And so we fell ignominiously out of the bottom of Tibet and into Nepal.
Our experience in Nepal started much like our experiences in many other places – we successfully negotiated ourselves into a taxi from the border at such a cut price rate that the driver felt obliged not only to pick up a girlfriend of his on our dime (complete with actual, real life, actually projectile puking baby) but also to stop for a puncture, a tire repair and a fifteen minute stop (just five minutes from our hotel) to pick up spare parts for his car. So far so James-&-Lucy travel standard, we thought. In fact, so far so easy, as the wheels actually stayed on the car this time.
But then our ruggedness completely failed us. It’s not that we weren’t trying mind, it’s just that Nepal is so … erm … nice in comparison to some of the other places we have been.
We bounced through Kathmandu (nice hotel; taxis turn up on time; food’s pretty good if you like curry; people speak English; and machetes aren’t a fashion accessory) took a plane to Pokhara (they sell white toblerones at the airport; there is actually an airport; we didn’t have to hire our own plane or anything) and checked into our hotel (honeymoon suite with a balcony for $55; laundry, mineral water and cheap beer within easy reach; working internet; and a sunny roof terrace with a view of the mountains for a spot of yoga). It was all so … convenient. Things worked. There were restaurants near the lake with proper Illy espresso machines. We couldn’t believe it.
So, feeling the need for a bit of rugged, we headed off on our trek. Now, trekking in Nepal has a deserved reputation for being pretty hardcore – the views are spectacular; the accommodation is pretty basic and the treks are steep, high and hard work. Our particular trek to Poon Hill took us over 3,100 meters in five days – well high enough to bring you down with altitude sickness if you’re unlucky. So, as we set off for the mountains (brushing off the street hawkers trying to flog us … warm freshly baked croissants) we were pretty fired up!
Actually … perhaps we were a little too fired up. You see, we had just come from ten days on the Tibetan plateau at altitudes up to 5,000+m. Our easy acclimatization days (complete with a little light jogging) had been in Lhasa above 3,500m, and we were in Nepal because we had balked at the prospect of a Tibetan trek involving ten hour days walking behind yaks over high passes and possibly camping in the snow. So when our guide suggested that we stop after about four hours on the first day we were politely surprised. When our room had a private hot shower we were amazed. And when the restaurants served flaming roast chicken and had bottles of Bordeaux for sale we were shocked.
It was all very pleasant, but it wasn’t really what we were there for. We were as altitude acclimatized as perhaps we will ever be in our entire lives, we had failed at our ambition of hardcore trekking in Tibet and we were on a mission. Our poor, beleaguered guide (who didn’t really help himself, to be honest) kept tacking on bits and pieces of trail as we kept walking further and further each day. He kept trying to hold us back – would we like some tea? Would we like to stop for an early lunch? Would we like to stop for the day at 1pm? – but eventually we simply ran out of trek.
And so, after bashing round his suggested five-to-six day hike in four days we found ourselves back in Pokhara eating delicious vanilla gelato and feeling very happy, if ever so slightly deflated.
Incidentally, Pokhara is where I had my best meal ever, anywhere. I had spent the best part of three months in India as an 18 year old gap year student on £6 a day and due to fine Indian budget cuisine I had lost the best part of three stones in weight (about 42 lbs or 19kg – incidentally, I am doing better this time, and have only lost about one stone). I had just spent three days flat on my back in Varanasi watching dead bodies floating down the Ganges just under my hotel window and being about as sick as it is possible to be without going to hospital. Having come to the slightly teenage and melodramatic decision that if I didn’t get out of India I might die, I hauled on my backpack, crawled on my hands and knees up the steps outside the hotel and caught the first bus to Nepal.
My best meal ever? It was a buffalo burger, chips, coleslaw and a beer in a nameless reggae joint in Pokhara. It was hot, hearty and h-delicious, and I was the happiest man alive. And when I woke up in the middle of the night and was violently sick because my stomach was so unused to food? I was still the happiest man alive – you see, I had stashed a mars bar just in case.