Border experience – Anyone for Baksheesh?
We travelled overland from Calcutta to Kathmandu by train and shared jeep. Firstly we paid a bogus departure tax to exit India and then Casey paid off a Nepali border official when she didn’t have the necessary passport photo for her visa. It could have been worse, the amounts involved totalled about £5.00 and mine was the first bribe I’ve ever had to pay.
Kathmandu – Shangri La?
Budget travel in Northern India can and did wear me down a bit, so neither Casey nor I could believe our eyes as we trudged into Thamel, the Kathmandu tourist quarter. We grew more excited with every step as we passed bakeries selling coconut macaroons, pizzerias proudly proclaiming their imported Parmesan and guest houses with fully functioning hot showers! There seemed to be a general levelling-up in services and amenities in Kathmandu, whereas it had seemed like guest houses in India were in cahoots in a race to the bottom. While maybe not aspiring for excellence, Nepalis definitely achieved the easy wins like WiFi and clean bedlinen.
We guiltily enjoyed falafel wraps and pizza for a few days while we secured our trekking permits and I got my hands on a Chinese Visa. Not for the last time on this trip, I was struck by how many obstacles melt away in the face of an EU passport. I didn’t have any of the necessary flight bookings, hotel reservations, letter of invitation, contact person in China, nor recent bank statements but I still got the visa in less than four hours and with no questions asked!
Kathmandu is an elective hotspot for Manchester medical students so I caught up with a friend I hadn’t seen for months and met some students I didn’t know in Manchester. There was no initial unease however and it made me realise that the shared attitudes forged at medical school make it very easy to quickly form a relaxed acquaintanceship.
Annapurna Conservation Area – Trekking in the Himalayas
We took a long bus journey to Pokhara and then began a six day trek in the Annapurna Region. I didn’t really know what to expect but I was astonished that the tea house trails follow robust stone paths and that so many communities live in the hills, often more than two days walk away from the nearest road. Life involves a lot of steps and, not for the first time in the developing world, I wondered how elderly people cope. Since these communities live miles from the nearest navigable road, I was surprised to find that the standard of cartography is terrible. Not only would each map label the same settlement with different names, but distances and locations also seemed to be arbitrary.
Nepal is governed by Maoists and socialist principles also seem to have made the trek into the Himalayan foothills. There is an Annapurna tourism cooperative and each tea house offers a set-menu with quite audacious fixed prices. Amazingly though, every tea house could freshly prepare adaptations of pasta, pizza, Indian, Chinese and Nepali food. The urban areas of lowland Nepal are plagued by power cuts yet even the most remote hamlet seemed to have reliable electricity. We were never more than one hour’s walk away from a tea house selling Coke and and a Snickers, which is amazing considering that all manufactured goods are couriered up into the hills by foot. People carry luggage on their head in India, but Nepali porters carry luggage on their backs with support from a strap slung across their forehead.
Holi – Festival of colour…
We planned our visit to Nepal around Holi, the Hindu festival of colour, and made sure we were back in Kathmandu by 9th March. Unfortunately however, it takes place a day earlier in the Kathmandu valley than in India, so most of the event passed us by as we sat in a coach back to the capital.
I didn’t experience Eastern religions to resemble the stereotypes they enjoy in the West. I naïvely expected to find the whole Subcontinent in a permanent zen-like state so I was quite taken aback by the aggressiveness of attendants in Hindu temples and the rampant commercialisation of Buddhist sites in Nepal. I was also surprised to learn that many of the more unpalatable aspects of the culture – like the Caste system – are borne out of Hinduism. I’m not sure to what degrees their religious tapestries informed the national characters of Indian and Nepal, but Nepalese people appeared freer and more open than the Indians. Despite the country’s almost complete lack of any industry, the average Nepali seemed worldlier because they often sported daring hairstyles and fashionable clothes.