Acting as a watershed between Tibet and India, Nepal was the final link in the chain between East and West, and the changing faces and cultures we experienced on our long journey overland from Moscow to India.
Any country that decides it is necessary to deem itself 5 hours and 45 minutes ahead of GMT is going to be intruiguing, but from the moment we crossed the border from Tibet into Nepal, it was love at first sight. The warmth provided by the low elevation, and the friendly ramshackle filth was so unbelievably inviting after the organised filth and sub-zero temperatures of China. Furthermore, for the first time in 2 months, we had a real chance of being understood by the locals. We planned on scuttling through Nepal in a week, but 5 weeks later and armed with a visa extension, we were only just beginning to reluctantly plan our exit.
KATHMANDU OR KATHMANDON’T?
Our jeep hurtled round the half finished roads that cling to the sides of the steep valleys winding their way down to Nepal’s capital city, Kathmandu. The salute and namaste welcome of Hotel Ganesh Himal’s doorman made us feel so at home, that it didn’t even matter that I was told my booking had never been received, and we’d have to sleep in the “Rosebud” until an elusive bed at the fantastic Ganesh Himal became available.
You either love or hate Kathmandu. Its tourist area “Thamel” is like the Khao San Road in Bangkok after slipping it a Valium and arresting all the drunk scallies. I loved it.
The buzz of the city was heightened due to our arrival coinciding with the Hindu festival of Diwali. There are no bonfire night-esque safety adverts from the emergency services here. Chucking lit fire-crackers at your feet is the order of the day. The first time the deafening bang flew my way, it was back to the room for a change of pants, but after that it added an element of excitement. You had to have your wits about you. Five years olds lurked in every alleyway.
We were also lucky enough to see the whole process of decorating the streets with powdered paint and flowers, as part of a ritual to lure the Goddess Laxmi into Nepali homes, to guarantee prosperity for the coming year.
Not everything was such fun. The Rosebud’s Diwali celebrations revolved around Fat Tubby Man, Long Haired Creep, Indian Cricket Waiter, a selection of Nepalese midgets, Weird Smelling Finnish Girl and Poor Unsuspecting White Female Victim Girl, gyrating around the roof to the sound of the tabla. In one of the group’s defence, Indian Cricket Waiter said he had an upcoming audition for Indian’s Got Talent, and the dancing would be great practice. He hoped his oversize MJ tattoo would help him get through the auditions, especially because he would get the ‘white’ Michael Jackson emblazoned on his skin, not the black Michael. “His big nose, lips, black skin, big hair, no no no, very very bad sir”.
Day trips from Kathmandu also provided interesting insights into Nepali life. Most fascinating was Pashupatinath, Nepal’s holiest Hindu sight. Nepalis come to the hospices here to die, and be burned on the banks of the river, in an attempt to release their souls from the cycle of life and death.
The proximity of life and death here is astonishing, but was quickly forgotten when we got involved in a photo-shoot with the Sadhu’s (holy men who follow the god Shiva), who clearly prey on every tourist who are tempted in by their shiny orange clothes and painted bodies and weird hair.
Amongst the chaos of Kathmandu was the Garden of Dreams. Its name explains its existence better than I ever could. Colonial buildings, and perfectly manicured gardens away from the noise, smells and pressures of the city were hiding behind a little cream gate. It was the perfect tonic, as was its all you can eat Sunday buffet feast!
In contrast to this were the sights we saw on the way to an area called Patan. The slums lining the rivers were horrific, even in comparison to other slums I have visited, such as Nairobi’s Kibera slum. Toddlers were sifting through refuse and sewage along with their parents, in a vain attempt to try and eke a living, and huts housed families that would surely be displaced every time rain fell from the sky. This contrast felt somewhat apt, however, in this country where the ice cold Himalayas and lush forests and jungles rest side by side.
CENTRAL HILLS ADVENTURE
Packing only essentials in my bright red bag, Mark and Sarah, our Irish pals we met in Tibet, Chelsea and I headed out East from Kathmandu to the Newari town of Bhaktapur. We got involved in the rice harvest in this ancient, agricultural town, now a world heritage site, and got lost for hours in its vibrant backstreets. A packed bus then took us to the dusty village of Panauti.
A mention here about Nepali etiquette. Now my patience is generally hard to break, but when it comes to germs and food, I draw the line. This poor kid was in for a scolding. My mum and I have a joke that if you complain your food is cold in a restaurant, the waiter will stick his hand in your food and tell you it’s fine. THIS ACTUALLY HAPPENED. I was genuinely more shocked than I was watching the dead bodies being washed and burned at Pashupatinath. The waiter’s filthy fingers in the middle of my cheese sandwich (fully inside, touching both bread and cheese) was a pretty heavy straw on the camels back, but when he served my toast by grabbing it like a oaf would grab a stress ball, the camel’s back broke clean in two. Unfortunately, my lecture on restaurant hygiene and etiquette was lost on him, and my breakfast was donated to a local goat.
We walked each day to new village to sleep, and the first stop was Namo-Buddha, a temple atop a lung-busting hill. On the way, we stopped at the house of a local girl, Sarita, who was acting as our makeshift guide. We were force fed her father’s oranges, and Sarita’s 89 year old grandma bestowed a gift of 2oz of her finest weed upon us. Mark graciously accepted, and I wished she had given us something I wasn’t terrified of. A couple more oranges would have been nice!
That night we slept in a huge ornate complex that made up a Tibetan monastery. Chelsea and I were the only Westerners around, and eating with the Monks, and attending their ceremonies was made all the more special by being the only ones from the outside world in attendance. Breakfast of amazing sweet rice, loaded with sultanas and weird juicy nuts, bean stew, steamed rolls and salted yak tea, was part of an elaborate ceremony to celebrate the Guru’s birthday. We scurried around desperately trying to follow protocol, throwing rice and presenting white scarves to the shrine. Things went smoothly until I whacked my head on the enormous portrait of the Dalai Lama during my crack at a solemn bow in front of the entire hall of 100 red-robed monks.
The next stop was Dhulikhel, where we treated ourselves to lunch at the “Shangri-La”. The inverted commas around this name cant be emphasised enough. It was as good as we were going to get in Nepal’s backwaters, but the power cut that prevented us paying our bill for 2 hours and left us to feel our way home in the pitch black says a lot about this place. I suspect the Office of Fair Trading would also say a lot on the hotel’s use of name.
It was quite enough walking for all of us so a bus dragged us the last leg to Changu-Narayan. By chance, it was the main annual festival of the this hilltop temple, and Mark and I were shown around the dancing and festivities by a family, and blessed by the holy men, whilst the girls were trapped in the 2 hour gridlock of worshippers crammed in on the tiny dust road ascending the mountain.
Our glorious return to Kathmandu from our adventure was marked with a slap up meal in Fire and Ice, the home of Asia’s best lasagne, and real garlic bread. A welcome change after one previous attempt that consisted of untoasted staled bread with hacked up raw garlic.
DEATH BY TREK
We headed south from Kathmandu to the sleepy town of Pokhara, on the shores of the Phewa Tal Lake on a tourist bus (not one tourist in sight of course – early confusion with one potential tourist was just a case of hair straightners and over-use of skin whitening products).
We set about organising our grand Himalayan trek. Everest Base Camp? Well we did that in Tibet. 22 Day Annapurna Circuit? 22 Days?! Poon Hill? POON? Sounds enjoyable. We’ll take it Sir.
After a two day postponement due to an unexpected bout of the man flu, we were on our way. Well good job we chose the “coca-cola trek” because half-way through day 2, my knees had had enough of the hard labour and caught a donkey back down to Pokhara. I had to wait an entire day for them to return to me. Thankfully I was trapped amongst clear skies, and unbelievable views.
By day 4, Grandpa Kelvin, armed with two walking sticks, was back on his merry way. I krichied my way along for the rest of the week long trek and made it to the end in one piece. I felt a stronger person both physically and mentally, although tormenting jibes such as “HEY, YOU TWO STICKS, GIRL NO STICKS HA!” did little to boost morale.
Injuries aside, the trek presented us with the outstanding beauty of the Himalaya region, and a few too many opportunities to eat apple pie. The only real disappointment was the look of dissatisfaction on our guide Vishu’s face, when I presented him with a box of Yorkshire Tea, in lieu of the usual cash gratuity.
BOBBING ALONG, BOBBING ALONG ON THE BOTTOM OF THE…
We decided to be real hardcore after our real hardcore trek, and raft for two days down the violent Seti river to our next destination. “Violent” may be somewhat of an over-exaggeration, but I still managed to be the only one to go flying out of the raft on a ferocious grade 2 rapid.
Lighting the Chanukah candles by a fire on the moonlit beach, and sleeping under the stars beneath the shelter of our upturned raft with our new friends, Dan the Brummie, Ryan the Yank, Dagmar the Austrian and Misa, the cheeky Japanese girl, was a real highlight. As was the reason why Misa had come on her third consecutive rafting trip, which revealed itself as she snuck into our guide, Gobi’s tent in the middle of the night!
HAVE YOU SEEN A RHEEEEEEENO?
Our time in Nepal was concluded with a visit to the lush jungles of Sauraha and the Chitwan National Park. An entire morning walk to find only a deer was made up for when I found myself clambering up a tree, and watching a huge rhino munching away on foliage 2 feet below me. This was complemented by a terrified Dan, sneaking around avoiding the Rhino’s war path. So yes Jerry, you weird Austrian, I have seen a rheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeno.
I also witnessed my first live Nepali football goal in Sauraha. It was better than anything the likes of Rooney or Ronaldo could produce. It was booted home by the enormous foot of an Indian elephant.
OH MY BUDDHA
Our final push for the border took us by another of Nepal’s well-kept secrets. Lumbini – the birthplace of the Lord Buddha.
The somewhat uninspiring stone that Buddha’s mother squeezed him out on to was the necessary centrepiece of the whole complex, but for me, jokes with the street food sellers and their amazing old school car horns was much more fun.
Our last night meant a stop in a border town that suffered from the same disease as every border worldwide that make its people weird, and its name unpronounceable (something like Bairhawahahawhaha). It appeared the entire town’s accommodation was full (even “Hotel Glasgow” was fully booked) until we came across a knight in shining armour. Trilock Singh. Trilock managed a beautiful hotel, no room there of course, but he helped us in his perfectly clipped Calcutta convent boarding school accent and sourced a room at the nearby “Hotel Precious”. Needless to say Hotel Precious was precious by name, but certainly not by nature.
First thing the next morning we were bundled onto a bus and trundled towards the Indian border. No pomp and ceremony here, not any form of security it seemed until we stumbled across a dilapidated Office of Immigration on the side of the road. One Nepali exit sticker, and a shabby archway later, we entered the world’s most populous democracy to see what a second visit would have in store. In a flurry of dust and debris, my return to incredible India began.