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.

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