In Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal, I'm about to head up into the Himalayas towards Everest Base Camp in search of the Yeti. This is technically the first week of the trekking season but it is still very cold in the mountains, so I needed to rent a down jacket from one of the plethora of shops in the Thamel – the bustling tourist area of the Nepalese capital.
Leaving my plush hotel, the gloriously monikered Yak & Yeti, I set off through waves of motorcycles and tuk-tuks that make crossing a road here about as dangerous as an ascent on Everest. I walked past the Royal Palace, scene of the royal massacre in 2001 when the Crown Prince shot the King, Queen, and seven other members of the royal family dead before turning the gun on himself.
Entering the narrow streets of the Thamel I was immediately accosted by several locals who would sidle up next to me and whisper, "Grass, smoke, marijuana?" I tried to look like I was a man who knew where he was going and sauntered on. If you hesitate for even a second you are pounced upon and directed towards somebody's stall to buy a thanka or some hippy paraphernalia. The place is not as packed with "long hairs" as it once was. There are, however, still enough stoned-eyed Freak Brothers wandering around, stroking their newly grown beards and dressed as though off to Woodstock. The worst are the backpackers who have donned local garb and roam the streets in baggy crap-catchers and little Nepalese hats. They obviously feel that this makes them slightly spiritual and that they are blending in. God knows what the locals make of them, but to me it's the equivalent of going on a Spanish holiday and strolling around Alicante in a sombrero and cheap matador outfit.
I found a little square with a rather beautiful Buddhist stupa in the centre of it. A stonemason sat cross-legged on the floor chipping away at a tablet under the watchful gaze of the all-seeing eyes above him. I was just trying to get an artsy photograph when a man sidled up to me and whispered, "Tiger balm? You want tiger balm?"
I was slightly taken aback. As far as I knew tiger balm was a muscle relaxant, used to ease aches and pains. It wasn't illegal, so why was this man doing the whole shifty routine? I wondered if perhaps I had misheard him and he was actually offering "tiger bum". Maybe this was the new in-thing on the Chinese medicine scene. Sadly, I shall never know as the man spotted a couple of gap-year stoners and ran off to offer them his tiger's bottom.
I got my down jacket – quite the most revolting-looking thing I've sported since I was a fully paid up Goth. Fashion, however, is not really the issue in the "Him-AHH-lyas" as one gap-year idiot keeps referring to them. I know this is how the locals pronounce them but it just sounds incredibly poncey doing so as a visitor. It's like calling Paris "Paree". Even if you speak fluent French you just don't do it. Some TV reporters are keen on doing this. If they have been in a posting for too long, they insist on pronouncing all the local names in the best local accent they can muster so they constantly jump from normal English to an attempt at local patois and back again which becomes very annoying to this viewer. Maybe it's just me.
I write this sitting in the airport, waiting to catch a flight up to Lukla, the airstrip that Edmund Hillary built on the edge of a very high cliff. I'm off to touch the base of the void. Hopefully see you next week.
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