Harder to Breathe – Nepal Part 1

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(more Nepal content to come)

By Day 3 in Nepal, I had already decided that I was going to die here at least four times. The first time was as the plane executed a rocky landing at Kathmandu International Airport, and then decelerated frantically on the short runway. The second was during the minibus ride from the airport to the Royal Singi Hotel. (You think the traffic in Beijing or Ulaan Baatar is chaotic? You have much to learn, grasshopper.) The third was venturing out on foot the next day, first to stock up on a last few pieces of trekking gear and then for dinner. The fourth was the six-hour ride on barely-extant roads to the start point of our trek, sweating as the bus rocked on its suspension through ruts and small rivers.

We were fortunate enough to be landing in Nepal a full thirty-six hours before the rest of the trekking party, which gave us time to acclimatise and look around. It was immediately obvious that we’d left China, and even Malaysia, far behind, and landed squarely within the cultural radius of the Indian subcontinent. Sanskrit and cheerful English adorn everything; the streets are filled with Hindu shrines dusted with red and pink powder and patrolled by sad ragged dogs. Nepal is certainly the least developed place we have been so far – there are no traffic lights, regular power cuts, limited infrastructure, and terrible roads. The tap water is undrinkable, so we are carefully brushing our teeth with mineral water and resolutely avoiding raw fruit and vegetables. The air is terrible, thick with dust and pollution. In the end, I bought a paper surgical mask for fifteen rupees and took to wearing it around town. We took advantage of our Saturday to ourselves by doing absolutely nothing, save for luxuriating in the glories of a hotel room and affordable room service. Our trekking companions arrived from London early Sunday evening; a diverse group of mostly experienced trekkers, although we are easily the youngest by twenty years.

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Our plan was to leave at seven a.m. Monday for a six-hour drive, but our indomitable bus developed a flat, which left us scrambling to catch up all day. Our route lay on the main road south to India, a narrow road in variable repair winding along the edge of the Himalayan foothills. It’s heavily trafficked by both trucks and buses, all of them painted with goddesses and Oms and with their cabs so heavily hung with tinsel and streamers that you catch your breath each time they take a corner. After a few hours, the temperature in the bus had reached sauna levels, and despite the terrible air, every window was opened in desperation for a breeze.

You would think no-one would overtake on a blind curve of a narrow and badly maintained mountain road.

“Not to worry,” our tour leader, Gum, said cheerfully. “We have very good driver. He drive this road many times.”

To make up for lost time, we kept to the bus until we left roads entirely, and jounced along an off-road track with the interior of the bus resembling a slow-motion game of pinball. Eventually, a three-hour walk took us to our first guesthouse just as the light was failing. We’re still in the hot and humid lowlands, where temperatures are around 30 degrees and rice is grown in stepped terraces – in fact, we’re currently below Kathmandu, at around 800m – but as we climb, the temperature will plummet.

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