Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Namaste Nepal!

"Stand behind the yellow line" shouted the guard at Chinese customs in Kodari, the Himalayan border town between the People's Republic of China (aka Tibet) and Nepal. Our passports and Tibetan permits were being checked for the third time that morning and our bags thoroughly searched. I'm not sure for what exactly since whatever we might have had, we were taking it out of the country anyway; not their problem any more. Formalities finally over, after two hours of waiting around, Chris and I finally said goodbye to our lovely Tibetan guide Lakpa and set out on our own over the 'friendship bridge' that crosses the Bhote Koshi river, the natural divide between the two countries. Two Chinese soldiers flanked the bridge on either side  ceremoniously marking our exit.

We followed a group of North Face clad climbing types over the bridge and down what can only be described as a dirt track piled high with rubbish, lined with tea shops and kiosks and crowded with people, cows, dogs and multicoloured Tata trucks belching black smoke. Here we almost missed what was simply a little shack serving as the Nepalese version of customs. "Namaste, welcome to Nepal, you need visa?" yelled a smiling face behind the counter, over the hoards of people crammed haphazardly into the tiny space - it was a different universe from the cold efficiency we had just experienced and one we were both extremely happy to have stumbled upon. We both looked at each other and felt the tension drain away - it was good to be under our own steam again and we felt free.

Our tour from Tibet included a transfer from the border to Kathmandu. We had organised it through a Nepalese company recommended by a family friend of mine and Gyalzen, our contact there, had kindly made the five hour drive from the capital to come to meet us himself rather than simply sending the car. He greeted us with a a beaming smile  and chatted away to us as we set off on our way, away from the border. This set the tone for the kindness and hospitality that was shown to us, unwaveringly, throughout our time in this magical land.

The differences between two places that are simply divided by a river, or what is nothing more than an invisible line drawn on a map never fail to amaze me. Interestingly enough the first time I experienced such stark contrasts was on a road trip from Switzerland to Italy, or should I say from the infamous Swiss efficiency to utter Italian chaos. This experience was similar and you can probably tell which side I preferred, on both occasions! Paved roads gave way to dirt track, Land Rover from 2008 to an old 1970's model, slick driver with fake iphone 4 to an elderly, traditionally dressed Nepalese gentleman complete with 'Dhaka topi' (Nepalese hat). The houses on the sides of the road were nothing more than thrown together huts, with corrugated iron roofs; roads were full of life, literally. Cows, dogs, chickens, children playing and waving; all of the nervous tension and silent suppression we had felt in Tibet melted away as life spilled out onto the streets for all to see. Confronted with such openness I felt a warm rush of happiness and affinity with my surroundings that, if I'm honest, the trip hadn't afforded me until that moment, or at least since Mongolia.

Having been to India many times before and feeling very much at home there, Nepal felt just like coming back to see a long lost friend. The same smells, the same chaos, the same buses crammed with people, on the roof and all, the same smiling faces, the same stunning scenery, the same cacophony of sounds, smells and spectacles on every street corner, yet all of this with a unique feeling all of it's own. A sincerity and laid back nature was apparent from the outset, something that is often lacking from its bigger and noisier neighbour- I have fallen in love with Nepal at first sight.

The drive from the border was one of the most spectacular journeys I think I have ever taken. Perhaps its beauty was emphasised by the fact that from the beginning of our journey in Russia we have been presented with largely barren landscapes, magnificent in their own ways, but so vast and unyielding that the dramatic changes we encountered in the form of rain forest, gushing rivers, steaming waterfalls, rice paddies climbing up the hill sides, snowy peaks  and more made for a visual feast that we devoured readily. It had me itching to get out there and explore the countryside on foot, bike, raft. You name it, you can do it in Nepal! Chris and I were incredibly excited by it all and set off to Pokhara as quickly as possible for our first fix of the outdoors in this spectacular country.

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