TRAVEL: THE PLACE THAT CHANGED ME - PETER GORDON
The chef of Sugar Club and TV fame recalls the calming atmosphere of Nepal
Sunday 26 December 1999
In 1986 I spent one year backpacking in Central and South-East Asia: Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Burma, then on to Bangladesh, Nepal and India. I arrived in Nepal on my birthday and the weather was so cold that I immediately went out and bought myself a birthday jumper.
There were people wandering around in sweaters and little woolly two- pieces. Having just spent several months in tropical climates, I welcomed the change. Kathmandu was full of lovely stone buildings which I hadn't seen for months - the architecture in all the previous places had been predominately of wood.
I remember this fantastic bakery where they made wonderful rustic bread and cottage cheese. Neither of these had been easy to come by on my travels so far. There were lots of aid workers stationed in the area and I think some of the Danish people had taken it upon themselves to show the locals how to make cheese.
From there I travelled to Pokhara where the big thing for backpackers was to go trekking in the Himalayas and the Annapurnas. I thought, oh no, I haven't come all this way to go on a bush walk. I can do that at home. But I ended up doing a 28-day trek through the Annapurnas and it was the most wonderful month.
I spent days walking alone, carrying my tent and gas bottle. I had more or less absolute solitude. Occasionally I would see a couple of people and walk with them for a few hours, then they would disappear and I might catch up with them a few days later. So there was no sense of isolation, just a peaceful solitude.
I'd stop off and make coffee in my billy-can. The only disconcerting thing was that I would occasionally see porters carrying huge crates off Coca-Cola up mountains to leave for tourists, only to have to come back four days later to get the empties. It seemed strange to me that, surrounded by such scenery and such an unbelievable atmosphere, tourists couldn't do without their usual fixes.
I'm not what you might call a spiritual person but I found the scenery and the solitude moving. Having come from the busy working life of a chef in Australia to the bustle of big Asian cities, and then to travel alone in Nepal without really speaking to another person for days at a time was strange and wonderful.
Walking through the forests in the high country, the last of the rhododendrons were in bloom. Many of the Nepalese men wore brightly coloured hats and their donkeys had pink and blue feathers and bells on their heads. You could hear them approaching through the woods. Someone told me that Tolkien had once visited Nepal and when I thought about it, I did feel as if I was wandering through Hobbit land.
When I came down the other side into a town called Mustang I found apple orchards and hot pools. The town was peopled by Tibetan refugees who sold wonderful Tibetan dal, tea and momos (dumplings).
Overall I had certainly enjoyed better food in Malaysia and as a chef this was the place that perhaps shaped me the most. But as far as the way I look at life goes, it was Nepal that had the most profound effect. I vowed that I would return every four or five months but, terrible to admit, I haven't been back since. However, it is good to know that the place is out there and that such a sense of calm is attainable.
`Peter Gordon's Pacific Food' is at 1.30pm on Mondays from 10 January on Carlton Food Network, available on cable TV and ONdigital
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