Nepali Times
Monsoon moods


True, rivers are swollen, there is a danger of landslides, highways are blocked, flights cancelled and in the tarai there are floods. But rain is life. More than 90 percent of the farms in Nepal are rain-fed. Weather forecasters on Radio Nepal sound upbeat when they report "rain throughout the kingdom". The GDP growth rate for the subcontinent is dependent on the timely arrival of the monsoons, stock markets take a plunge if there is a delay.

It is time we discovered our country in the rainy season. Time we wet our dry and dusty souls with water from heaven. In a week or two, we will witness that annual meteorological miracle that makes prevailing winds over Nepal suddenly make a u-turn. Moist and warm air from the Bay of Bengal will travel up, deflected by the Himalayan foothills where it will billow up and condense into thick wads of rain. For three months in a year, the Himalaya from Kashmir to Assam act as a gigantic atmospheric dam to store this water vapour. The mountains are such an effective barrier that the Tibetan plateau to the north is left literally high and dry in the rain shadow.

These weeks before the arrival of the monsoon are hot and muggy. Rivers run dry, fields are parched, and farmers stage elaborate frog weddings as rites of rain. The pre-monsoon showers are cataclysmic events. Pumped by the heat, huge convection currents send cauldrons of cumulus rising vertically into the atmosphere, sometimes more than 50,000 feet. Up there in the stratosphere, the jet stream smears their tops into wild angry cobra heads. On one pre-monsoon afternoon, I once watched the entire Ganesh massif dwarfed in the shadow of one of these cauliflowers of moisture penetrating the edge of space. The convection system rose out of the Buri Gandaki Valley to ride on flashing neon legs of purple lightning. From high up on a ridge above Dhunche we watched transfixed as the afternoon sun was blotted out, and the snowy slopes of Langtang Lirung lost their light. It suddenly became dark and silent like an eclipse. Animals, humans, and even the thirsty plants waited nervously as a veil of violet rain advanced from the west.

The wind picked up, the poplars bent like bows: their agitated leaves giving the quickening air a voice. Plastic bags, startled birds and leaves were snatched by the flying yellow dust. The storm edged closer until the flash and crash became simultaneous. The roiling blue-black clouds overhead muffled the guttural roll of the thunderbolt as it travelled away over the mountains into Tibet. Another, more delicate din approached as the hailstones hit corrugated roofs of the houses in the bazaar below. By evening, the pyrothechnics were over, the storm had moved over to the east briefly framed in a double rainbow over the holy ridges of Gosainkunda. The varnished leaves dripped, the tree trunks sweated, the wet water buffalos were shiny.

If a pre-monsoon thunder shower is an opera, then the arrival of the monsoon itself a few weeks later is a Smetana symphony. You can smell the rain long before it actually arrives. From the pass above Pokhara, the clouds move about among the Annapurnas like the little curly puffs you see on thangka paintings.

They ride the westerlies across azure skies, and suddenly stop, hesitate, and turn around. That change in high-altitude wind direction precisely between June 10-15 over central Nepal every year is the first sign that the monsoon will soon burst.
By evening, the air suddenly turns humid, a smell of warm wetness swells up from the valley below. A yellow moon rises from behind a range of mountainous clouds to the east. They glow in the moonlight, and the inside of the clouds are incandescent with silent lightning. By nightfall, there is a sudden sharp coolness as the moisture turns into mist, and the mist in turn into a fine gauze of rain. The Nepali vocabulary has at many onomatopoeic words to describe different kinds of rain: at midnight it turns from drizzly sim-sime to heavier darkane and by early morning it is a torrential musal-dhare.

There is nothing like the simple pleasure of lying dry and drowsy inside a sleeping bag on a bed of straw below a shingle roof of a Nepali farmhouse while the monsoon beats down outside. You can analyse the individual sounds: of rain drops falling on the trees, tapping on the stone tiles above your head, gathering in the gutter to splatter on the street below. When you wake up, you find it is still raining through the mist. The ridge track has by now turned into a torrent. There is commotion on the trail as men and women shrouded in plastic and bobbing umbrellas get their hoes ready to move down to the paddy terraces for the transplanting.

Forget what the guidebooks say. Visit Nepal in the monsoon. Get wet. See the denuded slopes burst with foliage as nature gives Himalayans one more chance at regeneration-another hope to set things right. Watch Kathmandu Valley reclaim the green and turn emerald once more. Gaze down from the Jiri highway at three thousand vertical feet of staircased rice fields mirroring the gray sky. Today, most tourist areas are accessible by air even in the monsoon. There is a chance your flight will be cancelled a few days in a row, but you will get there. You gather at the domestic terminal in Kathmandu as the rain thunders on the metal roof. Drenched helicopters squat grounded on the tarmac like wet dragonflies. But, surprise, the flight to Syangboche is called.

The pilot ducks, leaps and sidesteps the monsoon stratus. The Sun Kosi, swollen brown, plunges eastwards in a series of rapids. Red scars of recent landslides maul the slopes near Rumjatar. Lamjura is closed up by clouds, so we fly around it, sometimes grazing the steep flanks as goats and cattle flee for cover in the high meadows. The mountains get steeper, meaner. Long tendrils of waterfalls tumble over cliffs and dissolve into mist half-way down in their journey to the valley below. The tops of mountains disappear into a dark ceiling of cloud.

Up here in Syangboche the air is more humid than Kathmandu. The next morning Mt Everest, the Lhotse-Nuptse wall, Thamserku and Kongde gather around like old friends. They look fresh with a coating of new snow, but the snowline has receded up their flanks-exposing wet shoulders that look like they are carved out of ebony. The difference in the monsoon is the greenery. The flowers are in full bloom, alive with butterflies and birdlife. The grass creeps up right up to the moraines and the snowline.

Everywhere, there is the sound of falling water: big waterfalls that thunder right across the Imja valley, little ones that gurgle behind every bend in the track to Tengboche, the deep drone of the Bhote Kosi relentlessly cutting ever deeper gorges. These rivers are older than the mountains and they have been slicing through the rising rock for 60 million years. Hydro-powered waterwheels churn energetically spreading the prayer about the jewel in the lotus in all directions. Monsoon is the time when the trekking trails mostly only have Nepalis on them. There is not a backpacking tourist in sight.

By ten in the morning, the first clouds are chugging up the Imja Khola-the forerunner of an ocean of clouds that can be seen lapping at the ridges below Namche in the distance. They move up silently through the junipers, soaking the swaying lichens with droplets of condensation. By eleven, when we are safely inside the Ama Dablam Lodge, the rain starts falling steadily in that marathon-like pace of no-nonsense, long-term rain. It falls continuously into afternoon, all night and stops abruptly at dawn.

Mountains are like the centrefolds of girlie magazines. After a while, you wish they had some clothes on. Mountains look infinitely more interesting when there are clouds hovering around them. And the sight of the first rays of the sun illuminating the summit seracs of Kangtega would look incomplete without the wisp of pink plume moving across them. Clouds give an added dimension to the rock and ice-the dimension of movement, of flight, and of matter in its vapour state. And because they are visible so fleetingly, the monsoon makes you treasure the rare glimpses.

By late August, you notice that the relentless rain is ebbing as the monsoon starts to lose its momentum. The water buffalos start making their treks up from Hetauda to the slaughter houses of Kathmandu for the post-monsoon Dasain feasts. Many of these animals are now crammed into lorries, but some still trek up the trail that once used to connect Kathmandu Valley to the plains. In the village of Chitlang overlooking the Kulekhani Lake they gather for their last day on the trail. Tomorrow they have to make the climb up to the Chandragiri Pass at 8,000 feet before the steep descent down to Kathmandu Valley on the other side. By the time we enter the oak forest the next afternoon, the clouds move in. The buffalos are single file, disappearing into the misty undergrowth. They wear straw slippers so their hoofs don't wear off on the stony trail. The rain comes down in fat drops, and that is when the leeches decide to ambush the convoy. Suddenly they are everywhere, dropping down from the lower branches, flailing out from wet rocks, sucking the buffalos without mercy. At the pass where we rest while the buffalos straggle past, I pick out fifteen leeches from inside one of my shoes. The buffalos are faring worse, they are bleeding from their snouts and eyelids. In the black-and-white world of a monsoon forest the crimson streaks on the buffalos look like fluorescent graffiti.

By mid-September, the sun returns. The dasain revelries begin, the buffalos are massacred at the Kot. The sky is navy blue and dotted with kites. At Kathmandu airport, the tourists start arriving again.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)