It may be Easter in the western world, but in Nepal it’s New Year’s Eve, 2066. Take that, easter bunny. I arrived in Kathmandu yesterday afternoon after a harrowing bus ride. No strikes this time (luckily I waited a day or the elections would have derailed my plans – transport is cut off during elections due to threats of violence) but the road up the hill into the city is comprised of miles of switchbacks that would be terrifying even if you were ignorant of the bus safety records. I’m planning the rest of my trip around not going down that road.
Holly and Eric flew from Pokhara, as they were short on time (and longer on cash than I am). We arranged to meet later in the day at the Kathmandu Guest House, which is a Nepalese institution; as soon as I got in I checked their message board and found nothing, then followed a street tout to his hotel. Two minutes after accepting the room I heard Holly and Eric coming down the stairs — they’d met the same guy a few hours earlier. Unbelievable. Contrast that with not ever catching up with my other friends in Delhi even though I had a mobile phone and we were in email contact.
Kathmandu is crazy. The center of the city is a warren of tiny streets and plazas, which makes the traffic worse than anywhere in India, and yet it’s somehow more laid-back. Because there’s no money here yet they haven’t started knocking down the old buildings and urban fabric of quiet courtyards. Kathmandu’s charm rest in its integration of temples and stupas into every half block, its old wooden buildings, and its dense low-rise character. I fervently hope it manages to outlast the phase that China has epitomized – of valuing highways and skyscrapers over hutongs. At the moment there is no danger of Nepal jumping on the manufacturing / outsourcing bandwagon for one simple reason: electricity. We were told that the supply of electricity to Kathmandu is 2 KW and the demand is 8; apparently the Maoists didn’t help things by going around blowing up hydro-electric projects. Now that they’ve been elected to power I wonder what they’re going to do about it? In any case, trying to get anything in Kathmandu done is frustrated by the general lack of reliable power.
Last night we followed the guidebook outside the tourist district of Thamel to a Japanese restaurant with a hot tub in a bamboo garden. At a certain point I became disoriented, luxuriating in a Japanese tub listening to French tourists in the background and talking to my friends about Boston. I do sometimes forget where I am. Today we walked to the Durbar Square, the center of old Kathmandu, which contains more temples than you can shake a stick at, and ran into a peculiar kind of tout: the guilt-tripping guide. Almost every guide who approached us had the same line: ‘if you don’t want to hire me you’re rude and you don’t get the Nepali idea of being friendly, so why do you come to Nepal if you don’t like us’? When that one didn’t work, they would pull out the ‘but you’ve spent so much money to come so far, so wouldn’t a guide make it much more enjoyable’? I have to hand it to them.
I’m leaving Thursday for a 14-day trek in the Langtang region. I hemmed and hawed about whether to go by myself or to try to cobble together a group, but I finally decided to go with an agency. That means that I’m probably paying more than I would just hiring a guide /porter on my own, but I don’t have to worry about negotiating the porter’s food and lodging, etc. I chose my agency based on the personality of the woman in the office, which I think is the way that the world will continue to work no matter how much is automated. She understood me when I said to her that my biggest fear was getting stuck in a group of people I couldn’t stand; she promised me that I could choose a guide who is friendly but not overly talkative. Of course there still may be people joining me, but at the moment I’m in my own pod and can choose to hike with people I meet at guesthouses or not. She also sent me directly to the Canon camera repair shop, where they fixed my camera in one day, so there’s a level of trust already. Next I’m going to ask her for the name of a good tailor…