Nepal Earthquake

IMG_7177

On Saturday the 25th of April 2015, a little before noon local time, a massive earthquake struck Nepal, measuring 7.8 on the Richter scale. The capital Kathmandu was severely damaged, and current estimates are that over 4000 people were killed, with many more injured. These figures are expected to rise.

I have been deeply affected by this tragedy, and am struggling, like many, to make sense of the welter of raw emotions which I feel. I was not intending to write about it – the story has been widely covered by the world’s press – but somehow I find myself doing so. At the same time I feel a curious sense of shame, as if my own feelings are an indulgence; those affected are struggling to survive, coming to terms with unimaginable grief and loss. It seems almost mawkish to add to the subject by interjecting: “This is how I feel!”, as if one were piggybacking upon a calamity that had fallen upon others. How I feel is of no importance to anyone but me. Perhaps this post will never be published. This is not good writing, but yes, you are right – it doesn’t have to be. So I will write it anyway, because I am honouring a memory.

I spent two months in Nepal earlier this year. It is one of the most enchanting and extraordinary places I have ever visited, due, inevitably, to the people. They are warm, friendly, welcoming and have a wonderfully wry sense of humour that transcends cultural boundaries. I am in profound shock at what has happened – that they and their country have been struck this terrible blow.

Nevertheless, it was not unexpected. We all knew it was a matter of time. There was an earthquake in Pokhara when I was there: a deep boom, a sudden tremor, and then the earth violently shaking back and forth beneath my feet, on and on, as items crashed off the shelves, tables and chairs skidded around the patio and water tanks toppled off roofs. When the movement subsided I found myself on my knees in the courtyard of a guesthouse, my heart thumping, hearing screams that were raw with fright, and then, suddenly, relieved laughter, almost hysterical, when it became clear we were OK. That earthquake was 5.7 on the Richter scale, and lasted about 20 seconds. The one on Saturday went on for more than two minutes, and was far stronger. Numerous aftershocks have added to the terror, with people too afraid to go back indoors.

Many of the places I visited are no longer there. Temples are reduced to rubble, and may never be rebuilt. Those pagodas where we sat and watched the pigeons take off and land again on the tiled roofs – they are gone. Durbar Square in Patan – Lalitpur, “the beautiful” – is beautiful no more. It has been destroyed. Hundreds of buildings in Bhaktapur, one of the best-preserved towns in the country – have been damaged, many beyond repair. The hotel in Thamel where my friend stayed – it has collapsed, with everyone still inside. Everything is broken.

But the city will rise again – in a slightly different form, perhaps, bearing the scars, but it will become whole again. And in time those scars will fade. Life goes on, they say. What is this life, when we are sleepwalking through darkness, heavy with grief? That too is life, and as day follows night, slowly light will return to it.

Disasters have a language of their own. Casualty figures spiral incomprehensibly into the realms of statistics and data, and to an extent we take refuge in that; the full emotional impact, that each victim is an individual, much loved – whether a mother or a child or an uncle or a lover or a friend – is too great for the human heart to bear. Yet it is so. How do we dare to love, to open ourselves up to receive the inevitable blow? And yet we must.

The mind takes a snapshot without our realising at the time – a mental image forever fixed in our memory. Someone smiling at you across a table, their eyes sparkling in the candlelight. Sitting overlooking a square and laughing with friends at something so silly, so banal, that I don’t even recall what it was. But I remember how much we laughed, and how alive we were. A vision of someone walking away, slowly swallowed up in the crowd, until I just caught the occasional glimpse of them, and stood craning my neck until I could see them no longer. But the trace of their presence remains after they have disappeared, like the glass-smooth wake of a boat upon the water long after it has vanished from sight. Such grace in them, so beautiful they were, that it will stay with me forever.

We live on in the memory of others – those that dare to love us too. And too often we don’t tell them, at the time. “This is what I love in you.” How can we? We demur, affect embarrassment, because it’s sentimental, it may be misinterpreted or seem awkward. But we should. If we are lucky, they are still here to tell.


Come sit by my side, Lydia – by Ricardo Reis (Translated by Peter Rickard)

Come sit by my side Lydia, on the bank of the river
Calmly let us watch it flow, and learn
That life passes, and we are not holding hands.
(Let us hold hands)

Then let us reflect as grown-up children, that life
Passes and does not stay, leaves nothing, never returns
Goes to a sea far away, near to Fate itself,
Further than the gods.

Let us hold hands no more: why should we tire ourselves?
For our pleasure, for our pain, we pass on like the river.
‘Tis better to know how to pass on silently,
With no great disquiet.

With neither loves nor hates, nor passions raising their voice,
Nor envies making the eye rove too restlessly,
Nor cares, for if it knew care, the river would flow no less,
Would still join the sea in the end.

Let us love each other calmly, with the thought that we could,
If we chose, freely kiss and caress and embrace,
But that we do better to be seated side by side
Hearing the river flow, and seeing it.

Let us gather flowers, and do you take some and leave them
In your lap, and let their scent lend sweetness to the moment –
This moment when calmly we believe in nothing,
Innocent pagans of the decadence.

At least, should I first become a shade, you will remember me after,
Though remembered, I may not inflame nor hurt nor disturb you,
For we never hold hands, nor kiss,
Nor were we ever more than children.

And if, before me, you take the obol to the gloomy boatman,
I shall have not cause to suffer when I remember you.
You will be sweet to my memory if I remember you thus, on the river bank,
A sorrowful pagan maid, with flowers in her lap.

Advertisements

The City

The mental maps of multiple cities overlay one another, blurring at the edges. If I walk out into the street, over the small, whitewashed bridge and turn left, will I find myself in Lewisam Avenue, beneath a colonnade of jacaranda trees, and the dogs that race along the Durawall to fling themselves in fury at the gates (chenjera imbwa!), down to the expanse of tawny savannah dotted with flat-top acacias that lies at the end of the road? Or was it right, into Bahnhofstrasse, up the steep hill that led to the cafe where we sat one day in the sunshine over tall glasses of weissbier and a conversation that brought the world crashing down around me, leaving me stumbling through the ruins? Was it straight on, past the Rimi supermarket – or was it a Woolworths? – and into the wide streets lined with wooden villas that overlooked the water? There was a bridge there, crossing the harbour. But the bridge is not there; the water stretches away on all sides unspanned, deepening to ultramarine, out to the open sea. A different city, another time.

The plane from Mumbai had flown into the darkening sky of a tropical dusk, coming in low over the estuary of the Mandovi River which shone like pewter in the evening sun. The silhouettes of two rusted freighters were moored like hulks in mid-stream. Small lights were springing up along the Malabar Coast, and I made out the first signs of life – a bus crawling its way up the road, a motorcycle overtaking it, people standing outside shops. Apartment blocks rose into view, and the light blue oval of a hotel swimming pool ringed with underwater lights. We dropped down from the sky into another world. I had been here before.

But in the intervening two years, much had changed – both in myself and in Goa’s physical landscape. New bars and restaurants had appeared, old favourites were no longer there. Baba au Rhum had relocated to a site on the backroad to Baga overlooking an expanse of fields; even the perilously narrow bridge to get there, with its memorably tricky 90 degree bend, had been replaced by a wide, two-lane expanse of tarmac. The small house where I once stayed was still there, but had changed colour, from a vermillion orange to a more muted shade of maroon. An enormous new bar had appeared on a headland at Vagator beach, which boomed trance music out to sea. It was as if I were seeing the physical manifestations of change overlaying some deeper and more intangible sense of place – as if life had gone on apace in my absence, and meanwhile I had constructed new mental maps, built yet more cities in my head, only to find myself back in one that I once knew, but in which I kept getting lost. I noticed the small white chapels that lay everywhere – at a crossroads, in the middle of a field, or set back slightly from a road lined with coconut palms. How had I not seen them before? But they had always been there.

And people, too. How strange it is, and how wonderful, to meet someone again out of context, in a setting where you never expected to see them. I had last seen A. two years and several worlds ago, as a small figure walking away into the deepening chill of a Kabul night, silhouetted by the powdery shafts of headlights as the traffic streamed by, the weight of the city’s hopes and fears on his shoulders. I had looked out of the rear window of our taxi for a long time at his departing form as it got smaller and smaller, until he was swallowed up in the darkness of Afghanistan, and I had feared for him. Now here he was again, in the heat and light of India, clad in some outlandish surfer shorts decorated with the stars and stripes, grinning broadly.       

       

The heat… it hadn’t changed, but I had forgotten. It was steamy, all-enveloping, and slowed life to a crawl, making a mockery of human timetables and endeavours. I had come from the rarefied atmosphere of the Himalayas; here, at sea level, each breath seemed thick with ozone, and the smells were different: the aroma of incense, the scent of exotic flowers, the vaguely corrupted odour of windfallen fruit, the seductive, spicy fragrance of hashish and its promise of languid, lucid dreams. The heat was like being wrapped in a damp towel – stepping out of a lukewarm shower in a steamy bathroom you immediately broke out into a sweat again. To dry off I stood naked under the whoosh of the ceiling fan with arms upraised, seeking relief in its cool breeze. Over the course of the morning the sun climbed the walls, finding a way through a gap in the curtains and shining bars of hot golden light slanted across the floor. The cries of mynah birds in the surrounding trees, the chirrup of the little yellow-striped squirrels which chased each other round and round the trunks of the palms, and the deeper ‘hoop hoop hoop’ of some tropical bird falling in a descant from the jungle-clad hilltop behind the house.

In such a climate one’s shoes become immediately redundant, and they sat in the corner of the room for the duration. Instead I reverted to flip flops – or thongs, as the Australians would call them – a pair of which I had bought in a mall in Alice Springs some months before, and which immediately became baptised forever by the red dust of Goa, their soles permanently ochreous. I bought some loose cotton kurta pyjama trousers from Fabindia to wear instead of jeans. Riding around with no helmet on a 1950s-era motorcycle while clad in pyjamas and flip flops rather goes against the training and advice of the British motorcycling fraternity. Indeed, so internalised do our mental maps become, of different customs and received wisdoms, that it was hard to shake off an intense feeling of vulnerability at first – the paranoia that something might happen (I once had the same sensation riding in the UK in full armour but trainers instead of boots). Still, everyone was doing it, and soon it felt natural once again. Autre temps, autre moeurs.

Nevertheless this trip had lately been marked for me by a strange morbidity, almost like the onset of a depression. I tend to get these periodically: not, as many do, with the onset of autumn and the drawing in of the days, but paradoxically in spring – March in particular. And rather like having an inner body clock that tells me when it is tea time whatever time zone I happen to be in, having gone through three dramatically diverse climate zones in as many months, I felt the onset of vernal gloom. I found it hard to shake off the conviction that one of the many planes I needed to take was going to crash, and that while I assured myself that statistically it was highly unlikely, and that I was far more likely to immolate myself on an antique motorcycle, I knew that the figures for that year, with three Malaysian planes going down, were already improbable. I have never set much store in intuition personally, since I’ve been wrong as often as I’ve been right, but it was hard to fend off a sense of foreboding.

And then I realised that it was in fact another issue: I missed home. I felt as if I had unfinished business there, a life not yet lived, and the thought of not seeing people again was inconceivable. In this rather glum frame of mind I gazed broodingly out to sea upon beautiful beaches lined with tourists basking in the sunshine, wondering what I was doing there. I realised too that the trip had been characterised by getting stuck in places: stuck in Victoria till early January due to the trebling of air fares over Christmas; stuck in Kathmandu for a week due to a plane crashing into the airport; and now stuck in Goa when mentally I was already back home in England. I began to suffer from assorted maladies due to the climate. I felt badly designed for it: I had the wrong kind of skin, which burned in the sun, attracted every mosquito for miles around, and broke out in some kind of prickly heat rash. One night an insect flew into my ear, and it must have stayed there because I went deaf on that side, and barked at people grumpily in consequence. I missed the windswept beaches of Suffolk and the North Sea’s pebbly seethe, the vast and ever-changing skies, the air so clean and cold it was like an intoxicating draught, and the hiss of rippling reedbeds on the marshland round the town. I badly wanted to be there again.

Over the next few days, in the company of my friends, I gradually shook off my malaise. But it had been that condition of uncertainty, a state of dithering that I despised in myself, which I sought to avoid. Much of my trip so far had been spontaneous; at one point I had been set on going to Burma, so Nepal had been something of a surprise even to myself – and I had enjoyed the flexibility of not really knowing where I was going next. But I was determined to act, to lift my gaze from the cobblestones to take in my surroundings once more, so I rebooked flights home, making concrete plans. Immediately it felt like a resolution, and I felt as if I could finally appreciate where I was.

And what of the Goans themselves? They had seemed almost marginal figures on my last trip, like many permanent residents of holiday destinations, regarded by incomers as rustic figures of fun – rather lazy, indolent, unbusinesslike. They provided essential services, rented out accommodation, kept to themselves and periodically indulged in religious festivals peculiar to the area. At the time of my visit it was Shigmo – a kind of Holi – and on more than one occasion while riding late at night we got caught in traffic jams as crowds converged on a nearby temple in a chaos of colour and amplified chanting. I wondered at the fate of these placid people in their tropical heartland who had made a living largely from fishing, coconuts and spices, and had been converted to Christianity by the Portuguese, with the enforcers of the Inquisition bringing to trial some 16,000 Goans for crimes such as greeting people with the traditional Hindu “Namaste”, growing the tulsi plant which was held to be sacred, and speaking to each other in Konkani, the local language.

The Portuguese influence was perhaps most visible in the streets of Panjim, which resembled the Old Quarter of some Latin American city. Wrought iron balconies overlooked narrow, winding lanes, houses were painted a multitude of colours and high windows were flanked by heavy wooden shutters to keep out the glare. Venite was an old restaurant that might have been in Havana or Cartagena, the entrance through an ornate doorway decorated with mozaic and blue and white azulejo tiles. Punkah fans rotated lazily beneath the high ceilings, and the menu featured numerous Goan dishes whose names betrayed their Portuguese origins: balchao, sorpotel, cafreal and vindalho (known as vindaloo on UK takeaway menus, and a byword for spicyness).

Riding back over the bridge from Panjim that night, sitting behind K on her scooter, the lights of the town shone on the dark water of the river and the wind was warm. I remembered somewhere else – a sultry evening, coloured lights shimmering in the reflection of the river and the outline of palm trees. Was it Hoi An, Vietnam? Perhaps. After a while, when you’ve travelled a lot, places can begin to resemble one another, and something will suddenly remind you of somewhere else. And there was the unknown element too – the different set of rules for a different place. Technically, officially, to ride a motorcycle on a foreign licence in Goa you need to have an International Motoring Permit (£5 from the Post Office). In reality, nobody has one – few even have a licence for a motorcycle. And the advice of the locals was, if the police try to flag you down, don’t stop. It runs contrary to the internalised obedience of more organised societies. Different rules apply.     

We passed a row of small shops, and I was brought out of my reverie by the appearance of a figure staggering up the side of the road covered in blood. We began to slow as we passed him.

“Did you see that guy?” K said.

“Yes. But it might not be his blood.”

We rode on.        

My callousness felt like a rebuke. But it was true – what could we do? There were many people about, the bloodstained man was walking past several shops where he could have sought help. And, more crucially, we didn’t know the rules. Perhaps he was a notoriously violent drunk in the neighbourhood? Perhaps he had just murdered someone with a machete? Or maybe he’d fallen off his bike, couldn’t afford a taxi and was walking home. We didn’t know. I remembered one night in Zimbabwe, having got into a drunken fight outside a club with someone who turned out to be with a group of friends. Naturally they all joined in, and I got very knocked about – five against one is only going to go one way. Having somehow made my escape, walking down Arcturus Road trying to see out of two rapidly closing eyes while staunching the flow of blood from my nose, a car pulled up. It was a young African taking driving lessons from his cousin. They gave me a lift all the way home, and refused any offer of money, although they were low on petrol. And in the cycle of karma, how had I repaid this act I had never forgotten? By ignoring someone in a similar plight. So it goes.    

I had been housebound by necessity after that small scrape, and spent my days shuffling round the house, ghoulishly inspecting myself in mirrors. I sought consolation for my assorted woes in the small, book-lined study, the rows of bound volumes with their spines set afire in the glow of the afternoon sun. A French window opened out onto the terrace, and there, on those golden African afternoons of motionless cumulus clouds in a deep blue sky, with the seedpods of the Natal mahogany periodically thunking onto the canopy overhead, I first opened the book that was decorated with the blue palmprint that is the sign to ward off evil in the Arab world: Justine, by Lawrence Durrell. I was mesmerised from the first lines. So many memories transposed upon one another, a dozen interwoven lives, all played out against the backdrop of Alexandria. All the different places merged into one. And the line, which has stayed with me ever since: “A city becomes a world when one loves one of its inhabitants.” 


The City – C. P. Cavafy, as transplanted by Lawrence Durrell

You tell yourself: I’ll be gone

To some other land, some other sea,

To a city lovelier far than this

Could ever have been or hoped to be –

Where every step now tightens the noose:

A heart in a body buried and out of use:

How long, how long must I be here

Confined among these dreary purlieus

Of the common mind? Wherever now I look

Black ruins of my life rise into view.

So many years have I been here

Spending and squandering, and nothing gained.

There’s no new land, my friend, no

New sea; for the city will follow you,

In the same streets you’ll wander endlessly,

The same mental suburbs slip from youth to age,

In the same house go white at last-

The city is a cage.

No other places, always this

Your earthly landfall, and no ship exists

To take you from yourself. Ah! don’t you see

Just as you’ve ruined your life in this

One plot of ground you’ve ruined its worth

Everywhere now – over the whole earth?

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!

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.

Siklis Trek 1

IMG_7937

Trekking, hiking, tramping… whatever you want to call it, I’ve done a lot of it. And it’s a love/hate kind of thing. If, every morning for two years, you strap on your backpack over a damp shirt and head off into the morning chill, steadily climbing into the cold greyness of the mountains, it becomes just another job, albeit one with a more scenic commute than most. Like anything it can start to get old. But what you get out of it… that stays with you for life. You might remember the discomfort, but it becomes less of an issue in retrospect. You remember the views, the isolation, the self-reliance. I spent month after month living in a mountain range in Southern Africa, on the border between Zimbabwe and Mozambique. I remember watching a herd of elephants moving up a valley far below us and hearing their distant rumbling to each other; the flickering firelight in a cave picking out San Bushman cave paintings, some as recent as 150 years old; the timeless passage of the torn clouds across the jagged outline of the peaks in the ever-changing mountains. In these experiences I belatedly recognise that I was extraordinarily privileged to have lived them, and that they changed me. You remember the inner resources that you didn’t know you had, and which you drew on again and again, training your will in just the same way that you train your muscles. “We are all capable of more than we realise,” said the inevitable motivational poster at Outward Bound Zimbabwe, quoting the founder Kurt Hahn. “If only we can be brought to realise this, we may never be prepared to settle for anything less.”

Dilmaya Treks came highly recommended by an old friend, so I gave them a call and got through to Bikash. He proposed a four day itinerary, hiking into the Annapurna Conservation Area, staying in small village homestays overnight. As treks go in Nepal this was a short one – the full Annapurna circuit takes around three weeks, and crosses high passes (several trekkers had died along with their Nepali guides on the Thorung La at 5,400 metres the previous year when a storm blew in) – but we felt it was enough for us. The Siklis Trek saw a fraction of the visitor numbers of other short treks in the region, and promised spectacular scenery, if the weather held.

At 8.30 the next morning we were collected by a jeep and driven through the suburbs of Pokhara to a bus stand in the village of Chansu, where we met our guide Mana – a smiling, wiry 26-year-old in an Arsenal shirt, who came from the village of Siklis, where we would be heading. I wondered if the local bus was part of the ‘cultural experience’ which would add colour to the tales of western tourists heading to Nepal for the first time. As a veteran of countless local bus rides in India I wasn’t looking forward to it, but it wasn’t too bad – although all the seats were taken there was no livestock in evidence, there was no parade of the horribly afflicted down the aisle at every stop in search of alms, and nobody was sick on the floor. The road was rough, though – the passengers’ heads jerked back and forth as the bus lurched from side to side, and due to the misplaced sense of civic duty at Pokhara’s roads department, we were catapulted out of our seats every few seconds by speed bumps for several minutes. Eventually we left the road altogether and drove up a river, which was considerably smoother, before grinding our way up an escarpment, the tyres slipping in large muddy puddles. “Too much mood,” said Mana, whose English had an idiosyncratic charm. “After raining, sleep.” We had a brief English lesson on the sounds of “uh”, “ah” , and “ooh”, which was brought to a premature halt by the appearance of another oncoming bus. After a brief standoff with much carolling of airhorns the two vehicles somehow squeezed past each other with around a centimetre to spare, and we resumed our merry journey, periodically being flung out of our seats again to a wailing club mix version of a Nepali song which had been constructed by twiddling the autotune as far as it would go in every direction.

Eventually we came to the end of the road, pulling up in what looked like a building site – just across the road was what looked like a barracks with a large sign in Chinese over the entrance. It was a Chinese work camp for a dam they were constructing. To the sound of jackhammers and a digger truck nosing at piles of earth we disembarked from the bus, hoisted the backpacks onto our shoulders and set off along a path up the hillside, following two local Gurung ladies who carried large bamboo baskets full of provisions on their backs by means of a strap around their foreheads. Both were in their 50s, wearing headscarves, traditional dress and slip-on shoes (I later saw a granny wearing an enormous pair of tweed Marks and Spencer-style slippers on a mountain trail), and they carried on a spirited conversation as they climbed, while I stumbled after them, adjusting waist belt and shoulder straps, already short of breath.

After about quarter of an hour walking up a road with a significant incline, Mana abruptly halted next to a track that veered off up the bank of the hill. “End of road,” he announced. I looked up at the track with a mild sense of foreboding, knowing the all too familiar sensations. I’d brought far too much stuff, and was carrying the 70 litre orange rucksack which comes with wheels nattily attached for wheeling it through airports and suchlike. Unfortunately this meant that the rucksack already weighed three-and-a-half kilos when empty. I tightened the waistbelt as far as it would go and started trudging upwards. Soon the sound of the jackhammer in the valley below faded away, replaced by birdsong, the trickle of water and occasional fragments of conversation from the Gurung women ahead of us.

After about 40 minutes we approached a small collection of huts. “You want tea?” Mana asked. “Last tea before tonight.” We did. Inside a small shack a couple of charpoy beds made of woven bamboo were just visible in the darkness. We decided instead to sit outside in the sunshine, and little wicker stools were brought which we crouched upon, while a small boy chased baby goats from a pen next to the tea shack. After corralling a few together, a wicker basket like the ones carried by the Gurung women were placed over them, and they huddled inside bleating feebly. The boy picked up the smallest goat which had escaped, and cradling it in his arms, kissed it on the head, before his mother abruptly seized it and deposited it back under the basket. Tea arrived, served without milk – all the tea we had in the mountains was black – and I ate a Mountain Man muesli bar, while Sal had one of the oranges she’d bought from a vendor in Pokhara. The only one, as it turned out – the rest were still back at the hotel in Pokhara, perfuming the store-room.

There’s an old Buddhist saying which has regained currency in myriad self-help books, about being in the present moment. You can’t change the past, no-one can predict the future – just be here, present in the moment right now. I’ve found climbing a mountain to be the best way of achieving this state of mind. With your view constrained to the path just a few yards ahead of you, with only the occasional glance upwards to take in the view, your mind begins to turn in on itself as you trudge along. Past conversations replay themselves, you hear songs in your head that you haven’t heard for years (I had Radio Gaga by Queen playing on a loop for a while, which I think featured on Now 4 in about 1984). Sections of film dialogue replay themselves; most of mine seemed to be from the kind of stiff-upper-lip black and white British films of the 40s and 50s – John Mills as a Naval Officer addressing a group of British PoWs who had escaped through Scandinavia (was it Sink the Bismark?) “Well, now that you chaps are back from your winter sports holiday in Sweden, perhaps we can get some work done!” Sheepish laughter. You think about how far you have to go, which is depressing (another two hours at least), then focus on getting to the top of the next ten steps instead. Then, suddenly, you snap out of it and realise you’ve been drifting, and you come back to the present moment, until you find yourself thinking of nothing at all – just one foot in front of the other, and you forget you are even thinking. But nagging discomforts intruded. My shirt was soaked in sweat, my left shoulder strap was rubbing, and I had a hot spot on the underside of my big toe, which did not bode well. I remembered a documentary on the Royal Marines where the Commanding Officer said: “What we’re looking for essentially is someone who is able to overlook discomfort and maintain a high level of alertness in spite of considerable amounts of it”. Considerable amounts of discomfort – sounds about right. Then, arriving at a kind of stone plinth with an inscription in Nepali, Mana stopped. It was a memorial to the royal family, killed in a massacre by Crown Prince Dipendra in 2001, which led to political turmoil, coinciding as it did with an increasingly violent Maoist insurgency, and the eventual abolition of the monarchy entirely. At the memorial we rested for a while, sucking at water bottles, taking in the view of the valley below, and the distant snowcapped peaks towards which we were heading.

The triangular peak of Machhapuchhare, ‘Fishtail Mountain’, is visible from all over Pokhara on a clear day, puncturing the skyline like a parodic Swiss Alp on a muesli packet. But from here it was a giant. Above us stretched the Annapurna Range: Annapurna I, II, III and IV, Lamjung Himal, then more gigantic peaks disappearing into the clouds which billowed up from the valley. The hillside opposite was terraced almost all the way down into the gorge, and in the distance we could see the roofs of the village of Siklis – perhaps 3 kilometres as the crow flies, but the wrong side of the valley as the human trudges. We set off once more, onwards and upwards, the path snaking round the folds of the hillside. I resumed my mental playlist of old movies, somewhere on a rainy afternoon in England in my mind.
(“What the devil do you mean by coming in here dressed like that!” “He likes your lemonade.” “Broadsword calling Danny Boy.” “Tea, sir? It’s jolly cold tonight. Thank you, number one.”)

Then, suddenly, a building came into view ahead. “Tangting”, proclaimed Mana. It was our halt for the night. The entrance to the village was marked by a stone archway, in which we posed for a picture, and then a sign caught my eye: “Welcome to Tangting, twinned with Debden and Wimbish, Essex, UK.” It was bizarre. I once worked in Debden, one of the large post-war housing estates surrounding London, constructed to accommodate Eastenders who had been bombed out during the Blitz. There could be no greater contrast with Tangting. Small houses of rough stone with carved wooden window frames lined the terraces, and we walked through the village, occasionally halting while Mana conversed with women wearing shawls. It didn’t sound like Nepali – these were Gurung villages, a Tibeto-Burmese people who had originated in western Tibet, and the language was full of ‘dz’ sounds, spoken almost through clenched teeth, making sound rather like Tibetan. “Ah la la,” we heard a lot. I never did find out what it meant, but later, when I asked Mana the word for “let’s go”, I couldn’t make out if he said “jam jam”, “cham cham”, or “dzam dzam”. It was a kind of combination of all three.

Having walked almost the entire length of the village we clambered over a few wooden poles that acted as a gate and descended onto a long terrace of bare earth set before a whitewashed building. There was a small thatched hut with open sides, in which red plastic chairs were stacked, and three were brought and set out upon the terrace. Before us the view fell away as stone-walled terraces descended steeply down the hillside, mirroring those across the valley. Some were lying fallow, others full of crops: wheat that was an almost luminous green, millet, potatoes and spinach. Black tea was brought in handled glasses, with sugar in a small copper bowl – something which was replicated in every village we stayed in. In the corner of the terrace a tap with a short length of hosepipe dribbled continuously over a pile of metal dishes. We were offered noodle soup for lunch, which turned out to be Maggi noodles – spicy masala flavour – and which, after our hike, tasted wonderful. Exhausted by the unaccustomed exertion, we retired to our room, which had rough clay walls, a couple of beds with very thin mattresses and thick kapok quilts, and both passed out.

Emerging again onto the terrace at dusk, it seemed that preparations for dinner were underway. Two figures bowed under bamboo baskets clambered down the steps and deposited their loads on the terrace – the woman carried vegetables, and the man’s basket was full of firewood. He wore green Wellington boots and army fatigues, and having stacked the wood he retired to the tap, slipped off his boots, and carefully washed his feet. The kitchen was next door to a stable in which a large buffalo lay on a bed of straw, endlessly chewing the cud. As I approached it ceased chewing momentarily and swivelled its head to watch me for a while, before its jaws resumed their mechanical side-to-side rotation once more. Dinner was to be dal bhat, which Nepalis eat twice a day: a bowl of lentil soup which is tipped over a mound of rice, a leafy green vegetable such as spinach or kale, spicy tomato chutney, and some kind of vegetable curry. This was accompanied by a plate of raw carrots, although sometimes ‘moola’, a large radish, is used instead. It’s a remarkably healthy diet, supplying all the vitamins and protein one requires, but it does take some getting used to.

The bathroom was a dank, concrete floored room with a hole in the ground, which had another cold tap with hose attachment that dribbled into a bucket. It did not look especially inviting. In consequence I zipped myself into my sleeping bag still feeling sticky after the day’s walk, shivering in the chill air at 1,700 metres – we had climbed nearly a kilometre from Pokhara. I was glad of the rented sleeping bag though – after a bout of bedbugs in Ladakh I regarded the quilt with some suspicion, and spent the first few minutes imagining itches all over me. Many of the shops selling trekking gear in Pokhara also rent equipment, and rates are standardised – 80 rupees a day for a used sleeping bag, 100 rupees for a new one. But the first place we went to wanted 10,000 rupees deposit – $100, an outrageous amount for a $20 used sleeping bag. We walked out. In the second place we tried, despite extensive haggling, the shopkeeper wouldn’t go below 4000 rupees each. “What can I do?” she said. “I have to follow orders.” Clearly they were making money out of the fact that many travellers seemed to not bother returning the bags, and I imagined the elaborate dissembling when it came to claiming your deposit back. Oh, the owner is not here but will be back later. Come again this evening at 7. Come tomorrow. There’s a tear in the bag that wasn’t there before. The average western tourist, not known for their patience on an Asian timescale, and quite possibly with a bus or plane to catch, might well just throw in the towel and consider the deposit lost.

We thought we’d try one last place. Four Seasons Trekking Equipment, next to the Hotel Tropicana, had a nice array of neon-coloured bags hanging outside. Two pouting princesses behind the counter who were both deeply engrossed in their phones detached themselves long enough to fetch two bags down. They were North Face copies, claiming to be good to -10C, and seemed in good condition. And the deposit, we enquired?
“One thousand rupees each.”
We hid our surprise well, and handed over the cash. We’d gone from being offered two ratty-looking sleeping bags for $100 deposit to two nice condition ones for just $10. And as it turned out, the bags were great – warm, comfortable and clean. So, as good service should be acknowledged, Four Seasons Trekking in Pokhara. Highly recommended.

Despite the bed being as hard as a board, we were worn out, and waking in the dark and peering blearily at my phone I was surprised to see it was half past seven in the morning. The room was pitch black due to the heavy wooden shutters – there was no glass in the windows. Emerging onto the terrace I encountered Mana who was strolling up and down while brushing his teeth. “Good sleep?” he enquired. Yes. Very. Breakfast was two hardboiled eggs with a couple of chapattis, and more black tea with sugar. We underwent the tedious business of packing up the bags again, and by 8.30am we were ready. But there was a small ceremony to be undergone: the lady of the house appeared with a large metal plate containing what looked like some kind of lumpy white paste. She dabbed a pinch of it onto our foreheads and placed a white scarf around our necks. Blessings for the road ahead. With a blob of cold rice pudding stuck between my eyes, my shirt still damp from the day before and sun cream smearing my glasses, I felt particularly unpleasant, and as I started walking, clumps of the stuff began to detach, leaving a small trail of gruel down my nose. Round the first bend I discretely wiped it off with the handy scarf I had just acquired, hoping I wasn’t removing any kind of spiritual protection as a result.

We followed the contours of the hill for a while, traversing across it; there were a few sharp ascents up rough-hewn stone steps, but mostly we were on the level. Then we began to descend, down to a wire suspension bridge perhaps 150 metres long, which swayed and thrummed to our footsteps. We entered woodland, and the descent steepened – it was hard on the knees, and I found that I became even hotter than I had going uphill the day before; sweat was pouring off me. By the time we reached the river at the bottom of the gorge my legs were like jelly. And now we had to go up the other side, a climb that lasted two-and-a-half hours. It was like ascending a steep spiral staircase that never seemed to end – we zigzagged back and forth across the hillside, pausing periodically to let our racing heart-rates slow down to more manageable levels. I remembered all this only too well. I thought of times that I had undergone vigorous exercise: on a rowing machine, or cycling up a hill, and how my heart would thump until it felt like it would burst. But that had been for only a few minutes at a time; here it was more or less continuous, hour after hour. My throat was parched from breathing through my mouth in an attempt to get enough oxygen, and I forced myself to slow down and pause more often, trying to keep breathing steadily through my nose.

“Slowly slowly,” said Mana with a grin, as he stepped effortlessly upwards. This was a guy who had undergone the famously difficult selection for the Gurkhas twice, but had failed to qualify. The Gurkhas have served in the British Army since 1815, and most of their recruits are Gurungs, from the Annapurna region. With the salary of a regular British soldier being many times that of the average Nepalese, competition for places is fierce. The selection, held in Pokhara each year, involves a series of gruelling physical tests, one of which is a 5km run uphill carrying a 25kg load in a bamboo basket. And it’s not some gentle incline – uphill here means painfully steep. There are accounts of prospective recruits being so determined to pass that they continue running even with broken bones.

But, for whatever reason, despite his phenomenal fitness, Mana had failed to qualify. Now, at 26, he was too old, and despite having a good job with Himalayan Encounters, a large trekking firm, and the expeditions with Dilmaya, he still carried the disappointment with him. He had friends who had made it, who were now in the British Army, and others who had joined the Singapore Police, which also uses Gurkhas. Still, he loved his job, as it took him into the wild places, away from the pollution and noise of the city. “Here is clean,” he said. “Food is clean, water pure. Not getting sick.” Then he made a joke. “In village of Siklis, you get sick less.” It was quite good, really, and deserved a better response than the feeble laugh I gave as I was struggling up the hill under my enormous backpack. I had covertly picked up his pack at Tangting and discovered that it weighed about half what mine did. Although he offered to swap, I was determined to carry on with it, telling myself that I used to carry twice as much weight – 20kg or more. Admittedly that had been 20 years or more ago, but still. Onwards and upwards. Jam jam. Ah la la.

The Memory of Water

“I want to know what it says,” he answered, looking steadily in her face. “The sea Floy, what is it that it keeps on saying?”
She told him that it was only the noise of the rolling waves.
“Yes, yes,” he said. “But I know they are always saying something.”
Charles Dickens – Dombey and Son.     

 

Water inspires reflection – we project our thoughts and preoccupations upon it, and they come back to us reflected in its depths. Looking into the still, calm waters of Lake Phewa Tal in Pokhara I remember all the other bodies of water that I have sat in front of, quietly contemplating: the chill pebbly seethe of the North Sea on a beach in England; the vast, deep Pacific blue in Australia, the heat of the sun and the surface fragmenting into countless silver ripples; a glassy mountain pool in Connemara which reflected perfectly the rounded forms of the peaks that surrounded it. And I remembered the preoccupations and anxieties that I had at the time – where to go, what to do, if this didn’t work then would that? How distant it all seems now, how silly the worries. I look into the water in search of answers, and of course find none.

In his film Bitter Lake (2015), Adam Curtis refers to an old Soviet sci-fi movie called Solaris (1972). In it, a group of space explorers discover a vast sea, and in an attempt to influence it they bombard it with X-rays. What they don’t realise is that the sea merely reflects the rays back at them, irradiating them in turn, which causes them to experience a series of deja-vu memories so powerful that they no longer know what reality is. Curtis uses Solaris as a metaphor for the West’s policy towards Afghanistan – one where western politicians created a narrative that seemed to work because it had clear cut roles of good and evil. In the words of one British officer who fought in Helmand, “If they are shooting at us, they are Taliban”. But that was to grotesquely distort the endlessly fluctuating and evolving allegiances of localised Afghan politics, in which the British became just one more actor – one who, as an outsider, numerous groups with different aims united against. And the more this happened, the more heavily the British drew on their preconceived narrative, thus creating a vicious circle. As Curtis says:

Few [in the West] stopped to think that what had happened to the Russians 20 years before might also happen to them. That in a strange way, Afghanistan has revealed to us the emptiness and hypocrisy of many of our beliefs, and that we may be returning from there also haunted by mujaheddin ghosts, knowing that underneath, we believe in nothing.”

Bitter Lake is a strange, disturbing and beautiful film. It is quintessential Curtis, making connections, putting things in a context in such a way as to highlight the paucity of the mainstream media and their endlessly episodic coverage with a total absence of context, like a baying mob rushing off in one direction to cover a story, then dropping it and rushing back the way they came to cover something else. The Guardian’s review praised it to the skies; The Telegraph rather grudgingly acknowledged its stunning footage, while criticising the simplicity of some of its conclusions (without being able to actually challenge any of them specifically). And there’s certainly some truth in the accusation, that in the wake of so many political ideologies, and the rise and fall of governments and regimes, what do we in the West actually believe in any longer? The free market? Badly dented, I’d say. Liberalism? We can’t even agree on a common meaning of the word between the United Kingdom and the United States. Shopping? Possibly. We may criticise the jihadis for their nihilism – Australian PM Tony Abbott’s laughable phrase “death cult” makes them sound like a bunch of teenage satanists – but in fact is there not a nihilistic void at the heart of the West these days too? The old simplified narrative of good vs. evil hasn’t served us terribly well these last ten years or so. As for being haunted by those ghosts, they grow in the fertile ground of Western society – in its freedoms (which governments immediately rush to curtail in the wake of an attack), and in its emptiness.


Sitting on the balcony of Sacred Valley Inn feels like being in a treehouse – the limbs of a strangler fig loop through the balustrade and curl around the pillars. Branches and foliage are within arm’s reach, a green bower through which numerous small birds flit and chirp. One of the trees has a cascade of flowers perhaps 20 feet long, a curtain of orange hanging downwards past the balcony, and the sunlight filters through the leaves in dappled patterns of green and gold. In the distance the summit of Machhapuchhare spikes the horizon like an incisor, a perfect isosceles peak of dark grey granite and permanent snow – Himal, in Nepali. It has never been climbed, due to a prohibition on doing so for what might be termed spiritual reasons. Off to the left looms the ominous bulk of Annapurna. From Sarangkot hilltop in front of it a small swarm of paragliders spiral slowly, hanging in the air like midges. Pokhara is said to be one of the best paragliding sites in the world, due to a combination of spectacular scenery, calm conditions and abundant thermals. Indeed one company offers parahawking, where you follow specially trained raptors to the thermals, the birds periodically returning to your glove in mid-flight for a small snack.

I like to stay in a place for three nights, as a rule, to get a feel for it. After the initial relief of having found somewhere to recover from a long journey, you settle into a place and begin to observe the subtleties of day to day life, observing the routine. I had initially checked in to the Hotel Tropicana, which lay towards the northern end of the lakeside strip, and was marginally quieter and cheaper than the busier places along the central section. Its rooftop offered a spectacular view out across Lake Phewa Tal, hillsides descending to the water in serried ranks like folds of cloth, the dark green forested flanks becoming hazy and pale until they dissolved into the distance in shades of muted grey. Of the two rooftop rooms, the other was occupied by a man in his early 50s who gave me a nod of acknowledgement as I ascended the spiral staircase, but seemed short on conversation. It turned out Thierry was French, here for the paragliding, and was rather embarrassed about his lack of English. We agreed that he should try to speak it, and I would speak French, thus putting us both at an equal disadvantage. We named the rooftop terrace between the two rooms Le Channel. Vive l’entente cordiale.

The Tropicana has been going a long time – it got a mention in Lonely Planet 20 years ago and has been trading on it ever since. There was no restaurant, but the rooms were in reasonable condition, and they had thoughtfully placed a wifi router on the roof so it was possible to get internet in every room. The first night, in search of a place for dinner, and wanting to avoid the crowds and loud music of the central strip, I found a small family run restaurant called Laughing Buddha, and had the usual Nepalese staple of dal bhat – a thin lentil soup, which one tipped over a big mound of rice, mixing it together, vegetable curry, and a spicy kind of pickle, all served in a compartmentalised metal tray. It cost about 100 rupees – remarkably cheap for the area. I decided to head back there for breakfast the next morning, and bumped into Thierry on the rooftop; he appeared to be doing some sort of yoga facing the lake. I asked if he’d had breakfast yet.
“Not yet. But my friends too can come? I shall invite. It’s good, this place?”
“Oui, c’est pas mal. Meme petit dejeuner mais moins cher, you know?”

The owner, a cheerful Nepali lady wearing a number of shawls, was happy to see me again. She was even happier when Thierry’s friends arrived – eight of them, all Frenchmen in their 40s or 50s. We commandeered most of the seats in the place, and she did a valiant job of sorting through all the different orders. The conversation, which was all in French, was mostly about paragliding, and I joined in as best I could – although due to a minor confusion on my part between embouteillage and atterissage, I asked them how one got stuck in a traffic jam at the end of the flight. I was the last to finish, as the others had to get ready for the day’s flight, and as I was paying the owner asked me: “You are Russians?”
I laughed. “No – I’m English, but my friends are French.”
“French.” She frowned. “But same language?”
“Different. But I am speaking French.”
Her husband, who had been loitering nearby, asked her something in Nepali. She translated: “France. It’s near America?”
“No, is far across the sea. The Atlantic Ocean.”
“Oh, Atlantic!” She smiled. “Thank you for coming.”

Towards nightfall the northern end of Lakeside developed something of a village atmosphere. Groups of people crouched around small fires at the edge of the road, men, women and children all enjoying the warmth. There was something very sociable about this life lived largely out of doors, and it’s something which one notices the lack of in Europe, where everyone retreats indoors at nightfall. Previously I have put it down to weather: in the tropical parts of Asia it feels natural to be out of doors late at night, rather than in the chill of a northern European winter. But in Pokhara at night the temperature drops to three degrees. It’s not the weather – it’s a different cultural climate. The dogs that ran wild everywhere formed allegiances, had scuffles, went trotting off all together on barking expeditions, and returned to lay down and sleep in a bundle in a shop doorway. Occasionally a cow would wander past. A small child that had been standing near a fire had a tantrum, and picking up a wicker stool, threw it into the road; it was indulged with benevolent laughter. The stool lay in the centre of the road, and a passing motorbike slowed, the pillion kicking the stool out of the lane. It came to rest a few yards away. A bike coming from the other direction swerved around it, then did a U-turn, the rider kicking the stool back where it came from. Meanwhile the group around the fire watched the progress of the stool up and down the road impassively. Finally a shopkeeper on the other side of the road wandered across, picked it up and returned it to the fireside.

I needed a haircut, and found a place on the main drag. A few days earlier Bishnu at Sacred Valley had told me that all the barbers in Pokhara were Indian – as well as the vendors pushing bicycles laden with fruit – and this turned out to be correct; the barber was from Bihar, one of the poorest and most badly governed states in India. He asked me where I was from, and on hearing London, grinned broadly and said: “Nice!” Yeah, it’s alright, I told him, mentally picturing him working in a hairdressers on Old Street or the like. He would, I decided, pretty quickly lose the sparkly knitted tank top in favour of a black T-shirt with some gnomic logo of wry postmodern wit. The short-back-and-sides would be replaced with a mass of gelled spikes. The sandals exchanged for trainers and nylon slacks for skinny jeans, soon he would outwardly resemble a hip young Londoner – but beneath the surface he’d still be a skinny boy from Bihar. He was young, in his early 20s by the look of him, and had a kind of robust peasant resilience at odds with his small frame. Offered a choice between a long, medium or short haircut, I erred on the side of medium, and he began snipping away with an enormous pair of scissors that looked more like garden shears. An expensive-looking gold watch dangled from his thin wrist – that would go too, I decided, in favour of an iPhone. As with all the Indian haircuts I have experienced, this one seemed to take an inordinate amount of time, and I came to realise that in the absence of any other customers, time wasn’t really of the essence – he seemed to be more concerned with doing the best possible job, while making the most of the marketing opportunity of having a westerner in the shop in full visibility of the street outside. To this end he spent a great deal of time trimming around the neck and the backs of the ears. Then, climbing on a nearby chair, he fetched down a large bottle of murky brown liquid from a shelf overhead.

“What’s this?” I enquired, wary of brylcream or the like.
“Vile, sar. Hair vile. Very good.”
“Alright then – but not too much.” He slapped some ‘vile’ on top of my head and smeared it in. India (and Nepal) must be one of the last places on earth to use hair oil, and indeed moustache wax, until the advent of the hipster. It smelled vaguely medicinal but not unpleasant. He began massaging my head, tilting it back in the chair and drumming on top of my crown, periodically giving finger-snapping flourishes rather like a cocktail barman putting on a show. It felt pretty good.

“You wanting shaving, sar? Very nice, clean blade, hard water?”
I eyed my greying stubble in the mirror, and thought… in for a pound (or a pound fifty). “OK, shaving,” I told him. Happily he went off to fetch various shaving items – a large cut-throat razor into which he inserted a new blade, proudly showing me as he did so. A shaving brush and soap which he worked into a lather. And a small pot of water into which he would periodically dip his fingers, prior to wiping them carefully over my face. It made me think of the brahmin concept of ritual purification, where even a finger-flick of water could purify a room. Having deftly passed the blade over my increasingly shiny jowls a few times, wiping the lather off on his thumb, he took what looked like a rock out of a drawer, wetted it a little with a few droplets from his fingers, and rubbed it over my face. It stung.

“What is this now?” I asked.
“Alum antiseptic. Very nice.” My face was burning. Fortunately this state of affairs did not last long, as he took down a bottle of bright green liquid, splashed some liberally into his cupped palms, and smeared it over me. It felt immediately cool, but then the fumes began to hit me. An eyewatering smell made its presence known. I squinted, trying to make out the label on the bottle without my glasses on. “Dettol?”
“Denim, sar. Very good aftershave. Full power!”
“I’ll say.”
Finally it came, as I was expecting it would. “How can I working in London sar?”
Inwardly I sighed, not wanting to dash his hopes, but more importantly not wanting to encourage them. What illusions did he have? What mental picture of that grey city? I thought about the Greek Cypriot who cut my hair in London for fifteen quid a time, spoke about nothing but the varying fortunes of Chelsea football club and went on holiday to a caravan park in Essex. “It’s very difficult. Almost impossible. You have to know someone.” That put it in terms he could understand, at least, and he silently contemplated it as he snipped away.

Getting to Pokhara had meant stopping overnight in Kathmandu again. Marooned by a strike on a hilltop in Nagarkot overlooking the Himalayan range, things could’ve been worse. It was another bandh – no taxis or buses were running to Kathmandu, and even Bhaktapur, only 15km down the hill, was out of bounds: “Very tight bandh,” the receptionist at the end of the universe informed me. So I sat and looked at the mountains, watching them change subtly throughout the day, different peaks appearing as the cloud lifted, others vanishing from sight until their presence was only an imprint on the memory. At the end of the universe, the world came to you. Various people arrived throughout the day – a group of taciturn Russians, two American girls who had set off a year ago for Budapest and were now somehow in Nepal, and planning on heading to Tibet, and another American lady who had been at a conference in Delhi. India had been something of a shock for her – the noise, the pollution, but most of all the hassle, and she was soaking up the tranquility of Nagarkot. She looked pretty frazzled by it all, and spoke in the mildly disbelieving tones of a survivor of some disaster:

“So I had this list of places I wanted to go: Red Fort, Qutub Minar, Jama Masjid, you know. And I figured I’d go to the Red Fort in the morning with my colleague from the conference. Well, nobody spoke English! And every five yards it was ‘Madam, taxi? Rickshaw? You look in my shop?’ We got a taxi to the Red Fort, and it took like an hour and a half to get there! Then there were these guys – kids, really – who just followed us the whole time, making these comments in Hindi. And we got jostled a bit.”
I made sympathetic noises – she appeared to be on the verge of tears.
“And having to haggle over everything. I just hate it. My husband always did it, but I just give in and end up paying way too much.” She seemed a gentle soul who was severely conflict-averse; even the play acting involved in haggling was too aggressive for her.

At this point, the waiter brought her bill. One small pot of tea. 120 rupees. She only had a thousand note. The waiter went searching through his wallet for change, and then called over the receptionist. Together they checked if they had the correct change, but they didn’t. I thought I might have a five hundred, and pulled out my own wallet. Another of the employees wandered over to see what was going on, and pulled out his own bundle of notes from a shirt pocket to helpfully join in. Protracted conversation in Nepali ensued. While we were doing this, she got more and more apologetic and flustered, writhing in embarrassment at having caused all this fuss. “It’s fine,” I told her. “It’s all part of the fun. Participatory paradigm.” Eventually she got her change somehow, and with profuse thanks she fled.

After a few days in a place you not only get to see the routine; you come to know the characters as well. There was the local guy who was a head taller than the others, emphasised by his ramrod posture – there was something military in his bearing. He wore a tracksuit top with the word “Georgia” across the back – or rather, what had once been the word Georgia: the white laminated letters had all peeled off apart from the G and part of the E, leaving just a pale outline. In the early morning chill he used to wear a scarf wrapped around his head and tied under the chin, like a man with toothache. You could hear him coming across the flagstones of the patio, the measured click of his worn heels on the stone. With chiselled features and a strong jawline he could have been described as handsome, and despite the worn, hand-me-down clothes, and the odd-looking scarf arrangement, he exuded dignity in everything he did.

There was another local who was quite different in his manner. He was young, in his mid-twenties perhaps, and he had an adolescent cheekiness, as if he didn’t really give a toss and wanted you to know it too. He’d bring tea then pour it out carelessly, slopping it over the table, and his eyes were laughing at his own insolence. I laughed straight back at him, especially when he poured it over his own shoes. He was clearly angry about something – not in the way that you sometimes encounter in a society of great inequality; the kind of ‘why do you have so much and I so little’ that you can sometimes experience, particularly with young men, but something deeper. He thought he was above all this – that was the vibe he gave off, and so his every gesture was marked by a subtle insubordination, even when none was merited.

I tried to talk to him, to figure out what was going on with him, but there was a wall. He was well informed, talking about the cost of living in different cities – he knew that Sydney, Tokyo and Oslo were all said to be more expensive than London, and was contemptuous of many Nepalese who dreamed of going to such places – but it was all part of the general conspiracy against him personally. His manner was so at odds with the rest of the staff, who were all courteous and friendly without being overly deferential, that I commented on it in my diary. As it turned out, I wasn’t the only one who had noticed.

The next morning I heard voices raised. The boss, who had been away in India, was tearing a strip off someone. It was all in Nepali, but then I caught the English words: “Too clever for your own good.” I knew at once who it was – the sentence summed it up exactly. There were a few more words exchanged and then the sound of feet running heavily away, down the stairs that led to the road. Later I learned from another staff member that some foreign guests had left an iPhone behind some weeks earlier. The angry young guy had pocketed it, then intercepted the emails from the owner to the hotel requesting its return. This had become more and more convoluted when the hotel management replied, as he played the part of the phone’s owner, asking for it to be sent to an address in Kathmandu. But the receptionist, checking the emails on the hotel computer, became suspicious of the distinctly Nepali-sounding English in the intercepted mails, and notified the manager. The whole thing was uncovered, and he was dismissed on the spot, and told he was lucky not to get arrested.

The receptionist was also young, in his twenties, but something set him apart. He had a softness of manner and a quiet intelligence, and dressed differently to the other staff members – more stylishly somehow, “like a Westerner – I thought he was another guest at first,” as one person pointed out. One night, sitting in the lounge during a power cut, just the two of us alone lit by a solitary candle, I asked him about himself. Perhaps the darkness conferred a kind of confidentiality, but he spoke quite openly about his life, all the time in a low murmur that made me lean forward in order to hear:

I grew up in a village not far from here – you can just see it in the valley there. It’s very small. I went to school for a while, but it was bad – the teacher was often absent, and I know now that the English lessons were not good, because my English is very bad. I began to work in the bazaar in Nagarkot, selling things sometimes, then later as a hotel tout. I would wait at the bus stand all day, and if a bus arrived with foreigners, I would go to them and say – excuse me, there is a good hotel, hot water, power, very good price – and if they came with me the owner would give me a small commission. Always to this hotel. But there were many other touts, and you see me – my body is very small! – so they would push me away, sometimes even they are beating me. But I knew this was a good hotel, and the owner rewarded me. I did this for a few years. Then later I got a job in the hotel kitchen, just washing things, you know, fetching from the market. I didn’t like the kitchen. But sometimes the cook was away, and I would cook. Then I would take customer orders from the table, and be a waiter sometimes. Many years I did the waiting on customers, and I enjoyed it – I talk to many interesting people from all over the world. I learn about the places where they are from, and slowly I come to improve my English. Then one day I cover for reception. That first morning the telephone rings: it is a foreigner who wants to make a booking. I am so nervous I am shaking! But I find the diary and I check the dates and I make the booking. The boss is very pleased. So he puts me on reception. It is an honour – I am the first person the guest sees when they come in. The owner now, they know they can trust me, and the guests too. ‘Customer is king’, we say here. I have been on reception five years now. And I am happy – serving the guests. This is all I want to do.

The Hotel at the End of the Universe

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.”

“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.

 

 

 

 

2015/01/img_7396-0.jpg

Boudha

Don’t trust anyone. Act like a boss. Get a second opinion, and a third. Fake it till you make it. All the various banal aphorisms that come to mind apply. You’re in freefall, cut loose from all the ties that bind you and the pillars that support, with nothing between you and the abyss but the honesty of your smile until it starts to falter and whatever inner resources you happen to possess until they run out. Travel is upheaval, and upheaval is necessary for growth… to strip away the extraneous, the superfluous, and get a step closer to just being.

The Hotel Florid had one glaring flaw in an otherwise charming place. Noise. It was unspeakably noisy. In part this was due to the building that was being constructed next door, with consequent hammering and drilling all day. Mostly it was due to the underground car park opposite, which closed the metal sliding door at 9pm. Anyone arriving after that time and wishing to extract their vehicle had to hammer on the metal gate in order to wake the guard, usually while shouting. The guard would emerge blearily from his cabin, and then, because the gate had come off its runners, would insert a stick between the gratings and pry it one shrieking foot at a time, like giant fingernails scraping down a blackboard, on and on and on. This happened around half a dozen times a night, and was easily audible through Australian YHA earplugs. This, coupled with the Englishman who made an obnoxiously loud phone call at 1.30 in the morning from the hallway outside my door (“Well really it’s a question of available funds, haw haw!” he brayed across three acres of chilly foyer in that phony self-effacing way that marks out a certain type of Englishman – 50-something, public school, obnoxious and of dubious inclinations). I decided I had to find somewhere quieter at all costs.

Don’t trust anyone. That is to say, seek a second opinion. The Lonely Planet Book of Lies mentioned the site of Boudha, also known as Bodnath, as being a tranquil escape from the bustle of Thamel. “Stay on after the daytrippers have headed back to the city and you’ll virtually have the place to yourself!” it enthused. There were a number of small guesthouses listed, mostly used by visiting pilgrims, and at random I selected Pema Guesthouse solely on the strength that it lay next door to Lotus Guesthouse and therefore had a plan B close to hand. I asked the helpful receptionist at Florid how much a taxi would be. “Not more than 700 rupees,” he said.”Maybe 600″. I pictured some peaceful village just 5 km outside Kathmandu, topped by a golden stupa. It sounded perfect.

But before I made my way there I was due to meet a Nepali friend from university at the Himalayan Java Cafe near the Garden of Dreams, and headed there by taxi. He was working in the development sector, and as we sat on a sunny balcony over cappuccinos while traffic roared by on Kaser Marg below us he spoke of million-dollar budgets, projects moving from the proposal to the implementation stage, seniority gradings of P5 through to P7, and many other things I hadn’t encountered since university. It was nice to encounter a familiar face again, and we discussed mutual friends and reminisced about life in the UK. Taking advantage of his local knowledge, I asked how much he thought a taxi might be to Boudha. “Not more than 300,” he said adamantly.

Turned out he was exactly right. The first taxi that pulled over, I asked the driver – a young guy wearing a surgical mask – how much to Boudha. “300 rupees sir.” For the sake of form I said 200, but he pointed to the snarl of traffic ahead and said again 300. It seemed fair. Squeezing into the back seat beside my enormous Kathmandu rucksack we set off into the mayhem. We drove around potholes that would have taken off a wheel, played chicken with trucks on intersections, scraped round tight bends – he did a three-point-turn to get round one of them, and crossed a bridge over what looked like a sewage drain which was lined with small shacks. In an eye-watering, throat-scorching haze of fumes and dust a mother sat with a baby next to the road. Every time someone walked past the baby banged a small tin in its hand. We sat in gridlock a few metres away, and in that time 20 people walked by without giving her anything. How does this happen? What calamity had befallen them, led to this hellish location as being the only option for her? What could be done about it? All the experts with all their degrees, all the worthy social workers and the endless academic papers on poverty, and still this is someone’s life. I realised that I had become hardened to the sight in an entirely false way – a way that suppressed human empathy, because the sight made me morose.

In this rather gloomy frame of mind I surveyed the scenes of awful poverty that unfurled beyond the window. Everything appeared ramshackle, cobbled together, dirty. The people made the best of it that they could, but it was dispiriting. A crowd of people stood waiting for a bus, one young man standing with feet planted wide apart, hands in his pockets, and as the bus drew alongside he leaned forward and let loose a dribble of spittle into a gutter choked with refuse. Two scabrous dogs scuffled in the dust in complete silence. A man shuffled by with matted hair wearing a blanket and fancy slip-on leather shoes which had split so that his enormous, calloused toes stuck out of the ends, the soles flapping as he trudged along. We passed a stink of effluent so powerful that I tied my scarf over my mouth and nose. And then, suddenly, the driver was turning left into a sidestreet. “Boudha,” he announced.

Here? It couldn’t be. But then I saw a hand-painted sign saying Boudnath Stupa. Was it a different one? “Pema Guesthouse,” I told him, hoping fervently that the guesthouse was indeed in some idyllic village up the hill. He asked a couple of people and was met with bewildered shrugs. Spotting a couple of foreigners I put down my window and hailed them. “Hi. Namaste. Do you know Pema Guesthouse?”
The man halted. He was tall, bearded, and had a thick Russian accent. He was trying to remember English, I could see. He shook his head. “Not,” he said. “Sorry.” He smiled.
“Where do you stay? Is it nice?”
“Umm… monastyery? His name is…” – he conferred with his friend – “Dolpo? Kangpo? I don’t know, sorry.” He smiled again.
“OK, thank you.” We drove on, down increasingly narrow lanes.

Spotting another foreigner I put down the window, and hailed him: “Namaste.”
“Namaste,” he replied. “How you goin’?”
“Good. Do you know Pema Guesthouse?”
“No mate, sorry. I’m staying at the monastery – but it’s a whole course. You’d have to book in advance.”
Monasteries. I wasn’t ready for that. Yet. Out of curiosity I asked him, “Are you Australian?”
A flicker of something like pain flashed behind his eyes, as if wincing at a memory. “Yeah. Australia. Long time ago now.” He was turning away.
“OK, thanks anyway. Go well.”

Soon there was a 90 degree bend that even the small Maruti taxi couldn’t get round. The driver’s eyes, just visible above his surgical mask, met mine in the mirror.
“OK, here is good. Stop here, thanks. I’ll walk it.” I could see his relief. I extracted myself from the back seat and pulled out the enormous, ridiculous rucksack. Swing it on, lean forward, hip belt first, then the shoulders, that’s the way. Paul showed me that at Outward Bound in Scotland 25 years ago, standing on a 45 degree slope of wet rock on a mountain called Bla Bheinn in the rain. I wonder if he knows I still remember it every time I put my rucksack on. What am I doing here?

A group of Tibetan monks were coming down the lane – young men in maroon robes and with shaved heads. Expecting mild mockery at the sight of the harried foreigner bent double under a vast orange backpack I grinned ruefully, but they didn’t even notice me – they were laughing and joking with each other. I headed up the hill, emerging onto a muddy lane with a battered bus seesawing its way along it. Half-finished concrete housing lined the road; it looked like some ghastly unfinished housing project in Tirana or Sofia. “Pema guesthouse?” I enquired at a tea stall. Blank shrugs. One man shouted to a guy across the street in Nepali. “Pema?” No luck. OK, thanks anyway. I plodded along. Well, you wanted freedom. How’s this? Nobody has the faintest idea where you are – including yourself. It wasn’t so bad. The day was warm, but not hot. The bag was large, but not heavy. I could carry it for hours. Then one of those things happened that make you think they are meant to happen. Preconceptions being overturned, prejudices shattered, that sort of thing. I was passing another tea stall, and leaning against the counter was a man on crutches. His legs dangled withered beneath him. Now in Asia that usually means one thing – avert your eyes, because if he sees you looking, he’ll ask you for money, and you’ll feel a swine if you refuse, and utterly inadequate with the few rupees you do hand over. He caught my eye.

“My friend! Hello my friend!”
“Namaste,” I replied. “How are you. Do you know Pema Guesthouse?”
He detached himself from the tea stall counter and swung over to me. “Pema. No, I don’t know it.” He called to the owner. The owner didn’t know it either. “Why do you want Pema? Do you have a booking?”
“Yes,” I lied, fearing an offer of another guesthouse at a special price.
“No problem,” he said. “We’ll find it.” He swung in beside me. His legs were tangled together, growing round each other like a liana, and they swung as he thunked along on his crutches. As we went down the lane, he talked. I don’t remember it verbatim, but it began to dawn on me that this was no elaborate hit up or request for a tip – this was an intelligent guy who was enjoying a chat. “Ego!” he announced. “We are all a bunch of egos. We cannot see each other, only how important we wish to appear.” I thought about billion dollar budgets, salary scales and experts. “Everyone has lives full of jealousy, anger, hatred. We must overcome these feelings in order to see.” Together we thunked along down the lane, halting occasionally for passing motorbikes. “Pema?” he called out to someone, and got a headshake in return. We carried on.

“Do you remember the last time you felt angry?” he asked me suddenly.
“I do,” I laughed. “It was this morning. There was this English guy who kept me awake by talking loudly on his phone.” I felt embarrassed at the thought.
“Well, that can be annoying,” he conceded. “But are you angry about it still?”
“No, of course not.”
“See? The anger was an illusion. It passed. It was a demon, but you didn’t command it.”
We came to a tea stall just outside the entrance to the stupa. I could see the golden dome above us, and those watchful blue eyes. Turning to him I said: “Can I buy you a tea?”
“Thank you, no. I am fine.”
“I’m going to have one. I’d like you to join me.”
“Very well.” He negotiated the steps and arranged himself into a chair. The owner, a slow-moving Tibetan, set down two menus before us. “Namaste,” he murmured. Then I heard a small, piping voice. “Namaste!” It was his little daughter, aged about five, bright-eyed and curious. She placed her small palms together. We returned the gesture and greeted her in turn. Namaste: I salute the spirit in you. 

I sat sipping my tea, facing him across the table as he talked. Silence fell – an easy, comfortable silence. It was as if time in the room had slowed down. The little girl was sitting on her mother’s knee eating rice from her hand. The owner moved around at a measured pace, appraising everything with slow, far-seeing eyes, as if he was looking somehow beyond the confines of the room. In the background we could hear chanting as the pilgrims circled the stupa. My friend on the crutches was talking on in a low voice, about grief, and sin, and remorse, and the circle of life. I felt like a child who had lost its mother in a crowded street – a childish sadness welled up inside me, and I immediately pushed the sensation away, then slowly allowed it to return, exploring it. Losing my bearings, cutting free the moorings. I felt lighter, easier. My rational mind returned. Had my tea been spiked? Was this some elaborate setup? No, it wasn’t, and how ridiculous such a petty suspicion seemed. I felt calm, and relaxed, and didn’t care any more about Pema Guesthouse or anything else.

“I would like to walk around the stupa,” I said suddenly, surprising myself.
“OK, then you should,” said my friend.
I got to my feet, and swung the enormous rucksack on while he watched. Wordlessly he held out a hand and I shook it, then simultaneously we placed our hands over our hearts in the Afghan manner – not a common gesture here – and then both smiled delightedly. Was he an expert observer, predicting my reactions? No. Just something synchronized and spontaneous. I made my way out of the tea house and into the lane, which was bustling now with pilgrims and monks. Occasionally a tourist would go past in their trekking gear and daysack; I felt ridiculous with my huge backpack, but didn’t know what to do with it. I couldn’t leave it. The tide of people carried me into the space and we began a slow, clockwise perambulation of the stupa. Ahead of me were maroon robes, to my side were a group of women, off to my left was a tall tourist in an Andean hat. Nobody paid me any attention – I was just another person in the crowd, I carrying my burden, they carrying theirs.

I never found Pema Guesthouse. I didn’t stay in Boudha, but I can say that I went there. A fork in the road, a chance meeting, a path not chosen and another one taken. My task, if I can claim to have one, is a little at odds with the contemplative existence: I seek to document, to understand and to explain. After circling the stupa however many times I found myself in a daze back on that traffic-snarled road climbing into a taxi which carried me back to Kathmandu as I sat in the back seat feeling a strange lightness, and it took me to a guesthouse with hot water and power and wifi and chai, and I sat down and wrote for three hours. Where am I going next? I still don’t know. But having felt lost for months I know I’m on the right path.

Salad Days

Hotel Florid, Kathmandu – 8th January 2015

It was 4 degrees C this morning in Kathmandu – quite a change from 44 in Victoria last week – and was too cold to hold a pen in the unheated room at Pilgrim’s Guesthouse, so I put on every article of clothing I possessed and went to sit in the courtyard: fleece top, Shetland sweater (to think I almost left it as a present for Pepper the Doglet in her basket! Well, it is disgracefully holey), Barbour jacket (even more holey, these days), Afghan scarf and tweed cap. A woman at a pashmina stall I passed pointed to the scarf and called out: “Afghanistan!” How on earth did she know? It was even more impressive than the guy who sidled up to me in Thamel when I was walking along and said: “Australia shoes” on spotting my Blundstone boots. Naturally he wanted a dollar for being so clever. I failed to oblige.

The included breakfast at Pilgrim’s consists of scrambled eggs on a curiously dessicated square of white bread, a spoonful of fried potatoes, and two bits of toast with jam. This morning, unaccountably, I also had a garnish – half a tomato and an inch-long sliver of lettuce, which I carefully pushed to one side. Having run the water for five minutes I had another brief and lukewarm shower, then waited for the sun to creep over the rim of the tall, narrow building opposite which looks as if it has been constructed of bricks without using any mortar in between them. Putting up with these minor discomforts is so much easier when it’s warm.

Thamel is the backpacker centre of Kathmandu, narrow streets lined with small shops selling those kind of wool Andean hats with earflaps, T-shirts with stoner iconography, and lots of counterfeit trekking gear. In between all this are stalls selling tea, spices, and more traditional carvings and statues. Small white Suzuki taxis, very battered, trundle along the lanes hooting incessantly, fighting a constant duel with the motorbikes which zoom past them with – not even inches – barely an inch to spare. It makes walking anywhere a fairly tense experience. Sometimes taxi drivers, on spotting a tourist, will halt and call out “taxi!”, subsequently blocking the entire road. If you decline, his next sentence will inevitably be “marijuana?” One man drew alongside me as I was walking and began reciting a litany of things which made little sense to me, but occasionally a half-formed recognition at a word would surface from a long, long time ago: “sticky bud, corn flakes, sensemillia, special K, skunk weed, rice krispies, charras, captain crunch, manali cream, weetabix, temple balls, fruity loops…” So it went on, undeterred by my brusque “no thanks.” He got bored eventually. Some rickshaw drivers have picked up a new and annoying habit; they spot you coming and swerve in front of you, thus blocking your path. Trapped by the passing tide of incessantly honking motorbikes (horning is boring, guys), you carry on a tetchy rebuttal which escalates the longer you are there: “No thank you, no, go away, that’s quite enough now, get out of my way, sod off now, there’s a good chap…” And he will reply, inevitably: “Durbar Square? Swayambunath? Hashish? Acid? Heroin? Opium? Boy? Girl? Something?”

Speaking of hash, I met a guy last night from Switzerland who I heard speaking fluent Hindi. I complimented him on it and he said: “Well, I had to learn it really. I was in jail in India for four years.” He had been living in Himachal Pradesh, where hash doesn’t so much grow on trees as just pop up wild by the roadside, and developed quite a smoking habit. The police caught him with one-and-a-half kilos – all of which was for personal use, he told me (and he had no reason to lie). Delicately I asked him if there had been any opportunity, in retrospect, to perhaps offer a bribe to the police to get them to drop the charges.

“I tried, of course,” he said. “I offered them everything I had on me. And that was my mistake; I offered 12,000 rupees (about $120). It was too much. They were just rural Himachali cops and they got scared by the amount and called their inspector. He was hungry for promotion, and that was that…” he shrugged. “And the stupid thing was, when we used to go to court, the cops in the prison van were all smoking it.” He seemed remarkably philosophical about it all.

I met an Aussie couple who had taken a taxi from the airport the other day. As they were pulling away the passenger door opened and in jumped a little Nepali guy. “My friend,” said the driver. “OK to give him lift?”
“Yes, of course,” reply the Aussies.
Along the way the friend regaled them with stories of his family, invited them to his home, and promised to come and collect them the next day to take them to some hidden temples “not in guidebook.” Meekly they agreed. When I met them they had spent the entire day being ferried around a series of shops with this guy, and during a brief absence on his part, were discussing in frantic whispers how they might get rid of him without hurting his feelings.
“First time in Asia?” I casually enquired. It was.

I happened to mention this anecdote to the Swiss. “Learning to say no,” he said. “You have to. It’s why there are so many Japanese heroin addicts in India. They hate to seem impolite – it’s against their whole culture. Offer them anything three times and they will accept.”

I made a bit of a beginners error myself last night. It was an upmarket restaurant full of tourists – the kind of place where a main course is $4 – and after a diet of nothing but eggs and toast for breakfast, and chicken and rice for dinner, I was craving greenery. My dinner came with a side order of salad. It had dressing and everything! Well, after a moment’s pause I started munching my way blissfully through the foliage like a foraging ungulate. I know the old colonial adage – if you can’t cook it, peel it or boil it, chuck it. I knew but was undone by gluttony. The salad was my downfall. Four months in hygienic Australia lowered my resistance to such things.

Well. 2am and the first ominous rumblings began. But still I was in denial. I looked askance at the bottle of water I had bought – the cap had been suspiciously easy to open. What if it had been filled straight from the tap? I might as well head straight to hospital – it would be like drinking neat sewage to my pampered plumbing. Was I developing a fever? I knew two people who had contracted typhoid in India the year before. Surely I was vaccinated? I couldn’t remember. Rumble rumble rumble. Thank goodness I had paid extra for an en suite bathroom – a grimy cubicle a metre square with tiles in duck-egg blue. But what’s this? Woe is me: my earlier shower had soaked the toilet paper. Oh well, when in Asia…

There’s no glamour in travel these days. No dignity or grace when one is stricken. Two degrees C, no electricity, and I squat, wearing only flip flops, under a freezing trickle of water soaping my nether regions while holding a torch clamped between my teeth till the onset of lockjaw as an icy drip from the shower head strikes the back of my neck with monotonous regularity. I have become a mere husk of a man… a shadow of my former self… an empty vessel. Oh god, what was that scuttle in the corner of the room? What if I literally turn myself inside out, like a discarded surgical glove? They will find me here, on the floor of this fetid Nepali cubicle, a sadly inverted sack of skin with no contents. “Well, he was a traveller. At least he died doing what he loved.”

I survived the night somehow, and gingerly emerged onto the terrace in the morning for a pot of black tea with sugar. “You wanting breakfast sar? Eggs bowelled or scrumpled?” Just the tea thanks. Well it had to happen sooner or later. Thank god I didn’t get on that seven-hour coach to Pokhara. Apart from aching all over as if I were somehow expertly beaten up in the night, I’m feeling better already. Learn from my mistake. Don’t eat the salad. Just say no, kids.

Durbar Square is Kathmandu’s centrepiece – three squares, in fact, all surrounded by temples and elaborately carved wooden architecture with tiered roofs like wedding cakes. On a sunny Saturday morning it was bustling. Flocks of pigeons endlessly took off and resettled themselves upon ornate eaves. Tourists carrying enormous telephoto lenses, young Nepalese hanging aimlessly around, and assorted individuals sitting around who could only really be described as being ‘the dispossessed’. A ticket for foreigners comes to 750 rupees ($7.50) and gives you a day pass, in effect, plus entry to the museum. The museum itself was guarded by musket-toting guardsmen in turbans and black uniforms; the one who checked my ticket had his dignity only slightly undermined by the bright yellow socks which showed above his shoes. But behind him were more serious soldiery – a couple of Gurkhas, standing at ease, each with an arm behind their back and a hand on their khukri – the large curved knife that is so iconic. I remember a former British army officer who had served in the Falklands telling me that there had been repeated attempts by one British regiment to storm a hilltop held by the Argentinians, without success. The Gurkhas arrived as reinforcements, and proceeded to unsheath their khukris and charge uphill while uttering bloodcurdling screams. Apparently all the Argentinians very sensibly ran away. These two were guarding an old series II Land Rover, which had a plaque next to it: “Royal Land Rover destroyed in bomb attack”. I looked at the very much intact Land Rover. It appeared to be in better condition than many of the vehicles in Kathmandu.

Just off the A12 in Suffolk, a little way outside the village of Blythburgh, there’s an off-road motorcycle track. You can see it from the road – a series of armoured riders on special dirt bikes zooming over ramps and negotiating dips and humps. It bears a striking resemblance to Leknath Marg road in Kathmandu; substitute the armour-clad riders for entire families aboard Honda Hero motorbikes, add a few minibuses with conductors leaning out of the doorways, and a few rickshaws and bicycles, and there’s not much to choose between them. In the taxi to Swayambunath the driver, after a particularly bumpy section, laughed and said “Very bad road in Kathmandu.” As my head was thumping rhythmically against the doorframe at the time I was unable to nod in agreement, so I just laughed.

We crawled in first gear across what looked like a building site, until we came to a steep set of stairs which led up to a gilded stupa with a pair of blue eyes steadfastly gazing out across Kathmandu. Crowds of locals endlessly perambulated the site clockwise, and there was something of a holiday atmosphere – couples took selfies of themselves against a backdrop of the city, children chased the monkeys and were chased in turn, elderly pilgrims prostrated themselves at small shrines. At one of these I watched people crowd around a small doorway, the devotees taking pieces of paper which they touched to a flame then placed in a shallow dish. They would reach up and touch the lintel above the doorway, then place their hand briefly on their forehead. A man came forward carrying a small child – no more than two or three years old. He held the infant aloft, and it extended a small, ski-jacketed arm out to the lintel then patted itself on the head. It was set down and toddled off, its attention caught by the flames that licked at the edges of the curling paper prayers, and stood watching solemnly until they turned to ash and the breeze swept them away.

10903884_10205989852975341_1471761343041623119_o