A man standing on a corner accosts me as I walk down the alley. "I've got quality, very good quality". I have no idea what he's selling, but his plea seems genuine. But what is genuine in Kathmandu? This is the real question. We are staying in Thamel, once described, fairly I think, by a well-travelled friend, as the biggest tourist ghetto in the world. This is not the real Kathmandu, merely a dense overcrowded quarter of hotels, restuarants, shops, cafes and bars for tourists. The shops are selling walking clothes and equipment, pashmina shawls and cashmere sweaters, cds and dvds, tibetan curios and buddhist paraphenalia, hand-knitted gloves and felt bags. *It's a donkey, walking or not walking. In English the idiom is 'never mind the quality, feel the width'. Most of the goods are cheap copies. There are some good bookshops here, but some are just shadow bookshops, full of coffee-table books and postcards and not much else. On the busy narrow streets tourists are approached by hawkers selling their wares: tiger balm, chess sets, hashish. Oddly you can always anticipate the chess-set sellers because they whiff of tiger balm. The tiger balm sellers all look stoned and the dope sellers sit on corners at miniature chess boards pondering their next move.
There were elections in Nepal last year after many years of civil conflict, uncivil war, between the army and the Maoists. But they are not real Maoists, only copies, and they proved willing to negotiate a peace deal that has led them to government in a new democracy. The king has gone, his palace is now a museum. It is still relatively early days though and the problems for the politicians are plentiful. There are water and electricity shortages - Kathmandu has 8 hours electricity in 24 hours. A very dry winter means that no winter crops can be grown and the pollution in Kathmandu valley increases. In the capital it is now quite common to see people wearing facemasks as they go about. Meanwhile there is no agreement with the army about what to do with the Maoist fighters, many of whom want to join forces, but are sat around in 'camps' waiting for the issue to be resolved. Corruption stifles daily life and development. Whilst the tourists are submerged in the unreal world of Thamel, the locals have a real world to contend with.
We spend a few days here sorting out visa extensions, Gayle needs a new passport, permits for trekking. Walking around the city can be tiresome in the new part of the city as the pavements are busy and the traffic ceaseless, but in the old part, where the streets are narrow and the constant flow of motorbikes is irritating, there are at least interesting things to stumble across: small Hindu shrines and temples on street corners; huge courtyards accessed by low doorways where locals live in overcrowded red brick buildings that make us think of Dickensian London; hawkers selling vegetables, pulses, stainlees steel kitchenware; small buddhist stupas and statues; cows and goats and dogs nosing around in the rubbish. What amazes us is the variety of faces and fashions. Nepal has such a large group of ethnicities for such a small country, and the older folk still wear their traditional clothes. The urban youngsters, in contrast to much of India, dress in mainly modern Western styles - hooded tops, drainpipe jeans, converse trainers, tinted hair cut short long assymetrically. Wandering around gives us a strange but pleasing sense of displacement.
One day we bump into Paulina, an American we last saw in Orchha, India. Another day we cross paths with an Englishman we last saw in Bishkek in July. Thamel is that kind of place. We also meet, by arrangement, Jules, who we last saw in Pakistan. Together we are off to trek in the Langtang region just north of Kathmandu.