By Greg McCann
May 16, 2008
I insisted on arriving at Bangkok’s Suvarnarbhumi airport more than two hours early in order to secure right-side window seats on our Thai Airways flight to Kathmandu. This was to be our first trip to the Himalayan kingdom, and the guidebooks all said that, if flying in from the east, we had to get a seat on the right side of the aircraft for a view of the Himal on the way into the ancient Nepalese valley.
For most of the flight the view out the window was a cloudy blur of gray and white with pinhead splatterings of raindrops. But occasionally, through quick breaks in the atmosphere, I was afforded sudden glimpses of smoldering jungle over Myanmar, the spider web of rivers and mangrove islands of Bangladesh, the parched plains of India. Myanmar…Bangladesh…and soon Nepal, our destination. These were places that, I’m sad to admit, I probably could not have located on a map while in high school. But that didn’t matter anymore; the wife and I were on our way to the Himalayas and, martini in hand, I devoured every bird’s eye peek of South Asia that I could.
However, I began to worry about not having that grand view of the world’s tallest mountains when, just 45 minutes from landing, I could still see nothing but clouds and stratosphere. Then our plane banked quickly to the right and shot through the cloud line…and there they were: a world-dividing wall of black rocks covered in a snow that seemed to be drifting among the peaks like slow incense smoke. The mountains themselves seemed to gleam and waver, like a mirage, threatening to retreat from sight as if in a dream.
But even more beautiful than the beckoning Himal were the terraced Middle Hills on the southern rim of the Kathmandu Valley.
“Babe, look! Look at that!” Was all I could say as I tore my camera out of its case and tried to get it turned on before we lost the view over a world of Smurf villages etched into steep brown mountain sides, of little dirt roads connecting these sleepy enclaves -roads that no sane motorist would ever attempt- of wisps of clouds blowing over the dark peaks and terraced hillsides reflecting the sun. It looked like a miniature world that only happy, cozy people could create.
“I love Nepal already,” I stammered, snapping photos and losing my breath in excitement.
Even my wife, who usually makes a special effort to hold back her excitement when we first arrive in a new country, was visibly excited.
We passed startlingly close to the top of the mountain range, then banked left and dropped into the valley. I glanced up at the Himal again, which seemed to be winking away in some atmospheric twilight, and kept my eyes glued to them all the way down to the runway, fearing they would disappear.
The Immigration officials inside the dim, antiquated arrival hall were more warm and welcoming than any I have encountered in my travels. My wife found this especially pleasing because, being Taiwanese, she often has to fill out additional paperwork for landing visas and deal with slow, indifferent staff. Not here.
“Ni hao,” greeted our smiling official in Mandarin. “Hua-ing.”
My wife was quite surprised to here him say “welcome” in her mother tongue.
“Oh,” my wife beamed. “I like Nepal too.”
Lonely Planet had prepared me for the assault of guest house touts that would greet us upon stepping out of the crumbling brick airport, so I patiently waited till I saw a man running around waving a Kathmandu Guest House (KGH) placard. An old man helped us carry a small bag and elbow our way through a wall of shouting touts who continued to try and get our business as we made our way to the van.
The driver stepped out of the van and opened the trunk for us.
“You’ve got to tip him,” he said to me in a friendly way. “He helped you.”
I turned to the old man, who held up an open hand.
“Fi-ive,” he mouthed, as if in mime. It sounded like this was the first English word he had ever attempted.
I was confused; one dollar seemed more like it.
“Fi-ive do-lar,” he clarified.
“No, here’s one dollar.”
He took the greenback without making eye contact, mouthed some silent word, then ran back to the chaotic scene at the arrival door.
“What is the name of that mountain over there?” I asked our driver, pointing to a snow-covered mother-of-a-hump framed by a range of lower dark hills.
“That is Ganesh Himal,” he answered.
I thought about taking out my camera to snap a shot of it, but I thought…there will be plenty more views of that and better, just chill out and enjoy this right now.
“Do you plan to go trekking?” the driver asked.
“Maybe,” I lied. “I haven’t decided yet.”
“Where are you thinking about going? Pokhara?”
“Maybe part of the Annapurna Circuit, like up to the Thorung La and then back down.”
“I don’t recommend you do the Annapurna, it is too cold.”
“I lived in Alaska for two years and have hiked in the winter up there. If I can handle that, I think I can hike from tea house to tea house in the Himalayas.”
“Whatever temperatures you experienced in Alaska cannot compare to nighttime in the Himal, I assure you.” He answered confidently. “And besides, the Chinese are building a road all the way up to Manang, and the trekking route is essentially destroyed.”
I waited for him to try and pitch me on a different trek –one that a friend, perhaps, could guide me on- but it didn’t come quickly.
We were supposed to wait ten minutes for another guest to arrive, so I walked to the end of the parking lot to have a look at the city of Kathmandu, which stretched out below the airport like a massive pile of bricks knocked down and scattered about by a wrecking ball.
After about 20 minutes of waiting for another KGH guest (who apparently did not make through the through the touts), we were finally on our way into the city. Whereas most major cities are set at least a few miles outside of town, buffeted by industrial spaces or open fields, at Tribhuvan Airport the 40-meter long ‘airport drive’ spills right out onto a decrepit corner of Kathmandu itself full of unemployed gentleman standing around on sidewalks by the thousands.
“Oh, it’s like India,” my wife remarked. “This is what New Dehli is like.”
I was taken aback by the poverty I saw: sickly cows rummaging through smoking piles of trash heaped up on the curbside; skinny macaques with bleeding sores being swatted at by angry shopkeepers; shoeless children running though puddles of who-knows-what in the streets; dead rivers as black as the inside of a battery with people washing their clothes in it; tent villages where I imagine not even a platoon of armed soldiers would venture into –this was poverty.
I wasn’t disappointed, just stunned. As I stared out the window at the chaos our driver honked the horn every five or ten seconds at nothing in particular, just a friendly little toot-toot to let others know we were on the road. And then we made a turn somewhere and were smack in the center of backpacker central, Thamel. Dreadlocked couples in Gore-Tex and sunglasses mixed with the trekking touts, rickshaws and Tibetan monks. Gates parted and we were suddenly free of the madness and rolling up a long, quiet drive.
My first impressions of KGH were soothing. Big smooth slabs of stone forming a nook of a patio bar that blended in perfectly with the rock roof tiles and brick walls of the hotel; lazy lounge pillows tossed beneath small wooden tables under the twisted trunks of shady trees that sheltered an open air restaurant. Western tourists sat at tables besides small log campfires sipping Everest beer or Marsala tea and reading copies of The Kathmandu Post and The International Herald Tribune. The interior of the landmark guest house -which hosted the Beatles back in the 1960s- was dimly lit, giving the woodwork a rich and aged feel. Everything –in Nepal as a whole- was made of wood or brick or stone, which to me felt like an aesthetic miracle when juxtaposed with the bathroom-tiled cement box architecture of Taiwan, where we live.
The rooms themselves were surprisingly bland, we both felt, but we were soon back outside dodging taxis and rickshaws and spit on the streets of Thamel. It was about 3pm by this time, and I didn’t think we had time to do justice to one of the recommend ‘walking tours’ mapped out in the guidebook, so I figured we should try to locate the highly-recommended Tashi Delack Tibetan Restaurant.
Lonely Planet describes this restaurant as having the ambiance of “a trekking lodge that’s been transplanted from the Everest trek into Thamel in a time warp.” We finally found it –located no more than 20 meters from the gates of KGH- hidden down a candle-lit hall in the back half of a building. We were impressed by the menu –Tibetan, Mexican, Nepali, Chinese- but what caught my eye was ‘millet beer’.
A tall metallic mug filled to the brim with small red millet beans quickly arrived at our table. Our man poured boiling hot water into this and left the kettle at our table. I grabbed the metal straw and sucked fiendishly at something that tasted like sweet sake but without (unfortunately) the punch. Despite the mediocre kick this cool-looking drink delivered (I imagined them going for US $30 in a New York City lounge bar) we drew envious stares from other foreigners, many of whom made their way over to our table to enquire about the beverage.
We ordered fried beef mo-mo’s and mo-mo soup and instantly fell in love with Nepali (or Tibetan?) food.
Back out on the dusty streets, we wandered down alleys and lanes, stumbling upon stupas and Pasupati Nath temples –daily cultural artifacts where local people worshipped- that curators of Western museums would salivate over. One has to stoop to enter into the hidden world of neighborhood lanes that lead away from the loud streets of the city and into a parallel world of grandmothers hanging clothes, of unwashed pre-school children staring out from finely-carved wooden Kumari doors (which seemed, inexplicably, to adorn practically every household and business establishment in Kathmandu), of shadows, incense mist and cooing pigeons and lazing dogs.
Walking around Kathmandu, I almost had to laugh at the concept of an “historic site.” In places like Japan or South Korea or Thailand there are ancient historic monuments that are roped off and surrounded by people taking photographs. In Kathmandu, the entire city is an ancient (living) monument. In this city, when one leaves the airport, he’s stepping into antiquity, into medieval Asia. And despite the horn-blasting on the streets, despite the hocking and spitting and the trekking touts and the maniac drivers, Kathmandu was a magical place. We did, of course, visit a couple of the famous historical sites –namely Boudnath Stupa and Durbar Square- yet I had an impossible time distinguishing where these ‘sites’ began and where they ended; they just blended into the rest of the city, which was just as old, just as interesting.
And while we tried our best to ignore the intense annoyances all around (horn honking, sideswiping vehicles, hocking, spitting, swindling) we knew that, after 3 nights in the capital, it was time to get out into the countryside, out into that patchwork world of Smurf villages chiseled into the mountainous hinterland.
**** * ****** ****** ******
The first trick was to get out of Kathmandu, which I feared would be a very complicated task. We wanted to go to Bandipur, which is situated up in the Middle Hills about 4 hours west of Kathmandu, halfway to Pokhara. The writers of Lonely Planet Nepal describe this place as a “national treasure” of traditional Newari life that is as yet untarnished by tourism. After seeing those little cliff-side towns from the plane on the way in, we were sold.
Our taxi driver got us to the bus station, and upon taking one look at the place I knew that this was not going to be a simple, straightforward trip. Complications, I could deal with –a Taiwanese wife perhaps could not- but I figured I could smooth over the inconveniences as best I could. A dilapidated bus, however, would be a major problem. We approached the concrete cinderblock station in stunned silence, my wife pulling her suitcase through puddles of brown water in the hazy drizzle.
Small holes had been blasted into the side of the cement walls, and these were the ticket windows, with something like Sanskrit painted about each cavity.
“Pokhara? Besisahar? Lumbini?” Friendly, helpful staff asked us.
I told them we wanted to go to Bandipur and a vendor pointed straight across to a window crowded out with jostling Nepali men. I strolled up to the window, gracious men parted, I said “Bandipur” and then paid about $7 US for two tickets to Dumre, the staging point for a jeep ride up into the hills to our destination.
We approached a blue bus with vibrant flora decals and some actual flowers and plants tied to the chassis. I tossed our luggage up to a man standing atop the bus, who tied our belongings to the roof. The bus was filled to capacity, with one other Western passenger sitting with his guide up front. When the driver boarded the vehicle, he turned the ignition and the moment the engine rumbled to life, delirious Hindi music erupted from the speakers.
Honking at no one and everyone every ten or twenty seconds, our driver waited in the lot with the engine and the music going, just seeing if anyone wanted to hop on. Finally we set off, and while it took some time to get out of the city proper –with more passengers climbing aboard as we rolled down the congested streets, slapping the side of the vehicle to let the driver know something or other- we were soon climbing a hill and looking down on the Marsyangdi River Valley from a road high above the valley floor. We drove for about four hours on an arid mountain road with the rushing river in view at all times, a speeding caravan of rocking Hindi music that stopped to pick up an additional 30 passengers from a broken bus, before disgorging us at Dumre.
We were at once set upon by jeep touts (a 30-minute uphill jeep ride is the only way up to Bandipur, short of a trek).
“350 Rupiahs to Bandipur,” a man said with finality, snatching my wife’s suitcase from her and walking with it back to his vehicle.
I had to catch up with him and bring the luggage back.
“OK. 250 Rupiah’s,” another hawked, inching toward our bags.
We backed away defensively, and backed right into another jeep that had pulled up.
“20 Rupiahs to Bandipur,” a smiling face said.
That was more like it.
We jumped into the back of the pickup truck, which at this point had three or four other passengers; one older woman at the far back, whom my wife sat across from, a mother and her young child, and two attractive teenage girls, who filed in right behind us. A couple more passengers boarded, and just as we were about to take off for Bandipur one additional middle-aged man with a smile permanently burned across his face came running up and leapt onto the open trunk. He wore some traditional-looking garbs, as well as a red skull cap. Before he even set his ass on the bench he began talking and cracking jokes –and the women on board were very responsive, covering their mouths and giggling.
He took a breath and looked around at the other passengers, spotted me, and broke into a jubilant oration which did not stop for the entire 45-minute ride up the mountain. Much –if not all- of what he said was –I am quite sure- about the possibility of one of the teenage girls starting a relationship with me. He either didn’t see my wife or didn’t discern who she was or didn’t care (because it was all good fun), but this charming gentleman did not shut his trap for 45 minutes. He had every passenger on the bus (all females besides he and I) literally hunched over in agonizing jubilation. He would point to me, nod to the girl next to me, and start jabbering way, again and again and again. I can only imagine that his comments went something like this:
“Look at this guy next to you, the foreigner, he’s not a bad-looking chap. You could take him home to your mother, right? C’mon, seriously, you could take him home and the two of you would have cute babies together. Now, now –don’t be shy, don’t say that didn’t cross your mind; I saw the way you looked at him. Yes, you did. Don’t worry, mommy will approve! Heck, cute babies –and a lot a fun in the process. Yes, yes! Now that I mentioned it, you are interested. Interested in having a crack at it, no? Be honest, Suzy-Q! You two look good together. We can see that from right here with the two of you sitting side by side. And don’t I see you inching a little closer to him now? Yes, I think I do. Trying to cop a feel? Trying to get a little squeeze? Curious to see what a whitey is like?
“And what about you, little sister? I see you taking a peek at him, too. Maybe a little more than a peek. Hey…she’s trying to steal your man! That’s the guy you’re bringing home tonight. You can’t let her take him away like that. Or maybe you’d like to share him, is that it? Oh, he might like that!...”
Throughout the bus ride and for much of my traffic-navigating in Kathmandu, I felt a little bit tense. I was also getting worn down by the constant assaults by the touts as soon as we left KGH. And quite suddenly, everything changed. These are the Newari people, I told myself, and they are totally different from the city-dwellers in Kathmandu.
The guy continued to talk and the women continued to writhe with laughter. They seemed like the happiest people in the world.
Fighting back her laughter, the girl beside me collected herself. Surprising me with her English, she turned to me and, pointing to the man, said:
“This man…he, he very joker-man.”
And that didn’t stop him. We drove up and up and up on a steep dusty dirt road that afforded us views of hidden canyons in side valleys that went all the way back to the Terai. Now the trip begins, I said to myself. This is why we came to Nepal.
Our stop was the first one in town, which was a dirt road leading to a kind of gateway that lead into a cobblestone street of traditional brick and stone buildings, many of which had been carefully and tastefully refurbished. No touts approached us. Not one single person tried to sell us something. No hotel proprietors called out to us for their business. The only people who noticed us were children, who paused in mid-play to press their hands together and call out –“Namaste!”
We walked down the main street (and the only real street, actually, which contained no vehicles) in a state of refreshed wonder, gazing at the yellow and red painted bricks, admiring the temple at the head of the lane, saying Namaste back to the frolicking kids. I spotted a particularly attractive establishment with a sign out front which said “The Old Inn.”
A gorgeous shower of rose vines splashed down the entire brick façade, and small ancient doors led into a dark, cozy, candlelight-only restaurant.
“We’re staying here,” I told my wife.
“OK, but we can look around,” she chirped.
“Yeah, but I want to stay here. This is incredible.”
The Old Inn is actually an old mansion that has been renovated with the utmost care for detail. I actually have a hard time imagining the place possibly looking better in its “glory day” than it does today. Every knob, switch, light, chair, table, knickknack, paperweight, napkin holder and utensil was worth admiring. Literally. And all of it seemed to have been impossibly salvaged from a time long before.
The guest rooms were these little cubby holes with miniature wooden doors with peg locks with their own private balconies that opened on to what must be one of the prime views of the Himalayas from the Middle Hills. Sadly, we didn’t see these views because of clouds and haze, but we were so caught up in the excitement of this place that it didn’t matter. I can only imagine, though, just how nice the views might be. I imagine throwing open those swinging wooden doors in the morning, rubbing my eyes, and beholding a “gob-smacking view” (Lonely Planet) of the Himalayas. The Old Inn was so charming that, if we had those views, I may well have dropped to my knees, converted to Buddhism on the spot, and spent the rest of my life sweeping the ground before me, shaving my head daily, and accepting alms from courteous patrons.
After taking the room, we set off on a walk through the outskirts of town. The main road branches off into three smaller paths at its conclusion. Having spotted a jutting plateau crowned with a hulking mass of gnarled Banyan trees out in the distance from our terrace, I suggested we take the path to the left, which followed over laid slate stones and small brick schools and homes where residents and students greeted us in Nepalese and made us feel nothing short of saved. Saved from the chaos of Kathmandu, of the uncertainty of overcrowded rickety buses, of trekking touts and scam artists. We had found a place in those sculpted hills that we had passed over so low on the plane coming in. We had found, what we were looking for.
For more on the Bandipur, check out Wikipedia’s page on the place at:
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