I have been locked down for longer than I can remember. 5 tickets to the UK cancelled, thick snow everywhere, online everything, I am in hibernation, where dreams become reality. I have been reading ‘The House of Snow’, which is a literal translation of the Sanskrit word ‘himalaya’, ‘hima’ meaning snow and ‘alaya’ meaning dwelling or abode. This a wonderful compilation of short stories and poetry from Nepal. I am drifting off.
Here we are, Nica and me, at the deserted old terminal building at Vnukova airport, getting a Covid test done, on the journey to Nepal. We miss our flight connection to Khatmandu at Istanbul and find out that the next flight to Kathmandu is in three days. Can we get there or not? Qatar Airways will not let us on that flight without confirmation from Nepal that we will be allowed into the country. People are chattering, looking at us. It is late on Sunday evening, and Nepalese migration officials, well, forget it. I wake up, this never happened. Lo and behold, within 15 minutes, the manageress came up to us waving our passports; Nepal have confirmed that we can get into the country, our good policeman bad policeman technique worked, we are a good team. Alexander and Albina are from Samara, in their forties and also in my dream, and really nice. They were going all the way, to deepen their knowledge of curing through sound and they invite us to a Hindu temple near Kathmandu to meet their lama, but lamas are Buddhist teachers of the Dharma, I am confused.
The flight from Istanbul to Doha is very comfortable, we have two rows to ourselves on a wide-bodied Boeing 757, with wonderful service and in-house films. Oh what luxury! I watch the first half of The Good Liar. Helen Mirror and Ian McKellen, takes me right back to my childhood in England, this must be dream within a dream. Did that happen? I can only watch half of it because I want to get back to the garrets of Kathmandu, in the House of Snow.
The corridor to immigration is very crowded, nobody seemed to have any idea, at all, about the concept of social distancing, maybe this was produced before Covid, Ah, No. A short-tempered Nepalese lady with a loud voice tries to collect PCR forms from the Nepalese returning home. They hustle and bustle past her, taking us along with them, and we burst out like bees escaping from a hive into the immigration hall, leaving the poor lady desperately waving her arms and shouting, mostly ignored.
Paras, our trekking guide says we have to trek to get visa, that is what he says, after self-isolation in a hotel from which we can leave at any time. We enter the Heavenly Kingdom.
I see myself almost falling into a couple of open manhole covers; unmarked and invisible due to the teeming procession of people elbowing their way forward, down the narrow lanes in the old town. A swarm of motorbikes or scooters, beeping their tinny horns, rudely rush us along, cars clog up the streets, we are inside an ant hill gone wrong, surrounded by heavenly mountains. A row of manikins decked out in red traditional Nepalese wedding dresses stand attached to a first-floor balcony proud, with a weird holographic faces of Marilyn Monroe or Judy Garland on their shoulders. Statues of Shiva, bronze sound healing gongs and wonderful mo-mo (dumplings) shops are interspersed between blocks of shops and courtyards full of Buddhist stupas or Hindu temples, or both together, surrounded by empty shops and galleries selling mandalas. Round a corner a bar offers loud, hedonistic western music, round another corner a male only traditional karaoke club, with men waving their hands in the air dancing and singing to one or more of Krishna’s eight wives. For them, Prince Dipendra hasn’t killed the royal family and himself. For them, Nepal exists in a fusion of Hinduism and Buddhism everything else is a misunderstanding, they may be right. Thousands of wires, some bare, hover precariously over the streets, we feel some wires in our hair and brush them off. I try to buy a mobile phone SIM card in a bead shop, a Chinese businessman negotiates a deal to buy thousands of necklaces, with his boss in China listening in on his smartphone. He takes videos and uses animal words. His offer is rejected, he storms out of the shop.
We are travelling in a car to Pokhara, Nepal’s second largest city, 200 kilometres away. The journey, along a two lane ‘highway,’ over high ground, takes 6 hours. We select with great care the right café on the shore of Phewa lake with utopian names and delicious Indian and Nepalese food, but cannot find the same place we sat and watched the rain clouds gather at the bottom of the lake and gradually fill the sky, to early Beatles, that we watched for hours last time we were here. Here are the ultimate digital nomadic offices.
Daneesh, our guide, breakfasts with us. He says we need sleeping bags, but really we don’t as we can borrow blankets, and anyway many of the homestays are turning away trekkers because of the disease. But we need warm trekking jackets, which we hire from a local trekking shop round the corner for $1 each. The whole city is full of empty shops like this.
We are on a climb, it is beautiful, we are marching through villages which become smaller the higher we climb, and the people friendlier on our way to Kalikasthan. A young girl whose mother is showing her how to shovel gravel into hessian bags shouts at us in broken English to ask if we have a pen. Nica searches in her bag and gives her hers. The mother leads her daughter up to our path, the girl bashfully smiles, hides behind her mother’s skirt, too embarrassed to say anything.
I look up, Pokhara and the lake are not there, but there is Begnas Lake, coloured a pastel yellow colour. Now we see a long, ochre coloured line, undistinguishable from other such lines crossing the horizon, which were roads, but completely, and very unnaturally horizontal. This is the new Pokhara international airport. What for?, I think. We burst out onto a road. Although mid-winter, it is covered with dust. When scooters or motorbikes, pass, they throw up thick clouds of dust. Lorries throw up mini dust storms. We turned our backs to the vehicles, put on our masks, and choke. A police jeep almost runs me down; the driver can’t see me, we turn a corner and make out a bus with ‘Pokhara Express’ written on it. Nica says: “We should have just got the bus.”
Daneesh agrees to taking a parallel track and we reach a very beautiful clearing of flat land right with Annapurna 3 (7,555 metres) on one side. Her snow-covered peak floats above a blue, sky-like haze which covers her foothills. On the other side of this small plateau, we can see down towards lake Begnas. The homestay has an out-shed. No heating, no power in the rooms, but there is one electric light bulb in each room. There are other beds in my room so I take all the blankets, and bury myself in a cocoon and watch the second part of The Good Liar.
Daneesh’s father gets up at 5 every morning and does puja to Shiva. He looks after several temples. He’s a strict vegetarian and of course alcohol and smoking are no no’s. Everything is bad, the 120 different castes each with its own dialect, and you know, “it is not really a good thing. 1500 Nepalese leave Nepal every day to work abroad? No jobs here, nothing.”
We meet an old man on an alternative track and start joking with him as you do with so many people on the way. He guessed Nica’s age to be 16, she laughs. He guesses my age to be 50, which was nice. He asks me his age. I say 60, he says 77. He hops over sties and fences and makes me doubt my connection between civilisation, comfort and getting old, but I know that that is being romantic, as these parts of Nepal was rife with malaria and that’s why King Mahendra cleared the forests in the 1950s and encouraged people to start moving down to the Tarai (plains) in large numbers. That’s how it started. We giggle like children with him, and I swap my expandable climbers’ walking stick which I had picked up in Pokhara for his bamboo stick, he leads us round the side of the hill along the most picturesque route imaginable, but he returns my stick, I don’t want it, I want to keep his. Buffaloes, cows, goats and yaks eat from the bottom of haystacks, they are natural automatic feeders, cool.
We have no toilet paper. An old lady in the village of Syaklung, near a school that was being built by ‘UK aid’ has a packet of paper napkins then we find a shop that has one roll of real toilet paper – yes! It is old and the outer layers are yellowed with age. That costs 20 rupees.
The home stay has two stories, downstairs there are three families living in one room each. Their names are written next to their doors in large letters: Prakash, Yuna and Ishwok. Small children wandered around, playing and getting long hugging sessions from their neighbours, community childcare. There are chickens, cocks, and a pheasant or two kept in the yard, we drink warm buffalo milk, and eat dal bhat prepared on an open fire built into the yard.
I am waiting for breakfast, I sit in the yard with Nepalese radio behind my back, a sadhu, (Hindu, Holy Man) is superimposed onto Indian music, the cocks are redundant. I notice that time and distance have different meanings here. Our half hour climb is in fact a steep climb of 1750 metres. At the top Nica uses a felt tip on bamboo barks to draw amazing landscapes, and offers the drawings to a Shiva shrine. Our atheist guide approved.
We are in Chisapani. I sit on the veranda, and watch the sun rising. It lights up the tips of the Himalayas with an orange glow, then illuminates the eastern ranges of the mountains and the valleys below, and I contemplate I have to invigilate an exam, online. I think about Annapura 2&3 for the background, but am not sure whether this is a dream or not, so opt for a white(ish) wall instead.
It is afternoon. We hear sounds of a large group of people on the move, on foot and in busses, cars and on motorbikes, drifting up the valley. A loud female voice speaks through a TANNOY is a Chinese Cultural Revolution youth leader. The warring factions within the ruling Communist Party are taking their struggle to the small villages and towns. Now we hear another swell of voices, this time they support the Prime Minister, whoever he is.
In the evening we gather around a campfire again to keep warm. Daneesh brings us Rocksy, It’s like rice wine but not bitter like in China. We don’t know how strong it is but our words flow; they weave, inter- and intra- dimensionally.
We are in a car with Ganesh, the driver. It is a small car. Nica is sitting in the front seat. Every time the car hits the ground, Ganesh shakes his head, sighs and says Tsk Tsk Tsk sorrowfully, and carries on. When he sees a particularly precipitous drop or climb of anything of up to 15 centimetres, he stops the car, then very gradually inches forwards. It is agonising and we feel sorry for him, he keeps on apologising, it is not his fault.
The Annapura Eco-Village Resort in Astam is a nice place. This a farm run by a ‘joint family’, Shiva & Baya Maya, Bishwo & Goma, Bedniodhi & Malati, Purna & Kavita Adhikaeri. The place is huge, with 6 separate lodges each with two different bedrooms. It is already cold. They have a hot water tank outside the bedrooms for ‘bucket showers’, wonderful.
Everybody is very friendly and happy. Am I Patrick McGoohan in The Prisoner?. We are told that the Eco-Village has an electric washing machine, we are genuinely happy to hear that. The place is mostly self-sufficient in food, it grows everything from coffee to cabbages to cinnamon, and affectionately cares for three cows. I suck bojo root and it takes away my sore throat and fever. We are happy here.
I am Kathmandu, almost in Moscow. The city seems unwelcoming and dirty after the mountains. I don’t want to go and see the magnificent historical sites again. I have a Covid-19 test I see Paras approaching with the results. He looks uncharacteristically serious. He sits down wearing his mask and holds an opened envelope in his hand. “The news is not very good John”. I panic. And cannot easily read, because the world is crashing down upon me, that all three tests showed a negative result. I look up and see Paras rolling around, giggling like a child, I punch his arms, and wake up. Snow is falling and has been falling for a long time. There are men on the roofs shovelling snow. I cannot see any mountains here.
Here is Paras’s web site: https://imperialnepaltreks.com/?fbclid=IwAR1fx7QhHqO63lJvQL4rU3YDRDTUOEi4jJ9i-gvMdQdOCqW4RMvJ-ZNR1mw
For more of John Harrison’s Nepal drawings please see: