Waypoints and naypoints

Trip Start Dec 14, 2007
Trip End Jun 01, 2010

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Flag of Nepal  ,
Wednesday, May 28, 2008

At first you don't realise that it has happened.

That you'd been slurped in, sucked dry by desert and sun, run through a human vibra-bump machine, been mentally jellied then spat out.

The quietude of Pokhara, Nepal's second city, is unnerving after the human swarm of India. It's just across the border from big sister down south. And there is doubtless a very common gene pool, consequent to at least 3,000 years of to-ing and fro-ing across the Himalayan lowlands.

Yet, the air is clean, the pavements are clean, the streets are clean. The people are quiet, polite, non-intrusive. It's a bitch-slap of the sweetest kind.

Indian cities have long lost hold of their pavements. They have succumbed to informal-sector land grabs. Free real estate. Whoever strong-arms physical control of a piece of concrete paving owns it, sleeps on it, runs a business off it, eats, cooks and washes off the slabs. Hell only knows the baksheesh, bribes, guanxi, kickbacks and other downtown shadow-boxing that takes place to secure safe tenancy.

"How much for the leetle girl" is not a soap opera throw-away line, for it's families that battle for their centimetres of lebensraum, not the single, bedraggled beggarman so stereotypically imagined.

Nepal's pavements function in their more traditional sense. They are used for walking on, not for walking over a pot, pan, bundle, a who or a what. The streets of Pokhara run at a trundling, peri-urban pace, cars and bikes gently cruise. There are no tuk-tuks, sputtering, powered tricycle taxis, nor 'helicopters' – pedal-powered tricycle taxis. Nobody muttering, shouting, needling, nurdling, wheedling "buy me, buy this, take me, take this, who you, what you, where you... "

One gulps monstrous breaths of fresh air, Himalayan down-draughts, non-peopled air, empty air, noiseless air, dustless air. For days I wander around in sweet daze, bench-sitting, musing on Pokhara’s Fewa Lake mirroring snowy mountains, reflecting on an accidental destination.

The bus from Agra was booked, boarded and bound for Kathmandu. Out of Varanasi across a forgotten back track. The highway bridge is down. A two day ride along a sand-pit trail. A city of 100,000 people, with no discernible name pops up out of seemingly nowhere. Bizarrely unique for India, there are no cars. The sand in the streets is too thick and soft. Only donkey carts. Spoor 30cm to 40cm deep threads down the main road. This is a town visited only by 4x4s, trucks and very robust buses. But north, north, to the border, across the border into Nepal. Overnight in a border town grubhouse.  

Bus, booked, boarded for my first waypoint, Kathmandu.  "Sorry folks. There's a bus strike around Kathmandu. Stay where you are and wait, or head west." West it is, to Pokhara.

Bliss. A country town around a lake. Still, plied by shawl-wrapped, market-bound woman and fishermen.

But it’s a small town on a big map, with a capital reason to exist. Pokhara is the climbing, trekking, rafting centre for the Annapurna Mountain circuit, that includes the world’s deadliest mountain over 8,000m. The town is a hybrid of New Zealand’s Queenstown and an Incan village in Peru or Bolivia. This is a serious he-man, she-man adventure town where you also toss a raft of hang-gliders, paragliders, kayakers and canyoners into the action-man menu. You can come here to chill, but if you're not taking advantage of one of the best adventure playgrounds on the planet, the phrase 'oxygen thief' can spring to mind.

Immediate impressions include strange strains of mankind’s commonality. High altitude, weather-beaten faces of mountain folk down for vittles, R&R or the dentist, physically look identical to Andean highlanders. Same height, same lithe build, same oxygen-deprived pink cheeks, same long woollen hats tied beneath the chin, same way to carry heavy burdens with a strap across the forehead. Uncannily twinlike. Unlabelled photographs would have trouble finding the right continent.

A southern African tradition not experienced in the rest of the world exists here. Objects and money are passed with the right hand, with an empty left hand visibly tucked lightly near the right wrist lest you are seen to be giving with the right, while secretly taking with the left. A matter of very good manners.

It took days of benign relaxation for it to dawn that I was seriously in the playgrounds of the gods, in a world of misty mountains and snowy deaths, Mallories, Essners, sherpas, Shivas and modern-day Maoists unbundling 240 years of monarchy.

It was only when an earlier Sri Lanka travelling acquaintance, chanced upon in the totally misnomered Love Shack coffee shop, looked at me unbelievingly, dismissively, when I told her I “had been doing nothing since arriving". She quietly suffixed that with "just done 16-day Annapurna circuit trek, and 8-day raft and, and, and... we probably won't meet again".

She, of the quaint little New Zealand town of Whangerei (the pronunciation of which should be a Wrigleys gum 'Did You Know?'), once playground of Zane Grey, fishing godfather to Ernest Hemingway.

My acquaintance had almost unmanned me. I'd been on the road for 5,000km, yet it still felt I’d just been blindsided with a slob slap.

Then it dawned: India had really sucked me in, pinged me around like a pinball between a billion flippers and bouncers in a rickety old wooden machine that refuses to stop long past its tilt level. It's a common occurrence, which I'd seen yet not felt – India burnout. I'd met my near emasculator on a Sri Lankan beach escaping the same. Common thread of travellers in India: three months and head for the tea hills, the beach, the mountains, anywhere, just away.

Spat out normally conjures a masticated thing limp in the dust. But au contraire, I'd been gobbed from the arid, arid, over the border into valleys and hills of verdant greens, shimmer dawn forests, glazed lakes, into the foothills of goat and pony and yak paths up to the roof of the world. So after a week of unbuckling three months of sub-continental urbanity, I shucked my pony to Pokhara's pitch and walked into an adventure booking office.

Never really having had the differential for the long mountain trek, the uphill slog, though ably geared for long flats, but with a nautical lurch of old, the cash had soon passed hands for three days of white water rafting down the Kali Gandaki – Nepal's sacred river, part home to Vishnu, supreme being or manifestation of Brahman, depending on your bent.

"You done this before?" Yep, down the Zambezi, declining to mention it was two decades prior, in the lean, mean-machine years.

On mentioning the frothy advent to a Hong Kong colleague, he took the high road with his marginally relative youth to query whether I could hold my breath for 60 seconds. "It's a young man's game, mate." Suspicions were he was revealing more about his hypoxyphilia sessions than poking fun.

 Three days to kill before "all aboard", and I recalled a misplaced obsession: to bag a mahseer. Called sahaar in Nepal, the mahseer is a fish that only lives in the foothills of Nepal's mountain ranges – notwithstanding a lesser species that frequents a few mid/southern Indian hills.

Pound for pound up there with the giants, the mahseer has been recorded up to 60kg and thrives in the gushing rush of the water of those big hills, though is found broadly in the zone. Queries find the local 'sahaar hunter', and down to the lake we go with the local lads to have a lash at some of the lazier brood.

"What we gonna use for bait?"

"Boiled potato and smelly cheese."

As sure as Irish 'tats, the following morning sitting on the lake shore, the plastic bag is opened and par-boiled potatoes are peeled and carved into roundish pear shapes not much bigger than the top of your thumb. And a dab of cheese on a smaller, auxilliary hook. Into the canoe the lines are loaded, and paddler takes them out 100m before dropping them into the lake in staggered formation.

Six guys sit on the bank, looking at 26 lines. A few rods are stuck into rocky holes, and handline holders are tied to small branches banged into the ground. Tension is carefully taken up, and each line is wrapped twice or thrice around a fist-sized rock, which is then carefully laid next to the water’s edge.

This is just the kind of fishing that gives the king of sports a bad name. Sitting next to a dam all day long, doing... nothing.

Four hours later, everybody is lulled into a post brunch daal baht dullness. The national fare: rice and thin lentil stew. Breakfast, lunch and supper.

Plink, clink, a rock turns, rolls, and my adrenalin quickly fades as I know that my rod does not have a stone attached. There's a squabble about whose line it is quickly running out into the water, before somebody grabs, checks and begins hauling. Ten minutes of slow-slow pulling, against a small hook, brings my first sight of a mahseer. Around 4kg worth. Slender, muscular, gleaming. Like an elongated tiger fish, with a mouth crossed between a carp and a catfish, and a big, deep-V yellow tail. Handsome. Yet lazy as lake fish are wont to be, just like Kariba tigerfish, so completely unlike their Zambezi cousins.

Another later, and one the next day. Two days of 26 lines and 3 fish. I up-sticks and head for the rapids.

A four hour bus ride up into the headwaters, into the mists, into the low clouds, on to the boats. Safety warnings, quick paddling courses, introductions to the dozen strangers who would crew the two rafts, pack the stuff into waterproofs, check the eggs are in their padded cells. “All together, forward row." Everything seems pleasantly helter skelter with nothing too radical, and definitely nothing like the reverse snot challenges of the Grade 5+ rapids of Zambezi fury.

The guides (tillermen) are skillful and amuse themselves by taking the frothiest route, as close to the flip angle as possible. All are drenched and tossed about in Grade 3-4 bump-and-roll fun, but the self-baling rafts take all in their stride and by mid-afternoon boats are beached, camp struck, the kitchen is kitted and the cooks are into their stride. Sit, smoke, sip rum, ruminate, smile, eat, and sleep to the stereo rush of roaring rapids up and downstream.

India has finally been washed away. This is Nepal, and this holy river, a tributary to the Ganges, is home to ammonite fossils found in naturally formed round, black stones, known locally as saligrams. Highly revered by Hindus as a concrete manifestation of the god Vishnu, they are placed as holy icons in homes and temples, passed from generation to generation. A river of gods, lined with statues of gods and cremation pyres. The source of the Kali Gandaki is at Nepal’s border with Tibet, above 6,000m in altitude. Buddhists also hold the river sacred since a visit by Tibetan Buddhism founder Guru Rinpoche, who popped by once for a few moments of meditation.

Religions merge, tolerance exudes. High up here, away from the sully of the mortal, away from the corruption of the material. I find myself intrigued and gain much joy in the animist ritual, the glorification of the stone, the glorification of the fossil, the original beasts, of the air, the mountains, the water, my personal supreme beings. Can books, teachings and scriptures really sustain life as well as a deep breath of Himalayan air, a deep sup of Himalayan water?  If that sends me to this hell, make it a one-way ticket.

Safe down the river. Much delight and laughter, I begin to wash away a lot of the old Hong Kong dirt as well, part of the journey being to discover what I had lost in that boxed up, concrete-conscious city: the outdoors, real outdoors, and a soul that seemed to have succumbed to severe pollution.

On to Kathmandu. A six hour bus ride passes nine mashed, crashed buses, without scoring those lying unseen down the deep ravines. Roads are cliff-edged. Each day the Himalaya Post newspaper carries the same short story, with small variations: 24 dead in bus accident, 18 drown as bus rolls into river, 14 schoolchildren die in head-on collision. There is officially 40 times more chance of dying on a Nepal road that the global average.

Kathmandu is busier than Pokhara, though not nearly as busy as Indian cities. It is old and new: the old town is filled with religious artifacts, temples, stupas, giant lingams, prayer wheels, prayer cloths, kurkiri knife shops, Tibetan treasures, antiquated palaces – all cohabiting with hundreds of newer adventure shops, internet cafes, bars, massage parlours (in the name of post trekking muscle fatigue), cold weather gear of all nature and brand, fake and real.

I arrive on a unique day in Nepal. Today is the end of 240 years of monarchy. Today is Republic Day, May 28, 2008, the birth of a public holiday.

The streets are quiet, there is a nervous, albeit pleasant, tension in the air. A few small bombs over the past few days have given an edge to the new democracy, on the back of the self-styled Maoist insurgency and revolution. Altogether a misnomer. China having long distanced itself from this Mao movement.

The king has been dumped, though not unceremoniously, nor ceremonially. Earlier rumours of exile into India bear out no truth. Earlier elections go smoothly. A mandate for a co-party republic dominated by the Maoist party. The king and family are declared “normal citizens”. No recriminations. Just an instruction to leave the palace, "shut up" and get on with life.

Two hundred thousand people walk down the hillside, into the valley, into the city. Televisions are full of marchers, raised fists, chants of "republic, republic". Happy chanters, happy marchers. I ask a variety of people their views. All are tentatively happy. They seem unanimously pleased that this particular era of the monarchy has been broken. There has been no progress in life, they say.  There is now quiet hope. One titters: "The king has 15 days to strip the palace. After that it's going to be a museum."

The cabinet traditionally sits at 11am. It is now 10.59am. The first order of the day is to declare a republic. The streets are quiet. There are none of the common taxi horns. Taxis are for the most staying at home, off the roads lest the 200,000 lose it, lest a monarchy fanatic unleashes the big bomb, lest the roads run with panic.

A radio runs steady political commentary in Nepalese. The nervous, happy excitement of the commentator is clear. Whether the broadcast is live from inside the sitting cabinet, or outside the government buildings is impossible to say.

It is 11.08. Does that mean Nepal is now a republic? So far, so good.

This is a waypoint. Asia to South Africa via Kathmandu and Timbuktu. Check one.

Also a naypoint.
The plan was to ride the Friendship Highway over a 6,000m pass to Tibet.
No way, my China. Beijing says no travellers to Tibet. The Olympic torch gets there soon, a torch fuelling a non-Olympic flame. Paranoia of trouble, and the squeeze is on.

But in Nepal the air smells just perfect on the first day of a new democratic mountain republic. Peace in a new country. Peace after India.

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