The moment you leave Kathmadu airport and step into Nepal your lungs begin to taste the air, with each exhalation at the bottom of each breath comes that moment of stillness, then Nepal rushes in. That air is laden with chaos, traffic, fumes, dust blown on an unwholesome air, your eyes find strange faces peering from bus windows, roads potholed and choc-a-bloc with scooters & tatty vehicles many held together by nothing more than rust & a prayer, your ears are assaulted by the discordant cacophony of engines each humming a different tune, now you are on the road to Kathmandu City, fifth most polluted in the world.
Along the road the grime and the poverty, the endless traffic belching noxious fumes into the haze and dust are all too evident, perhaps like me you simply stare through the window of a clapped out taxi and take it all in, absorbed and fascinated by the stories you see playing out before your eyes, perhaps you to register that almost half the faces are covered with cotton masks to ward off the pollution, in the remainder you begin to see the faces of the people of Nepal, the melting pot of millennia, faces of India,Tibet, Burma, China, all mixed up, Buddhist,Hindu,Muslim, B’On, like wind scattered seeds Nepal’s people come from wide and far and settled amongst the mountains, forests, valleys and cities & made this place home.
This land of twenty five million or so, in the shadows of the Himalayas is sandwiched between more than a Billion Indians on one side and as many Chinese on the other. How it has endured it’s powerful neighbours surprises me, how even the very ground under peoples feet cannot be relied upon and is subject to seismic and occasionally cataclysmic change leaves me awestruck, how in the 1960’s the average life expectancy here was 40 years old, how it has endured near civil war with the dissolution of an absolute monarchy in place for a millienium, the march of Marxism, its people survive on an average income 1/40th of that in the UK. If I were to attempt to describe Nepal in the briefest of terms from the little time I have been here I would use just four words, young heart, ancient spirit.
The median age of a Nepali is twenty, that in the UK over forty. You feel this, the youth of the place, children and young people everywhere, but not like the west, not a place where one shuns the company of the other, here the old are close to the young, you find them together, talking, playing, as friends one finding pleasure in the company of the other.
But hang on, there I was on the airport road, before I wandered off, most tourists follow the same initial road as myself and are decanted in Thamel, tourist ghetto of Kathmandu, choc-a-bloc with trek & tat shops, bars & guest houses. I book myself into a Hotel with Royal in it’s name, not expecting much, as inevitably the ones with the grandest names are usually pants, if I could give a tourist advice in Nepal and for that matter India, avoid anything in the title that includes any of the following, Grand,Palace,Royal, believe me they are usually anything but.
Thamel began as a Hippy Joint in the 60’s, little is left of that beyond a street, as walking down Freak Street you can imagine those long gone days, hippies in cheesecloth & loons on the trail, the only reminders now are furtive old geysers hanging round the street corners, who look as though they have been there ever since, flogging grass………“ You want something? “ the line sounds very tired, how often they must have spoken those words……………
I stay a few days in Kathmandu, I do some of the regular tourist stuff, but what I enjoy most is renting a push bike and getting lost in the streets, totally lost, this I discover I have a real gift for, aided to no small extent by the lack of street names. Alleyways and narrow streets of cobbles lead to hidden squares, little shops selling anything from rope & kitchen goods to bicycle repair shops, old ladies selling vegetables on the street, it feels like a place that has been this way for centuries. like something from the middle ages. Dirty street kids in rags with angels faces play in gutters. All too regularly I find buildings damaged by the earthquake two years ago, the devastation in this place must have been frightful. My rambling on the bike takes me to the larger roads and I head upwards to the rim of the Kathmandu valley, it is 10km’s out of the City. Along the way I am surprised by the number of high end 4 wheel drive cars on the road, all spanking new and with UN logos, or US aid vehicles, whilst no doubt much has been done by overseas aid I can’t help but think why it was necessary to spend so much money on gas guzzling monsters, when Nepal could have used the money better. I pass the University, at a street entrance a throng of students is gathered, students not unlike any other you would find at a University anywhere else, young, noisy, brash, looking to make their way in the world, right next to them however is an enclave of Riot Police, they hold large wooden battons, riot shields and body armour. I am stuck in a traffic jam and pass the time watching the two distinct groups, the strange thing is that as I watch them, I realise that save for the uniforms the faces of the two are the same young Nepalis, they could be friends or relatives.
The elections are happening soon, the streets filled with one party or another waving flags, one senses that here in Nepal so recently a democracy that people still believe in Politics, in the ability of one party or another to change the status quo, to improve lives.
In this country caste still matters, people are defined by where they come from, by who their people are, I find an artist who has an exhibition of her work, in a local council produced flyer is an explanation of her work along with her CV, in it her qualifications are listed, including a degree, but she is also ethnically profiled, as a Tribal, and in brackets (Backward). I am somewhat taken aback to read the words, does where you come from matter so much here? Is it not possible to lose the labels you are given?
Five hours on a bus takes me out of the chaos that is Kathmandu and west. I find a little place to stay in Pokhara right next to a rather beautiful lake, I hire a bike and go exploring. Again I get throughly lost, but now in the most stunning of country. I am panting and sweating, there is a lot of pushing uphill, at the end of the day I am shattered. As I look at a map of the course of my day I find that though I’ve cycled ( and pushed ) my bike to over 1500metres, higher than Ben Nevis the UK’s highest mountain that here in Nepal my route has only covered hills, nothing worthy of the name mountain.
By evening the rain and the thunder begins, and so I curl up with a book, The Snow Leopard, by Peter Matthiessen. He recounts travels to wild places, and his story revolves Nepal & Tibet and his thoughts as he goes. I come to a passage which hooks me right in: “ wandering from one path to another with no real recognition that I was embarked on a search, and scarcely a clue as to what I might be after I only knew at the bottom of each breath there was a hollow place that needed to be filled”. I understand those words, three years of wandering ,nine countries too often I ask myself what the hell am I doing? And I find no answer.
But there are those moments of magic, they come without warning, for the briefest of moments it all makes sense, everything makes sense, but all too quickly like a mist descending on a perfect view they fade away to nothing. Then I feel that hollow place inside that needs to be filled and I breathe again.