The snowy shark fins of the Himalayas peek through the fluffy white clouds as we fly towards Kathmandu. As high as our plane, these mountains stand head and shoulders above any other place on earth, dominating the peculiar but enthralling state of Nepal.
Kathmandu nestles quietly in the foothills – themselves as big as any British mountain yet only a fifth of the height of their grandparents along the Tibetan border to the north. The Nepalese are comfortable with their mountains. On some they have built roads and houses where we would only risk a triangulation point. Most of the ones around the capital had been cultivated and sliced into terraces over the centuries. Staircases for the giants to the less tameable mountains above.
I was reminded of the mountains we made as a child. We cut out irregular shapes of ever decreasing sizes from thick cardboard and glued them on top of each other into three-dimensional contours.
Nepal is different to India. It is an amusing 15 minutes time-zone different. I twisted my watch a quarter of a dial forwards, feeling like the white rabbit in Alice in Wonderland about to enter a strange and surreal new world.
And so it proved to be. Nepal is different to anywhere. Beautiful and dirty. Calm and chaotic. Old and new. Remote and busy. But always charming and always polite.
We landed. My companion (H) and I, filled in two forms each and had our photos taken in a small room for the visa. Now we needed cash.
Here is the rub. You cannot buy Nepalese rupees outside Nepal. The ATM Machines inside Nepal do not work. And none of the shops or markets takes plastic of any colour or type. These three facts present the casual tourist with something of a challenge. Luckily H had a range of international currencies. So we changed some of these for rupees and persuaded the visa clerk to accept residual eclectic mix of Indian rupees, dollars and euros.
We hired a driver to take us to our hotel in Nargakot; a hilltop village about an hour east of Kathmandu. The city roads are like Delhi without the rickshaws and with half the traffic, so we made good time. The roads deteriorated inevitably as we left the city. We fell into potholes the size of dogs. Instead of rickshaws, Kathmandu has motorbikes. They weave in and out of the traffic like hyperactive small children. Half way to Nargakot we passed through a town called Bhaktapur. Here we encountered a rally of motorbikes coming towards us, energetically waving flags. We spotted the hammer and sickle. These were the communists – the party in power – who have brought stability after the fighting of the Maoists. We let them pass in peace.
Now the road started to wind and climb seriously. Hairpins bends emerged out of nowhere accompanied by the inevitable sheer drops. I breathed in and closed my eyes whenever a bus came down towards us and we squeezed past. The driver explained the seasonal agriculture, rotating from barley to potatoes and to then rice. Small wooden restaurants or bars had also been planted. The beer salesman from San Miguel had made a killing.
Finally, we reached Nargakot and rattled through its dusty narrow streets. The road builders had run out of tarmac a while ago. Our taxi climbed the final steep slope to the hotel. Having travelled thousands of miles to get here, our last few meters to our destination were impeded by a beached tourist bus. It was skidding its back wheels on the dusty track in front of us, bellowing out smoke but making absolutely no forward progress. Some people shouted. Our driver shouted. Some people shouted back. A Nepalese dance of shouting.
Finally, a young boy lodged a large rock behind the bus’s rear wheel like a starting block. With another roar the bus made its own length. The boy replaced the stone. The bus moved forwards a few meters and the boy removed the stone again. But then it started to roll backwards. In my mind the bus accelerated down the slope, smashing into our taxi and bulldozed us into oblivion. In reality, the bus stopped, everyone got off (why didn’t they think of that before?) and it hopped and skipped up into the hotel parking space. We had arrived
After we had been taken to our rooms and taken some tea, we wandered back down into the small town. There was no electricity as we were in a scheduled power outage. Ironic for a country that has the greatest hydro-electric power potential in the world.
It was approaching sunset. We climbed a small path to get a vantage point. A small girl talked to us. She was 12 – although she looked younger. She told us her name – Susketa – we told her ours and we talked as much as her broken English would allow.
We watched a gorgeous orange balloon descend almost reluctantly behind the dark mountain. This was no regular sun, this was a special Nepalese sun. Susketa had special Nepalese eyes – beautiful and brown – and a sweet, innocent smile. H bought a small purse from her.
Walking back up the hill we browsed through the shops – individual huts making a living off the tourists and trekkers, selling carvings, clothes, food and water. It was getting cold and dark but the electricity had kicked back in. We climbed back to the hotel to get some money and then returned to a shop to buy myself a thick Nepalese multi-coloured cardigan which wrapped me up like a sleeping bag.
We ate alone in an eco-friendly, customer-friendly restaurant, sitting around the open fire as our food was prepared. I went into the kitchen to watch the twos cook rattling their pans on an old stove and washing pots in stone sinks from another age. They laughed and joked as I took some photographs. We ate; supped Himalaya Beer and I nearly fell asleep in the warmth.
Back at the hotel, my room was cold, my mattress was hard and the light was dim. I had a hot water bottle delivered from reception, which helped, and the duvet was lovely and thick. It was 9.30pm local time, a mere 3.45pm in the UK. There was no kettle, nor biscuits, nor fast-speed broadband. There was a peculiar smell and the shower looked very grubby. But who cared? Outside my door, lurking in the dark, were the Himalayas, the greatest mountain range on the planet. In the morning we would see the sun rise over them. I could hardly wait and I could hardly stay awake.