The valley is full of stars. The sky overhead is a deep, midnight blue, and the first pinpricks begin to appear, planets hanging silent in an icy firmament. As the moon rises it shines silver on the snowfields, improbably high ramparts across the sky, a serrated outline of summits and shards as jagged as a broken mirror. Far below the first lights emerge from small settlements in the valley, little golden dots of light in clusters across the valley floor, the outflung constellation of a village high on a ridgeline shimmering in the night air. Above the mountains the cold white stars in the dark chill blue of the sky; below the reflected golden stars on the warm velvet black of the land.
Mr Lama sang softly to himself as he drove, clutching the steering wheel tight and peering nervously through the cracked windscreen at the mad Kathmandu traffic. I learned to recognise it as a sign of agitation: at the chaotic intersections, upon sight of a traffic cop, or as a large truck inched closer and closer he’d begin murmuring fragments of devotional hymns, a few snatched phrases offering a modicum of general karmic protection, periodically breaking off to shout at other drivers performing a particularly crazy manoeuvre: “No rules! Nepali driving very bad!” I told him India was even worse.
“Excuse me sir, but India very shit. Too much dirty and stealing.” He was distracted briefly by the sight of camouflage off to the right. “Nepali Army! Very strong. Gurkhas!”
I looked at the shambolic drill taking place on the dusty patch of scrubland off to our right, surrounded by razor wire. A couple of hundred Corporal Joneses wheeling and stamping, each slightly out of time with the next. No Gurkhas in evidence here.
Mr Lama had driven me to Patan a couple of days earlier. I liked his cautious driving, and the fact that he’d quoted me a reasonable fare. He was a middle-aged man with worry lines and a gold tooth, a wife and two kids to support, and a battered Maruti taxi with a suspension that chirped like a pond full of frogs. I asked him to pick me up the next day for the 15km run to Bhaktapur – another capital of the old city-states of the Kathmandu Valley, and a World Heritage Site whose Durbar Square and surrounding streets had banned motorised traffic, making it infinitely more tranquil than chaotic Kathmandu.
The next morning I was packed and ready to go by 9am. But there was no sign of Mr Lama. The streets seemed strangely quiet. The receptionist eyed my backpack with surprise. “Checking out sir? But where going?”
Bhaktapur, I told her.
She waggled her head. “Not possible I think. Bhaktapur closed.”
“What do you mean closed?”
“All Nepal closed. No bus, no taxi. It is banned.”
“Bandh, sir. Strike.”
I’d heard about this before – the entire country shutting down. No public transport ran, shops closed, and private vehicles ventured out at their peril; occasionally they were stoned by demonstrators. The government laid on special buses with bars over the windows and a police escort to meet incoming flights at the airport. I imagined some hapless tourist clearing immigration only to be herded into a prison bus with wailing sirens, their mounting panic only subsiding when they were deposited at their hotel. Welcome to Nepal.
The streets of Thamel were eerily silent, with little traffic about. Groups of men stood around, reading newspapers tacked to billboards, and there was a high police presence. One felt a certain tension, a minor political crisis in the air. But most people made the best of it, treating the whole thing like a rather inconvenient holiday. “It is bandh,” they’d say with a shrug. “What can you do?” I later learned that it was called by a coalition of 30 opposition parties led by the Maoists – “The Moists”, as the receptionist called them – in protest at the failure of the government to draw up a new constitution within a year’s deadline. They had three weeks left, and the newspapers were doing a countdown each day. I resigned myself to another day in Thamel: coffee at Phat Kath, window shopping for trekking gear, and a stroll around the Garden of Dreams – an Austrian-led reconstruction project modelled on the gardens of an Edwardian country house, which was populated almost exclusively with young Nepali couples sitting close together and sometimes chastely holding hands, in search of the privacy they couldn’t find at home.
45 minutes of motorized mayhem later, Mr Lama deposited me at the entrance to Durbar Square in Bhaktapur, beneath a large billboard advertising Attitude vodka. The entrance fee to the square – or more properly Bhaktapur itself – was a steep $15, but this was used to preserve the temples and provide all manner of municipal services otherwise lacking in Nepal: a daily rubbish collection, sewerage and the other utilities which we take for granted in other, more prosperous societies. The ban on motorised traffic was only occasionally flouted, and by nightfall, when the daytrippers had headed back to Kathmandu, it was possible to imagine yourself in another era altogether: the tiered roofs of the temples were silhouetted against the sky, there was the soft clang of bells from within one of the temples, and the scent of incense coiled about the square, perfuming the night. People moved softly as shadows, speaking in low voices, hunching their shoulders against the deepening chill. Groups of teenagers sat on the steps of the temples, playing on their mobile phones. Half a dozen middle-aged Nepali men in leather jackets who had been drinking in the cafe – Attitude vodka, perhaps – stood around a scooter conversing in low, growling tones before convivially parting company with robust backslapping, one rather unsteadily clambering onto the machine and kicking it into life, his friend climbing onto the back. They set off with an alarming wobble, the taillight disappearing into the night. Silence fell.
Small town Nepal goes to bed early. As the temperature plummeted, so did I, donning knitted bonnet and matching woollen bootees in a minor regression to infancy, and burrowing under the bedclothes. There was a television in the corner of the room and I clicked idly through the channels, which seemed to either show music videos from India featuring sari-clad beauties fending off the pestering attentions of men with dubious moustaches, or Nepali news channels showing elderly men in quilted trekking anoraks and traditional hats sitting in interminable meetings while one of their number spoke loudly into a microphone with the acoustic effects one usually associates with a public swimming pool. At first I thought it was the same programme on different channels, until I realised that I was actually observing three different meetings – a fact that only became clear when the newsreader made an appearance. On one it was a lady with a dot between her eyes who scolded the audience in a style that could only be described as declamatory. On the other was a young man in a shiny suit whose spectacles reflected the studio lights continuously, rendering the lenses completely opaque, as if he were a cartoon character called ‘Brains’ or similar. I found consolation in a local music channel where folk dancers cavorted and stomped in sylvan Himalayan glades to a wailing tune while maintaining smiles of a startling rigidity.
The front steps of Shiva Guesthouse offered a perfect eye-level view to watch the goings-on of Bhaktapur’s Durbar Square. Most of the tourists in evidence seemed to be Chinese clad in counterfeit mountaineering gear, armed with impressively large telephoto lenses. They mostly seemed to take pictures of each other, in a quite unselfconscious way. They walked differently to the Nepalese, with a kind of stiff-legged, shoulder-barging waddle, as if they were perpetually muscling their way through crowds. The Nepalis instead seemed to have more of a languid slope; the sight of a group of teenagers walking past reminded me of the low-kneed, ponderous gait of a herd of camels, an effect most likely caused by wearing overlarge sandals which kept threatening to slip off. The Shiva temple opposite the guesthouse opened its doors briefly twice a day, morning and evening, marked by a clanging of bells. A small dog with a curly tail trotted in and out freely, and devotees touched the doorstep carefully upon surmounting the stairs before stepping over the threshold. Many emerged wearing a small daub of orange in their hair – marigold petals. The narrow alleyways were lined with stalls selling wood carvings, knitwear and prayer beads, and echoed to the sound of serene singing from music shops – not the inevitable Om Mani Padme Hum of Thamel, but a far more varied repertoire, which, combined with the perpetual scent of incense, gave the town something of a spiritual atmosphere.
Most Nepalese seemed to treat each other with great courtesy, with a frank, open gaze and calm manner. To be harsh or aggressive is seen as crass in this society, and great store is set on being measured and dignified in one’s dealings with others; it is rare to hear a voice raised in anger. The exception to this seems to be the waiters who are forced to bear the brunt of various customers’ sense of self importance. Waiters are addressed as “bhai” – brother – which in itself seems courteous enough; far more so than the French garcon, or “boy”. But the more important the customer, the more abrupt they were: “BHAI!” they would bark at some hapless local. And barking was the word. Soon I came to mentally substitute it: “BARK! Bring two cappuccinos. And one bottle of water. BARK! And an ashtray. BARK! Here, take this rubbish. BARK! BARK! BARK!” The waiter would flinch like a puppy that had been kicked. The sight of all these pompous nonentities woofing at underlings managed to be demeaning to both.
I had felt it coming for some time – that telltale itch an inch up my right nostril. Soon the accursed sneezing fits began. I had caught a cold – my first since Alice Springs four months earlier. In the oven-like heat of Central Australia it had burned itself out in a few days, but here, in the frigid temperatures of a Himalayan winter, it was worsening by the day. With no heating in the houses people blundered about in padded jackets and woolly hats, drinking endless cups of tea to keep warm. I sneezed my way around Bhaktapur miserably, waiting for the afternoon when the solar-heated water would be warm enough to take a shower. Having a perpetually dripping nose in a country where few people use tissues posed its own problems; I’ve never been entirely happy blowing my nose with my fingers in the local manner. Fortunately at a small beauty shop, which advertised itself with a hoarding which offered “fairness” cream for men – skin-lightening bleach – I found a six-pack of Tempo tissues. They were marked as being “Durchschnupfsicher” in German, which I translated as “through-snort proof”. They sounded just the thing, and I bought the entire stock, to the total mystification of the sales girl.
The minibus from Bhaktapur to Nagarkot left at 2pm, and carried a mixture of locals and tourists. The driver was a squat Nepali with unusually prominent earlobes, wearing a colourful cap which emphasised them nicely. The conductor had swept back hair, a beard that wouldn’t have looked out of place in Shoreditch, and a waistcoat beneath a suit jacket with wide 70s-style lapels. As soon as we set off a thumping techno soundtrack began, slightly surreal in the context of the small mountain villages we were passing through. I pictured the two of them on the dancefloor: the driver, I decided, would jump about like an enormous frog; the conductor, flares flapping, would cut slick disco moves in the style of Saturday Night Fever. Perhaps it was the altitude that was responsible for these hallucinatory visions, or perhaps I was developing a fever myself. I felt most unwell.
I had asked on a whim to be dropped at the Hotel at the End of the Universe, chiefly because of the name. The minibus dropped me at a junction and the conductor pointed up the road. “Ten minutes, no more.” Shouldering the enormous backpack which felt heavier every day, I trudged up the hill, wondering why it was exactly that I did this sort of thing – I remember slogging round Shimla with a stinking cold a year or two earlier looking for a hotel, when all I really wanted was to be at home in bed. A motorbike with two young guys stopped next to me.
“You want hash?”
“No thank you.”
“I have good hash, sensetronic, ergonomic, catatonic… what you want?”
“I don’t smoke.”
“I give you good price. Finest quality, Himalayan herb.”
I stood there with dripping nose, feeling a sneeze coming on. My face contorted, but not before I got the words out: “Smoking is very bad for the health. And I am very healthy person.” I sneezed tremendously.
The guy on the back of the bike said to his friend: “I don’t think he’s going to buy any.”
The Hotel at the End of the Universe sat on a hilltop with an incredible view of the mountains stretching right across the horizon. But they were fully booked. “We do have a tent,” suggested the receptionist helpfully.
I pictured some luxury en suite safari lodge tent such as one might find in the Okavango. “OK, let’s see it.” Together we went up and down numerous flights of stairs, until we emerged into a clearing in which stood a sagging blue A-frame tent, of the kind one might put up in the garden on a summer’s day for the children to play in.
“It’s freezing at night here. If I sleep in there I’m going to die,” I told the receptionist. He waggled his head. I headed back down to the road in search of another hotel. I spotted one sign saying Green Valley Hotel, which sounded pleasant, and made my way along a dusty track towards it. It lay around the other side of the ridge to the Hotel at the End of the Universe, and had a view of the mountains from a different angle – perhaps even more imposing. I was shown several different rooms, and picked the one with the best view, which was $20 a night. It was tidy enough, although freezing cold, but there were a heap of blankets on the bed and an en suite bathroom. Unfortunately I didn’t inspect the bathroom too closely due to a power cut – in the gloom I made out the outline of a shower in the corner which looked serviceable enough. As it turned out, it wasn’t. There was no hot water until late afternoon, the walls were covered with interesting spirals and whorls of mould, and the shower head was broken so that it sprayed jets of frigid water in all directions other than downwards, until it fell off completely, creating a torrent akin to standing under a waterfall. This was a shame, as it was otherwise a nice hotel, and had thoughtful touches such as a sachet of “anti-hairfall” shampoo in the calamitous bathroom, and a complementary bottle of mineral water (sadly the seal was broken, so I discarded it as a precaution). There were a few Chinese tourists staying, and three New Yorkers who had just arrived in Nepal a few days earlier. I decided to just stay for one night, and try my luck at the end of the universe the next morning.
I felt marginally worse the next morning, and didn’t fancy lugging the backpack up hill and down dale to the end of the universe, so I decided on what I thought was a culturally appropriate solution: I would offer a strong young Nepalese a certain amount to carry my backpack, in the manner of a Sherpa, as I walked along beside him. Mentally I had decided on a dollar – a hundred rupees – not a bad wage for 15 minutes’ walk. I asked at reception if they knew of anyone available, and they said they’d ask around, but most of the men were engaged in carrying a large generator down several flights of stairs – a feat they achieved by inserting three scaffolding poles through it and physically manhandling it. I contemplated the scene, and compared it to a similar operation in the UK, where a crane would be required, the workers would be attired in safety boots, helmets and hi-viz vests, and half a day would be needed to complete the paperwork. Instead we had a group of Nepalese in flip flops carrying over a tonne of generator down a hill on their shoulders.
A group of Chinese were leaving by minibus, and it was proposed that they carry my backpack on the roof and drop it off at the hotel. I wasn’t keen on the idea – perhaps something would be lost in translation and my bag would end up in Kathmandu. An alternative was suggested – a man would come on his motorbike and I would wear the backpack and sit on the back. I was even less keen on this; like many motorcyclists I hate going on the back with a passion – I’d rather walk. Eventually a third way was found – I would set off walking and a motorcyclist and passenger would carry my bag. Sure enough, that’s what happened, and the entire negotiation process took barely an hour.
So I ended up at the Hotel at the End of the Universe, in a small stone cottage in a grove of bamboo. The water was hot in the morning, the nights were utterly silent, and the staff friendly and easy-going. Aside from a group of young Nepalese guests who began playing syrupy auto-tuned pop music at 7am and a couple of other foreigners, I have the place to myself. The wifi comes and goes, which has made typing up this blog particularly haphazard, but with views like this it doesn’t really seem to matter.