Monday, 1 June 2020

1988 Nepal: Kathmandu, Pokhara

23.11.88 Kathmandu

Sorry about that – a bit premature – excitement, doubtless.  To Delhi airport, where I succeed in getting a good window seat on the left-hand side.  No problems with customs or whatever, and we take off in brilliant weather, climbing steeply.  We follow the course of a great river, which gradually diminished, its fractal windings becoming ever-more delicate. Eventually the clouds on the horizon turn into mountains: the Himalayas.  First a few isolated peaks, than an unbroken range.  Brilliantly white, catching the sun as it turns westward.  We turn ourselves towards them, starting a descent which surely will take us into the foothills.  These are brown and hunched, then covered with thick pathless forests.  There is little sign of habitation.

Passing further on, we reach the real foothills, which have farms perched precariously on their tops, and terraces on their sides.  As our descent is almost finished, we seem to be skimming the rooftops.  We could wave to the farmsteaders.  Then Kathmandu valley comes into view.  Quite flat, with buildings and farms everywhere.  In the distance the peaks loom even more magnificently.  In no time at all we have landed – far more smoothly than Indian Airlines, and we are out on the runway. Everything looks incredibly flat, rather like Kashmir, but nothing is quite so much a surprise as Kashmir; here it seems more expected, somehow.  It is very fertile, and the setting sun adds its own rich tones to the landscape.  

Customs are quite thorough, going through my luggage.  The tourist desk is helpful, and soon books me a room at the Yellow Pagoda Hotel – one I had tried to ring, but in vain.  Quaintly, the time in Nepal is 10 minutes later than in India. I take a taxi in.  Driving on the right – that is, left – side of the road, and things look quite Indian, down to the signs and dodgy traffic laws.  But already a number of differences emerge.  There are a lot of attractive wood buildings, covered in grilles and patterns.  Although poor, the poverty is not abject and grinding as in India.  It does not appear to be squalid.  We are soon caught up  in the Kathmandu rush-hour (ha!).  Kathmandu itself seems relatively large, with extensive suburbs.

We arrive at the hotel.  Not deeply impressed.  Inside, even less impressed.  For a nominal three-star hotel, and $40 a night, this looks like a rip-off.  My mood has probably been influenced by the same young Sharon I met in the train.  She had said how disappointed she was with Kathmandu.  Naturally, my heart sank.

Even though it was 5pm and dusk was falling, I decided on a whim to go for a walk.  One slight problem with my room is that it gives on to one of the main roads, which India-style is a cacophony of honks.  But I hope that I can live and sleep with this.  Walking along it, I see quite a number of tourists – this is the peak tourist season, after all.  Again, on impulse, I turn down a side street.  Gradually its drab buildings give way to the characteristic wood and stone ones.  Brightly coloured wares are on display everywhere.  As in India, these twilights remind me inevitably of Christmas, that jolly, contented feeling.

Walking alone, I am reminded of many places.  The form of the shops and houses reminded me of Austria or Bavaria; of Hong Kong, of Paris, of Srinagar.  And yet Kathmandu is also quite Westernised.  Western goods abound, along with tacky tourist shops.  And it does not seem to have lost its original spirit.  The people help: the women in particular have a beauty, a warmth about them. And many of the men are taller than Indians.

I move on, and reach the Hotel Crystal.  Turning right, I hit the great market place.  On one side is the old palace, a fantastic construction; implausibly paired with a hideous neoclassical design in white.  Then beyond, four or so curious temple-like structures: shall investigate tomorrow.  People selling vegetables everywhere, tiny offices busy above even tinier shops.  Much cleaner than India, no real putrefying dirt, the children seem better fed and shod.  A maze of back alleys.

Turning right behind the palace, I came across a shrine surrounded by people, fires blazing, and musicians playing raucous reeds.  I step away, as I return the crowd suddenly rushes away from a corner of the shrine.  A liquid spouts up in the air.  A red liquid.  A young kid has been sacrificed, and its blood doused onlookers.  It is strange watching an animal, newly slaughtered, being cut up.  I am surprised by how heavy each piece seems.

I pass back the way I came, the dusk deepening.  Above is the clear, perfect "O" of a full moon.  What could be more apt for my first night in Kathmandu?

24.11.88 Kathmandu

Up early and along yesterday's path to Durbar Square.  The sun is just beginning to appear, but the air is very chill – my breath is visible before my face.  The square peaceful – few people around yet.  Sitting at the top of the main Maju Deval temple, I watched the light stretch out, the sun's disc finally appearing over the white portico opposite.  

Back for breakfast, then out to the RNAC offices.  I confirm my flight to Delhi – India seems so far away now – and also book a flight to Pokhara for Sunday, and the mountain view trip for Thursday.  The sun by now is beginning to blaze, just as in Kashmir.

Back to Asan, where I stand and stare for 15 minutes.  I forgot to mention that I am also reminded of Etretat – the dark wood and brick, I suppose.  It is such a lively scene – some six roads converge here, with market wares everywhere.  Plus the temples – everyone seems to be genuinely religious, with flowers and offerings, and bell-tolling.  A seed shop – "Annapurna seeds", proclaims itself a member of the Royal Horticultural Society.  As well as intricate carved wood, ornate grilles on the windows are noticeable.  Big transformers even manage to blend in somehow.

To Durbar Square where I sit and sit.  The porters, huge loads strapped by a band to their heads.  The kids – with bikes, digital watches, playing marbles… People hawking and spitting everywhere. An old woman sits to my left, picking out fleas from her clothes, and crushing them with her thumbnail; to my right, a spider has jumped on a fly twice its size, and holds its head in its jaws, a slow dance of death.

From here, I decide to walk to the stupa at Swayambhunath.  The lying Lonely Planet book says 20 minutes from Durbar Square: more like 40 minutes.  Down Pig Alley – fairly squalid – and then across a rope suspension bridge.  Curious feeling as the resonant frequency interferes with my own walking pace.  Up through more back streets, poorer suburbs of Kathmandu.  Pepsi Cola signs everywhere.  The inhabitants barely glance at me.

To the foot of the hill, where several hundred stone steps, of accelerating steepness, lead to the top.  I, of course, charge up, and am fairly knackered when I get to the stupa.  The main stupa itself – huge and white, with piercing eyes of Buddha – is photogenic enough.  Around its base, prayer wheels – to be used in turn clockwise.  Around about there are smaller shrines, great bells, sounded now and then by worshippers – and monkeys.  These bare-arsed creatures live by eating offerings on the altars – and anything else they can grab.  Mothers with babies, fighting males – a whole, all-too-human clan.

The view from the top is over much of the Kathmandu plain, emphasising what is apparent from the air: how houses dot everywhere, making the whole plain look very domesticated.  A haze-cum-mist hangs over the city.  In the distance, the jagged teeth of the Himalayas gleam whitely.  They remain a shock amidst this ruralism.  The sun's rays are amazingly powerful in the thin air.  Liquid heat.

After lunch, back to Durbar Square, pre-eminently a place to sit and do nothing – I can see why the 60s freaks settled here.  Still one or two ageing hippies around, looking very spaced-out.  Back there in the evening, pausing at my favourite Asan.  I think evening is in many ways the most characteristic time of Kathmandu – there are fewer tourists, and everything glows with local warmth and colour.  Durbar Square more or less deserted.

25.11.88 Kathmandu

Not a good day.  I awake at around 5am with gut pains.  I blame Varanasi's cheapo Ashok hotel, god damn 'em, and a dodgy cold chicken sandwich.  Alas, I know full well that as a result of a stupid starter that I ate my first night in Kathmandu, I shall have just as bad problems in a couple of days.  Indeed, today has been spent slowly easing this liquid poison around my intestines, with gurgles and squelches as it marches towards its inevitable destination.  Yuk.

Being ill – for short periods – is quite interesting.  I have felt like doing nothing today, and slept for three hours this afternoon.  I am not a very courageous invalid; I could never compose symphonies/novels etc in this state.  In the mistaken belief walking might help, I did struggle out to the Royal Palace.  Little is open, but what is, is impressive.  On the outside wall, a curious inscription in 18 languages – including English and French.  Set up in the 17th century, the words are "Winter" and "L'Hiver".  Strange.

Nasal Chawk is splendid, with characteristic architecture, gleaming white.  The Basantpur Tower provides good views, and a queer feeling of coming into contact with another civilisation – generally lacking in this cosmopolitan city.  Then a quick dash back to my room – and bathroom…

Clouds in the sky today: I had assumed there were none…

26.11.88 Kathmandu

Not quite so deathly today – I slept for an astonishing 12 hours last night.  For the third night running, a crazy brass band has walked its ghostly way.  In the morning, by autorickshaw to Patan, once an independent town, now more or less a suburb of Kathmandu.  Once again, I am amazed at the deceptive distances – glad I didn't walk.

Patan's Durbar Square is rather quieter and in some ways more impressive than Kathmandu's.  Partly, I suppose, because you get a better feeling of what Nepal was like before the West had an impact.  Hard to describe: a collection of pagoda temples, Garuda, Ganesh, Hanuman, brilliantly-carved wood facings, a courtyard with a holy stone ("It is prohibited to touch the holy stone"), a sunken pond.

Back in Kathmandu, most of the day sent reading – a luxury in itself – on the pagoda steps in Durbar Square.  As the sun drops, the foothills to the south look like pleated velvet.  Walking back past Indra Chowk and the rest, the setting sun shines straight along the road, dazzling those proceeding due West.  A long, straight road, a dramatic effect.

27.11.88 Pokhara

Up reasonably early to the airport.  I screw up, and do not get a window seat, though in the small twin-prop (Hawker-Siddeley), nothing is far from a window, and I am at least on the right side.  But a pity, nonetheless, as the views were stunning.  Not just the peaks, creamy with snow above their high snowline, but the long, laborious valleys which led to them too.  You got a sense of real scale from those valleys, with their tiny, infrequent habitations. I longed to go walking through their almost endless folds.  One day…

Pokhara airport is the smallest I have ever landed at.  A kind of dirt track runway, a couple of sheds – you grab your own luggage.  I went to the Royal Nepal Airline office to book my return flight if possible.  The usual ruck.  I finally get to the counter, and ask for a ticket: number 44 on the list – there are only 44 seats on the plane, so I appear to have got the last seat on the last plane out – I hope they have not miscounted.

Now I sit in the garden of the New Crystal Hotel, which seems pleasant enough.  In front of me, unbelievably, lies the four peaks of the Annapurna range, but the view is dominated by the striking Machapuchare – the Fishtail mountain (it took me ages to work out why it was so called…).  Tea-time now.  The westering sun throws deep shadows on the faces of the Himalayas.  Annapurna (I) is swathed in tufted clouds, Machapuchare stands magnificent, and the other Annapurna peaks look as if dusted with icing powder.

This afternoon, I hired a bike – for 50p all day.  I rode down to the lake – which was nothing like I imagine it.  Surrounded on three sides by steep, thickly-wooded hills, there is a wonderful sfumato in the distance.  Large boats are out, with two or up to eight people, slowly padded.  Along the lakeside, the travellers' area.  Reminds me of Bali somehow.  Then on to Pokhara itself.  Huge and boring.  I try to find the starting point of the trail to Sarangkot; after half and hour of pedalling I have only just reached the bazaar.  Back to the lake, where I sit and look and look. Everyone else – young – sits, looks, or is out on the lake.  As the sun begins to sink, the sfumato deepens.  Far away there seems to be a pass, opening to blue sky.  Paradise, surely…  Very high, long formations of clouds like an armada, screen the sun. I wonder how the day will end: in a red sunset with the tips of the mountains illuminated last?

The quality of light around Machapuchare is changing: it is as if it were ringed with a shite line.  The sky has changed colour subtly.  It is the same with the other peaks.  Salmon colour takes over.  A beautiful effect: as the foothills in front of the peaks darken, the Himalayas themselves seem to glow like red coals, a choir of them away into the distance.  Like something out of a John Martin painting.

One advantage of this hotel is that it has "Nepali cultural programme" – that is, folk dancing and singing.  The former is not very skilled or graceful compared to Bali, say.  But the dancers were young and lively.  As were the singers, including one woman/girl – about 15, perhaps – with a nasalised voice like a buzzsaw – beautiful.  The music is mostly 4/4, major, some modal stuff, very repetitive, both melodically and structurally.  Nice, though.

Sky very clear – I've never seen the planets so much brighter than stars before.  No moon visible.

28.11.88  Pokhara

Sunrise shorter than sunset, but in some ways more spectacular.  A white light, which throws all the peaks into wonderful relief:  Machapuchare looks to be a cwm, I think, and the true disposition of the various Annapurnas is clear.  Everything glistened as if created this morning.  Not a cloud in the sky.  The sight of these mountains reminds me insistently of La Plagne – what, 10 years ago? - A memory tinged with sadness – les paradis perdus – since I will probably never ski again.  I'm glad I have my story.

Up to Sarangkot – eventually.  I hire a bike again – it seems the best way to get there.  Except that it is much, much further than I think – I get lost again.  I am getting good at taking direction from the sun.  On the way to Bindhyabasini Temple, I pass a procession: a crowd of people following musicians – drums, raw oboes, curved horns – and men carrying plants and dragging a goat – the sacrifice, presumably.  The music strange: a drone on the reeds, then every so often weird, skittering out-of-phase fanfares on the trumpets – a cross between Varèse and Tippett.  Other music: on the way, I passed a drove of pack donkeys.  Each had a crude bell around its neck – a bit like St Patrick's in Dublin.  The collective clangour was strange and haunting.

Finally to the temple.  I take the track for Sarangkot – then get lost, then park the bike, hoping it will still be there when I return, and start walking.  A gravel path, well worn, flanked by close-cropped grass: strangely English – the Lakes, almost.  Along the winding track, small houses.  People – mostly women – carrying loads strapped to their heads, to and from the road to Sarangkot.  On the way, I pass terrace fields which look like the delicate lacework of a mayfly's wing.  Thick forests, rivers cutting deep in the land, their milky-blue waters reminding me of the road up to Kashmir.  Also an army camp, rather crudely stuck amidst this beauty.  Through more villages, quite a few selling drinks, but happily the tourists are scarce today.

This written on the tip-top of Sarangkot, whereon a derelict structure within stone walls.  The view is utterly stunning.  To the north, the Annapurnas and Machapuchare, looking as if I could reach out and touch them.  There are just a few foothills between them and me, and then just pure up.  The treeline is very high, as is the snowline.  A river winds its way in front, two valleys, one deep and high, the other flattish and truncated at right angles.  Beyond the Annapurnas, more Himalayas.  

To the east, the main valley of Pokhara, flat and uninteresting.  Terraced fields à la Bali, though not so lush, falling down to the lake.  The runway and the main streets visible.  Ominously the city maps shows the site of a proposed bigger runway – Airbus size.  Pokhara will soon be too popular. South, to the lake.  Up here, it shimmers like a fine mesh.  The hills opposite are that rough velvet, cut with deep v-shaped grooves.  The boats out on the lake are like tiny pond-skaters.  Behind, endless rows of hills fading into the mist – just like Kashmir.  A few clouds on the horizon. Then to the west, the main river feeding the lake, winding its way through the valley, up to the foothills.

How does one leave a place like this?  You just go, with one last glance.  Then the jolt down – far worse than up, for me.  Without the wind on the top of the hill, the sun beat fiercely.  But soon down – amid the smell of cow dung – also like England.  Sarangkot seems to be at about 1500 metres – Pokhara is at 915 metres, so an ascent of only about 2000 feet.  Tantalisingly, the trail goes on...past a river called Modi Khola.

Dinner at the hotel: surprising number of Chinese here – from Taiwan.  An odd place to come?  Lots of Germans, a few Americans, Japanese, not many Brits.

29.11.88 Pokhara

On my bike again.  To Lake Phewa, about 9.15am, where I hire a boat – a large canoe, big enough for 10.  this I paddle for six hours.  Phewa is large: it is also a pleasant place to drift with the wind.  Memories of Lake Beratan in Bali, especially the foliage.  And rowing myself is infinitely preferable to being rowed: more interesting and warmer.  In fact, I found the rhythmic bodily movements very soothing, especially once I worked out how to steer in a straight line padding just one side – essentially, as with a punt on the Cam.  Over to the other side of the lake, where it meets the valley of the river which feeds it.  One disadvantage on the lake is that the mountains are obscured by Sarangkot et al.  What can I say?  It was beautiful and peaceful.  

Back to the hotel, admiring the view of the range of mountains from the road – still hard to believe they're real – and that I'm here.  Then back for my last sunset over the Annapurnas – this time, at least…

Started reading Montaigne – and read a couple of essays on the lake.  Bet that's never been done before…

30.11.88 Kathmandu

An easy last day in Pokhara.  Up to watch the sunrise, everything so fresh – then I walked down to the lake, sat, read for a while, and now I am eating lunch before my flight.  Homeward bound…

To the airport.  A decent seat – 10A – this time.  As we take off in the great shuddering, dust-spewing thing, there are more clouds than usual – typical.  But in a way this only serves to emphasise the majesty of the Annapurnas.  As we climb above the clouds – at a mere 15000 feet or so, Annapurna II in particular cleaves the cover like a gothic cathedral rising from the petty roofs around it.  My respect for such mountains has been increased enormously.  Flying along the range, I am struck by the thought that this is really the spine of the world, and that Tibet lies beyond.  I am also amazed at how it just goes on and on – the scale of the thing.  What a crazy kingdom Nepal is: barely a road or plain in it, everything tracks across lurching mountains.

1.12.88 Kathmandu

Hard to believe it's the first of December.  I awoke to find the valley full of mists: typical, with my mountain flight today.  Very cold and damp at the airport – an hour's delay, not surprisingly.  Since window seats are at such a premium, a lottery system is used.  On the Boeing 727, only the outer two seats were used.  So a 50% probability of getting a window seat.  Needless to say, I do not.  However, all is not lost: money rules everywhere.  A little man grabs my boarding pass and tells me not to worry.  An hour later, by fair means or foul, I have a window seat, albeit over the wing.  He is 30 Rp. richer.

My eighth flight of this trip.  As in the journey from Pokhara, the vista of mountains into the distance.  Also the main pass to Lhasa, Tibet beyond, looking even more moonlike than Nepal.  Then Sagarmatha, George Everest's baby, towering thousands of feet above us, even though we flew at 20000 feet.  I was struck by its blackness – very little snow – and its elemental, pyramidal shape.  The surrounding mountains looked almost pastoral.  A lake was visible, god knows how high.  Perfect weather – even the Annapurnas just visible behind us.  An experience, and worth the wait.

This has definitely been the worst holiday ever for illness: I now have a streaming cold.  However, it is quite interesting overcoming these tiresome difficulties.

I am now in the Yak and Yeti Chimney room, where for less than £10 I have had a slap-up three-course meal, plus a gin and tonic – which I couldn't eat.  I fear my stomach has shrunk.  This afternoon, along my favourite street.  I bought some Nepali tapes and postcards.  Sat in Durbar Square – but not really in the mood.  And so to bed.

2.12.88 Delhi

A day of trivia.  To Kathmandu airport, where two ugly Ozzie women jump the queue.  I remonstrate, to no avail.  The flight good: a brilliant view of the Himalayas, especially the Annapurnas.

To New Delhi airport.  First, I forget to pick up the change at the taxi desk; then my taxi breaks down, so I transfer to a rickshaw; then he takes me by very back routes to the Imperial – the Imperial Cinema, a real fleapit.  Finally to the hotel, as civilised as ever.

An idea: why not get an earlier flight?  Which I do: leaves 1.25am tonight.  And why not?  It is strange, this holiday has been the utter worst for illness, but the travel (ha!) still seems to shine through.

1988 India: Delhi, Jodhpur, Jaisalmer, Varanasi

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