>>Asia Journal -- Nepal & Tibet Part1 (7/5/01 - 7/17/01)
-- Hong Kong Interlude
-- Hong Kong Interlude
coming back to Hong Kong from Seoul was a welcome relief, and my seventh time here in three months. but I still had a few important logistical issues to deal with.
first, i needed to resolve where i would be staying. previously, i had been crashing with two different friends, and storing half of my equipment and a huge supply of film as well. my friends were more than generous, but space was limited in HK, and I was really imposing for leaving so much stuff and coming back every two weeks. i wanted to find other friends to balance the load, or a cheap hotel. At least relatively cheap, that is; this was HK after all!
second, i also had to change the plans of my Nepal trip. Originally, i had scheduled to depart immediately after coming back from Korea. But a few weeks earlier, the Nepalese crown prince had massacred the royal family in a drunken rage over his parents' opposition to his choice of wife. and the situation didn't look good.
Nepal had already been suffering from periodic attacks from a strengthening Maoist insurgency. Since 1996, about 1500 people had been killed over 5 years. this massacre only added to the uncertainty and potential for new conflict. and since last year, the situation has indeed escalated, killing another 3500 people in the year since (over twice as many in one year than in the 5 previous years).
in Saigon, Peregrine (my tour operator) notified me that they were suspending their Nepal tours until the situation could be better assessed. At first, i thought i might have to cancel my trip altogether. but by the end of June, things seemed relatively under control, and i arranged to go only a week later than i had initially planned.
I really needed that week. i had already been burnt out and a little depressed since Cambodia. and although i didn't do too much independent exploring in Seoul, i was still exhausted, and it showed. whereas i had started shooting 8-10 rolls a day in China and Vietnam, in the last month i was only shooting about 2 rolls a day.
part of my problem was a matter of pace. i was probably just trying to see and do too much. that was certainly true when I started. In Bali, not wanting to miss seeing anything, i worked every day shooting continuously, and travelling the island from dawn till long after dusk. i didn't lay out or even once step in the pool while i was there! and that was supposed to be the relaxing start to my trip.
so now, exhausted and back in a familiar cosmopolitan place like HK, i consciously tried to relax and do nothing. it helped that it was raining pretty heavily that week. so during the day, i caught up on email, and worked on my website and my writing for BootsnAll. When it wasn't raining, i went shopping in Central, browsed the DVD stores in Causeway Bay, and hung out at the Wanchai Computer Center. i went to lunch and dinner with friends (my friend Kathy took me to a really great Korean place in causeway bay called MyungGa). i went out a few nights to alibi, red rock, cbar, and drop, as usual. i spent a good amount of time planning out the rest of my trip. i got my flights changed at a travel agent in Pacific Place (NamHo Travel). But, i also made sure to get lots of sleep, trying to mentally rest my mind. i successfully resisted carrying a camera everywhere, and hardly took any pictures at all that week. and then, it was time to pack up and leave again.
arriving in Kathmandu on a bright hazy day, the air was hot and the glare of the sun was strong under a light blue sky. At immigration, on-the-spot visas were easy to get on arrival for a modest fee ($25-50 USD). i was glad i remembered that i needed a reentry, as i would be coming back from Tibet in a week. But i almost forgot, and it might have been much more difficult and expensive to get straightened out on the way back in. Outside the airport, hotel and guesthouse hopefuls blanketed one side of the arrivals area with colorful painted signs, and long tired faces.
flying into Kathmandu, the valley area surrounded by rocky landscapes had looked a little brown, but vegetated. Driving into the city, however, gave a very different impression, as the roads and urban surroundings were immensely dry and dusty. as this was the end of the dry season, it made you think with the coming monsoons, that substantial parts of the city would be washed away in an ensuing mudslide.
driving up the private little road, my hotel was impressive. Preceded by a lush manicured and flowering lawn, it was in such direct contrast to what we saw driving into the city. however, once inside, the place seemed more haunted than palatial, as almost all the lights had been turned off to save electricity. It appeared that i was the only guest in the hotel, as the massacre of the royal family a few weeks before was only the latest blow to an already suffering tourism industry.
i didn't mind. the staff was friendly and attentive, the room was spacious and had an air conditioner, and they even had room service (traditional Nepalese food, hamburgers which were not that bad, and ketchup that had a strange and heavy sweet taste). At night though, it was a little weird to come back to that place and walk down the darkened slightly musty corridors to my room. i felt like i was in an old episode of the "Ghost and Mrs Muir".
after my week of respite in Hong Kong, and lunch at the Yak and Yeti Hotel under a mural of the Manhattan skyline, i felt rejuvenated and ready to explore again. so immediately after i arrived, i inquired about renting a motorcycle to better explore the city. I went into Thamal to find one.
Thamal is the touristy older section of Kathmandu, full of dusty winding alleys and interesting shops. judging from Thamal alone, you would think that tourism was Kathmandu's only industry. English signs and tourist-oriented establishments were everywhere – restaurants, bars, souvenir shops, t-shirts, climbing supplies, internet cafes, and currency exchange booths lined both sides of every alley. and after a visit to a local bike shop, and for about $12 a day, i was mobile. (although the idle on my bike was a little off, so I had to keep the engine slightly revved with the throttle to keep it from stalling out.)
once mobile, it was much easier to see the greater whole that was Kathmandu. On my bike, i rode past the Thundikhel, a large park in the center of the city (a little overgrown, but really a beautiful city center). under the minaret-styled Bhimsen Tower and a backdrop of mountains beyond, the Thundikhel was a meeting point, a playground, and a place for a short walk or respite away from the incessant traffic. boys played soccer, teens and young adults gathered under trees with their motorcycles, girls enjoyed ice cream, families strolled along the central dirt path, and a young boy was taking a dump in the tall weeds!
my guide was worried about me wanting to rent a motorcycle, partly from the risk of an accident, but also from the risk of areas that could be potentially unsafe. in Thamal, i didn't feel any danger at all, but riding north out of the city to the Budhanikantha (sleeping Buddha), i did feel a certain tension.
the landscape was beautiful – lush green fields under clear blue skies, punctuated by dusty roads and crowded littered village centers. but trying to find the turnoff for the Budhanilkhantha shrine was a little difficult, and i went up a few rural dead-ends. Darkness was approaching and groups of idle young men watched my progress from afar. at least i wore a helmet, so it was not as obvious (perhaps) that I was a total outsider.
it was close to one turnoff, at the gates to a village, and over a crowded bus stop, that i saw it, and a chill went up my spine. at first i wasn't sure if it was just an effigy or a real body wrapped in a white sheet. but it hung heavy and limp over the gates, and twisted slowly in the light evening breeze. i wanted to stop and take a picture, but the sun was going down, and i didn't want to take my chances with so many people around.
with all the warnings and tension i had noted but discounted, the sight of the effigy brought home potential dangers in a powerful emotional way. staying clear of groups of loitering restless youths was one thing. i began to think that this might be something totally different. so i turned around and headed for home as the sun dropped below the horizon.
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