Escape from Kathmandu

On the instant, it was as though someone had switched off the wireless, and a voice that had been bawling in my ears, incessantly, fatuously, for days beyond number, had been suddenly cut short…
Brideshead Revisited – Evelyn Waugh

“Turkish Airlines plane NOSEDIVES into Kathmandu Airport”, shrieked the Daily Mail with their usual random hysteria, conjuring up images of a jumbo jet crashing into the airport terminal building in flames. The reality was rather less dramatic. Three days of heavy rain had meant a thick, noxious fog enveloped Kathmandu, nestled in a bowl surrounded by mountains. A Turkish Airlines flight from Istanbul, attempting to land in zero visibility, had touched down heavily enough to burst the nosewheel, tilting the aircraft forward, and then skidding off the rain-slick runway onto the grass. But one wing of the wide-bodied Airbus A330 stuck out across the runway, preventing other planes from landing. Nepal lacked the necessary heavy crane to shift the aeroplane. They had the idea of using a bulldozer, but found the entrance gate to the airport wasn’t wide enough, so would have to knock a hole in the surrounding wall. The airports authority wasn’t keen; nor, for that matter, were the Turks, who didn’t want a Nepalese bulldozer anywhere near their aeroplane. The sole runway of the only international airport in the country was out of action. Nepal was shut until further notice.

I had been due to fly to Mumbai on the 5th of March. On the 4th of March, at approximately 11.45pm, I received an email from Jet Airways: “There has been the following change to your booking. The flight is cancelled.” No other explanation. I spent a fraught hour on the phone to a call centre in Mumbai, exhausted my credit on the mobile phone, and got nowhere. Nobody knew when the airport would reopen.

Kathmandu the next morning was eerily silent. No rumble of jets taking off. The cafes were full of tourists anxiously checking their phones. Two French women I met whose visas were due to expire the next day were seriously contemplating taking the bus to Varanasi in India – a journey of over 30 hours on mountain roads – to make a connecting flight to Paris. By day three one began to see the same disconsolate faces in the same cafes.
“You still here?”
“Yup. Rumour has it that the airport will open tonight / tomorrow / by Saturday.”
The town took on the atmosphere of a city under seige. Ke garne? What can you do?

I called Jet Airways every day, undergoing automated messages in Hindi, then repeated in English, none of which were relevant to my predicament. There was a jaunty, whistling theme tune on hold which got stuck in my head. Eventually, usually just before my credit expired, the phone would be picked up and I’d get some indecipherable mumbling in English so accented it might as well have been Hindi. Schooled in Mumbai call centres by years of trying to call helplines for British utility companies, I persisted. Why had they not reissued my ticket? Nobody knew. Five days after my initial flight, I still hadn’t heard anything. Thamel, the main backpacker region of Kathmandu, had begun to pall: I was sick of the incessant motorbikes zooming past inches away; sick of the constant offers of hashish, or taxis, or rickshaws, or anything; sick of the whole place. Despondency set in. To fend it off, I decided to go to the Jet Airways office. This was on a major road out of Kathmandu called Lazimpat. I trudged along Lazimpat, deafened by car horns, gritty dust thrown up by the wheels of the trucks, more dust produced by a jackhammer operated by a skinny boy in flip flops. Soon I saw a long line of people stretching down the road. The Jet office. I nearly turned round at that point, but decided to join the queue and see if they suddenly opened the doors.

They didn’t. The queue crept forwards. They were letting in five people at a time, into a tiny office the size of a portakabin. Nepali police stood around in camouflage with SLR rifles almost as tall as they were. The Israeli embassy was nearby. The man in front of me in the queue was wearing a yellow tanktop and clutching a sheaf of papers in his hand. I read: “Department of Migrant Workers, Qatar”. Blasted by grit from the passing traffic we stood, immobile as livestock. Two white women approached me:
“You have tyicket?” The accent was comic-book Russian.
“Yes. But I need them to reissue it.”
“We have tyicket for Delhi. But no visa. You want to buy it?”
I imagined myself turning up at the airport: Hi. My name’s Svetlana. And Irina. Svetlana Irina. No, I’m British, actually.
“I don’t think that’s going to work,” I told Svetlana, or Irina. They shrugged pragmatically. I noticed that the hair of the man in the yellow tanktop, which was a few inches from my nose, was crawling with lice. Imperceptibly I leant backwards as far as I could.

Three-and-a-half hours, I stood in that queue. Eventually our turn came. The guard slid aside the metal gate, yellow tanktop and I squeezed through, together with three other local lads, and we entered the portakabin. Two Jet Airways staff tapped away at computers, studiously ignoring our flurried arrival. The three local lads tried to push to the front, and were repulsed by yellow tanktop, who beckoned me over. In the ensuing Nepalese conversation I made out the words “next in queue”. Mentally I hugged him at arms’ length. I stood before a Jet Airways member of staff who was wearing a hoodie which said London UK and was emblazoned with a Union Jack in Maroon and Lime Green.

“I need you to reissue my ticket from 5th March to 11th,” I blurted out. He tapped away at his computer, sightlessly extended a hand for my existing ticket, tapped away some more. Then he looked up.
“Sir, you are already booked on 11th March flight.”
I was dumbfounded. “How on earth?… But why haven’t I received a ticket? How has nobody bothered to tell me?” He shrugged, and showed me a print out. There it was. Confirmed 11 March.
Heading back down Lazimpat I found a cafe with wifi, and idly checked my email. It binged with a new message. Jet Airways. “Dear Mr, Apologies for delay in reissuance. Please find attached ticket for 11th March.” It had been sent at 12.50pm, ten minutes before I had finally got into the office.

Jet Airways had informed passengers to arrive at least three hours before their flight departed, but had failed to pass the message on to their own staff; there was no check-in open. Three Nepali men with ID badges stood on the staff side of the check-in counter clustered around a mobile phone; it turned out they were watching a video of a car crash. On the other side of the counter was a queue of perhaps 200 people. I had been one of the first in the queue, and a cadaverous man with his documents in a folder marked “Employment Record” inched his way forwards, on the pretext of trying to see some invisible object in the distance, until he was parallel to me. Smiling thinly I leaned on the counter; he did the same. He extended his folder across the counter towards the staff. I did the same with my ticket. We avoided each other’s eyes. He moved his folder slightly further forward, just ahead of mine. Not to be outdone I did the same.The cover of his folder had his name, place of birth, age, and nickname. It was “The Rock”. A girl wandered over and sat down at the check-in desk with an air of studious boredom, ignoring “The Rock’s” proffered folder as well as mine. For around ten minutes we stood, until the girl looked at me. “The Rock” happened to be conversing with someone over his shoulder at that point, and I seized my chance and handed over my ticket. Victory was mine! She sighed, hammered her computer keys for a while, and then handed me my documents back. With my precious boarding pass clutched in my hand I made for departures, showing it to the policeman guarding the entrance. He belched softly in acknowledgement and I was through. Escape from Kathmandu.

The Indians, in their wisdom, have decided that you have to go through immigration in the first port of entry, so I had two hours (90 minutes in reality) to reclaim my bag, go through immigration in Mumbai, check it in again for the flight to Goa, then get to the domestic terminal, which turns out to be in a completely different place. The flight was due to leave in 30 minutes. The airport bus to domestic terminal was due in 20. A policeman sent me to the back of a queue of Nepalese transferring to Doha, and I pushed my way to the front (they do it to me all the time), shouted “Goa Transfer” and was pointed towards Immigration.

I had met a Belgian couple in Kathmandu who were going to Goa, and I spotted them in Immigration. We decided to share a taxi, and found the stand. As we were piling in another girl rushed up who turned out to be Maltese, together with her English friend. Five of us piled into this cab and set off into Mumbai traffic. None of us had Indian money, but we flung ten US at the driver. “Can we make it?” I asked him. He waggled his head ambiguously, drove for about 30 seconds then pulled up at a small shack and disappeared inside. We smoked furiously with our sole lighter which had escaped security. The driver returned carrying a small pink chit, climbed in, started the engine, stalled, started it again. Time was ticking by. We left the international airport, drove down the hard shoulder of a flyover, turned off it to hit gridlock at a junction, fought our way through a melee of rickshaws, and then I saw the sign for Domestic Terminal 1A. “I think we need 1B,” I told the driver, who sighed heavily. We turned into the exit for Domestic Terminal 1B, got whistled at by a policeman, and were dropped at Gate 1. We needed Gate 14. We all ran through the soupy heat, halted for a man to stamp our tickets, queued for security, pushed our way past queues of people for other flights, got called back for yet another stamp, and headed for Gate 14. The airport bus was just outside and the Maltese girl made it inside first. The doors closed. The Belgian hammered on the door and was told off by a policeman. The Maltese girl shouted at the driver and he opened them again. We got on. The bus set off across the airport, on and on, and the Belgian said: “Um, I think I recognise this. Look at the terminal.” He was right. We pulled up at a plane which was parked next to the one we had arrived in from Kathmandu.Two hours of chaos, rushing through multiple layers of bureaucracy, mad traffic, intransigent officials, and all to go 20 yards from one plane to another. It was the perfect metaphor for this entire country.

Sultry heat and the pink sky of a tropical dusk. The palm trees are clicking softly in the breeze like the sound of falling rain. Along an electricity cable overhead streams a line of ants, their bodies glowing translucent brown, backlit by the setting sun – small beads of consciousness, like the lights on a suburban commuter train heading home into the gathering dusk. The thin, eerie whine of a mosquito in the ear like a malevolent violin, the note rising and falling with its spasmodic, marionette dance. A gecko streaks across the wall, then halts, throat pulsing. Here is life, fecundity, abundance. The days slow, crawl along in the treacly heat, the atmosphere one of softness and languid abandon. The south, at last!
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Siklis Trek 3

IMG_7965The presence of hot water at the Namaste Guesthouse in Siklis was clearly an opportunity for the local girls to clean up a bit. There was a continual stream of activity through the bathroom throughout the afternoon, one of the daughters of the house posing for a duckfaced selfie on her phone against the tiled wall. Afterwards she sat on the ground as her mother carefully picked through her hair, searching for lice. The two smaller girls, aged perhaps four and seven, played dressing up games, putting on various items of adult clothing, checking themselves carefully in the mirror and then going on a make-believe shopping expedition round the tables on the terrace, the four-year-old toting a little embroidered handbag and slopping along in a massive pair of adult-sized flip flops.

Sal had slept throughout the afternoon despite thunderous cheers from the cricket match on the TV, and I had to go and wake her for dinner. She emerged bleary-eyed to be confronted with a steaming tray of dal bhat for the second time that day, accompanied by a glass of the local millet wine. It was wine in the loosest possible sense of the word – a tumblerful of transparent oily liquid which resembled turpentine in appearance, and smelled like it. I had narrowly avoided being offered one myself, having to politely decline numerous times, happily without having to resort to my fallback position of “It’s against my religion”, which can lead on to rather convoluted explanations as to why I don’t drink. Sal sipped at the stuff bravely, considering she’d just woken up, pulled a face and carefully pushed it away. No mojitos here. The owner stood by our table as we ate, or more accurately leaned over it with his elbows on it and his head between us. “How do you like the food?” he asked expectantly. We praised it to the skies, and as a reward, or perhaps a further challenge – Advanced Level Dal Bhat – Mana brought a small dish of pickled radishes. I wept a little in appreciation as I crunched through one – it was reminiscent of the toxically acidic mustard-yellow pickle that the British know as Piccalilli, but comprised entirely of giant moola radishes.

The cloud dissipated in the night and the next day was sparkling and clear. I looked up at the snow-covered mountains behind the village which were glowing orange in the morning sun. On the other side of the valley Tangting was still in shadow, but as I watched the sun crept down the mountainside, and as it did so the hill became loud with birdsong, increasing in volume as the rays spread downhill through the forest. We had a long day ahead, described as a seven or eight hour walk, up to Tara Hilltop for a view of the mountains, assuming it was clear, and then along the ridge and down to the village of Ghalekharka. As we packed up, Mana found a long bamboo stick for Sal, in the absence of trekking poles, which later proved to be a lifesaver. We received the ubiquitous dab on the forehead from one of the young girls who had been washing her hair the day before – a red tika this time, instead of rice pudding – and a marigold to place behind our ear. Off we set, slowly slowly, heading through the village, in a small traffic jam caused by three buffaloes.

The sun was hot as we walked, but there was a cool breeze coming down from the snowfields. We entered a rhododendron forest, the national flower of Nepal, which appears in stylized form on the country’s flag – the only national flag, incidentally, which is not rectangular in shape, consisting instead of two triangles in a pennant one above the other. These weren’t the small shrubs that we associate with the plant in more northerly climes, but large trees with extensive root systems which we clambered over. Although we had only been going for an hour or so, I had no power in my legs at all, and just plodded along in a state of no-thinking, sometimes dully looking round myself at the scenery. In places it resembled an English woodland, in others it was more like the jesse scrub of the southern African bush. Through the foliage there was an occasional lightening refracted from the backdrop of snow on the mountains which were themselves invisible, hidden by the screen of trees, and yet somehow they made their presence felt.

Soon we came to a junction marked with a signpost, indicating Tara Hilltop. “1.5 hours,” the sign said. The path snaked upwards through bushland, rising then falling, rising again. Eventually we found ourselves walking along a narrow ridge, occasional glimpses of clear sky ahead. The hilltop itself seemed to dance away out of range at every turn – we’d catch a glimpse of it before the trees thickened again, obscuring our view, and we’d trudge along some more. We could see cloud building off to our left, rising up from the valley, and we were racing it to the hilltop, hoping to get there before the view was completely obscured. Eventually the path began to rise steeply – more steps – and I powered up them, steaming like a kettle, feeling a hot twinge in my right shoulder from a pulled muscle, but determined just to get there and stop.

We emerged onto a flat, grassy expanse, but off to the right there was nothing but cold, grey cloud. No mountains in sight. I didn’t care any more, and staggering over to the edge of the field, threw off my bag and sat down. I fumbled in the side pocket for my water, and as I was doing so, Mana said: “Look.”  I glanced up and saw the ghostly outline of Machhapuchhare’s triangular peak emerge from clouds of swirling mist. Then Annapurna I, next to it, came into view. As we watched, the cloud just vanished before our eyes, revealing the entire range – massively high, and right there in front of us. We fumbled for cameras, all tiredness forgotten, walking around the field in search of the best viewpoints. I tried taking a panorama on the iPhone, following the horizontal line with the arrow, but as I was still out of breath from the last push to the hilltop the arrow rose and fell with each exhalation. The next minute the view was swallowed up again by billowing mist. A minute or two later it parted again and the sun shone on the peaks once more. As we watched there came a dull boom, like an explosion, which echoed around the mountains, and a small white puff rose into the air from one of the rock faces. “Avalanche,” Mana said, and we sat in silence feeling rather subdued by the scale and the power of the natural forces in these mountains.

There’s nothing actually to do in the mountains. You walk, you stop and rest, eat something, walk some more. There’s no demand on your attention other than keeping your balance, watching for the next foothold, and trying not to fall over. Your mind is free to wander. I found myself thinking about how, in the history of my own country – the United Kingdom – our landscape had changed from being predominantly woodland, through to a small patchwork of fields and settlements, and then industrialisation. All the different eras that had come and gone had played themselves out against this changing backdrop. This led to a vision of horsemen in armour galloping through the woodland I was currently slogging though, and then, tiring of the vision, I yelled “cut!” in my mind like a film director. I thought about what a luxury it was to be clean, dry and wearing fresh clothes, not perpetually sticky and malodorous. And yet there was a kind of purity in the mountain life too. The simplicity of the diet, nothing to drink but water, meant that the few treats that we had brought with us like a chocolate bar or an orange seemed to explode with flavour, as we appreciated it all the more.

We were descending the hillside now, a set of steps that just went on and on. My left knee, often a source of trouble – it has been known to seize up on the journey between lounge and kitchen, leaving me hopping – began to give out; it wouldn’t lock, just flex whenever I put pressure on it, forcing me to then take another step with my right. It was made worse by the heavy backpack, so at one of the stops I finally gave in and asked if I could swap bags with Mana. “No problem,” he grinned, shrugging into the straps and spurning the waist belt completely. It made a huge difference. But Sal was struggling too. We’d been walking six hours by now, and the old legs weren’t working too well. She used her bamboo stick at every step, almost as if she were punting, placing it downhill and then stepping tentatively forwards. Mana kept stopping to look backwards to see how she was doing, and I kept nearly running into him in consequence with my unlocking knee. The constant stop-start meant that I got a stitch for the first time on the trip, and soon I went on ahead, keeping up a constant pace of small steps; there was only one path to follow, after all.

The last two hours were really difficult. We stopped more and more frequently, the village of Ghalekharka coming into view on the opposite hillside, tantalisingly close. Sal was halting every few steps, and I wasn’t doing much better, although fortunately my knee was holding up – trying to hop down that hillside would have been tricky to say the least, and it does give you a certain incentive to carry on when you know there is no other option; had one of us been injured and unable to walk, it would have fallen to Mana to go for help and find villagers to carry us. We came to a small stupa and halted again. All I wanted to do was get there now. “Which is the guesthouse?” I asked Mana. He pointed out a building with a blue roof. “Next to that.” I set off again, down the last few flights of stone steps towards it. Then the path levelled out, and we finally hobbled up to the guesthouse nine hours after setting out that morning. It had been a tough day.

I was completely out of water, craving a cup of tea, and there seemed to be nobody in evidence at the guesthouse apart from three small girls. One began sweeping the mud-floored yard with a broom made of twigs, and another was despatched to find the owner. A third, who wore a grubby yellow ankle-length skirt, emerged from a tin shack marked ‘toilet’, went into the kitchen and emerged carrying two glasses which she rinsed under a tap that dribbled in the corner of the yard. “I hope those aren’t glasses for our tea,” I murmured, knowing full well that they were. Perhaps the boiling water would kill any germs. A barefoot, robust-looking granny came along and conversed with Mana for a while, and he leaned towards me and translated: “The old ladies are making folk dancing here tonight. If you are interested.” I was deeply uninterested – I couldn’t think of anything worse than sitting through an evening of stomping and wailing, no doubt being exhorted repeatedly to join in. I could hardly stand up as it was. I asked him to pass on our apologies, saying that we were rather tired, but perhaps another time. It was rather embarrassing, at a relatively youthful 41, to be so done in after a few hours’ walk which was an everyday event for the Gurung. But I took consolation in the fact that the Gurung believe that up to the age of 40 you are young, and after that you are old – there is no middle ground of middle age. So I was officially old, and could hobble around with a clear conscience.

And part of me, too, was aware that this was something of a valedictory experience. I had felt that I couldn’t leave Nepal without doing a trek – it almost seemed like a requirement. But the novelty had long worn off, and I didn’t have the kind of evangelical enthusiasm any more for the wild places that I once had, and that others still seemed to possess. I had fallen out of love with the mountains, not from any great disaster, as with some former climbers I know, who after seeing one tragedy too many find that in the balance of payments, of excitement versus risk, that the price no longer seemed worth paying, but in a kind of weariness at it all. Perhaps it really was a case of getting older – though there are many far older than I who still enjoyed heading out on expeditions. It had somehow just lost its appeal. I had always thought of myself as unconventional, putting up with levels of discomfort, sometimes considerable, in order to avoid the mundane, the routine. But now I began to wonder whether I hadn’t been acting out a life that was lived out of contrariness in a kind of rejection of modern society, with its false needs, its creature comforts and perpetual consumption. I had taken to the mountains so many years before to get away from things, and yet those things followed me because they were in me – although the perspective that the mountains offered had made them manageable. It was the oldest cliché of all.

I realised that over the last few days I had thought so many times of things that I wanted to do – learn to play an instrument, become proficient in one of the many languages that I have a smattering of, write some more poetry, or just take up a hobby which involved creating or constructing something tangible, instead of merely producing the hieroglyph of digital pixels that make up the words on a page. I couldn’t see myself working in a corporation that only seemed to exist to make more and more money, and wondered about pursuing more traditional skills that required care and attention to detail to complete, but which left the mind free, not continually rushing from one half-baked task to the next without any time to do anything properly. I had had these thoughts, and one by one I had discarded them, thinking: oh well, I can come back to that later. Perhaps there was no later? Perhaps when I was back in the melee of the city, whether Kathmandu or London, I would forget that I had had the time to think these things, and they would just become more discarded ambitions. Where, even, would I live? London’s perpetual din seemed to keep me in a state of continual hyper-vigilance, unable to relax – the fast-walking people, the sirens, the drilling, the bangs and crashes, the yelling of drunks at night. I wondered, not for the first time, why I even lived there. My wanderlust had begun to feel increasingly like a curse – doomed to roam the earth and never to settle for long. I pictured a white cottage in a green field with a backdrop of grey sea, somewhere on the Celtic periphery. Somewhere I could write, and watch the changing sky, immerse myself in the elemental weather and feel a sense of belonging. It was a thought that had returned many times over the years. I could take out an advertisement: Exile seeks idyll – mild discomfort acceptable. Did Scotland require a visa these days? Was Ireland both too close to home and simultaneously too far? Wales? Iceland? Perhaps there was somewhere in East Anglia, which had, after all, become home. I would see when I went back.

Siklis Trek 2

IMG_7945

The steps up from the gorge consisted of large boulders placed in a fairly haphazard way. Sometimes the hillside was so steep we could only go ten paces or so before pausing for breath. Dry stone walls demarcated the terraced fields, some so wide that we could walk along the tops of them, and small shelters dotted the hillside. “Cow and buffalo house”, said Manu.
“Stable,” I told him. “We call cow house a stable.”
“Sty-bull,” he imitated perfectly, in a disconcerting colonial drawl with a gritty veneer of London, making me wonder just what I sounded like. I remembered my nephew, who had just begun attending nursery school in Norwich, where he was learning to count to ten. One through to four was delivered in standard south-eastern English, but then he’d pronounce “foive” in a broad Norfolk accent, to much amusement. He’d progress onwards smoothly through six, seven and eight, and then angelically enunciate “noyn”.

We had been climbing for an hour-and-a-half when we reached another small stone plinth with a bench seat around it. Shrugging off the bags we arranged ourselves around it and I dug out the Mountain Man muesli bars. At that moment a local man appeared, coming down the track. He was in his late 40s, and wore shorts, flip flops and a traditional Nepalese cap of patterned pink material. He seemed to know Mana, as he came and sat next to us and the two of them chatted for a while. Mana, who provided us with a never-ending supply of oranges from within the depths of his backpack, was just reaching inside it when I offered him a Mountain Man instead, which he gratefully accepted. I offered one to the local guy as well, which he accepted with both hands outstretched as if it were a gift of inestimable value, touched it to his forehead in thanks, and secreted it in the pocket of his shorts – no doubt to be produced as a surprise and shared with his family that evening, a few morsels of crumbling honeyed birdseed in silver foil.

Jam jam, slowly slowly. We saddled up again and resumed our ascent. I was put in mind of a trio of ants struggling up a beach. High above us and off to the right, at an altitude more commonly associated with aeroplanes, glimmered the white peaks, trailing tresses of wispy cloud from their flanks. I thought, with incredulity, people actually climb these things? It seemed a preposterous notion. We were passing through a series of small terraced fields, which rang to the incessant trickle of water from hosepipes diverting the flow of the streams to carefully irrigate each one. These were mountain rice paddies, with the planting season in the monsoon months between June and August, harvested again in November.

The night before, on the terrace at Tangting, I had encountered Mana sitting in one of the chairs, earphones plugged in, nodding his head along to the beat. I was interested to know what he was listening to. “What kind of music do you like, Mana?” I asked him as we walked.
He smiled a little bashfully. “I like romantic. Like love songs.”
I imagined the kind of syrupy ballads one saw on Nepali TV – a man plaintively serenading some coyly indifferent beauty. “Was that what you were listening to last night? What was it called?”
“I don’t know the name,” he said. “But it goes, la la la la la, dah dah dah la la la laaa.”
Sal and I looked at each other. It was dreadfully familiar. “Oh my god, it’s the Venga Boys,” she said.
I scrutinised the path with a straight face, endeavouring to look suitably reverential at someone else’s music taste. Ah yes, I know their work. But the paradox… This tough young Gurung, a diehard fan of Arsenal football club (“My favourite player is Mesut Ozil, of Germany”), training for the Gurkhas, and listening to the sentimental romantic ballads of… the Venga Boys? It was too much.

I remembered when I first heard the song. It was on continual rotation on Broadland FM in Norwich when I was selling vacuum cleaners door to door round the city, almost 20 years ago. It was a dismal period in my life. I remembered being stuck in traffic in the car with another salesman as we shared a two litre bottle of White Lightning cider at three o’clock in the afternoon, and that damn song coming on the radio. “La la la la la!” we bawled lustily between hiccups, passing the half-empty bottle. Naturally the song got stuck in my head for the next hour as we climbed. Not even a determined recollection of Sediq Shubab’s greatest hits would shift it.
“And you?” Mana asked. “What music you like?”
“Mostly Aussie stuff,” Sal replied, naming a couple of bands – Chet Faker, Boy and Bear. North-east Party House. I’d never heard of them before I went there either.
Mana looked at me expectantly. Britain’s unique musical reputation rested on me. I tried to recall my ‘recently played’ list on the iPhone.
“Well, I mostly seem to listen to stuff from Afghanistan,” I said rather sheepishly. “And some classical,” I added helpfully.

We were approaching Siklis. I could see the first houses above us, and eventually the path levelled out, heading along the edge of the small settlement which was dwarfed by the backdrop of Himalayan peaks. We halted outside the Namaste Guesthouse and collapsed into chairs in the garden, beside a washing line hung with sheets which flapped languidly in the breeze. It was a much fancier place than the previous night’s accommodation – there was a bathroom with western-style toilet and shower with hot water, of all things. In the lounge an enormous TV on the wall boomed out a continual stream of Indian soap operas. A young guy idly flicked through all the channels on the remote, which seemed to show the same actors emoting furiously in the same houses – only their differing costumes indicated that they were different shows. Indian soap operas have a unique style in which the slow-mo close-up is much favoured, as the camera zooms remorselessly in on the face of some young starlet looking stricken. It’s not so much acting as desperate overacting, complete with a dramatic soundtrack. And of course, as is always the case, the television completely dominated not just the room, but the entire guesthouse – it was always on, and could be heard in every room.

To an extent this plays into the conceit of western tourism, that we spend a lot of time and effort trying to get to places that are ‘untouched’ and ‘unspoiled’. It’s a kind of cultural imperialism at its worst, where tourists on safari in Africa express disappointment that the locals wear western-style clothes instead of traditional costume, as if they too were some exotic species of animal laid on for the tourists’ entertainment. It seems entirely understandable to me that people living in rugged mountain villages should desire electricity, warm water for bathing and the various other creature comforts of technology. What is harder to understand at times is the cultural difference whereby, in a technology-saturated west, we seek out an escape from it – a retreat from the endless barrage of entertainment which inevitably ends up taking a toll on our attention span, when everywhere we look we are bombarded by stimuli: flashing adverts, exhortations to buy this or do that. We develop a filtering system whereby we can regard the formulaic style of advertisement, with its quick, three shots a second cutting, with no more than a wry smile of amusement – we know it’s all artifice and sleight of hand. In other cultures which have had less time to develop the same mental filtering process, audiences gaze wide-eyed at the lights and the colours, and they want to buy into the promise of it all. Hence, in many societies, if there’s a television, it’s always on, and usually as loud as it will go. The Namaste Guesthouse also promised wifi, but it failed to work the entire time we were there, which was something of a relief. In consequence we spent a great deal of time simply sitting and looking at the scenery, on a timescale greatly extended from that of our lives at home. Two hours sitting in a chair staring into space, without once checking your phone, or scratching the mental itch that something might be happening somewhere and you are missing out on it – the mindlessly repetitive thumb-swiping actions that we all, now, carry out hundreds of times a day, in solo communion with our phones.

Siklis had seen ‘development’ of another sort too. As we sat in the lounge a coffee-table book of photographs from the village was brought and reverentially opened for our inspection. The flyleaf described it as a project initiated by a PhD student from the University of Liverpool, who had made it the subject of her dissertation. It was impressively professional, with pictures of the locals engaged in various traditional activities. Nevertheless it made me aware of the paradox again – that while we welcomed western comforts of electricity to charge our phones and hot showers, the fact that the village wasn’t quite as ‘unspoiled’ or even ‘authentic’ as a three-day walk to it implied, somehow struck a jarring note. It made me examine our own notions of development, and whether we aren’t guilty of a certain amount of ‘primitivism’, for want of a better word. Listening days later to the conversation of a group of tourists in a hotel in Bhaktapur describing their trek, it was almost as if they were bragging about how primitive their respective accommodation had been. “Hot water? Luxury! We didn’t get any hot water. We had to carry all our water up from the river and heat it on the fire. Well, the village women did, anyway. Ooh, electricity! Fancy. We had to read by candlelight, and then Dennis here dropped his torch down the toilet hole and weed all over his trekking trousers! How we laughed.”

After a lunch of dal bhat, Mana announced that at four o’clock we would visit the village museum. We were accompanied by his brother, who wore a Manchester United top, and I wondered at the power that these football clubs exerted – that in these tiny hill villages on the far side of the world, young guys followed the antics of Suarez or Rooney religiously, discussing transfer fees and tactics as avidly as any fan in the UK. What did they think of us, I wondered, that we paid such figures tens of millions of pounds, or that fans of rival teams engaged in pitched battles in town centres after matches in a kind of surrogate warfare? Spud-faced, jug-eared Rooney, shouting abuse at a referee followed by a jet of spittle – what sort of role models were these? How did they pick their teams? Was it something as simple as buying or being given a shirt, and then supporting the colours you wore? Perhaps so.

I was feeling pretty jaded by this point – general tiredness setting in – but he was so enthusiastic about the museum that it seemed churlish to refuse. We walked down through the village on aching legs, towards an imposing building surrounded by well-maintained grounds. The entry fee was 100 rupees each – one US dollar – and we entered a room lined with various pots and baskets which were still in use today. Two waxwork models in traditional Gurung dress sat on a small plinth, the male figure cut very much in the Hollywood style of lantern jaw and chiselled cheekbones. Had he stood up he would have been well over six foot tall, and thus a giant amongst Gurung, who seemed to average around five foot two. The effect was only slightly marred by the fact that he was wearing lipstick. The female model was attired in red wedding shawl and extended a slender arm to casually rest her hand upon the male model’s thigh as she gazed blankly at a display of postcards overhead. There were various weapons in a case, and a crossbow hanging on the wall with the label “Traditional Gurung Mousetrap”. Bloody big mice they must get around here. Four Nepali guys were posing for a photo by the two waxworks, and one of them asked if I would take a picture of them. They all struck Bollywood-style action poses, puffing chests out, arms akimbo, not a smile among them. They were from Pokhara, it transpired, big city boys looking around their cultural heritage. In a room upstairs there was a topographical diorama of the region which illustrated the small villages that clung to the relatively flat land along the valleys amongst the giant peaks, and a room marked as a memorial, dedicated to local conservationist Chandra Gurung who had died in a helicopter crash together with several other western development professionals. “Heartily Condole,” announced a large sign on the wall, and two glass cases contained his effects: an old SLR camera, a flowery Hawaiian shirt, binoculars, a box of slides, and a wallet with compartments marked “English currency”, “Continental currency”, “Airline tickets” and “Passports”.

Mana came over as I was examining these exhibits. “You like our museum?” He was obviously very proud of it. He read out some of the labels as if from memory. It was all very impressive, I told him. But I’d seen enough, and adjourned to the terrace for a cigarette. The first spots of rain were just starting to fall. The Pokhara lads were buying boxes of tea from the museum shop. Mana flirted with the girl behind the counter. “Very beautiful girl, yes?” Sure, beautiful, I agreed, and she giggled shyly. Clouds were coming up from the valley, slowly enveloping distant Tangting in a cold, swirling mist until it disappeared completely, and we had a sense of being almost on an island surrounded by a sea of cloud, cut off from the rest of the world.