Sawasdeekhap / Namaste / Welcome!
I’m sat here, in Thailand, writing an chomping away on a bag of makok. These fruits come from the Spondias Dulcis flowering plant. They’re sour, and pickled ever so slightly. The tough flesh makes it feel like a beastly olive. I’ve had this fruit in curries before, and always wondered what it was. Now, I know, I like makok. Oh. That’s erm, awkward. I like to eat… No I can’t finish that. Makok is very… No, not there either. The sour pickled green ball is yummy. That’ll have to do. I bet it’d make a mean dip if the chunky seeds were removed. Just don’t name the dip.
Finally, I have got round to my time in Nepal this year. 2020 has been marked as Visit Nepal 2020, a concerted effort by the Nepal government to get overseas and overland visitors to bring their hard-earned money into the country – and experience ever-lasting moments that will tease visitors back time and time again.
The landscapes from valley to valley within Nepal can give you sensory overload. My experiences across two visits gave me a bombardment of sounds, sights, tastes and colours. The moment I left Nepal the first time, I wanted to return. This applied to the second time – and has since applied to this third time of visiting.
I touched down in Kathmandu, Nepal once more. This trek was to take in some of the Annapurna Circuit region. With prior knowledge of snowfall being heavy, I purchased some rusty looking blue crampons in the twisting narrow streets of Thamel. I’d enjoyed a great breakfast at the Northfield Café and a good night of sleep at the Northfield Hotel. I was excited and happy to be back in Nepal. My plan was simple. Go for a wander. No aims, no worries. Some passes and some mountains can’t always be seen. It is, what it is. Bumping into Srirang at The Café With No Name, he revealed his plan to trek the Annapurna Circuit with Livia, from Hungary. We’d all met last year trekking the Everest Base Camp route. I had no problems about joining them on the walk this time around. Srirang looked much leaner than last year. He must have been training hard in his native Mumbai city.
Armed with a great salad, and a wonderful pumpkin soup, I tucked into my Panini and enjoyed the feel of this wonderful backstreet café. A ginnel is the route to the small and atmospheric café. All the profits of The Café With No Name are sent to the charity Our Sansar – which benefits street children and brings them into education. Every great coffee or beer you have, benefits someone. That’s maybe why I decided to visit this place every lunchtime I had spend in Thamel, this time round. You can find it down a small alleyway. Look for a chalkboard when you face from the central supermarket looking in the direction of Purple Haze Bar. When you reach the bar, swing left and somewhere by Merry Hotel, you’ll find this treasure of a café. Expect to feel at home on the crate-made tables, and cosy furniture. There’re books to exchange and lots of things to make the eyes wander. The staff are great and so heartwarmingly friendly, it makes you want to live in Kathmandu. Perhaps the world’s dustiest city needs great retreats. This is one such wonder. Expect to feel a great musical vibe and return time and time again.
At Northfield café, that first morning, I sat with a beaming smile on my face. I enjoyed a good hearty breakfast, with the masala omelette filling my belly, alongside a strong coffee. The staff went to turn on the heater, but I was enjoying the cool air. Cold air sharpens the senses. It keeps your wits sharp. It helps me to focus. Heat makes me sleepy and sluggish. I sat watching people drift up and down the street outside. Few shops were open. Shutters sank and sagged to the ground like dull metallic cold blinds to the world beyond them. A few clear western people walked by. Some were spiritualists, hippies long off the bandwagon of Thamel’s once famous Freak Street, trekkers, climbers, cultural tourists and no doubt a few who reside in Nepal for work. There’d be some amongst them feeling enlightened, some caught in the ambience and many sponging up the vast cultures around them.
Looking at the headwear of those passing by, there were knitted ski hats, traditional and regional ethnic pieces, and an equally diverse array of jackets. Some combined with various pieces of formal office wear and others with striking multi-coloured knitted socks. Evidence of around 125 different people and 123 languages mingled with tourism and those from elsewhere. It all belonged perfectly. A tapestry of diversity in a wealth of colour. This intertwined nation coexists with such ease. Poverty and adversity sit only around the corner from the luxury cocktail bars and the bright lights of pocket-sized night clubs.
The tarmac road created less than two years ago, now looks swollen, crumbled and churned. Bits stand out here and there. A vintage Royal Enfield motorbike tackled potholes and narrowly missed a static scout mannequin outside of a store proudly displaying Gurkha knives, the kukri. Khukuri World Store was a trove of gifts, memorabilia, and shiny things hoping to lure people inside. The scout model held out a Nepal flag, its beautiful triangles coated with the sun and moon, a combination of blue, red and white like no other flag. Next door to this knife and survival gear shop, a sprawl of 100% natural cashmere and yak wool piles spilled over two steps. The Friendly Pashmina Shop had so much stock, it was practically leant against the White Mountain Outdoors shop further along the row. Above which was a White Water Rafting Co., somewhere beneath layers of dust and soot. Dusty raincoats, sleeping bags and long puffy down jackets hung still, half admitting that they’ll never find a buyer anytime soon in that state. A ginnel (tiny pathway) into Nana Hotel looked uninviting between a sodden empty crates and Nepalaya Money Exchange. The shutters of Al Noor Gems revealed little indication of what treasures lay within. I guess even Indiana Jones would be put off by the rusting bulk of metal. The possibility of tetanus for the sake of some fool’s gold wouldn’t be a good gamble.
A hairdresser and the ATM cash machine tussled for space over a few cubic metres as the morning footfall started to increase. School children dressed in an array of uniforms drifted in small clusters or singularly up and down the road. A hooded man, slimmer than a twig, drifted amongst the crowd playing the sarangi (a string instrument) and trying to sell many of the same pieces from his sagging shoulder bag. Along the very same road, powerlines and cables draped the floor as workers fed neat replacements overhead, clearing years of cluttered dangerous cables. Trybal Handmade’s shop’s lights flickered in reply. A call for help and stable feeding. New life, please.
Inside the glass-window front of the restaurant and a little over the shoulder, a family sat enjoying their foods and drinks. The grandmother of the group made gratified noises as two younger women, perhaps in their forties, jostled food around their plates. Three young children ate quietly with great respect for their surroundings. They talked infrequently, warmly and softly, amongst themselves in what I believe was Urdu. I don’t know the language but I recognised one or two words. A smiling waitress with big beaming eyes came over to them and served them tea. The well-kept long hair spilled from her headscarf far beyond the rear of her waist. Her hand glittered with earthly coloured stones, natural and modest yet bold and fitting. The Northfield Café itself had warm earthly colours dominate the walls, and even a real tree trunk shot up through two floors and out of the roof offering a canopy of green amongst the buildings.
Effigies of door gods stand by the glass entrance doors. A piece of A4 paper is taped onto the inside of the door. It boasts of WARM DINING inside, without skimping on the use of capital letters. By now my omelette had vanished and a second cup of coffee had found its way into my hand. Three men joined the large respectful group. The conversation remained tender and calm. The younger children remained as attentive as I did to my coffee.
Two staircases within Northfield Café stretched upwards. Two lobbies spilled outwards giving an aura of space. The energy of the room had a seamless flow. My eyes strayed around the room enjoying the care and attention each member of staff gave to newly seated customers. Each patron matched the calm of the room. The staff both blended in and simultaneously made themselves available. Hidden servants of the spiritual rooms of Northfield Café. The very essence of the symbiosis within the walls. Just like the draw of Kathmandu, I was excited to be back in the Northfield Café once again.
Sticking to food, we visited Gilingche, a Tibetan restaurant, far too late in the day and ate far too much. I had to take a doggy bag home – and fed a dog. I’ve visited here a few times and always enjoyed it.
Following two days in Kathmandu and a few purchases, Srirang and I took a tiny taxi (enough room for knees by your ears), two bags and a squashed driver to the new bus station. Here we purchased our bus tickets to Pokhara. And with a ticket for 17:00 and being told it would take around 13 hours, we departed just after 15:00 and arrived less than 9 hours later. The bus had spent an hour loading with apples on an industrial estate within Kathmandu too. It stopped at the Dal Bhat Power restaurant, around half way – and the scenic route had weaved perilous mountains throughout the foothills of the Kathmandu valley and the lower Himalayan range all the way to the reasonably flat Pokhara area.
Visit Nepal 2020 has progressively barred visa on arrivals to many nations. China, as Covid-19 origin, copped for it first. Three missing Nepali guides and four Korean trekkers succumbed to a terrible avalanche that also saw hundreds of people rescued from the Annapurna Base Camp region. In 2014 alone, 40 people were killed on the Annapurna circuit in one sever snowstorm. Nature rules these ranges. Man (and woman) is a guest. On top of this Donald Trump and USA struck Iran’s top military brass with missiles, putting many under the impression that perhaps a global war would follow. Even days after I landed the tragic news of eight Indian tourists died in a room, probably from carbon monoxide poisoning. With a lack of flights, and mobility – or will to travel during a time of pandemic, Nepal’s tourism, imports and other support lines have shrunk. Hotels, trekking lodges, guides and other such avenues offered to overseas clients have receded faster than my hairline (in the last decade). The demand from these avenues to agriculture and industry will slim faster than a diet pill overdose. An already struggling country is facing yet more challenge. I witnessed Kathmandu on my return from Pokhara and the Annapurna regions. It was akin to that of a ghost town. Nothing much happening, but worry and fear. And on top of all this (and more), many have mocked the artistic interpretation of the yeti drawn up for the Visit Nepal 2020 campaign.
Rhino deaths, Nepal may struggle even further. Over half of the money, earned overseas by Nepali workers, comes from Qatar (think World Cup construction), the U.A.E., Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain. As the virus hits that region, Nepal has taken actions to keep its people safe and on Nepali soil. It was no surprise to see that Visit Nepal 2020 has been postponed until 2022. I hope to return for Visit Nepal 2022 – and maybe I’ll pop back in 2021, if time permits. But right now, humanity is battling. We must pull together.
But, first a cup of tea…