Published: December 15th 2008November 11th 2008 Kodari - Kathmandu - Pokhara - Birethanti - Gandruk - Ghorepani - Birethanti - Pokhara - Kathmandu - Baktaphur - Kathmandu - Pokhara
Macchapuchhre aka "The Fishtail"
I like that mountains can have nicknames but "The Fishtail" is a bit of a crap name. If I was a tough ass rock like Machhapuchhre (that's 4 'h's' by the way) I'd be really pissed off. What about "Shark tooth" or "Hard son-of-a-bitch to climb" or "Pete the Paraglider Slayer". These mountain naming types are soooo unadventurous.
No border crossing we’ve been to has said “you are now in a new country with an entirely different culture” quite like the Chinese-Nepali one.
The Chinese border post between the Tibetan hillside town of Zhangmu and the huddle of shacks that forms the Nepalese village of Kodari is a state-of-the-art, modern piece of grand Chinese architecture boasting x-ray machines, smartly uniformed guards and a fully integrated computerised passport scanning and identification system. The Nepalese border post on the other hand is a rickety barn with bars on the windows, a squat toilet visible from the immigration queue that even the flies are disgusted by and a staff consisting of local guys in hoodies with ink and cigarette stained fingers who peer curiously at you, the frustrated tourist, from behind tinted glasses.
Walking across that friendship bridge border you suddenly go from a world where authorities watch the population 1978-style from rooftops and CCTV; from behind riot shields and dark windscreens to a place where the police, who amble in lines through the touristed
Some Jokes about Pot...
Snigger, snigger, phnar, phnar...
This is Pottery Square in Baktaphur where they make pots for religious ceremonies that I won't even begin to detail (somply because I can't - ignorant tourist). Needless to say, walking through here you get offered lots of Pot... which makes the juvenile within me giggle and titter because in Kathmandu you can't walk 10 paces without someone asking if you want pot.
streets in their odd blue camouflage uniforms (presumably so they can blend effortlessly into all the blue undergrowth you find in Nepali streets), take it in turns to be the one who gets to hold the gun rather than a piece of bamboo.
But it’s not all bamboo beatings and Boyz-in-the-Hood bureaucracy in Nepal.
With a postal system as reliable as leaving your Tibetan guide with a handful of cash and instructions to mail your postcards for you, national subscriptions to Vogue and delivery of the Ikea catalogue have been thankfully delayed and as such Nepalis are yet to learn that black is the new black and that concepts like ‘minimalism’ even exist. As such, trucks and busses are painted and decorated as if they’d been attacked by a primary school art class with a road safety conscious Hindu teacher. Phrases like “Please Use Your Horn”, “Speed Control” and “Wait for Indication” are cheerfully daubed onto the backs of large vehicles somewhere alongside the Om symbol and pictures of smug looking Buddhist or Hindu deities.
And as if having a truck painted like it was made by Play Skool wasn’t enough to draw attention, the windows of
the cab are usually lined with a carefully taped display of colourful fairy lights and the roof crowned with an array of trumpety horns (the like of which a clown would be proud of) that produce on the press of a button a cacophony of varyingly deafening honk ‘n beep based ditties. As if that weren’t enough to keep the driver amused or distracted, usually the inside of the cab is decorated in an equally interesting fashion: chains of plastic flowers hanging from the centre of the windscreen, a fully operational plastic neon Hindu or Buddhist shrine on the dashboard, furry steering wheel covers and, rather oddly, more Union Jack stickers than you’d find at a tourist tat shop in Piccadilly Circus.
Generally the average Nepali truck, bus or taxi driver likes to leave himself with a field of vision little more than the size of a shoe box which makes those trips along the steep, winding, pot-hole strewn, cliff-top roads all the more interesting. All this while he rustles about under the dashboard for a tape or CD of contemporary Nepali hits that he’s listened to everyday for the last six years and that sounds exactly the same
The World Basket Filling Championships
The object of the game is to get to the end of the field in as fast a time as possible catching tennis balls in the basket that's strapped to your head. The fact its a rice field is incidental.
as all the other songs ever produced in Nepal but that all foreigners should be exposed to. Maybe the familiar repetitive nature of the same percussion rhythms, the all too familiar lyrics and the same monotone Bollywood-esque vocals are designed to keep passengers heartbeats at a steady rate as the bus weaves past the up-turned, crumpled, shells of busses and trucks that, despite their present state and the fate of their occupants, still manage to look pretty cheerful with their bold “Speed Control” signs and cartoon colours.
Nepal is like that though. Despite poor transport infrastructure and despite a turbulent political situation and despite what I imagine to be third world health care conditions, life (and death) has that colourful, relaxed, Mickey Mouse feel about it and is largely played out in front of a backdrop of snow-capped mountains so magnificent and pointy under the azure blue sky that it could have been painted by Disney. There’s a sense that nothing bad can really happen and if it does, they’ll just paint it bright colours or sweep it somewhere. Which brings me to a much overlooked but vitally important aspect of Nepali culture: sweeping.
If you remember the
Haystacks with legs? Actually it's not. It's one of the local tribes women who has grown her hair in the guise of a haystack. These are the Haystack women of the Himalayas. Apparently their unusual hair styling is attractive to the men of the region who work on the premise that the bigger the stack the more likely she'll be to make them Cocoa each night and fetch their slippers. Its all ancient beliefs and traditions up here let me tell you.
Tom and Jerry cartoons you’ll remember that you never actually saw the face of the large black woman who seemed to spend most of her time with a broom in hand. Other than for assaulting the cat, what did she actually use that brush for? I don’t recall any piles of dirt or dust and I don’t think she ever had a dustpan - but she always had that broom. Well, you can relax. I have the answer. The woman was Nepali.
Nepali women have a natural urge to sweep things - even if there is nothing to be swept. Salesmen have taken note of this market and make a killing bundling twigs and selling them as brushes. They don’t even stick them on the end of a pole - they just sell the broom heads as the completed article. The years of bending over to flick at dust with just the head of a twiggy broom progressively leaves Nepali women with a bit of a hunch that fully manifests itself in old age when they begin to look a little like a slowly drooping letter ‘r’.
Early one morning in the trekkers mountain town of Tikkedunghha, I
Dropped a Contact Lens?
Of course not! These ladies are just about to attempt a highly audacious acrobatic move that the people of this region are famous for - the sychronised backflip with basket landing. After the move we should find that one of the ladies is concealed within the basket of the other. Its astonishing. Hold your breath. Here they go...
witnessed a woman outside a guesthouse who, still in her pyjamas and a not quite fully awake state, virtually fell through the doorway of her house to look for something to sweep. Clutching the precious bundle of twigs that I suspect she’d been gripping all night she began stumbling/shuffling around the street looking for dust. But she and her neighbours had been sweeping most of the evening and, in the five hours since she’d gone to bed, no perceivable dust had dared encroach on this patch of ground. Still, this didn’t stop her actively searching the crevices between every cobble around her doorway and then around her building and then down her street until she found in her search that she’d actually left the town. But even without a speck of dust to be found she decided that she’d just give the place the once over anyway. And there I was thinking it was the traffic of walkers and mule-trains that wore away the paving slabs and cobbles.
While me and [identity withheld] were in the mountains for four days of walking and taking in close-up vistas of the magnificent snow-capped Annapurna range, the fantastic fish-tailed Machhupuchhre, the gargantuan
The lesser known B-side to Princes "Purple Rain", "Peanut Rain was a hit only in Kathmandu where it does actually rain peanuts. (The peanut can be seen in the photo if you really strain your eyes.)
Dhaulgiri and the crazy sweeping ladies of Tikkedunghha, Vik was spending her week in our hotel room in Pokhara recovering from a hacking cough and low energy levels - courtesy of the altitude sickness that made her time in Tibet so delightful.
Obviously it was with great reluctance and major twanging of heartstrings that Vik and I were parted. I was worried about her. She wasn’t herself and I’d been worried enough about her to insist (on the advice of the guy at our hotel’s reception who was sure she had TB!) that we go to a local hospital to get a chest X-ray or at the very least consult a doctor. But even as the taxi drew up to the hospital compound I knew this was a bad idea. The place reminded me a bit of the Nepali immigration checkpoint - only with a few more beds and flies and a few less tourists. Having scoured the facility for any sign of someone who might be a doctor we eventually found someone with a white coat and explained, with that pathetic, dramatic tone one takes on when explaining to the boss why they won’t be in for work
today, that Vik had a very bad hacking cough. As the description of Viks symptoms slipped from my tongue a full awareness of the curtainless ward we stood in began to seep into my stubborn brain. Maybe my sense of reality was skewed by my preconceived notions of what a third world hospital should be like but when I took in the scene around us it was one of limbless, bloody people, rigid with pain watching the distressed foreigners in silence. And yes, they were coughing their lungs up; so that even before the doctor spoke I already knew what he was going to say and wasn’t about to put up an argument. Everybody here has a hacking cough.
But two days after the hospital experience Vik seemed a little better. She still had a ferocious cough, but she was responding well to a treatment of over the counter antibiotics I’d had to look up on the internet to find out what they did and a selection of cakes and pastries from the local German bakery (more about German bakeries in the next blog). With this marked improvement and confidence high that the place we were staying in was
safe, had room service so Vik didn’t need to even leave the room if she didn’t want to and that the staff would look after her if something was wrong, [identity withheld] and I left for our four day trek.
Just to be certain everything would be okay, I left fairly relaxed instructions with the very intense guy at hotel reception (Mr She’s-got-TB) to check on Vik now and then if he didn’t see her about. As if he were a CIA agent who had been given instructions by Mr BO himself to protect the First Lady (elect), he took this mission extremely seriously indeed.
On the first night he called to enquire, in his incredibly intense and serious tone, whether Vik was okay because, in the course of his surveillance, he hadn’t seen her leaving the room that day. He also took the opportunity to check if she was hungry; she said she wasn’t; which prompted him to insist on a full run-down of what she’d had to eat that day. He may have even written it all down and calculated the likely nutritional value - I think they might have been keeping a chart in reception
Romeo! Romeo! Where for Art Thou
I'm right here Julie in Durbar Square, Baktaphur - but why's your voice so deep and what's with the Adam's apple and tank-top funny hat combo?
which was the focus of daily staff meetings to discuss their adopted patients progress.
Vik, who had obviously seen these four days as being quality lone-time to be spent on lazy mornings, books in bed and easy-watch movies realised she was under a stricter regime than before and for fear of getting told off made concerted efforts on days two and three to be seen leaving the hotel. But while her efforts were noted, clearly she didn’t spend enough time out of the room and on day four she had a phone call from her minder reprimanding her for getting up too late in the mornings and instructing her to get up and take a walk around the lake because this would certainly make her better.
When [identity withheld] and I finally returned we were greeted by our serious friend who quickly gave us a full rundown on the patients progress. It’s not the busiest hotel in the world and I suspect if I’d asked he could have given me a complete dossier including surveillance photographs detailing diet and movements over the last four days. He should definitely consider opening Pokhara’s first private detective firm.
Thieves in the Temple, Baktaphur
That's my second Prince reference of the blog - do I win a prize or something? Perhaps some tight velvet pants or some ultra firming cement style hair spray?
of dedication to minor tasks and the paint-it-bright-colours-or-give-it-a-sweep approach to more serious issues kind of sums up Nepal. It’s a place where the waiters will spend ages cutting your cucumber slices into the shape of butterflies but where the national electricity supply is cut for 45 hours a week because the system needs its ‘load shedding’ periods to cope with the demand. It’s a place where taxi drivers spend their money on go faster stripes, massive sound systems, dangly rear-view mirror accessories and Suzuki stickers (even if their car is a Toyota) despite the fact that the car they’ve invested in is so small and old that it’s bald tyres and tiny engine will struggle to carry any more than two tourists and their luggage (safely) up the steep slopes of the pot-holed roads. It’s a place where guesthouses will painstakingly prepare your breakfast for you from scratch and serve it to you in their well kept tabled garden area; but as you tuck into your delicious apple pancake and perfect porridge, they’ll dump a dying, convulsing, foaming at the mouth dog next to your table and trying to resuscitate it with bottles of mineral water (true story - the
pancake was great but we didn’t stick around to find out how Fido faired: the prognosis wasn’t good).
But above all that, it’s an entirely relaxed place. The colours that the Nepali’s surround themselves with are not only a by-product of the two religions that dominate the country; Hinduism and Buddhism; but are also a reflection of their fun, easy-going nature and the prevalent philosophy on life in general in the country. And this approach to life is, quite appropriately, played out in the drama, beauty and colour of the natural landscapes that makes Nepal one of the most beautiful places on earth. If only they’d sort out those roads though…
That last paragraph was far too Lonely Planet for my liking. Can I finish by mentioning dead dogs again? No? Ok, you better bugger off and do something useful. I’ve got a pancake to eat.
There are more photos below