NEPAL – Over the Hills & Far Away

Taking into consideration that the third-class bunks were merely simple wooden shelves, I got a pretty good night’s sleep and made a special point of really enjoying the first cough-inducing cigarette of the day.  Unfortunately, Janette had a bad stomach and spent the early part of the morning throwing up in the carriage toilet. We arrived in Muzaffarpur at ten o’clock, panicking because we were over an hour late. But we needn’t have worried as our connecting train was still standing on platform four, though by now it was overflowing with people.  Forcing our way in, a bearded French guy made room for Janette to sit down while I squatted on the steps of the open carriage door all the way to Segauli. It was wonderful, the morning sun was shining and I had the warm breeze on my face. The countryside rolled by like a movie, the great epic of rural India with its buffaloes and bicycles, its ancient hand powered water pumps, elegant hip-rolling village women balancing firewood on their heads, and smiling children, waving as the train rumbled by. Janette sat with me for the last half-hour of the journey, needing to get some air, but was feeling too ill to join me in my enthusiastic appreciation of the scenery. We reached Segauli, which appeared to consist of a railway station and a cluster of poor houses, expecting to have to wait a couple of hours for our next connecting train but this too was standing in the station with a full head of steam and an even fuller contingent of passengers. We jammed ourselves in with all the other third-class unreserved travellers and, finding a space in the aisle, we squatted on our bags for the short journey up the line to Raxaul.

Border towns are always a hassle and Raxaul was no different. The moment we climbed down from the train we had to battle through the usual baying mob of hotel touts and taxi drivers. Outside the station we jumped into a trishaw and told the guy to take us to the border, which he did at great speed. He waited while we cleared the Indian customs and police check and then took us through to Birganj on the Nepalese side where the customs and immigration officials welcomed us with wide smiles. The trishaw driver dropped us off at the Koseli Lodge, a filthy dump where we paid the manager for one night’s stay, a newspaper wrap of ganga and two tickets for the 7.00am bus to Kathmandu. The advertised hot shower turned out to be a cold shower plus a bucket of hot water which we took advantage of before sharing a chillum and walking across the road to the nearest restaurant. The food was good and more than welcome after having eaten very little for the previous twenty-four hours. The waiter pointed out to us that the bill didn’t include any service charge and that a rupee would be most welcome. Cheeky bastard! We took an evening stroll around Birganj but there was nothing to see, it was just another run-down border town with cheap hotels, open drains, dodgy hustlers and lots of mosquitoes. On returning  to the Koseli we had toast and chai brought to our room before smoking ourselves into unconsciousness.

The next morning we were up at 5.30 so we would have plenty of time for a good breakfast in preparation for the full day’s drive. I asked the hotel boy where the bus left from and he told us ‘outside’. And, like a couple of idiots, we took this literally and waited immediately outside the hotel for ages.  Becoming more than a little concerned at the non-arrival of any buses, I left Janette with the bags and went on a search mission. I found the bus loading around just around the corner, a two minute walk away. We were now too late for breakfast but managed to get chai and toast in a teashop.  Then I realised that I had left some money in the hotel room. Actually I wasn’t sure whether I had or not.  I thought that I had put some Nepalese Rupees under my pillow before I’d gone to sleep but I was so stoned at the time that I could have easily imagined it. I rushed back to the hotel but there was no sign of any money and no one was going to admit to finding any anyway, so I decided that it had all been a figment of my imagination and that it really wasn’t worth worrying about. We crammed ourselves on to the full bus and at eight o’clock, an hour later than scheduled, we left shitty, mosquito-ridden Birganj and headed north into Nepal.

For the first forty or fifty miles we travelled through the rice paddies and sugar-cane fields of the Terai, the green and productive strip of land immediately south of the foothills. By late morning we were climbing steadily into the Churia hills along the Tribhuwan Raj Path, a rather grand name for the winding, single lane mountain road.  Rarely reaching more than 20mph due to the frequency of the hairpin bends we climbed higher and higher. Often I would find myself looking down thousands of feet to valley bottoms. My head reeled with vertigo but the views were so amazing I had to take it all in and the higher we climbed the more incredible it became.  The scariest moments were when we would meet a truck coming from the opposite direction and the bus had to inch its way to the very edge of the road to let it pass. That was the most terrified I’d ever been in my life but Janette appeared to have no fear and spent most of the journey hanging out of the window, absolutely spellbound by the whole experience.

At 5200 ft we stopped for lunch at a tiny hamlet called Mahaveer. The air was cold and as all the bus passengers rushed into the restaurant, we followed suit. Not able to find seats at a table, we found a bench to sit on and watched as steaming plates of rice, dahl and vegetables were carried out of the kitchen and served, but not to us. We tried to attract the waiters attention but to no avail. A Nepalese guy told us to go and sit in the kitchen if we wanted to eat, which we did, but it didn’t help. It was as if we had become invisible.  The situation was too strange. We left the restaurant and sat outside in a teashop where we had chai and biscuits and admired the view. Once back on the bus we continued to climb into the clouds and, at the highest point of the journey, I rolled a spliff and we celebrated. I figured that if we were invisible then no one was going to notice anyway. As we began the descent into the Kathmandu Valley the snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas came into view with Everest (or Sagarmatha in Nepali) in the far distance, so high that it appeared to hover above the clouds. The steep hillsides were now populated with small, two storey houses and terraced with tiny fields of maize and vegetables.  Coming down into the valley was like arriving in Tolkien’s Middle Earth with it’s wood and brick houses and paddy fields and stocky, little men in coloured hats (the traditional ‘topi’) and baggy, checked pants..

The hotel touts were, of course, waiting for us in Kathmandu and being the only Westerners on the bus we took the full force of their onslaught.  We had learned by now that there was no point in any discussion, the only thing to do was to pick a guy at random and escape the craziness as quickly as possible. We ended up at the Hotel Yeti. For the equivalent of 25pence a night we had a large room with a window overlooking the street with toilet and cold shower downstairs and a bucket of hot washing water anytime we needed it. Before we went out to eat I had to dig out a pair of socks. It was the beginning of winter in the Kingdom of Nepal and felt surprisingly cold to two be-sandled tavellers recently arrived from the plains of India. That evening we discovered that our hotel was only a couple of minute’s walk away from the Durbar Square and that we couldn’t have been situated in a more central position. It was mind-blowing to turn the corner and be confronted by a huge, tiered, wooden pagoda temple, like being sucked back into another time-space reality.  We ate at a place called Ashok’s Restaurant where the food was good, the owners very smiley-friendly and the customers smoked after-dinner spliffs of strong Himalayan hash.   It didn’t seem to have made any difference that US President ‘Tricky Dicky’ Nixon and his recently formed DEA had, a few months earlier, paid King Bivendra between 50 and 70 million dollars to outlaw the sale of dope.  How could you expect to make something illegal that grows virtually wild, and in a Hindu country where everyone is expected to take cannabis once a year, on Shiva’s birthday?

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