April 29th 1984

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So today we were forced to do what normally we abhor, + retrace our steps, such being the penalty for only obtaining a week’s permit in the first place.  I shan’t, however, go into much detail about the day’s trek save to say that, despite going up rather than down, we found the day to be much easier, so maybe forewarned is forearmed.  We had 4 companions on the trail, tho’ we did no more than pass the time of day with any of them – an Israeli couple, a couple of Cockney blokes, as broad a pair of accents as one’s likely to hear anywhere along the Mile End Road (tho’ they probably come from Croydon, or Harlow.)  We paused for dhal bhat along the way – otherwise we maintained our steady plod of a pace, even up the last killing ascent from Chitre.  It was with a bellow of relief + triumph that I recognised the place where we had gone wrong yesterday afternoon.  We were there… or as near as dammit.

Arriving back at Goropani we went first to the lodge we had stayed at before, but something about the place upset Val this time around, so we made an excuse, and left – Goropani certainly doesn’t suffer from a shortage of options.  Eventually, we settled upon a place 40 yds back along the “street”.  This had separate bedrooms, and a small living/dining room with an oil-drum stove.  It was satisfyingly warm + snug, but before we settled down to relax entirely, we both took advantage of the hot “bath”, the hot water mandi outside in the cold.  Mine was only just in the nick of time.  Even as I scooped hot water over myself, the heavens began to open + throw down their share of cold.  I hurried back to our airless but warm refuge.  Simon + Dave, the 2 cockneys, were also there.  For once, we discovered fellow-Englishmen that we had almost nothing in common with, even tho’ Simon came out with the startling announcement (to me at any rate, snob that I am) that he was taking a year off before going to Liverpool University to study theoretical physics.

Much worse was the presence of 3 very loud American ladies who were thoroughly determined to let everyone else on the room know what their conversation was about.  Eventually, they ran out of energy + quietened.  Val + I thought it was much later than it was, + quickly ordered food, worried that we might be too late.  It was only then, as we were eating, that the man came round to take orders for dinner.  Ah well. 

So the 6 of us forming an enclave in one corner, Simon + Dave, Val + I, + 2 German guys, rolled + smoked a couple of joints – one of hash, one of grass that Simon had picked along the trail near Tatopani.  We hadn’t seen any, but then we didn’t look (+ despite all the T-shirts, stickers + ear-rings, probably wouldn’t recognise it if we saw it.)  The effect was mild, which was just as well, since I prefer not to appear the gibbering wreck in public.  But it greatly enhanced my appreciation of the hailstorm which hit us shortly thereafter – I have never seen anything so ferocious, + the thought that any one or thing could possibly be out there was something literally quite dreadful to contemplate. 

Later the 6 of us tried to buy 3 bottles of chang, the local beer.  This proved a Herculaean task.  Each time we asked, the guy said “Yes, yes, I bring” + then didn’t.  Val, about the 3rd trier, offered to carry it out from the kitchen herself.  “No, no, I bring.”  About half an hour later, Simon had a go, + now there was the first intimation of doubt.  “20 mins”, he was told.  And only then, by peering into the kitchen, we saw activity.  3 beer bottles were taken down from the shelf, + then filled from a jug.  That, presumably, was the cause of the delay, finding the time to decant it into bottles, when the jug would have done just as well.  That’s what comes of being taken too literally.  The chang was cold, + a bit raw, but not at all bad.  Shortly after, at around 7 pm, we went to bed.

Not much to say about the trekking, but then, it generally is pretty much an unrelenting plod. But the encounter at the lodge, especially when accompanied by dope, was more notable.

April 28th 1984

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The knife sharpener

We made a much later start today, hibernating in our cosy sleeping- bags until about 7.30.  There had been some thought of climbing Poon Hill, a viewpoint 800 ft or so above Goropani, but we lacked the will to propel us, + in any case (tho’ it’s no justification for our own laziness) when we did emerge, we saw that the hills around us were heavily hemmed in.  Others had already gone up – I hope for their sakes the view was worthy of the effort.  For it seems to me that, with the exception of the real biggies, the “because it was there” peaks, the main point of climbing is for the view you get from the top.  But then I’m no climber, + there are plenty who will doubtless tell me different.  In fact, for someone who isn’t really a devotee of the outdoor life at all, I seem to have been doing an awful lot of it recently.  So it goes.

Breakfast done, + a loose arrangement having been made to meet Phil again back in Kathmandu (he is off to Annapurna Base Camp, so branches off from our trail today) we set off, with the prospect of an easy downhill day.  We certainly didn’t start off too well however, when 10 mins beyond the village, we took the wrong path.  Luckily we realised fairly quickly, so didn’t have to backtrack too far, but it was a depressing augur.  At the bottom of the first steep descent, we came to the village of Chitre.  There, spotting a man sharpening a tool – a sort of small axe used for shaping wood – I asked him if he would sharpen our knife too, offering one rupee as a fee.  I quickly had to clear up a misunderstanding, when it became apparent he thought I was selling him the knife for a rupee.  The only reason he didn’t snap it up on the spot was that he clearly couldn’t believe his luck… or the folly of the foreigner, who had no idea of the value of money.  When I made the position clear, however, he only did the most cursory of jobs, probably depressed at the swift reversal of fortune.

Just beyond the village, we had another encounter with a local, equally distressing, this time for us. An old man overtook us on the trail, “Namaste”d us enthusiastically, + asked us where we were going, told us how long it would take to get there, then thrust a handful of orange berries at me.  Naively, I accepted them as a simple gift – Val was wiser, but the damage had been done.  He now demanded money in the most aggressive of manners, pointing at the berries in my hand.  I had already eaten some, out of politeness, as it had seemed to me, so I could hardly deny complicity.  And perhaps out of weakness, I searched thro’ my pockets for a rupee coin.  I didn’t have one, as luck would have it, so Val fished out her money belt, + began looking thro’ the notes in it.  This proved an even bigger mistake, for at the sight of what, to him, must have appeared a huge amount of money, he became positively frenzied.  Val tried to pull out a one rupee note, + 2 came out of the pile together, at which he could barely contain himself from snatching at them both.  So when we had finally composed ourselves + offered him just the one, he refused indignantly.  “Two rupees, two rupees!” as though we were in the wrong.  It was only when we started to walk off that he consented to take just the one note, + then scurried away, happy enough.  As I said, a distressing incident, the only consolation being that the berries were, indeed, delicious.  We haven’t found the attitude of the people here to be as wonderfully hospitable as was reputed.  Children especially thrust small flowers at one, or bunches of leaves, in the expectation of monetary return.  Or more often, they simply ask for sweets, chocolate, pens, or money.  The traditional Nepali greeting of “Namaste”, meaning something like “I salute the God within you” or somesuch, but used as hello or goodbye, is in common usage.  But if one didn’t know better, one might afford it a secondary definition, as “a cry issued by children preparatory to asking for something.”  According to the guide-books, begging is discouraged by the adults, but we’ve seen no sign of it, + the example given by many of the adults is equally bad: porters cadging cigarettes, one old man yesterday who plastered our foreheads with a sticky caste-mark, then demanded payment for the service.  Having said that, one is equally likely to meet a cheerful smiling face, + a bellowed “Namaste!”, no strings attached.

Further along the route, a happier encounter.  We met a girl, resting on a rock, her porter waiting patiently beside her.  “Hello again,” she called, + we had the sinking feeling one usually experiences, being recognised, not recognising.  Luckily, her memory too was not at first specific, but she was soon able to pin us down.  “Christmas, Yogyakarta!”  Which, of course, was where it must have been.  By chance, we happened to have with us a photo taken of the Christmas Eve party in Superman’s, + showed it to her.  And remarkably, she was in it!  Only a back view, true enough, but a remarkable coincidence for all that.  The particular copy we had was earmarked for Superman himself, as soon as we could find a carrier, but we took her address, + promised to send her a copy a soon as we got home.

We had been expecting to be in Tatopani by about now – it was, after all, expected to be an easy day – so we could hardly believe it when a traveller passing the other way told us we had another 3 hrs to go!  Even allowing for a slow uphill pace on his part, + a measure of “cruel to be kind” philosophy, it seemed way too much.  But as it turned out, he wasn’t all that far wrong, + when we finally staggered into the village, + collapsed into the first available tea-shop, we were fucked, well + truly, far worse than yesterday, which had been (+ was supposed to be) a toughie.  We were soon imprisoned in our tea-shop by a fierce rain shower – tho’ I suppose I should be grateful we weren’t still out on the trail – + it wasn’t the nicest of places.  We wanted to push on the lodges at the end, reputedly better.  More, we wanted to experience Tatopani’s no 1 attraction, the main reason we had ventured this far up the track: the hot springs.  But it was an hour or more before we could move on.  In the meantime, the Danes arrived – as we had thought, they stayed last night in the village below Goropani – + as soon as the rain stopped, we walked together to the other end of the village, checking in at the same place – a wise choice, as it turned out.

Tatopani

We then hurried down to the springs, before it should grow too cold.  I had a temper tantrum on the way when it seemed as tho’ we had lost the way – the weariness + frustrations of the day had finally gotten to me – but once immersed in the hot water I felt much better.  The spring wasn’t wonderful – the water had lots of black dirt floating in it – bit it was hot, + that was all we required.  And the evening was quite splendid.  Our restaurant served excellent food – Val ha a superb Mexican dish, while I was given the choice of mashed potato, either with garlic, onion _ nutmeg, or just with milk + butter!  We also had the company of 2 women – a Canadian, a Portugese – who were interesting + funny.  Like us, the Canadian girl raved about Naryans cinnamon roll + apple strudel, as well as the Lunch Box’s apple crumble + custard.  Nice to know others share the same passions.  Going to bed was a nightmare in the pitch black – we really should have asked for a candle.  Val went flying headfirst over a high step on the upstairs landing.  I merely stubbed my toe viciously against the bed.

More experience of the trail, and especially some distressing financial negotiations, but once again we seem to be coping comfortably enough with the rigours

April 27th 1984

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Despite a respectably early night last night, we didn’t make quite the early start we had hoped + intended.  It wasn’t easy to pull ourselves out of the sleeping-bags, + the other 3 were not setting us a very good example, especially when they stopped to have breakfast.  I had intended to just take a cup of tea + push on, but the prospect of a bowl of porridge was too strong to resist.  The first section of today’s trail was a steep descent to the river some 1000 feet below.  It was made much easier by there being a stone staircase all the way down – these are very common here, tho’ one shudders to think of the sheer physical work involved in building it in the first place.  Even so, the descent was tough on the knees + thigh muscles.  Going down is not as exhausting as climbing, but it exerts its own toll.  We celebrated at the bottom with a cup of tea, in the village of Birethans.  We also needed to fortify ourselves – as Phil had not tired of reminding us all morning, ahead of us was a climb of 6000 feet.

Val + I broke the climb by stopping part way up for a mid-morning meal while the others went on.  We expected that by doing this we would be left far behind, at least until the others stopped for lunch, so it was quite a surprise when we came upon the others not long after.  They were obviously feeling the strain, + were not the superfit hikers they had appeared yesterday.  In fact, it was soon Val + I who were setting the pace, tho’ I did keep pace with Philip for a time as we chatted, largely about a trip he had made to Africa a year or 2 ago.  The 2 Danes, meanwhile, were dropping further + further behind us, tho’ we did catch an occasional glimpse of one of them well below us.  I greatly surprised myself with my own fitness.  For the final section we went off at our own separate paces, + I felt a certain satisfaction at being the first into Goropani, our destination for the day, as well as relief at being able to stop.  Philip was next in, feeling the strain + showing it; then Val 5 mins later.

We chose once again to stay in the first lodge in town.  It made things easier, + had a big open fire in the middle of the room, which was very attractive indeed – it was bloody cold.  They also advertised hot baths, which both Val + I took them up on, even tho’ it turned out to be no more than a bucket of hot water in a shelter out in the open, it was welcome for all that.  The Danes never did arrive, but we weren’t too worried about them, since we’d spotted one of them walking to the tiny village 45 mins below.  The food, unfortunately, was indifferent, but it was pleasant to sit around the fire + chat.  In many ways, the atmosphere was reminiscent of the cabins along the trail in New Zealand, only with food + drink in thrown in, for a small fee.  Very nice.

Most satisfying to know that we can keep up with other trekkers, especially now that we are up in the mountains, and really experiencing the rigours of the trail. But good to have some convivial company.

April 26th 1984

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We were convinced that the key to successful trekking lay in the early start.  Accordingly, we were on the move at an impossible hour.  We also decided to walk thro’ to the other side of Pokhara, since the buses didn’t start running nearly early enough for us.  This proved a grievous mistake.  Not only was Pokhara much, much larger than we had anticipated, it was also tedious.  And the hour + more’s energy that we used up needlessly this morning was something we were to be in sore need of by the end of the day.  We also managed to get ourselves lost – not seriously so, but sufficient to cause some anguish.

The first section of the walk proper, after leaving the town, was reasonably easy, following the river, + with only the gentlest of ups + downs.  We stopped off during this section to have some breakfast, but it wasn’t a wise decision, as the place we chose was swarming with flies.  One had to eat one’s food, as Azdak advised the Grand Vizier, shielding one’s plate with one’s arm.  From there, we dropped to the river valley itself to walk along the flat rocky road between the paddy-fields, the mile or so to Sukhet, where we would begin our first climb.  Along the way we were accompanied for a hundred yards by a man playing a home-made fiddle, + singing along with it.  Very good he was too, quite good enough to be at the Cambridge Folk Festival, but, as his music was unsolicited, we felt under no obligation to pay him the rupee he wanted.  This was our first, but not our last, offer of a service we did not require.  Or, indeed, a simple request for money, sweets, cigarettes, pens.  Our second approach came at Sukhet, with a young man offering to porter our bags up the hill to Nauranda for 8 rupees.  Not a bad price, tho’ well above the going rate, as it would be no more than an hour or two.  He was persistent, we equally obdurate – the stalemate was only resolved when he spied another, more likely, victim.  Or customer.

The walk up the hill was strenuous, but manageable, + I’d say we did pretty well, particularly since we weren’t yet in condition.  And we received our reward with a pot of hot lemon in Nauranda, on top of the ridge.  There were a couple of German girls at the restaurant we chose, + they were soon joined by a whole bunch of other trekkers.  They were all heading the opposite way to us, a fact which pleased me rather than otherwise.  One guy a Canadian, managed to annoy me intensely, even in that short time  – his every other sentence seemed to begin with, “When I was in the Philippines…”

The trails in Nepal are not just for hikers (local parlance – trekkers) but are vital + integral lines of communication, for both people + goods.  The former must walk, not as a form of recreation, bit of necessity, if they wish to reach any of the villages along the trail.  There is an internal aviation service in Nepal, but the airstrips are few + far between.  Goods of all kinds are carried in, either on the backs of porters – the best of these can carry up to 100 kgs, supported by a strap around the forehead – or by donkeys, travelling in trains of 10 to 20.  Everything that the villages can’t supply for themselves must go in in one of these two ways – vital foodstuffs + the not so vital (coke + chocolate), clothing, even building materials, such as bags of cement, or lengths of heavy-duty plastic pipe.  The donkey-trains in particular are colourful + picturesque, with the leading donkeys sporting colourful plumes like circus-horses, + all of them bearing chiming copper bells attached to their harness.  The cumulative effect of the whole train on the move was a constant harmonious boom, especially from a distance.  We found them to be considerate beasts too, or at least well-trained.  As we approached them, either to overtake or to pass the other way, each one would stop until we were past.  On the narrow trails, this was a welcome courtesy.

The walk from Naudranda to Chandrekot, the next village, was along the top of the ridge.  It was, therefore, not too steep a climb, + gave us some excellent views down into the valleys on both sides.  The terraces of rice-fields stretching way up both hillsides, were very impressive as feats of primitive engineering, but one can see why there is so much belated concern about the deforestation it causes, + the consequent destabilisation of the soil + mountainside.  I hear that one of Nepal’s biggest + most irreplaceable exports is of the soil washed down the rivers into India every year.  A little way before Chandrekot we stopped to eat a tangerine.  As we did so 3 trekkers came striding past, their vim + sheer energy contrasting only too forcibly with our own fatigue.  (Understandably, as we were to discover – not only had they taken the bus thro’ Pokhara, but a jeep out to Sukhet as well.)  We were soon off in hot pursuit however – for the rain which had been threatening for the past hour finally decided to come.  It was a mad dash before it finally poured – luckily Chandrekot was not too far away – + we fell into the first tea-house in town before getting too soaked.  The other 3 were there too – an Englishman called Philip, + 2 Danish blokes with unpronounceable names.  They had intended to push on, but when it became obvious that the rain was setting in for the afternoon, we all checked in to stay the night there.  The New Buddha Lodge, I believe, + very pleasant it was too.  We had an enjoyable afternoon, + then evening, Philip, in particular, proving good company – why are we such Anglophiiles?  The Lodge offered a varied menu, far more than the simple dahl bhat we had been expecting, so we ate very well – I was able to indulge my passion for mashed potatoes, + we were able to sample some raksi, the local rice wine – foul stuff.  After the meal, as a special bonus, Philip produced some dope, which we smoked mixed with the remainder of our grass.  Mild, but pleasant.  We discovered, during the course of the conversation, that he too had been in Naryans the night before last, + in the same condition as us.  All 3 of us out of our brains, looking around + wondering why people were staring at us.  We speculated that everyone in the restaurant had been in the same state – a bizarre thought.

The two Danes, Philip, me

Our mountain adventure has begun, and actually, by this report we were coping pretty well. To be fair, we have done quite a bit of trekking in the last couple of years, but this has been interspersed with some very lazy times indeed.

April 25th 1984

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We caught the bus to Pokhara this morning, travelling light, leaving one hefty plastic bag-full of stuff behind in storage.  I even tipped the doorman, an amazing old character in a sort of uniform who had saluted us coming + going ever since we arrived.  Obviously, servility brings its own reward.  The bus journey I didn’t find too arduous (tho’ Val, as usual, suffered) since I was able to lose myself in my book.  There was, moreover, a lunch stop, at which Val + I shared a dhal bhat, the most common Nepali dish, white rice with split pea soup, plus a few curried vegetables.  We reckoned we should start to accustom ourselves to the dish, since, by all accounts, it is the only thing on offer higher up in the mountains.  Actually, we found it both tasty + filling – one of the advantages of the dish is that they re-fill your dish at least once – in the better places, it is as much as you can eat.

We finally arrived in Pokhara mid-afternoon.  Annoying in so far as we had paid extra on the understanding of a fast ride, + it had been just as long as any of the others.  Not that we had made a conscious decision to pay the extra.  Val had picked up the tickets yesterday afternoon, when she had been in a tearing hurry, had handed over R100 + had not received any change.  And since every other company was charging R35 for the same service, it was a right rip-off.  The moral is, don’t travel with the Swiss Bus Company.  As soon as we descended from the bus + had retrieved our bags from the roof, we were besieged by the young touts of the town, each of them trying to solicit our custom for one particular guest-house.  In hindsight, our best policy would have been to reject them all + do our own searching, but by trying to be fair to all, and looking at various places they had on offer, we pleased neither ourselves – Val preferred a place we had passed over – nor all of the touts bar one.  Still, it was done, + the place really wasn’t too bad, but it was difficult to shake off the depression we both felt.  So often one gets caught up in the certainty that a particular guest-house or restaurant, or even town, is where it’s all happening. + that by choosing a different one, one is somehow missing out.

We wandered around Pokhara a little, or at least the travellers’ part, down by Lake Fewa, + stopped for coffee in one of the numerous restaurants.  Before going out again, we had another small joint, after which our evening meal, not to mention the chocolate… or was it coffee?… + banana cake was positively wondrous.   I must beware that this diary does not become nothing more than a hymn of praise to drug-enhanced foods.  But it’s so easy in Nepal.

Yes indeed. Except that the supply of narcotics is pretty much reserved to the capital, so we were not tempted for the majority of our time there. And onwards to Pokhara, gateway to the Himalayas. FOmo has become a thing bnow, I discover, but we were certainly early devotees.

April 24th 1984

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Breakfasted at a different restaurant today.  We’re determine d to try as many of the delights of Kathmandu as we can manage in the time we are here.  This one was a little disappointing, not because of the quality of the food, which was excellent, but because of the large number of flies who wanted to share it with us.  Val went off to Immigration again afterwards.  We had thought yesterday that we would apply for our special trekking permit – we’re starting off on a long-ish trek tomorrow, + they’re required by law – when we arrived in Pokhara, but R + A had told us last night that, as the Pokhara office is not so overworked + consequently has more time, they are correspondingly stricter about requiring one to have changed the necessary amount of money – about $5 a day each – at a proper bank, at the proper rate.  So we had decided to chance the haphazard chaos of the Kathmandu office once again, the pain being that we could have done it all yesterday.

When she got back – no problems, apart from the fact that she’d forgotten to take the required 2 photos – we had coffee + cake, + then strolled about.  It could be an easy mode of life to slide into.  Kathmandu is by no means a dirty town, + today we noticed that it was even more thoroughly swept than usual.  We wondered what it was all about, especially when soldiers + policemen began to appear + marshal the population into some sort of order.  I ran back to get the camera, but had not needed haste – there was plenty of time before anything happened.  And when it did, it ws over in a flash.  An advance cavalcade of 2 motorcycles, followed by one chauffeur-driven car, + not going slowly at that.  There were a few sporadic handclaps from the local people around me, + as they started to disperse I realised I had missed it – not even a snapshot.  The King had just driven thro’ the city, something which happens frequently, we later discovered, + always the same elaborate preparations.

In the afternoon, Val went back to Immigration while I checked out the hire of sleeping bags etc.  It is very easy to hire such things here – of good quality too.  I didn’t make much actual progress, however, beyond selecting the shop to do business with – I needed an air-ticket to leave as deposit, + she had them both.  She was very late getting back, having encountered, this time around, only too many problems, all stemming originally from those missing photos.  Once she was back, we popped out quickly to collect the sleeping-bags, then went down to Freak St to eat.  We chose the restaurant ourselves this time, + didn’t so nearly so well.  We did even worse when we tried to find a cake shop to have some dessert, + ended up checking out most of the restaurants in the area, without success, + feeling more + more depressed.  We went to Cosmopolitan’s, which had been recommended to us, but the pudding selection was dreary, so we just had coffee.  We did have some company, when an Irish girl + English guy joined us.  The Englishman was interesting – he’d just come overland on his own from England, + since Pakistan had run the gamut of disaster.  Like so many others, he’d been robbed there, + was having a devil of a job getting his money back on his travellers’ cheques from Amex.  But it was the Irish girl, unfortunately, who monopolised the conversation, + she was scatty but dull.  So many times we long for company; so often, when it comes, we reject it.

Back out on the road, + in a shitty mood with the world + each other, I wanted to go visit R + A, until Val pointed out, entirely correctly, that the only reason I wanted to do so was to have a smoke.  I didn’t feel any better about having this pointed out to me, but agreed with her.  It was now we remembered the grass we’d been given, so we bought some papers + headed back to enjoy it.  Val rolled a perfectly respectable joint – small but entirely adequate – particularly when, as we soon discovered, the grass was dynamite.  Thus fortified, we headed down to Naryan’s, our nearest restaurant.  The food there would have tasted wonderful to us whatever it was really like, but in fact it was really (I think) quite superb.  We had an apple strudel, a cinnamon roll… + then took another cinnamon roll home.  Being in our condition + out in public was also very spacey – was everyone looking at us, or were we imagining it?

Taking advantage of the various delights on offer, as well as, rather inefficiently, tackling some business. Surely we have had exactly the same problem with missing photos before. Which does make you think we might have learned our lesson. Not at all.

Bad news, good news

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The bad news arrived by text this morning, when Roji told me he had received a letter telling him he was to be transferred to the Bibby Stockholm… which among other impacts would have the effect of cancelling the show (and I know it is selfish of me to focus on that, when the personal consequences for Roji are far more serious.)  He has asked me for a letter, which I was more than happy to provide (though I would be amazed if it did much good.  I also contacted the Monday group, and received some advice and practical assistance (a template letter or three.)

When I arrived at Wembley, Roji was understandably distracted, but we talked through the possibilities.  Hamed and I both think that his case is not necessarily hopeless.  He is a valued worker at a local charity shop, and they too have chimed in on his behalf – they are arranging training so that he can manage one shop, and have said that they will take him on as an employee when his status is accepted.  So fingers crossed.

We did get on with some rehearsals at this point, which, despite the absence of Sasha, at college, was very good – it is clear that they are getting to grips with it.

And the good news?  That Hamed’s wife has been granted leave to join Hamed!  Not for a month or two, as arrangements have to be made back in Iran, but still…

April 23rd 1984

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After breakfast – a thoroughly splendid meal – we hired bicycles to ride down to Immigration.  One pays for a month’s visa on entering the country, but is given only a week.  In order to claim the other 3 weeks, one has to go down to Immigration.  A bit of a silly + inefficient system, I’d say, but it’s not my country.  It also gave me an excuse to take the bikes out, which is an amazing experience.  All the streets are used by all traffic, so cars, motorbikes, rickshaws, bicycles, trolley-pushers, + pedestrians compete for space, jostle for position.  One signs on as part of the throng simply by going out for a walk, but by travelling by bike one is an even more vital component, + the extra speed it gives means you have to be that much more alert – a parallel would be cycling along the pavement of London’s Oxford St.  A bike also provides all the speed you can use – thro’ town, only a motorbike is quicker.  Another advantage is that a bike cuts down the number of approaches by touts.  There is a thriving black market in Nepal, + the touts are the most obvious manifestation of it – along the busy routes, one can be approached every couple of yards, with offers of souvenirs, money-changing, or drugs… or, more usually, all 3.  Even when moving at quite a speed this morning on my bike, one guy was quick enough to try “Change  money?” to my face, + then a  bellowed “Good drugs!” at my departing back.

We got lost on the way to Immigration, road-works upsetting our carefully memorised directions.  And when we got there, the place was chaotic – there was just far too heavy a crowd for them to cope with, even tho’, in their own, stiltedly bureaucratic way, they were reasonably efficient.  They just weren’t equipped to cope with problems.  Fortunately, we had none  – it was simply a matter of filling in a form, waiting in line to hand it in, + then being told to return this afternoon for our stamped passports.

We spent the intervening time wandering around the city armed with a camera.  Both the city + the people are wonderfully photogenic, + we found the zoom lens a real boon.  There were too many pictures to take actually – the only real problem was finding a vantage point from which one could take photos without feeling awkward or embarrassed.  Can anybody wield a huge camera in such circumstances without experiencing such things?  Americans + Australians perhaps.  We found the best thing to do was sit down quietly + wait.  A sidewalk café would have been perfect, but unfortunately Kathmandu doesn’t have any, so we made do with a low wall. 

After a while I left Val to it, + set off to collect our passports.  It quickly became an exasperating errand however.  We had wandered into an unfamiliar part of town, + first of all I got lost trying to find my way back to the hotel to collect a bike.  Next I had to climb all 12 flights up to our room to pick up the receipt, + that was a mammoth task in itself.  Next I had to find Val’s money-belt – it was concealed somewhere in the room.  Only too well concealed, for it took me 15 mins of diligent but exasperated searching before I was able to turn it up.  By this time, I was running out of time – the immigration office shut at 4, so it meant some furious pedalling + clanging on the bell.  Kathmandu is great for riding a bike around, but not the sort of place one wants to try to get to in a hurry.  However, I made it, + picked up the passports with no problem, but climbing on my bike again to come home, I had the same feeling of weary dread that I used to have before climbing into the car after teaching in London, + driving home thro’ the rush-hour traffic.  The journey back seemed correspondingly longer.

Val gave me a haircut when I returned – she made a good job of it too – + then we went out.  We spent a little while looking at the hand-knitted jumpers they have here, + Val wants to buy one, but we didn’t find one she was keen on, so we postponed that particular task, + went down to Freak St to eat.  We called in first on R + A – they took quite a long time to open the door, + from other signs too we suspected they had been having a row.  I can’t say I was surprised – if we were living in a hole like they were, we’d be fighting all the time.  But all credit to them, they were able to keep their fighting private, + stopped when we arrived – I can’t abide people who row in public.  We had a small bong, just enough to provoke an appetite, + then went out to eat.  They chose the place, an unpretentious little place called The Lunch Box, + a wonderful choice it was too – we had a magnificent meal, topped off with a wonderful apple crumble + custard.  Beautiful.

We left them at around 8, + caught the bus out to the casino.  The casino has a special deal for incoming air passengers, giving them $5 worth of chips free – not to be sneezed at.  The problem was, as we discovered when we got out there, the tokens were for one free turn on each of 5 different games – roulette, spin the wheel, blackjack, pontoon, + Beat the Dealer – a dice game.  However, we were obliged to play upstairs, as we were Europeans, where the play was for dollar stakes, + we were the only ones in the place, rather than downstairs, where the play in some games was in single Indian rupees – 10 to 1 exchange rate – + the place was really humming.  So we quickly played our 10 free games, achieving an entirely respectable conversion rate, + getting back 5 dollar chips.  These we cashed in immediately, + we took our winnings downstairs to play roulette.  I lost most of my chips very quickly, but Val did pretty well, + even tho’ we also had a quick fling at  blackjack once or twice, we came away at 11 o’clock (the first free bus back to town) with a small profit.  I’d looked forward to the evening, but didn’t, in fact, enjoy it very much, partly because, I suppose, I was playing with such small stakes, + it wasn’t really my money anyway.  Which is but further proof that, with gambling, the money involved has to matter or there’s no excitement.

Definitely a place to take pictures, as the scenes on the street are al wonderfully photogenic. But careering through the streets of Kathmandu had its attractions too, even when I suddenly fojnd myself (and not for the first time!) in a desperate rush. But we are certainly enjoyiong the culinary delights of the place – all deliciious, with a wonderful array of choice, and, best of all, easily affordable, even on our budget.

The photo I have chosen is actually one of our favourites from the whole trip.

April 22nd 1984

posted in: The way back | 1
Kathmandu

The hotel also offered “free” breakfast included as part of their exorbitant nightly fee, so I took advantage of that too.  It was better than the cocktail, but still not wonderful, especially since, judging by the signs outside the cafes around town, one can pick up a better one for next to nothing.  I packed up + checked out after lunch, + walked down to the Tibet Guest House.  Met G on the way – he was dressed in a perfectly white suit, driving a new car… down a potholed dirt street.  He couldn’t have looked much more out of place.  He was a bit surprised to see me moving, since he was under the impression I would stay at least until Val arrived, but he had given me a free rein, just so long as I brought her + the cases to the Tibet, so I had decided to check in to the Tibet first, + then go to meet her.  Much easier on my peace of mind that way.  He told me to mention his name to the reception at the Tibet, which was just as well.  When I arrived they were just explaining to a couple of travellers that they had no rooms left, but I whispered the magic name, + somehow a room became available.  It’s nice, for once, to have influence, even vicarious influence.  Like being a free-mason, or a member of the Mafia.  I was given a splendid room too.  It was on the top floor, so meant a hefty climb up a dozen flights or so, but it was on its own, surrounded by a roof-top patio – quite the penthouse suite.

I wandered around town briefly, but wasn’t able to relax + enjoy the place, so when I saw a vacant taxi, I climbed in + went out to the airport.  Really an amazing old place, what one imagines a 19th century airport would have been like if they’d had airports in the 19th century.  I wanted to find out what time Val’s flight was expected – a simple enough task in most international airports, but here I had to go into the departure lobby, + pay R1 govt tax for the privilege.  I might as well not have bothered.  There were about 4 guys standing around the RNAC desk, but they couldn’t agree on a time between them.  So I gave up + went out to the specially-constructed stand for welcoming + saying goodbye to friends + relatives.  I might, or might not, be in for a long wait – at least I would be able to see what was going on.  The viewing gallery, like the rest of the airport, had seen many better days – the paint was peeling, the glass was cracked, the rubbish swept into a corner.  I stood there, nose pressed against the window-pane, like a kid at a sweet-shop, for about an hour – one small domestic plane left during that time, another bigger plane was sat on the tarmac.

Eventually, another the same – a Boeing 727 – swooped in from the mountains, + raced along the runway, gradually slowing, then turning + crawling back to rest behind its brother.  I spotted Val as soon as any part of her could be spotted, her legs + skirt beneath the wings of the front plane.  She walked around with the other passengers, passing directly beneath me, but tho’ I tapped fiercely on the window, she didn’t look up.  My neighbours were greatly amused, at any rate.

So… she’d arrived.  All she had to do now was get safely thro’ customs.  And all I could do was stand + wait.  Which I did, with all the patience I could muster.  I had to wait about half an hour, which was just about long enough – any more + I should have begun to worry that something had gone wrong.  And then thro’ she came, no police escort, no handcuffs, just a porter.  We greeted each other with considerable reserve in the circumstances, + then straight into a taxi + back to town.  We talked only of trivial things on the journey, because of the flapping ears of the taxi-driver, so it wasn’t until we were safely ensconced in G’s room – he had left a message with reception that we were to go straight to see him – that I discovered she had had a far rougher ride thro’ customs than I had.  The guy had emptied a case, felt the lining, commented on the weight of the lid… + Val had smiled throughout.  I’m not sure I could have maintained my cool in such circumstances – she’d done bloody well.

G took the cases away, bought our duty-free from us – a handy profit there – + we went out.  I was keen to show Val the town, as well as the cake-shops, the book shops, the clothes shops.  I was delighted that she was as taken with the place as I had been, + we strolled round for a couple of hours.  We wandered further than I had ventured, + somehow the city became more + more mediaeval, more primitive than Dickens’ London.  Maybe Tudor or Stuart.  Like them, the houses of Kathmandu are mostly wood + simple clay.  The streets are narrow – no thought for the motor-car.  The houses jut out as they go higher, so that the people on the top floors on opposite sides of the street can virtually reach out + shake hands.  And out of the windows comes spitting, washing-up water, God knows what else.  There are many travellers on the street, but they seem to blend in so much better than in other tourist centres; that, or they’re ignored more.  On the smaller streets, the shops are minute, 6 ft square, + in many of them can be seen craftsmen working at some detailed craft.  It hasn’t been many places that I have felt excited about just walking around.

We returned to our room to freshen up, then, at what seemed an eminently suitable hour, went out to eat.  I had enjoyed my Italian meal last night, + Val was keen to have some too, so we returned to the same place.  We were taking our time, however, strolling along, when we were hailed by a couple of familiar faces.  It was Robert + Audrey, an Australian couple we had first met when we had shared a tiny guest-house with them below Mt Bromo, + then had run into again in Singapore.  We stood + chatted with them for about half an hour – things had certainly not gone their way.  They had bought a video system in Singapore, intending to sell it in India +, make a big profit, but customs had spotted it when they entered, + written it down in their passports.  This was solvable – they planned to go back into India by land, where, by all accounts, the customs checking is very cursory – but worse, Robert had been very sick, had become very weak, + all their plans – the Everest base Camp trip – had been abandoned.  It was a sorry tale, + contrasted only too forcibly with our own relative success story, for, somehow, we came to tell them of our own most recent achievement.  Nothing to be proud of, indeed, but it must have appeared very easy money compared with their struggles with the video.  We also chatted about grass – Robert had some excellent stuff, he said, that he’d bought in S. India, + invited us along to sample some.  This invitation we were pleased to accept, + we told them we’d come along as soon as we’d eaten.

Our meal was, once again, splendid, a lasagne that would not have been out of place in any Italian restaurant I have ever visited.  And then we undertook the trek down to their lodge.  They were staying down on Freak St – the most famous hippy street in the world – which was, they told us, down the other end of town.  It was as well we’d met them, for I’d been under the impression we’d already walked along it, + it wasn’t a place I wanted to miss.  I was relieved when we arrived there – I don’t enjoy late-night walks to places I don’t know in a city I don’t know.  I’m not really an adventurous sort at all, not the sort of person to be engaged on this sort of trip.  R + A’s room came as a shock, resembling nothing so much as a cell, + a dark + smelly one at that.  There was just about enough room for 2 beds with a gap between them to swing one’s legs.  No wonder he’s sick – what a place to convalesce.  I’d hang myself within a week, + they’ve been here more than 2.  We spent, nonetheless, an enjoyable drug-enhanced evening.  Robert had constructed a bong out of a coke bottle half full of water, a length of plastic tubing, + a small cone-shaped funnel.  It worked splendidly, + the grass was all R said it was.  I was soon reduced to my usual gibbering wreck like state, the major consolation being that the other 3 found me immensely entertaining.  When the time came to go, Val had to lead me back.  Even so, my paranoia was barely containable.  R gave us a small package of the stuff to take away… a present.

If anything, this account downplays the peril of Val’s trip through customs, when they had given her a very tough time indeed. But she is made of stern stuff, so surviverd – I have no idea how I would have explained things to the Jonas family had she found herself in a Nepali prison.

Otherwise, things could hardly have been better. Kathmandu was delightful (and I was more thsn derlighted that Val shared my opinion), we had a good place to stay, some good food, even company and drugs. And so far as we could tell, the place was eminently affordable.

April 21st 1984

posted in: The way back | 0

Didn’t sleep well, being too worried that the alarm wouldn’t go off.  But it was good as gold, 5.10 am or something equally ludicrous, + I was out + dressed in a flash.  A quick kiss to a sleepy Val, then down to F and G’s.  To my surprise, I wasn’t to be the only one, since we had to wait for a girl who was travelling on a different flight, leaving 5 mins after mine – going by way of Bangkok.  She turned up 10 mins later, + gave me quite a shock.  Her name was Ingrid, she was a German girl working in HK as a secretary – her English was near as dammit flawless.  And most disturbing of all she was dressed up to the absolute 9’s – good enough for a Buckingham Palace tea party, I’d say.  I’d done my best, but felt distinctly shabby in comparison, like a down-at-heel secondary school teacher… which is close enough, I suppose.  Our few last things were packed into our cases, + we were on our way.

Once again, the bags were enormously heavy, not quite as bad as for Taiwan,  but bad enough, so it was quite a struggle to get them out onto the street.  H (another brother) was the gentleman, + carried Ingrid’s bags, leaving me to struggle along as best I could with my own.  It was pissing with rain again – HK always seems to cry when I leave.  We went in 2 taxis, just so that all 4 cases could be kept safely locked away.  Ingrid, an old hand, went + checked herself in, but H did it for me.  I sat + waited on a chair by the duty-free counter, trying my best not to appear nervous or concerned (+ really I felt moderately at ease, now that things were actually beginning to happen.)  H turned up after 10 mins, + handed me passport + left without a word.  Within it – I checked quickly – were my ticket, my boarding pass, + US$615 in cash – the extra 15 was to cover initial expenses.  Ingrid came over to me then, + we went thro’ immigration together; we did as soon as they opened it, in any case.  Then whiled away our time chatting, buying our duty-free cigarettes + whiskey (we were carrying a camera, a watch, + a calculator for the Organisation, but we were allowed to take the duty-free goods for our own profit.  I was also carrying our own camera, Val would be bringing Walter the Walkman tomorrow) + drinking a cup of coffee.  Then it was time for me to board, so we bade each other farewell + good luck.

Hong Kong is not so modern an airport that it can provide covered walkways straight on to every plane.  For my Royal Nepal Airlines flight, it meant travelling out to the airport by bus.  At the top of the staircase down to where the bus was waiting, a stewardess gave me a small folded parcel – it turned out to be a flimsy plastic raincoat, + was vitally necessary – I have never seen rain as fierce as the stuff that came hammering down on the roof of the bus.  My fellow-passengers included 5 former residents of Chungking Mansions, all of them on the same sort of run (tho’ all rear-entry merchants, I believe.)  I received several surprised yet knowing grins, especially from one Jordanian guy, a prick I had no time for, who had blabbed constantly about the trips, had even offered to make a contact with his bunch for me.

On board, I had to eject a local – Nepali, I imagine – from my assigned seat by the window.  He tried to assure me that the seat on the aisle across the way was equally good, but I wasn’t having any of it, + eventually, with ill-enough grace, he surrendered.  The storm had abated a little by the time we took off, but just 5 mins up we must have hit the real heart.  I have never been thrown about so much, not even in a tiny single-engine, + have never been so frightened, never in the air.  I have always had the greatest of confidence in the machinery + the operators of modern jet-airliners, but this time my faith wavered.  However, obviously enough (or I wouldn’t be writing this) we pulled thro’.  It was doubtless considered by the old hands on board as mild turbulence.

I couldn’t have been too frightened however, for I still had plenty of appetite for the breakfast, a real feast.  A big portion of warmed-up scrambled egg, a couple of potato croquettes, tomato, a roll, a croissant, a chocolate éclair, juice + coffee.  If only the service provided by the stewardesses had come even half as high as the quality of the food, RNAC would have shot straight to the top of the “best airline we have travelled with” list.  As it was, they were slovenly, even surly creatures.  The whole atmosphere aboard was much more like a more than usually luxurious Asian bus rather than a modern jet-liner.  There were even a couple of enormous Nepalese matrons out of some hill-village tribe, in traditional dress.  They weren’t quite spitting betel-juice, but one wouldn’t have been surprised if they had.  I was pleased to have stuck by my window-seat, for flying over China, Burma, or somewhere.  I got a couple of superb views, first of an enormous lake, then of an immense mosaic of fields, as we came down to Dacca.

We had a 45 min wait there, during which time we weren’t allowed to leave the plane.  No blow in itself – Dacca International Airport not looking wonderfully exciting – but it was painfully hot.  The doors were open, + furnace air came pouring in.  I was soon dripping sweat, which was the last thing I wanted.  I wanted to attract no attention at all going thro’ Kathmandu customs, + a sweaty wreck might not be the best façade to present.  In fact, all was well – the hop from Dacca was  not long, but as soon as we were airborne the temperature dropped to a bearable level, and the stewardesses brought round a snack lunch, +, more important, a drink.  A gin + tonic was exactly what I required.  I felt well able to cope with the situation, but didn’t feel that a wee drop would do any harm at all.

 And in fact, everything was just fine.  I changed $20 at an official booth, then passed thro’ immigration with no trouble at all.  A tinge of worry when the bag failed to appear for ages – for a few unpleasant moments, I thought they might have mislaid the bloody thing at Dacca, but relief, along they came.  Kathmandu Airport is small + dilapidated, + by the time I reached customs, the few guys were very busy.  It can’t, in those circumstances, have made me wonderfully popular when the catch on one of my cases jammed, + I couldn’t open it – all I could do was look at him with appealing eyes + go back to fiddling with it, but eventually, with a curse or 2, + more than one severe blow, it sprang open.  The official flicked thro’ the clothes almost cursorily, chalked them, waved me on.  There wasn’t even a mention of the fact that I had 2 cameras, + I’d been preparing myself for angrily justifying the need for 2: colour and black + white, slides + prints.  All unnecessary – I was thro’.

My porter carried my bags out + got me a taxi, +, as instructed, I didn’t quibble when he quoted Rps 45 for the trip to town, way over the proper rate.  He made tentative offers to buy my duty-free from me, or to take the taxi-fare in cigarettes, but I quashed such talk very early, first because I was enjoying my role as a wealthy tourist, therefore not on the look-out for a fast buck; second because I’d been told G would give me a better price than anyone else in any case.  G was waiting for me at the hotel, greeted me as an old friend – all part of the act.  Once I’d checked in, we went upstairs, where he asked me how it had gone, then gave me my instructions for my move to another place, where I would be unloaded.  The hotel was much more expensive than I’d been told, so I told G I’d be moving out after the one night.  He was good enough to pay for it, $15, no small sum.  And off he went.

All the danger was over now, but I had to overcome the awkwardness of carrying the bags out.  As suggested, I gave them some spurious-sounding tale about staying tonight but moving out tomorrow to a friend’s place, so was moving the bags in advance.  I know, it all sounds garbled + illogical, but that’s just the way it sounded then.  I flagged down a 3-wheeler taxi, heaved the bags in, + was off to the Tibet Guest House.  A nice place, at least as nice as the place I’d left, + about a third of the cost.  G was obviously a force to be reckoned with in the place – I was shown straight to his room.  Ingrid was in there, in considerably less formal attire, + scattered around was the detritus of many runs from HK.  I had left my own belongings behind, so the cases were taken away, + after a bit of a chat, off I went.  Very clearly, they were of the opinion that my task was over, + I was now entirely on my own.  Tho’ if I wished to change money, sell my duty-free, they would still be around.

I left, + having no real idea where I was, caught a bicycle-rickshaw back to my hotel.  The ride gave me a little orientation, + I ventured out again after a shower.  It was still only mid-afternoon, ridiculously early after such a long day.  The little bit of Kathmandu that I explored gave me a real buzz.  After Hong Kong it was such a shock, being so different, but not an unpleasant one.  I kept my area of exploration small, bought a couple of aspirins to kill my headache (nervous tension?) + a coke to wash them down, + strolled back.  The place is so primitive – dirt roads, tiny hole in the all shops, cows everywhere.  A heavy storm suddenly threatened, so I scurried back – I intended to in any case, as part of the extravagant price of the hotel went on a “free” cocktail.  I drank it by candlelight, the storm bringing on a power-cut, which was pleasant… the cocktail itself was revolting however, pre-mixed + poured out of what looked like an old whiskey bottle.

That swigged down, I walked into town again to search for my dinner.  The rain had stopped but the streets were pitch-black, with other perils too – I slipped in a pile of cow-dung.  I decided to have an Italian meal tonight – so far as I can tell, one can eat exactly what one wants.  The restaurant was crowded, which was fortunate, since I was obliged to share a table with 3 English girls.  They had just come out on an overland bus tour with a company called Top Deck, 11 weeks living in a double-decker.  Interesting, in that it proves that the route is still open, but not something I should wish to go on myself, even if it does pander to a couple of Cliff Richards “Summer Holiday” fantasies of mine.  The food, by the way, was excellent.  I had to leave some of my spaghetti – I’d like to pretend it was because I was too worried about Val, but it’s because I had too much.  Walked home, feeling exhilarated – an “I’ve done it” sensation.

And so, all is well, at least for the first part of the operation. But it really was an extraordinary change from HK to Kathmandu, like going back a couple of centuries. But the beginning of a new adventure… provided Val is equally successful.