A Nice Cup of Tea

Looking down on Durbar Square

I’m enjoying the food here in Nepal. The national meal, which everyone eats at least twice a day, is dal bhaat – rice with sloppy dal (lentils), vegetable curry and sometimes a bit of ‘pickle’ – potatoes or vegetables in a sharp or mustardy sauce. Very tasty. My favourite dal bhaat so far is happily served at a restaurant right around the corner from my guesthouse, Asmita’s B&B, in Kathmandu.

I was the only person in the restaurant when I was there, despite it being quite touristy-looking. In fact, they laid on a show. Just as I was leaving two nervous, giggling dancing girls came out from nowhere and started to perform to an audience of consisting of the waiters and myself. About two minutes in the show was brought to a halt by one of Kathmandu’s many power cuts. The waiters and I gave the girls a rapturous round of applause and that was that.

I’m back in Kathmandu now, after another bumpy and hair-raising bus trip. The other things you eat a lot of here are momos: little dumplings with vegetables, chicken or buff (buffalo) in them, that come either steamed or fried with a little pot of sauce to dip them in, either curry or tomato. You can also get a nice momo soup. My favourite place for this is a Tibetan restaurant called the Yak, which I have inevitably dubbed the Yak Shack. You can have a good dinner of vegetable momo soup for less than a quid. For lunch I often have vegetable pakodas, little fried vegetable things that are a lot like onion bhajis, again served with dipping sauce. I seem to have gone vegetarian here, although for my last night in Pokhara I had freshly-caught fish from the lake, served sizzling on a plate straight from the oven and smothered with spices.

They have nice tea here, not surprisingly for a country that is within spitting distance of Assam and Darjeeling. Nepali tea is made from tea dust, hot milk, an entire bag of sugar and spices- I’ve detected ginger, pepper, cardamom, and cloves in various cups. It’s rich and very sweet, so I’ve taken to having it as a sort of pudding.

Please excuse any typos that slip through. I’m using the world’s slowest computer and least responsive keyboard. Plus I keep spelling Kathmandu ‘Kathmandy’.

The most memorable cup of tea I’ve had since coming here was served to me in a single-room shack in the middle of a shanty town in Boudha on my first day here. I was wandering through Kath when someone popped up beside me and started chatting. I knew he was a guide because he insisted on saying straight away “I’m not a guide.” His name was Rahul, an Indian immigrant, and he’d been a shoe shiner until some scumbag stole his shoe shining box, reducing him to ad hoc tour guiding for a living. I liked him immediately and decided to hire him as a guide for the day.

We went round a load of temples while he patiently tried to explain the intricacies of the Hindu pantheon to me. I took a long time to get my head round the way there would be Buddhist shrines in a Hindu temple and vice versa. Rahul is indiscriminately devout in a way I haven’t encountered before coming here – he’d stop for blessings and to ring bells and leave offerings wherever we were. When he heard I wanted to go to Tibet he took me to Boudha, which has a large population of Tibetan refugees. We went around the massive stupa there, talking about karma, then to a working Tibetan monastery down a back street where we sat in on a prayer ceremony. I would never have been bold enough to intrude on the ceremony by myself, but it was fine – we were politely ignored as the monks got on with it.

The ceremony was amazing. Monks blew into long trumpets that stretched out several feet on the floor in front of them, hammered an enormous drum, rang bells or hooted a conch shell. In between these rousing musical interludes – which I have since read are designed to stop the mind going stale during prayers – they chanted guttural and rhythmic prayers. It was mesmerising.

Then, later, Rahul invited me round to his house to meet his wife and five-month-old baby. I’d heard a lot about both during the course or the day – Rahul is a very proud new dad, and knows his son’s age down to the day. I already suspected he was quite poor as he has a habit of darting forward to pick up stray plastic bags in the street to see if they had food left in them. I wasn’t prepared for quite how poor he is, though.

He led me down an increasingly roughshod and slippery trail of paths into what had been a field, and was now covered in ‘plastic tents’ – a small shanty town of pitiful structures made out of wooden poles covered in bits of plastic rubbish, with plastic sheeting for the roof. Part of Rahul’s front wall was made out of a sign advertising Coke. Everyone we met on the way down was very friendly – I kept having small children lifted up to me so I could pat their cheeks and comment on how pretty they were.

Rahul and family

Rahul’s wife Bina and baby Sachem were both asleep when we got there. I lingered in the doorway while Rahul chased a chicken out of the house and woke them. I was glad to have a moment to take in my surroundings. Bina woke up, saw me and leaped up to make tea, embarrassed to have been caught napping. Rahul and I played with Sachem while Bina kindled a small open fire in the corner of the room. Before I left London I’d been reading about the danger of these fires – over a billion people worldwide don’t have a proper safe cooking stove, leading to about a million preventable deaths each year, mainly women and small children. And now here was Bina squatting next to one.

One of the neighbour’s kids just happened to wander in to get a look at the weird foreigner, and was sent out to get some biscuits from the shanty town’s stall. All of us – next door’s child included – sat down for milky, ginger-y tea and chocolate biscuits and chatted, with Rahul translating. The weird thing was how normal it suddenly seemed – the slightly awkward formal feeling of having tea and making conversation with people you don’t know very well. I had a nice cuddle with little Sachem, who tried to nick my glasses. Rahul translated as Bina told me it had been a difficult pregnancy, with Sachem in breech, but luckily he turned around before the birth. I thought of my friend Stacey, who ended up having a caesarian after little Enna refused to turn; Stacey and Bina’s first experience of childbirth were so similar and so different at the same time that I struggled to make sense of it. Rahul told me that since he lost his shoe cleaning box there have been days when he and Bina have gone hungry but, he assured me proudly, he always found something for the baby. Sachem gave up on my glasses and started trying to steal my necklace instead. He has strong little arms.

An unsubtle necklace thief

Both Rahul and Bina are younger than me, and both are illiterate. It was a sobering experience, but one I feel lucky to have had. Rahul and Bina’s warmth, and the friendly curiosity of their neighbours, will stay with me for a long time.

For more information about the campaign for clean cook stoves, go here, or donate one to a family here.

And she’s off

Pokhara’s Phewa Lake

Here I am in Nepal. Pokhara, to be exact. I arrived in Kathmandu on… er, well, recently, and stayed there for a few days, then made a snap decision at about nine o’clock yesterday evening to come to Pokhara today.

Kathmandu is a crazy crazy town. There’s a very touristy bit called Thamel where I’m staying, then there’s an old, quaint, maze-like bit, then there’s a modern-ish capital city full of people who have places to be. The roads are all quite narrow and few have pavements and the cars, motorbikes, rickshaws and bicycles drive on whatever side of the road pleases them most at that moment, honking their horns or whistling to let everyone know they’re coming through. Luckily on the first day someone told me an important tip – always walk on the left hand side of the road. This eases things a bit. Walk slowly and purposefully without hesitation. Also, after a while, you come to take a millimetre between you and a speeding motorbike as an acceptable margin.

The pollution is unbelievable, especially if it hasn’t rained for a while. Fortunately, given that it’s the monsoon, it rains rather a lot. I got completely drenched yesterday looking for an ATM that didn’t say ‘network busy’. In fact I think I met a guardian angel – to digress. I was down to my last 30 rupees (22p) and stuck in the incredibly beautiful town of Patan, which was formerly a separate city state but is now a suburb of Kathmandu, albeit one with its own Durbar Square full of beautiful temples and a stunning Royal Palace with a brilliant museum in it that helps explain what’s what when it comes to Hinduism  and Buddhism. I spent the day there and accidentally blew more money than I was intending – the entrance fees alone came to three times as much as I thought they would. The ATM in Patan didn’t work. Luckily, 22p is enough to get a bus ride back to central Kath, with change.

After catching the bus back I went to every ATM I saw on the walk back to Thamel. I was now down to 10 rupees. All of them accepted my card and my PIN, asked me how much I wanted and then said the network was busy – why they can’t inform you of this at the beginning of the process is beyond me. It had been getting hotter and more humid all day until suddenly it completely pissed down, sending people shrieking and running for cover. I went on through it still trying different ATMs, then a man – a guardian angel – popped out of his shop and walked me to one that he swore had worked for him five minutes ago. We had a lovely chat on the way and then, to my infinite relief, the machine actually let me have some money. When I left the little booth that houses the ATM the man had gone, and the rain had stopped.

Kathmandu – looking towards Swayambhu from the Durbar Square

As well as the constant honking of horns, Kathmandu is full of barking street dogs and bells ringing at the temples that seem to be on every street corner. You inhale alternate lungfuls of smog, incense, wafts of curryish cooking smells, the odd blast from a bad toilet, and after it rains, a hint of eau de wet dog.

I arrived in Pokhara at lunch time today. The bus ride over was breathtaking – high hills covered with forest, fast flowing rivers with rope bridges thrown across them, highly decorated trucks with people riding on the roof, hairpin turns winding up and down the hills and people in paddy fields with water buffalo drawing their ploughs. Pokhara has a beautiful, peaceful lake backed by the Himalayas, except you can’t see any mountains today because the clouds have rolled in. Annapurna’s there somewhere, apparently.

I have many many stories to tell already, but that’ll do for now, I think.

The One Other Book

Image

I’m packed, booked, splattered with visas and ready to go. The Chinese Visa Application Centre near Bank is an absolute traveller’s dream – sparkling new, terribly efficient and well-organised. I picked up my passport with its Chinese visa yesterday and walked down Cheapside grinning like an idiot – in fact I had to stop myself from confiding to a stranger at the pedestrian crossing that “I’ve got a Chinese visa now, you know.” I don’t think random City b(w)ankers are the best people with whom you can share this sort of news.

After much vacillation I have also chosen my One Other Book to take. The longstanding reader(s) of this blog will not be surprised by my choice. I have already planned to take a small Russian phrasebook, an even smaller dictionary, the Trans-Siberian Handbook by Bryn Thomas, the Rough Guide to Nepal, the 100-page emergency poetry anthology and Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations. All quite small volumes, and the Nepal guide will be ditched before I leave that country.

My criteria for the One Other Book were simply that it must be small and light yet interesting enough to be consulted repeatedly for seven weeks. Seven weeks! That’s about fourteen books’ worth of time. The shortlist included A History of Religion East and West by Trevor Ling, the first volume of Copleston’s history of philosophy, the Metheun Dictionary of Modern Painting (a brilliant book, go and buy it immediately) and – a drastic choice – Taking No Other Books at All. None of the other choices, apart from the last, qualified as small and light, and the last cannot be consulted repeatedly. In the end I went and bought a new paperback copy of One Way Street and Other Writings by Walter Benjamin. It’s less than 300 pages yet can be read over and over, and weighs far less than my pre-existing hardback copy, which however is a better book as it has an introduction by Susan Sontag and a better selection of other essays in it.  But it’s certainly not worth carting around the extra weight and bulk – the Penguin edition will be sufficient, and as it’s a spare copy it doesn’t matter what happens to it.

This is it now. All the decisions have been made. Everything that can be booked has been booked. Now I can just relax and go on holiday.

“When someone put a gun to my head I decided it was time to leave the country”

I am now the very proud owner of a Mongolian visa. On Wednesday I went down to the embassy with my application form and a bit of paper from the bank to prove I’d transferred money in their account. The set up was familiar to me from the Uzbekistan Embassy – a basement room underneath a large smart house in Kensington with a bored unsmiling fellow ensconced behind a glass partition. It’s nicer than the Uzbek place though, as it’s furnished with deep leather sofas to sit on while you wait.

The embassy’s tucked away among a little gaggle of them – I passed Gambia and Azerbaijan before I found it. I was a little early, and got talking to the man ahead of me in the queue while we waited for them to open. He was a pilot, due to fly out to Mongolia today to teach pilots out there how to fly some kind of new plane.

In the basement, we carried on chatting as we waited our turn – a young man ahead of us was getting his knickers in a twist over a visa invitation from the Mongolian Ministry of Education. The pilot moaned about the fact that he hardly spent any time as home, constantly whizzing off for a month here and there. I held back from saying that if he didn’t like travelling he might want to reconsider his choice of career. We were cracking jokes about visas and getting in and out of countries, and it emerged that he had been in Libya during the uprising, ferrying people out of the country. He’d taken them all to Egypt, although looking back on it he agreed that this wasn’t the safest place for them either. “And the planes we were flying weren’t very reliable,” he said. “Anyway, when someone put a gun to my head I decided it was time to leave the country.”

“Seriously?”

He nodded. It was all very cavalier. “They came into hotel room and-” he mimed a gun pointed at his temples.

“Who were they?”

The pilot shrugged. “I didn’t wait to find out. Someone who didn’t want us there. I got straight in a taxi and – whoomf – to the airport.” It was total chaos, and the pilot was completely freaked out by the heavy hint he’d received. “I thought if I can’t get out I’m just going to steal a plane.”

I struggled to find a reply to this other than “that is so fucking cool,” which wouldn’t have gone with the whole flippant-worldly-traveller tone of the conversation. Also, the man was clearly showing off.

“But then I found a friend of mine, and got a lift with him.” It was the pilot’s turn to get his visa and he jumped up off the sofa, leaving me still rather speechless.

It was my turn next. I handed in my application and passport to the unsmiling visa man, vaguely answered some questions about when I was going and how long I’d be there, and then was told to come back on Friday (today). As a receipt I was given a pink standard-issue raffle ticket. Its twin was paper-clipped to the front of my passport, which then joined a small pile.

Back outside the embassy the pilot was fiddling with his mobile phone. “It’s ridiculous,” he said. “I can fly a plane but I can’t work out how to use this thing.”

Today I went back to exchange the raffle ticket for my passport, now freshly adorned with a Mongolian visa. The next step is the Chinese visa, where I’ve hit another snag. You have to book an appointment to apply for a visa, and I can’t get one until next Thursday. This means I won’t be able to pick up my be-visa-ed passport from them until two days before I leave at the earliest, which is cutting it a little close. But it can’t be helped – my fingers will just have to stay crossed for now.

The Best Laid Plans

Tibet is now officially closed. Even groups who have just been issued perfectly good permits are now being turned away at the border. Over the last few days the rumours at the Lonely Planet Tibet forum have turned into concrete accounts from the tourist agencies in Kathmandu and Chinese border towns with Tibet. The Land of Snows, a reliable source of travel information about Tibet, has confirmed the news as well.

Now Plan A has now been completely thrown out of the window, I’ve spent the last couple of days panicking about the content of Plan B. At first I thought I’d substitute the Tibet week with a speed tour of Vietnam. I was attracted to this mainly because I thought I could fly to Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City (whatever you want to call it) then take the train all the way from there to Beijing, thus further satisfying my desire for long distance overland travel. But I found myself stumbling straight from one bureaucratic nightmare to another. A perfect catch-22 exists with the Hanoi-Beijing train: you need a Chinese visa in order to buy the train ticket, and you need to show your train ticket (proof of how you’re entering the country) to get a Chinese visa.

This last bit of bureaucratic nonsense led me to a severe case of the screaming abdabs and then, after a bit, to giving up the idea of Vietnam. Instead, extremely reluctantly, I am admitting defeat and booking a flight straight from Kathmandu to Beijing. Flying bores me terribly, but it seems like it can’t be avoided.

At least this means I’ll have a proper amount of time in Nepal. I wouldn’t have chosen to go at this time of year – the beginning of the monsoon season – but I’m looking forward to exploring the country. Kathmandu (see above picture) sounds completely bonkers and Pokhara (below), with its mountain-ringed lake, looks stunning.

But I’m not going to plan it too much. I’ve got a few days accommodation booked in Kathmandu, then I’ll just see what happens.

Meanwhile I’ve got my Mongolian visa to get, and now I need to score a Chinese one as well before I leave – that was going to be sorted out through the Tibet trip, but not any more. Tomorrow morning I’m off to the Mongolian embassy. There’s always a hidden trick in visa-getting, a secret piece of information you need or a hoop they expect you to jump through yet withhold vital information about. With Mongolia, the trick is that you’ve got to pay them £40, but they don’t accept cash, cheques or cards. Instead you’ve got to make a bank transfer into the embassy’s account. Last week I made two trips to the bank – one to make the transfer and one to get evidence of having done it, because you can’t get a print out of these things straight away, that would make it too easy – so now it should be a fairly straightforward process.

Fingers crossed. Only a couple of weeks to go now. If you’d like to follow the progress of my trip, don’t forget you can sign up for email updates by entering your address in the box at the very bottom of this page. I’m planning to keep this sporadically updated while I’m away.