THE FAR HORIZONS
CHAPTER 7. NEPAL AND NAGARKOT
The frontier checkpoint at Raxaul was a comic opera with an Indian flavour. First we had difficulty in finding it in an early-morning mist and then the only official arrived late and was horrified to find his office under casual occupation by ourselves, two Canadians, two Germans, and a disheveled beatnick of dubious origin who had all arrived on the same train.
The office door had been open and we had already found and distributed the usual forms which had to be filled, and if he had left his rubber stamps handy we could have stamped our own passports and carried on. Naturally he had to make more important scribblings in big black ledgers, but this confused official couldn't even find a pen.
I loaned him one, and then he discovered that all our forms had been filled in wrong. It appeared that our port or embarkation was Katmandu, and our port of disembarkation was Benares. It didn't matter that we were all going in the opposite direction. This was the way we had to complete the forms. I had to ask for my pen back and start again, and he was continuously borrowing and returning pens as the farce went on.
Margaret and I were the first to get away and we walked hopefully through the mist until we found a little stone sentry hut that was the Nepalese checkpoint. Duplicate forms later we moved on to a larger customs building and after more duplicate forms we were released into Nepal.
We travelled the 128 miles to Katmandu in a coal truck, which cost ten rupees for the privilege or sitting in the cab with the slim, young Sikh driver. The remaining travelers who came through behind us rode on top of the coal in the back at a reduced fare of eight rupees. The truck was a ramshackle old wreck that creaked and rattled in every joint but the Sikh proved to be an excellent driver.
We had to wait for an unexplained hour at a petrol station but when the truck finally lurched north the mist had cleared and the sun was shining strongly. Once clear of the confusing mass of rickshaws, bicycles, pedestrians and bullock carts that jammed the town the road became a broken-edged strip of one-lane tarmac. On either side were flat fields of green cane or golden corn, but these soon gave way to tangled forest, lush and sub-tropical, with dark, shadowed depths.
Soon the road began to climb upwards into ragged green hills, twisting and winding in a great series of perfect loops. For every thousand feet we gained in height we must have covered miles back and forth, and there were tremendous views; great forested hills and valleys, dotted with little native huts which looked as though at any moment they must overbalance and tumble down from their lofty perches. The road climbed into the clouds, where the air was damp and chilly and the scene became shrouded in more dense, grey mist. Then at eight thousand feet we were above the cloud, and the sunlight sketched different shades of green into the tree-tops groping up through the thinning vapor. Here we found two more trucks crumpled nose-to- nose astride a narrow bridge, and our truck had to swing down into the muddy stream bed to get past.
All afternoon the truck ground slowly onwards, with our Sikh driver continuously hauling the wheel from full-lock left to full-lock right to steer us around the wicked bends. Fog- filled valleys dropped away sheer on every side, but at last we crossed the mist-sodden ranges and began to descend. Far ahead of us the Himalayas suddenly appeared, the peaks floating like a line or great jagged icebergs half submerged in the grey-white sea of cloud.
The failing light gradually hid the peaks from view in a starry bowl of blackness, but still our truck lurched and swayed above the precipitous drops with the silent Sikh wrestling impassively with the wheel. The dim glow of our headlights reflected dirt hillside on one side and black space on the other, with the dirt track road winding endlessly ahead. Twice we had to crash and bounce our way over half-cleared falls of rock and earth. The cab was cold and draughty and we were both tired, and Margaret tried to sleep on my shoulder as we huddled close in our Afghani fur coats.
Finally we stopped for the night before a dimly-lighted tea house, and our driver managed to make us understand that further on there was a police cheek-post through which we would not be able to pass until morning. The tea house was merely a thatched hut, with bare wooden tables and benches and a dirt floor, but here we got a reasonably satisfying meal of vegetables and rice. For sleeping quarters we were offered floor space in a similar hut on the opposite side or the road. A flickering candle was the only light, which showed a ceiling of bamboos and a dirt floor covered with sleeping bodies, most of them Sikhs, cuddled up under blankets in pairs. However, it was too cold to sleep out and so we found ourselves an empty corner. Margaret slept between myself and the wall, but nobody bothered either of us.
It was still dark when our Sikh driver roused us the next morning, but by the time we had all assembled back at the truck the dawn was clearly established. We found that the wild forests were far behind us and that the wide valley to our left was flanked with cultivated plots of terraced red earth. The Himalayas were visible beyond a range of red mountains, and the ice peaks were now sharp and forbidding, and made even more frigid by the cold light of early day.
During the last twenty miles of that memorable ride it seemed as though the truck was at times attempting to climb clear into the blue sky, but at last the road began to descend again and was swallowed by more mist as we entered the Kathmandu valley at four thousand feet. We later found that at this time of year every morning in Kathmandu dawned drenched in mist but it rapidly cleared into bright, sunny days. Only the nights were cold.
When we parted from the truck we found a bicycle rickshaw to carry us through the fog to the Globe. This was a cheap little restaurant that was well known as a gathering place for hitch-hikers and travelers. In Delhi we had even been advised to ask here for Jesus Christ, known to his intimate friends as JC, and king of the beatnicks. However, we saw no sign of this character, or of the beatnick colony that was supposed to be flourishing.
According to rumor a world convention of beats had been planned in Katmandu for Christmas, but the Nepalese Government had hurriedly opposed the idea and stopped extending their visa permits. The convention barely gained enough motion to flop and when we arrived the beats had dispersed.
However, we did find Doug, Dick and George, now minus Dilys who had left them and gone south to Bombay. They were staying at a cheap hotel named Tourist Corner, and we were able to get beds there also for five shillings a night.
Kathmandu was a complex jumble of narrow streets and threading lanes, with pagoda-styled Nepalese temples at every turn. Mostly they were made of wood, covered with brightly painted carvings and rising in one, two, or three graceful tiers with elegant pointed spires. There were hundreds of them, ranging from a whole cluster of large, colorful pagodas close by the Palace Square, to cranky little weathered shrines parked in odd courtyards and corners. The corner struts supporting the wide, overhanging eaves were always carved into the shape of bright sea horses, and the smaller carved panels that surrounded the buildings below the eaves were always erotic. One explanation we were given for these repeated little sexual scenes was that they were there to tempt the holy men; the theory being that any holy man who found them interesting would obviously be in great need of more prayer and purification. I suspect more humor than truth in that particular tale, but after studying the carvings intently I decided that I personally would never make a holy man.
Near the Palace Square there was also the huge figure of Kal Bhairav, the God of Terror, looking far too much like a big black golliwog to be really frightening. Stone dragons and lions often guarded the temple courtyards, and in one sheltered courtyard a score of cheerful little Nepalese congregated every night to sit cross-legged and sing and recite the poetry of God. They had a small piano, and accordion, skin-topped drums and tiny brass cymbals; plus yellowed volumes of the Vedas and a plentiful supply of hashish.
Nearly all of the shops and buildings in Katmandu seemed to be basically made of wood, and many of them looked as though they too might have originally been temples. Often ancient, rickety and untidy they were always fascinating and picturesque. The wriggling streets were full of slowly moving cows, rickshaws, bicycles and people. The Nepalese were a very small race, cheerful and hard-working, with flat foreheads and narrowed eyes that make them look basically oriental. The women were very colorfully dressed, and like their Indian sisters the married women usually wore a small jewel in one nostril. All around the main square, usually on the temple steps, the peasants from the fields brought their baskets of fruit and vegetables, and large bundles of cut firewood which they offered for sale.
There were two more small cities in the flat Kathmandu valley, the neighboring cities of Patan and Bhadgaon. We visited both and found them very similar to Kathmandu itself, which meant that they too were a joy to explore. In Bhadgaon stands the magnificent Nyatapola Temple, said to be the finest example of pagoda architecture in Nepal. Built upon five rising terraces of stone the temple soars up through five stories of sloping eaves to a final golden spire. The approaching steps up the terraces are guarded at each level by pairs of stone gods, elephants and lions.
Most of these pagoda temples seemed to be basically Hindu but the religion of Nepal is a complex blend of Hinduism and Buddhism, and there were a few pure Buddhist temples. The finest example was the Swayambhunath Temple situated on a wooded hill top inhabited by playful monkeys some two miles west of Kathmandu city. It was a long climb up seemingly endless steps, and as we neared the top we could hear the rhythmic boom of a heavy gong. Cymbals crashed in the background and a bell clanged dully. The temple was the usual Nepalese-Buddhist design, a huge white dome with a short square tower, and finally a rising conical spire. The all-seeing eyes of Lord Bhddha were painted on all four sides of the tower, gazing out in all directions over the valley, and the spire was plated with gold.
We traced the solemn music to a large room beside the central dome and found inside a beautiful golden statue of Buddha. Here half a dozen small boys in monk-brown robes sat and steadily intoned prayers in a continuous chant; the end boy in each row dutifully struck the gongs at regular intervals, and before we left they all picked up long trumpets and blew slow, mournful and unmusical notes.
One real joy of Kathmandu was that we were free of vegetarian India. We could enjoy tasty meals again. The little restaurants like the Globe, the Rhino, the New Tibetan and the Tibetan Blue, all did excellent buffalo steaks, rich soups, kidneys and liver with fried onions, and marvelous honeyed pancakes. It was worth the journey just to escape from leather chapattis and tasteless vegetable curries.
It was in the New Tibetan that we held a final drinking session with Doug the night before he departed from Kathmandu. Dick and George had left soon after we arrived so there were only the three of us, Doug, Margaret and myself. The party soon swelled to five as we became friendly with a westernized Indian named David and a young Ghurka, an ex corporal from the British Army named TB Lamma. David was boisterous and expansively drunk, while the Ghurka hid a king-sized inferiority complex because his training and profession had left him fit for nothing but fighting and killing, and he was depressively drunk. We were drinking Nepalese imitations of whisky and rum which was all raw firewater, and soon we too were cheerfully far from being sober.
Doug had some vague plans for working on the tea plantations in Assam for a few years, for he had had some experience of farm management back home in Scotland, and lo and behold, it appeared that David's home town was Darjeeling. As soon as the facts were known the Indian began writing sheaves of introductory letters on odd scraps of paper, which Doug was to take with him as the keys to Darjeeling high society. It was all too hilarious to refuse, and Doug was solemnly told to take one tattered letter into the office of the Assistant Commissioner of Police in Calcutta, ask for that gentleman by the name of “Ozzie”, and add the magic words, “David sent me.” “Ozzie” would then provide Doug with personal introductions to all the top tea planters in Assam. The Indian was wholly serious with his advice and Doug was trying hard to be polite and grateful. I kept a straight face with utmost difficulty, while Margaret subsided at least once under the table where I could hear her spluttering tears of laughter into her whisky.
However, the night was young, and while David scribbled and waved his hands expressively, T.B. Lamma was still apologizing for the fact that he was only a Ghurka and fit only for war. Finally he spotted a big, dark-faced Bengali Indian at the next table who, he decided ominously, was staring at him, and so he went across to have words. It was too early to start fighting, although this was not to last, and he brought the Bengali back as a bosom friend to join our table.
About an hour, and a great many rums and whiskies, later, Margaret suddenly decided that she needed air. I let her go outside but after a few minutes I followed after her. As I had expected I found her leaning against the wall half way along the alleyway, undecided as to whether or not she wanted to be sick. It was obviously time to take her home, but first I had to go back into the New Tibetan to settle our bill.
It was while I was paying at the desk that uproar and merry hell broke out behind me. The big Bengali had taken offence at something, (Nobody ever found out exactly what it was), and without warning swung a hefty punch at T.B. Lamma’s jaw. It connected squarely and I turned just in time to see the table go over and the Ghurka go crashing backwards. Almost instantly T.B. was up again and hurling himself at his bigger opponent, but in the general scramble David and half a dozen combined customers and waiters caught him off balance and bundled him through the door which was promptly slammed and locked. Half of the peace-makers were also shut on the outside, and we could hear them shouting and yelling as T.B. screamed blood, death and murder, and did his damnedest to kick the door down. Inside David was trying to pacify the babbling Tibetan manager of the restaurant, and Doug was squaring up to take a crack at the Bengali because he thought T.B. had been unfairly treated.
I was torn between divided loyalties, but Doug was fairly capable of taking care of himself, which was more than could be said for Margaret who was still somewhere out in the alleyway where the raging Ghurka was fighting off his would-be restrainers. I went looking for her first and had to practically fight the manager to get the door open again. Fortunately the argument outside had moved away down the alley, and I was shoved out almost as fast as the Ghurka had been, and the door again slammed behind me. The only snag then was that Margaret had vanished.
I guessed that she had probably headed back towards Tourist Corner but I had to chase her all the way back before I caught up with her. A Nepalese student who had attached himself to our party during the latter stages of the evening had found her before me and helped her to get home. She had sobered up somewhat, and once I was sure that she was safe I paused just long enough to throw off my coat and then raced back to the New Tibetan.
I found the alleyway silent and empty, and the restaurant closed. There was no sign of Doug and I had horrible visions of finding him carved-up in a corner somewhere. I searched around in circles, cursing Margaret for causing me to waste so much time, and eventually found T.B. still on the rampage and looking for the Bengali. He was still uttering lurid threats to kill the man if he could find him, and was arguing with David and a dozen others. I pushed into the middle of the group, ignoring the hangers-on on the fringe of the alley who insisted that there was going to be bloodshed and that I should go away. Doug wasn't there but I managed to grab hold of David. The Indian had no idea of what had happened to Doug or the Bengali so I left the group still jabbering violently in the night.
I checked Tourist Corner again, and found Margaret soundly asleep but no sign of Doug. Back again I went to the New Tibetan, groping my way into every black alley mouth, but still no sign of Doug. Finally I battered on the restaurant door, determined to find out what had happened after I had left. The Tibetan manager nervously put his head out and reluctantly allowed me inside. And there was Doug, happily downing another glass of rum with a new party going in the back room. It appeared that the Bengali had been hustled out by a back route before anyone could fight him, and apart from T.B. still roaming the streets bent on vengeance our little drama had fizzled out. Whether the Ghurka ever found his quarry we never knew, and I for one didn't care, after all that running about I called for another whisky and relaxed.
That should have been enough entertainment for one night, but from pantomime to drama the scale events shifted back to pantomime again. The Nepalese student who had helped Margaret to find her way back to Tourist Corner had seriously decided, all in the space of five minutes, that he was passionately in love with her. He made this solemn confession after the harassed manager had finally begged us to leave in the early hours of the morning, and earnestly asked for our advice on how to woo, win and marry her.
After we had straightened our faces Doug gently explained that Margaret was going to marry me, which was another lie but seemed the best way of getting rid of our lovesick friend. Lovesick listened miserably with his lip visibly trembling, and then threw his arms around Doug’s shoulders and sobbed bitterly. We tried to cheer him up by telling him how pretty the Nepalese girls were, and how there were plenty about, and finally he straightened up to offer me tearful congratulations and a very unsteady hand. I shook it firmly and then he promptly collapsed again and wept on my shoulder.
We spent the next half hour in pushing him off, slapping him manfully on the shoulder, and expounding solemn, drunken philosophies on the subjects of love, life and women “.......it happens to the best of us......time cures all......not the end of the world.......take it like a man, old son.......ect, ect, ect!” Lovesick listened dejectedly to all of this old rubbish, and was continuously and weakly shaking our hands. He finally stumbled away with bowed head and slumped, jerking shoulders, a picture of ultimate misery. I was almost helpless with mirth, but Doug insisted that we shouldn't laugh in case it upset Lovesick enough to go home and commit suicide.
Very unsteadily we made our own way back towards Tourist Corner, but after a couple of minutes we realized that Lovesick had turned back to follow us. He wanted to cry on my shoulder again and finally we lost patience, for after all there is a limit to how long you can put up with an emotional fool who insists upon weeping all through the night. We told him somewhat bluntly to take himself elsewhere, and at this point Lovesick begged us pitifully to kill him. He had noticed that I was carrying my sheath knife on my belt and insisted that I put him out of his pain. In ultimate exasperation I was sorely tempted, but being British and all that we settled the matter by picking him up bodily and throwing him hard over the nearest wall. He landed in a bush but didn't reappear, and after that it became funny again. Doug and I chuckled all the way back to Tourist Corner, where the object of Lovesick's helpless affections was still blissfully asleep.
The next morning Doug made a heroic effort to get up at six am and left for the airport complete with rucksack and a large hangover to catch a plane south to Patna. However, before we left Kathmandu Margaret and I intended to make the two day excursion to Nagarkot, a scenic vantage point some eighteen males north of the city, where there was a magnificent view of the snow-capped Himalayas. The first part of the journey was by bus to Bhadgaon, but from there we had to walk the last nine miles to the top of the Nagarkot ridge, a climb from four to over seven thousand feet.
It was ten o'clock when the bus set us down in Bhadgaon, and here we could have happily browsed for hours amid the confusion of elaborately carved temples and buildings. There were Nepalese women washing clothes in a square lake, and wherever there was room heaped carpets of golden corn grain were spread out to ripen in the sun. However, we resisted the temptation to linger and walked through and out of the small city.
A narrow path led through flat fields across the valley floor beyond, and there were terraced hillsides all around, like cultivated ripples flowing down from the heights. The sun was hot and brilliant, and the path was a mingling stream of Nepalese move steadily in both directions. Most of them were bowed down under heavy baskets, sheaves of straw or bundles of firewood, all supported by a leather strap that encircled the forehead. Those coming towards us were bringing mostly vegetables, large red or white raddish roots and corncobs to the town, while those returning carried all sorts of oddments bought in the shops. There were no mules or donkeys out here, and all the haulage was done by the sturdy little Nepalese themselves. The women worked harder than the men, and it was a common sight to see them buried under burdens almost twice as big as themselves.
It was a pleasant, meandering walk, past small clusters of mud-brick houses with walls washed orange or red, and all with black thatched roofs. There were microscopic farmyards, with scratching chickens and one or two tethered black cows. Once we crossed a rickety wooden bridge over a stony river bed, where bare-bottomed children played in the shallow stream, and then the valley narrowed and the dusty thread of path wended up the flank of the hillside. Below us the river bubbled merrily as it hunted its way through big black rocks, and here we sat down to rest and eat a Spartan picnic lunch in the hot sunshine.
From here we were climbing all the way, but a succession of cheerful little Nepalese boys tagged on to our heels in different places and pointed out most of the short cuts. There was a dirt road that wound and looped its way up to the crest of the ridge, but we followed the little zig-zag footpaths that were more direct but often only a foot wide. We climbed up above the cultivated terraces into a world of Alpine meadows and steep, pine-clad hills. The way was lined with clumps of spiky cacti, little flowering red-leaved bushes, and gorgeous great clumps of purple bougainvillea. The sky was a vivid blue, and made a perfect background for the soaring white peaks of the Himalayas when at last they appeared beyond a shoulder of the ridge.
Further along the path was a great pine that had leaned over with one descending main branch forming a dark leafy arch to frame the splendor of the mountains. It was nature’s careless, triumphant arch of beauty.
However, we had to climb higher yet and followed another twisting goat track of white dust. After some really stiff stretches we reached the dirt road again, and now another hump of the ridge had shut the peaks from our view. We had been climbing for six hours and were both tired and thirsty. Margaret’s feet were sore, and neither of the two pairs of shoes she had brought with her was really fit for hiking up a mountain.
For another mile we walked along the winding road, and at last we saw the crest of the ridge ahead. The road turned a corner and abruptly the view to the north opened out again into a glorious view of the whole encircling chain of the Himalayas.
We sat down to simply stare out across the vast gulf of a deep valley, and with the aid of a diagram map we were able to identify all of the well-known peaks. On the extreme right of the range was Numbur at twenty-two-thousand feet, next came Kanchanjunga, the third highest mountain in the world at twenty- eight-thousand feet, and then the roof of the world itself, the far distant white spike of Everest, twenty-nine-thousand feet high. However, the two giants were very far away indeed, and from here they were dominated by peaks like Langtang at twenty-three-thousand feet, babies by comparison, but colossal by the fact that they were the closest peaks of all. The whole northern rim of the world was cut and thrust by jagged spears of ice and show, and the scene was breathtaking in its raw, windswept beauty.
Nearby was a small tourist bungalow, its red roof clearly marked in a comfortable hollow of tall pines. Here we were able to get beds for the night, and also an evening meal of soup, rice and vegetables which we attacked with the best appetites we had ever had. The sun sank very swiftly and as soon as it was gone the night became sharply cold. An oil lamp was provided in the bungalow, and for an extra two rupees the caretaker brought us a pile of wood to burn in the wide fireplace. With utmost difficulty he got the sticks to blaze but then we regretted that he had taken the trouble. The chimney was obviously blocked and the room promptly filled with smoke. The caretaker bowed himself out, smiling happily at his success, and left us coughing and spluttering, and streaming hot tears from our smarting eyes. We had to throw open all the doors and windows so that we could breathe.
We were up at five o'clock the next morning, as soon as the first glimmers of dawn began to penetrate into the bungalow, and we hurried quickly outside to climb the last few hundred yards to the highest point of the Nagarkot ridge. Last night the sky had been starry and we had been able to see the lights of Kathmandu blinking far away across the valley to the south, but now the valleys on all sides, south, north and north east, were all filled with a drifting sea of mist. Nagarkot was a green island floating above the clouds, with a clear view all around.
As we scrambled onto the top of the ridge we were greeted with a stupendous sight. The sun was still below the far rim of the Himalayas, but the sky above the peaks radiated upwards in ever widening bars of crimson-flushed cloud. In between the horizontal streaks of red and crimson the dawn sky was a deep turquoise blue, and the high snowfields, touched by rays of the unseen sun gleamed in sharp, creamy pink light. As we watched the sky above Everest was painted in ever-changing patterns of light and color, gold, orange and scarlet, all advancing in ranks of glory. It was incomparable, unforgettable, and will live forever in my memory.
The dawn unfolded as though all of hidden Tibet was afire, and the clouds below us were a motionless ocean of foam, with rolling breakers hovering in awed stillness. And then, with incredible swiftness, the spell broke and the clouds swirled up all around us. It seemed that I had only looked away for a second and when I glanced down again the mist was pouring over a dip along the ridge only a few yards away and flowing in a fast moving river of white vapor down the slope of the valley towards Kathmandu. It was fascinating, and almost frightening to watch, as though the northern valley had suddenly come to the boil in great wreaths of rising steam, all frantically seeking a route to escape. In another moment we too were enveloped, and the exhilarating magic of watching the most spectacular sunrise in the world was over. Lost in the mist we had to grope our way back through the pines to find the bungalow, where we went back to our beds until the day cleared and began again.
It took us most of the second day to descend from Nagarkot but it was much less strenuous and we had more time and energy to admire those superb views.
Soon after that we returned from Nepal to India in the back of another jolting truck, and on Raxaul station we said goodbye. I had become fond of Margaret during our weeks together, despite Delhi, but Margaret had not become fond of me. However, that was merely the continuing story of my life. She went south to spend Christmas with some or her Delhi friends, and I went east to Calcutta. I never saw her again.