Friday, 29 July 2011

Nepali Wood

In retrospect, I’m not sure why we ended up staying in Thamel, in the heart of Kathmandu. I’d eschewed the guide book and picked a hotel based purely on Trip Advisor recommendations, which felt recklessly ‘off-piste’, but which ended up being a good choice, despite the fact that the taxi driver had no idea where the place was. It was the best hotel we’d stayed in yet, with entire hemmed towels waiting on the beds for us (in one Indian hotel we’d been given three “towels” which were clearly three fraying thirds of what had originally been just one decent sized towel). One of the curious aspects to travelling in Nepal is the disparity between the cost of sleeping and eating. For the same price as Indian flop houses, we get what are arguably two-star hotels, but we are spending about twice as much on food. This may have something to do with the well-heeled backpacker influence.

Thamel is the backpacker Bantustan in the middle of Kathmandu. By day intrepid Westerners sally forth to do battle with legions of scheming rickshaw drivers seeking to dupe them out of an extra fifty pence, restaurant staff determined to sell them dodgy local food of uncertain provenance, and guides seeking to pass off their careworn spiels as bona fide historical fact. But by night tender comfort can be savoured in the Irish bars and American coffee shops and Italian pasta restaurants and German bakeries. The streets are one endless series of souvenir stalls, all piled high with the exact same stock of traveller garb that we had already scoffed at in Pokhara. This time the difference was the number of places selling enormous “Gurkha” knives that even Crocodile Dundee wouldn’t sniff at. That and the number of men who sidle up to me offering drugs. Even the child on my shoulders isn’t deterrent enough. I need my ears cleaned, for mercifully I can’t hear the entire roll call of what is on sale – I’m pretty sure one young fella, who had the quivering look of a schoolboy about him, promised me heroin.

Outside Thamel, back in Nepal, we stumble into Durbar Square, World Heritage site and all that. The buildings are astonishing – large sections of them are carved from wood, and the degree of intricacy in the carving is difficult to take in. Then we stand in the shelter of the eaves of the Jagannath Temple, and look up at the roof struts. They have been patterned with scenes of the most invigorating obscenity, the possibility of which took me several years of adulthood (and one trip to Amsterdam) even to begin to suspect. It is difficult, without throwing money away on the services of some charlatan masquerading as a guide, to begin to fathom how on earth scenes of this nature could ever have been sanctioned for the exterior surfaces of a temple, but here they are, staring us in the face with their cheerful carved obscenity. Wood indeed.

On the way out of the square on the second of our visits there Oisin rushes to grab a flag from some people with a big pile of disposable flags to hand out. Turns out it is a Facebook-originated group of “civil society” campaigners for political reform in Nepal. Given that the civil war was notionally settled five years ago, they are fed up with their new political masters squabbling over the long-awaited constitution, never mind making a start on endemic corruption and clientelism. It’s all a bit Tahrir Square, and my mind flits back to the two tents I glimpsed from the bus window, set up outside Cardiff Castle in the rain on the day we left for Heathrow. I wonder if they are still there – the European movement for democracy or some such the banner said, inspired by the Spanish protests that kicked off just before the summer. What will all these new social movements do when the powers that be decide it’s simpler to turn off the internet and unplug the mobile phone masts? Perhaps sit down together and do some old-fashioned plotting. If they come to Thamel, they can be sure of a good latte and a decent blueberry muffin, right in the heart of Kathmandu, while they plan their next move.