Christmastime in Kathmandu and Acute Lowland Malaise

Christmas finds me this year cringing to odd versions of carols blasting out of bars in the tourist ghetto of Thamel, Kathmandu — once rectal end of the Hippie Trail east, where brain-fired spiritual questers flopped down in a place aptly called “Freak Street” — now the nylon-coated business-end of “Himalaya: the Experience.”

If that sounds jaded, it’s because I’m suffering the exact opposite of Altitude Sickness: Acute Lowland Malaise. After the relative solitude of nearly a month walking around and among the peaks of the Annapurna Himal Range, I find the press of humanity too much: all heavy panting and scrabbling fingers.

The mountains have always been a meditative experience for me, a chance to let my thoughts quiet a little, to get away from distractions. Long descents, bus trips in the countryside, long mountain highways: these acted as a buffer between the fragile communion with the natural world and screeching urban hustle.

No such boundary exists here in Nepal. The mountains are more habited that I was used to, but from the trailhead village only an hour on a sardine can masquerading as a highway bus stood between me and the total tourist culture dousing I received upon arrival at 9pm in Pokhara.

The first person I met back in “civilization” was a pimp. “This is Pokhara,” he said, standing 50cm from my right ear, grinning. “Lakeside.” I turned to look at him directly, as he was standing too close to concentrate on figuring out a taxi with my companions. “Pokhara,” he repeated, “Full servicing.”

Somehow the insinuation was worse than “You want girlfriend?” which I was to hear repeatedly thereafter, as though I, another money machine, had arrived to be greased with whatever foul unguents I required and he was my willing mechanic.

We fled across the street to tangle with lying taxi drivers.

I became less certain of the services that the city could really offer me. A hot shower and some laundry were immediate in my mind, but having a celebration meal was all we had talked about in the last few painful hours of downhill, so there was no turning back. We bathed and ordered steaks, beers. It was a lot of food, but unsatisfying, as though I had been eating fried noodles and mountain sunsets for dinner during the whole trek.

We went to a bar, ordered more, more. The talk was a horrendous smear of misunderstood politics and cock-fight conversations. We cringed in unison and tried to shout over it, to shout the quiet conversations we’d enjoyed in the mountain lodges. Dismal failure. Snarling dogs chased me back to my hotel at 2am.

The next day I woke hungover, sick as the dogs that pursued me, half my body in revolt against the meat, cheese and booze I had stuffed into it.  My headache faded, but not the dizziness of being back among so many people in a city designed to suck as much marrow out of me as possible.

A three-day “strike” where roaming Maoists shut down the entire country on threat of violence was something of a reprieve from noise, but now that their demonstrations are over and the forced idleness lifted, the country is seething like a dog with fleas, everyone hungry, everyone trying to get somewhere, something. I too, scrabble on a bus along sinuous highways back to Kathmandu, ready to do battle with visas, passports, embassies.

After all my fantasies in the mountains of women, luxurious meals and hot showers, I find I’d rather just have another dose of quiet, 10 minutes of dawn light among high peaks and silent eagles.

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