Monday, May 5, 2008

On the Hippie Trail - Kathmandu

Within a hundred yards of Kathmandu airport, Nepal, I see two of the things I love most about India – tuk-tuks, and people getting an al fresco hair-cut, on the pavement. I settle back into the taxi, feeling right at home.

Nepal has more than a billion Chinese breathing down its ear to the north, and virtually the same number of Indians to the south: it’s no wonder this little nation of less than thirty million souls finds it hard to make itself heard. China’s arguably the largest country in the world, but its communist principles extend to chronology, so from Khashgar to Shanghai, there’s only one time-zone - an awful lot of Chinese people must get up in the dark, and go to bed in sunshine. India makes her bid for independence by being not four, not five, but four and a half hours ahead of BST, perverse but charming. Nepal trumps the whole of Asia, though, with the temporally unimaginable. As we cross the border with India, we set our watches forward fifteen little minutes. Nepal’s a quarter of an hour different from India. How’s that for elegant foot-stamping?

It takes us nearly as long, to clear airport administration, as it does to fly here from Mumbai. At the visa desk, we see our first topi - typical Nepalese millinery for men, this one in pink and orange. Unfortunately, there’s a megalomaniac underneath it, waving his rubber stamp about, keeping us waiting, just because he can. If he’s processing someone too slickly, he breaks off, laughing, to dispense advice to the bloke at the next desk, or to take a phone call. Bizarrely, we have to pay in American dollars. Governmental edict. So we pay $30 dollars each, then, duly stickered and stamped, we're finally allowed out into the Nepalese afternoon.

Banners straddle the streets of Kathmandu, to wish us “Happy New Year!” New Year’s in the middle of April, here, so 2065’s just a fortnight old. No, not a typo, I mean, two thousand and sixty-five, fifty-seven years ahead of the rest of the world. Nepal’s so brave, and so bold – the wren to our eagle.

The city must have been lovely, with its curly tiered temple roofs and wandering yaks, before the internal combustion engine found its way here. Kathmandu’s less than a tenth the size of Mumbai, but the traffic’s as bad. Our driver, Shyam, apologises, “Six o’clock in morning, no problem. Office hour, traffic bad.”
You can understand the roads better, if you look at oriental lift-etiquette. As soon as the doors open, here at the Soaltee Hotel, people barge in, without waiting for those already in, to get out. Waiting would be not only the polite, but the sensible option, if you think about space available. Thus, the first and only rule of the road, I’ll just nip in here. Result, gridlocked chaos.
I don’t think they do lead-free petrol, in Nepal, if the billowing plumes of exhaust fumes are anything to go by. They don’t do any petrol at all, some days, Shyam says. He can – and frequently does - queue for two hours, to be allowed to buy only ten litres of fuel. Pedestrians sport surgical masks, or bandanas tied across their faces like highwaymen. The tuk-tuks, we note, are white, with blue or green trimmings. It makes a change from black and yellow, though the sardines-and-tin principle still holds, as far as shoehorning in passengers is concerned. The real “danger men” (Monu absent only physically, note) are the motorcyclists, though, who are susceptible to neither conscience nor fear.

Two minutes on the streets of Kathmandu would incite a panic attack in all but the stoutest hearts. Most of the pavement’s taken up by fruit and vegetable sellers, squatting nonchalantly with their backs to the traffic, their cloth-stall spread on the stones, dotted with neat heaps of garlic cloves, swollen knuckles of ginger root, and fresh chillies. Potential customers boil over the kerb onto the roads, like seething maggots. Frustrated drivers rev their engines and hammer their horns, tyres squeal as a motorbike swerves across a path, and, over all the cacophony, people shout. At first I think it’s in anger - I spy out nervously for Maoists and Taoists - but it’s just the bus service, drumming up evening business. The Nepalese omnibus is a transit-van, door wedged open, honking its way through the traffic. The conductor hangs out of the door, banging the roof or van-side, shouting destination and route, over and over, like a mantra. There are perhaps fifteen or twenty of them, competing in a raucous chorus, but the wayfarers seem able to hear sense in the chaos, locating their own bus and piling in. Having a label on the front saying, “No 10 – Trent Bridge to Ruddington” seems a bit of a colourless solution, now I think about it.

We pick our way back to our hotel oasis, smiling and Namaste-ing for England, for a beer, and a think.