Moving up into Himalaya territory

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March 14th 1974
Published: September 10th 2021
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A rickshaw driver took us the 3 km over the Nepalese border into Birganj (the joint border town with Indian Raxaul) and in time for an early morning feed. From there, along with 12 others, we passed through Immigration and Customs with a minimum of hassles. We encountered a magnificent sunrise at 6am as we walked across the border into Nepal. Our clocks were put forward by 10 minutes.

We were immediately hassled by another rickshaw driver in our efforts to get a truck all the way into Kathmandu. We were offered a 9am ride for 15Re (a buck and a half), which we stupidly knocked back, a move we were to later regret. We finally gave away the attempt at a free hitch (or even a 15Re one!) on any truck by 11am, and along with all the other backpackers ended up having to stay for the day in Birganj. We checked into the Hotel Kailas (10Re each) in order to clean up and rest. We finally managed to book a ticket on a bus for 7am tomorrow (for 25Re!) after many lies and arguments. I was hit by my first attack of diarrhea in the afternoon. I spent the whole time either resting or wandering the streets of Birganj, looking (fruitlessly) for toilet paper. I finally located a doctor, who charged me 16 Roops for a consultation and medicine. Birganj will not leave me with any fond memories!

Fortunately, I had an excellent night’s sleep, with no repetition of the trots, so the medicine appeared to do the trick. We had an early start next morning at 6am to ensure we made the bus stop in time. The Kathmandu bus left at 7.15am but took until 8.30am to get clear of Birganj due to a number of stops and holdups. This was the story of the trip, with us not reaching Kathmandu until 6.15pm after numerous ‘pee stops’, plus another half dozen for railway crossings, bribes etc. The trip was decidedly uncomfortable, with leg room almost non-existent, an old man muttering to himself most of the way, and a young fellow sitting in front being really annoying singing a repetitive song.

Apart from the comfort angle, it was a beautiful 200km trip. The air was clear and some of the views of the mountains were just breathtaking. We got as high as about 8,000ft and could look right down on the road winding up into the mountains. A lot of the mountains featured lush green terraces, often in fascinating designs, and were quite a scene with the backdrop of quaint clay and wood houses. The people looked the most fascinating to date – real hilltribe types. The last 10km into Kathmandu was a disgraceful road, but nevertheless quaint with its houses. On arrival, we booked into the Sagar Lodge for the night, which included a well-earned hot shower. We had our first meal that evening at the well-known backpacker haunt ‘Eat at Joes’, which comprised a superb Canadian dish.

The next morning produced a great breakfast, including two plates of porridge. Following that, we had a general wander round, getting oriented with the city, and made a trip to the Tourist Bureau for maps, tourist attractions etc. Kathmandu was a fascinating city, full of backpackers (predominantly freaked out!), and while it was very dirty, it lacked the hustle and bustle of the other large Asian cities. We took a trip down to the Blue Star Hotel and met up with Ted, our Sundowners driver, who would be taking us all the way through to London, and picked up a measly mail of a mere 4 letters.

Lunch was a pumpkin pie, a lemon meringue pie and a chocolate pie, all from Joes. We took a stroll around the markets and the tailor’s shops, netting myself a pair of jeans and other small items for the upcoming bus trip. Late afternoon, we checked out a Russian book exhibition (crammed with propaganda) and a selection of Russian films. Nepal was getting economic assistance from the Ruskies and were very keen to give ‘big brother’ plenty of exposure in return. Other interesting features of the afternoon included some army exercises by the local troops, and Bob reported he’d seen a Caucasian freak going absolutely wild.

We had yet another good dinner at Joes, then it was off to the infamous ‘Pleasure Room’ for a ‘special’ ovaltine – a drink laced with gunja, although fortunately we declined the accompanying gunja cookies. The bar provided pleasant funky music for a couple of hours, but the perception at the time we were there was that the drink had failed to deliver, offering a foul taste and no buzz, but at least it had only cost 3Re. However, that early perception was quickly overturned! At around midnight, the gunja finally hit its mark with a vengeance. This followed a night of vivid memories of childhood, bright colours and very little sleep, giving rise to the mother of all hangovers in the morning, along with an incredibly dry throat. Children, don’t try gunja at home, or anywhere!

I finally managed to crawl out of the cot the next morning around 10am, for a late breakfast of porridge and eggs. Bob didn’t even get that far and stayed on his back for the whole day! I hired a bicycle and took a trip by myself up to the Swayambhunath (Monkey) Temple, passing through the Army Barracks region and the War Museum on the way. While the view was great, there was not much excitement in the temple until I suddenly had to duck for cover as bullets started flying all around, much to the amusement of the locals who explained that after shooting practice, the army boys traditionally put a few rounds up into the temple for good measure. I returned to the Lodge for a late lunch and further recuperation, before cycling down to the Blue Star Hotel late in the day to return the bike, but that was the extent of the rest of the day’s activities.

The next day, a very heavy head cold and further upset stomach prevented our planned trip to Nagarkot, a village at the rim of Kathmandu Valley that is renown for its superb views of Mt Everest. In hindsight, it was just as well, as a heavy mist had come right across the mountains and blotted out any potential views. We changed hotels to the Century Lodge (more central) and spent the following day just wandering around town and catching up on chores. We finally felt somewhat revived from our gunja experience and were able to take in a good evening meal at the Tibetan Restaurant, where we were joined by Helen, Gus and Mick.

Having finally returned to some degree of good health, we decided to rent a bicycle each and made it out to Patan and surrounding areas. Patan is supposedly the oldest city in Nepal and home to a considerable number of craftspeople, as well as some interesting temples and Buddhist monasteries. Durbar Square is a UNESCO World Heritage site which contains the old Royal Palace and a bunch of artistically designed temples. We made it back to Kathmandu the long way, around the back past the airport, making it a 3 hour round trip.

That afternoon, we took in the museum, but it was pretty uninspiring so we didn’t stay long. I then visited the Thai Airways office, but there was still no response from the worldwide trace. We then went to the Blue Star Hotel to pick up any further mail, and met our Sundowners courier, Gary, who again would be accompanying us for the whole 77-day bus trip to London. We went to dinner at the Kathmandu Guest House with Gary, Ted, as well as meeting Aussie girls Jenny and Rose-Marie, who were also to travel on the bus with us. We spent the evening in a final card game with Mick and Gus, who were off on a trek into the mountains of Nepal.

The weather forecast for the next day was encouraging, so we decided to resume our postponed trip to Nagarkot. An early morning shopping spree before the bus took off netted me a dress shirt, to cover me in case we had to look respectable some time on the trip. We left Kathmandu on the 10.30am bus and took an hour to reach Bhadgaon. From there, we had a 4 hour hike up some 3,000 ft to the Everest Cottage at Nagarkot, which is close to the base of Mt Everest, and a starting point for many climbs. The road, length around 9 miles, was well defined, and with the help of our young guides (for which there was no shortage of volunteers), we took a number of short cuts. I even had my duffle bag carried for me the whole way by one of the local boys. While the scenery showed us nothing particularly different, the countryside with its terraces and occasional clay houses was a very pleasant environment for a hike, even if it was predominantly uphill. We met up again with Jenny and Rose-Marie at the cottage, and the four of us booked into the dorm there. We chatted and watched the sunset before having dinner (which was lousy and costly) and then playing cards under a very dim candle light.

As was the thing to do there, we were up at 5am to check out the Everest sunrise, and while the sun finally came up about an hour later, alas there was no mountain profile at all. Apparently the dry season gives rise to mist and low lying fog, so it was not a total surprise that we missed any view. Still, it was an experience – some dozen of us sitting there with blankets wrapped around us, searching hopefully but unsuccessfully into the fog!

The walk back also took 4 hours, although it was slowed down by the sickness of all the others, which included the two girls and Sue, a sweet as apple-pie New York city gal. We came back to a big lunch at Aunt Janes, which included her famed ‘brownie’, after laying the sick Rose-Marie to rest. We also picked up a nice hot shower, courtesy of Blue Star. We spent the afternoon shopping, picking up a suitcase (a requirement for the bus trip) and a pair of denim jeans.

Our final full day in Kathmandu was pretty uneventful. Bob and I tried unsuccessfully to secure a flight back to Patna, so we could pick up some duty-free goods and pick up the bus from there, saving us the same winding trip it took to get us to Kathmandu. We had lunch at Janes and purchased our lunch for the long bus trip starting the next day. A Hindu festival staged in the afternoon was uninspiring – it just resembled another Nepalese army exercise! We spent most of the time just reading and preparing ourselves for the trip ahead. Late afternoon, we went down to the Blue Star Hotel and met up with Canberra nurses, Julie and Peta, not knowing at that time how that meeting would change each of our future lives.

Sunday 24 March marked the first day of our 77-day Asia overland tour to London with Sundowners. Bob and I made it over to the Blue Star for a good breakfast at around 6.30am and we all set off initially in a local bus for Birganj at around 8am. The group with whom we were to spend the next 11 weeks in close proximity were 100% Caucasian and of the 36 on board there were 28 girls and 8 guys. There were only two couples, one of whom were a bit older and brought along their 14-year-old daughter, the only child in the group. Maybe not surprisingly, given we were heading for London, the majority of those on the tour were either Australian or English. There would be no surprise in anticipating there would be some interest interpersonal dynamics given the long time frame with this number of young single people tied in such close proximity throughout the trip.

The trip itself to Birganj was pretty underwhelming, with no new scenery and dust storms and heavy clouds threatening in the late afternoon. We arrived around 5.30pm and booked into the Hotel Samjhana, where accommodation for the evening was a dormitory with 6 other guys. The next day was to start our visit back to India for a much longer stay this time.


11th September 2021

Nepale border
I am loving your posts about your journey. I came from the opposite direction to you and in 1969. When we (I was travelling with my cousin) arrived in Raxaul, we checked in to a "hostel", we were exhausted after a nightmare train journey from Delhi and pretty much fell straight asleep. We were attacked by mosquitoes and I woke up during the night with cockroaches nibbling on the dead skins on my toes. Didn't get much sleep! Next day we went to the border crossing and I was arrested for resembling a gun-runner. Eventually (two days) the police admitted I was not the person they were looking for and released me. They flagged down a truck to take me to Katmandu. As the truck was leaving, the border police flagged it down and I thought they were going to incarcerate me again. Instead they gave me an "apology" gift for my arrest of 1/2 kg of hash. I was in Katmandu for a fortnight but don't recall a great deal. Ask me about Jerry Jeff Walker and "Mr Bojangles" and I'll tell you another Nepal story. We shared a dorm while he was composing it.
11th September 2021

Nepal border
Ah, those were the days, John! We can hardly recognise ourselves these days. Your story makes me thing that we may have got through it all pretty easily. I hope that by trolling through my tales it also brings back some fond (and maybe some less fond!) memories for you too. All part of the process of occupying ourselves constructively during lockdown.
15th September 2021

Nepal Roads 1974
Your photos prove the roads were better in 1974 than when we were there in 2007!

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