bufs on the road

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 ringsexplains 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 singing-bowlsthe 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 dark-peakson 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 group2into 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 waiting-for-our-busalso 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 packed-busoriginates 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:;;;;  Or just go to youtube and search for kebeandfast to see all the choices.

And there are lots more photos:

Nepal: A Little up and a Little Down


sunset on Syawambhunath

No more Royal Nepal Airlines. They were a joke anyway, with the king often commandeering one of the fleet’s two 737’s for a skiing weekend in Switzerland, or some diplomatic junket, and leaving the scheduled passengers high and dry. Now a republic has been declared, and the king is cooking his dhal in his palace by candlelight, since the democratically-elected Maoist government cut off his electricity over unpaid back bills and froze his assets. Now it’s just Nepal Airlines.

The flight path from Bangkok to Kathmandu hasn’t changed;  nor have the mountains.  I glimpse Cho Oyu,  and Everest, tinged pink, floating over the darkened plains. With political stability- in a relative sense- life in the capital has returned to normal. But the normals of Kathmandu, to paraphrase Kipling, are the wildest dreams or Kew. Without a blockade there is no fuel shortage, and with no fuel shortage, there is no car shortage. The 7 km from the airport takes an hour, accompanied by much hopeful honking at the congestion, which is often so tight that pedestrians can’t even squeeze by. Downtown, in Thamel, the activity is as frenetic as ever, and the prosperity of the shops can be judged by whether they have lights – and therefore a generator- or candles, as this is the beginning of the “load shedding” season. We stay just outside of the hub, where candles are much more common. Since the only light on the street comes from the vehicle headlights, walking takes on a phantasmagorical property – figures coming towards me are backlit silhouettes, disappear as the beams swings into my eye, and reappear as schoolgirls, goat-meat venders or itinerant shamans, whatever the case may be. For the bicyclists who speed downhill -without a light of course – the effect must be absolutely hallucinatory.

   The economy is up. Despite the global meltdown, Nepal has seen more foreign arrivals in Oct. since than at any time since 2000. Prices are up as well, our visa, the taxi in, and our room all jumped by 20%. Our jeweler, Malik, is happy about the upturn, but even happier that stability means he doesn’t have to pay off both the police and the Maoists. Last year he was on the verge of despair. Much of the ten days we spend in Kathmandu we spend with him, meeting his workers, placing our orders, drinking tea and visiting. Last year we had an assortment of his beads  – among other jewelry – and the interest was such that this year we have far more. Malik specializes in traditional Tibetan work – coral, turquoise and shell inlay with brass and silver. He often works with designers on reproductions and variations, and is happy to use electroplating or substitute white metal or “pressed” stones if price point is an issue.

 We also make contact with our other established contacts. Pragati and her father still operate the world’s smallest small business, where we buy bags made from recycled rice sacks, in a shop in the old city so tiny I cannot even sit down inside it. Sitaram and his crew of hipsters smoke cigarettes and put images from Hinduism and Buddhism on just about anything they can – we buy posters, fridge magnets and mouse pads. Raju has branched off from the family business selling old and new antiques, and now has a little corridor with wooden masks and sculptures. His father, Narayan, still has the big store, and compounds the fairly sinister effect of room upon dusty room of old jewelry, rows of fetishes, tantric ritual paraphernalia and memorial figures piled like cordwood, by following close behind you with his one milky white eye. On the downside, two people we felt a strong connection with are gone. Namgyal Lama, our shipper, who has always had a twinkle in his eye, and was known to the community as ‘Foxy’ for his wit and smarts has died of cancer; and Kasang who ran an antique store within the compound of the Bouddhinath Stupa was unable to survive the last year and is out of business. Malik told us the Chinese had recently stopped granting visas for non-resident Tibetans wishing to travel there, and this likely finished Kesang’s business off.   We will miss them both.  Another institution we will miss is the inspiration for this blog’s title. In a small alley in the old city was a grungy café and restaurant with no door except for a curtain, selling the usual Tibetan fare: momos, thukpa, chowmein. It was called the Up and Down, and we always joked it wasn’t topography but business that the name was referring to.  Alas now it’s a little down and out.

 Our guest house owner, Yves, a French national married to a Nepali woman is also relieved with the new normal. Last year he was truly worried about their future, and now, this time, we got the last room, and although it was load shedding hours, he now had a new generator furnish some light.  The weather also was more up then down for us; enough sunshine was available to heat the solar-powered shower water to close to a comfortable temperature. Not once did Katheryn bathe with a down coat on, though it was a little too cool to bathe daily. The effects of wild market swings caused the foreign exchange rates to fluctuate, daily a little up or down, though on average we got as good as rate as last year.

One institution that has survived is the world’s strangest wine shop. It’s facade is wood shutters and old-world beams , but it is set into the featureless fortress-like wall of the American Embassy, and it’s roof is lined with motion detectors, search lights and rows of razor wire. Inside the staff is very genial, and we buy bottles of ten year old French wine for $6, and as a real treat, Caol Ila single malt Islay for 25% of what it costs in Vancouver.

 We have a bottle of each in my pack as we head out of Kathmandu early in the morning for Bandipur. Newari merchants built Bandipur into a flourishing town two hundred years ago, on account of its location, straddling a ridge on a major trade route from India to Tibet.  It continued to prosper until the ’50’s when the new Paithri highway was built in the valley; then suddenly the town, the richly decorated temples, and the stone mansions with their carved balconies, became redundant. Taking a progressive approach the Nepal Tourist Board identified Bandipur as a place to practice cultural and ecologically-sensitive tourism, and development has preserved much of the town’s character. A Tibetan yak drover for instance, would feel quite comfortable in the room in the old mansion that we find. It’s true, at 6’’4″, I’m of somewhat different stature from the locals, and for much of the two flights of stairs up and down, the back and forth to the outside toilet, and walking about the primitive  room or lying in bed I’m hunched up trying not to hit my head.

Traffic isn’t permitted on the town’s flagstone main street, which itself is incentive to stay another day. A short walk away is the old market and assembly area, the Dhulikhel, now a dusty flat ground surrounded by ancient banyan trees with an impossibly majestic view of the Ganesh Himal and the Annapurna range. It’s Saturday, the day off at the local girl’s school, which also attracts busloads of boys from the valley. They all gather at the Dhulikhel to mingle, play music, and have picnics and party. We fall in with a group of ravishing girls led by Shushima who give us flowers, practice their English, and call after us “Kat- a-rin, you are beautiful!”.

We made our way up to Bandipur in a shared jeep with the usual cluster of men hanging off the back. We go down in a local bus, which should be more comfortable, but in fact the seats are so close together even the locals can’t fit in them properly. Back down in Dumre on the highway, we flag another local bus to take us to Pokhara, 64 km away. The journey ends up taking three hours, and for much of the trip I have a goat prone at my feet, and another standing by my seat who insists on putting her head on my knee, and at one point, reflecting how many of us feel, pees on the floor.

Pokhara is a small comfort station on our journeys throughout Asia. Its location is idyllic – on a lakeside beneath the archetypal sacred peak of Machchapuchare, Daulagiri, and the Annapurnas providing a backdrop, and at 800 metres enjoying the near-perfect climate of bananas and bougainvillea. Yes, there are scads of tourists, but there is also such a plethora of accommodation and services that we can find a lovely picture-window room with said vista for less than ten dollars. It is easy to wile away the days doing nothing but sampling the restaurants between morning  coffee and evening scotch. It is too easy. So we go up the biggest hill we can find. The little village of Sarangkot sits on top of it, and is a popular place for paragliders to launch themselves off of. And if you need one more superlative view of those endlessly – photogenic, gigantic peaks, this is it. This is also our last high point. It is downhill all the way to India. The descent begins with a long, long, staircase to lakeside.  It is a challenging path, and we are going down. Coming up is a woman of about our age wearing flip flops and carrying a load of wood on her back in a basket. She drops her tump line beneath the same tree we are resting under with a loud snort. Sharing neither a reality nor common language we manage to communicate enough to share our biscuits. When we complete the descent, our legs are quivering.

Tomorrow is another bus.

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Into India

At the border 

This isn’t the Pokhara of the tourist brochures. The central bus stand is a rutted dirt field where old heaps of buses belch and roar. Corrugated shanties surround it so completely that when I came to buy a ticket yesterday, even though I was was standing directly across the street, I could only infer it was there from the racket and hustle that defines such places. Touts pull at us as soon as we step out of the taxi – they think they can cram us into a bus that has already left the station, charge an un-ticketed rate and pocket the difference. If you know the system you can actually get a better price that way, which is why the bus we get on inside the compound is empty. Anyway, playing by the rules secures us the 2 front seats. Pokhara bus stand

Our bus fills quickly outside the station, and we begin a day of hairpin corners on a contour-hugging road out of the front ranges. It’s a spectacular trip, and the average speed of 20 km/hr keeps the tight spots where we meet other vehicles from being too nerve-wracking. As soon as we are spit out onto the plains at Butwal, after a pin-ball journey, the ticket guy tells us there is a mechanical problem, and we can’t make it the next (flat) 35 km to our destination. The follow-up bus attacks the remaining distance with ferocious intent; mercifully, since our new seats leave me groaning every time we hit a bump.

There is still a bit of soupy daylight left when we get off in Saunali. We are about 100 m from India. This is a one-street town, but that street has to absorb virtually all of the chaos that passes between Nepal and its giant nieghbour. The lorry traffic is so heavy and congested that the drivers blast away on their horns as if that alone mght move the deadlock in front of them. The first hotel I try is at least symbolically set back from the road. I think it might offer some barrier to the cacophony. It is full. I ask to see the best rooms in the next two, and the street-facing, grotty corridors, rotting linoleum, mosquito filled horrors are too depressing to even pretend are options. Back on the drag. Dogs sleep on piles of garbage. Every tin-roofed shack is selling smuggled Indian booze. And then I spot it, gleaming like a vision of purity: the Hotel Prakash and Prakash. It is away from the road. The lobby is clean. Do you have a room, I roll my hand in the gesture and use the vernacular, Backside? We have the best room, sir, and I will give you for non-AC price. Even though I know I will take it as soon as I see it, I still knock the price down a bit, and we have ourselves a haven in this horrible little place.

The next morning we leave our soft mattress, and Nepal, with heavy hearts. May good things come to that wonderful land.
.casual customs
Crossing the border into India lacks much of the formality and scrutiny of most international frontiers. Since Nepali and Indian nationals don’t need travel documents, they simply stroll back and forth. For the handful of foreigners there is a small immigration post set in a row of shops and easily missed. After our passports are stamped it is a couple hundred meters to the bus stand, where Katheryn takes up the story.

Oh, Sweet Nothing

It isn’t without trepidation that I leave our sweet mountain ex-kingdom for MutherIndia. Normally I take stock of myself, reviewing a few bits of advice from the past, such as : don’t look at men; don’t talk to men; don’t look at beggars; don’t look at touts; actually by and large keep my head down and elbows at the ready. No one is butting in front of me. Well not as many people.

One of the worst, soul crushing burdens of being in this country is the endurance of the volume of noise. Indians not only seem oblivious to it, they actually seem to like it. Yelling, banging, honking, barking, screeching brakes, kids crying, temple bells, loud speakers, Bollywood music blaring out from stalls… And that’s just in the first 200 m walking to the bus.

Once aboard, I submit to the mp3 generation and plug in. I caution, you cannot do this on the street – to block out all of the audio warnings would be too dangerous. But a long distance bus the tape deck playing at full throttle (if you’re lucky) or a violent video (if you’re not,) is just beyond the endurable exhaustion you suffer on top of the rattling tin box and the blaring horn. So, I plug in for the ride from the border to Gorakhpur. We actually have a decent highway and are making 40-50 km/hr. Naturally it is too good to last. yellow brick road We turn off the highway and find ourselves on an elevated, single lane brick track, more like a drainage dyke than a road, running through the countryside. With rice paddies on each side we bump along in a cloud of dust about 10 feet above the fields. Ironically, the bricks in the road we are following are yellow.
As you could predict, after a time on a single track with no place to turn or pass, something will come towards you. In this case it’s a tractor. We have to back up. David gets out at that point with a few others, and I ride back to the last place we could back off the road. As I alight there is a small crowd of men from the area standing about. It is feasible some of them have not seen a white woman before, or so it seems, for they all hold an intense stare on me. Not giving them the satisfaction of being a talking side-show, I let them stare while I change to my giant sunglasses and replace the headphones in my ears. Lou Reed is singing one of his old classics that goes:

And say a word, say a word for Ginger Brown
Walks with his head down to the ground
Took his shoes right off his feet
Threw the poor boy right out in the street.
And this is what he said,’
Oh sweet nothin’, she ain’t got nothin at all
Oh sweet nothing, she ain’t got nothin’ at all.’

I walk away fron the men and boys to a spot by myself. A tiny woman in a sari comes along, and I put my hands in the prayer postion and greet her with a ‘namaste’. She smiles warmly and returns my greeting in kind. We speak in our own languages , pointing to the bus and tractor, the situtation making our conversation self evident. As she walks away I notice the red painted soles of her feet. She has anklets but that’s all. She wanders down the yellow brick road, in the sun, while Lou croons on, Oh Sweet Nothing. She ain’t got nothing at all.


Tongba, Raw Yak and a ’97 Langdeoc

I am 27,000 ft above the plains of northern India. They couldn’t be flatter. Big rivers meander across them like fat pythons, leaving tracks of sandbars and abandonned ox-bow curves. I can see villages stretched along the banks, and everywhere the geometry of fields. The only places where there aren’t any signs of human impact are the flood plains themselves, reluctantly left alone because of the power of the monsoon. Earlier this year the floods hit hard; the rivers broke their banks and milions of people were displaced.

I’m sure most of the people below me, plowing fields with oxen and hoping for the best from season to season have never seen what I am looking at in the distance: the massive white peaks of the Himalayas. I don’t think that anywhere else in the world are two such different landscapes existing side by side.

Our flight path follows the chain of mountains with the legendary names: Kanchenjunga; Machchapuchare actuallyLangtang; Everest. Or is that one Everest? Well, it could be- it’s big, white, and in the Himalayas…

It’s only when we turn north on the approach to Kathmandu that there is any break from the relentless human-scape below us. The Indian plains dash up against the first foothills, and forests spill off their flanks. Katheryn and I have crossed this route several times on the ground, taking a day on hairpin curves what we now do in 10 minutes. Kathmandu’s airport is rapidly becoming engulfed by the sprawl of the city, and it looks like we are going to touch down amid the flat-roofed three story concrete buildings as we approach the runway.

Unlike last February, when we were cold, wet and socked in, it is now all sunshine and short-sleeve weather during the day, although it is still cold at night. We soon get down to business with Malik, our Tibetan-Muslim born-in-Nepal jeweler. After a bit of badgering he agrees to take us on a tour of his workshops. The production system here is still very old-fashioned and informal. There are metal-working, silver-working, and stone-setting “castes”. Most are from the villages, and much of the work in done there. Malik takes us to a couple of places in the vicinity of the city, although most of the workers have gone home for a few days since it is a festival time. Production is very small-scale. We go to the work-shop of Kishan, who lives with his family in a farm house outside the city. There they are making some of the beads that we buy – beautiful creations of turquoise and coral and brass. Kishan supervises the operation. In the winter there might be ten men working here. Now there are only two – the rest are back home for the harvest and the festival. They are paid by the piece, and make $200 to $300 /month, about the same as a teacher in the village, and are provided with room and board.

As a small independent business, Malik has his own problems to deal with. Ever since the deposition of the king last year, the Maoists have been flexing their power in the city. Particularly problematic now is the “youth wing”, who have taken to the fund-raising strategy of extortion. Although Malik is reticent to go into detail, it is evident from his response that he is worried. It’s enough, in fact, to make him consider leaving Kathmandu and the business his father established a generation ago. Malik is 55, although with his black hair, smooth skin and perfect teeth he could be 20 years younger. Like most Nepali he views life with acceptance and good humour. He has worked hard to provide an education for his three children, and owns his own home, which he is very proud to take us to. He doesn’t have a car, but in a small city with chronic petrol shortages, he doesn’t consider this a big concern. Malik is determined to provided us with that essential of Tibetan hospitality, yak-butter tea. Several times on the way to his place he asks if we have tried it, as if breaking us in for something. In fact the last time I had it was more than 20 years ago. It was in a shepherd’s hut high in the Himalayas, and the concoction of fermented butter, hot water and salt was so nauseating I haven’t been tempted since. Malik assures me this isn’t the same – it’s made from a package. Malik’s wife greets us, and we are made at home in the family room while she prepares the tea. I think other foreigners have tried and failed this test, as there is a hovering expectancy, a compulsion to preform this ritual even though disappointment is inevitable, as the tea is brought in. It is white and frothy, but doesn’t reek of rancid socks – my visceral memory from the last time. I raise the glass. Silence, tension. I try it. Mmm, that’s good! The relief is palpable. It tastes a bit like salty chicken soup stock, and although I wont, say, switch from coffee any time soon, my reaction was not just being polite. Encouraged by their small success, the next thing to come out are the homemade butter biscuits. No problem there, and even Katheryn, who had not made much headway with her tea beyond smiling at it, is enthusiastic. Now Malik seems prepared to take a gamble. He prefaces it with the story of his wife’s last trip to Lhasa to see her mother. She had brought back something very special, a delicacy you couldn’t get here. Raw dried yak. Sure, I said, is it smoked? No, only dried. Cured with salt? No. Tibet is very dry. And cold. OK, maybe a small piece…

The bowl of raw Yak comes out with the beaming wife. Malik, sensing a crisis, officiously sorts through the scraps. Here, this one. He proffers a piece that looks like a section of leather belt. You see, only meat, no fat. Many of the other pieces have thick gray borders around them. It is tough, like I expected; and then something marvelous happens. It becomes soft, and sweet, and literally melts in my mouth. We hope to go to Tibet next year – can I take orders for anyone?

Thamel, the area of Kathmandu where we live, is a chaotic few blocks of shops, guest houses and restaurants. One of our favorites is a little Tibetan place tucked back behind a row of shops called Gurung. It has the best tongba in town. Almost always there are locals sitting around in the dim light, on their tables flagons with metal straws sticking out of them, and a thermos of boiling water. In the flagons are a couple of cups of fermented millet, like coarse dark sand. Hot water from the thermos is poured on top, and after a few minutes it turns milky. The metal straw is pinched and perforated at one end, so that none of the grain mixture is imbibed when you take a sip. Tongba has a slightly sour, saki-ish taste, but is very mild. Hot water is continually added into the flagon, and after a litre or more, when the flavour starts to diminish, it feels much the same as having drank a beer. But on those cold Kathmandu evenings there is nothing like it.tongba!

For something a little more up-scale we head out of Thamel, to one of the world’s funniest liquor stores. The American embassy is in the kind of compound you would expect, all concrete bunkers and razor wire, across from the deposed king’s royal palace. Set into the embassy wall is a faux-tudor shop front. Inside, if you poke around and wipe the dust off the labels, are bargain treasures of French and Australian wine. Katheryn, of course, is the authority, and since the staff only know two words – “red” and “white”, she takes command, and comes up with $7 bottles of 1993 Austrailian Shiraz, and a sublime 1997 Languadoc. There is no need to suffer, even in a Himalayan ex-Kingdom.
Pokhara Nov.25 The banana trees and bamboo groves are in extreme juxtaposition to the giant craggy snow capped Annapurna range. Machchaputare peak dominates our rooftop gardenias with machchcapuchareview. The fish tail mountain is sacred, and never been summited. Mountaineers can only go within 100 meters of the top. Annapurna II and IV, David guesses, are the two other big boys in our back yard, and measure in at around the 8000 meter mark. We arrived by rather luxurious bus yesterday. Having upped our budget by 50% we can splash out on the $15 ticket. Lots of leg room, decent lunch provided, no music, didn’t take on passengers or let others alight mid-trip – and no chickens, sacks of onions or bundles of steel pipe underfoot.

But a good bus doesn’t mean good road. Our 200 km ride from Kathmandu to Pokhara takes 8 hours. The highway, dramatically cut through the terraced hills, is not too bad, really. Only a few times were we bounced right up off our seats. The roads in the city, however, are as bad as anywhere I have seen, ever. Dust, and potholes, staggering congestion and failing infrastructure; at least an hour and a half of the journey is just trying to leave the city.

As we get further away the capital the villages become more traditional. Stunning stone houses and fences, possibly centuries old hug the hillside. Drying corncobs give a picturesque detail along the glassless window frames. Beautiful as it looks, this is tough living. People eke a livelihood from two-foot-wide rice terrraces carved 1000 feet up the slope, and water has to be carried long distances from gravity fed water taps sticking out of the trees. It would be a real struggle to provide one’s basic needs.

Struggles aren’t uncommon throughout Nepal. The last few dramatic years have led to many changes including the slaughter of the royal family, the uprising when the King’s successor dissolved parliament, the laying down of arms and the official end of the insurgency by the Maoist rebels.

All this progress couldn’t continue withhout as hitch, however. Earlier this year the Moaists, who had been invited to participate in legitiate politics, walked out of parliment refusing to vote for the constistutional assembly until the monarchy was abolished and the rebublic was formed. That’s about where we stand. Jimmy Carter dropped in to see where there could be a meeting made. The Maoists have returned to there extorting ways demanding payent once again from foreign trekkers and from the locals. Though we still believe the future looks brighter, the locals we engaged with would actually go into rants and tirades about the government. One old (and maybe drunk) man in the tiniest tea shop (really, it had a 4.5 foot high ceilng) carried on and on about how communism was the only answer. Our waiter who we’ve gotten to know over the years also went crazy one night raving about the changes needed. He apologized profusley afterwards, but he couldn’t stop himself at the time.

On the day before we leave for India we take a taxi to Sarangkhot, a village on a ridge 2000 feet above lakeside Pokhara. This is where the paragliders launch from, and it provides stunning views all around. We stop at a small shop for breakfast, and have tea with an incredible vista of Machchapuchare and the Annapurnas. I don’t see the need to go the remaining few hundred metres to the top of the hill, but David is keen, so I sit in the sun and talk with the owner. She has problems. During the monsoon in August, a landslide took out the slope in front of us. Then another one directly behind took away her buffalo paddock. There isn’t much land left on the razor’s edge we sit on, which represents her life savings. To stabilize the slope with concrete she estimates will take a year’s income, and even then nothing is gauranteed. She says that there has never been a monsoon as severe as this last one, and is willing to take her chances. It seems to me, though, that she is another casualty of the bigger climate disaster we see everywhere, and more severe conditions are what we can expect.

When David returns, he has another plan: hike down the mountain to Pokhara. It looks to me like it’s a long, long way… With a kind of voodoo instinct he finds a path, and on a rough stone stair through small villages and bamboo forest we begin the big descent to India.

Touchdown in Bangladesh

We left the shady streets by Rambutri Wat,Banglaphu, on the mini bus for the airport at 2 pm. We have a flight to Kathmandu thru Dhaka on GMG airlines, which will require an over night stay in Bangladesh. After last year we decided we preferred this over flying to Calcutta and going overland thru Bihar to Birganj. We all remember what happened in Birganj last time? (check ‘Escape from Birganj’ in the
archives if you missed it).  At the airport we’re greeted by the news of a 2 hour delay. The airport is full of  pilgrims en route to Mecca for Haj.

  We are now at the Zia international airport in Dhaka. The flight briefly touched down in Chittagong where most of our flying companions,  predominantly Burmese monks and nuns, alighted. The airport was so small that there wasn’t even a tractor for the luggage trolley.  Two men unloaded the bags and pushed it to the terminal by hand.  As we took off the  flight attendant included Allah among those she wanted to thank for the flight. There was no booze offered and the non-veg meal was mutton. Descending into Dhaka was unlike most capital cities. Hardly any lights, especially compared to the endless sea of lights that is Bangkok.

Our arrival in the airport gave us little  to be reassured about. The  official sent to collect the transit passengers was confused that we were 9 and not 7 passengers. After a trek across the airport together, he tells me privately that he has to go secure our luggage and we are to sit a and wait for him for about 25 minutes, then he leaves. Apparently it’s my job now to herd these cats into a group. As we wait there is a lot of yelling nearby, airport personnel speaking down to their peons with contempt in their voices. It just a bunch of chest thumping. A cloud of  mosquitoes is biting us. We enquire if the wine we bought at Thai duty free can be brought onto the flight tomorrow, as its getting too late to drink tonight. It is in a tamper-proof plastic bag, and our guy assures us it can.

He painstakingly records all our ticket info. It doesn’t feel like there is a system to all this, yet they do this three times a week. There is still no sign we’re going to our hotel, even though it’s 12:30 a.m. already. After more passport stuff at an immigration officer’s desk,  we’re finally  heading out the door, and a Scottish guy insists he needs his luggage. There’s a negotiation. ‘A half an hour’, our official says! David, speaking the sentiment of the group, says he wants to go to the hotel, and the Scot is overruled..

 At long last we are on our way, joining the  rusty  hulks  of buses and wildly decorated transit trucks on the way in from the airport. We end up at the same place as last year. It’s 1:45 a.m. Thai time; twelve hours  hotel to hotel for an1.5 hour flight.
  The room is actually much better then last year. Not trusting the assurances of our airport facilitator we push in the cork and enjoy the wine. There is a construction site next door and some poor sap is unloading sacks of cement until 3.  In the morning we’re rushed thru a cold scramble eggs and cold toast breakfast. The Scot tells me last time he went thru a  transit stay with Biman Air it was three days before he could get a flight. That’s why he tried to insist on his bags. The newspaper reports a bad cyclone is expected the next day. Luckily we’re leaving today, not just arriving: a major calamity is about to happen.

At the airport we get our hand luggage scanned, and the security guy thinks he has a bust.   Pointing at one of our innocent entourage he shouts”you have a wine bottle!  That is not allowed! ” She says she doesn’t even  have a water bottle.  He was tipped off, but got the wrong guys too late.
The cyclone will turn out to be the worst storm to hit in 20 years. Thousands are killed and thousands more will die from water borne diseases. Millions will lose everything, their houses, their crops all their possessions. They have had half the country flood this year already, twice.

 Makes one feel pretty small indeed for whinging at such inconveniences as late flights and poor service.