July 5-17Nepal & Tibet, Part I
Another rainy HK afternoon in Midlevels.
Coming back to Hong Kong from Seoul
was a welcome relief, and my seventh time here in three months. But I still had a few important logistical issues to deal with.
First, I needed to resolve where I would be staying. Previously, I had been crashing with two different friends, and storing half of my equipment and a huge supply of film as well. My friends were more than generous, but space was limited in HK, and I was really imposing for leaving so much stuff and coming back every two weeks. I wanted to find other friends to balance the load, or a cheap hotel. At least relatively cheap, that is; this was HK after all!
Second, I also had to change the plans of my Nepal trip.
Originally, I had scheduled to depart immediately after coming back from Korea. But a few weeks earlier, the Nepalese crown prince had massacred
the royal family in a drunken rage over his parents’ opposition to his choice of wife. And the situation didn’t look good.
Nepal had already been suffering from periodic attacks from a
strengthening Maoist insurgency. Since 1996, about 1500 people had been killed over 5 years. This massacre only added to the uncertainty
and potential for new conflict. And since last year, the situation has indeed escalated, killing another 3500 people in the year since (over twice as many in one year than in the 5 previous years).
In Saigon, Peregrine (my tour operator)
notified me that they were suspending their Nepal tours until
the situation could be better assessed. At first, I thought I might have to cancel my trip altogether. But by the end of June, things seemed relatively under control, and I arranged to go only a week later than I had initially planned.
I really needed that week. I had already been burnt out and a
little depressed since Cambodia.
And although I didn’t do too much independent exploring in Seoul, I
was still exhausted, and it showed. Whereas I had started
shooting 8-10 rolls a day in China
in the last month I was only shooting about 2 rolls a day.
my problem was a matter of pace. I was probably just trying to see
and do too much. That was certainly true when I started. In Bali,
not wanting to miss seeing anything, I worked every day shooting
continuously, and travelling the island from dawn till long after
dusk. I didn’t lay out or even once
step in the pool while I was there! And that was supposed to be the
relaxing start to my trip.
So now, exhausted and back in a familiar cosmopolitan place like
HK, I consciously tried to relax and do nothing. It helped that it was raining pretty heavily that week.
So during the day, I caught up on email, and worked on my website
and my writing for BootsnAll. When it wasn’t raining, I went
shopping in Central, browsed the DVD stores in Causeway Bay, and
hung out at the Wanchai Computer Center. I went to lunch and dinner
with friends (my friend Kathy took me to a really great Korean place in
causeway bay called MyungGa). I went out a few nights to alibi, red
rock, cbar, and drop, as usual. I spent a good amount of time
planning out the rest of my trip. I got my flights changed at a
travel agent in Pacific Place (NamHo Travel). But, I also made sure
to get lots of sleep, trying to mentally rest my mind. I successfully resisted carrying a camera
everywhere, and hardly took any pictures at all that week. And then, it was time to pack up and leave
The Thundikhel under Bhimsen Tower and the mountains beyond.
Arriving in Kathmandu on a bright hazy day, the air was
hot and the glare of the sun was strong under a light blue sky. At
immigration, on-the-spot visas were easy to get on arrival for a
modest fee ($25-50 USD). I was glad I remembered that I needed a reentry, as I
would be coming back from Tibet in a week. But I almost
forgot, and it might have been much more difficult and expensive to
get straightened out on the way back in. Outside the airport,
hotel and guesthouse hopefuls blanketed one side of the arrivals
area with colorful painted signs, and long tired faces.
Flying into Kathmandu, the valley area surrounded by rocky
landscapes had looked a little brown, but vegetated. Driving into
the city, however, gave a very different impression, as the roads
and urban surroundings were immensely dry and dusty. As this was the
end of the dry season, it made you think with the coming monsoons,
that substantial parts of the city would be washed away in an
Driving up the private little road, my hotel was impressive.
Preceded by a lush manicured and flowering lawn, it was in such direct contrast
to what we saw driving into the city. However, once inside, the
place seemed more haunted than palatial, as almost all the lights
had been turned off to save electricity. It appeared that I
was the only guest in the hotel, as the massacre of the royal family
a few weeks before was only the latest blow to an already suffering
I didn’t mind. The staff was friendly and attentive, the room was
spacious and had an air conditioner, and they even had room service
(traditional Nepalese food, hamburgers which were not that bad, and
ketchup that had a strange and heavy sweet taste). At night though,
it was a little weird to come back to that place and walk down the
darkened slightly musty corridors to my room. I felt like I was in
an old episode of the “Ghost and Mrs Muir”.
After my week of respite in Hong Kong, and lunch at the Yak and Yeti Hotel
under a mural of the Manhattan skyline, I felt rejuvenated and ready
to explore again. So immediately after I arrived, I inquired about renting a
motorcycle to better explore the city. I went into Thamal to
Restaurants and internet in Thamal, the old tourist center of Kathmandu.
Thamal is the touristy older section of
Kathmandu, full of dusty winding alleys and interesting shops. Judging
from Thamal alone, you would think that tourism was Kathmandu’s only
industry. English signs and tourist-oriented establishments were
everywhere – restaurants, bars, souvenir shops, t-shirts, climbing
supplies, internet cafes, and currency exchange booths lined both
sides of every alley.
And after a visit to a local bike shop, and for about $12 a day, I was mobile. (Although the idle on my
bike was a little off, so I had to keep the engine slightly revved
with the throttle to keep it from stalling out.)
it was much easier to see the greater whole that was Kathmandu. On
my bike, I rode past the Thundikhel, a large park in the center
of the city (a little overgrown, but really a beautiful city center).
Under the minaret-styled Bhimsen Tower and a backdrop of mountains
beyond, the Thundikhel was a meeting point, a playground, and a
place for a short walk or respite away from the incessant traffic.
Boys played soccer, teens and young adults gathered under trees with
their motorcycles, girls enjoyed ice cream, families strolled along
the central dirt path, and a young boy was taking a dump in the tall
My guide was worried about me wanting to rent a motorcycle,
partly from the risk of an accident, but also from the risk of areas
that could be potentially unsafe. In Thamal, I didn’t feel any
danger at all, but riding north out of the city to the Budhanikantha
(sleeping Buddha), I did feel a certain tension.
The landscape was beautiful – lush green fields
under clear blue skies, punctuated by dusty roads and
crowded littered village centers. But trying to find the turnoff for the
Budhanilkhantha shrine was a little difficult, and I went up a few rural dead-ends. Darkness
was approaching and groups of idle young men watched my progress from afar. At
least I wore a helmet, so it was not as obvious (perhaps) that I was
a total outsider.
It was close to one turnoff, at the gates to a village, and over a crowded bus stop, that I saw it, and a chill went up my spine. At first I wasn’t sure if it was just an effigy or a real body wrapped in a white sheet. But it hung heavy and limp over the gates, and twisted slowly in the light evening breeze.
I wanted to stop and take a picture, but the sun was going down, and I
didn’t want to take my chances with so many people around.
the warnings and tension I had noted but discounted, the sight of
the effigy brought home potential dangers in a powerful emotional
way. Staying clear of groups of loitering restless youths was one
thing. I began to think that this might be something totally
different. So I turned around and headed for home as the sun dropped
below the horizon.
For tons more pictures of Paul’s time in Nepal and Tibet, and the rest of his Asia Journal, go to his web site.
If you want more information about this area you can email the author or check out our Asia Insiders page.