Kathmandu seemed seedier than ever as I waited for my Chinese visa. I had to keep busy, I couldn’t sit around all day or I would get depressed. It was August and the weather was hot, too hot, and by mid-afternoon I would feel slimy with sweat, as if I had been digested by a frog. I forced myself to have cold showers, hot water being unavailable in the Trekkers’ Lodge. The showers in cheap hostels doubled up as toilets: this was where you went to relieve yourself of diarrhoea and the smell, and the slime on the floor, was appalling.
One day I went for a trek (fashionable travellers don’t go for walks, they go for treks) to the nearest hill, just a few miles away. The atmosphere felt different as soon as I got out of the city and I could feel the tension ebbing out of my brain. While Kathmandu had been modernised, to a limited extent, by the influx of tourism, the countryside felt totally untouched.
By now I was at the bottom of a hill which, according to a sign, was a Royal Nature Reserve and contained wild boar and tigers. A high fence stretched out in both directions and I could see Nepalese soldiers patrolling it. They charged me two pence to enter. The path led through light woodland that reminded me of England, the air became cooler and within a couple of hours I had reached the top. I stood panting under a large, spindly observation tower, observing a laughing group of Gurkhas who seemed to be on their lunch break. My plan was to see the view when the mist lifted and see if I could scrounge lunch from some unsuspecting visitors.
The soldiers were friendly and offered me a glass of chang, a milky-coloured and quite disgusting home-made alcohol, from a jerry can. I gratefully swilled down a cupful and asked for another. An important question was pressing: where could I get lunch? I hadn’t brought anything and my stomach was rumbling. The chang helped relieve the hunger pangs but something more was needed. I climbed the observation tower and noticed a rather odd looking couple sitting nearby. I walked over to them and tried to look friendly. The girl was white and seemed to resent my appearance, he was Nepalese and older and invited me to sit down and join them. The picnic was small but she had constipation and couldn’t eat a thing. He invited me to tuck in while she asked me if constipation is worse than diarrhoea.
The man introduced himself as Shankar and started talking about his uncle who, he claimed, had been Prime Minister of Nepal and good friends with the king. It sounded very unlikely but I made I’m impressed noises as I bolted down their picnic. He had been educated at one of the English-style public schools that are dotted around India and had the behaviour, accent and witticisms that are typical of people who get educated in these places. As I started on the hard boiled eggs Shankar said:
– My uncle went to China and returned to make Nepalese history. I nodded with interest, looking forward to a good yarn.
In Beijing the uncle had opened negotiations with Zhou Enlai, the Prime Minister, and signed a trade agreement that resulted in cheap goods flooding into the Nepalese shops and the opening up of the land border to traders and international tourists. However, this created a problem with India, which had always considered Nepal to be within its sphere of influence and had never forgiven China for stealing a huge chunk of its north-western borderland – the Aksai Chin – in the early 1960s. China had briefly invaded northern India in 1962, but quickly withdrew. My new friend told me that there are other disputed areas along the Himalayan frontier and war between India and China was always on the cards. I kept nodding enthusiastically, trying to keep his attention away from my real priority: finishing off their picnic.
By the end of the conversation my head was spinning with names and borders and strategies and once I had eaten my fill I started to note it all down in my diary. Shankar seemed impressed that I was so interested in his knowledge and as we were leaving he whispered to the girl conspiratorially, they both glanced at me, and he said grandly:
– We must meet up again. Do call me tomorrow.
The following day I checked with the Chinese Embassy to see if my visa had been approved and, having heard the same answer I got every day, I called up Shankar. He had been very friendly on the hillside the day before but now he sounded quite distant and remote. Had the girlfriend pointed out that I had greedily consumed the bulk of their picnic? But he invited me to come and meet a fellow Scotsman, which sounded interesting. Later that day the three of us drove out of town, heading north, towards Tibet, on the first bit of decent tarmac I had seen in Nepal. We passed a series of concrete poles by the side of the road which supported overhead cables. Shankar explained that this was Nepal’s first electrified bus line, built by the Chinese.
We parked by the end of the flat plain that Kathmandu is located on and looked up at the vast wall of mountains, the Himalayas, that towered above us like a tidal wave. We went up to a tall, newly-built house, saw a well kept, English style garden and were greeted with great warmth by an old couple from Forres, Scotland: Mr and Mrs McLellan. They were a pair of bright eyed highlanders who had come to retire in Nepal. He was a tough cookie, thin and friendly, and a great storyteller. His wife complemented him perfectly – warm and sympathetic with a voice like a soft highland breeze – and kept our teacups full as he blethered on into the evening.
Mr McLellan began life in a croft, a miniscule farm in the Highlands, got called up for the Second World War and then got a job washing dishes in a hotel. He then learned the hotel business, worked his way up the management chain and eventually set up his own business. During the 1970s the McLellans moved to Nepal and he established himself as a hotel consultant. Because tourism is about the only thing that makes cash for Nepal, apart from drugs, they desperately needed a Mr McLellan, who loved telling people how to run things. He described Nepal as somewhere between autocracy and democracy and told us that corruption is rife. Comparing the running of a country to the management of a Scottish hotel, he saw himself as a source of practical economic advice, leading the region into the next century.
Some years before, the Chinese leadership had invited Mr McLellan to come and advise them about the hotel business. Due to some canny diplomacy on Mr McLellan’s part he managed to get a personal audience with China’s top leader.
– What, he asked, is the precise population of China? The Chinese leader thought for a moment, scratched his head, looked in his file and then admitted he didn’t know the precise figure but thought it was approaching a billion.
Mr McLellan was not impressed. He informed the leader that not having high quality demographic information is a major handicap for a government, and he explained the value of a detailed census as a building block for good government – especially when it comes to planning, which is something Communist governments take very seriously. The Chinese leader apparently took all this in good faith, spoke to someone on the phone about it and thanked Mr McLellan for his advice. He concluded his tale by telling us that their next census, taken in 1982, was the best that had been carried out since the Communists’ took over in 1949. We were impressed by Mr McLellan’s storytelling and even Shankar felt outclassed. On the way back to Kathmandu that evening he hardly said a word and I felt sorry for him when he glumly said goodbye.
After repeating the tale to Adrian and Richard that evening and imagining an audience with the Chinese leadership in the sumptuous Forbidden Palace in Peking, Trekkers’ Lodge felt grottier than ever. Sleep was impossible because of the buzzing mosquitoes dancing round the windows and the endless howls of the stray dogs that roamed the streets at night. My tolerance for the travellers’ life in Kathmandu was ebbing and the one idea that gave me cheer was the knowledge that the Trekkers’ Lodge was luxury compared to what would be available in Tibet.
Just as I had come to the grim conclusion that the Chinese weren’t going to give me a visa, or an explanation, and certainly not my money back, they promptly told me that I had a one month visa to visit the People’s Republic of China. I was delighted and I dashed off to inform my new friends of the great news. Then I started to ask myself if one month is enough time to visit Tibet, get through China and reach Shanghai? Is it possible to get visa extensions in Tibet? But I didn’t dwell on these future challenges; this was my ticket out and I was delighted to be leaving.
This is an extract from 9 Months in Tibet — the eBook — which will be published soon. I’d be very grateful you’d reserve a copy (you’ll be helping me become a full time writer); just email me at email@example.com (or post a short comment under this article).