Stupa to Stupa: Trail running in Nepal

Stupa To Stupa Run 55 K, Kathmandu, Nepal

Stupa To Stupa Run 55 K, Kathmandu, Nepal

“Its gonna be a long day”, said the Canadian runner as we tackled the first elevation of the day. It was half past seven in the morning. A naive 6-7 hour finishing time however was my idea. I saw that intention mocked at, by the trail, as the noon sun began drying the salt at the back of my neck. Stupa to Stupa run has been the most grueling run that I signed up for, until now. What, with a lifestyle of running in plains (and the lovely parks of Bangalore) was I hoping for here in the mountains? Running is a completely different affair on mountain trails. A simple lesson as this, hits home as I write this. An Olympic runner once said that “you have to run mentally first” is true of trail running too. I tried running mentally. Then, at 28th km I realized that I had the mind for the remaining 27 km but not the body. Spirit was soon a pendulum swinging from I-can’t-do-it to keep-chipping-it-away. Every 100 meter done is 100 meter closer. By the third ascent at around 39th km I was in the dumps – cursing myself for being there. This was a perfect spot for the onset of such crisis – no hope of dropping out because on either side the trail has no vehicle support. One would have to walk through anyway!

The morning had an upbeat mood which is sort of typical for runs. A little beyond the Swayambhu stupa which was the start line the trail began climbing up to the peak of Changunarayan. The summit lies at 7.3 km from the start. The impression was that this is the only hard tackle of the day. Rest of it would come easy. This wasn’t true. It was only first of the many truths about trail running and about myself that were to hit over the course of the day.

I wasn’t prepared for the substantial elevation gains three times over the entire course. As soon as one starts, over the 7 kms the trail goes from 1326 m to 2073 m. When this is done, a long winding forest trail follows which is also one of best forest trails I have seen. A thick bed of dry leaves covered the trail for the next 10 kilometers. There was an earthly feel to that stretch. At such moments there is a feeling of being thankful for being able to run, which gets you to these places. I was glad to be there in that morning. It was hard to spot any stray piece of plastic packaging or litter that generally comes along with human presence. Whatever was, was nature’s own. Nepal is a very beautiful place to run in my impression. The trails are very well kept, or rather, left alone. There is military presence all along the mountains though. And one needs park permits to enter in these reserved areas. SAARC nationals benefit from low entry fees.

The first aid station (with food) was at 20th km. Picked up a few muesli bars and biscuits and went on. The sun was bright by this time. However, on higher altitudes it was cold and comfortable. Crossing 20th km, I felt a good reserve of energy and was up for the remaining, until I saw the trail marking ribbons stretching all the way to horizon. The second climb, contrary to popular view, was actually more difficult. It ended with squeezing all the energy, knee strength and hope. It was a grinding halt. Hereon, I could only walk. Left knee was no longer able to bear the sight of those long staircases which stretched almost 200-250 meters. This was a trek, not run, I thought. Between 20 km to 28 km the elevation dropped to about 1460 and went up again t0 2050 m. To a runner from the plains this was a sentence to the gallows.

Meanwhile, the Nepali runners with their ‘hill legs’ were cantering out into the canopies. The fastest finishing time on this trail is 7 hours. This was a piece of info shared at the finish line. The finishing time estimate I set out with in the morning had a reality check!

On this trail, I bonked out by 28th km. The usual mind games took over. The DNF devils buzzed around and I was giving in to them. Even a gentle gradient hereon would get me walking. There was no hope of shuffling through them. The many streams of water flowing across the trail helped with reviving home and a good wash could get me an uncomplaining half km run.

Soon enough, I was out of my mind. The entire machinery stopped. It was like the silence which consumes a space when the power goes off abruptly. I wasn’t thinking anymore. I wasn’t registering events around anymore. I had stopped looking at the GPS too. Same state of mind until 50th km when the trail descended from the hills onto the plan and had the last 4 km run up to Boudha Stupa. This was an aid station. A kid sat on a chair, may be 2-3 year old. I stretched out my palm, she stretched out and touched it after some hesitation. We sat. After a few biscuits, I was up for the last leg. It is amazing to see what is registered in the mind’s eye during such states of exhaustion. 200 meters ahead I lost way. Went off a different path until someone said that other runners have passed through a different way. I almost died at the thought of backtracking to the right course. However, from this spot the Boudha Stupa was visible in the distance. It would have been a shame to call it quits now.

Getting back on the right course, the last two kilometers were through city roads. It was not a run. It was a quick leap to end it all. A large part of me wanted to get done with it all and go back to the hotel bed. I hobbled into the paved alleys that led up to the stupa. Runners had to do a kora (circumambulation) of the stupa and then show up at the finish.

I had managed to end the day. As always, finish line never sees a miserable runner, just an exhausted one. This wasn’t life changing. I felt that such event have been character building for me. I returned to a very large meal of Nepali daal-bhaat after a long hot shower.

The rest of the night was seething pain in knees and torso, but a peaceful realization that I know myself a little more, a step at a time.

 

 

Policy lessons from Nepal

durbar_nepal

Durbar Square, Kathmandu, Nepal. 2017

This week completes over six months of formal engagement with Nepal’s development sector. On the sidelines of the second Nepal Investment Summit which is being held for the second time, after the first one in the 1990s, there seems to be a recognition of need for investment in economic growth of the country. There is also a pressure on the government to take faster decisions on proposed projects.

I first visited this country in 2008. Early observations were with an eye of a traveler from the neighbouring country. Last year, work led to understanding Nepal’s development context (and challenges) better. Here are a couple of policy lessons that emerge from this experience:

  1. Influence of geopolitics on public policy: This link is under appreciated  in policy literature, in my opinion. Domestic policies in Nepal’s case are significantly influenced by factors emerging outside the country. The choices for low income countries (LICs) in the current global context are by far limited. It is well acknowledged that infrastructure like roads, electricity, healthcare etc are vital for improvement in basic quality of life which then is likely to translate into economic growth. In low income countries like Neopal, most of this vital infrastructure is poor. To get this built should (and is) a national priority. This is where LICs have tough choices to make because their own investment and expertise potential is low. These must be supported by someone else. If these are aid agencies then they are driven by the aid providing country’s strategic agenda. If the support comes from multilateral agencies then these come with conditionalities (as Latin American and Asian countries very well know by now). If the support comes from regional powers (in Nepal’s case India and China) then the geopolitical considerations take the center-stage. Nepalese attempts at improving its economic growth are limited by the rate at which it builds highways, electricity generation and supply among other things. Japanese agencies have helped fund some of the highways over the last decade. One Belt One Road (OBOR) project proposed by China is another strategic project which awaits Nepalese government’s approval. On the southern side, India continues its support to build postal highways and other roads leading into Nepal from Indian border. The progress on all of these highways which are important for Nepal’s domestic trade are influenced by changing nature of relationship with its neighbours. A basic core of policies driven by domestic context and demands appears to be weak in Nepal. Our discussions with civil society groups reveals that the national policies on water and sanitation too are influenced by aid agencies and their financial support. This is what I mean by influence of geopolitics on public policy. 
  2. Governance capacity gaps are more debilitating than financial capacity in the long run : The common refrain for state of affairs – poor infrastructure, weak state capacity, governance issues etc, is that LICs lack financial resources to fix them. This need not be true. Answers to efficiency and service delivery do not emerge from national exchequer.
  3. Often times, strengthening democracy is a necessary condition in societies with diverse ethnic and social groups: At ATREE@20 conference last month in Bengaluru, Kamal Bawa sat listening to the presentations on conservation and development. The tension between development aspirations and conservation was a key theme. Towards the end, Bawa remarks that only an authoritarian regime can decisively and conclusvely act towards the environmental, conservation and development challenges. Democracies aren’t as capable. I could see that Bawa was acknowledging the strength of a democratic system and at the same time speaking of its strong limitation in being able to address the challenges in a short span of time. In its long drawn process of addressing societal and environmental challenges. However, what democracies come up with are equitable solutions, if not entirely sustainable.

Though on a tangential topic, this insight is useful as one sees Nepal struggling with laying a foundation for a strong democracy since the democratic Constitution of 1990. Until democratic form of governance finds its root, there might not be an end to the frequent clashes and shutdowns of various regions that are fighting for rights and representation.

Journalist Prashant Jha writes that “instability has remained the norm, with a government canging every nine months.Nepal democratic trajectory is framed succintly in his book “Battles of the New Republic” –

From war to peace, from monarchy to republicanism, from being a Hindu kingfom to secularism, from being unitary to a potentially federal state, and from a narrow hill-centric notion of nationalism to an inclusive sense of citizenship – Nepal’s transformation was, and is, among the most ambitious political experiments in recent years in South Asia.

4. Public policy in fragile states must engage with and respond to political reality:

While some debate whether there can be any semblance of policy in a fragile state (politically), I argue that if it engages with political reality and respond to it within the extremely short time that an incumbent government has, that can lead to a minimal core of polcies. Every incoming party tends to pick up reins from the past and improvise on it. If the template is engineered such that it formalises priorities, there might be hope for continuity. This is arguably difficult. For instance, labour policy in Nepal can benefit from this. Almost every government in the last decade has seen its youth migrate to Middle East, South Asia, South East Asia and to Europe for work, any kind of work. The country now earns substantially from remittances. A policy to regulate and channelize remittances and at the same time care for its migrating workers’ rights in distant lands, could have earned the government a major support group. As it now stands, the migration is largely driven by distress at home.

The above are visceral responses to the state of public policy in Nepal. On a deeper engagement, it could be true that some or all of these are unfounded. However, it helps my learning that I put them here as they emerge in the head.

A way forward for aid agencies that work in Nepal could be to look at interventions that enhance governance and policy-making capacities of the government as a priority. This involves the danger of transplanting ideas from elsewhere into a different context and see things getting messed up, however, this is arguable. There still exists a core set of ideas that are useful and effective in helping an economy make best use of its resources and enhance living conditions of its people.

Kathmandu: Thamel, Jamel and the local

Rising Mall, Kathmandu (Feb, 2017)

Rising Mall, Durbar Marg, Kathmandu (Feb, 2017)

Among the capitals of the world Kathmandu perhaps has nothing noteworthy than its location on the road to Himalayas.The famous ones make it to the lists – “best cities to…” (travel, live, work etc). Whereas, Kathmandu makes it to none. This capital is on the itinerary than being on the bests list. It already does well by being on a traveler’s itinerary, not as a pit stop but as a reprieve and that too for several days, for weary travelers who have known the press, push, shove and breathlessness of global capitals with people fitting in as much as they can in their list of to-dos. In Thamel one only tries to fit in as much food and as much leisure as one can before the plane flies out of the valley.

Of course, this is one version of Kathmandu. The one shaped by a traveler taking timed immersions in it. One where he lives in Thamel, wakes up to a continental or English breakfast or to a bowl of hummus. He encounters the city through what is seen and presented to him in the clutch of lanes around this tourist ghetto.

This morning, I took table which faced the door at the Chikusa Coffee Shop. For most part wanted to have some coffee and look out to the street which set itself up habitually every morning in this tourist hub of Thamel. I noticed a couple of Nepalese men reading newspapers in the cafe. The Republica is a new one, which is printed here in collaboration with NYT and also circulates a copy of international edition of NYT along, every day. Quite a long distance this little capital has come in just over a decade that I have seen it for. In one of them there is a drug addiction report, new PM’s unhappiness with an investigation agency of the government, a festival which is marked with a dip in a river in the city and bits about high mountain regions with their problems this season. Usual in several sense. Just that these reports being read widely is somewhat new. Nepal has seen an increase in newspapers published here particularly in English.

Overheard a traveler describing how people he saw over the past days “did everything” – washing, bathing, cremating the dead and much more on the line along the river. The man wasn’t born when England and riverside cities of West did the same. And sure he hasn’t read about it either in all these years of his existence. Not being mean here, after eavesdropping on the conversation… but it strikes remarkable how visitors process the visual encounters they have in countries they travel to.

After the breakfast,  I joined sunbathers by the red wall of the Moroccan Consulate on Tridev marg. The map seller dusted the shelves and went about tucking the trail maps on the shelves by the pavement. In another hotel’s foyer a couple loaded several hundred kilos of kit bags on a pickup, leaving for a distant trail.

Thamel, Kathmandu (Feb, 2017)

Thamel, Kathmandu (Feb, 2017)

Imadol, Kathmandu (Feb, 2017)

Imadol, Kathmandu (Feb, 2017)

Another Kathmandu wakes up in Sanepa and Jamsikhel where the typical cafes seen in upscale areas of cities like Mumbai, Bangalore etc serve the typical breakfast menu of English, Continental, American and an odd insert of Nepali chia and poori-tarkari. Sanepa is, in a local newspaper’s words, ‘an NGO town’. One can find the major INGOs operating in Nepal and UN agencies offices along its clutch of lanes. The road from Sanepa leads up to Jamsikhel where housing market serves the expats. A walk around these two areas can be a good start for a newcomer into the aid world of Nepal. A local says, “we now call Jamsikhel as Jamel” implying the transformation of a once Nepali area into a tourist or expat dominated locality like Thamel (which has been legendary for the presence of tourists at all times of the year). The traditional area of Patan has as though disowned Jamsikhel and rolled back itself a bit.

The hangouts for the locals, as I understand, aren’t any of these but Kathmandu’s new malls. Durbar square still packs a throng of locals of all ages at all hours of the day. The inner lanes around the expanding ring road is where one finds the local version. The ring road now seems to be forever covered in dust and traffic snarls, yet there is a buzz – that typical Asian energy and activity fills the streets. Scores of workers finishing their day and milling around the corner spaces that serve tea.

It is interesting to see how the aid agencies and the whole support industry around it has created urban spaces where it appears as though the locals have vacated those spaces, given them up and retreated. To this it might also be good to add effects of tourism on urban spaces, although this is being widely studied. People from Barcelona, Paris, Goa or perhaps Kochi can testify for the effects that growing tourism in their cities have had on their lives. However, this might not yet be the situation with what a thriving aid industry does to the local lifestyle in a city. The spaces are not contested yet. I’d be interested in exploring statistics on employment of Nepalese in aid sector and employment in other sectors. Being a low income country, it has been developing its infrastructure through various loans and grants (example, the B P Highway completed with aid from JICA), as have other countries around the world. But, the business of aid has also brought along urban dynamics which includes and excludes people in ways that should be concerning.

These are at best impressionistic observations from knowing this country for a couple of years. It might however fall into some kind of pattern if one begins a comparative study of countries that receive substantial amount of aid, its effect on urban spaces (at least in their capital cities) and what the implications of this urban impact might be on the cities’ governance, civic upkeep and local culture.

Who is a hippie?

beatlescafe_pokhara

A lakeside cafe in Pokhara

Enthusiasm for the unseen, unfamiliar and unheard ties the hippies of the 1960s and hippies of the new millennium. Not hashish. The urge to travel, and travel irrespective of the how much is in the pocket is the spirit that bridges the two eras of this group of insufferable travelers. This bunch, moreover, travels overland compulsively.

I began reading accounts of this variety of globetrotters from the period 1960-1990 on idle days in Pokhara. I spent over three weeks last month in Nepal beginning with Kathmandu, then in the Himalayan trekking mecca of Annapurna region (a trek to Annapurna Base Camp) and the rest lounging in the legendary lakeside town of Pokhara. This was a trip done overland and slow. A ‘dirt-bag trip’as I call it – enough money for food, accommodation, transport and tea. The rest ceasing to matter.

As I read accounts from the 1960-1990 period and thought about the ‘hippies’ I felt that the pre-1990 travelers who would be labelled hippies weren’t very different from the post-2000 travelers – the millennials. I was wondering if the hippie spirit is dead and if, all we have now is what is derisively known as pseudo-hippies. I wouldn’t want to use that label though. This makes it sound like there exists a definite hippie way and that only a select few know it. This is absurd. There neither was one nor will be one stock definition and pageantry to go along with it. Being a hippie is not just a peculiar way of dressing or conduct. It is a state of mind sometimes and preference to do things in one’s own peculiar way which might be ill-fitting with the known and the established norms. Long hair, pyjamas and a bandana with a loosely hanging ukulele doesn’t make one hippie nor they are essential. It is more than just the attire. It is perhaps a manner of conduct and thought than just the appearance. There are people dropping out of the established systems of education, careers, lifestyles etc and trying to exist outside of it. Those are hippies for me. This combined with an urge to get out of the familiar and the known society into distant lands where every single day is filled with discovering language, words, ways and whats on the table to eat… life gets a jump start. For instance, the horde of Israelis in India, many making way here after finishing their service in the army.  The chatter on the streets from Bangkok and Chiang Mai to Pokhara still maintains itself decade after decade. The urge to drop out and live differently keeps surfacing in every generation. It stays the same! As Richard Gregory puts it, ‘hedonism was the primary aim’ for many.

The change though has been in the direction of travel and what was sought. While it was from Europe to Asia earlier, it is in the reverse direction as well. Asians are thronging the capitals of Europe to attain their own salvation on the streets of Paris, Milan and San Francisco. In terms of what was sought, the proverbial ‘mystic East’ has been replaced by a mysticism borne out of a capitalist order – one fueled by significantly high incomes at young age, the promise of faster travel and possibility of ‘fitting in’ overseas trips over a long weekend.

Back to Pokhara and its hippies, this is where the broke traveler came to rest, luxuriating in its cheap lodges and satiating pent up hunger in the many ‘maancha ghars’ and ‘khaja ghars’ which offer heaps of food for little money, if you can take it, that is. A statistic I read on tourism in Nepal is that the country saw a little over 6,000 tourists in 1960.

The travel accounts from 1960s and 70s describe the overland crossings and relatively free (though perilous) border crossings which could let one travel from London to India and beyond, if one had the energy to rough it out. Iran those days had secular Shahs ruling it and Afghanistan welcomed travelers like no other country. In these times, the geopolitics of the new world has literally made it impossible to cross borders without great risk to life. Many borders are literal dead-ends. Try India – Pakistan border crossing for instance or Pakistan-Afghanistan across the Durand line or Khyber pass.

Among the lot which took the overland journey (in part or whole) were the political scientists – Rudolph couple, many anthropologists, writes (Paul Theorux, Vikram Seth ) and students who’d later get back to academia as researchers and professors. These weren’t ‘freaks’ or ‘hippies’ in the conventional sense (used for those in search of cheap destinations to live and smoke marijuana) but people who nevertheless shared the same enthusiasm for east and for travel. They made better of these experiences in their later lives as I figure.

Living amidst the average travelers in the cheap backpacker hostels and traveling with them on those typical shared taxis in the many Asian cities I find that in many respects the hippies, the vagrants, the vagabonds and the freaks of the world haven’t been any different from what I read about a similar traveling lot from earlier centuries. For instance, John Lang in India. Or Freya Stark in Middle East. Or even this writer in Hindi literature I read often – Agyey. These are the same men and women from different generations. Each facilitated by the communications and transportation progress of their times. One rode a bus from Delhi for days together to reach Pokhara, while another in these times takes the cheap Yeti Air flight to Pokhara and walks through the mountains as though in a garden back home, with a porter managing the bags.

I thought of deliberating on the idea of a hippie when in Nepal because I didn’t quite appreciate the snobbery of some who labeled the place as full of ‘pseudo-hippies’. This would have meant that there probably exists this elite bunch who believes that their definition of a hippie holds and they decide if others are or not. It would be so much cool if these travelers with peculiar ways and style are left alone as long as they don’t trespass and harm the local people and their values by their choices. These cities of the world where some can live cheap and do whatever on earth they want to do with their lives, is a useful safety valve for societies across the world. This is not romanticizing the traveler, but suggesting that if not useful, this sort of traveler isn’t harmful either – pseudo or real or whatever else you want to call her!