The full sweep of the Himalayas, snow-etched against a pale blue sky. A blaze of yellow and gold marigolds, edging worn brick steps. A silence so complete you can hear a bird fly, and the wind rustling the tall grass startles. This is Phulbari.
Power cuts, hot water bottles for the bedroom and hot water in buckets for the bathroom, hard hand-labor and rural poverty. This is also Phulbari.
If you’ve spent much time visiting the “Stately Homes of England” you’ll have noticed, every so often, a small but perfectly preserved gothic chapel or miniature castle. This, you will be told, was actually built in the 18th or 19th century – a rich man’s “folly”. These days, newly minted millionaires (or billionaires) are exhibiting more philanthropic impulses, although in the case of Hans Hoefer’s organic farm in the Nepalese mountains, the adjective that comes more readily to mind is quixotic.
Except that the farm, despite the intervening years of Maoist insurgency, is still there and still organic – no doubt entirely due to the abilities of the omni-competent manager, Govinda. Recent lack of rain seems more likely to take it down, although the two page letter from Hans and his wife Cynthia at the front of the guest book says they plan to switch to less-thirsty fruit and nut trees. In addition to the agricultural activities, the farmstead housed a dormitory, and a couple of small houses nestled amid landscaping vaguely reminiscent of Tuscany, although the letter said quite plainly that the operation was a working farm, “not, whatever the villagers may think, a resort”. It’s a good thing it’s not trying to be a resort, given that my signature in the book in November 2010 was preceded by only two others, dated September.
I read about Phulbari while I was traveling. As I wrote in the last post, I love mountains – and I love mountain roads, too. Admittedly, this sounded like the ne plus ultra of mountain roads, but then dogster might perhaps have been exaggerating a little. The Courtyard people had been up, and said it was beautiful. They could arrange the trip for me, and I decided to drop two of my six nights in the chaos of Kathmandu in favor of peace and quiet and views in the mountains.
I should, perhaps, have considered that dogster, while providing a great deal of detail about people, tends to skimp on more mundane matters. And just as I was about to leave, he mentioned that I should take any luxuries with me. What would a man whose answer to any travel snafu was to head for the best hotel in town consider a luxury? Would I consider it a luxury (which I could do without) or a necessity (like coffee)? In any case, the warning was far too late to do any good.
The road to Phulbari is really three roads. The first takes you from Kathmandu past Bhaktapur. Fumes and dust and horns and chaos. Motor bikes and rickshaws, cars and jeeps, buses and trucks, all overloaded, and all the drivers poised to jump ahead and gain a few centimeters advantage, while missing each other by millimeters. It’s amazing there aren’t more accidents. Between the sheer numbers of vehicles, the broken down vehicles, the vehicles loading and unloading, the new road being built and the parlous state of the existing excuse for a road, it’s a really miserable stretch.
Things did ease up some between Banepa and Dhulikhel, and then we turned right past some market stalls and started up what was clearly a mountain road. Surely this wasn’t what dogster had been writing about? True, we rounded plenty of bends as we corkscrewed upwards. True, sometimes I saw nothing between me and a sheer drop but some good stone edges. But the road was wide enough for two vehicles – we met some very overloaded buses – the stone edging was in place, the surface seemed mostly smooth, and there was a gratifying absence of potholes. Turns out, this is the “new road to Sindhuli and India”. Probably a couple of Nepalese winters and a stream of Tata trucks will reduce it to the state of the other roads I traveled in Nepal, meanwhile I sat back and enjoyed the scenery: the harvest was underway, but the terraced rice fields still draped the hillsides in multiple shades of green, interrupted by clusters of houses. Tree-clad mountains filled the horizon.
Eventually we slowed and turned right again. I looked at the cart track ascending steeply in front of me, I looked at the driver, I asked “the road to Phulbari?” He nodded and we both laughed. Dogster had not exaggerated. I have traveled a road equally as bad, but only once, in Pakistan, and it was shorter, although steeper and muddier. The road to Phulbari is a road only in the sense that jeeps and motorbikes use it. Otherwise you’d call it a rutted track. We spent a good 25 minutes making a slow ascent, backing up once to make it round a particularly sharp bend. Some parts were wider, some smoother, and even narrower tracks led off here and there deeper into the countryside.
When we eventually arrived at the village of Phulbari I discovered the first of those mundane details dogster hadn’t gotten around to mentioning. The road goes to the village. The visitor is going to the farm. There is no road to the farm. You walk the last stretch, uphill through bushes and trees, on a shoulder-width, stony trail.