The next morning, I did not awake before 5am. Indeed, I didn’t wake up until about 5:40 or so, and it was already light outside, albeit a barely pre-dawn kind of light. Outside the square was coming to life. Through the alcove window, whose finely carved woodwork I admired anew, across the way I could see what looked like a very old building indeed; built in the fashion of the others, with three storeys, portico and wooden pillars on the first, latticework on the upper windows and a slanted and tile-covered roof. The tiles were covered with a kind of green moss, which made the building seem somewhat run-down, but in an agreeably historical way, giving the whole a veneer of mystery and undiscovered (at least by me) significance, as though important things had happened there and maybe would again.
Purna was already moving about.
Actually, this seems as good a time as any to introduce Purna to you properly. I first came to know him as one of a small group of Nepalese working at my university when I started working here. The other two were both medical professionals and teachers, but Purna’s job was to oversee and manage the Foreign Food Canteen, which catered to the foreign students. And by foreign students, I mean Pakistanis. There are a fair number of these at our university, and I have yet to meet a foreign student not from Pakistan. Indeed, a Chinese education seems like a popular choice for a lot of young Pakistanis. A taxi driver in Xi’an once told me that the universities up their way were full of folks from that part of the world.
Most of what Purna cooks (when he cooks- he’s the overseer or, I suppose one might say, head chef) is subcontinental fare, curries and the like, but he is equally adept at Chinese cuisine, and I have enjoyed several excellent Chinese meals cooked by him. Now the other two teachers have moved on (one back to Nepal, the other taking up a position at a university in the Caribbean, of all places) so Purna is, as far as I know, the only Nepalese currently on staff these days. Which doesn’t faze him in the slightest, not least because, after five years working in China, his Chinese is, to all intents and purposes, fluent.
The other notable characteristic that Purna exhibits is a shrewd entrepreneurial sense. In addition to his overseeing the canteen kitchen, he has established at different times, and maintains a finger in, several small business ventures. The details of these I am very vague about (having, by contrast, absolutely no head for business whatsoever) but they give him a steady income on the side. Moreover, he is always on the lookout for new and potential business opportunities, sizing up demands where there is no supply or supply where there is little demand and drawing possible connections in his mind. He exhibited this propensity several times during our travels around Kathmandu, and may return to Wuhan with a few more minor business ventures coming to boil.
Regarding family, Purna comes from a broken home, alas, and has little good to say about his father. But he has maintained a good relationship with his mother, who lives in a town a good distance from Kathmandu. He also has a particularly close relationship with his uncle and aunt and their children. All of these latter I had the good fortune to meet, as you will see.
‘It’s 5:40. Are we going to be able to see the sunrise?’ I asked.
‘We’ve already missed it. You seemed tired, so I let you sleep.’
‘Oh. Thanks.’ Actually, I was genuinely grateful. A sunrise is nice, but it’s no good if you’re too tired to appreciate it. ‘So what’s the plan for the day then?’
‘This morning, I will take you to Nagarkot. Then we will come back and have lunch with my wife.’
‘Cool. Wait a minute, your wife? Did I miss something? When did you get married?’
‘No, no, not married yet. On the 21st, we will have our engagement ceremony. Then we will get married next year.’
‘Ah, so she’s your fiancée then. Good-o. And the temple? When can we see the temple?’
‘When we get back from Nagarkot.’
As Purna set about getting his things in order, I went to the window and got my first real glimpse of Nepal in daylight. The building I had seen across the way was typical of the others, though most were less run-down. But a fair number had, in like fashion, some evidence of moss on their tiled roofs. None of these buildings were particularly new.
The square, despite the early hour, had come to vibrant life. Hawkers, merchants and farmers were coming to occupy the shops or set up a space for their wares and produce around the edges of the square. Nepal falls within the cultural orbit of India and the subcontinent and, for the first time, this now became evident to me; indeed such was my prior ignorance that I had not known this before and it came as a surprise. The men that milled about were dressed for the most part in Western clothes- long trousers or jeans, T-shirts and the like- but some wore baggy trousers of cotton or some other natural fibre with a kameez, a short tunic that comes down past the waist with a small slit at either side, over the top. The women, very few of whom wore anything approximating Western styles, wore sarees or salwar kameez, baggy trousers and short tunic like the men (but looking far more elegant in them) with a silk scarf draped to form a U across their front, the ends of which hung halfway down the back.
My first view of Nepal
As I watched, a slow trickle of young people, wearing an assortment of identical clothes, made their way in twos and threes from one side to the other and down the street directly below us. Were these students? They were evidently wearing some kind of uniform, but the styles were quite disparate. Two in particular stood out. One group’s comprised a yellow polo top and light blue shorts. The other was a striped blue button down shirt with navy trousers and tie. In both cases, boys and girls wore identical outfits. In the case of the latter uniform, this looked particularly odd. Groups of five or six girls all arrayed in trousers and ties- the fancy came to my mind of a cross-dressing convention somewhere in town to which they were all going.
‘Who are they?’ I asked Purna.
‘Students,’ said he.
‘I thought so. There must be quite a few schools in the area. But they’re going awfully early. What time does school start?’
‘Seven?! That’s going to be a long day.’
‘Not so long. They finish at 11:30.’
‘For lunch, or is that the end of it?’
‘That’s the end.’
‘Oh, I see. So it’s like summer school. Well, that makes sense, given the time of year.’
I would have liked to stay, watching from that window, seeing Nepalese life pass by. But we had a schedule to keep (apparently), even if sunrise had beaten us to the punch. We left our things (we would be back to pick them up later before moving on) and made our way downstairs, where Purna retook possession of his bike, and we were on our way.
The streets of Bhaktapur were now awash with humanity and, consequently, there was a lot of swerving. I was glad I had left my rucksack behind- it would have played havoc with the bike’s balance at such times. From that square (whose name I later learned was Taumadhi Tol) we zipped, swerved and dodged our way down several narrow red brick streets before emerging into another square, smaller than Taumadhi Tol. Then, plunging back into the labyrinth of narrow streets, where no car could ever hope to go, we presently passed through an old gate and emerged onto a bitumen road. This would take us to Nagarkot.
At this point, I didn’t really have a clear idea (as probably you also do not yet) of what exactly Nagarkot was. But I didn’t bother to ask- I would find out soon enough anyway- and was content merely to observe our surroundings and enjoy the journey. ‘To travel hopefully is better than to arrive,’ said Robert Louis Stevenson and, though I’m not sure I agree with him, to travel hopefully is certainly at least as good as arriving. So it was in this case.
Before long we had moved into what appeared to be countryside. Like China, Nepal seems to have no recognisable suburbia. There is an area beyond town which might, by some definitions, be regarded as suburbs, but it certainly would not be recognised as such by most Westerners. In such areas, houses are plentiful and so is land. But the houses are tall and narrow, mostly three storeys high, and may house more than one family (or in some cases, one family and a shop or some kind of business on the lower level). In between the houses is often a fair quantity of land, depending on their location, too small to be farmland (though some things may be grown on it), too big to be a frontyard/backyard. Sometimes the houses are grouped together, side by side, along the edge of the road or a little way back for a hundred metres or more. Other times, they may be in small clusters, not necessarily near the main road at all. Other times they are scattered across the landscape, lone houses each occupying their little patch. Not a recognisable suburbia, but not exactly countryside either. And indeed, quite similar to the outskirts of town here in China in many ways. Here, unlike in Bhaktapur, I began to feel on slightly more familiar ground.
The outskirts of Khathmandu
But appearances can be deceiving. At one point, we passed a large military compound, and I saw soldiers moving about inside it. We saw several more of these before we reached our destination; training grounds where young men could be seen exercising, large gates with guards and barbed wire fences to either side. Later, labouring up the mountain, we came upon a contingent, 50 strong or more, out for their morning march.
Nepal is in many ways much like Switzerland, and not just because of its small size and mountainous landscape. Militarily, it has, like its European cousin, presented itself as a bastion of neutrality in the region, refusing for the last century or so to get involved in international squabbles (eg. between India and China, its two largest and most powerful neighbours, both of whom it depends upon economically and neither of whom particularly like each other). Like Switzerland, Nepal’s military are some of the best in the world- their air force particularly adept, not surprising given the terrain. It is from Nepal that the famous Ghurkas come, many of whom have made names for themselves in the British Army and the SAS (more about them later). But unlike Switzerland, though no invading army has menaced their borders in more than 100 years, Nepal has seen plenty of civil turmoil, which has continued until very recently. Until 2008, to be precise.
Before then, the Communist Party was militant, and Maoists (their own name for themselves) roamed the land, their armies holding a large portion of the western half of the country. Between the massacre of King Birendra and his family in 2001 and the stepping down of the loathsome King Gyanendra in 2008, a civil war in all but name prevailed. The flow of tourists slowed to a trickle, the economy grew moribund. Mostly, tourists were not harmed, though there are stories of trekkers and mountain climbers being stopped by armed bands of Communists demanding a ‘donation’ to their cause. Still, no one wants to go for a holiday in a country in such turmoil. Kathmandu was even laid siege to on one occasion.
Now, of course, the economy is not really any better, but the troubles are mostly over (or replaced by other troubles, I suppose) since the Communists have joined the political process and taken their place in a multi-party republican system. In which, as it happens, they currently enjoy a parliamentary majority. It remains to be seen for how long the system will remain stable. It is barely five years old, after all.
It occurred to me, as I watched these soldiers do their exercises in the yard and march up and down the mountain roads, that almost all of them would have seen action very recently. Indeed, that many of these men had been all that stood between what had become a very imperfect monarchy and a full-blown Communist revolution. In the end, there was compromise. There was no revolutionary government take-over like in Russia or China; but neither was there a total victory over the revolutionaries, like in Spain in the 30s. Still, a compromise solution is better than defeat, and many of these soldiers were responsible for the fact that Nepal experienced the former rather than the latter.
As we began to leave behind the Kathmandu Valley, the scenery began to change dramatically. Around the Valley, there are what would in any other country be called mountains, but what in a country that includes Mt Everest might be better termed hills. Moving out of the city, they quickly become visible- looming green bulks with no gap between. Their slopes are steep, but not craggy or rocky, and they wear a coat of many-hued greenery; their sides thick with trees in places, conifers and pines for the most part, but in others dozens of terraces create steps on the slopes filled with rice or corn (I was not expecting corn but evidently it’s a popular crop). Here and there are houses, but these are few. The road snaked up the sides of one particular hill, following its contours for the most part, though some sections reminded me heavily of Old Bathurst Road. And these hills were at least twice the height of the Blue Mountains, if not higher (indeed Nagarkot, where we were going, is about the same height as Mt Kosciusko).
The foliage that we passed surprised me. Moving up into the hills, the atmosphere reminded me of a rainforest or jungle. Large ferns hung down over the road, moss-covered rocks and boulders could be seen here and there to either side, and the higher we went, the denser the trees became, so that all was bathed in a greenish-tinged light, as though it were a mountain from the Matrix. It isn’t often acknowledged, what with Nepal enjoying titles like ‘The Roof of the World’ and the like, but the country is just barely north of the Tropic of Cancer.
Looking up, I could see that the tops of the hills were wreathed in mist. I breathed deeply. The air was deliciously fresh, fragrant with the scent of greenery and life, but pure and clean. And cool. I hadn’t brought a jumper or jacket and began to wonder if this had been a mistake (it turned out it wasn’t once the sun got a little higher).
At last, after about an hour and a half of driving, we arrived at a touristy space just short of the summit of Nagarkot, which I now realised was the name of the mountain we had been climbing. There were a couple of stalls there, and a small parking area. We availed ourselves of this latter and dismounted. My legs, I discovered, were terribly stiff, though a bit of shaking and jumping got the blood flowing again. I wonder if folks who ride on motorcycles regularly and for substantial lengths of time get bow-legged, like horsemen used to do. Racking my brain, I tried to recall if I had ever seen a bow-legged bikie, but couldn’t be sure.
Leaving behind the stalls (which mostly sold snacks and drinks, neither of which we needed at this time, especially given that we had not yet breakfasted), we made our way up towards the summit of Nagarkot. A flight of concrete steps led there, through some trees and out onto the peak. Tied to the trees were lines of string, hanging from which were multi-coloured squares of cloth, each with writing on them. They looked rather like clothes on a lot of clotheslines. An odd kind of washing day. I asked Purna what they were.
‘They’re Buddhist,’ he said.
‘Buddhist what? Prayers? Scriptures?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘But you’re Buddhist!’
‘They’re written in Sanskrit. I can’t read it. The monks can, but I can’t. When we go to Swayambahu, maybe we can find a monk who can tell you more.’
Indeed, I did get some answers later, though not so much about the writing (we couldn’t exactly take a copy with us) but I did learn a little of the symbolism of the colours, which apparently represent the elements.
Reaching the top of the steps, I found to my surprise that I was incredibly out of breath suddenly. That’s odd, I thought, I’m unfit, but not that unfit. Then I realised: Ah, the altitude. We were high up now, and the air was thinner. Indeed, folks back in China had warned me about the dangers of altitude sickness, and this was my first taste. Also, fortunately, my only taste this trip, seeing as we did no mountaineering or trekking to speak of.
At the top of Nagarkot, there is a small area in the centre of which is a tower. A tower of metal. Or not even a tower, really, but a metal framework with a lookout erected on top. It was not old at all, though it did look rundown. I never did work out what its purpose was. Directly beneath its centre was a concrete monument, a tiny obelisk that came to chest-level, on two sides bearing a plaque in Nepali. Purna translated this for me- it seems it was erected by King Mahendra (Birendra’s father) about 40 years before.
What is notable about Nagarkot, however, is not what is on top of it, but what can be seen from it. The summit gave a full 360 degree view of the surrounding country. Looking about, I could see for the first time, off to the north, the terrible and majestic Himalayas. Snow-capped, scraping the heavens, they towered before and above us, and indeed they were a sight to behold. They must still have been a hundred or more miles away, but their height made up for the distance and, like objects in a rear view mirror, they appeared closer than they were. Peak after peak poked through the clouds, and it occurred to me that we have been unjust in rendering such fame to Everest. There are dozens of peaks all along that range that are barely shorter and equal Everest in magnificence if not in height.
First glimpse of the Himalayas
In fact, it was not my fate to see Everest itself on this occasion (though I would before I returned home)- the eastern Himalaya were shrouded by thick cloud, and nothing could be seen of them. But several other of the western-lying mountains could, and I began to learn their names for the first time- Ganesh Himal, named for the elephant-headed god, whom it resembles; the almost conical Dorje Lakpa; the double-peaked Gauri Shankar, named for Shiva, the god of destruction, and his consort; and Melungtse, just north of the border in China, which was not successfully climbed until a couple of Slovenians finally succeeded in 1992.
Purna & I pose in front of the Himalayas atop Nagarkot. Behind can be seen Dorje-Lakpa & Phurbi-Ghyachu.
Actually, we were not alone on top of Nagarkot. There was another group there, a dozen or so travellers from Thailand, with a Nepali guide. They seemed mostly in their 40s and 50s or older, but were very good-natured and friendly, and Purna and their guide conversed freely. Despite their mean age, they seemed possessed of an almost child-like glee at being there, chattering excitedly in Thai. One man, who was at least 50 and maybe older, got the bright idea to climb the tower. Planting a foot halfway up King Mahendra’s monument, he enacted an impressive feat of gymnastics to get himself onto the lowest rung of the metal framework (which was at least 3 or 4 metres above the ground), then climbed easily up to stand in the lookout. It was a breathtaking act of childishness, stupidity and foolhardiness. Given the fellow’s evident age, I couldn’t help but be impressed. A couple of the other Thais soon followed suit, though how they planned to get down again I’ve no idea.
‘Mr Glenn, why don’t you go up?’ suggested Purna.
And maybe a few years ago, I might have. But, whether because I’m more sensible or more cowardly than I used to be, I chose to stay put.
After about twenty minutes, I was feeling peckish, so we decided to descend. The Thais who had climbed up were still in the lookout when we left, and I never did discover how they got down, or whether they did so uninjured.
Back on the motorcycle, I prevailed upon Purna to find us somewhere for breakfast. The stalls at the top of Nagarkot had nothing that would fit the bill.
The paucity of customers provokes storekeepers below Nagarkot’s summit to resort to a badminton game to pass the time.
Besides which, I was hungry for a proper sit-down breakfast, if possible, not something on the go. And indeed we eventually found exactly that. Somewhere mid-way down Nagarkot’s side, we found a village which had several small inns and restaurants. It apparently catered mostly for trekkers and backpackers, though how many of those it gets these days I don’t know (we saw a single group of foreigners during about an hour spent there- there were three of them). Having ducked into at least one other place and been dissatisfied by what they offered, we settled on a small wooden house a little way from the main road with a couple of short tables out front. Purna parked his bike and we inspected their menu which, fortunately for me, was in English.
The place was owned by a family with two children. The boy, who seemed in his mid-teens, appeared to take our order. The girl, who must have been about 3, was terribly cute but also shy, and spent most of her time holding onto her mother or peering at us round the wooden columns that held up the house. The fare seemed varied and mostly geared towards the tastes of foreigners- if ‘foreigners’ includes Chinese and Indians.
‘I like the sound of this cheese omelette,’ I mused, inspecting the items, ‘That would go down splendidly right now. But what is typical here? What do Nepalese eat for breakfast? Most of this looks foreign.’
‘Usually we will have dudh [it sounded like ‘dut’ but with an almost-voiced ‘t’]. It’s a hot milk drink,’ explained Purna.
‘That sounds great. Let’s have that, then,’ said I. ‘Is that all, though? You usually just have a drink?’
‘No, we also have wai-wai. It has noodles and soup and some vegetables. This is traditional breakfast. I can make it.’
‘Ok, well, if we can have that, so much the better. And maybe sometime later you can make it for me yourself.’
‘I can make it for you myself now.’
‘What? How? It’s their kitchen. You can’t just commandeer somebody else’s kitchen!’
‘Yes, I can,’ he said, and disappeared into the house. He reappeared fifteen minutes later with two large bowls full of the wai-wai he had described. Shortly on the heels of these came two glasses of dudh and an omelette with toast that I hadn’t realised I had ordered but evidently had.
‘They didn’t mind?’ I asked Purna incredulously.
‘Of course not,’ he said, as though going into a restaurant and asking for the use of their facilities to cook one’s own meal were the most normal thing in the world. Which, it would seem, in some parts of the world perhaps it is.
The whole meal was completely wonderful and reminded me of breakfasts I had enjoyed back in England- diverse, delicious and completely satisfying. The dudh in particular was superb, to the extent that in the days to come it became my drink of choice, such that if I found myself in a Nepalese home or restaurant and was offered a drink, dudh was what I asked for. At first, I had assumed that it was prepared in some particular way; but I later discovered that it was simply boiling milk. Nonetheless, it tasted different to any other milk I have ever tasted, slightly sweeter perhaps, a more full-bodied taste. I can think of two possible reasons for this, though I’ve no way of knowing which, if either, of them is correct. On the one hand, it may be because the milk is straight from a cow, without having been pasteurised or processed in any way. Never having spent much time on farms, I don’t know, but it may be that all unprocessed milk has this singular taste. On the other hand, it may be because of Nepalese cows. As in India, Nepalese cows are sacred. They wander the streets and roads and fields and do pretty much as they wish wherever they go. Accordingly, and out of reverence for them, the Nepalese do not engage in any kind of selective breeding of cattle. If the cows want to reproduce, they reproduce. I’ve read some outside authorities deplore this apparent negligence and the resulting inferior quality in all cow-related products that results therefrom. And it may be due to this laissez-faire approach to bovine posterity that the milk tastes different. If so, kudos to the Hindus (and a sidethought- if the cows of other nations ever did rise up against their masters and mount a revolution, the people of India and Nepal would be sitting pretty because there’s no way their cows would ever have any desire to overthrow them!).
When we had finished our breakfast, it was back on the motorcycle and down the way we had come. The chill rainforest-like ambience of the hills gave way to the dry air and open spaces of the valley, which in turn gave way to the bustle and crowded streets of the Kathmandu outskirts, and before long we were back on the red brick roads of Bhaktapur. These were even more lively than when we had left and, looking at my watch, I was surprised to note that it was still well before 10am. We still had the whole day ahead of us.
Pulling up before the establishment where we had spent the night, I discovered why the corridor that led in from the street had seemed so narrow and cave-like the previous evening. It was flanked by two shops, run by (it seemed) relatives of the proprietors, and the entrance to the inn was buried in the small bit of space that lay between them. Its narrowness was illusory, since the shop fronts let onto it as well as onto the street- they were very open- but the previous night everything had been closed up, which gave it that singularly unwelcoming (and indeed almost invisible) appearance. Now everything was open, and the contrast was marked.
The two shops were quite specific in their wares. The one to the left of the inn’s entrance was owned by a gentleman who seemed to be well acquainted with Purna, though I never did learn their history. He was an artisan, an artist and painter who worked with cloth, making images of mandalas, chakras, boddhisatvas and Hindu deities. He seemed to have some acquaintance with metalwork as well since a number of these had gold-leaf worked into them. Naturally, these tended to be grander and more expensive than the others. I was taken with many of these, the bright colours, the exquisite designs, but was reticent about buying them, for religious reasons. As pretty as it is, I can’t really justify hanging a picture of Krishna on my wall. But I did purchase from this gentleman a beautiful and wonderfully detailed cloth wall-hanging depicting the life story of the Buddha.
The shop on the right of the inn’s entrance dealt in items of wood. Some of these were magnificent; huge and intricate statues of Ganesh or Vishnu, or of the one-horned rhinoceros, a unique animal of Nepal of which they are extremely proud. Here I bought for myself a plate with some wonderful carvings which I think will serve nicely as a cheese platter, a jewellery box for my mother and, strangest of all the items in the shop, a wooden tie, which I can’t wait to take for a spin once the Wuhan weather grows cool enough for tie-wearing.
I also had a number of questions for the proprietors. The wood shop was run by a woman, also apparently a relative of those who ran the inn, and her English was good. Given the many religious statues in the place and my growing awareness of the extent of my ignorance on that subject, I put some questions to her.
‘This is Shiva?’
‘No, this is Vishnu. That one there,’ she said, pointing, ‘is Shiva.’
‘What’s the difference?’
‘Vishnu is the sustainer. He keeps everything going. He represents life and order and stability. Shiva is the destroyer. He is the, how to say, agent of change. He makes things new by destroying them and clearing the way for what will come. There is also Brahma, the Creator. But we don’t worship him.’
‘A long time ago, he told a lie to Shiva. So we don’t worship him.’
‘Harsh. What about this one?’
‘That is Avalokiteshvara.’
‘Oh. I know that name. A boddhisatva, right? That’s the one the Chinese call Guanyin. But in China it’s female. This one’s a man. Or depicted as one.’
‘Why do they have many arms? Is that supposed to be literal, or symbolic of something?’
‘Many arms or many heads or different coloured skin- this is not normal. So when we show the gods like this, it means they are beyond nature.’
‘I see. Tell me something. I’ve been hearing about the Newari religion, but I’m not really clear what it is. Can you tell me something about it?’
‘Newari is the people who were here in Nepal since long ago.’
‘So it’s a native religion, like Bon in Tibet. Or….wait, is it different from Hinduism or Buddhism, or is it a subset of one of those?’
‘Newari is Buddhist and Hindu. Some of the gods are boddhisatvas. Some of the boddhisatvas are gods. We worship them all.’
‘So you also are Newari, then?’
‘No. But many people here are like this. There is not such a separation.’ The truth of that statement I was to discover more and more as my sojourn continued.
Now the time had come to see Bhaktapur properly. To be honest, I am disappointed looking back on the next hour or two- not at what I saw but at what I discerned, or failed to. My ignorance was such that the following must necessarily be limited to first impressions, though I will interject a few titbits of information that I managed to pick up later where possible.
The first port of call was the temple I had glimpsed last night. Alas, we couldn’t go inside it, but we didn’t need to. A contrast that Professor John Hale often points out is that, architecturally, pagan temples are always eye-catching and awe-inspiring on the outside but mostly plain on the inside, whereas Christian churches are plain on the outside but eye-catching and awe-inspiring on the inside. This has to do with the fact that only priests are supposed to go inside pagan temples, whereas churches are intended to admit the masses. This principle certainly obtained in this case. Indeed, it looked like the inside of the temple would be so small that with two or three people it would feel cramped, especially if there’s an altar or an image of the god inside. I guess it only requires one priest, as a rule.
The name of the temple, I later found out, is Nyatopola. It was erected by one of the Malla kings back in the eighteenth century (a certain Bhupatindra) in honour of Lakshmi, the consort of (or, alternatively, the feminine aspect of) Vishnu. It is the highest and grandest in Bhaktapur. The architecture of the structure is quite interesting. It is vertically symmetrical. The base is a kind of step pyramid, with five massive steps leading up to the main body of the temple. Above that, the roof is also arranged in five tiers- or, indeed, one might say there are five roofs, one on top of the other, each smaller than the last. So the roof and base mirror each other, with the temple itself nestled between the two.
On each level of the base, there are statues, and these flank the steps leading up to the door of the temple. Each of these statues is significant: it is said that each pair is ten times stronger than the pair below it. Thus, on the lowest level, are two famous wrestlers (or, at least, they were famous when the temple was built 300-odd years ago). Above them are two elephants, above them two lions (I guess they figured lions can kill elephants, so the elephant isn’t really the stronger), then two gryphons and finally two minor goddesses, Baghini and Singhini. I suppose Lakshmi, who is technically on the next level up, is the strongest of all, or at least that’s the idea.
Moving on from Nyatopola and Taumadhi Tol, Purna and I began inspecting the narrow streets of Bhaktapur at a more leisurely pace than had been possible astride a motorcycle. Every street seemed filled with shops, restaurants and the like with no obvious residences, and I began wondering if this historical city of Bhaktapur might not be rather like Venice, which becomes practically deserted at night because almost no one actually lives there anymore. But then, I think, a good number of people in Bhaktapur live above their places of commerce, and there are certainly enough upper-storey levels to accommodate them. So it is far from a tourist relic yet.
While we were inspecting some of the street merchants and their wares, I felt a pull on my arm. I turned to find a young girl of about 7 or 8 in dirty clothes, holding a boy of even younger years. She was soon joined by a friend in similar condition, also holding a toddler. It was clear they wanted money.
To be honest, I was not quite sure how to react to them. I’ve gotten to know a few beggars in my time; but they were all adults. These were children. We beneficiaries of the welfare state tend to romanticise and idealise the concept of the street urchin. Oliver Twist, the Artful Dodger, Gavroche. They find a permanent place in our hearts and our literature. But there’s nothing so glamourous about the reality. I had never met one before, not one in a country without any kind of dole or child welfare system. And I was at a loss. What are the demands of justice in this situation?
One of the street merchants, a dear old woman in a green saree, saw them hanging around and shooed them away. But they were persistent and they caught up with us when we moved on to a different street. I decided not to give them any money (not least because Purna was very firm on the issue), but my curiosity about them, about what their lives must be like, got the better of me, and I tried to engage them in conversation a little since they were following us around anyway. Their English, in fact, turned out to be sufficient to allow a certain level of communication, in the event, a fact which pleasantly surprised me and shocked Purna.
‘Where are your parents?’
‘Um, ok. What about school? You both seem very intelligent. Do you go to school?’
‘Why not today?’
‘Holiday. Tomorrow we go.[After a little prompting from her friend in Nepali] No, tomorrow tomorrow we go.’
There was more than that, but amidst various communication problems and misunderstandings, this was what the conversation essentially boiled down to.
The sun was now getting higher in the sky and the weather was turning hot. Not as intolerable as in Wuhan, but hot enough to be uncomfortable if one was in an open space without shade. We stopped at a small shop to get a drink, while admiring the large prints of the mountains which this shop also happened to sell.
‘Would you like a drink? I’ll buy you a drink, if you like,’ I offered our tagalong street urchins, but they shook their heads. What kind of beggar refuses the offer of a free drink? But no, they only wanted money (‘for schoolbooks,’ they were now saying). Odd.
Eventually we passed into another square. There was a temple in this one too, smaller than Nyatopola, about which I never did learn very much. Not even its name, alas. What drew our attention more immediately was at one side of the square where, on mats, there were arrayed in an at least 20mᵌ area a host of handmade pots, jars, basins and bowls.
To the left of these was a series of two or three small huts, one of which was filled floor to ceiling in clay. It was a potter’s. A couple of them, in fact. And we could see every step of the process being demonstrated before us. One fellow was mixing the clay. Another had a great mass of the stuff, black and soft and wet, and was massaging it and moulding it back and forth to get the impurities out of it and prepare it for working. We stopped to watch, and he invited us to have a go ourselves but, not knowing when I would next visit a washing machine or where the nearest shower was, I politely refused (at some point during this exchange, our street urchins decided they had better ways to spend their time, and I never saw them again).
Purna observes the clay-making process
In the last hut was a much younger fellow, and he seemed to specialise in the last step of the whole process- using the potters’ wheel to sculpt and create the final products. His hut was quite small and on every side there were shelves. Ranged along the shelves were hundreds of designs- simple ones like small cups and pots, or more decorative ones like tiny statues of Ganesh or of the one-horned rhinoceros. At the front of the hut was his potter’s wheel, and he was kind enough to offer us a couple of stools and give a demonstration of the device.
He and Purna got along very well indeed-. he was a cheery, amiable lad, and I think Purna smelt a business opportunity.
‘Do you see these designs, Mr Glenn?’ he said, ‘Handmade. Back in China, these could sell for a lot. Many people would want to buy them.’
Purna was even more happy when he noticed, in the back of the hut, lying on top of some jars, a Chinese textbook.
‘That’s the textbook I used to use!’ he said excitedly.
It turned out the young potter was hoping to do some study in China sometime in the future. He told us he had interrupted his schooling to begin work in the family business (apparently it was his father moulding the clay outside), but wanted to take it up again in some way in the future if he could, so he was studying Chinese on the side. Purna told him that this was excellent and to stay in touch with him. They exchanged details.
‘If you come, you can be successful,’ he said, ‘Few Chinese can do what you do.’
The young potter was very happy to hear this, and he and Purna stayed there chatting in Nepali for several minutes. When we finally took our leave, he offered us a small one-nosed rhinoceros each as a gift.
Our potter friend gives a demonstration. Behind him are his workmanship of the previous couple of days.
Lunch with Tara
It was time now for lunch, or getting close to it, so Purna and I made our way back to Taumadhi Tol and collected our bags from the inn. Then, back on the motorcycle and we were away.
Lunch was to be with Purna’s fiancée, and this seems a good time to introduce her. Her name is Tara, but again the Nepalese fashion seems to be to close the distance between voiced and unvoiced consonants, so to me it always sounded more like Dara (or perhaps Dhara). Purna explained to me on the way a little of the history of their relationship.
They had met nine years earlier. At the time, she was studying English at university and he was an apprentice chef. They had had a relationship at that time but had decided that, given their respective stations in life, it would be better to call it off and wait until they were more established and secure financially. Subsequently, they had lost touch.
They had only gotten back in touch recently, I think with some help from modern social networking fads. They found each other quite well established and financially secure (each had recently bought some land, as it happened- Tara was already building a house on hers, while Purna was still preparing to do so on his) and the subject of marriage came up pretty early. The way Purna told it, the conversation went something like this:
‘Do you want to get married?’
It seems the Nepalese share with the Chinese a certain ruthless pragmatism when it comes to romance.
Tara currently works for the airline ‘Buddha Air’ as an air hostess, a pretty well-paid job which has the pleasant side effect (the airline being a domestic one) of not taking her away from home for days at a time. Indeed, Nepal is so small that sometimes she does two flights in a day and can still be back in Kathmandu for a late lunch.
Though the engagement had not yet been officially announced (that would happen on the 21st, coincidentally the same day as my departure), it had been unofficially announced, at least to the respective families, and these had had markedly different reactions. Tara’s family was perfectly happy with the match. Indeed, I had the pleasure of meeting some of them later, and they all got on with Purna famously. But Purna’s family was not so keen. The reason: Tara and Purna are from different castes. As in India, the caste system rules and organises Nepalese society. Purna, it turns out, is from the Tamang caste, a mid-level one. Tara is a Chetri, which is just below the Brahmins- i.e. quite high. The matter surprised me- not the caste issues but the source of the objections. Surely, one would think, a lower caste boy marrying a higher caste girl would be seen as a good catch? The girl’s family perhaps might have reason to protest, since she’s marrying below herself, but the boy’s family ought to rejoice, oughtn’t they? I found the disparity in reactions quite inexplicable. Not what I would have expected in the least. But, curious as I was, I didn’t pry any further. It was a sensitive subject, after all.
Presently, we reached Tara’s house. It was a large blue structure, narrow and tall with a fence around it, perched on the outskirts of town where the countryside met the quasi-suburbia. Tara came to meet us at the door (and what a door! Such magnificent woodwork- later I snuck out to take photos of it) and I had my first brush with a recurring nuisance that would raise its head regularly during my travels- untying and removing my shoes at every house I entered. It now became clear why everyone in Nepal wears sandals. And why do I tie such ridiculously complicated knots?
The view from Tara’s house
A door of special magnificence
The inside of Tara’s house was pleasantly domestic. Indeed, she didn’t occupy the whole house, but just the second floor. I think the other floors may have belonged to other members of her family, but I was never completely clear on that. Her section of the building had two bedrooms at one end, a kitchen at the other, and a large sitting room in between. Lunch was about ready (we’d made splendid time getting there) and so we sat down to eat almost immediately.
The meal comprised several dishes, most of which I didn’t recognise. I picked and chose and found a few things I liked and a few things I didn’t, largely by trial and error, and took large helpings of the former. There was a delicious potato dish, and a pork curry that was not too spicy. And tea. Sweet milk tea. I’ve developed a taste for the Chinese teas while I’ve been here, the pots and cups filled with leaves and flowers and what-have-you, but this- tea with milk and sugar, brewed to perfection- tasted like home. I sipped it, sat back and smiled.
I was also keen to pick Tara’s brain while we were there. From my experiences that morning, the weight of my own ignorance weighed heavy upon me, and I was eager to alleviate it with knowledge. Tara was able to tell me a little about the Newari religion and the instinctive syncretism that is the Nepalese religious status quo. But our most interesting discussion concerned politics, and it contained some unexpected surprises.
‘What did you think of the King?’ I asked casually at one point.
‘King Birendra was good. We loved him very much. Hearing that he was killed, it was …..terrible.’ There was emotion in her voice when she said it. I sat up.
‘But you got rid of the King?’
‘We got rid of Gyanendra. He was a very bad King. He couldn’t rule. His sons were involved with the Mafia. And he couldn’t win against the Maoists. He was no good at all.’
‘So the people deposed him.’
‘He stepped down.’
‘And now you have a republic.’
‘Yes, now we have a republic. There will be an election in November. If all of the parties agree to participate. But it doesn’t make much difference.’
‘But, hang on, I thought…so you were never opposed to the monarchy?’
‘And what about other Nepalese? How did the people in general feel?’
‘Everybody loved the King.’
‘By which you mean King Birendra.’
‘King Birendra, and King Mahendra, his father. And those that came before.’
‘So…. why is there a republic now? I assumed people wanted it. Didn’t you want a republic?’
‘We wanted democracy. But we never wanted to get rid of the King.’
‘Ok, I’m trying to understand this. Nobody wanted Gyanendra to be King, right? But equally, nobody wanted to abolish the monarchy. That’s what you’re telling me. So, why not simply install another King when Gyanendra stepped down?’
‘There was nobody left! Mr Glenn, you have to understand something. When King Birendra was killed, so was his whole family. It was a grand dinner. Everyone was there. The only person who was not there was Gyanendra. And it was a massacre. Everyone- his wife, his sons and daughters, uncles, aunts and cousins, nephews and nieces- everyone was slaughtered. We are still reeling from the shock of it. When Gyanendra stepped down, there was truly no one else. By that time, all we wanted was peace. But there was no one who could sit on our throne anymore.’
‘So you had no choice but to become a republic?’
‘We had no choice.’
I found this all very difficult to take in. I had read some of the history in the weeks leading up to my arrival and had a basic grasp of the outlines of Nepal’s modern history. But I had not seen into the heart of Nepal’s people. Now I had. And I found there a deep sadness and resignation. The royal massacre of 2001 traumatised the country beyond description and all the time since has been picking up the pieces. I expect they will be picking up the pieces for decades yet, even if this experiment in republicanism holds. If it does not, it will take even longer.
After lunch, we continued talking, and there was more tea, but I suddenly found myself feeling terribly drowsy. The long waking hours and concomitant lack of sleep of the past two days were catching up with me. Sheepishly, I excused myself and asked if there were somewhere I could lie down for a spell. There was a kind of setee in the sitting room to which Purna and Tara directed me. Fortunately siestas are de rigeur in this part of the world (as they are also in Wuhan, particularly during the summer months) so my request was seen as perfectly normal. I settled myself down for a quick power nap, after which Purna had promised to take me around some of the temples in Kathmandu proper.
So much for a power nap. When I awoke, it was almost 5pm. I had slept for three or four hours. A little embarrassed, I went into the kitchen and found Purna and Tara talking conspiratorially. Engagement and wedding talk, I surmised.
‘Ah, you’re awake,’ said Purna, turning to me.
‘Yeah. Sorry. I suppose it’s a bit late to see much of Kathmandu now?’
‘没关系，没关系. We will go tomorrow. 别担心. Now I should take you to your hotel.’
So I grabbed my bags, and down the steps and out the door we trotted. Tara waved us off, and I thanked her for her hospitality and understanding (I felt terribly embarrassed about the nap) and expressed my hope that I would see her again before my departure. And indeed I would.
A happy couple
An Evening in Thamel
Back on the motorcycle, it was not long before we found ourselves in the busy streets of Kathmandu. This was, actually, the first time that I had gotten a proper sense of Kathmandu, or indeed seen it in daylight. For a city without skyscrapers, it seemed as busy and thriving as any other. The ratio of motorcycles to cars was interesting. The former clearly outnumbered the latter, and that by a wide margin. Where in Western countries motorcycles and scooters are a lifestyle choice, in Kathmandu, as in most cities of China, they are all but a necessity. The density of the population demands it. I expect that Western countries will have to follow this trend sooner or later, if for none but environmental reasons, but it wouldn’t surprise me if they don’t do it without a lot of kicking and screaming. We do love our cars.
At some point in our foray into Nepal’s most urban of urban centres, we found ourselves in a quarter quite unlike the others. The streets were narrow- too narrow for cars (barely one could pass comfortably, even if there were no pedestrians, of which there invariably were many)- and filled with potholes. Some parts made me think the name ‘road’ was barely justified as the potholes outnumbered the patches of bitumen. On all sides were shops, and of quite specific kinds- mountaineering and hiking shops, selling all sorts of gear and specialised equipment, bookshops, small restaurants catering for particular nationalities (but no fast food, thankfully), shops of various popular handicrafts, woodcarvings, cloth bags and shawls, necklaces made from seeds of the Bodhi tree, and clothes shops selling traditional styles for those who wanted to look the part. This was Thamel, the de facto tourist quarter of Kathmandu.
Looking around at the foreigners walking these streets (and almost all of them were), I began to notice something that ongoing experience would continue to reinforce. There were not so many Westerners here (indeed, I never met a single New Zealander!). Oh, there were some. We saw some Germans at one point and even happened by a French couple whom I gleefully eavesdropped on. And inevitably there were some Americans here and there, sticking out like Swiss Guards at a KKK meeting. But these were dwarfed by the numbers of Indians and Chinese. After all the troubles, it seems folks from the West are reluctant to see Nepal as a choice travel destination. The Indians and Chinese, on the other hand, have no such reticence, and are coming in droves. This, I discovered, has had an effect on quite a few people’s livelihoods. Some are hoping the Westerners will come back eventually, and they can pick up where they left off; others are taking advantage and doing what they can to get a competitive edge in the new environment.
As we drove through these streets, I began to become cognizant that Purna was not going anywhere in particular. When he had said ‘your hotel’, I had assumed he had one in mind, and maybe had even made a reservation. Apparently not. We stopped in front of a few hotels to make enquiries, but each of them was full up. Finally we found one that wasn’t.
It was a large establishment by the name of泰山酒店, with a large courtyard and fountain in front, flanked by a small youth hostel on one side (the cheaper option for those who couldn’t afford the hotel) and a couple of tour agents/shops on the other, where travel arrangements and activity packages could be organised. The whole stood behind a large gate that opened onto one of the narrow roads (I use the term loosely) of Thamel, this overseen by a security guard who got to know the sight of me pretty quickly (being neither Nepalese or Chinese, I stuck out) and got into the habit of saluting me whenever I entered or exited the place.
This hotel and its environs was perhaps the most overt evidence of the present extent of Chinese tourism in Nepal that I had yet seen. The hotel and the commercial barnacles that clung to it were all geared to service the needs of the Chinese traveller, and there were plenty who took advantage. Signs and advertisements were in Chinese, and there were a handful of Chinese staff in addition to the native Nepalis.
This suited me fine; indeed, it felt comparatively familiar, all things considered. It struck me too: tourism is a funny industry. You can liken it to a mass of bubbles all floating in the one direction yet never touching. If you go to a tourist-heavy destination (especially on a package tour), you’re likely to stay in your own bubble, set apart by language and cultural background markers. There are lots of other bubbles, other tourist groups, but you have little contact with them. You’re all discovering the same new place, seeing the same new sights, but cut off from each other. At this point, and at several others during my sojourn, I felt the odd sensation of having crossed over into someone else’s bubble. Experiencing Nepal through a Chinese filter.
Purna, as luck would have it, was acquainted with one of the Chinese employees behind the counter and was able to get me a discounted price on a room. 关系 is a beautiful thing. It was a nice room too, though I didn’t spend very much time in it on this occasion. No, our first port of call was dinner.
Out we stepped into the bustle of Thamel, leaving the motorcycle behind this time. The streets were lined with merchants, selling all manner of things. But our primary concern at this time was food.
‘What do you want to eat?’ asked Purna.
‘Something Nepalese,’ said I. The novelty factor was still strong.
Such possibilities were ample. Purna led me to an upstairs restaurant bearing the name ‘Himalayan Thakali’. We paid little attention to the menu; Purna already knew what we would order. After we had washed our hands in a basin in a small alcove off to the side, there were brought out for us two large silver platters. In the middle of each platter was a mid-sized pyramid of rice; arrayed around it were smaller helpings of various dishes. The largest of these was a kind of meat in a kind of sauce. I think it was mutton. There was also some kind of thin green vegetable with the shape of an asparagus but the leafy texture of a brussel sprout; achar, which is a pickled tomato (I got the impression this was very popular in some quarters), some lentils, and a couple of other bits and pieces that I recall less clearly. All of these were designed to be mixed into the rice and eaten together. The meat and rice together is known asdaal bhaat and, by all accounts, appears to be a Nepalese staple. This is what the poor and the rural farmers eat for dinner.
When the platter was brought, after inspecting the food, it came to my notice that there was no cutlery.
‘There’s no cutlery,’ I said to Purna, ‘Should I call them back? Or do we have to go get it from somewhere?’
‘No, no, this is normal. You eat it with your fingers.’
I was aware that the folk of the subcontinent eat with their fingers as a rule- indeed I have seen Kiran do it on more than one occasion- but I had never done it myself. Oh well, I thought, how hard can it be? I just have to get over my culturally-ingrained ick factor. No different than eating apple slices or finger food at a cocktail party (not that I have ever been to a cocktail party or, for that matter, know anyone who throws them).
I was wrong. Eating apple slices or finger food is one thing. Eating rice, or rice with sauce, or rice with meat in sauce, or rice and lentils and sauce, is another thing entirely. Dilemmas I had not imagined raised their heads. How am I supposed to pick this up? Do I use my fingers like a shovel or spoon and scoop it into my mouth? Or do I gather it and eat it out of the palm of my hand? Or do I pick it up in small chunks between my fingers? How did Kiran used to do it? I can’t remember. Argh, the stuff won’t stick together! It’s going everywhere! Now what do I do? I wonder, is it bad manners to lick my fingers? What’s the etiquette here? Oh, how I wish I had a pair of chopsticks!
Despite my difficulties with the mode of eating, the food itself was quite nice. I avoided anything remotely spicy (especially theachar), so a couple of the side dishes were left, but most of it was perfectly delectable.
Having filled our bellies and washed our hands (mine particularly thoroughly and with soap- they had not acquitted themselves well), we headed back out into the street. The night was still young, and Purna was keen to browse some of the shops. It seemed some folks of his acquaintance had businesses in the area, and he wanted to drop in to see them. Me, I was keen to poke around in the bookshops. Which is always the case, but on this occasion I was after something particular. Specifically, something that could tell me about the various Hindu gods and goddesses, and how to recognise them. I was still feeling exceptionally behind the curve on that subject.
By a considerable stroke of luck, the second bookshop we entered had exactly what I was looking for: the heavily-illustrated Gods, Goddesses & Religious Symbols of Hinduism, Buddhism and Tantrism (including Tibetan Deities) by one Trilok Majupurias. It was ideal for my needs. In addition, and at Purna’s suggestion, I also grabbed The Rough Guide’s guidebook to Nepal. Part of me was reluctant, wanting to discover Nepal without preconceptions, but it proved an invaluable asset over the next couple of days. I also happened to pick up From Goddess to Mortal, a book written by a former Kumari. It sounded intriguing. Though I didn’t know it at the time, this latter would turn out to be one of the great finds of the trip, and I am very glad of the whim that caused me to grab it.
Before leaving, we chatted with the bookshop owner briefly. It was interesting to hear what he had to say: how the number of tourists had diminished and how that had affected business, how he’d had to move the shop to a cheaper and less prime location a couple of years ago for this reason, and his observations about the changing face of Thamel. One titbit that I was interested to learn: it hadn’t been that long ago that the roads were excellent, but with all of the troubles, no one in any of the various governments of the past 15 years had forked out the money necessary to maintain them. Thus, what with the frequent rain and the nature of the clay soil beneath, they had been reduced to their current condition. It makes the frequent road works that obtain in Sydney seem a small price to pay, when you think about it (also makes you miss the Romans a little bit).
Our next stop was a cramped little shop called F. Star Handicrafts (I still don’t know what the F was supposed to stand for) that sold some woodcarved items but mostly what I came to know as 菩提子. These were necklaces (for the most part, though there were bracelets and other such adornments too) made from the large seeds of the Bodhi tree (I believe in English it’s more commonly called Linden, but it’s also the species of tree the Buddha was sitting under when he became enlightened, hence the other name). There were different sizes and shapes, some small and manageable, some so large one wondered if they might not cause neck-ache in the wearer. It was a lucrative business, though. These items seemed especially popular with the Chinese tourists and, whether through design or luck, the small shop was not very far from the 泰山酒店.
Purna was known to the chap who ran the place, and he introduced me when we got in there, but the fellow, oddly, seemed very laissez-faire in his business practices. This may be because his Chinese was poor. But possibly it was just his native attitude. Many people came into his shop, but he didn’t make much of an effort to make a pitch to any of them or explain his wares. So the potential customers were mostly left to their own devices, and fell to speculating with each other on the merits or drawbacks of the different items.
I discovered this through eavesdropping. One couple in particular was on the horns of a dilemma regarding different styles of 菩提子and the two of them were debating vigorously back and forth. I was gratified to find my Chinese good enough to understand much of what they were saying, but had no knowledge of the pros or cons of either group and so had to be satisfied with some extended listening practice and nothing more. Purna, on the other hand, in an unintentionally amusing turn, heard them as well, and took it upon himself to undertake some salesmanship, since his friend clearly wasn’t going to. While the other fellow looked on, then, Purna introduced himself to the couple and began explaining all sorts of things such as the age or subspecies of the tree for each different kind of seed, how to tell the better quality ones (I learned that the best quality ones are quite hollow, and you can tell this by rattling them gently). After they’d gotten over the initial shock of suddenly being confronted with a Nepali who can speak fluent Chinese, they began firing questions at him, each of which he answered ably. Occasionally, I would toss a glance back to the proprietor. He was watching the whole affair with an air of apathy and incomprehension. Me, I would have felt put out, if I were in that position. But then, if he doesn’t want to make the effort to understand his clientele, his business will pay for it sooner or later. I found it curious that, given the impression of economic uncertainty I had received from others (and would hear more about again before the trip was over) someone could act so indifferently where his livelihood was concerned.
When the young Chinese couple finally made their decision and took the two steps to the counter to make their purchase (it really was a ridiculously tiny shop!), they were surprised to discover that Purna was not the owner. The time had come for us to leave too, so when they were done paying, we followed them out of the shop.
‘So this is not your shop?’ asked the gentleman of the couple (who seemed to do most of the talking now that we were outside; his lady hung back a bit, waiting for him).
‘No, no, it’s my friend’s. I was just dropping in to visit him.’
‘Well, thank you for your help. Your Chinese is excellent. Do you work around here?’
‘No, In Hubei.’
‘In Hubei? You live in China?’
‘What about you two?’ I interjected, ‘I heard you say before you’d come from Tibet. Is that where you live?’
‘Oh, you speak Chinese too. No, we came through Tibet to get here. But we’re actually from Sichuan.’
‘Oh, you like spicy food, then?’
‘Sichuan food is only a little spicy [yeah, right, I thought, I’ve heard that one before]. But it’s very nice. Have you been to Sichuan?’
‘Not yet,’ I said tactfully.
‘So where do you work in Hubei?’ he turned back to Purna.
‘Oh, we work together,’ said Purna, indicating the both of us, ‘It’s in Wuhan. We work in a university.’
‘No, no, I’m a manager [经理, which I explained earlier]; he’s a professor.’
Purna gave them his card. ‘If you’re ever in Wuhan, come visit us,’ he said.
‘Thanks. And thanks again for your help.’
After this, we made our way back to the 泰山酒店; I to turn in for the night and Purna to pick up his motorcycle. Purna would be staying with his aunt and uncle across town and would pick me up in the morning. As for me, after I’d gone upstairs to the room, changed and said my prayers, I settled in to read up on the Hindu gods and goddesses who, for all their fascination, soon sent me to sleep.