Namaste, Nepal: Lost in the Light

Is there word for something that is worse than atrocious?

Atrociouser? More atricious? Whatever it is, it doesn’t even come close to describing these roads that I’m currently bumping and jolting along as we wind our way up into the mountains towards Nagarkot. I’m squeezed into front seat of a tiny little van. The driver is holding one of his two mobile phones to his right ear and both steering and changing gear with his left hand. The “road surface” disappears in places, replaced by muddy patches of sand and grit that slope down towards ditches on the left and toward a sheer drop down the mountainside to the right, jolting the van into 45-degree angles at times. Since I’m roughly three times heavier than the driver, I’m sure that the weight of me on one side of the van is going to make us topple over, but no. Luckily, since Nepal drives on the correct side of the road (the left) and I’m in the passenger seat, I can’t actually see what the drop is like, but damn, I know I’m gonna see it when we come back down this wretched road, and I’m put in mind of Jeremy Clarkson trying to squeeze a Range Rover past a truck on the Death Road in Bolivia on Top Gear.

Not helping matters is that we are stuck behind a bus. A large green bus with a Nike swoosh on the back that is belching out black smoke. The driver keeps attempting to see around the bus to see if he can overtake it. Since the road surface is at times non-existent, or sometimes just a sliver of tarmac that has survived a landslide, this results in many bumps and jolts and crashes. Making me more nervous is the fact that the little statue of Ganesh that sits on top of the centre console topples over roughly every 30 seconds. Each time it does so, the driver takes his left hand off the steering wheel (his mobile still being clasped to his ear in his right hand) to set it upright again.

Somehow we manage to clamber our way up the mountain pass from Bhaktapur to Nagarkot and and arrive in one piece. I’ve come to the town because it’s a point from which one can see Mt Everest. It sits roughly 2,200 m above sea level, and on a clear day, a vast swathe of the Himalayan range is visible from here, even though they are at a distance of about 180 km away. Sadly, the haze lurking across the whole of the Kathmandu Valley is still with us, which doesn’t bode well for tomorrow. 

I check into my new hotel, the Nagarkot Bed and Breakfast. If Bhaktapur was small, Nagarkot is a hamlet in comparison. There are about three roads in the centre of the town, and a cluster of hotels and restaurants. It’s mid afternoon by now, and I’ve had a morning of sitting around in Bhaktapur and waiting for the van to drive me here, so I’m keen to get out and take a walk around. I’ve been inspired by my research into the town, and despite vowing in 2009 to never read the Daily Mail ever again, I’ve seen some incredible photographs on the Mail Online while I’ve been reading about what to do here and I’m feeling inspired.

I take a stroll along one of the streets leading out of the town. I’ve read that there is a hiking trail through the woods that leads to the Nagarkot View Tower, supposedly the point from which one can see the Himalayas. A couple of hundred metres up the street on the left, there is a large green sign saying Tourist Trail. It has a map of trails through the woods. I take a quick photo and set off down the sandy path and into the trees.

It’s nice in here. The path isn’t too strenuous, and it’s really nice to be alone in the peaceful and silent woods. The sunlight filters through the trees and the wind rustles through the leaves. I haven’t been alone like this since I walked through the nature reserve in Sale, the town my brother lives in down in Australia. The temperature has warmed up a bit, despite the elevation, and I find myself starting to sweat. I decide that I don’t need to be wearing my winter coat and sling it over my shoulder.

I carry on along the paths. I come to a fork, so I head down to the left and end up on a kind of ridge. I’m thinking that I might be able to see the views of the valley from here, but there are too many trees. I turn back and continue down the right hand fork. A couple of cyclist pass me on mountain bikes, so I must be heading in the right direction. The paths start to descend and then descend as they curl along the winding ridges at the edge of the mountains. I see mountain bike trails in the mud of the paths, so I’m still thinking that I’m going in the right direction. I’m enjoying the peace and the sense of solitude, as well as the fresh air and the scent of the pines. I start to hear the sound of rushing water, and I’m intrigued by the possibility of there being a waterfall nearby.

I turn a corner, and then I find a steep staircase of stone steps descending sharply into a valley, through which runs running water from a pipe. There’s a little bridge across the valley. Two kids are playing down there. Above is a road, and I see and hear a lorry passing along. I’m thinking about turning back when I hear the screech of brakes and the thud of tyres. I turn and see another two cyclists. They smile at me as they approach, and then they swing to the right and go bumping  and bouncing straight down those steep steps to the bottom. The kids playing look up at them and cheer. They’re certainly braver souls than I.

I decide to go down. After all, the cyclists must be going somewhere, right? Perhaps on the other side there’ll be a way to get up to the road and make my way back to the town. I don’t want to get too much further in, since I’ve been walking for about an hour and I don’t know how far I’ve come. The kids approach me. I show them the map on my phone and point to the road. No, they say. You can’t get to the road. You shouldn’t go that way. It’s just a village down there. Alright, I’m thinking. Those cyclists must be going somewhere, right?

I carry on. The kids shrug and gambol up the steps. When they get to the top they shout goodbye and wave. I wave back and trudge on. Up and down go the paths. Above me I can see and hear the road and the traffic. I’m looking for a way to get up there. Perhaps some steps, or perhaps a trail I can clamber up. Nothing so far.

I keep walking. Round headlands and ridges we go. Up and down slopes. The path moves further into the trees. I don’t see any sign of a village anywhere. I can’t even see the cycle tracks any more. I’m wondering if I have to attempt to rock climb my way up to the road. Eventually I come to widening of the path and another fork. Given that the valley has been to my left the whole time, I decide to keep right. I’m not worried now, but I’m concerned about getting back to the road before darkness. I stop and look at Google Maps, which no longer shows any trails through the woods. Suddenly I hear a rustling in the trees and I jump out of my skin when something large and green jumps up. A man with long green branches on his back stands up and walks away from me. He must have been doing some wood cutting or something.

I carry on. The path starts to go further up towards the top of the ridge above me, and I can still see and hear the road. I’m encouraged, if not a little tired by now. Around a headland I go, and then I find an extraordinary sight. I have encountered a quarry, and below me there are large industrial diggers and machinery. This would explain the trucks passing along the road. I’m not too far down from the road, but the paths have turned to sand and gravel, and it’s quite the task to climb up them as with each step I take the earth shifts and spills downwards. With my coat on my shoulder and my camera in my hand, it’s a bit of a job to hold onto trees and branches, but I make it, and I get a few weird looks from a group of construction workers standing around a large yellow digger on the road.

I walk on a little, then stop and check Google Maps. It tells me that I have to go about 4 km along the road to get back to the town. I’m knackered by now, but I trudge on, along the winding road and around the hairpins and back towards the town. About 2 km in, I find a cafe perched on top of the cliff. Sadly, it’s closed – I could really do with a drink now – but I take a few moments to drink in the views. Despite the haze, the views into the valley are beautiful, and it makes me excited for going to see Everest tomorrow. 

Another kilometre, and I start to see civilisation. Houses and hotels and restaurants and people appear. I spot a nice little cafe and decide to get that drink. I’m thirsty as hell, but I’m also craving caffeine. The owners are super friendly. They’re a husband and wife team, and when the husband brings me my food he sits and chats with me for about 20 minutes, telling me about Nagarkot and what life is like in this village. I spend a good hour refuelling and relaxing, and I vow to come back tomorrow and eat here again.

For now, it’s back to the town. The sun is starting to go down now, and the air is getting chilly. My coat goes back on. As I get to the town, I see that the sky has started to turn a vibrant shade of pink. There is a patch of grass on a hill overlooking the valley, so I decide to sit and watch the sun go down and attempt to capture some pictures. A few other people are dotted around. To the left there is a hill that stands atop a ridge, and there are lots of people standing on it having their photos taken with the pink sky as a backdrop. I decide to walk up there too. On the hill is a small building, and with the sky going purple and nothing behind the building it suddenly feels like I’m at the end of the world. It’s an odd feeling, but an exciting one too. 

Darkness has almost fallen by the time I get back to the hotel. There is a little patio area behind it, and people are sitting outside eating food and drinking beer. By now the temperatures have really dropped and it is cold. I’m suddenly freezing, but then I guess we are at quite a high altitude. The hotel chap invites me to sit by the barbecue the hotel has set up. There is a specials board outside the hotel advertising their 700-rupee ($7) barbecue dinner. I have declined it, since I had already eaten on the way back and it’s about three times more than I have usually paid for any meal in Nepal, but it’s lovely to sit by the fire and warm up. A Nepali couple are eating the meal and it looks pretty good, to be fair.

Govinda, the hotel staff member, approaches me about going to Everest tomorrow. He knows the way there, he says. He guides people there, and will happily show me how to get to the viewing area for just 1,000 rupees ($10). We chat about it, and we settle on a meeting time. The deal is sealed when I’m promised a cup of coffee before we set off.

At least that way I know that I will actually get there, even if I have to wake up at 5 am to do so.