Crossing India had consisted of two thousand kilometers of pancake flat driving on the worst roads in the world. Now the roads were well maintained, and within a few miles of crossing the border we began winding through foothills, and then climbing into the mountains. The terrain rapidly transitioned from low, hot plains to grassy valleys, to alpine meadows with crystal clear meandering streams and evergreen forest. Sheena and I were ecstatic. This was the place we’d looked forward to the most when we left our driveway two years ago. We’d made it to the Mountain Kingdom of Nepal.
“It feels like a heavy weight has just been lifted from my chest!” Sheena exclaimed, and then made a joyous squeal. She followed it up with another joyous squeal and I wondered if she would pass out.
It was the same for me, but without the joyous squeals. A sense of great pleasure and adventure had swept over us. Every jagged rock and towering tree was our best friend. Teddy bears danced in the tall grass beside the road, rainbows shot across the late afternoon sky, and a herd of unicorns sipped water from a crystal clear brook. I gave in and let out a joyous squeal of my own.
Within an hour we came to the what we thought would be a shortcut to Kathmandu, and pulled over. A police officer and a few people lingered at a bus stop, so I asked the officer about the road. He verified that it was in fact the fastest way to Kathmandu, although quite mountainous and too narrow to be used by large vehicles.
For lovers of the mountains, Nepal is heaven on Earth. In Arizona we drive 130 miles from Phoenix to Flagstaff, ascending the Mogollon rim, which brings us from the southern deserts into the northern mountains—an elevation gain of about a vertical mile. We brag about this quick transition and how it gives Arizona such a wide variety of climates in such a short distance. In Nepal, over the same 130 miles the elevation rises from 193 to 29,021 feet, a change of five and a half vertical miles. Nepal is quite literally the most extreme country in the world.
Before long the road snaked its way onto a steep upward-jutting mountain spine and began spiraling into the sky. At the edge of each hairpin turn the road gave way to a sheer cliff. It was steep enough that our old engine wouldn’t have been able to pull us up; the upgrade had paid itself off on the first day in the Himalayas. By the time we crossed the summit and began winding down the other side into the Kathmandu valley the sun had set and darkness had fallen. We wound our way along the steep one-lane road, a rocky wall to our left, and a black abyss to our right.
When finally we emerged from the mountains and into Kathmandu, we found our way to Dhobighat, a colony on the southern end of the ring road. There aren’t any residential addresses in most of Nepal, so it was impossible for us to know where we were going. Our good Nepalese friend Baroon, who we knew in Flagstaff, had told us that his family would be happy to put us up when we got to Kathmandu; thus, throughout the evening we attempted to navigate by cryptic directions delivered over the phone by Baroon’s cousin, Pesal. When we got close we were met on the ring road by the all-knowing and ever-wise Pesal, and after a welcoming smile and wave he turned and led us into the maze of backstreets on foot until we arrived, finally, at his family’s house. The Rai household, where Pesal lived, would be our home base in Nepal. Things were looking up.
Nepal has long had a troubled economy, and is in fact one of the poorest countries in the world. The average worker in Nepal earns just $645 per year. Yet despite its troubles, Nepal seems rich by developing world standards. Roads are generally well cared for, there isn’t garbage strewn everywhere, every village has toilet facilities, and most people have access to clean drinking water. Most of these things aren’t even true of Nepal’s rich neighbor to the south; even life expectancy is higher here. Of all of the developing countries we’ve visited, the Nepalese are the happiest. And if you’re happier than your neighbor, who really cares who has more money?
Nepal has had a rough go of it for the last several years, which makes the widespread happiness of the place even more commendable. In 2001, only a few months before 9/11, Nepal suffered its own horrible setback. Distraught over the King and Queen’s disapproval of his choice of wife, the King’s son stormed into a family barbecue and murdered the entire royal family, and then committed suicide. This further weakened the struggling government, and by 2005, after a long struggle against a violent communist uprising, the new King dismissed the entire government and abolished the long-standing monarchy. What followed was continued Maoist revolt and violence, a period that the people of Nepal are still attempting to put behind them. Despite having signed a peace deal with the Maoists, the country still hasn’t agreed on a constitution and is still plagued by periodic Maoist assaults.
For our first week in Nepal we got to know our new family; Bharat the patriarch, ever inquisitive, reserved, and well-read; Durga, the sweet and ever-smiling mother whom we came to call “Auntie Durga”; Uncle Laxman, always happily insisting that we join him for tea; Monica, the young and extremely shy relative lovingly nicknamed “Black Beauty” by Durga, who smilingly but relentlessly refused to give me a knuckle bump; and Pesal, fresh out of university and bound by his honor to be our trusty tour guide and best amigo during our stay. The melding of our customs with those of our Nepali family were at first hilarious.
In Nepal, people eat twice per day—at 10:00am and 8:00pm—and every meal is dal bhat: a generous helping of rice accompanied by lentils, dry vegetable curry, pickle, chutney, papad , and occasionally a meat curry. It should be noted that silverware isn’t used in Nepal except by tourists, so we quickly became well-learned in the art of eating messy food properly with our hands. Occasionally Bharat would stop by to harangue me about the intricacies of my food handling techniques.
“Brad,” he would say, his stern face slowly panning between my plate and my face. “What are you doing?”
“Um. I’m just eating the food, Bharat.” There would be a moment of awkward silence, my gooey fingers suspended mid-air, dripping bits of dal-covered rice onto my jumbled pile of food.
“People will think you are very unconventional eating like this. You are eating like a savage.”
“A savage? Well what do you suggest?”
At this he would describe the exact way in which a Nepali would eat, how only a little bit of each ingredient would be added to a corner of the rice, and then finely sculpted into a food pellet before cleanly being pushed off the fingers by the thumb into the mouth. Before long I was garnering compliments and thumbs-up by old people at restaurants for having mastered “the Nepali system” of cutlery-free eating.
Knowing that Sheena and I are American, and thus accustomed to three meals per day, we were awoken by breakfast and tea in bed, delivered by Pesal around 9:00 (we were rather exhausted after our marathon drive). Breakfast was quickly followed by more tea, and then at 10:00 it was time for lunch of all-you-can-eat dal bhat, consumed using our newly acquired “Nepali system” skills. The ensuing ten hours of foodlessness passed unnoticed on account of our morning gluttony, and in a short time we had weaned ourselves off of breakfast altogether.
In Nepal guests are given the greatest service and are treated as kings. By convention, guests eat first and are waited on by the hosts, and only afterwards will the hosts eat. This meant that for the first few days Sheena and I ate alone while someone from the family would appear periodically to add more food to our plates. We explained that, while we appreciated the gesture, we would very much like to eat with the family. As a compromise, Pesal ate his meals with us from then on. It was at this time that we discovered that Nepalis are much faster with their hands than we cumbersome Americans.
“Jesus H. Christ, Pesal. Are you already finished?” Our plates still contained 92% of the original ingredients as we painstakingly formed food pellets with our gooey fingers. Pesal sat patiently, his sleek hand poised like a spider on his empty plate.
“Nepalis are fast eaters. I am the fastest of the fast,” he said, matter of factly.
Bharat would enter the kitchen to harangue me about my food handling skills and see Pesal already finished. “Pesal!” he would say, sternly.
“You should eat more slowly like these people.” He would then look disapprovingly at my frighteningly mucky hands and slowly shake his head before leaving the room.
After a while we taught Pesal some appropriate English terms to use when leaving the table while others are still eating, so that he wouldn’t have to wait for us after his bouts of speed-eating.
“You can take your sweet time,” he would say, and then get up and leave us.
It would at first seem that eating the same thing for every meal would get old, but Durga is the best cook in Nepal (as verified by extensive field research), and each day she made variations to the sides. We couldn’t get enough. We spent each day in a dal bhat fueled trance of happiness, spritzed with a squirt of endorphins on account of the perfect weather and the fact that we had made it out of India alive.
We passed our days in Kathmandu eating copious amounts of dal bhat, drinking tea nine times per day, and visiting points of interest around Kathmandu valley with Pesal, our tireless tour guide. Pesal, always looking out for our best interest, was concerned about the legality of us driving Nacho in Nepal, as older vehicles are disallowed by law in an effort to curb emissions. We assured him that it was okay, but just to be safe we spent the first week exploring Kathmandu by public minibus. This proved to be what we shall call a “cultural experience,” for better or worse. At one point I counted 27 full grown adults in our clapped out minibus—a bus, which I may point out, was smaller than Nacho.
Bharat would invite me every morning and afternoon to the terrace to talk, and he would fill the time asking me questions about the world. We would sit down with our tea and stare at each other for a few seconds, sipping in silence. Then he would fire away with some question that he’d been contemplating.
“So, Mr. Brad.” He would tilt his head back and peer at me through slitty eyes. “What do you people think of the Maoists?” He would use the term “you people” to refer both to Sheena and me as well as Americans in general, and I would explain to him that most Americans couldn’t find Nepal on a map, let alone hold an opinion on its subversive communists. This was likely just the answer he was looking for, and he would pursue it to its end, opening up all sorts of other questions whose answers he would ruminate in order to come up with new questions for the following day.
Bharat was very well read, and held a deep knowledge about the world. He would correct me when I inaccurately reported the year of Women’s Suffrage in America, the end of the American Civil War, and various dates relating to World War I (all topics of our terrace talks). Being that he was a newly retired principle of a public school, he was excited to bring us to his old school in Bhaktapur so that we could gain more firsthand insight into Nepali culture. We all loaded up in Nacho one day and made the trip to the neighboring town. It should be noted that we lost our side mirror on this excursion to a rogue public bus whose driver had questionable depth perception.
When we arrived at the school, atop the highest mountain in Bhaktapur, the new Principal ushered us into the courtyard where we parked Nacho among the children. Our arrival seemed to be much anticipated at the school, and we were quickly ushered into the Principal’s office to have tea with some of the staff. Following this, we were brought into the courtyard for a long set of traditional dances performed by both students and some of the female teachers.
It was absolutely fantastic; an experience that tourists to Nepal simply can’t have. By the end of the afternoon I had sacrificed Sheena to the vibrant throng of dancing teachers, and she was brought on stage to get down with her bad self amidst the rest of the Nepali dancers. The people within her general vicinity promptly imitated Sheena’s white girl dancing skills, probably assuming that they were “hip” and “up to date.” Right now in some bar in Kathmandu there is a new dance craze cultivating from the deranged seed planted by little dancing Sheena.
At the end of the day we all piled back into Nacho, with the addition of a few of the teachers who needed rides, and Nacho’s Taxi Service sped back down the hill to Kathmandu.
Toward the end of our first week in Kathmandu we received an email from Dirty Biker, a fellow Arizonan and writer for Drunkcyclist, who had been in Nepal for over a month and had just found his way back to Kathmandu after having ridden the Annapurna circuit trek on his mountain bike. He told us the name of a bar somewhere and told us to meet him there. We set out with Pesal, and using a combination of foot and taxi travel found ourselves helplessly lost in the ancient back lanes of the former Kingdom of Patan. Nearly an hour late and ready to hoof it back home, we accidentally stumbled into Mokshe Bar.
Hidden away from the disheveled ancient alleys that surround it, the bar was ambient and inviting, and a dozen very nice Commencal mountain bikes decorated its outdoor terrace. As if stepping into another dimension, it just happened to be the location of a Commencal Bikes product launch. The owner of Commencal sat alone at a table while several outdoorsy-looking foreigners milled about. From within the bar I heard the voice.
“Brad! Sheena!” We turned to see Dirty Biker bounding toward us with the slight limp and crazy eyes of someone who’s just spent twelve days alone with his bike in the Himalayas. He spoke with a kind of permanent awe stamped on his face, as if he’d just seen God. In many ways, he had.
“This experience has changed me, man. My life will never be the same.” While we talked to him he was unable to attribute words to the kind of awesome that he’d experienced out in the Himalayas. He talked disjointedly about aimless wandering, two-day climbs that terminated at impassible snowfields and the resulting self-conversations of a crazed man with a bike in the middle of the world’s highest mountains. His hair was messed up. “I’ve been thinking a lot about how I’m going to write about this,” he said. “There’s so much to say, but I don’t want to come off sounding like a douchebag, you know? I mean, nobody will be able to relate to this, no matter how hard I try to relate it. It’s going to be a long ass time before I can sit down and digest the last two weeks.”
It was nice talking to Dirty. We hadn’t been around our people in a very long time, and we felt a twang of homesickness as he went on about bike riding, what was going on with our friends back home, and using a crass-but-funny dialect that I only then realized is unique to certain pockets of people in the United States. But more than anything we felt stoked. Stoked because in a couple of short days we’d be making our way west to dive head first into our own circumnavigation of the Annapurna range, only by foot instead of bike. For the first time, the 220km trek didn’t fill me with nervous dread, but with a feeling of warm anticipation.