Thursday, March 14, 2013


The sun was setting over the Himalayan range across the valley. From this distance the snowcapped mountains appeared peaceful, but the reality up there would be different, I mentioned to my friends Roland and Madeleine sitting next to me enjoying their drinks and some succulent momos on the terrace. These were the highest mountains in the world, with several peaks reaching up to more than 7,000 meters above sea level. Many climbers had perished in the violent blizzards, sudden storms and avalanches during their attempts to the summit. Mount Everest (8,848 m) shone bright between peaks that appeared much larger than this highest of them all in the distance. Here in Nagarkot, away from the noise and pollution of Kathmandu valley, there was true peacefulness. It was wonderful to sit down and relax with good old friends who recently relocated to Kathmandu from Cairo.
I had spent the week in Kathmandu attending the Evaluation Conclave organized by the South Asian Community of Evaluators, a gathering of more than 300 evaluation professionals. When the Conclave ended at lunchtime (with no white smoke), I checked out of my hotel and hooked up with my friends to drive out of town. We drove through the chaotic city traffic across the ring road, past Bhaktapur where finally urban sprawl gave way to open fields. It was very dusty, although it had rained just a week before. In the beginning of March, there were no crops in the fields. Here people would grow rice in the summer on their terraced fields. In the winter, another crop of wheat, rapeseed, millet would be harvested.

Soon the road started climbing up the hillside. The traffic was not heavy on the winding road but there was a constant flow of vehicles: cars, small SUVs and trucks, buses, minivans carrying tourists and, most of all, motorbikes. We all shared the road with pedestrians, dogs, goats, the occasional cow. Traffic is hazardous on Nepal’s mountain roads, but here we were progressing safely in the VW Tiguan steered by Roland.

As we reached higher ground, we saw many small bars and restaurants perched perilously above steep slopes with gorgeous views giving out to the valley. Resisting the temptation, we pushed onwards. There were also several military camps along the road. Nepal is still emerging from a prolonged Maoist insurgency and lawlessness that rendered much of the countryside uninhabitable, contributing to the uncontrolled growth of the capital city region.

Nagarkot, just 40 km outside of the city, has developed into a major tourist destination thanks to its proximity to the capital and natural beauty. The town of Nagarkot is not much more than a messy conglomeration of houses in a crossing where two roads diverge, but it is bustling with activity. On all sides, there are smaller and larger establishments under the general rubric of ’resort,’ with names like Paradise Inn, CafĂ© du Mont, and The Hotel at the End of the Universe. We continued past the town and the sprawl of resorts ended. We drove until we came to another fork in the road where a soldier advised us to take the path to the left. The road became increasingly rough with potholes on the unpaved surface. At the end of the road we reached Bhangeri Durbar Resort. A reservation had been made by Amogh, a friend of my New York –based Nepali friend Anish. Bhangeri Durbar turned out to be a lovely choice. A new hotel, opened only at the end of 2011, it was made with good taste and occupied a pristine location with a view to the Himalayan mountain range. The altimeter in Roland’s wristwatch clocked over 1,800 meters above sea level.

Although we were the first to arrive in late afternoon, we would not be the only guests. Two other groups arrived after us. The first consisted of a class of MBA students from Kathmandu who were at a retreat. The students—boys and girls in almost equal numbers—looked terribly young as they frolicked in the garden. The second group consisted of ten Chinese tourists who would stay for one night, admire the Himalayan sunset, eat a specially prepared Chinese meal, and depart for their next destination early in the morning. Chinese tourists are an increasing presence in Nepal (as well as elsewhere in Asia). The assistant manager of Bhangeri Durbar told us that 70-80% of their guests are from China. The Chinese tour modality is like that of the first mass tourists in the West in the 1960s. They travel by bus and cover the entire country in one week zooming from one location to the next.

By the time we arrived for dinner after a rest, both of our fellow traveler groups had already finished eating, so we had the restaurant—and the assistant manager’s attention—all to ourselves. The meal was delicious consisting of chicken curry and fish curry (made from frozen fish, as Nepal is far from sources of fresh fish), spinach and other vegetables and, of course, rice and daal. The vegetables were grown in the hotel’s own fields just below. We asked for raksi, the local alcohol distilled from rice or millet, which the staff went to procure from a nearby farmhouse. He soon returned with a plastic water bottle filled with slightly cloudy liquid, which we sampled for the benefit of our digestion.

Gurung, the assistant manager, was running the restaurant in a highly professional manner, spoke excellent English and was generally very sophisticated. Our discussion revealed that he was originally from this area—Gurung, his name, also implies an ethnic group, as is the case with many Nepali names—but had left for boarding school in Kathmandu in his early teens. He had completed hotel and restaurant school in 2009 and had only recently returned to his home area for the first time in many years.

Darkness fell rapidly and the moon that rose over the mountains was two-thirds full, bright orange and huge. It’s so much closer here, observed Madeleine.

Sleep came easy in the fresh air and absolute silence despite the moonlight. Wake-up was before 6 am when it was still coal dark. This was to get ready to observe the sunrise over the mountains half an hour later. The sky was slowly getting lighter and colored in pink and turquoise hues. Soon the sun appeared behind the range as a small red fire ball. What followed, however, was disappointing. The mountains and the valley were covered in a thick cloud and it would be hours before the snowy peaks appeared behind the haze. We had no choice but to lodge a complaint with Gurung about this over breakfast.

For me this was just a mini-holiday, as I’d have to leave this afternoon for India. However, we still had time for some sightseeing and decided to head up to the highest point in the area, the Nagarkot Tower. I had expected to see hikers there, but was surprised at the scene. Just below the peak, there was a fair field with a large grouping of shops selling snacks and souvenirs. The largest share of merchandise, however, clearly was alcohol of different varieties: there were large bottles of beer, rows of Khukri rum, piles of Ruslan vodka and Himalayan whisky. This was clearly a popular party place.
We climbed up the steps leading to the top (now over 2,000 meters high, according to Roland’s watch) – and found the party! Although it was still early—well before noon—a large crowd had already gathered at the top and more were coming. A makeshift sound system with two large speakers was blasting music, Gangnam Style, and a group of young girls were dancing in a circle. A couple of kids were playing badminton next to them. Families had settled down for a picnic, no doubt consuming some of the beverages from downhill. Young couples were photographing each other with the now visible snow peaks as a backdrop. The day was gorgeous, the sun warming up the cold mountain air. Almost all of the people on the mountain were Nepali. What a great way to spend a Saturday, I thought.

With some time still on our hands, we decided to explore the area a bit more. Nagarkot was clearly booming and new resorts were coming up in every scenic spot. The valleys below were covered with agricultural terraces. Large hawks soared high above them. I couldn’t but help to reflect on the transformation of the landscape caused by this rapid development. Although this cannot be classified as mass tourism, the individual hotels, resorts and restaurants add up to large-scale development, with the inflow of thousands of people every weekend. Then again, tourism is bound to bring in lots of money to the area and generate significant amounts of income for the local people who then do not need to add to the fray in Kathmandu. This development had allowed our friend Gurung to return to his home area. Perhaps, development is inevitable so close to the teeming capital city. So far the style of development has been as benign as could be expected.
As we headed down towards the city, most of the traffic was to the opposite direction. I would not have minded turning around and joining the revelers for another evening of merry-making.

No comments: