“But why are you going back to Nepal? Weren’t you just there?”
It was perhaps the most common question that I was asked when I told people that I was returning to Nepal, just 18 months after I had visited. The reason for returning was simple, but it seemed hard to understand.
“I loved it there. I want to go back.”
Okay, maybe that’s a tad too simplistic, but it’s the truth. When I left Nepal in March 2013, I was devastated. I wanted to stay. Everything about the country held me in its thrall: the people, the energy, the natural beauty and the culture. I made promises to visit again, but at the time, it seemed as if it was just wishful thinking. Mustang seemed as if it could be the moon and, though I wanted to believe otherwise, I doubted I would see Dan and Gokul again.
It’s amazing how things work out.
Sooner than I would have believed, I was heading back to Nepal, back to the mountains and back to my friends as part of the inaugural group for Active Adventures’ Mustang Trek. It was the trip that Dan had been talking up when I left Nepal last year. Now it was reality.
Landing in Kathmandu after 20 hours of flying and a 10 hour layover in Guangzhou, China, the first thing that registers is the smell: a dusty, musty smell that, while not entirely pleasant, is completely recognizable and somewhat endearing.
“Oh,” I think. “I’m back.”
Things are both familiar and changed. There are new automated visa application machines in the airport, which make getting through the paperwork much easier when you’re entering the country. Of course, I later hear from another visitor that the machines were down the very next day. There’s still the press of people at the entrance of the airport, the sea of signs, the call of touts. However, the main roads from the airport are wider, newly paved. The new government is cleaning up, explains the driver. They expanded the roads and repaved them. Later I would hear that people were given two weeks to move their belongings from the front of the buildings; bulldozers came through and sheared off any bits that were in the way of the new road.
Thamel, the main tourist hub in Kathmandu, hasn’t changed much, though. After a good night’s sleep and breakfast on the roof at Backyard Hotel, I head out for a wander. It’s amazing how your sense of direction returns. I stroll towards Durbar Square, getting lost in the small side streets festooned with saris for sale, stalls displaying brass cooking pots and shops dentists that advertise their trade with windows full of lonely teeth.
I find my way back to Phat Kat for lunch and a bit of people watching, moving inside when the rain starts. September is the end of the monsoon season, which translates to sudden downpours in the afternoons. You can carry an umbrella or raincoat, but it’s like trying to sop up the Rio Grande with a paper towel. It’s much smarter to just be at one with the wet.
It’s comforting being back among the hustle and din. My smidgen of Nepali begins to return; I start making notes of new words and phrases to remember. I quickly fall into the rhythm of walking in the streets, the duck and dodge of cars and motorbikes, the smile and shake of the head to the vendors asking where I’m from and advising me that “looking is free.”
After returning to the hotel, I find Dan, who will be guiding our adventure. It’s wonderful to see him again and it’s almost as if the past year and a half has blurred to just few months. The rest of the group will arrive tomorrow, but I meet Jim, who is another guest on the trip, and we make plans to meet for dinner.
At the Roadhouse (excellent wood-fired pizzas), I find out that this is Jim’s first time in Nepal. While I’m glad that I have some prior knowledge of the country and am settling into the rhythm pretty quickly, I’m a bit envious of Jim, who is seeing everything with new eyes and a infectious sense of wonder. I’m curious to see how he feels at the end of the trip–and if he’ll love Nepal as much as I do.