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Published: February 18th 2020
We met the French couple, Paulo and Enora, at Varanasi station; they were also headed to Nepal via Gorukhpur and I wasted no time in informing them of the latter’s delights. Fortunately there were no substantive delays to the overnight train and on our arrival we were able to catch a bus straight out of Hades. Yes, I admitted, it did - by daylight transit - seem merely grim...
No funny business this time at the Nepal border and, indeed, we were not subsequently robbed en route from it The Yeti comes home: "Namaste" Nepal
We rolled into Pokhara at 10pm and, hats off, these youngsters were totally up for walking the three kilometres to lakeside. Which we duly did. However, it being low season, much was shut up early and we had to take what crumbs we could both in terms of accommodation (poor room for 800 Rps) and food (an alleyway chow Mein).
Bright and early the next day Al's n I sought out our previous residence from seven years ago and wangled two much improved rooms with balconies for 700/couple. Nevertheless, in the days to come we were to discover that the traffic has
since ballooned on the little lake-hugging (but long since sealed) road and that this once cozy tranquil corner of lakeside isn't, anymore.
Anyway, leaving their heavy luggage with us, the French headed off on a week's Annapurna trek whilst we investigated further afield for something more suited to festive lazing. Meanwhile we hooked-up with Ali’s heartthrob – met way back in Alleppey, India – Oihan, another Frenchie, who is here doing a degree-related placement. The lad is addicted to chocolate, which at least makes a change from most long-stayers to these parts.
And we did, eventually, find a diamond guesthouse in Hotel Sam’s Inn
. Set back within the paddy fields of Sidu village just around the corner from lakeside it is tranquillo, has massive airy rooms with balconies to end all balconies, a guest-use kitchen (ahhh, real – strong - coffee), charming proprietors (with the most endearing little dog) and… an interesting couple of long-stayers already in residence. Day one and I had already marked this as the place in which I’d hunker down for a month whilst Ali returned to do her daughterly duty back in the UK. Nevertheless, the prospect of a
month static was daunting, we’d only ever done this once previously, on Langkawi, Malaysia Cash cows and mosquito munchers
– enforced as our passports were full and had to be sent back to the UK, via Hong Kong, for renewal – and that was together.
Christmas was a bit humbug and we declined to join Oihan and his fellow workers for an extortionately priced meal.
Now the build-up to Pokhara’s street festival (Dec 28th
– Jan 1st
) was in full swing… Yep, the day before kick-off it looked like some organization was actually occurring. Disappointingly, it was somewhat of a damp squib.
Back at Sam’s, Plastic Baba had a problem. “Baba”, it should be noted, it actually a respectful term for someone (usually male) and typically of a certain age, but, most importantly, an individual with experience (hell, wisdom). He was most dispirited, both with Nepal and its people. But first… the pre-title: “Plastic”. Plastic Baba was named thus by someone among the - not un-sizeable, but well concealed to the mere passer through - population of long-stayers and predictably, justifiably, the name (and fame) spread: he was rarely seen without the accompaniment
of a large plastic bag slung over his shoulder. And, bless him, seventy-odd years of age, at little more than five feet in stature with grizzled white beard, Nepali pointy and flapped knitted hat invariably on his noggins, and largely toothless grin on display, he did resemble the eighth dwarf. Although now as I picture him, weeks on, I envisage a gnome. And an eccentric little character he was, having confided a great litany of conspiracy theories ranging from how we are all micro-chipped through to the great meeting of eminent scientists planning a mass cull to re-jig the Earth’s population. Wow, he’ll be in his element with the recent coronavirus outbreak…
Anyways… yes, he wanted out. Recent weeks, nay months, had been a nightmare. He’d spent a fortune reaching into the Himalayan foothills to procure some excellent, the best, hashish. After numerous days and misleads he finally achieved his endeavor, to the tune of 0.75kg (that’s a very large brick). Now, having succeeded in his task, he joyfully returned only to publicise his triumph: loose talk that would lead to his melancholy, if not his downfall. From this point on he smoked with other similarly inclined
individuals (many of whom, local and foreign, had sought him out) only to find that on waking from his latest stupor yet another great chunk of his stash had walked. Of course the local constabulary had also heard rumours regarding his cache. When they did raid him – lucky Baba I’d say – his last smoking companion had already made off with the remainder of it. Still, disillusioned and jaded, he wanted to move on: enter Ali and I.
He had (has) no phone (good man) nor computer (well… ok) and yet he needed to procure a flight ticket… a more reasonably priced ticket than an agent would obtain for him… Oh, and it couldn’t be with certain airlines with whom he’d had prior bad experiences. And the flight must be on an auspicious date: he checked his charts. What did we think to Laos? We said we liked and thus began our search. The cheapest flights were to Thailand. Errr, no, he has a drug conviction there… He had had a flight to Cambodia booked for the previous week, but he’d gotten stoned… and missed it. Could we book him a flight to Laos, for today?
It would have to coincide with the last departure from Pokhara to Kathmandu, and… he hates waiting in airports… so please, no long stopovers en route. With that he passed over his credit card and passport and sat waiting expectantly. We did book the flights, wrote out all the details, and impressed that he’d need to be at Pokhara’s airport in three hours. Sorted, he announced that he was off to see a friend for a last smoke and, with large plastic sack over his shoulder, off he tootled... Forgetting his credit card and passport. Christ. Time passed. He was never going to make it. Japanese Jun (much more of him later) appeared and described the carnage of Plastic’s room: it would take hours to clear that midden.
Fifty minutes pre-flight, back across the paddys he sauntered (Hiiii – Hooooo). We handed back his valuables, bade him luck (it’s a twenty minute drive just to get to the airport…) and, needlessly stressed ourselves, headed off into town – I refused to get involved in his packing. And that was the last we saw of him. Presumably he made the flight; either that or he tried to smuggle
something out in one of those bags and now has little option but to remain in Nepal, for the foreseeable. Who knows..?
Paulo and Enora returned and we started planning our French-themed New Year. In all honesty the kitchen at Sam’s is somewhat limited in facilities (not that this hindered Jun or Mohammad in the weeks to come… yeah, later) and a gourmet feast was never going to be achievable. Wine they said…. Have you seen the prices, replied I? French cheeses, there’s a shop…. French cheeses!? OK, sod it, it would be a treat. French onion soup. Now there was a cheap and delicious idea. But didn’t they require a good stock, dry sherry, fresh thyme…? Non, besides seasoning, flour, butter and onions, the only essential ingredient was… a nutmeg. A nutmeg, we weren’t making rice pudding? Enora took responsibility for the soup.
And what an amazing feast it was: six different French cheeses, a stack of decent baguettes, toasted croutons and melting cheese floating on the dreamily rich onion soup (hey, nutmeg works), a dozen bottles of beer and two bottles of wine (not French: they were 2000 Rps a
pop and had almost certainly been sat on the shelf since Pokhara was but a wee village). Actually, the least pricey Nepali – bloody cheap – bottle (Moondance
) at 375 Rps ($3) was fine; the more expensive bottle was not – we made it into mulled wine.
Oihan (he’d been out at a nightclub on New Year’s… he’d also been fraternizing with a certain local young beauty… the rascal) reappeared and we took him out for his first tongba (hot millet beer – served in a metal lidded tankard and drunk through a metal straw; repeated re-additions of boiling water make it a long and progressively more flavoursome, mildly alcoholic, beverage).
Pokhara's Fewa lake holds carp and the locals do fish for them; indeed, incredibly, the most serious (those actually armed with a reel) employ the method mix technique (OK, unless you're a carphead that means nothing to you). Sadly they don't seem to have fully grasped its purpose and their "too stiff mix" is invariably still attached upon retrieval: oh the temptation for some (no doubt unwanted) teach-ins... "Now lad, how about flavouring and boiling that dough ball and then attaching it to
a bolted hair rig?"
Ali, Oihan and I had walked over to the Japanese Peace Pagoda on the heights of the lake’s far side, although it proved to be a pointless excursion: persistent haze precluded any Annapurna sightings let alone that iconic image from decades ago of the mountains reflected on Fewa’s surface.
That said, there were clear days when, unexpectedly, you’d glance up from an amble in town or around the lake and there the white peaks would be, seemingly wedged between buildings at the end of a street or looming over Pokhara’s eastern bounding hills.
We also, amazingly given that this is our third visit to Pokhara over the years, walked up to Sarangkot for the first time. Actually we made the ascent twice. Sarangkot is the little village perched upon the highest of those eastern hills from which paragliders launch and from which – on a clear day – unhindered panoramas across the whole range may be viewed. Our first climb was unplanned; we were wandering the Newari quarter of Pokhara old town and saw a sign: Sarangkot this-away. The sign didn’t state that it was seven or
eight steep kilometres up the hairpins to get there. With dusk falling and viewing conditions not perfect we aborted a mere one kilometre short (there was also a ticket booth at this point and we don’t pay for views). Our second - successful – attempt was planned and for this we were joined (most fortuitously it so transpired) by the French. Here we simply asked some directions and followed the trails that led upwards through the bush from lakeside. Some say that this is a risky jaunt, although whether that relates to getting lost, robbed, or taken by a leopard (after dark) is less than clear. In daylight the climb was a mildly strenuous two hour breeze. And then as the sun began to set – from a spectacular (free) 360 degree viewpoint – the mountains to the east burnished as the hazy spliced infinity of the hills to the west swallowed the pink orb and all was a silent perfection. Why hadn’t we done this before? It wasn’t quite dark as we initially descended, but was soon pitch. Our – John, really… - head torches are truly tosh and the simple route up was now anything but. Twice I
would have had taken us mightily astray. Thank heavens for Paulo because without him and his instinctive feeling for the path down we’d have been leopard bait.
And now I can hear you all…. Ha ha, the drama queen… Leopard bait indeed, Andy’s revisiting his bear paranoia Three weddings and a tweeting cockwomble*
. And yet. Seven years ago we had been informed by an old Afghani baba The Yeti comes home: "Namaste" Nepal
(admittedly over several chillums) of how one of his dogs had been taken from these hills, disturbingly close to town. But, far more concerning and pertinent, a “problem” leopard had had to be hunted (and killed) in the Pokhara region in December 2019 whilst, tragically, a young girl was killed and partially eaten in February this year. They’re still hunting that one.
And thus after a week or so of lazing, having taught Jun how to play Yaniv and having shared a heavenly pork fest barbeque with Jun and Omani Mohammad (a lengthy process necessitating the manufacture of our own charcoal), we needed to head across to Kathmandu ready for Ali to catch her flight home.
Local buses (7hrs, 430 Rps) and microbuses (6hrs, 525 Rps) ply the
route although many (most) backpackers appear to ride tourist minibuses (900 Rps and up, less than 6hrs). Local buses from lakeside (20 Rps) drop you near the first two options, whereas a taxi would cost in excess of 300 Rps.
Then, just prior to departure, we were treated to a royal drive by; well, a right royal roar passed as the rather flash young Crown Prince scorched by on his Harley Davidson: the only such bike, I am assured, present in Nepal (he was wearing neither crown nor helmet).
It was also becoming increasingly clear that China was home to another SARs-like coronavirus outbreak. Predictably China was the direction we were heading, having intended to spend a number of months discovering its more remote regions. Whether this would now be possible remained to be seen.
On arrival in Kathmandu we alighted near the relatively new ring road bus station from which it’s an easy 20 minute walk into Thamel (or more precisely its northern border with Paknajol) with its budget guesthouses. Did I say budget, Christ there was nothing for under 1000 Rps. On the verge of settling for a less
than mediocre residence I tried one last back alleyway and lucked out at the family run Nirvana Peace Hotel.
The son, visiting from his ex-pat Brisbane home (hopefully not aflame), wouldn’t budge much on price but it was a very nice room for 900 with a peaceful enclosed garden (greenery in the heart of Kathmandu), sheltered library seating area and good roof terrace. Plus the staff are lovely… and inclined to share their rum… and tasters of their culinary delights.
Now our primary concern was Bikash’s… Would the ramshackle little (no English name) Newari eatery/raksi joint still be in existence? Thankfully it was. Four smoky tables sit before a spread of semi-prepped dishes featuring, on this first night: goat lung; sukuti, hunks of spicy buffalo meat ready to be dry fried; yak brain, creamy heaven on slices of sautéed potatoes; chula, ground buffalo meat that is amazing stir-fried with herby potatoes and beaten rice flakes; and diced goat head. The patrons do eat, a little (think tapas), but really most are here for the raksi. This is no longer poured from a large tapped vat, but rather is provisioned in little, re-used, vodka bottles. Unless you are
seriously hardcore this liquor is sensibly diluted either from the communal thermos of boiling water or, more typically, with Mountain Dew. The locals adore the place. Everyone is dubious as to the quality and provenance of raksi, it being a spirit that is traditionally distilled in individuals’ homes and, typically, sold under-the-counter. But, Bikash’s is renowned for its quality and purity (it isn’t cut); although it is scarily, deceptively, lethal.
And so, two days later, Ali caught a cab (hell, it was an unprecedented separation) to the airport and there I was – for the first time in thirty years – away, travelling… alone.
One further visitation to Bikash’s that included my first ever – and maybe last - buffalo eyeball and I was Pokhara re-bound, Ali having concurred that this location might just see me still at liberty in 28 days upon her return. Friends, previous colleagues… family… were less convinced that any destination would save me.
And, as I reflect upon my time in Indira, Pokhara’s less than hospitable correctional centre…
I jest… Sam was delighted to re-welcome me back to his enclave (it was super
low season)… to the same glorious room… for the pre-arranged, longish-stayer, rate of 500 Rps – that’s little more than $4/night. A non-smoking/drinking wholesome individual really can still live the life of riley here for maybe $8/day… I, the hedonistic sod that I am, was planning on an outrageous $12. What’s that in English terms? A comfortable life for the equivalent of two pints/day, or… less than a single pack of cigarettes.
Of course such prudent frugality does require a modicum of planning and I immediately bargained and ordered a case of Moondance
and two cartons of Captain
cigarettes – not a common request - that I arranged to pick up the following day. The little hole-in-the-wall shop’s owner was delighted: several days’ trade in a single transaction. I was less so when on calling to collect – armed with an empty rucksack - I was fobbed off with “please wait one hour, my husband is coming with wine”. I ate an early thukpa and momo dinner and returned at the designated time. “Please, twenty minutes more, he coming; sit, sit… I make you tea”.
Admittedly it did feel rather more wholesome to buy
a whole tray of 30 eggs, a kilo of coffee and 20 litres of water (in the same reusable heavy duty container from which many shops sell refills: an excellent plastic saving development). Now water was costing 3 Rps/litre rather than 10. If only there were the facilities to bake your own bread…
Two weeks later and I repeated my vin ordinaire order. Jun had already repeatedly spurned offers of a glass over our, now daily, lengthy backgammon sessions: “do you truly believe that is made from actual grapes”? Mo hadn’t been so fussy.
Once again my trudge into town was met with an apologetic shrug and this time a protracted chai-accompanied wait wasn’t cutting the mustard (an expression that I’ve just learnt originates from, historically, having a suitably sharp scythe for harvesting said crop). Exasperated, I said her husband could jolly well deliver my order to Sam’s
or we could forget the whole deal. Two hours later Sam’s wife interrupted a small gathering on the balcony to announce that there was a man at the door brandishing a large box.
Plastic Baba – as if he’s a reliable source of
any information - had said that maybe Jun was “a bit slow”. Obviously he had never faced the canny Japanese over a chess, Othello, backgammon or Ludo board. I had rejected the first offer outright (I’m no player) and had been humiliated in the second challenge. On the backgammon board I was just about holding my own, whilst he was haemorrhaging money at pool (here at Pokhara’s billiards club the loser pays for the games). Jun, cleverly, although much to my chagrin, avoided ever learning Cribbage.
Board and cue utilizing games aside, Jun is a bit of a socialite: he (having resided in Pokhara for several months) knows all the entrenched, all the cool (mostly cheap) hidden hangouts (in which he’d whip out his sound system and hold court), the local best eateries and unmarked alcohol dispensaries: the latter being for… raksi, sold by the litre in reused plastic water bottles.
One night, as was to become a regular occurrence, he enquired if I’d like to come meet his Japanese friends: an extremely laid-back couple and their two children who’d been holed-up on the hill for as long as. They provided us with excellent
Japanese fare and smokey hospitality, we donated several litres of dubious raksi and some equally questionable Moondance
. Subsequent nights would see multiple late barbeques (making charcoal is a chore, but Jun’s sloooowww cooked, beautifully seasoned meats are masterful) as well as excellent Tom Katsu and further Japanese yummies; whilst, invariably, little miss Himaya (maybe four years of age) would have me drawing or playing some improvised (language neutral – she was not impressed with my Japanese language ability that was probably just sufficient for her to consider me some strange dotard) game. And, on that note, a concern. Yes, Himaya may only be four, but her brother Kaishi is almost fifteen and hasn’t seen schooling in many years. It is fine (great) for people to live an alternative life-style but Kaishi isn’t receiving any form of constructive upbringing: it’s very rare he gets to interact with his peers and his uber-shy demeanor (he was woefully under-confident when we coerced him into playing cards) is sad to witness… and hard to break through. Who knows where this will leave him in later life, hopefully not forced into his parent’s personal choice of nomadic jewelry/stone selling. Meanwhile my short exposure to, and
brief interactions with, Himaya were similarly worrying in that (attention deprived?) she was just as likely to come hug my standing leg as she was her dad’s. Parenting comes, like nothing else, with heavy responsibilities.
And… we haven’t even mentioned Mohammad yet: a delightful Omani who was once the lead bassoonist in the Sultan’s own orchestra. Sadly, dependency issues curtailed his career, but the Sultan did do him proud with a very premature pension. Not surprisingly Mo was very sorry to hear of his recent demise. Incredibly he is another great cook and generous to boot. His tales of off-grid Oman had both Jun and myself considering a re-jig to our onward plans.
There is a certain, beautiful, camaraderie among long-stayers; once you’re known to them they have your back. To me such a life is reminiscent of A Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
… for stoners.
And then the avalanche came. Unseasonably there were heavy rains in the Annapurna region and four South Koreans and three Nepali guides, trekking close to Annapurna I base camp, were reported missing in its wake (200 further individuals in the area were safely evacuated). Weeks on
I don’t believe that they were rescued or even found and, tragically, it must be surmised that they were lost to it.
Thanks largely to Jun, Mo and the other hardcore crowd in Pokhara (not to mention Moondance
and her malted companions Dragon
), Ali’s month-long absence passed relatively quickly. Her mum was recovering well from her knee replacement and Al’s was due back in Kathmandu in several days. However, her predilection for hill running had initiated an acute Achilles tendonitis; now our immediate plans for ten days trekking in the Langtang region were also scuppered: a torn Achilles and you’re going nowhere, for months.
Thus reunited at Peace we ate well (rediscovering the best rotis/dal and curd in Kathmandu – in the market by the main tourist information centre, plus the new find of a very nice little Indian restaurant), had a day’s excursion to the town of Dhulikhel (hoping for its famed massively expansive Himalayan views – thwarted once again due to haze) where the short stint of hill climbing confirmed that an imminent trek was unadvisable, and lazed on the roof terrace quaffing Tiger
beers as we debriefed
our previous estranged month.
This was not our most exciting visit ever to Nepal, particularly with the absence of a trek; but, enforced, it had served us well.
Now we were faced with onward logistics. China was certainly out for the foreseeable. Yes, we could still make our way to Laos, but the planned overland passage through India’s Assam and Manipur (still dicey?) into Myanmar and then Thailand might not be the best option. And then where to post-Laos? We could detour to South Korea or Taiwan, fly north to Mongolia, or maybe it was time to bite-the-bullet and spend some serious money with a campervan jaunt around New Zealand?
Of course there are far worse quandaries in life. Onwards…
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