November 02, 2000

Nepalupdate II

I just returned from Nepal to India, and the latter country is beginning to grow on me. Like a cancer. I'm beginning to realize that if you treat India as a game where the object is to perform activities in the least efficient manner possible, it makes a lot more sense.

For example, changing money or buying a train ticket: go to wicket 1, push your way past the line, spend ten minutes with the man behind the wicket trying to understand one another, get form A, copy details from passport onto form A, get sent to wicket 2, find out that even though wicket 2 is open they're not dealing with your request for another half an hour, wait twenty minutes, discover long line at wicket 2 where requests are now being dealt with, push way into line (my size advantage over the locals is extremely helpful), produce form A and passport, watch man behind wicket 2 copy details from passport and discard form A unread, give money/check to man behind wicket 2, receive form B, get sent to wicket 3, find wicket 3, receive ticket/money.

Makes perfect sense if you treat it as a game...

I am presently in Darjeeling, which is quite a pleasant place, although clearly a sad faded relic of what it was during the Raj. This morning I woke up at 3:30 AM (yes, me, no, I haven't been brainwashed by North Korean suicide squads) to drive up to Tiger Hill to watch the sun rise. In the unlikely chance Tiger Hill was deserted, it would have simply been a fairly magnificent sunrise featuring 4 of the world's 5 highest mountains. OK, so Everest/Sagarmatha and Makalu and Lhotse were so far away that they weren't much more than small white triangular blobs peeking over a ridgetop, but the enormous Kanchenjunga massif more than made up for them.

However it was not deserted. Oh boy was it not. Every dawn at this time of year 300-500 Jeeps and minivans bring 500-2000 Indian tourists, and a handful of foreigners, to Tiger Hill. Depending on your point of view, the experience was either married, highlighted, or transformed into a wholly surreal experience. After the usual bureaucratic nightmares regarding entry tickets, which I won't go into the details of but must have earned someone a lot of points in the abovementioned game, all 1000+ of us clustered around an observation tower, on various levels depending on how much we had paid: ("General Lounge" for me, a step above "General Admission" but below "Deluxe" and "Superdeluxe." Everyone stood around looking very bored as the eastern sky reddened and the vast Bengal plains came into view. Then as the first glitter of sun crossed the horizon, chaos: shouting, bustling, crowds pushing back and forth, men screaming at one another and holding shoving matches in a battle for prime camera positions, babies passed back and forth above the jostling maelstrom. Everyone aimed cameras at the sun and clicked madly away, ignoring for my money the much more impressive spectacle of a crimson Kanchenjunga. Then the sun was up; the sight was over; and within five minutes the crowd began to disperse for the entertaining game of "find your jeep." Me, I decided to walk back.

Let me fill you in on my last two weeks in Nepal now. Not too much to report as I spent the first one in Kathmandu doing little other than eating, drinking, sleeping, reading, and watching UEFA Champions League games on satellite TV. It's a hard life, you know, but someone has to lead it. Roved around various temples and did a couple of one-day treks while I was at it, all very low-key.

I then spent a week whitewater rafting down the Sun Kosi river, a thoroughly enjoyable time spent with the usual United Nations of backpackers from Chile, South Africa, England, Australia, Austria, etc etc etc. A pretty tame river compared to my previous rafting experience on the Zambezi - a couple of Grade 5 rapids, but nothing serious. Camped on sandy beaches by the side of the river and our guides prepared us superb meals. It was nice to be away from the where-do-I-sleep-and-where-do-I-eat grind for a week.

Next up, Calcutta, which by all accounts left its "worst place in the world" status behind decades ago and is now a much more pleasant and livable place than Delhi. I'll keep you posted...


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