They like the Hotel Shanker. From the grand white wedding-cake façade a flight of broad steps leads up to a gleaming gallery of double height windows and crystal chandeliers. Beyond this, things become more comfortable and somewhat idiosyncratic. Past the Kunti Bar, the dark carpeted corridor is scented with spices of Nepali and Indian cuisine wafting up from the kitchens below. Of the two tiny lifts, one demands a swift dash to enter/exit – dawdlers are sharply nipped by the fiercely closing doors. Curiously, the floors are numbered not 0-3, but 4-7. Their room is spotlessly clean and blissfully comfortable. Faint sounds of a trumpet and shouting drift up from the army barracks nearby.
L: Whatever’s that squeaky noise?
L: Yuck. Next door?
D: On the windowsill.
L: On the…? Oh – parakeets. Sweet!
They like their guide. Angtu Rai is a cheerful, smiling Nepali of about their own age. He is friendly but exquisitely polite and they are startled to find themselves addressed as sir and mam. They introduce themselves quickly to put a stop to this formality. They chat. He tells them that he lives in Kathmandu with his wife and son, but his parents are in a hill-village not far from their trekking route. He is nearing completion of a Masters Degree in Sociology & Political Science. He has led treks all over Nepal including their route many times. Competent and organised, Angtu describes the trek to them. D listens attentively, while L takes longer to tune in to the sounds of her mother-tongue shaped by a Nepali mouth.
L: I’m surprised the first week will be so busy. I thought there’d be hardly any other trekkers.
D looks at her with puzzlement.
Angtu nods with concern.
Angtu: Yes mam, the lodges in the first week will be busy. Very very busy.
L: Right. Very busy.
D: Not BUSY. BASIC! Angtu’s saying that the accommodation for the first week will be very BASIC.
L: Oh! Oh dear – that’s not the same thing at all. But we will mostly get our own bathroom, won’t we?
Angtu winces behind his smile.
Angtu: Very basic.
He leaves them with a large waterproof kit bag in which to pack all their gear. And two bulky 4-season sleeping bags.
D: Thank you Angtu.
Angtu: Goodbye sir.
D: Angtu? Do please call us D and L. Please.
Angtu: Thank you sir. See you in two days, with the jeep. Here at 7am.
Today is Holi – the Hindu festival of colours – and as the day draws to an end, in the streets roam little same-gender groups of teenagers, boys with boys and girls with girls, heading home and cheerfully wishing passers by “Happy Holi!” They all wear white tee-shirts and are daubing themselves and others with smudges of paint powder, applied to faces and clothing, every colour of the rainbow. The mood is light and, apart from 3 dizzy-looking German boys, seemingly alcohol-free. As D&L round a corner, a girl calls out “Happy Holi!” and delicately touches their faces with cherry-red powder. They feel proud – they’re now a part of something, celebrating love, the triumph of good over evil, and the arrival of spring. It’s their first day in Nepal and it feels auspicious. They inspect each other.
D: What does it look like?
L: Ah. Sort of a graze. As though you might have fallen off your bike. What about me?
D: Umm. Sort of a bruise. Like you’ve walked into a door.
They happily leave their powder wounds in place, confident it will bring them luck.
They wander the maze of narrow mostly-pedestrian lanes of Kathmandu’s Thamel district. Many are unpaved, dusty, with rubble-filled potholes. Crumbling buildings reach 4 stories overhead, festooned with electric cables which meet in clumps of aerial spaghetti at every junction. Dust hangs heavy in the air, mingling with the aroma of spices and incense. They pop into The North Face and inspect a deliciously warm looking down jacket. They peer at the price tag.
L: Yikes – can that really say USD $750?
They scuttle out again. There are dozens more tiny shops selling high-tech trekking gear, well known “brands” at a fraction of the price.
D: That’s more like it.
They add to their luggage mountain: a waterproof hold-all for $11 and thick down jackets for $50 each, both emblazoned with globally respected brand names. They regret that they are already so well equipped and have no reason to buy more. They resist the call of temptingly priced clothing, pashminas, crafts and souvenirs. Street sellers offer lip balm and wooden flutes. Stray dogs lie in the shade. There are a few Westerners but the majority of those strolling the lanes seem local.
In a store no bigger than a garden shed, they buy a Nepali sim card for their phone – passing their handset helplessly to a slightly built youth who briskly sets it up whilst conversing with two other customers and sitting on his burlier colleague’s lap, giggling. A pharmacy the size of a wardrobe supplies them with water purification tabs, anti-nausea pills and Diamox for altitude sickness. At every encounter they are assisted by Nepalis who are polite and friendly and helpful – seemingly simply for the sake of being polite and friendly and helpful. In this country there appears to be no piercing interest directed at foreign visitors, no superficial deference, no pushy hard-sell or cold shoulder or seductive flattery.
They spot a cashpoint on the other side of a main road and pause at the kerb to cross. Lanes of traffic are fluid – sometimes four, or five, or six. Coaches, buses and minivans of all sizes overflow with people squashed against the windows and hanging out of the doors. In the middle of every major street junction stands a raised one-man bandstand, towards which flows maybe 20 lanes of traffic from four or more directions. All this is controlled by one frenetic police officer, hyperventilating into a whistle, doing the work of multiple sets of traffic lights. Sometimes the officer works protected within the bandstand, but more often they wade bravely into the thick of the traffic, gesticulating assertively and delivering sharp and urgent blasts on their whistle. L&D wait patiently. They are unsure of the rules – is this a country which drives around, or straight over, pedestrians weaving between vehicles? They shamelessly tuck in behind locals in the know, using children and the elderly as human shields. They reach the cashpoint where their request for USD $250 is issued as a wad of Nepali Rupees a full centimetre thick.
The city is awhirl with dust. Dust rises from unpaved roads and the post-earthquake rubble of buildings. Dust hangs over the city, filling noses and ears and lungs, dusting faces and hands with a fine layer of ochre. The locals wear face masks. L starts to cough.
Kathmandu’s Durbar Square is a hive of courtyards, squares, temples and shrines to Hindu deities, teeming with locals, tourists and pigeons. Damaged by the earthquake of 2015, some of the soft brick pagoda-style buildings are supported by scaffolding, while a few are gone forever. Ancient wooden beams and window frames are intricately carved and the outer edges of the deep eaves ripple with red fabric frills. It is busy and beautiful. Guides sell their knowledge to sightseers, a Sadhu priest sells his face to photographers, and a tiny woman presses irresistible home-made cloth bags into wealthier palms. Not all are there for the tourists though. Two women squat in the sun washing roof tiles whilst a group of men rest idly by. A monkey ambles past chewing a piece of fruit. A tiny boy dances amidst a rising cloud of pigeons. A youth dozes in a temple doorway and an elderly gentleman pauses to read his newspaper, the roof above his head providing welcome shade and supported by beams carved with graphic sexual contortions. In one peaceful courtyard, the blank windows hide the Royal Kumari – a little girl worshipped by Hindus as the Living Goddess of Nepal. It is believed the goddess within her leaves at puberty, at which time she will be sent home and replaced with another.
Most of the visitors to the Narayanhiti Palace Museum are Nepali. They come to wander through the 20th century art-deco residence of the country’s former royal family, its hunting trophies of stuffed tigers and bear pelts preserved today with a sprinkling of mothballs. On leaving the interior of the palace, visitors are funnelled into a dilapidated garden with unkempt flowerbeds and buildings either half finished or half demolished.
L: Oh my goodness – d’you know where we are?
Awareness dawns that this is the site of the massacre of ten members of the royal family in June 2001. There is no plaque or statue or memorial or shrine. Just a few straggling visitors and some bullet-pocked plaster. There are signs showing who was shot where.
D: It was the crown prince wasn’t it? Because his family disapproved of the woman he wanted to marry?
L: But he shot his parents. Nepalis say he could never have shot his parents.
D: Well he did, didn’t he? Along with other members of his family.
L: Or did he? That evening he got a bit wasted and was taken to bed to sleep it off. He then apparently got up again, got dressed, and returned clear-headed to the party, shot everyone and then shot himself, being right handed, in the left temple, possibly twice. Does that sound right to you?
L: And his uncle, who then took over as King, was coincidentally not there, and the only people at the party who survived were this uncle’s wife, son and daughter.
D: Who did it then?
L: Some say India. Or the CIA.