Picturesque Nepal/Chapter 4

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CHAPTER IV


THE HIGH ROAD TO KATMANDU


The Snowy Range of the Himalayas—Through the Plains—The Terai—The Road in the River-bed—Churia Rest-house—Fishing—The Pass of Sisagarhi—The Pass of Chandragiri—First View of the Valley of Nepal—The Last Stage.


The train pulls up at the small station of Raxaul. Near the booking office an elephant fidgets first on one leg, then on another, restlessly waving its trunk and jostling heedlessly a diminutive pack-pony grazing by its side. The passengers file out of the station; one, cleverly mounting the elephant by its tail, opens his Fox's paragon-frame umbrella, and all disappear towards the golden sunset, into a background of purple and green. By this and other tokens we realize that the limit of transport by modern western methods has been reached, and that onward India, in its most primitive form, will minister to our needs.

Morning dawns on the water-logged rice fields of Behar, but, raising our eyes from the endless acres of swamp, they linger for a moment on the rampart of forbidding mountains, and then, above these, hanging like a delicate border of creamy-white lace, the range of eternal snows leaps into view.

"Far in the North, like a vision of sorrow,
Rise the white snowdrifts,"

So sings the poet, but in our case the sensation is the reverse, as nothing could be more exhilarating after a prolonged sojourn in the low-lying country of Bengal than the first view of this ice-bound region. Extending from extreme east to west of the horizon, as the sun mounts higher the many miles of snow-capped peaks scintillate under its rays; from the low level of the plains the height and dignity of this great white barrier, when in sight, appears even more stupendous than from a nearer elevation. And there, far away in the eastern flank, is one small peak almost
Black and white photograph of a figure of Tara at Shambu-Nāth.

COPPER-GILT FIGURE OF "TARA" AT SHAMBU-NĀTH.

melting into the haze of the vast distance, the icy apex of Mount Everest itself, in a straight line nearly 200 miles away, but distinctly visible in the clear morning atmosphere. And, between the low-lying rice fields, nearly at sea-level, and the towering 29,000 feet of that distant peak, lies embosomed the country of Nepal.

It is 75 miles from Raxaul to Katmandu, and, regarded dispassionately, it seems no exaggeration to describe at least 60 miles of this journey as a materialized nightmare. The first few miles is that common dream of walking along a well-made road and being suddenly confronted by a great section cut out of it, the gap going down into nothingness, over which one sways and shudders. In the case of the high road to Nepal the bottom of the cutting is a river, which, discharging from the saturated rice fields has playfully gouged a channel for itself out of the thoroughfare. These interruptions occur at frequent intervals, and to negotiate them a detour into the adjoining crops is necessary. It had been casually communicated to us that the road annually contested with a mountain torrent for the right of way, and, after 20 miles of the foregoing, when the village of Bichako is reached, what may be called the "river nightmare" commences. This is the dream of being a small human speck in a vast landscape of boulders. Minimized to the size of an ant, mile after mile you struggle, the reflected heat from every stone stinging like a whip, and, hours having passed, you raise your tired eyes to look around, and there are the same boulders before you, behind you, and on each side of you, seeming to return your scowl with a bland and serene expression. And so you pass through all the stages of a dreadful night, endless broken steps up which you toil and pant, only to have to plunge down monotonous miles of rock-cut ledges, being denied even that questionable pleasure, known only in the dream-world, of the flying sensation, as every foot of the way has to be exhaustively toiled. But to turn from the visionary to the stern reality.

The road to Katmandu is an extremely rough and varied one, boring its way like a badly formed corkscrew through the two ramparts of mountains which intervene between the railway terminus at Raxaul and the valley of Nepal. In these circumstances the means of progression may be defined as the "go as you please" order, because before the end is reached, most known methods of locomotion, and several unknown ones, will have been called into requisition. Usually an elephant, two horses, several kinds of palanquin, and one's own feet, are all utilized. The first stage is ordinarily performed in a palanquin, although when the road has been badly breached by rains an elephant is often useful.

In the mysterious light of the false dawn we leave the bungalow at Raxaul in order to accomplish the 27 miles between this and the first halting-place at Churia. The scenery at first is the ordinary plains-land of India, through which the road in the form of an embankment drives a straight way. Breaks in this embankment are frequent, owing to the softness of the materials used, and the force of the rains. Several streams have to be forded. The atmosphere in the late autumn is balmy and pleasant. Everything is conducive to drowsiness. Lying full length in palanquin or "dooly," the gentle motion caused by the bearers, the soft patter of their bare feet as they shuffle along, their steady grunting chorus, the song of birds, the hum of insects, the slowly moving landscape, all combine to produce a feeling of complete rest to both mind and body which must be experienced to be appreciated. And so the miles gradually and serenely pass until a break occurs—truly a break—for one of the palanquin poles, which has evidently been rotting in idleness during the rains, shows distinct signs of giving way.

In most circumstances and climates this typical act of irresponsibility might have led to "a tide of fierce invective," but already the lotus-eating atmosphere has stealthily drawn us under its spell, and, "lost to the hurrying world," we placidly wait while an expedition is planned and carried out to a distant clump of bamboos—waving in the wind like monster ostrich plumes—and the broken pole replaced. A few miles more through fields of shimmering crops, and then, with an almost dramatic
Black and white photograph of the View of the Nepal Valley from the Chandranagiri Pass.

The first view of the Nepal Valley from the Chandranagiri Pass.—Page 57

suddenness, the road closes in, the open landscape disappears, the sky is shut out by over-hanging trees, the balmy breeze changes into a hot oppressive stillness, and a strange heavy feeling seems to come over all. We have entered the forest of the far-famed Terai. The mention of this region conjures up from the shades of the past the holy spirit of Gautama Buddha, Nana Sahib of execrated memory, and the spectre of that mighty hunter, Jung Bahadur, with an accompaniment of tigers, rogue elephants, and malaria; and all around jungle—deep impenetrable jungle. In the neighbourhood of the high road, however, the general appearance of the Terai is somewhat commonplace, being composed of low trees and thick scrub, and, mainly owing to the traffic which is constantly moving to and fro, game, both large and small, has been driven into the denser parts of the forest. But this thick belt of jungle represents the first line of natural outworks, averaging in depth about twenty miles, which defends Nepal along the main part of its southern border. And the great natural feature of this defence is the extremely unhealthy character of this tract of country, due to the prevalence, from March to November, of a deadly form of malarial fever, known locally as the "awal." Years ago it was considered almost madness to attempt to travel through the Terai except during the cooler months of the year, but it is doubtful whether the actual high road quite deserves this sinister reputation. Nevertheless the stifling and unwholesome atmosphere which seems to extend throughout this portion of the marsh indicates conditions which cannot be conducive to good health. Very creditable efforts have been made to reduce the discomforts of the heat during this stage of the journey, and the wants of the thirsty man and beast are attended to in a very inviting manner. At distances of every few miles well-made drinking fountains have been constructed, and here the gasping palky-bearer or exhausted pack-animal is refreshed by a plentiful supply of pure water conveyed by pipes from the mountains. This conduit was provided by one of the ladies of the Royal house of Nepal, who, struck by the misery she saw while
Black and white photograph of a view of the Nepal Valley, showing the effects of erosion.

General view of the nepal valley, showing the effects of erosion.—Page 58

travelling on this route, ordered it to be built and maintained at her own expense. Each fountain is in the form of an ornamental pillar, on each side of which is a representation of the donor's hand holding a spout, from which a continuous stream of water flows into a tank.

Twenty miles from Raxaul, and after about ten miles of the Terai, the road debouches on to the village of Bichako, which heralds a further change of scene. From here the track boldly plunges into the wide dry bed of the stream known as Bichaliola Naddi, and utilizes this rough but convenient watercourse as a highway for seven miles until Churia is reached. This is an extremely trying part of the journey, and at an average rate of a mile an hour the caravan scrambles over boulders, fords, streams, and skirts great fallen trees, in its painful progress. Darkness soon set in, and it seemed a never-ending phantasmagoria of large loose stones, huge dead trees apparently purposely arranged as obstacles, and foaming torrents, some of which almost swept the party off its feet. Not a vestige of a path revealed itself, and in places the fallen branches of "the old and ponderous trunks of prostrate trees," like bone-white skinny arms, appeared to slither out from the night with the set object of preventing the advance. One of the bearers, stung by a scorpion, and another afflicted with some other complaint—or it might have been mere sympathy for his companion in misfortune—hobbled along, rending the night air with their wild and dismal lamentations. The leading group of coolies, stepping into the darkness, dropped with considerable noise and objurgation into a deep cutting, but with more damage to nerves than limbs, as fortunately the stream, which had humorously constructed this pitfall across the route, thought fit to deposit a comparatively soft bed of sand and gravel before chuckling itself dry over the practical joke. At another place, in the utter blackness of the night, while attempting to negotiate a curiously shaped boulder, this obstacle made some slight movement, revealing a derelict bullock, deserted by its owner and left in this wilderness of stones to die. And so stumbling on, every few yards the pace becoming slower and slower, the lights of Chumria rest-house eventually came into view. The midnight meal, which succeeded this long march, was enlivened by blood-curdling stories from the lips of the cook, who, round-eyed with terror, had been awaiting our arrival for some days at this bungalow in the depths of the forest. From the city of Calcutta, where his uneventful life had been passed, into the wilds of the Nepal jungle, was a considerable change for this simple town-bred soul, and the old residential watchman of the rest-house had lost no opportunity of working on his receptive feelings, which had also been well wrought up by sympathetic friends previous to setting out from his ancestral bazaar. In anticipation of the monsters supposed to be lying in wait for him, he had armed himself with a most formidable spear, the head of which had evidently belonged to an antique lance—undoubtedly a weapon of many histories. Originally the property of a swash-buckling Indian cavalryman of a century ago, it now shook in the nervous hand of this unheroic domestic, whose stated intention was to utilize it in warding off the anticipated attack of an infuriated man-eating tiger, or stopping the charge of a wild elephant. As he recounted the long list of thrilling adventures which he had diplomatically avoided by locking himself in the cook-house for the whole of the time, his terrified looks were an assurance that neither friend nor foe was in any danger from its rusty point. In his imaginings this individual was not far removed from a servant of another time and place who, finding himself in a somewhat similar situation, had occasion to communicate with the writer on a business matter. His epistle was elegantly rounded off by a somewhat gratuitous discourse on the fauna of the district, with a view no doubt to exciting his master's compassion, and concluding with the statement that the country "abounded in wild beasts such as monkeys, jackals, hares, dears (sic), and other bloody animals."

From Churia a further stretch of the highway continues along another stony river-bed until, after seven miles, Hatawa is reached. This village is in the heart of the best sporting country, and is usually the starting-point for "shikar" expeditions. Ordinarily it is a squalid collection of huts, but becomes a bustling centre of life when, as in the days of the great Jung Bahadur, it was made the rendezvous for a tiger, rhino, or elephant hunt. Near by, rippling over a rocky bed, is the Rapti River, and three miles farther on, where it is joined by the Samri, is a useful suspension bridge.

Here, close to the village of Separi Tar, the sporting appearance of the river, which was of a nature to harbour mahseer or snow-trout of a good size, tempted one to fish the waters with a spoon-bait and other lures. But in spite of every endeavour the result of many hours' desperate labour was but the solace—

"With patient heart
To sit alone, and hope and wait,
Nor strive in any wise with fate,"

when a cheery Nepali officer riding by dismounted and commenced a conversation. After the usual salutations and conventionalities, the subject of sport was broached, and eventually the prospects of fishing in Nepal. He assured us that there were fish to be caught, and that in several places he had been most successful, having landed many large mahseer with but little trouble. We listened with keen interest, for here was the local knowledge and experience which no sportsman, whether after fin, fur, or feather, can afford to disregard. Cautiously the question was put, knowing that often these matters are jealously guarded secrets, but "what bait did our friend use with such glorious results?" And the reply came with the innocent smile of a child, "Dynamite." Sadly, but firmly, the fishing paraphernalia was packed up, and our journey continued, with the feeling that the deadliest of spoons could never compete with the cataclysmic "baits" of this Nepali Isaac Walton.

From this point a very picturesque march of about twelve miles along a river gorge brings the traveller to Dokkaphedi, where a fresh phase of the journey commences. This is the ascent leading to the first of two steep passes which are the natural ramparts guarding the approach to the Valley of Nepal. Crossing a hot and glaring river-bed at Bhimpedi—one mile from Dokkaphedi—a steep and strenuous climb of 2225 feet, up numberless dusty and unshaded "zigzags," ends at Sisagarhi. Here is a fort occupied by Nepali troops, and a sentry with a bayonet guards the narrowest part of the defile. On a clear day it is possible to trace in the far distance the general alignment of the road already traversed, and beyond this, lying under a blur of heat and haze, may be located the limitless plains of Hindustan. Northward can be defined here and there portions of the path yet to be accomplished, and particularly noticeable is the spiral track leading up the pass of Chandragiri—the second great natural rampart protecting the promised land beyond. From Sisagarhi there is a steady descent of several miles through beautiful country, the sides of the road gay with bushes of scented pink mimosa, and here and there groups of delicate hothouse begonias. This leads to a bridge across the Panoni River, and from thence a path brings the wayfarer by numberless fords, owing to the sinuous nature of the stream, to Marku. In any time of the year except the dry season the river road is impassable owing to the high water and strong current, so a detour has to be made over the mountain-side. This supplementary track rambles over the cliffs in a most reckless fashion, and if the traveller is overtaken by darkness before this long march is finished, he may have some adventures to chronicle before the welcome lights of Marku rest-house come into view.

Shortly after leaving this halting-place the road traverses the smiling vale of Chitlung, or, as it is sometimes called, Little Nepal. Rising from out of this, the traveller then commences on an arduous climb of 2000 feet, leading up to the Chandragiri Pass—the red zigzag scarring the green flank of which has been already observed from Sisagarhi. Near the top a splendid view of the country through which he has passed will lie at his feet, and the road can be traced, winding its way for miles, until it is lost behind the bluffs which hide Marku from sight. Chitlung below, its

"Fair meadows, softly tinged
With orange and with crimson,"

Black and white photograph of the entrance to the temple of Ganeshthan, near Bhatgaon.

Entrance to the temple of the Ganeshthan, near Bhatgaon.

looks a sweet haven of rest bathed in warm sunlight, in comparison with the rugged rock-strewn jungle through which the track drags its painful way. Nature, in her crudest form, is utilized not a little as engineer-in-chief in the construction of this part of the "Road,"—dried-up mountain torrents being once more the main feature of its alignment. This view is, however, only a preliminary to the still more glorious one which will reveal itself when the actual saddle of the pass is scaled, and a few yards of the descent on the other side are accomplished. Then suddenly, at a turn in the steep track, the foliage seems to part before the vision, and there, 2000 feet directly below, like a dream-picture lies the Valley of Nepal.

The constantly changing panorama spread out beneath is a magnificent one, a noble introduction to the land which has cost us so much labour to reach. Practically the whole of the accessible portion of Nepal is visible from here, and as the last monsoon clouds are wafted to and fro, great sections of "the infinite ramification of stream and valley" appear, and then the vaporous curtain closes over, leaving us gazing at a white veil of mist. The snows and distant mountains are hidden behind a bank of lowering clouds, so that the landscape seems to continue indefinitely into the Beyond. Every now and again a stronger breeze tears great rifts in the moving mass of clouds, and expansive tracts of the sunlit opalescent country flash into view, with huge dark shadows charging over the green and gold, giving a glorious depth of light and shade to the whole scene. Glimpses of the three cities of the valley are permitted us at intervals—Katmandu, Patan, and Bhatgaon—each vignetted within its own diaphanous frame of mist, brown blots of innumerable roofs, Katmandu showing up most distinctly on account of the large white modern edifices which comprise its palaces and public buildings.

The drop down of 2000 feet from this point to the level of the valley is performed by a track, the gradient of which—if such it can be called—is simply terrific. It scrambles down the mountain-side and through a grand forest of trees like a sheer torrent of boulders and rocks. Sections of this imperfectly trained landslip are rudely shaped into a semblance of steps, but the main part of it, for steepness and dissimilarity from anything within the ordinary category of a road, is ludicrous. Nevertheless, in its primeval grandeur, and primitive construction, this last stage leading into the heart of Nepal is most impressive, and although the view of the valley gradually dissolves as one progresses, the occasional miniature pictures of the tender distance framed by the heavy foliage form a beautiful contrast to the sombre savage "great world's altar stairs" down which we are plunging.

The inhabitants, however, of the valley and its neighbourhood seem to make light of this march, and a constant stream of them are to be met with, some of whom daily make the journey from Chitlung to Katmandu, or vice versa, in connection with their work. Most of them are heavily laden coolies, but there are also parties of women and girls, wearing diadems and tiaras of wild flowers, who climb with chamois spring up the rocky passages, breaking the solemn silence of the forest with their songs, which echo in the distance with a long-drawn plaintive note like that of a lost Dryad. Bullocks and goats may be seen undertaking this route, and almost as if out of their element flounder from rock to rock, but rarely come to grief. A buffalo calf is being carried up in a basket on its owner's back, with the anxious mother blundering along in the rear. The little one seems quite self-possessed in its apparently uncomfortable position, with its head lolling over the shoulder of its human foster-father, and shows its affection by occasionally licking his ear.

From the foot of the descent there is one more phase of the journey. This consists of seven level miles across the plain to Katmandu, which lies towards the centre of the valley. Through an expanse of flat cultivated country the road winds, crossing by bridges the Kalimatti and Vishnumatti Rivers, until the capital of the State is reached. The highroad to Katmandu is at an end.