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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