The Last Leg / by David Johnstone

North East India to Nepal

FRIDAY 4TH TO SUNDAY 6TH MAY 2018 - KOHIMA TO KATHMANDU VIA KOLKATA

As the rains set in over North East India, it was time to move on and avoid the ensuing deluge. Next day I hooked up with Vee once again, taking a 3 hour journey by local taxi on the broken, dusty, ‘under construction’ road from Kohima to Dimapur to catch a flight to Kolkata, overnighting there before flying on to Kathmandu, Nepal.

Storms delayed the flight from Dimapur  

Storms delayed the flight from Dimapur  

Before boarding, the heavens let loose, the sky darkening ominously with lightning illuminating the thick, low-lying black clouds and rain pelting the aircraft. The now delayed flight was pretty bumpy and a little uncomfortable, nothing drastic but I was glad to see the cityscape of Kolkata basked in late afternoon sunlight below. It’s amazing how tidy a city looks from above despite it being a shithole on the ground. This was my first time in what I consider mainland India - the North East, with it’s mix of tribal people and customs, seemed like a completely different country.

The overnight in Kolkata was pretty uneventful. The ‘hotel’ was cheap but dirty, the local lads who ran it soporific perhaps, in small part, due to the intense heat. At this time of year, just before the monsoon rains arrive, the place super-heats and it was approaching 40 degrees with very high humidity. On the outskirts and some 6 miles from the airport, I’d never considered visiting the heart of this mega-city - I’d seen enough of Dhaka to scrub places like Kolkata, Delhi and Mumbai off any future bucket list. I sat up late watching the IPL cricket, drinking beer and smoking weed with a couple of the boys before heading to my filthy air-conditioned room.

Making the most of Duty Free at Kolkata 

Making the most of Duty Free at Kolkata 

It was a real broiler next morning and Vee and I split from the dump pretty sharpish, arriving at the airport early with the intense heat forcing us indoors.

Ah, the joy of Duty Free!

Like a kid in a sweet shop and after months of either no alcohol or under the counter boozing I was wide-eyed walking around, ruminating over rums, flirting with the wine, eyeing up the gin, toying with the liqueurs. Loaded with booze and fags, I headed out to catch the flight to Nepal, stopping off for a quick pint - a draught beer - possibly my first since I left England in December.

 

INTO NEPAL

Despite the disappointment of missing out on Mizoram, Manipur and Arunachel in the North East due to the weather, I was excited to be heading towards Kathmandu, making Nepal my final stop before heading (somewhat reluctantly) back home. As a major tourist destination, it would be full of bars and restaurants serving up whatever one fancies. After months of the standard fare of curry, dhal, chapati and rice (which was generally very good) I was salivating at the thought of spaghetti bolognese, capricciosa pizza and cheese toasties. The plane glided gently into Nepal, framed beautifully by the Himalayas and, once I’d made it through customs with a 90 day visa (just in case), I was soon heading towards Thamel, the tourist area of Kathmandu. 

The plan was to stay two nights there then head west to Pokhara - another tourist destination - where I’d booked an AirBnB apartment for two weeks on Phewa Lake. Whilst Kathmandu is the gateway to several Himalayan ranges, including Everest, Pokhara principally serves the trekking routes of the Annapurna Himal. I had no real desire to go hiking, intending only to relax and rest up. I’ll leave that and visits to the national parks and pristine lakes to the west for another time for sure.

Having giddily drunk the best part of a half litre of rum between us, Vee and I headed out for wine (my first glass of the year!) and a stonking dinner. Jesus, there couldn’t have been a greater contrast between Kathmandu and Kohima, it was like a free-for-all, every shop in sight selling liquor and hundreds of restaurants selling a vast array of Western food. And there were tourists, lots of them, despite it coming into the off-season. It was an eye opener seeing so many white faces again, even a little disconcerting. It no longer felt like travelling, more a holiday.

BLOOD AND THUNDER 

Besides it’s worldwide reputation for the stunning Himalayas and Mount Everest, this small nation has recently been in the headlines for somewhat different reasons.

Nepal was once a monarchical dynasty. But the events of 2001 brought about the beginning of the end of their 240 year rule.

High on booze and hashish and after a petty squabble with his father (King Birendra), Crown Prince Dipendra rudely interrupted dinner by massacring his entire family. Once the bloodbath was over, 10 members of the royal brood lay slain. Despite an official enquiry which ludicrously said the events were an ‘accident’, King Gyanendra assumed power and dissolved parliament, dismissed the government and took direct control of the country citing the ongoing Maoist insurgency. Fortunately, by 2006, democracy was restored and by 2008, parliament abolished the monarchy altogether. 

Events of a quite different nature afflicted the country in April and May 2015.

A 7.8 magnitude earthquake devastated the Kathmandu Valley leaving some 8,500 people dead and crippling the lives of an already poor country. At an estimated economic cost of $10bn, nearly half the GDP of the country, Nepal is still struggling to come to terms with the damage, loss of life and livelihood and the subsequent downturn in tourism which constitutes 10% of it’s economy and employs at least 4% of the country’s population.

Whilst you could see the effects of the disaster in Kathmandu itself, Pokhara was largely unaffected, being some distance from the epicentre and built on rock rather than clay. 

 

ROOM WITH A VIEW - MONDAY 7TH MAY TO SATURDAY 9TH JUNE 2018

I was looking forward to arriving in Pokhara but first had to navigate a 9 hour bus journey to get there though the roads were remarkably good. Heading west, you could feel the thermometer rise. Monsoon season not only brings heavy rain but baking daytime temperatures as well as being uncomfortable at nighttime.

Arriving by cab to the Lakeside area of town, I was met by my host Ajit, a convivial chap of around 30, a Liverpool fanatic who spoke excellent English (nothing against Scousers incidentally). Climbing a lengthy flight of stairs, I was shown to my apartment where I could chill and even cook for the next fortnight. The room itself was fine - clean, tidy and all I needed for the £17 per night I’d paid. But the view was just divine. Overlooking the forested lake and with Fishing Eagle, Parakeets and Lesser Egrets abound, I was more than happy.

The room is, however, unbearably hot. With no air-conditioning and some paltry fans to cool me down the heat is quite something and it’s hard to garner the energy to do anything but sit on the bed surrounded by fans and wilt, post-lunch. The balcony during the day has full-on sun with the UV at the extreme end of the scale. Sunbathing weather only on a spitroast. Early morning and early evening offers some respite though not a lot. The apartment is equipped with a hot shower powered by solar panelling though it’s the last thing one needs. Indeed the cold water is, at best, tepid and as soon as you step out you feel like you need to jump back in again. It got so hot the other day I was actually having a ‘cold’ shower thinking ‘I need a cold shower’!

The beautiful Phewa Lake

The beautiful Phewa Lake

The intense heat, even when cloud arrives (only the rain brings relief though it’s mostly falling at night) has also put paid to seeing the full majesty of the Annapurna mountain range which can be seen from the town when the monsoon ends in September and Nepal enters it’s winter, peak season. You occasionally catch a morning glimpse of these spectacular snow-filled mountains looming in the distance but they soon vanish under the heat haze and cloud.  Every local I’ve spoken to mentions climate change, responsible for the intense temperatures, low visibility and decreasing rainfall. And if any area on the planet is going to suffer from environmental change it’s here. As glaciers melt in the high Himalaya the full force will be felt in the hills and plains below. Coupled with the usual deforestation - 70% of forests have been cut down - and poverty it’s one to watch.

Pokhara, like Thamel in Kathmandu, is full of the now ubiquitous restaurants, hotels, trekking shops selling fake copies of everything from sleeping bags to hiking boots along with jewellery shops, yoga and alternative therapy joints, decent supermarkets, booze shops, small pharmacies, bakers, trekking and paragliding agencies and bookshops. And it ain’t cheap. A litre of milk sets you back almost £2 and a draught beer is getting close to £4. Still, there’s good food to be had and lots of it. It’s a nice change to be able to select where and what to eat from breakfast through to dinner and have a different cuisine every time.

 

BEGNAS & RUPA LAKES - FRIDAY 18TH MAY & SATURDAY 19TH MAY 2018

Eventually, getting off my lazy arse, I set off by local bus and headed to a quieter spot, Begnas Lake, some 60 minutes away, for the weekend. I’d booked a local hotel with nice views apparently. Unfortunately it resembled Castle Greyskull, perched obtrusively on a hillside, ugly against it’s natural surroundings. The staff weren’t exactly attentive either. Thankfully Vee had arrived the day before with a scooter so after a long, lazy lunch right by the lake, we took a spin up and around the hills, stopping off at small hamlets completely removed from the touristic noise of Pokhara. Give it 5 years.

UP, UP IN THE AIR

At last summoning the energy, I took a kayak out on the lake one day and booked a paraglide for the next. Being petrified of even simple fairground rides these days (the Octopus on Brighton Pier gives me nightmares) this could end up being a very bad decision. 

At 9.30am we headed towards our jumping off point at Sarangkot, the valley and lake getting ever smaller. I awaited my turn and, watching the people before me take off and propel quickly upwards gave me second thoughts. I can’t do this! Surely I’ve got to do this!?

I met my pilot, Demol, got strapped in and waited my turn nervously. Very fucking nervously.

”Ok, when I say walk, walk. And when I say run, run.” 

The wind had dissipated and the parachute lay forlornly behind us, stretched out like a shrouded corpse in a morgue. A sudden gust appeared out of nowhere, Demol raised the parachute and shouted, 

”Walk!”

”Runnnnnn!!!” 

And with it we were lifted into the air like a magic carpet.

Nothing quite prepares you for something so utterly alien. Here I was, strapped in like a big baby in a buggy with a bloke half my age who I’d only just met with my life in his hands, gliding over the forests and paddies below, with my feet twitching spontaneously as if they’d never been part of my body and my hands clinging on the ropes making my arms ache.

Up, up, up!  

   Circling the thermals.

Up, up, up!

       Like Fishing Eagles.

Up, up, up!

          Into the clouds. 

Up, up, up!

             Towards the sun. 

Up, up, up!

                  Icarus.

Demol thrust the GoPro camera stick into my hands. I could barely hold it at first. Don’t look down. What ever you do, don’t look fucking down!

The thermals strong. Nerves shredding. But I was loving it. Still no sign of the Annapurna Range. Too much haze. Fuck it, I’ll have to come back and do it all over again.

30 minutes glided by. We floated over Phewa lake. Over the tiny fishing boats below. 

”Shall we do some tricks now?” 

”I’d rather you didn’t.” 

He did anyway. 

Like a feather we gently, lovingly fell to earth. Where I belong.

As terrifying as it was exhilarating. I was happy to be home.

PEOPLE & PLACE

So, as I depart Pokhara for Kathmandu - I’ve extended my stay at the apartment by a further 20 days with a reduced rate of $15 a night - and my final weekend travelling, this section is a work in progress. I’ll add to it. My aim is to compile some portraiture and, hopefully, get a view of the Himalayas.  I’ve been waiting for a few days to pick up a helicopter to take me on an excursion to Annapurna Basecamp (ABC) but, despite the early morning waits, the weather is either unsuitable this side or at the landing point in the mountains.

It looks likely I’ll have to take a girocopter instead, a one seater job. This won’t land but will give me a bird’s eye view of the mountains. Expensive but an amazing experience I’m sure and a fitting way to complete my trip.

I’ll keep you posted.