The unstoppable force of India collides with the immovable mass of China and Nepal is the balloon squeezed between the two. The pushing continues: the Himalaya are still fracturing upward and the government is still simply fractured by the impact of it’s giant neighbours. The China-supported Maoists won an election in 2008, but intractable issues with the India-backed Congress Party made governing impossible, and the only hope was that a new constitution would lay the groundwork for a return to normalcy. Now the negotiations over the constitution are in a deadlock, there is no functioning legislature, and no end is in sight. But actually, most people barely notice.
Sure, civic functions like garbage collection are sporadic; the plastic bags of refuse discarded on the street when we arrived are still there days later, mashed into the potholes by traffic and picked over by dogs, cows and crows. Our friend Malik explains that the garbage collectors are from the villages and in the Maoist camp, and if they don’t want to work no one will make them, and they have all taken two weeks off for the holiday of Dusain.
Our timing, in that regard, is very fortunate. We arrive at the tail-end of Dusain, and our jewelery-makers are drifting back in from the villages, so our orders can get started. Everybody knows about the increase in the price of gold this last year; the same is true of other metal. Copper, tin and zinc are all more expensive, and silver had increased 50%. This means we are buying a lot less silver jewelery, and a lot more copper, brass, and “white metal” (steel, aluminum, and – Malik shrugs his shoulders – whatever they have). We still manage, of course, to get some extraordinary pieces, including lots more styles of rings, and some very dramatic Afghani-style cuffs. And singing bowls. Our most popular bowls last year were the antique “thado-bhuti”, which come from the Tibetan border regions and are, according to the famous Tuladhar brothers, Ishwor and Suman, up to 100 years old. We spend a morning in an ancient room in the old city of Kathmandu with Ishwor, each one of us in turn handling the bowls and making them sing and selecting from his stock 30 of the thado-bhuti, based on their tone and quality. They will be a little more expensive than last year, but if you pre-order from us now we will reserve them at the old price. Drop us an email if you are interested.
When all our orders are done, Malik suggests we make an outing to Nagarkot, which is a village on a ridge outside of Kathmandu with a glorious vista of the terraced foot-hills set against the snow-capped Langtang Himal. We leave the city on the road that leads to China. Now it is a horribly dusty construction zone of constant pot-holed diversions – but soon it will be Nepal’s only four-lane divided highway. Geo-politically, you could probably read something into building a free-way to China, and leaving the road to India – the one we will take tommorow – to rot.
Kathmandu holds a special place in our affections, but it is still a noisy, polluted Asian city, and we are craving something a little less frantic. Rather than head into the mountains – the destination of almost all of this year’s bumper-crop of tourists – we journey down to the plains to an area of forest and rice-fields bordering India known as the Terai. The famous destination here is Chitwan National Park, home to a dwindling population of tiger, elephant and one-horned rhino. I have a disabling aversion to group tourist activities, so I am confined to the hotel while Katheryn has a wonderful time riding into the park on the back of an elephant named Circli, even though her party doesn’t see any major wildlife. What we can both do, however, is rent bicycles and explore the beautiful surrounding villages where the rice harvest is in full swing.
If the main road from Kathmandu to India – which takes us by Chitwan Park – is bad, the road east across Nepal is legendary. Granted, much has been paved since the bad old days, and the journey has been reduced from unbearable to merely uncomfortable. We decide to take two days to do the 440 km, breaking half- way at Janakpur. We leave Sauraha early the first morning, advised that the best way to get from the village to the main highway is by horse cart. That seems reasonable, except that no horse carts appear, and we are forced to make bad puns about falling into a trap. Eventually a curious pick-up driver stops and we negotiate a ride with him. Getting transport mid-route is always a bit of a risk, since buses generally arrive full, and carrying our luggage as we are it is difficult to get on and hope to secure a seat. Janakpur is also an unusual destination, and after flagging a couple of buses to a halt and getting no satisfaction we decide to go 20 km the OTHER way, to the major town of Narayangarh, and hope to get something from a terminus. Instead we are dumped at a noisy junction in the middle of town. It always happens, though, that when you simply throw yourself into the sub-continent, you are taken care of. Someone asks us where we are going and leads us to a Nepali-labeled hole of an office, and someone else sells us a ticket to Janakpur, leaving at 10. There is enough time to go for a bite at a simple place next door, and Katheryn gets entertained by a young girl intent on dancing for her while simultaneously reciting the English alphabet. Then someone grabs our bags and runs off announcing our bus has arrived. The bus is packed, but two seats are cleared for us, and with our bags in the aisle getting climbed over by the standing passengers we head off. Only the last part of the trip, 7 hours later, is really bad. That’s when the pavement has disappeared and we are bucked off our seats as the driver takes on the potholes as if they are trolls in a video game. Then again, Katheryn reminds me of the part where the rest-stop is just the side of the road, and she has to squat partially-concealed by some bushes as a group of curious cyclist ride past. Or the part where she has to hand our bags out the window to finally get stowed properly and wrenches her back in the process.
And so it is, with Katheryn barely able to walk in the morning, that we prepare for the next leg, to Karkabitta, on Nepal’s eastern border. The bus originates in Janakpur at least, but at first glance it doesn’t inspire confidence. It’s been twenty years since anyone cared what the interior looked like, and the cushion on our wooden plank bench is so ragged I pick up the whole thing and change it with another that is marginally better. We are right behind the driver, which allows Katheryn to brace herself on the wheel well, but the speakers from the stereo are six inches from my head, and we spend most of the trip wearing earplugs. It’s not everybody’s idea of fun, but it’s what we do, and I love the fact that we are in a relatively remote and beautiful part of the world surrounded by people who accept our presence here with so much hospitality, and there is a price to be paid for that privilege. Katheryn, as always, maintains her sense of humour, and coins two apt phrases: ” He’s got balls of nerves” as the bus holds the ribbon of asphalt for as long as possible against oncoming traffic; and the immortal ” For the Love of Pavement!”
Be sure not to miss these videos of the experience: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YF3pdGGMUsk; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JY_9P1-0xcw; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AfY_eIA94I0; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6IxYz1Lwbpc; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JP6ZGem87Oo. Or just go to youtube and search for kebeandfast to see all the choices.
And there are lots more photos: http://www.flickr.com/photos/croquet