x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Nuns are kicking on the mountain, but not in Kathmandu

Around Asia Life in a monastery with nuns who practise kung fu but wouldn't harm a mosquito.

Buddhist nuns practise kung fu at the Druk Amitabha Nunnery outside Kathmandu. Harish Tyagi / EPA
Buddhist nuns practise kung fu at the Druk Amitabha Nunnery outside Kathmandu. Harish Tyagi / EPA

I'm pushing a taxi up a mountain in Kathmandu. The battered Suzuki Maruti 800 - India's number one car 20 years ago - groans as we shove it up hill, sending driver and car towards the mountain's pinnacle.

We watch as our bags, our purses, our wallets and every other possession we've entrusted to the dilapidated hatchback motor on past trees, past half-built shacks, and past a cow that groans petulantly as it swerves to avoid something half its size.

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Breathless and keeled over in the too-thin air, we watch as the Suzuki disappears from view.

"We should - have not left - our stuff," Patty gasps. I nod, hands on knees, trying to suck in whatever minuscule globules of oxygen may be floating by.

I'm not worried about our things. It's a one-way road, so there's no place for the cabbie to abscond. And we're driving towards a monastery, which would be a karmically disastrous destination upon which to abandon us.

So we drag ourselves up, find the cab - give it a second shove up the hill for good karmic measure - and breathe a sigh of relief as we finally roll down towards Druk Amitabha Monastery.

Druk Amitabha is a Tibetan monastery that is home to about 250 nuns. Amid statues of multi-armed Bodhisattvas and serpentine dragons, the 800-year-old Drukpa lineage of Tibetan Buddhism propagates itself through a spiritual order that practises ecological stability, traditional worship and, several times a day, the art of kung fu.

It's a demonstrative form of kung fu, meant to keep practitioners fit and agile. But the effect of 50 young women executing fist jabs and roundhouse kicks in unison is still striking.

The young, introverted girls who giggled when we first introduced ourselves, who kindly serve us our morning tea or pause to shyly practise their halting English with us, are suddenly focused, serious and combative.

They call out different combinations in the monastery's large gym and engage in mock sparring as their kung fu master, a Lilliputian Vietnamese man with impeccable form, observes silently. Like this, not like this, he says with his posture, crouching low into the Pu Tui stance, fists up and toes pointed towards an invisible opponent.

The training is meant to empower the young women who come to the monastery from India and Nepal, equipping them with self-confidence, strength and independence. As part of the Druk - or Sky Dragons lineage - the order's current spiritual leader, the 11th Gyalwang Drukpa, emphasises equal gender rights as a critical part of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition.

The brief time spent at the monastery amid the quiet mountains of Ramkot is an otherwordly break from the chaos of Kathmandu. Here, amid white-washed dormitories and verdant gardens, we pray, we walk, we eat bowls of curried cabbage and salty pak choi as we listen to Bollywood tunes in the nun-run cafe.

Our daily routine begins with prayer. The meditative dragons emblematic of the Drukpa line curl around pillars in the main temple, staring fiercely as we lose ourselves in the early morning chants of sunrise puja: murmuring chants of endless phonetic undulations that lull us into silence and heightened awareness.

At the back of the temple, an imposing Buddha sits beatifically, surrounded by light bulbs that switch colour like a Las-Vegas marquee. But the female element of the monastery supersedes, from the thousands of miniature Bodhisattvas lining the walls of the temple to the images of Dakinis, or female tantric deities, found throughout the grounds, to the great living yoginis the order venerates.

But the beauty of such things is marred by the incessant buzz of pestilent mosquitos, which thwart death within the monastery, as killing is forbidden. One particular morning, a diplomatic crisis nearly struck the temple when Patty and I realised that mosquitoes don't just attend sunrise puja - they swarm it. Half the time was spent couching counter-insurgency efforts as prayerful hand motions, blessing the hoard of teeming insects through gritted teeth as I drained all good karma with visions of mass insecticide on holy ground.

I will not say if I committed murder in the eyes of God. But somewhere, in a small room at the top of a guesthouse at a Tibetan monastery in the hills of Kathmandu, empty bottles of Deet lie buried deep under piles of trash.

And yet, even this slight upset is a mere pittance of irritation when compared to the chaos of Kathmandu as we descend into its smoke-ridden depths after several days. The capital is, as usual, a sensory overload. There are carcasses being cut up at the side of the road, there is the overpowering smell of incense, there is dust, there is pollution, there is the maddening functionality of it all.

This is where I spend the rest of my days in Nepal - talking to women in shacks about their experiences as victims of trafficking, tutoring the children of prostituted women who need more attention than their school system can give them, and wondering what hope Kathmandu has as its population soars and its government stagnates.

"I believe that in 20 or 30 years, Nepal will be very strong," says Ganesh, a former journalist who works at a trafficked women's shelter in Kathmandu. "People are more educated about their civil rights and they want more."

I think about the two faces of Nepal - the pristine and the profane, the despairing and the enlightened, the dysfunction and the perfection, and idly wonder if I can convince some fierce nuns to descend into the bowels of the city and teach traumatised women a thing or two.

Next week: Effie heads to Thailand