I’ve left hot and rain-soaked Kathmandu for a cooler yet equally humid Beijing. Considering the fuss I had over how to get to China, it should have been no surprise that my actual entry into the country was far from plain sailing. I had two flights – one from Kathmandu to Kunming in China, then on to Beijing – and both were delayed.
I caught a cold just before I left Nepal so I wasn’t feeling brilliant as well – apparently such bugs are common at the beginning of the monsoon. The delay on the first flight was only an hour, but it meant I was cutting it fine with my connection in Kunming especially as I had to grab my backpack from the carousel and check it back in again, and pass through immigration and security. By the time I got to the departures lounge my flight was marked ‘Last Call’ so I took off like a madwoman across to Gate 38. Kunming has a new airport that had only been open a couple of days when I was there. It is very big and impressive-looking from what I saw as I legged it through. However, Gate 38 is located somewhere on one of the outer rings of Saturn, along a great many conveyor belts and through a great many halls from where I started. I eventually got there, panting, sneezing, sweating, only to discover that ‘Last Call’ means something quite different in Kunming Airport. The gate’s waiting area was still full of passengers – they hadn’t even started boarding yet.
We were loaded onto the plane about five minutes before we were due to leave, which in retrospect was a bad sign. We sat there on the tarmac for an hour with no explanation, then eventually the captain told us we were delayed because of bad weather. A while after that they served us dinner, still while we were on the ground, and I realised that we were going to be severely delayed. If we’d been delayed in the airport, able to wander around, it wouldn’t have been nearly as bad, but as it was we spent almost three hours on the plane before it left the ground. We took off at roughly the time we were expected to land in Beijing. The whole time I was on the plane I was sitting next to a young teenage boy with a big digital watch that went BEEP BEEP BEEP every six minutes. I asked him to turn it off but he either couldn’t or wouldn’t. So I had no sleep at all on the flight. The whole business made me very glad that this was my last bit of flying between here and London – it’s overland all the way home.
I arrived at the Red Lantern hostel in Beijing at three in the morning in a filthy temper, exhausted and clobbered with a monsoon cold. Still, it was nice to see – or rather wake up – Chris, my travelling companion for the rest of the trip, even if I did just rant at him for a bit then go to sleep.
So far the rest of the Beijing stay has been a vast improvement on the very start. We’ve been to Tianamen Square, the Summer Palace, the Great Wall and the Forbidden City. The breathtaking sights remain the same as I remembered them from last time I was here, over a decade ago, and yet around them the city has changed enormously. The weird feeling of oppressive hysteria that you get in heavy-handed totalitarian states seems to have lifted here. The endless streams of bell-ringing, rusty bicycles are gone, replaced with more cars, scooters and electric bikes. There are fewer beggars and men squatting aimlessly by the road than I remember, far less rubbish in the streets, and endless building sites everywhere you look.
Beijing has become a fast-paced modern metropolis, but one that still holds surprises. We’re staying in a hutong, a quiet backwater just off a busy, modern road full of bright fashionable shops blasting pop music. The contrast is amazing. Just behind these neon shops peoples are selling fruit and homemade food in the street. We bought half a kilo of lychees for 50p the other day. Yesterday morning we walked past just as a chicken was being dispatched by a salesman who had more live ones awaiting the same fate in a small cage. But the hutongs are cleaner now than I remembered them, the streets covered with tarmac, and there are well-tended public toilets everywhere. I had a bit of reverse culture-shock, coming from the mad squalor of Nepal.
Speaking of which, I’d like to rewind the clock a little and describe a wonderful afternoon I spent in Kathmandu before I left. Bear with me – if I don’t write this up now I probably never will. If this was a TV programme I’d have an advert break here so you could go and get a cup of tea. As it is:
Two days before I left Nepal I went back to Boudhanath, to the enormous stupa I’d seen on my first day with Rahul. I looked out for him around there, but I didn’t see him and couldn’t remember how to get back to the field where his tent was. Instead I wandered around by the stupa for a long while, and went for lunch at a vegetarian cafe within the grounds of a monastery.
After lunch I went back to the stupa. Having been sweltering hot all morning, it suddenly began to rain with great force, sending everyone running for cover. I ducked into the doorway of a shop to take shelter, realising that my brolly was no match for the downpour, and was soon joined by a man I’ll call the melancholy Gurkha.
This man had come to Boudhanath in the midst of a profound existential crisis. Originally from a village near the city of Gurkha in Nepal, he has just been retired out of a Gurkha regiment in the Indian Army and was trying to work out what to do with the rest of his life. Suddenly finding himself stuck in a shop doorway, he decided to unburden himself to his captive audience. His father had also been a Gurkha, but he died when the melancholy one was only a baby. He had brothers and uncles in the army too – he was from the Chhetri caste, the warriors. The melancholy Gurkha was overwhelmed with questions. Should he get married? But the army had been a kind of marriage that he’d only just escaped from, and he wasn’t keen on letting go of his freedom again. Should he go to Afghanistan to work in security, like one of his brothers? But the pay for a Nepali ex-army officer wasn’t great in relation to the risks. Or just live on his modest pension, voluntarily teaching martial arts to the local kids to give them a bit of much-needed discipline? He stood in the doorway shaking his head, staring up at the stupa.
The rain eased off a bit so I invited him for a cup of tea in order to quiz him more about his life. He wouldn’t tell me much about his time in the army, but he did say more about his home village: his house is an eight-hour walk across the hills from the nearest road, which in turn is four hours from Gurkha, the nearest town. His family has a large piece of land where they grow tea, rice, and raise sheep for pashmina wool. In the one small village there are fifteen distinct castes and seven languages spoken. His family is Hindu, but he had become disillusioned with the religion, drawn instead to Christianity, which he saw as simpler. Faith was another matter of great mental struggle for him. He hated the caste system after a cousin his age killed himself by drinking poison when he was prevented from marrying the girl he loved, who was from a low caste. The Gurkha blamed the isolation of the village and lack of available information for the persistence of tradition – the nearest secondary school is a four hour round trip away. He was plucked out of the village and educated in Gurkha, and found that when he returned home many of his contemporaries, who did not go on to secondary school, had developed the same hardened traditional attitudes as the previous generations.
When he said that his family grew tea I told him how much I loved the stuff, so he showed me a place in Kathmandu where I could buy the best quality tea at Nepali prices. The melancholy Gurkha was very insistent that I mustn’t buy tea in any touristy places, where I would not get good quality stuff and would pay through the nose for it. Instead we went to a brilliant tea shop on the New Road. It was like a corner of heaven for me.
As soon as you walked in through the door the clean, outdoorsy scent of tea hit you. The man who ran the shop was an utter obsessive on the subject, to the extent that his main hobby was collecting different kinds of rare green tea leaves. He knew the exact temperature of water to add to each type of leaf, the exact quantity to spoon out per cup and could tell me the provenance and growing conditions of all the teas in his shop. It was like being at a wine tasting – first I was taught how to taste. The tea was just sublime. We were given two little glasses of each type, because the taste evolves in the pot, so the first cup does not tell you everything you should know about the leaf. The three of us – the tea shop owner, the Gurkha and I – sat tasting the teas in contemplative sips as the rain poured down outside. Perfect tea tasting weather, as the shop owner said.
Each tea was subtle, complex and utterly marvellous. The tastes seemed to shimmer and change on the tongue as I tried to identify them. I have never tasted better teas in my life, and I’ve spent quite a bit of time seeking out the good stuff. Needless to say I now have a pack of it to squeeze into my backpack – silver tips, the champagne of tea, and a wonderful rich organic black tea, both from Nepal. The only reason I can think of why Nepali tea isn’t better known around the world is because they were never conquered by the British Empire, which did a great deal of promotional work for Darjeeling and Assam.
After the tea shop I thanked the melancholy Gurkha and stumbled back to my guesthouse, tea-drunk, my mind spinning with new information about harvest times and grades and picking methods. The next day my cold really hit home and I had various errands to run and goodbyes to say, so that afternoon was really my last proper experience in Nepal. Like so much that happened while I was there, it had been something that I could not have anticipated when I left my room that morning. But I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect way to end that leg of the journey.
Thank you, my dear reader(s), for the lovely comments you have been leaving – they are very much appreciated. If you have not yet left a comment or subscribed to this blog, then please feel free to take this as a hint. We’re about to head off on the train to Mongolia tomorrow, so I doubt if I will be updating this again for the next couple of weeks. This means you all have plenty of time to compose your responses. I’ll write more about China when I’m on the train and post it when I can.