Boudha stupa, Kathmandu, Nepal.
Yesterday I returned to St. Petersburg and the seasonal depression of the Russian winter. Snow fell like flour and was churned to wet dough by boots. The icy sidewalks were like Antarctic landscapes under the duress of climate change, krevasses under puddles. A woman handed out pamphlets advertising the St. Petersburg debut of UGG boots.
I immediately missed Nepal and its shady-garden-in-summer climate, its slow pace of life, its lack of rules and worldly concerns. I thought again about this “landlocked nation between the world’s two largest countries,” and the enigma of its appeal.
But in light of my trip, I’ve often thought about this appeal. What is it? What exactly is Nepal?
A pastoral scene in Pokhara.
Nepal is the calm after the shitstorm that is India, the Hindu cow who chews its cud lackadaisically in the face of India’s screeching, scratching temple monkey. Nepal is the Valium lull after the cocaine rush of India; if India looks like a page torn out of “Where’s Waldo?”, Nepal is a page from “Hello, Moon.” Nepal is so peaceful it can be stifling, India is so frenetic it exhilarates you even as the stress wears holes in your stomach lining.
Nepal is the bandh, a small pile of burning tires or blockade that stops up traffic to one side of the country for the day. We sat in one dusty town for eight hours on the way to Pokhara after some young commies (Youth Communist League) set a bandh to protest the suicide of a villager whose husband beat her. And it certainly did raise awareness. For example, it raised my awareness that rural Nepal is a dull place to spend an afternoon.
Nepal is a place where wealth is scarce but time is overabundant among the hut-bound set. These magnates of the hours spend recklessly, sitting and gossiping, waiting for something to happen along the route through their roadside village. With such expectations, the bandh in Pokhara was practically a Fourth-of-July parade and fireworks show in one go; folks pulled out lawn chairs and watched the traffic stand still. For eight hours.
A Tharhu villager in Chitwan National Park.
Nepal is a land of cheap labor and expensive tastes. In other words, a recipe for bitchy expats. White foreigners live like Mem Sahibs, yawning and bitching as wait staff cater their luxurious existence. They only stop to complain that their boy serves them, well, so servant-like. Can’t he learn to take the clothes out and serve breakfast without bowing all the time?
Nepal is a land of white people with backpacks, hiking from teahouse to teahouse, lodge to lodge, on their way through one of the country’s circuits of breathtaking views and steep ascents. The Annapurna circuit. The Everest trek. The Langtuan trail. The villagers look on bemusedly as these bideshis put themselves through the hardships of the trail voluntarily. Sure, it’s beautiful, but why would you leave the comfort of modernity to walk to some godforsaken peak?
Nepal is the thickset, deadly serious Indian tourist who strode purposefully over to my seat on the airplane, leaned over me, and started snapping photos of the Himalayas as they crested over the wing. Nepal is me itching to get my own camera out, fretting but then sitting back in complacent acceptance that it’s just not worth it.
Nepal is a cultural and religious blender on low speed, a place where Buddhists observe Hindu holidays and paint a third eye on their foreheads even as Hindus meditate and spin Tibetan prayer wheels.
Durbar square, Patan, Kathmandu.
Nepal is way too many guys who spend way too much time with their guitars and then play way too many classic rock covers in bars for expats and tourists. I will forever associate Kathmandu with “Susie Q” and “Eye of the Tiger” as a result. It’s a wonder how they find time to rehearse, what with the load-shedding (scheduled loss of power to different neighborhoods, by turn). They must have to get generators for their amps, or just hire street urchins to pedal some sort of turbine.
Nepal is riding on the roof of a bus when there’s no room inside, white-knuckle tight on the baggage rack as it rounds cliff-top corners and navigates narrow mountain roads.
Terraced farmland on the way to the village of Sakhu in the Kathmandu valley.
Nepal is snowy peaks and foggy jungles, placid lakes and burnt shrubland. It’s a place of freedom and beauty that now and then has electricity or hot water.