Crossing the Border: Friday 4/5
My plan was to get up early in the morning, quick pack and grab breakfast and then set off for the Nepal border. Those who know me will already be laughing at the “get up early in the morning” bit. Every aspect of this plan took a bit longer than expected but by 10:30am I was in a 4×4 headed down the hill and out of Darjeeling. From there I tried to find a shared taxi to Kakharbitta, the border town. Unfortunately, all the taxi drivers insisted that it wouldn’t be possible to find anyone to share a taxi with at this time of day, and so paid the full fare to the border myself. The taxi driver was a dodgy bastard, though, and managed to pick up an additional five passangers as we were heading out of town. They paid about $1 each, and I paid $14. When I suggested that their fares be paid to me, or at least that my fare be the same as theirs, the taxi driver said no, I said I was okay with sharing the taxi. Sigh. At this point my idealistic adherence to principles of fairness collapsed, and it didn’t seem worth arguing over a few dollars.
When I arrived at the Nepali immigration office, it turns out that the taxi driver had been even dodgier than I thought, driving straight past the Indian side of passport control to the Nepal side of the border. It didn’t seem to matter for the other passengers – I guess crossing between India and Nepal is a bit like going between Australia and New Zealand for natives of these respective countries – but the Nepali immigration officer pointed me at the road I’d come from and said the Indian passport control was 1km back where I’d come from.
All confusion aside, it was the easiest land border crossing I’ve been through after England-France on the Eurostar. A form here, a few US dollars there, and I soon had a shiny new Nepali visa stuck to my passport. The immigration outpost even changed my Indian money for me, at a rate which turned out to be much better than the money changers in Kathmandu were offering. After crossing the border, I followed the friendliest-seeming tout to his travel agency where I bought tickets for the poshest bus to Kathmandu. The guy went to great pains explaining to me that the tourist buses in Nepal were nowhere near as good as the ones in India, despite being expensive, but at least they had reclining seats and were about 8 hours faster than the local buses. Initially my mind complained, “it’s a whole $10 more expensive!”, but after a bit more contemplation, this seemed like a worthwhile sum to pay to make the bus experience only slightly miserable, rather than very miserable.
Kathmandu: Saturday 5/5 – Tuesday 8/5
Shared a taxi from where the bus dropped us off into Thamel, the central tourist area of Kathmandu, with the two other white people on the bus – a Spanish couple whose names escape me. I have no idea for how much of the bus trip I slept. I don’t remember falling asleep, but neither do I remember anything at all between 11pm and 5am. On arrival, I was – as usual – a bit dazed and disoriented, so my first priority was to have breakfast and a strong coffee. One omelette and an “Americano” – as the rest of the world calls a long black – later, I had skimmed my guidebook and decided on which hotel to try first. Not the absolute cheapest, but very central and included free breakfast and wifi. I’d paid more in India for worse rooms.
Kathmandu is a long way from being my favourite city. On the plus side, it’s very well set up for tourists. On the downside, well, it’s very well set up for tourists. There are touts everywhere, although nowhere near as aggressive as the ones in Northern India. The ones selling hashish really creeped me out, sidling up to me and asking quietly, “Do you want something, sir? Want some hash?” There’s lots of restaurants serving pretty much every cuisine other than Nepali, usually not very good quality and sometimes outrageously expensive. The ones recommended by Lonely Planet have turned out to be nowhere near as good as their description. But the tourism focus also means that it’s easy to get anything you could possibly want for going trekking.
Perhaps the culinary highlight was having a horrendously overpriced but tasty Nepali meal, consisting of several courses and traditional dancing on the stage behind me.
Not all of the touristy places were terrible. As I right this, I’m sitting in Sam’s Bar, which is a pleasant and quiet rooftop bar, playing the kind of music I’d expect to hear on Triple J – even a couple of Australian bands which I didn’t realise had made it out of the country, such as Bag Raiders and The Temper Trap, making me wonder if there’s an Aussie behind the playlist. (Bag Raiders and The Temper Trap are permanently associated in my mind with the Mongol Rally, when we listened to them a lot, all got heartily sick of them, but somehow kept listening to them again anyway.) Definitely better than the music played at Himalayan Java, a cafe modeled after Starbucks, which played old and generally mediocre pop music, including AC/DC, Green Day, and that “under my umbrella-ella-ella” song that I had thought had slipped from the world’s radar. I also spent quite a bit of time in Green’s Organic Cafe, which served – amongst other things – some delicious salads, and nice tea by the pot. Salads are a thing I’d been missing in India; even when they were on offer, I wasn’t generally game to order one, especially after suspecting that to be the cause of my food poisoning in Gokarna. Green’s Cafe had a very different choice of background music: constant Tibetan chanting, usually a variant “om mane padme hum”. It was actually surprisingly pleasant. Perhaps I’ve turned into a bearded hippy.
Another positive about Kathmandu is the frequent sight of jacarandas. They’re one of my favourite trees, and remind me of areas of Perth where I used to live. I hope Melbourne will also have jacarandas.
Spending four days here ended up being one day too many. On Tuesday, my final day in KTM, I’d arranged to go bungee jumping. Somehow managed to sleep through my alarm and miss my 5:45am bus, so no bungee for me. Oh well. I’d already done all of the sight-seeing I was interested in around the city, so spent my time in cares and restaurants with books and the Internet. I only hope that the same doesn’t happen tomorrow, when I have to get up at a similar time to catch the bus to the Syabrubesi where I set off for two weeks of trekking. Trekking is, after all, the main reason I came to Nepal in the first place!
My plan is to spend the next two weeks hiking by myself, without a guide, along the Langtang, Gosainkund and Helambu treks. I have a map and a compass, there are lots of tea houses along the way, so in the words of Jeremy Clarkson – what could possibly go wrong?