it seemed like the school children were captivated by it.
The remainder of the day would be our journey into the mountains to Kakani. Back at the hotel we were reunited with our luggage and I watched on in amusement as their team climbed onto the roof of each bus to position bags and tie them down. It reminded me a little of the landrovers in Africa.
Until sunset we followed the winding road through the mountains, overlooking a valley on one side. As we arrived at the lower Kakani community the sun had set, and the last light was now starting to leave the sky.
We disembarked the bus as we entered the village, and walked through it to the sound of beating drums — this was their welcome ceremony. They handed us flowers as we passed them, and at the other end of the village boarded the bus for the remaining drive.
When we reached the proper village this process was repeated once more, but this time they had dancers leading the way. We stopped at a prayer room where we needed to remove our shoes before entering — donations were encouraged here, but I don’t think anyone was prepared for it.
We boarded the bus one last time and this took us a few minutes to reach the bottom of a path up to the summit camp and the Scouts hut. With everyone onboard, the bus wasn’t capable of taking the hill so we got out and walked the remainder.
I dropped off my bags in the hut and then walked through the dark up another hill to the “Sunset bar”. Those that had arrived ahead of us were already up there and huddled around a large campfire.
I was in shorts and a t-shirt still, and although others had put on warmer layers I didn’t think it was too bad. After drinking a glass of rum and cinnamon punch they were handing around, I tried a momo for the first time.
Momos are similar to dumplings in China and are known by other names depending upon where you are in Asia. It seems many regions there have them in some form.
Everyone sat and shared their stories from the day until we were called down to the Scouts hut for our evening meal. Once again it was dal bhat — it’s a good job we all liked it as we had this for every meal in the first week. As one of the group were celebrating their birthday, there was also some cake going around.
As the day came to an end I located the tent I’d be staying in for the rest of the week. It was spacious even with two beds that had wooden frames; but it was cold. In fact it was that cold that I went bed fully clothed, and soon fell asleep.
Of the challenges that Nepal faces, one of these is access to a clean and reliable water supply outside of the cities. Our plan was to spend the next two days changing this for the people of Kakani by laying a pipeline to a new water supply.
Not long before sunrise, a group of us headed out for a two mile run. This distance shouldn’t really be a problem when you’re about to run a marathon, but the altitude and elevation changes made this a lot harder than normal.
After the run I tried the showers at camp for the first time. If the water had been described as cold, then first thing in the morning that would have been an understatement. At this time of day the solar-powered water heaters have not collected any power at all. It was certainly a challenge.
Breakfast was the sort that many runners would be familiar with. I had peanut butter on toast, and a banana. Simple, but good.
When the time came to organise into groups for working, we split into the same groups as we had for the projects we’d visited. It made things easier, and we’d at least know the people around us. With the organisation and briefing complete, we set off in the direction of where we’d be starting the digging.
Before we’d arrived, the Armed Police Force had already made a start on digging the trench. We’d need to dig five kilometres across difficult terrain, and had people with machetes clearing a path through vegetation at the front.
To start with we let the APF tell us where to go as we couldn’t organise ourselves and had no idea what to do despite the briefing. As time went on more of us got involved by taking it in turns to dig, lay the pipe, and to rebury it.
The pipe laying was something the locals could have done themselves, but they hadn’t. By bringing in outside help they now had the motivation, and organisation to do it. In all honesty, they were probably better than us at it too.
Partway into the morning the APF disappeared, and then at 10:30 all the Nepalese workers disappeared for lunch as well. Only us volunteers remained.
We were slower, but progress seemed good. In places it was challenging due to the route through the forest — there were narrow ledges where we’d need to brace ourselves against stronger branches as we worked, but at other times there were branches we needed to cut through with pick axes.
It was hard work. It made my hands sore, and it didn’t take long to be covered in dirt. My shoes, socks, and legs were coated in this fine soil. As I walked I could feel bits if soil moving around inside my shoes.
We paused at 11:30 for a drink whilst a few tried to figure out what to do next. We’d encountered a ravine too deep to traverse. If we dug down and then back up like we’d done elsewhere then the water would lose pressure in the pipes, and if we left it exposed then the water would freeze in the winter.
Once they’d come to an agreement with the locals, the pipe was rerouted through a small settlement to cross the ravine in a place that is not as deep. For the next hour I hacked away at rock with a pick axe so we’d be able to lay the pipe on the other side.
For lunch we each had a pack-up consisting of cheese sandwiches, biscuits, banana, and a drink. I found a rock to sit on and eat mine before wandering around with my camera.
A group of us that finished early headed off in the direction of where we’d been digging so we could work at the front for a while. This didn’t go quite according to plan.
We took a wrong turn and found ourselves at a stupa atop a hill. A few locals were gathered there who I think were working on it’s construction. They invited us over for photographs before we continued on our way down a different path.
This path was the wrong way also. We back-tracked one more time and found our way to where the pipe was being laid along an extremely narrow ledge through the forest.
Beyond the trees that loosely lined the path was the valley below. It meant progress was slowed considerably due to the extra care we had to take whilst laying and burying the pipe.
Someone ahead of me slipped, and he fell backwards towards the long drop below. Things could have gotten very bad very quickly, but he was caught up in the pipe we were laying — this combined with the branches of the trees saved him. Since he was already hanging on to the pipe we used it to pull him back up to safety.
We carried on as if nothing had happened, and then stopped for the day when we reached the stupa we’d found earlier. We’d laid only two kilometres of pipe — under half what we needed to do. It felt like we might let down this community.
At camp I had tea and biscuits before joining the queue for a much needed shower. It was cold as I’d expected, but it didn’t seem quite as bad as before.
Whilst I waited for the evening meal I sat outside and read — I’d recently started travelling with a Kindle so I’d never be without something to do. The food was plentiful, and tasty. Everything you could want after a hard day of digging.
I found it difficult to join in with any of the conversations so headed back to the tent, this time with an extra blanket, to get some sleep.
Once again the day started with a run around the mountains before breakfast. This time it was hill sprints to try and get used to the sort of climbs we’d need to do during the marathon. I’d never encountered hills like it before, but it was kind of fun. Especially the focus required for running down hill.
After breakfast we returned to work on the pipeline.
From the stupa where we’d finished previously we climbed down the embankment to where the pipe was now being laid. As I’d got a spade in my hand, and volunteers were standing around I decided to take charge and get it buried.
Once the others joined in we caught up with where they were hacking through the forest in no time at all. Instead of standing around waiting we climbed up back off the path, and walked to the village where we could be of more help.
Whilst we’d been in the forest some dispute had started in the village. A local seemed distraught and was preventing the pipe from being laid. We couldn’t understand what he was saying though, and he couldn’t understand us.
To bridge the communication gap we located Tarjan, a Gurkha from our group, to help with the translating. The villager was getting quite animated, but Tarjan remained calm.
We found that the villager was drunk, and was protesting about where the water pipe was going to be located. Things were settled and the pipe-laying continued.
Once we were no longer needed there, we moved on to helping with the digging of the trench passed the Scouts hut. Here we were digging far deeper than we had previously, and the work was harder. When we stopped for lunch, the APF continued on.
After lunch a small number of us found we weren’t needed, and were now getting in the way in places that were too narrow. Instead of being sent further forwards, we went back to camp.
I thought maybe I could finally have a warm shower, but someone got there ahead of me and spent twenty-five minutes using the entire warm water supply.
That evening two people returned to camp to the cheers of everyone around. They’d both set out early in the morning to walk the forty-two kilometre route, and were now returning successful twelve hours later. They were the first people to ever complete the Nepal International Marathon course!
Once food had been served we had a briefing about the race day, and were updated on our progress of laying the pipe. We’d fallen one kilometre short of the required distance.
We’d failed in our task to bring them a reliable water supply, but the work would continue without us. Our efforts had not been for nothing.
So far my time in Nepal had mostly been to a schedule — there were specific things I needed to be doing. On the last day before the race I had the day to myself to do as I pleased.
Fog hung over the valley so I stayed around the camp until it looked like the sun was starting to break though.
I walked as far as the APF parade ground in the village before turning back and taking the path up to the stupa. There was no real purpose to this route other than looking for things to photograph. I was letting my legs lead me wherever they wanted to take me.
Down the hill from there I covered some of the course for the ten kilometre race. I passed a few school children with the usual “namaste” greeting, and was amused to see one of them carrying a live chicken with him. I thought to myself that perhaps that was their packed lunch.
I didn’t get all the way down the hill before turning back. I’d set myself a time limit for my wanderings as I thought it wouldn’t be a bad idea to sit through a scheduled talk on Nepal and the adversities they face in everyday life.
The ascent was considerably harder with the heat beating down on me, so was much slower. For this trip I’d bought a water bottle with a built-in filter which meant I could carry a decent amount of clean water with me for conditions like this.
When I got back to camp I found that the speaker had been delayed in Kathmandu, so instead used the time to repack some of my luggage.
After the talk, I headed in the direction of Shivapuri National Park — it was my hope I’d get to see some wildlife. The entrance to this park is a small clearing with a guardhouse.
“No ticket!” one of the guards told me.
With a combination of hand gestures, and explaining in English, I tried to explain to the guard that I was trying to buy a ticket. His English was no better, but he managed to convey enough meaning to suggest I needed to get a ticket from the Scout house.
It was a shame, but I realised that by the time I got back down to the camp to buy a ticket, I wouldn’t have had time to return to the park and spend time there before sunset. Instead, I decided to sit and watch a film called “Mira”.
The film is about a Nepalese trail runner who enjoyed trail running and went on to compete internationally. She came second in the Sky Runner Championship in her first year, and is now inspiring young Nepalese runners — some of which would be joining us for the marathon in the morning.
Race day had arrived.
My ankle was mostly recovered from the accident I’d had in Moscow, but I wasn’t yet sure how it was going to cope with both the distance and terrain of a trail marathon.
There was a good reason they named this course the “Beast of Shivapuri”. It would be testing both physically and mentally with a cumulative climb that is equivalent to climbing Ben Nevis twice whilst at an average elevation of over two thousand metres above sea level.
I started the day with a bowl of cereal that had been in my suitcase since I’d left home. With warm milk it didn’t taste great, but I wanted to be consistent with my pre-race traditions.
When the other marathon runners were ready we made our way to the UN APF parade ground for the start. The local guest houses in the village had opened their doors for athletes, so you could use their facilities if you needed to along the way.
I signed the waiver, and then stood around talking to others whilst waiting for the race to start. It was already getting warm, and would likely be far warmer by the time I finished.
Playing the Nepal national anthem before the race made it feel like a big event. I guess in some ways it really was — this race was making a difference to the Nepalese people.
When the race started, a number of us shot off at a fast pace, and began the downhill stretch to some prayer flags which marked a turnaround point for going back up the road and then off onto the trails.
It was after this turnaround point I noticed a large number of runners who had been behind me, who had never passed me, were now in front of me.
When I saw one I knew she asked me how I got behind her, and it became apparent that a group of people had turned off down this road early instead of going down to the bottom of the hill so had cut their route short by just under mile.
The one that had started the mass shortcut claimed that she’d thought the elites had made a mistake. They hadn’t — they’d just listened to the briefing, and were following the lead motorbike.
The trails started with some steep climbs, and areas where you couldn’t help but to get your feet wet. As the terrain got tougher and more technical, the distance between runners increased.
At a waterfall crossing it was necessary to hold on to a rope in order to get across safely. Anyone who slipped without holding on would have been in serious danger. At the very least it’d have ruined their day.
Over the first ten miles of this race I overtook the majority of those that had cut the route short and made good progress in working my way up through the positions. It was never going to last though — sooner or later the terrain would defeat me.
As I was carrying my own water I was able to ignore the aid stations and continue running whilst others paused. I’d even been a stereotypical runner and had jelly babies in my pocket for fuel during the run as well; but lost almost half of them when they fell from my pocket.
A marathon is far enough that sometimes you have to change your strategy mid-race. This was one of this times.
On the second lap of the course I stopped almost straightaway to make sure another runner was okay. He didn’t look too good, but insisted he was well enough to walk a few hundred metres back to the nearest aid station.
After that the course started to feel harder. Each hill was feeling tougher, and longer than the previous lap. Where other runners had been around me, I was now alone. I couldn’t match the pace of someone else, or target someone to overtake — the mental challenge of keeping my legs moving was not an easy one.
Eventually the course beat me. For anything other than a decline I was walking. Stones in my shoes didn’t help either, but at least they were something I could solve.
At the next aid station I topped up the reservoir in my backpack, and then slightly passed the station I sat on a rock to take my shoes off. A motorcyclist patrolling this section of the course stopped to see if I was okay. They really did care about the welfare of the runners in this event.
On the biggest of the climbs I overtook some walkers whilst walking myself, but got held back by mountain bikers and then some backpackers that were blocking the path. They wouldn’t let me passed either, and I didn’t know why. It only delayed me by a few minutes, so although irritating, it wasn’t the end of the world.
When I finally neared the end I encountered the hill we’d practised on just days before. Now it felt like a mountain, and even walking seemed too fast for it.
When I eventually neared the finish line I sprinted with almost everything I’d got left. It was done — I’d finished a race in foreign country.
It’d been more of an adventure than a race, during a week of many experiences. I’d had to jump or stride over boulders and fallen trees, clambered across rocks, crossed waterfalls, and moved carefully along narrow ledges.
After crossing the finish line, one lady put the red dye of a Sindoor tree on my forehead, and then another put a garland of flowers around my neck.
Around the finishing area they were providing some warm food for purchase, or for free for those that had been volunteers. I sat and ate some chicken momos and vegetable chow mein but I wasn’t really that hungry.
Instead of finishing my food I applauded some of the other runners as they finished, but didn’t stay long. My plan was to get back to the Scout hut to re-hydrate and to shower.
That evening everyone celebrated their running, and told stories to each other around the roaring campfire. In the background during this week and during the lead-up, a lot of runners had been fundraising. This evening it was revealed that £85,000 had been raised for the charities.
We’d done it. We’d come to Nepal and raised much needed funds for them. We’d helped them in various projects, and got them most of the way to getting a clean water supply. We’d helped them to discover the fun of running.
For the remaining week I’d now get to explore Nepal and see the other sides of this country.