Of mopeds and monks

Khare Travel Blog

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For once we are up early - we have a Mission. The idea is to get as close to the Annapurnas as possible without having to pay to get into the sanctuary. We figure the best way is to take a couple of mopeds up to Phedi, then walk up to Potana, spend the night there, and come down the next day. Simple enough.

We walk down Lakeside and hire ourselves a couple of fantastically dilapidated mopeds. I fill in my details on the form.

"You have license?" the guy asks me.


"Ok, don't worry."

I am the only one of us who has ever driven a moped before, and assure Ste that it is extremely easy. "A monkey could drive a moped," I tell him. What I don't tell him is that I have only driven one once, for about 5 minutes in Goa, never on a highway and never with someone on the back. I pray that it is as easy as I assume. Luckily, it is. Ste, however, is a little uncertain. He starts off at slightly over a walking pace, wobbling down the side of the road, face screwed up in concentration. We decide to make a little practise trip first, before getting onto the highway. There are a few caves nearby, so we go and take a look.

About 10 minutes out of Lakeside, Ste loses power. Starter gone. Damn. We take it to a roadside mechanic, get it fixed, and head off again. This time we make it, and spend an hour or so exploring the Bat Cave, and the Crystal Cave nearby. There is a distinct absence of either crystals or bats, but it's only 10 rupees to get in, so I'm not complaining. The Bat Cave is the most impressive, as from a tiny little entrance it opens up into a massive, echoing underground chavern. It is cold and eery and pitch black, as we cleverly forgot to bring a light. We take ridiculous flash photos of each other in the dark, then clamber out through the even tinier exit hole. You have to climb up to the roof of the cave, pull yourself onto quite a high ledge, then wriggle on your stomach into the sunlight outside. Ok, it's not the most exciting thing in the world, but a reasonably worthwhile detour on the way to Phedi. And Ste does seem much more confident on the bike now. (It's true. A monkey could drive a moped. Not that I'm calling Ste a monkey, honest.)

We get onto the dreaded highway, which turns out to be little more than a quiet country lane. I am relieved, as I didn't much like the idea of trying to fight my way through Nepali traffic on a barely functional bike with Alison on the back. We drive for 20 minutes or so before it starts to piss it down with rain. We pull over and take shelter in a roadside cafe, drinking chiya and waiting for it to ease off. When it doesn't, me and Alison wander outside and see a large, beautifully decorated gateway at the side of the road. Past the gateway, a path leads up a hill to a collection of buildings where we see the Tibetan flag flying. There is a 'Tibetan Village' marked on the map on the way to Phedi, so I guess this must be it. Bored of waiting, we decide to brave the rain and go to check it out. Ste stays behind. He likes to be dry.

Halfway up the hill, the rain turns to hail. We are pounded by stinging lumps of ice as we sprint up the hill to shelter. We stagger into the entrance of a large building, dripping wet and shivering. It doesn't look much like a village. It looks more like a monastery.

A monk comes out, and ushers us in, smiling and welcoming us to the monastery. He doesn't seem remotely surprised to see us there but then, it takes quite a lot to surprise a Buddhist monk. They seem to drift through life in a permanent state of happy serenity. A couple of other monks come out to greet us and lead us through the monastery's big hallway to the kitchen. They give us towels and cups of tea, and sit us down by the cooking range to warm up. They are in the middle of preparing dinner, and we watch them make noodles by hand, feeding the dough through one of those old-fashioned rolling machines until it's in thin, smooth sheets, then cutting it into piles of noodles. It all feels rather surreal.

When we've stopped shivering, a young monk comes and offers to show us round the monastery. As we walk up the stairs to the first floor, a bell rings and the young monks flood out of class into the hallway. Some of them look as young as five. It's funny to see them, in their wine red robes, tearing round screaming and playing like naughty schoolchildren. Which, I suppose, they are.

We see the classrooms, and the simple cells where the monks sleep, and the beautiful meditation room. It looks like a simpler version of the one at Swayambu, with long cushions on the floor and beautiful Thanka art on the walls. The monk, who is only a little older than us and has a beautiful, glowing Tibetan face, tells us about their philosophy.

"We have many books on the teachings of Buddha, and others who have reached enlightenment," he tells us, "but we do not have to follow them too closely. Everyone must find their own path to enlightenment. If you want to go to Kathmandu, there are many ways you could go. You could fly, drive, take a bus, even walk. It doesn't matter. If you go in the right direction, all paths will lead you to Kathmandu."

Individuality? Tolerance? Following your heart and morals rather than a centuries-old book? This doesn't sound like organised religion to me. My respect for Buddhism grows even further.

The monk takes us out to the back of the monastery and, grinning broadly, points to a large patch of dirt outside.

"And this... is our football pitch."

The image of these serene, red-robed monks tackling each other in the dirt is irresistable.

"You play football???" I ask.

"Oh yes," he says, smiling at my incredulity. "We have a little joke. 'Buddism is our philosophy. Football is our religion'. Football makes us very happy. We are also great fans of your Champions' League."

"Did you watch the final the other night?" I ask.

"Of course. We were very happy to see Manchester win. It was a wonderful match."

It's official. There are Tibetan Buddhist monks living in a secluded monastery in the Nepali countryside who know more about British football than I do. A lot more, probably.

The rain has cleared by now and we have to get moving, though neither me or Alison really want to leave. We feel strangely at home, at peace, with these beautiful, friendly, football-obsessed monks. The monk who showed us round leads us to the gate to say goodbye.

"Remember," he says. "Everything in this world has something it can teach you. Never look at anything and think there is nothing you can learn from it, because there is. There is beauty and truth everywhere."

With that on my mind, we head back to the bikes and set off again on the road to Phedi. The dark storm clouds are behind us now, and we're driving straight towards heavenly masses of pink on the horizon. Steep wooded hills rise above us on either side, with the Annapurnas watching over us from the left. It's so beautiful it makes me want to cry. After the experience with the monks I am feeling amazing, euphoric. I feel like I'm in the clouds myself, soaring upwards into my own personal paradise.

We miss Phedi completely. Where the hell is it? There's certainly no signs for it. The first I know of it is when we reach Naudanda, which is definitely supposed to be further on than Phedi. But it hardly matters, as we wouldn't have time to get up to Potana before it gets dark anyway. So we keep going for a bit and stop for the night in a small village called Khare, right on the edge of the Annapurna sanctuary. We eat dinner then go down to our room, where I decide we've earnt ourselves a chillum session.

Possibly because we're buzzing already from the day we've had, we get monumentally high. Ste falls asleep almost immediately, (chillum virginity taken!), and me and Alison lie on our beds, describing what we see on the dark ceiling. Great nebulas of swirling colour engulf me. Galaxies of stars are all around. I can see the energy in the room in the form of tiny pulsating pixels that are every colour you can imagine simultaneously. I feel intensely happy and at peace with myself.

The monks are right. There is beauty and truth everywhere.

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photo by: cja17