My first week in Nepal
Having worked at The Gurkha Welfare Trust for over 8 years, Gurkha Welfare Trust staff member Rosie Lerwill had the opportunity to visit Nepal last week for the first time.
She was kind enough to blog her experiences as she travelled around the country, visiting some of the vital work we undertake in Nepal to ensure that Gurkhas, their families and their wider communities can live their lives with dignity.
Sunday, 3 April
So, FINALLY I am here in Nepal! My flight from London Heathrow to Doha was good but packed. My Doha experience was limited to a coffee on the run to the departure gate as I transited through the vast terminal – it seemed like I was running to Kathmandu. Again the flight was good but the views on coming into land at Kathmandu whilst amazing were sadly limited due to the smog-bound city.
Colleagues from the headquarters, British Gurkhas Nepal met me as I landed and because I had a visa we whizzed straight through immigration only to then wait 2 hours for luggage which was manually unloaded.
Eventually we left the airport and I got my first sight of Kathmandu – despite it being mid Sunday afternoon it felt like full on rush hour. Cars, scooters loaded with precariously balanced families (baby squashed in the middle!), bicycles, pedestrians, cows, dogs, goats, chickens all jostling for position. As for any lane discipline – well forget it, it seemed like even keeping left or right was a bit of an unknown concept – rather like a big game of chicken – seeing who gives way first!! I closed my eyes when we got to the roundabout….
After 14 hours of travelling the peace and tranquility of the hotel with dusk falling and the sound of monkeys chattering was very welcome, even as I was introduced to the concept of ‘load shedding’ (limiting electricity) and hot water limitations.
Monday, 4 April
Up at 05.45 and after a breakfast of mango, lychees, Danish pastry and strong black coffee I was back off to Kathmandu Airport – this time bound for the Domestic Terminal (where I was the centre of much interest at Gate 2 for some unknown reason. Several people even asked for selfies – perhaps they thought I was Lady Gaga!) and Yeti flight 673 to Pokhara. As the flight was almost empty I easily got a seat on the right-hand side as advised to ensure the best views and was totally stunned by the MASSIVE mountains that loomed in sunlit, snow topped splendour above the dense smog cloud. That first sight was really something!
Met at Pokhara airport by yet more colleagues I was driven off to The Gurkha Welfare Scheme Headquarters. Introductions, presentations and lunch followed:- baht eaten – disappointingly none! water drunk – lots.
From there I headed off to the Trust’s Residential Home(RH) at Kaski. Having joined the Trust as the first RH project got the go ahead and seen it through the design, building and opening phase, it was great to be able to visit. What a wonderful facility where the clearly dedicated and caring staff make life for our oldest and most vulnerable pensioners comfortable and safe. I had a wonderful time with the Diddies (old ladies) and Bhuros (old men).
Gurkha widow Padam Kumari Sunwar, who has lived at RH Kaski for nearly 6 years took much pleasure in telling me how she likes to sit and gossip, sharing memories. She is so happy to have made new friends at a time in her life when she thought she would just fade away.
As the oldest resident at the age of 96, Rifleman Lalbahadur Pun ex-4/6 Royal Gurkha Rifles had no difficulty in recalling how during the Burma campaign of World War Two he and his comrades had paddled up river to Mandalay because their convoy of trucks had run out of fuel and had to be abandoned in the jungle. He also told me, and showed me with actions, how to bayonet the enemy, leaving me in no doubt that whilst frail and with failing eyesight, his spirit is still that of a proud Gurkha soldier.
Rifleman Chamar Gurung ex-2/2 GR and Rifleman/Signaler Bhimbahadur Gurung ex-4GR, both in their 90s, were reluctant to be drawn into past war memories but said that they were happy in the peace and tranquillity of the Trust’s Residential Home and appreciate the facilities and comradeship that it provides.
Everyone was cheerful and engaging and three delightful old ladies each, quite spontaneously started dancing before proudly presenting me with their handmade round mats, which they advised me could be used for a variety of things including being heated up and placed in the small of the back to relieve tired, achy old muscles!
It is quite clear to me that thanks to the many generous supporters of The Gurkha Welfare Trust this group of Welfare Pensioners are living out their twilight years in a happy and secure environment rather than abject poverty and hardship.
I spent the evening with our Finance Advisor in Nepal, Sindhu Shrestha and his charming wife who very kindly hosted me to supper at the Moondance Bar on the strip at Lakeside where we enjoyed delicious trout (fresh from the lake) in lemon sauce and ice cold beer so, bhats eaten – still none!
Tuesday 5 April
Another early start as I set off toward the Area Welfare Centre (AWC) at Syangja, one of 22 such AWCs across Nepal (and one in India). These Centres support Gurkha veterans and their families by distributing the Welfare Pension quarterly, dispensing medical care daily and generally providing a base for the work we deliver.
After a comprehensive brief by Captain (Ret’d) Pimbahadhur Gurung and my first bhat lunch –DELICIOUS – we set off across the steep and rugged countryside to check on the foundations of a house rebuilding project, a pensioner who lives WAY up in the hills and a water project, at Naya Bazar, Pauwaygaude, Ward No 1 (originally constructed in 2009 and benefiting a total of 51 households ). All 3 sites had suffered significant earthquake damage giving the AWC plenty to keep them even busier than usual. Although we probably only covered about 25 miles in total it was a long, hot afternoon of up hill and down dale with me in sensible walking boots being put to shame by the accompanying elderly villagers in either flips flops or bare feet literally skipping along.
On return to the AWC the evening was spent sitting in the garden listening to the cicadas and hearing about the day to day life of the AWC. More yummy bhat was produced for supper before I retired exhausted but exhilarated for the night – after being warned of the limitations of AWC accommodation before I left England the only horror was the most ENORMOUS spider that had taken up residence in the middle of the newly acquired bathroom mirror but I was very brave and simply cleaned my teeth very, very quickly and shut the bathroom door firmly – needless to say it had gone by the morning!
Wednesday, 6 April
Wednesday morning dawned bright and clear and with great excitement I set off with Pim to visit an elderly lady, Narbada Khatri, widow of a late Rifleman (Rfn) no 173049 before meeting 21150650 Rfn Hariprasad Gurung Ex 6 GR, a mere spring chicken at 78, who was to lead us on our trek from Kubinde to Mattikhan. Poor Hari is currently living with a friend in Kubinde as he had had to abandon his house in the hills after it was struck by lightning three time as well as being slightly damaged by the earthquake. It has been agreed that Hari’s home should be permanently relocated.
We trekked for about 5 miles along a well-worn route with the most spectacular views of the mountains and the Pokhara valley below, traditionally a Gurkha recruitment area. We stopped for a picnic lunch which we ate sitting on a traditionally built ‘chautora’ and before climbing to the top of the locally named ‘Joanna Lumley’ viewing tower with a stunning 360 degree view of the land below us. We saw some stunningly colourful birds and butterflies along the way, and some huge eagles soaring and swooping on the thermals. The weather was clear but an intensely hot , dry 32 degrees and so we were very happy to see the air conditioned GWS vehicle at the end of the track.
We then visited the Japanese Bhuddist Peace Temple overlooking the lake – more stunning views – on our way back to Lakeside, returning just in time to change for supper with the GWS headquarters staff at the Chilly Restaurant set overlooking the lake; I had another wonderful evening in Nepal
Thursday, 7 April
8am saw me on the road to AWC Tanahun to visit a local school rebuilding project. The Trust runs an extensive Schools Programme that has already benefited hundreds of villages and their surrounding communities. The AWO, one of his assistants and I walked across a secure but nevertheless wobbly suspension bridge and then through a couple of maize fields before being met by the Principal and his assistant who had come to meet us and lead us into the school. The staff and the children present were all clearly very proud of their school and it was explained to me that everyone in the community ,with children at the school, had pitched in to help with clearing the earthquake damage and preparing for the rebuild which is now almost complete. Given the remoteness of the site you can imagine my surprise at seeing five brand new Hewlett Packard computers and monitors already in place for the new school term!
Returning to the AWC for a quick lunch of chicken and black lentil bhat I was then off to AWC Gorkha, the AWC closest to the epicentre of last year’s earthquake. The devastation in this area is total in some villages, but the temporary shelters we provided are slowly being replaced by the proper quake-resistant houses we’re building. Gorkha is a totally stunning area very high up, and everything is built on incredibly steep hillsides – no wonder it all slipped. After a brief on the ongoing work in the area and viewing some of the houses, we went to visit the Gorkha Dubar Palace – a former summer residence of one of the first kings of Nepal – sadly, it suffered huge damage in the earthquake and is basically a ruin now over-run with monkeys but still a hugely important building and used for many festivals.
As darkness fell we sat in the garden enjoying the coolness of the evening, eating tippan tuppen and bhat with a glass of wine. Later the intense darkness was interrupted only by the occasional light and cooking fires from houses below us.
Friday, 8 April
Friday morning dawned with a cool ethereal mist rising up the valley and I sat at the garden table breakfasting on freshly picked bananas and black coffee, listening to the sounds of the surrounding village – cockerels crowing, dogs barking, clanking water cans as people headed off to collect water from the Gurkha Welfare Trust built taps.
At 7.30, with regret, it was time to go, but the journey back to Kathmandu was as fascinating as the rest of the week as there was such a lot of see along the way – soaring foothills, vast landslips, many villages in various states of rebuild, deep ravines, a vast river with several white water camps, a huge hydro electricity plant, and bigger bazaars as we approached the capital.
Needless to say the traffic was equally amazing especially after the junction with the road from Chitwan, huge trucks loaded with building materials, dangerously overloaded buses complete with people sitting on top, endless tourist minibuses and motorbikes and scooters all belching out serious amounts of black exhaust as they slowly made their way along the steep and winding road back to Kathmandu.
Six hours later we arrived back at my original hotel and the official part of my visit was over.
I spent Friday afternoon and Saturday exploring Kathmandu – with a visit to the World Heritage Site – Durbar Square – beautiful even in its damaged state, Thamel for the inevitable pashmina, handmade paper and tea shopping, and the Bagmati River to see the burning ghats – just to satisfy the ghoul in me.
To sum up – I had a FANTASTIC visit and count myself incredibly lucky to have been allowed the opportunity to see the benefits of the work of The Gurkha Welfare Trust first hand. The highlight of the visit, without doubt, was the first afternoon of visits with the staff of AWC Syangja – I felt very humbled by the fact that at no point was there any grumbling or complaining at the hardship and limitations of life as a result of the earthquake, and the welcome that was extended to me along with the clear desire to share whatever they have with a complete stranger was quite overwhelming.
There’s lots more I could wax lyrical about – the generosity of all my hosts, the primitiveness of life in the villages and hills, how incongruous it is to see children in the middle of nowhere walking to school in brilliant white uniform shirts, houses with no internal taps but with satellite dishes attached to the roof, how almost every teenager I saw in Gorkha was frantically texting on a mobile phone whilst much smaller children were enjoying a quick scrub down under a running tap on the side of the road, flat bed trucks literally bouncing down the hillside with people hanging on for dear life not to mention goats precariously balanced on top of the drivers cab!! And then there’s the stunning scenery versus the extreme pollution……….
Disclaimer: Please note, the views expressed in this article are those of the individual staff member, rather than the Trust as a whole.