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Into the hills

Eastbound...

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So far from home and beyond imagination

I spent a month living with a family near a small town called Fikkal in the Ilam district of far eastern Nepal. This area is famous for its tea production. The bus ride from Kathmandu to this part of the country was a long hard overnight slog.

The family consisted of two grandparents, their son Deepak and his young son Samyog. They were largely self sufficient - they owned a tea plantation, a couple of cows and grew various food products such as tea, grass, potatoes, bananas, milk, turmeric and cardamom. I helped out with tea picking, dug potatoes, planted ‘haldi’ (turmeric) and cut and watered grass for the cows. We ate Dhaal Bhaat twice a day for lunch (served around 10am) and dinner (7ish). This usually consisted of rice, spinach, potatoes and lentil soup. Many of the ingredients were home produced so they always tasted good. To drink we had either 'tato pani' (hot water which they boil to be sure it is safe), milk or whey (which I had never tasted before) and of course green tea.

Living with a family gave me a fantastic insight into a local way of life and an invaluable opportunity to experience a little visited area, it provided a level of immersion that I have rarely felt before whilst travelling...


Ilam is located in the easternmost part of Nepal. Darjeeling, India's famous tea producing district lies just across the border.

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Me and Sujan

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Track of the brave – this track wound its way from Fikkal to where I was staying. It was about a 45 minute walk. It was not uncommon to see people on mopeds going at walking pace trying to navigate the comically unpredictable surface. This surface, combined with my lack of sleep and heavy backpack, resulted in me tripping up and falling over before we'd even arrived, impressive!

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My host family's house

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My room

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Right to left - Deepak, Samyog and their friends Subash and Mandeep

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(left) Dipa, a relative who lived in the house next door - which was a good 50 metres away

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Cycling in the garden

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Morning flower

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Samyog was my pal. We played football and badminton in the garden, rode the bike together down the hill and had games of chess. He loved playing with my laptop and mobile phone - “Mr Neil can I play Sonic?” was a phrase I got used to. He was learning English at school and spoke very well, he was my most loyal translator!

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The fine art of Namaste while standing on one foot

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One of many cups of tea at a neighbour's house

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One of Samyog's school books

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Here's my attempt at writing some Nepali. Samyog and Deepak tried to teach me the basics. They spoke good English, however, the Grandparents didn’t speak a single word. I feel that what they taught me as well as the lessons I was given in Kathmandu helped me to make myself understood when they were not around - my stock phrases were "Mero naam Neil ho" (my name is Neil), "Raamro cha" (very good) and "Pugyo" (enough), vital at eating times unless you have a never ending appetite.

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Turmeric roots which we planted

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Samyog and his grandfather crushing the turmeric (used as a spice)

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Cutting grass for the cows

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The kitchen - all cooking was done over a fire

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Lunch - Dhaal Bhaat, consisting of Lentil soup, rice and vegetables was eaten twice a day

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Digging for potatoes

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Often we would have boiled potatoes for breakfast, with some chili sauce

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Time for tea

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Banana tree in the garden

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@ Kanyam Tea Garden

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Beer stop in downtown Fikkal, this bar had a good view of the town from the balcony

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Horses are still used to transport goods to the town, here they are loading them with grass to be sold for brooms...

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Small cactus growing in one of the gardens

(Right) Marijuana plant in one of the fields

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Horses carrying canisters of milk

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Sun setting over the valley

Posted by Neil1983 08:45 Comments (0)

Ilam Green Tea

My main motivation for coming to this area was to learn about tea production.

Ilam is the main tea growing region in Nepal. Practically every house owns a tea plantation and there are various factories dotted across the landscape. The tea grown here is very similar to Darjeeling tea across the border in India and is exported to other parts of Asia, Europe and America. The season generally starts in April so I had the chance to have a go at picking tea, see the production process in local factories and do some sampling...

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Green tea carpets Ilam's hills

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Kanyam tea garden and factory (in the distance)

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Samyog liked hiding under the tea bushes - "Mr Neil, where am I?"

First the tea leaves are picked...

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An individual leaf

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Tea picking in the family's plantation

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Gathering all the tea together we'd collected

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Sea of leaves

They are then bagged up and taken off to be weighed at a collection point...

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Weighing the tea - each kg is worth a very small amount by our standards

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At the collection point. From here it will be taken onto one of the factories for processing

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To the factory

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The smell from the leaves inside the tea factory was incredibly strong, breathing becomes uncomfortable if you stay in there too long. The workers wear masks over their faces for this reason...

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Processing consists of various stages including drying and pressing the leaves, fermentation and packaging...

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The finished product

Now for the best bit - sampling time...

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Posted by Neil1983 08:19 Comments (0)

Downriver and upmarket

Exploring our backyard

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Distant rice terraces

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River which runs through the valley nearby

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Men playing a game of cards

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Bamboo is abundant in the area and has many uses including building houses, drainage systems, scaffolding and bridges

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Local shop

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Destination not known

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Thatched huts - I can't count the number of times I hit my head on the tops of the doors...

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Deepak and Mandeep

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Crossing the river

We came across a water-powered rice mill by the river, which seemed stuck in a time warp...

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Using the dehusking machine (which removes unwanted layers from the rice hence making it edible)

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Boy working in the mill on his smoke break (!)

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Back to the river...

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Having a look at a fishing contraption made with bamboo, whilst trying to keep my balance

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Seems like quite a good idea - seeing as the water is flowing the fish will just be carried into it

Onward...

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We came across this dwelling and were greeted and invited in by a friendly resident...

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Medieval denim

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He gave us a snack and some raksi (local rice wine). He came to affectionately be known as 'Mr potato man' - for obvious reasons...

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The bathroom was a little on the small side...

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I nearly took it with me trying to get out...

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A neighbour drying mustard oil (used for cooking)

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The effects of a recent earthquake

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Another neighbour showing me his catch from the nearby river

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Photogenic children

Market day in Fikkal

Market took place every Thursday. It was a good time to visit the town, there were many interesting (and shocking) sights and smells. People came from all over the Ilam district to sell their products...

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Fikkal town centre

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Man butchering a buffalo by the side of the road

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In a shoe shop with Deepak's friend Subash (middle) who worked there

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Happiness for sale

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Slaves to the system

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Afternoon snack

Posted by Neil1983 14:40 Comments (0)

"Era Extraña" - Sriantu Hill

Subash & I decided to take a friend's moped and drive to Sriantu, a hill close to the Nepal/India border where you can get a good panorama view of the area. We had a hair-raising drive up the track between the house and Fikkal, managing to lose our balance at least a couple of times, even with an experienced rider - the road surface has to be seen to be believed. The driving after that was a lot more pleasant, although the track got a bit muddy in places. We wound through hills covered with forests and tea plantations. The track became too steep for the bike towards the end so I got off and walked the final section to the hilltop. We ascended through a pine forest cloaked in mist, came to a big metal gate and made our way to the hilltop. There was pine forest in all directions, prayer flags blowing in the wind and a strange sinister looking watchtower, there was not a single sound and mist blew across the treetops - it felt like a strange dream. We got up at 4am the following morning and made our way up through the forest again (headlamp came in handy), the dark forest had an ethereal chill. The view we got before the light still stays with me, you could see a sea of lights from India superimposed with pine silhouettes, it was hauntingly beautiful. Subash remarked that you could see where the border was as Nepal was likely to have a power cut. The sunrise was a bit underwhelming but the twilight views more than made up for it. We wandered through the forest and came across a small shrine with bells chiming in the wind - adding to the surreal atmosphere...

The unexpected places are often the most memorable.

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The winding road to Sriantu

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Prayer flags in the wind

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Hilltop viewing tower - note the lack of health and safety

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As I gaze at a sea of a thousand lights,

My mind runs away with me into the night

Memories of a place I’ve never been,

And hopes for places not yet seen.

As the sun rises over our find,

Those lights are etched into my mind.

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India's sea of lights

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Sunrise over the treetops

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Slightly disappointed with the sunrise...

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The Mechi River which runs along the border

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Bells chiming

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Easy does it - it had been raining which made the track on the way back very slippery, we were sliding around all over the place.

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Mud track to nowhere

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Tikas courtesy of the lodge we stayed in

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Rolling hills covered in tea plantations, in the Fikkal area

Posted by Neil1983 15:25 Comments (0)

Puja, kukhura and momo

Puja

One of the highlights of my time in Ilam was the chance to experience the Hindu ceremony ‘puja’. This ritual involves praying to various gods for the future health and prosperity of the family, I was lucky enough to be invited to several of these events...

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Here we are at one of the neighbour's houses - the grandfather is chanting certain mantras and making offerings to the Gods. They were special occasions in which many village members would get together. I received a tika and a bracelet which I wore until I got back home, a reminder of a certain place and time.

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Samyog and his friends were having a great time...

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Sel roti - a sweet Nepali bread, was offered with some masala tea (spiced)

This lady wanted a picture of herself with the only tourist in town, I think she'd been on the local wine. I felt like a VIP as everyone snapped photos on their phones...

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Kukhura (chicken)

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“Come, Mr Neil”

“Where are we going?” I asked.

“We are going to find a chicken” replied Deepak - Subash had invited us to his place for dinner.

After a wander around some of the nearby houses we came across a friendly family who were willing to sell us one of their chickens. They weighed it and then sold it to us for around 500 rupees (£4). Deepak, Subash and I then headed back to Subash’s house where we met his brother who introduced himself as a butcher.

I put two and two together and asked if I could watch the inevitable as I was interested to see the process. He pulled up a stool for me, gave the chicken a whack, took the feathers off, washed it and cut it up, all just outside the back door. Sitting there witnessing these scenes I've never felt further away from home - Tesco home delivery felt like a distant dream.

He took his work inside then threw almost everything into the frying pan, bones and all. It tasted very good when served up with Dhaal Bhaat but all I could see in my mind was the image of the chicken clucking away under Subash's arm just moments before.
We had a nice evening with Subash and his family and I was left with his comforting assurance;

“My brother is a very gentle man”.

Priceless.

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Me, Subash and Deepak in Ilam

Momo

I was introduced to the popular dish momo in Kathmandu and was hooked ever since. They are a kind of dumpling eaten in Tibet, Nepal and some parts of India containing either meat or vegetables and are often accompanied by a spicy sauce. I had buffalo momo in Kathmandu but converted to the vegetarian version in Ilam (this decision coincided with my first trip to Fikkal market).

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Eating momo in a cafe in Fikkal

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Momo at Dipa and Dikshya's (sisters)

Posted by Neil1983 14:47 Comments (0)

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