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.