After the weirdest breakfast I've ever had (cold fried eggs, chips and toast), we made our way down the soggy hills - yet more winding roads of certain death - towards the small collection of buildings that support the Chinese Immigration Terminal. An austere, Orwellian thing of stained concrete and unclean glass, the Terminal looked like it had been excised from a soviet airport and airlifted in - enough to make those whose paperwork might not be completely in order think twice before crossing. Dealing only with crossings by foot, the queue outside the Terminal was already well established by the time we arrived. Shuffling slowly forward, Drujal was moving up and down the group giving us some information about what to expect inside and checking that we weren't carrying anything overtly Tibetan on us; the Chinese Government are reluctant to allow any information about Tibet leave the country - even Lonely Plants are forbidden and will be confiscated or redacted to ensure no anti-Chinese / pro-Tibetan messages escape into Nepal.
As I was trying to make myself look as un-capitalist as possible, I caught sight of around fifty people - Nepali Indians travelling back from pilgrimage, I later found out - making their way in a jumbled mass towards the doors. What made the spectacle worth noting was what they were carrying, specifically everything fifty people would need to survive for a couple of weeks, and how they were carrying it, which was on their heads. Barrels full of things, unidentifiable metal frames, patio furniture and even small children were uncomfortably strapped around the heads of the pilgrims some of who looked way over 60 years old. As well as looking massively uncomfortable, it seems an unusual system for carrying (as the method of strapping must direct all the weight through the spine) but who am I to argue with centuries of logistical evolution? The picture above also gives you some idea of how many people use the terminal, although I have to concede, everything was controlled and well ordered.
After a final (manly) hug from Drujal, and a relatively uneventful passage through customs (Kate did have her passport retained and copied 'for security purposes'), we were heading across the bridge over the river that divides China and Nepal and bidding farewell to Tibet. The border itself is marked out by a rather unassuming line of little brown tiles set into the concrete of the bridge floor; crossing over them felt surprisingly momentous though, as I've never crossed a border on foot before. Upon crossing the border, I was witness to a minor miracle. Everything - the landscape, the climate, the sound, the quality of light - changed almost instantaneously. The damp from just seconds ago was replaced with a palpable humidity, here warm sun making the vegetation vivid and colourful rather than the dark, foreboding green of the forests back in China.
We rounded the end of the bridge and the tarmac roads gave way to rough, dilapidated tracks of rock and mud. Vans painted in bright primary colours - and many emblazoned with the badges of Premiership football clubs - were gridlocked and the windshields were covered in spatters of what I fervently hoped was red paint. As we made our way towards the Immigration Office, I could hear chickens clucking and goats bleating somewhere down the street and could smell the spices of a good curry floating in the air. It was remarkable.
We approached the Nepalese Immigration Office, which occupied the ground floor of a rather unofficial looking building, so unofficial in fact that some people just walked right past it. The interior if the office itself could only be described as bedlam, the Nepali immigration process rely primarily on speed, money and more than a little luck, which stood in sharp contrast to the imposing authoritarianism of the Chinese side. The office was a little bit bigger than your average sitting room, the whole building having a slightly residential feel, and packed with about sixty people. There were no guards, just three Nepali men, dressed in football shirts and shorts (immediately drawing comparison to the immaculately uniformed Chinese soldiers from moments ago), handing out forms and collecting passports and great wedges of cash from whoever could shout the loudest. I managed to catch the eye of one officer, mostly by waving around my wedge of cash, and our group started the Immigration Process. After visas were issued - mine was stuck in upside down incidentally - they had to be signed by the solitary Immigration Officer (making me wonder about the official titles of the men behind the counter) in his serene little office, and we were off into Nepal. It was a beautiful experience, so full of the life that comes from having little in the way of real bureaucracy and so welcome after the official sterility of the Chinese side.
We were also met by the Gap Adventure's Nepalese representatives, whom I can only describe as an Indian Del Boy and Rodney. The 'tour leader' was a rotund and jovial fellow with a cruel stammer, whilst Rodders - the local guide of the duo - was short, skinny and shy. After a fleeting introduction, which I missed (so Del Boy and Rodney they shall remain), we were walking through the ramshackle streets towards a parking lot of coaches. Del started talking to a few of the drivers who were casually leaning on their buses, with the demeanour of the conversation having all the hallmarks of bartering - worrying, considering we were still four hours from Kathmandu - before proudly announcing that our bus was here. Handy that eh?
We boarded the bus and found that we wouldn't be the only passengers. As we'd arrived in Nepal during one of the most important Hindu festivals, one venerating Kali, the female avatar of Lord Shiva the Destroyer, many Nepalese people were visiting their families and so the driver had brought his; a wife with a young boy, two small children and an older boy that was acting as a kind of banksman for the coach. As such, it was a bit of a squeeze, but Del made it an interesting journey by filling us in on the culture, history and happenings of the areas we were travelling through, although this did undermine Rodney's position as local guide somewhat.
More fascinating than the running commentary was the landscape we were passing through. The lush, verdant valleys wound around rushing rivers and we seemed to be constantly rising and falling from one tropical gorge to another. Butterflies fluttered, waterfalls dropped from unseen lakes, alien sounds came from the surrounding bush and wide, lazy rivers became crashing torrents, and we just sat back and watched it all in stunned silence. We drove through villages and towns, saw people collecting water from wells seemingly miles from the nearest settlements and even got to see a local bus loading up in a way that would terrify Arriva. Life was much rawer on this side of the border, less suppressed than the respectful politeness of Tibet and made for great theatre as we drove by.
A special mention must go to the visit we paid to The Last Resort, a luxury resort and home to a massive suspension bridge - itself the site of the highest bungie jump in Asia. A beautiful little place, smartly maintained and a real haven of tranquility in such a manic country, we walked over the bridge and were sad to find out that the jump wasn't running that day. Maybe another time.
We carried on, stopping occasionally to let the bus cool down, and eventually the winding valleys reached a broad plateau on which the Nepalese capital is built. The density of the buildings began to intensify, as did the traffic, and before long we were in the brawling mass that is Kathmandu. The bus honked and nudged it's way through the traffic and crawled towards our hotel, a remarkably neat and modern place in a brilliant location within the city, and after tipping our guides - that was the last we saw of them - we had our last group meal before heading our separate ways. Another great tour, with good people, ended well with good food and plenty of cold beer.
Kate and I have a few days here before heading to Thailand, so I'll let you know what I make of Kathmandu after I've explored properly.
G'night Rodney you plonker.