The planned route (Click to enlarge)

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Catching up on some soul food in Nepal

Crossing over the 'Friendship Bridge' that divides The People's Republic of China (aka Tibet) with Nepal, was an emotional experience. The contrast between the two countries slaps you in the face immediately. Having been effectively herded around China by innumerable officials, once you cross that bridge you are on your own. In Nepal there are no special forces to push you in one direction and no great mass of humans to follow. So we found ourselves standing on a heap of uncollected rubbish, a cow to one side, chickens to the other, trying to work out where immigration was. A quick ramble down towards some shack-like buildings and we quickly found the immigration hut. 'Welcome to Nepal', beams the very well groomed official as he takes our passports, gives them a quick look over and stamps his stamp of approval. 'Is that it?', we ask, by now used to the third degree and thorough bag searches. 'Yep, have a lovely stay here in Nepal'. Fluent English? A smile? Great. It suddenly occurred to me that for the first time in a long time we were free to do as we wished, unwatched and unrestrained. So off we skipped into Nepal.

The contrasts didn't stop there. Nepal is the poorest country we have been on the whole trip and, though parts of China are still lost in poverty, the country appears wealthy in its infrastructure. On entering Nepal the smooth highway turns into an off road roller coaster and the houses that line it are mostly made of mud and corrugated iron. Rubbish fills the streets, power cuts occur for 6 hours every evening and lives are lived out of doors for the world to see. Consequently, everywhere you look there is something fascinating. As we bumped along for 5 hours from Kodari to Kathmandu vivid colour, penetrating noises and intoxicating smells were splattered across our senses with not a moments respite. Lush green landscapes, bright orange houses, red, yellow, green and blue saris floating in the breeze, beautiful smiles and a deep blue sky. Temple chants, cows, goat bells, cockerels, children playing, dogs fighting, water gushing and people laughing. Giant pots of steaming spices, rotting piles of fly covered rubbish, freshly ploughed fields and cowdung mingled with the black fumes from brightly painted, ancient trucks battling with the hills. The plentiful, genuine and wide open soul of Nepal was evident right from the start.

Despite this immediate joy and relief, after too many days of inhospitable landscapes, arriving in Nepal was an emotionally challenging time. First off we experienced a minor culture shock on arriving in Thamel, the tourist bubble of Kathmandu. Here everything is geared towards the Westerner; English is fluent, food is international, the streets are filled with ethno or hiking-clad white folk and everyone wants to sell you something. So from having virtually no contact with anyone for 30 days we were suddenly being communicated with left, right and center. But this was quickly got over. There was a deeper problem. The whole crux of our trip is that it is a journey. We set out to carve a single line around the globe taking us far away from, and back to, home. When on that line, progressing towards home, we are full of purpose. Once we move off the line we quickly become disorientated and despondent with the trip. This is the crisis we found ourselves in when we arrived in Nepal.

We came here to find work for 3 months. This is because we have to wait until winter thaws before we can cycle back from Istanbul, and because our budget is looking a little worse for wear. But in order to come to Nepal we have to double back on our line. It sounds small, but for the first three days in Nepal the horror of this wracked my mind. How could we have ruined our perfect line? So I desperately sought out remedies. Pakistan and Iran, exciting? Yes. Feasible without causing near heart attacks to parents? No. Skirting Iran by freighter towards to Suez Canal? Pirates. Crossing the Indian-Chinese boarder? Closed. Crossing the Burma-Chinese boarder overland? Closed. Getting a boat from India to Malaysia? Smashes our budget. So with all other options ruled out, I had to come to terms with the line crisis. But then there were still no jobs, Kathmandu was teeming with tourists and not being able to afford to go trekking left us pondering why the hell we were here. But the biggest panic was that we only had 4 days before the mother's came out to see us. We had to get rid of this black cloud before they came out, instantly detected it and worried for the next 6 months.

Luckily, the 20th October was our saving grace. In the space of 24 hours we had received two exciting job offers, escaped the horribly manic tourist hub, found the heart and soul of Kathmandu, found a restaurant that fed us delicious food for 50p, found out that tours back into Tibet were half the price of our one over here and worked out that we could go trekking without a guide and therefore afford to do it. Black cloud gone, bring on the mothers! The two weeks that followed emotional airport welcomes were a haze of falling in love with Nepal, catching up with home and planning a wedding.

Wandering around Kathmandu is to walk back in time. The Durbar squares are labyrinths of ancient red brick and intricately carved wooden temples, palaces and shrines, all jumbled together in a space that was once a kingdom of its own. And in lots of ways it still is. Time has not eroded the purpose of these central points. Women still come to wash at the giant stone wells, old men still meet on palace steps to contemplate life, and families still gather to present gifts and sacrifices to their gods. Pashupatinath, the holiest Hindu site in Nepal, was the only place where the openness of life became a little too much. After stumbling our way through a maze of shrines, temples, cows and monkeys we eventually descended onto the shore of the Bagmati River. On the bank opposite us a dead women was brought down on a bamboo stretcher, cleaned by her relatives, covered in wood and burnt, until the ashes were ready to be swept into the holy water of the river. It was not long ago that widows would practice sati here, throwing themselves onto their husbands funeral pyres. This was considered the highest form of service a wife can provide to her husband and offered an escape from the social perils of being a widow. Our experience at Pashupatinath would have been an interesting one, but it became depressing once we explored the perimeters of the complex. Litter fills the banks of the river, meditation caves ooze the smell of urine, faeces of all varieties litter the floor and monkeys sinisterly stalk the shrines. We decided it best to make a move on catching a glimpse of a rotten dog being eaten by another on the river bank upsteam from the cremation sites.

But no time to linger on dark interludes. Once we had stuffed o ur heads with culture it was time to head to the mountains. The bus trip from Kathmandu to Pokhara and back is as joyful as the one from the Tibetan border. Except this time I got to sit next to Mum; a new bus partner for the first time in a ridiculous number of bus journeys. The next 8 hours were a surreal mix of thinking we must be chatting in our kitchen back at home to being shaken back into Nepal by a jolt or bump of the bus. Pokhara was our haven of relaxation for the next 5 days. A lakeside resort that feels more like a village than the second largest city in Nepal, dominated by paddy fields and forested hillsides. On arrival we were welcomed by 5 enthusiastic Nepali staff all beaming at us, 'Ah Mr Nick, it is a pleasure to have you stay in our hotel, welcome to Pokhara!', and things just got better from there.

Sitting on the shore of Phewa Lake in Pokhara is one of my favourite spots of the trip.Whilst soaking up the sun one looks onto brightly coloured women washing clothes, unconscious children diving in and out of the water completely naked, men building and repairing boats, red robed monks strolling back to their prayers and buffulos grazing in and amongst it all. One morning we whetted our thirst for trekking by getting up at 5am to watch the sun rising onto the Himalayas. Half way up the ancient cobbled pathway to the designated sunrise view point, a shop owner ushered us onto his roof terrace. Here we received our own private viewing of the pink, orange and misty mountain show over a very welcome cup of coffee (Nepali) and flapjacks (UK). We spent a magical couple of hours taking in the gradual awakening of the land before us. A maze of stone pathways guided us down to town, through hillside farmlands and small settlements. The sounds of farmers chanting whilst they gather hay in the fields and the occasional cockerel filled the air as we stomped in and out of the low morning cloud.

Whilst the mothers were with us such active excursions were obviously done with interludes of copious amounts of wine and one too many Nepali thalis (rice, spinach, vegetable curry, lentils, naan and radish). I was particularly grateful for some female company, which prioritized talking over anything else and meant I could go shopping guilt free. And both of us appreciated two weeks of hot showers, good food and relaxation at a time when our enthusiasm for the road was waning.

So our first two weeks in Nepal was a perfect introduction to our first country of residence in 14 months! But more on screaming at kids, blagging our way through website design and chicken feasts with the Gurkha's to follow...

More photos of Nepal on flickr here

No comments: