Off the beaten trek in Nepal

I had heard so many stories of multi-coloured rhododendrons along the mountain trails near Bhojpur that I was determined to see it for myself.

So, in April my wife Tan hiked Nepal’s famous rhododendron trail at peak flowering season to see forests ablaze with red, pink, shocking pink and even purple flowers. 

The Himalayan foothills have at least 30 varieties of Nepal’s national flower, and there is nowhere better to observe them than the TMJ Trail (Tinjure, Milke, Jaljhale) that follows a ridgeline at elevations of 1,500-4,000m here in eastern Nepal.

TMJ’s rhododendrons are so famous that there is a rural municipality here named Laligurans, and despite new roads and transmission lines the forests are still an explosion of colour in spring.

Bhojpur is now accessible by road from Kathmandu, but the 300km journey would have been too arduous so we plucked some courage to take the Nepal Airlines flight. And although the company website claimed there were flights 6 days a week, the reality was different: only three flights a week and no online booking. 

So we headed to the Nepal Airlines building near New Road to book a flight for mid-April, since we had missed the peak blooming week lower down. The airline makes it so difficult to buy tickets that it is only the really determined passengers who are rewarded with them. 

As a Nepali and a senior citizen, I was charged only Rs4,162 — only slightly more than it had cost us to take a taxi from Dhulikhel to Kathmandu that morning. My wife Tan, who is Thai, had to pay nearly four times more, thanks to the Nepali scourge of differential pricing for foreigners.

Then we found out that flights cannot be booked more than a week in advance so we could only book one-way tickets. Even weirder: since the airline has so few planes and the weather is so uncertain at Bhojpur’s small airfield, passengers are lucky to fly even if they have tickets. The clerk at the desk advised us to tune into the Radio Nepal bulletin on the evening before the flight to find out if the next morning’s flight would take off or not. 

After jumping through many hoops, we finally had our tickets in hand and eagerly awaited the flight date. Arriving at the domestic terminal bright and early, we lined up at the desk with a Bhojpur sign. Check-in was surprisingly smooth. 

Also waiting to checkin was another Ramesh, a Peace Corps volunteer who had served  in Deurali village near Bhojpur Bazar. His real name was Richard and he had just retired from the College of Agriculture at California State University. He was on a trip to relive the memories of his youth in Bhojpur decades ago. 

The flight was bumpy, and a fellow passenger barfed most of the way. The air was fresh and cool, and Ramesh/Richard joined us on the ten-minute drive on a surprisingly smooth road to Bhojpur Bazar. We stayed at the Bal Guest House run by Surendra Bal, who worked in Japan and Korea and was using the skills learnt there to run a clean and efficient hotel. 

Despite years of being away, Ramesh/Richard spoke Nepali well and had phenomenal memories of old Bhojpur. He could still do the dhan nach paddy-planting dance, and sing a few folk songs.  First thing he did that morning was to take a solitary walk to Duerali to find his old agriculture office, where he said a former colleague recognised him, and even called him Ramesh.

Bhojpur’s Saturday market was in full swing, and compared to the open haat bazar of my childhood, this was a much improved version. The tables were overflowing with potatos and vegetables from the surrounding hills, baby pigs, dried fish from Pikhuwa Khola, apples and even grapes imported from Sunsari in the southern plains. 

Sadly, the one memory from my youth that was missing were the Sherpani wearing their thick wool tongkok, angi or ratuk blouses selling my favourite yak milk sargam.

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