Psychics and Dionne Warwick aside, it is impossible for most of us to tell the future. But handy signals do exist to tell us what may happen if you continue with your foolish ways. People call these “warning signs”, which come with varying levels of urgency. For example, a restaurant that is empty on a Friday night at 7pm = buyer beware. On the other hand, a guy who compares himself in any way to Don Draper = run, don’t walk, in the opposite direction.
A tour guide who cannot believe you are taking her particular tour = somewhere in between the two extremes on the “warning sign” spectrum. To be fair, when I look back on my overland trip through Tibet into Nepal, I can’t believe I took it either. There were restaurants with indiscriminate brown smears on the floors and walls, where people hawked on the floor and the dishes appeared indistinguishable from one another. There were the numerous road checks along the way, and the thin air. And finally, there were the filthiest rest stops I have ever seen, where a smear of feces and a pile of used maxi pads appeared to be the de riguer decorative devices needed to pull every door-less toilet cubicle together (eventually, we would give up and go out in the open, searching for whatever shelter we could amid the shrubbery and rocks).
So it may not actually be true that Nepal is a wonderful wonderland, full of My Little Pony dust and butterfly wings and Ryan Gosling’s tears. It seemed that way to me, though. After passing through the southern Tibetan border (where we were temporarily abandoned by our tour guide, who did not know he would be needed to check us through) and crossing a heavily-guarded bridge into Nepal, everything seemed different: the air getting thicker and more oxygenated as we descended down into the Kathmandu valley, the surroundings more lush and green, the soldiers at the checkpoints (something Tibet and Nepal had in common) more handsome.
Nepal is an interesting country, perched on the northeastern border of India but serving as a de facto “buffer zone” between both India and China. The birthplace of Buddha, Nepal is now made up of more than 3,900 villages scattered across three zones: the flatlands, the middle hills, and the high mountains. Although only 20 percent of the country is “lowlands”, half of the people live there. And Kathmandu, home to 2 million people, is considered the “center of everything”.
When we finally make our way into the bottom of the valley, guarded over by a gigantic statue of Shiva the Destroyer, I am ready to weep. The altitude is a mere 1,300 m above sea level — practically Bangkok (for the record, between 2-15 sq m above sea level). I will not have to see another plate of yak for … well, as long as I want to. And we are headed to Dwarika’s Hotel (http://www.dwarikas.com), a luxury abode featuring centuries-old Nepali artifacts and a far cry from the decrepit, stained hotels on the western Chinese frontier.
But the thing that most brought a smile was the chance to stuff some different food into my gullet. For a week, it had been stir-fried greens, tofu and the occasional yak dish; we were to trade these dishes in for dal (a lentil stew), spicy pickled chilies, and biryani (meat cooked beneath a mound of rice). On the streets, fried things predominate: triangular samosas, dumplings and what Thais call sai gai (chicken innards), or pretzel-shaped dough deep-fried in a fragrant saffron syrup. There are also carts featuring an exuberance of nuts and puffed rice, over which a tart-spicy sauce and chili powder are slathered. And of course, there are the omnipresent apple, banana and pomegranate carts, everywhere.
Even if it was only for a few days, I was glad I got to see Nepal — its fertile, hilly beauty, its friendly people, its exuberance and color. That’s not to say everything was the wonderland it seemed when I first saw it; Kathmandu’s traffic jams are Bangkok-worthy, and the Thamel district is reminiscent of Khao Sarn Road, but, uh, not as nice (make of that what you will). It was an interesting flip side to our Tibet experience: both gorgeous in different respects, both memorable in ways that you wouldn’t expect.