Ancient and modern forces wash round the foreigner-island in farthest Kathmandu
29th March, 2004
White smoke rose into the still air. Drifting in front of the ancient temple that rose in steps over the funeral ghat, it slowly dispersed, moving south along the line of the sacred
river, south to the Ganges far below. The four cousins, men clad in white, brought straw and oil to feed the fire.
Fire that was started at the mouth, fire to consume the body completely, and let its ashes rejoin the elements. The cycle of rebirth could begin again.
In the background, a muted sobbing as a mother said her last goodbye to her
soldier son, the latest casualty in a bitter civil war tearing at the soul of the most romantic kingdom on earth.
Kathmandu is a strange mixture. Old and new; east and west; romance and bullshit.
Three quarters of it is a typical South Asian City. Ancient Hindu temples and Buddhist stupas
stand beside concrete housing blocks. Families bring daily puja offerings to the gods before motoring off to work on erratic motorbikes. Women sell farm produce sitting at ancient chowks surrounded by screeching traffic. Meals are served in traditional cubbyhole
restaurants to clients reading about the latest computer technology.
But one quarter is nowhere at all. It is not Nepal; it is not Asia but neither is it the west.
It is Backpackeragua. It is another of those strange suburbs that bear no relation to the city or culture around them, but simply exist to provide young Western tourists with the vital necessities: internet cafes, cheap hotels and banana pancakes.
Thamel, the tourist zone, is indistinguishable from any number of backpacker havens around the world: Khao San Road, Ko Phra Nang, At the borders of Thamel, Nepal simply ceases to exist, and the Rafting Operators, German Bakeries, and two-for-one bars begin. As a budget tourist, I can't avoid Thamel. I need cheap accommodation, and an apple pie or two is a welcome release from Indian food. But all the time spent here is dead time. It is not travel. It is stasis.
As this is Asia, Kathmandu is full of touts: taxi drivers, trekking agents, temple guides.
But having come from India, I find the Nepalese touts lukewarm at best. If you tell them, "No",
they will go away and leave you alone. That is pathetic. If you tried fending off an Indian
tout with a simple "No", he'll scent blood and put down a down payment on his second house.
Tourists are easy money when you can get one. This has meant that half the young men in Kathmandu have abandoned whatever they might have done before simply to open a little shop,
build a hotel or just stand around street corners hoping for a quick kill. As tourist numbers
have dropped enormously in the last two years, that means there are at least ten tiger balm sellers for every foreigner. Noone is going to worry about chapped lips here for a very long
time to come.
The voices follow you. Soft voices, almost imploring:
Visit my shop?
What you want?
You must want something...
All I can do is keep my eyes forward and keep moving on target. Every morning as I move through Thamel I have fifty
conversations with fifty strangers who would quietly like to provide my needs, if only they could figure out what they were.
Always the same refrain:
No, thank you.
No, thank you.
No, thank you.
No, thank you.
No No No No No No No
I am a walking recruitment poster for the Orange Order.
Backpackeragua has its sahre of semi-permanent residents. Loud-mouthed Israelis, bearded Frenchmen in sarongs, white English schoolgirls with
dreadlocks. Committed to spending time to learn the depths of an ancient culture, to wear local
dress, and make friends in the community.
Or, to lie around all day doing nothing, wearing shirts made out of bits of coloured string that no self-respecting Nepali
be caught dead in, and taking an absurd amount of pride in forever practising the two Nepali words they've managed to learn
in six months: Namaste and Danaywadd.
In other words, yet another collection of international yeti bums. Propped up by spacious bongs and cheap food, determined
to be alternative yet exactly the same the world over.
I'm just here for the pretty mountains.
Our Grateful Clientele
"You're here for our wonderful mountains, and I would like to show them to you."
"Good", I smiled hopefully, "How much?"
I had been trying to get to this point for the last half hour. I had told the street tout I wasn't interested in a guided tour,
that I couldn't afford it. He asked me to talk to his boss. I told the boss that I wasn't interetsed, that I couldn't afford it.
He asked that I hear him out. That was... now 45 minutes ago.
He talked about the wonders of nature. He talked about his years of experience. He pointed, with a flourish,
at the wall covered with certificates of competency. He produced his guestbooks, filled with glowing compliments.
Every tour operator in Kathmandu is certified to do everything. Every tour operator has left nothing but ecstacy in his
wake, attested in five languages. If only world government could be turned over to Kathmandu tour operators, we would all
be skipping in clover.
"As you can see, we are a small operation, and if you help that would be so good."
It's no longer a business transaction, now it's a charitable event. Would I be churlish enough to refuse to... "help"?
"So," I tried to return to the point. "How much?"
He told me. I couldn't afford it. But there was no point saying that. No Nepali believes a Westerner cannot afford whatever
they desire. Our currency is worth so much more than theirs, everything must be ours to command.
"Well, I've taken everything you've said on board, and will give it good consideration." I backed towards the door.
"So, when would you like to leave?" He started to get out a contract.
"Ummm... I'll let you know..." I turned and fled down the stairs.
I, Also, Have No Change
Small change is the most precious possession in Asia. Everything costs so little, you must have little payments to make.
And as change is so important, so noone will ever admit to having any.
And so everyone becomes a change thief, doing every trick to get small bills, and every trick to hold onto them.
Ordinary commercial transactions become a Mexican standoff, both parties in possession of stacks of perfectly viable
cash, and neither party willing to own up to it.
"I'm sorry. I have only this 1000 Rp note."
"I'm sorry too, sir. I have no change."
"I, also, have no change."
You eye up your opponent, gauging his strength. A Nepali shopkeeper has nothing else to do anyway, and will
wait all day for you to break. You have one last gambit - pretnd to walk away, shaking your head in sorrow as you cannot buy the object
after all. The shopkeeper breaks into a sweat, his jaw grinding.
"Wait, sir! I believe I have found... some change."
You smile, act relieved. Little victories.
Tomorrow I set off for Pokhara, then the Annapurna Circuit. Three weeks of spectacular scenery. Three hundred
kilometres of gruelling climb to the highest pass in the world. I have found four new friends, four new hiking partners. The
route is well known, lined with guesthouses and apple pie.
And yet it is the unknown. All week Thamel has been rife with rumour. The Maoists are in Pokhara - the Maoists control
Besihara. The government killed 500 in Beni - the government killed noone in Beni. Noone really knows what is going on.
No tourists are ever hurt. No tourists coming back from a trek have really seen anything at all. And yet the rumours fly and fly.
I know one thing for sure. The most dangerous thing a tourist can do in the Indian subcontinent is get on a bus. Maoists
pale to insignificance compared to the average bus driver. So I'm going to Annapurna. I'm going to the Himilaya.
And yet something terrible is stirring in this Hindu kingdom, the most romantic on earth. Ancient and modern, strange forces
are starting to clash. The smoke is still rising from the funeral ashes of a young soldier by the banks of the sacred Bagati.
The wind picks up, from the hills, and scatters them down Kathmandu valley.
And I turn my face to the mountains, and wonder what is there.