Chuzzer Miles had lived in Kathmandu some ten years before, and was planning a return visit. I had mentioned that I had always wanted to visit India and sit at the feet of some guru for a while, generally getting cosmic in the east. I always imagined that living in the foothills of the Himalayas, somewhere between India and Tibet, must be one of the most mysterious and romantic experiences of a lifetime.

I suggested to Chuzzer that he might like to have a sidekick or two on his trip. I had savings amounting to about £1800 and figured this would be just the sort of thing to spend it on. He wasn’t too keen on being accompanied by his little sister, but once he found out that she was prepared to pay rent on a wing of the Shah’s palace for six months he became much more enthusiastic and keen to have her along.

Now, the wing of a Shah’s palace sounds very grand indeed, but in reality it turned out to be the ramshackle two storey home of an eccentric American artist called Charles Henry Ford – an old gay queen from New York. He lived there for half the year and spent the other half in New York’s Dakota building where he owned an apartment one floor beneath John and Yoko Ono Lennon.

Two weeks before we were due to fly out to Kathmandu, I was pottering around the house dreaming of seeing the peaks of Everest outside the window as opposed to endless parked cars being ticketed by traffic wardens.

Whilst fantasising about myself (looking remarkably like Indiana Jones) sipping Nepalese hooch in a mud hut up in the Himalayas I had my reverie rudely disturbed by a loud banging on the front door. I opened it to Sarah who was standing there in shock, blood streaming from her nose, dragging her coat by the end of one sleeve along the ground and shaking like all the leaves in Holland Park.

“I’ve had my nose broken!” she cried as she wandered into the living room, dazed, hands cupped over her nose and mouth and leaving her coat, bag and assorted articles splayed across Portland Road.

“I’ve got to ring Freddie Nichol quickly – I’ve got to get Freddie Nichol!” I began to panic and suggested hospital in the same breath as asking her what had happened. Apparently she had been wearing a tight, clingy top which displayed the new Freddie Nichol breasts and was sitting at the traffic lights in her metro with the window wide open. Along came another car full of immature young guys who pulled up alongside Sarah’s vehicle. These particular youths also just happened to be aggressive, antagonistic, brainless arseholes that should have been given the cat-o-nine-tails daily from birth. They started shouting “Nice tits lady!” and followed her along the Bayswater road until they stopped in a similar position at the next set of lights at which point one of them jumped out the car, put his hands in the Metro and started grabbing at her. Sarah in a panic hit the accelerator and smashed straight into the back of another car, simultaneously smashing her face into the wheel of the Metro.

Within 45 minutes we were in Harley Street waiting to get her admitted into one of Freddie Nichol’s clinics.

The following morning I went back to Harley Street to pick her up, wondering anxiously how her nose would look. After a couple of minutes in the waiting room she appeared round the door. A small plaster about three inches wide and one inch high was draped across her nose and a second small Elastoplast was stuck to her right temple.

‘I’ve had that ugly thing removed from here too’, she indicated to her temple where she’d had a biggish, brown mole growing for some time. That evening at home she eagerly revealed to me what lay beneath the second plaster now. It was truly amazing. The skin where the oval growth had been was slightly pink in colour and that was all after just 24 hours. There was no scarring whatsoever. Freddie Nichol had worked another miracle of the scalpel for her!

Now we could look forward to our trip to Nepal without – as it turned out -any further incident.

Our flight to Kathmandu would leave Heathrow on Saturday 5th May 1984 and go via Copenhagen and then on to Calcutta, stopping off at Karachi to refuel. That took over an hour. Everyone had their orders to stay seated; we were not even allowed to stretch our legs. Still, I took a couple of photos from the window of the plane – it all looked very run down. The sides of the runway gave way to endless scrubland on which stood the odd tin hut and occasional floodlight. A mobile staircase displaying the letters P.I.A. lay on its side – dormant. After half an hour of sitting in our motionless bird with the doors open and no air conditioning, those of us unused to the stuffy, airlessness of a Pakistani night began to feel fairly irritable. However, after what seemed like an eternity we were airborne again and on course for Calcutta.

At 6am we had reached our primary destination. We stepped onto the runway breathing in the already hot, muggy air which smelled worse than Gladys had at her most pungent. We trundled in line towards a grey concrete building that resembled something out of a 1940’s wartime B movie. A couple of slovenly Indian guys stood outside the arrivals entrance holding machine guns close to their chests and barking at each other and also various passengers who were making their way toward immigration. Customs and Immigration was basically just a line up some grubby marble stairs onto the first floor of this rundown, smelly and inhospitably dark hallway. At the top of the stairs there was a kind of makeshift booth with a raggy curtain hanging over the front. Four of the world’s unwashed greeted us with a grin and an order of ‘In the box to be searched!’ One of them pointed at the curtain with one hand and with the other aimed his revolver at the floor.

‘You have cigarette?’ I looked at Sarah. One of the other guys was pawing his way through the contents of her handbag looking slightly confused at several packets of frownies. He was probably wondering why she was wearing the plaster over her nose. Was it a religious thing or had she been beaten up?

I quickly found a packet of Silk Cut and offered one to my interrogator – This really annoyed him and he grabbed the whole packet – ‘Give me more! More cigarettes!’ he yelled, and then ordered me to empty my bag out on the floor. I did as he commanded and he swiped my other packet ignoring the rest of the contents.
‘Cheeky bastard’ I thought but said nothing afraid that if I murmured my displeasure at being frisked and having my snouts nicked he’d surely fire a bullet into my kneecaps and then steal my traveller’s cheques. Meanwhile Sarah’s guy was looking at her passport.

‘You are actress? You make film?’ Sarah embarked on a brief résumé of her dazzling career, ‘Ryan’s Daughter Blah Blah Blah’ – Her prospective fan however, looked totally unimpressed, closed and returned her passport and fixed his glare on an Alan Ginsberg hippie type character standing behind her.

This place was light years away from Heathrow and Copenhagen Airports in every possible way. It looked a bit like a deserted old movie set. The metal window frames were rusting, the ceiling sported three or four six foot tube lights of which only one was in working order and it glowed rather depressingly through the dirt which covered it. Had someone actually bothered to clean the windows sometime over the last three decades, they would have enjoyed the benefits of daylight and then could have saved a few rupees on the pathetic electrical current that served the one and only tube light.

Most of the passengers ended up sitting or lying asleep on the grimy marble floor. Some huddled together in little groups, others dotted around in sleeping bags; there wasn’t a chair in sight.

Some passengers wandered aimlessly around the gloomy hall of all things dirty and dingy – they seemed to be carrying the weight of their worlds on their shoulders.

No intercom addressed the masses like at most international airports. There was no café just an old counter in one dark and dusty corner where a painfully thin guy with bad teeth served brick hard-boiled eggs and stale bread from an old tin container. After we’d all spent a few rupees on these morsels he then produced stale fruitcake – by way of an after breakfast treat I guess. As I nibbled fearlessly at my first real taste of Asian culinary fare, our breakfast host dug his hand into the same tin container and produced a couple of loose, broken cigarettes. One was guided straight into his mouth and the other between the sticky lips of his colleague who had appeared opportunely at his side. Everything seemed to come from the same tin – a sobering thought as we munched away.

The toilets in the corner of this canteen from hell were filthy. The urinals were filled with a kind of aquatic Asian mothball that was dropped in on top of the already in place dung, and when peed upon released an odour that made you feel like committing suicide. From the toilets I could hear some kind of harangue outside and legged it out there. The place resembled a waiting room for refugees. One of our interrogators shouted out,

‘Flight to Kathmandu will be 12.30 today. You wait on floor for five more hours! No one allowed out of airport. You stay here’.

Sarah worn out in Calcutta Airport as we awaited a flight to Nepal!

Various families slurped purified water from an old drinking fountain, which they also used for washing their faces. One woman drank, washed her face, and blew her nose into the bowl then wiped the remaining snot into her sari! I felt like running swiftly back into the quagmire that were the toilets, throwing up over the aquatic mothballs and then discreetly dropping a lit stick of dynamite down the loo and walking home!

Around 1pm a small rickety old aeroplane limped onto the runway and crawled through the hot and stuffy atmosphere towards us. Douglas Bader wouldn’t have been seen dead in this thing but Sarah and I wearily dragged a collection of cases, carpetbags and by now no doubt, body lice up to the old wreck and climbed aboard. We were seated at the rear next to the toilets and every time the door opened and closed I recognised the now familiar stink of aquatic mothballs and possibly the droppings of Ganesh. It took four grown men about twenty minutes to unjam the open door and get it slammed closed and locked.

‘Oh God we’re going to be sucked out at high altitude!’ I remember thinking. Meanwhile Sarah put her head between her knees as we clattered down the runway. I asked her if she was feeling sick.
‘No’ she replied, ‘I’m f**king praying!’ – We gathered speed, and then just as we were within inches of smashing through the end of the runway we left the ground. I began to pray with Sarah,
‘Our Father who art in Heaven, please be in this flying Indian scrap heap for the next sixty minutes’.

As we flew through the Himalayas I could see snow capped mountain tops protruding up through the clouds. A fat lady in a sari waddled down the aisle and offered everybody boiled sweets to take our minds off some of the obvious disadvantages to cruising at high altitude in a motorised Rickshaw!
The main ones being: every time we hit an air pocket the toilet behind us belched out the smell from hell; on take off the plane had swerved all over the place before smashing the tail end onto the tarmac as it lifted off; the pilot was obviously stoned judging by his performance in the cockpit, and also by the fact that he was actually prepared to fly the bloody thing at all.

Curry was served in little tin canisters. Both Sarah and I declined the offer – it was rustled up not twelve inches from the loo door! After a bit more praying I started to read The American Express Guide to Kathmandu.
‘Nepal is an enchanted world come to life. Permit yourself to fall into its fantasy. The country is like Never Never land where time stands still and the heart stays young’. This started to get me excited and began restoring my resolve to visit the country. Sarah meanwhile, flicked through the pages of the I Ching to see if we were going to end up spread over some glacier resorting to cannibalism to stay alive.

In very much the same fashion as we took off, we landed at Tribhuvan International Airport, Kathmandu. The flight path enters Kathmandu Valley through a natural opening in the surrounding mountains, which then gives way to a short runway. We exited the plane after 30 seconds of bumping, banging and clattering and were met by dozens of kids wanting to assist us with our baggage. ‘Rupee! Rupee! Carry case Sir!’ they shouted.
We were bundled through a ragged travel lounge. As I looked through the bustle at our makeshift surroundings I saw a familiar figure coming toward us. It was Sarah’s brother Chuzzer who had arrived one week ahead of us. He had a little Nepalese boy in tow who carried all of the suitcases and was weighed down like a pack mule. He turned out to be our taxi driver. As Sarah embraced her brother I caught sight of what had to be our taxi. The only motor vehicle parked outside the airport door was a dilapidated old two-door Nissan with the driver’s door missing. Our luggage was stuffed into its boot and the lid was tied down over it with rope. Once we were inside, our driver tied string from steering column to the passenger door to prevent it from flying open as we dodged the potholes in the road, then hot wiring it to start the engine we were off.

If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to travel back in time two or three hundred years, then this mode of travel aside, this would be it. The sights that met our eyes though the windows of our battered heap were a world away from anything I had ever experienced in the west. We chugged along dusty old tracks smeared with dung, passed red mud houses covered in bamboo scaffolding and surrounded by children playing in the dirt amidst a menagerie of dogs, cats and chickens. I saw some women pouring bowls of water from out of first floor windows down onto their men below who were getting drenched. They stood still making no attempt to escape the deluge. A prehistoric power shower I guessed. We had come to a standstill due to a ruminative cow oblivious to everything blocking our path. Our driver beeped his horn at the creature, which didn’t move. The drenched men started some kind of chant.

Nepalese picking at the mounds of debris for anything they could find.

Chuzzer explained that it was a ritual they were performing because of the drought. Not only were the men soaked, but the ground beneath them had become a muddy, dung filled footbath. It seemed to me a strange waste of water for people suffering through a drought. ‘You’ll find it a little weird at first – they even slaughter goats and chickens as a sacrifice to motor vehicles to prevent accidents on the road’ exclaimed Sarah’s big brother.

Sarah, flabbergasted, exclaimed, ‘God they’re filthy, but haven’t they got incredible physiques?’ Sarah was into incredible physiques which often made me wonder how Robert Bolt – a tub of a man with beautiful eyes, myself, a six foot three inch beanpole with claw toes and a whole string of other variables, ever found favour. Anyway the Sacred Cow finally moved its arse and we creaked and backfired our way through several miles of foot traffic.
Women carried large steel urns on their heads. Boys rode wobbling bicycles that looked as though they had been nicked from outside 1930’s butcher’s shops – heavy old black metal with metal break levers and worn out brake pads. Not for them the Sturmey Archer three speed gears to help them navigate the incline, and our driver beeped and honked all the way as assorted meandering bodies swayed from our path.

We arrived at the house of Charles Henry Ford who was packed and awaiting our arrival before leaving for New York with Indra, one of his boy servants. A New York novelist and poet in his late sixties with bulbous eyes, wearing a mouldy denim shirt and jeans – he was anxiously awaiting a cheque from Sarah before catching the daily flight out of Kathmandu. In years gone by Ford’s circle of visiting friends from abroad included Orson Welles, E. E. Cummings, Cecil Beaton, Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dalí.

Ford’s other servant – Pye (Indra’s brother) was our runner along with two girls – Laxmi and Moona who took care of the cooking and cleaning. As we walked into the small hallway at the bottom of the stairs leading up to Ford’s main living area the two girls briskly brushed dust and dirt around each step with brushes that looked like witches’ brooms. I noticed they didn’t actually clean up the muck, just spread it around a bit. No doubt they would be sweeping the same bit of dust around every day till the end of time. It is customary for the woman of the house to sweep the home clean before breakfast, starting from the bottom storey and working up. The other way around would have made more sense to me, but apparently this only happened on a day that a death had occurred in the house. Despite what seemed to me to be a less than efficient way of going about domestic duties, the house was really rather tidy. It was quite bare, and fairly clean in a grubby sort of way.

We exchanged a few ‘Namaste’s’ (a Sanskrit word which means ‘I bow to the God within you’). It is a truly admirable custom. Can you imagine Westerners showing each other that kind of respect? Putting our hands together as if in prayer and telling our fellow man that we recognise the God within him. Not exactly part of our daily routine unless you are some kind of bull-shitty yoga teacher from Hollywood, Los Angeles.
I always find it quite strange how easy we English find it to ignore another human being walking past us on the street just because they don’t happen to be a personal friend or acquaintance – a custom particular to certain parts of the South. It is a definite talent that many people have been able to cultivate – that of being able to look straight ahead or even through someone walking towards them without acknowledging them in any way. I mean really, if you were a piece of steaming dog droppings he would definitely give you some measure of credit by guiding himself around you taking great care not to bump into you. But no, you don’t even add up to a section of pavement that has been graced with the dump of some scraggy mutt. Therefore placing your hands together and bowing to this oncoming zombie and telling him that you ‘recognise the God within him’ would no doubt result in any one of the following. A) You are totally ignored. B) You are considered a crazy member of some off shoot Jehovah’s Witness type sect and totally ignored. C) You are beaten to a pulp for getting in his way.

Anyway, as you can probably tell I was very impressed with this mark of respect which everyone seemed to show each other and I guess we could all learn a thing or two from it.

Sarah immediately decided that she wanted Charles Henry Ford’s bedroom for herself alone. It had a carved walnut wardrobe, a chest of drawers and a double bed draped with a large mosquito net. Two windows with warped shutters looked out over the neat garden below and past the large rusty corrugated metal gate that divided our comparatively palatial plot from the maze of mud, brick and concrete houses that stretched out for a couple of miles. Prayer flags shimmered in the breeze at the doors of the homes of those who wished the Gods to look down upon them with favour. Dogs barked incessantly, crickets cricketed non-stop and the smell of Jasmine drifted up from below. I decided I would sleep in the main living room on a divan bed, as I didn’t want to be accused of elbowing Sarah’s Freddie Nichol nose job in the middle of the night.

After unpacking, Chuzzer suggested I accompany him on a shopping expedition for vegetables. Just outside our large metal gate was a Stupa – a Buddhist shrine, sometimes containing prayer wheels, incense and always flowers. I followed Chuzzer who started walking clockwise around it. He told me it was a sign of respect. One was supposed to walk around the Stupa three times and pray. I asked him what it was that we were meant to pray for, and he replied,
‘Pray that they’ll have some vegetables and bread left when we get down to the shops.’

The rush hour traffic verged on insanity. Cars with bald tyres and missing doors and windows swerved through endless foot traffic – goats, cows and ox carts with wooden wheels looking as though they had come straight from the pages of the Bhagavad Gita. Since there was no Highway Code in Nepal, the direction of the traffic was not uniformly observed. Horns blasted without cessation and you could taste the dust filled air. At times two and three vehicles and a motorcycle would stagger up the hill almost side by side, their clapped out engines producing more noise and fumes than power. By the time we arrived at the fruit and vegetable store at the bottom of the hill, I felt like I’d just climbed out of a vacuum cleaner dust bag.
The local fruit and veg store looked like a hundred-year-old rotting garden tool shed sitting at the roadside. A small, skinny Buddha with a YAK cigarette in his mouth sat on a cushion amidst a sad selection of forlorn looking legumes. The side of some dead animal (possibly a goat) hung on a hook and was covered in flies. I retched as Chuzzer and I waited our turn to be served. After parting with a few Nepalese rupees we took a bag of assorted beans, rice and bluebottles and trundled on down to the ‘Krishna Loaf’ – a much more up-market establishment with a tin roof and a shop counter – for our daily bread. We returned to Gyaneswor with something resembling a Geordie Stottie cake and if you are not familiar with Tyneside baking techniques, don’t worry, you’re not missing much in the way of a culinary orgasm. We also purchased a bowl of curd, which was actually a kind of yoghurt mixed with the odd insect and fingernail. It was such a delicious after-dinner dessert.

We sat down to dinner in the dimly lit kitchen/dining room, which had a big wooden table surrounded by an assortment of chairs, stools and benches. At one end of the room was a long thin table on which stood the household water-purifying vessel, which was topped up from time to time with water and Puritabs. A tap attached to a siphon poured the water down through a muslin cloth deterring a substance called Mica from ending up in your tea and making you a prime target for magnets from miles around. Mica – a rock chiefly composed of the silicate of a metal – was extremely common in the Kathmandu Valley.

At about 8.30 p.m. all the lights in the house went out leaving us to prowl around in complete darkness searching for matches and candles. Pye’s voice floated across the ether offering assistance, ‘I have candle in my room, you stay – I bring.’ All the lights in Gyaneswor had gone out owing to an overloaded junction box at the corner of the lane. Sarah and I felt our way up the stairs to look out of the main room windows. There wasn’t a glimmer of light for miles around. The smell of jasmine travelled up the outside wall to the upstairs windows and I could hear voices coming from the path outside the gate arguing in Nepalese, probably discussing the merits of using a five-amp fuse to light the entire district.

Sarah suggested we retire as we were both completely pooped. I reminded her that as yet I had nothing on which to sleep. ‘How about that?’ She pointed through the gloom to a rug on the living room floor, ‘Chuzzer is sleeping in the little box room just off the other end of the living room so maybe you’ll be alright down there on some cushions Charley.’

There were no cushions to be found anywhere so my carpetbag became my pillow and I slipped into an old nylon sleeping bag left over by some long forgotten hippie trekker. It smelled like hell of body odour and dust but I didn’t care too much, I was too exhausted. As I drifted off to sleep the thought crossed my mind that had I been a softly stuffed dead dog I would have qualified to share the bed with Her Majesty.

After what seemed like only a few minutes but was more likely to be hours, I was awoken by what sounded like an army of dive-bombing, blood sucking, kamikaze mosquitoes. I felt as though I were being gnawed at from head to toe. I tried to smother myself down into the old, dusty nylon cocoon but became asphyxiated by the smell of old guru’s feet and came flying out again lest I turn into a chrysalis. Chuzzer appeared at the door of the box room with a spare and very necessary mosquito net, but there was nowhere to hang it up and so I just draped it over myself. Of course the little bastards simply crawled in underneath to continue their feast whilst I tossed and turned to the tune of their relentless humming till the cocks crowed.

When the cocks crow in Kathmandu they crow by the truckload, along with about a million dogs barking for attention. In amongst the din I could hear someone shouting something that sounded like, ‘Aminyaah, aminyaah!’
I thought it was someone performing their early morning Poujah (praying around the stupa) but it turned out to be a little shrimp of a guy pulling a barrow full of very ripe mangoes. ‘Aminyaah! Aminyaah!’ he yelled again. A breeze teased the prayer flags over the rooftops and at the gate downstairs Chuzzer appeared dressed in his Dhoti (a kind of wrap around skirt). He purchased about half a dozen fat mangoes for something like two pence each.

‘Hey chuzz, I like your skirt’ I shouted down to him from the open shuttered window. He smiled uncomfortably in my direction and made for the kitchen. Still cocooned in the awful sleeping bag, I hopped – as if taking part in a sack race – towards Sarah’s bedroom. It was the first time she had slept anywhere that didn’t smell of stale piss pots. As I fell through the bedroom door I could see her propped up on several cushions that she’d brought with her from Holland Park. Wherever Sarah went her duck down pillows accompanied her. Through the haze of the mosquito net over Charles Henry Ford’s bed she lay motionless – the obligatory frownie stuck in place on forehead, broken nose plasters on nose and head wrapped in some old headscarf. She looked like a sort of withered old Bette Davis in a scene from ‘What ever happened to Baby Jane’.

‘Good morning Charley did you sleep well,’ she said, smiling with everything but her eyes – ‘Yeah great, apart from being consumed by little fucking, buzzing, bastard mosquitoes all night long!’ – I made a beeline for the shower room, hoping that the water tank on the roof had been filled enough to dribble something cool over my now extremely itchy body. I peeled off my clothes, which smelled like a whore’s armpit, dropped them in a neat pile on the shower room floor and stood under a rusty, battered shower nozzle. I pulled on a string and the thing began to drip cold water down my back. It seemed like the harder I yanked the string the less it dribbled – maybe it was empty, or blocked, or maybe this was as good as it was going to get!

My body had more spots on it than a leopard and when I stared at them long enough I could have sworn that I could see them getting bigger. Perhaps I had caught some horrible thing from the sleeping bag, or Calcutta crabs from the previous day spent seated on the floor of the airport lounge. One way or another I had to get them looked at – they were itching so much I felt like tearing my skin off.

I heard Chuzzer’s voice calling from downstairs, ‘Sarah! Charley! Your breakfast is served’. After toast and boiled eggs and several ‘Namaste’s’ to our servants, Chuzz moved his things down to a spare room next to the servant’s quarters. I moved my carpet bag and surplus luggage into the box room. My new bed was a 6ft 6in by 3ft wooden box with a one inch thick straw mattress. It wasn’t any different from lying on the hard floor except that I could drape the mosquito net up over the top of it, then tuck the sides neatly under the mattress to keep those blood sucking little bastards out once and for all!

All the plumbing in the Charles Henry Ford establishment banged and creaked. All the taps eternally dripped and all the lavatories refused to flush. Every time someone took a dump they’d be running around with a kettle of water to throw down the hole and wash all those nasties away into a nearby cess pit, which was probably dug some eighteen inches under the back garden vegetable patch. It is no wonder that dysentery, typhoid, hepatitis and a host of other ailments are immediately available to you here should you wish to eat your vegetables raw, without first boiling them to a pulp; should you forget to peel off the skins or accidentally swallow a mouthful of water from the swimming pool at the local Hotel Anna Perna. If you happened to be one of the planet’s carnivores and were you to eat a dead hen or goat for supper, then you had better hope that it hadn’t first been hanging outside the local vegetable stall for a week wearing an overcoat of bluebottles and tsetse flies.

Over breakfast another rather terrifying threat came to light when Sarah pointed out an article in the 6 page daily newspaper printed in English, “The Rising Nepal”. It was entitled “Rabies Scare!” and told of a pack of wild dogs from the mountains that had attacked a village biting cows, sheep, goats and other dogs. Apparently the whole village had become infected. This was a particularly alarming tale since every family in the area seemed to own at least one dog, one goat and an array of hens and other animals. I began to regurgitate my extremely hard-boiled egg and considered veganism.

After breakfast Chuzzer took us on a guided tour of part of the city. Darbar Square market place and the surrounding streets were a mass of traders and hustlers selling knives, leather nik-naks, paper birds on sticks and endless trinkets of brass and tin. Everywhere you looked there were people – masses of people – wandering around at a pace somewhere between neutral and first gear, this was something that struck me very noticeably after years of London living.
Old temples containing Buddhas stood on every corner epitomising the religious and cultural life of the people. There was a gigantic figure of Kal Bhairaw – “God of Destruction” looming over our heads and a building that housed two huge drums some eighteen feet in diameter.

Durbar Square

‘They bang those things when they make a sacrifice to one of their gods’ explained Sarah’s big brother. ‘They chop off the heads of hundreds of goats all at once. This whole area for hundreds of yards is just one big blood bath!’ – I wasn’t quite sure whether or not I should believe him. Chuzzer was known for his imaginative flights of fancy. He continued, revelling in our discomfort at the gory tale, ‘absolutely horrendous – you’re ankle deep in it from dawn till dusk for days on end’.

We wandered through the streets absorbing the sights and sounds presented to us by this kaleidoscope of the third world. Filthy children with feet covered in calluses, scrambled after marbles on the steps of the old temples. Monks strolled by with rolled up umbrellas and bodies covered in flies lay sleeping in dark hovels. As we turned a corner we caught sight of a woman sitting on the curb delousing a small child. She picked away at his infested scalp much like the behaviour of a pair of monkeys in the jungle. Her legs and feet were huge with elephantiasis – they must have measured at least 35 inches in circumference. I felt lucky to be blessed with nothing more serious than claw toes and fallen arches.

‘This lot really should discover pumice stones’ interjected Sarah with her usual sensitivity. Though she loved to walk about bare foot, there was a vast difference between the grit, dust, rocks and pebbles of a grimy city street and her Holland Park polished antique pine floor boards! It obviously had not occurred to her that if you can’t afford shoes then Mother Nature eventually steps in and creates calluses to cushion the feet and protect against the pain of walking on tough terrain.
As we walked we slowly approached the real squalor – the really desperate end of Kathmandu. This area was close to Thamel, located on two parallel streets west of the old palace, between two of the original hotels, the Kathmandu Guesthouse and Hotel Uste. Even though Thamel was described as the “ghetto,” most low-budget travelers considered it a tourist haven. Hashish and just about anything else is sold openly on the streets here. Thamel also acts as the pre-base camp for mountaineers, and has a wide range of mountaineering gear shops, foreign makeshift money exchange booths, along with the innumerable guest houses.

To me this area was truly horrifying – a real shock to any nice, unsuspecting westerner. As we turned another corner and headed west over the Vishnumati river towards Swayambhunath Temple we entered a kind of no man’s land. At first sight it resembled a bombsite covered in a mud bath. More scruffy children played around mounds of earth that on closer inspection turned out to be heaps of dismembered cattle – goat’s limbs, hen’s heads, bits of dead this and that mixed in with human excrement and mud. The walls of surrounding buildings and the ground were covered in the blood of male goats that had indeed been slaughtered for sacrificial purposes. The mix of filth and blood turned our stomachs – it was disgusting and repellent, a kind of abattoir cum rubbish dump.
As we stumbled over the debris on the verge of throwing up, I noticed a Hindu woman in a rotting old sari, one end thrown over her head to hide a face that was eaten away by leprosy. She sat on a piece of wood selling tea, ginger and rice from several old tin cans, which were elevated from the surrounding carnage by a piece of cardboard – Sainsbury’s this was not! She held out a hand with three finger stumps to Sarah and begged for a Rupee. Sarah called after Chuzzer who was marching ahead like a sergeant major. ‘Chuzzer, can’t we give her something? Buy some rice or something?’ Chuzz replied over his shoulder, ‘Just shout China! If you shout China at them they leave you alone – you can easily give all your holiday money away here. But she’s a leper’ said Sarah, scuttling along behind her big brother.
I stopped and handed over a few Rupees. ‘You want tea? Ginger? You like buy rice?’ said the leper woman. The children surrounded me with their hands out for Rupees. ‘You give rupee, I sing,’ said one of them with a beaming smile from ear to ear. I handed over more Rupees and they timidly sang “Disco dancing, disco dancing”.

Disco dancing Nepalese children on route to Swayambhunath.

I turned to follow my other half and her tour guide brother to find that they were nowhere in sight. I hurried to the far corner of this horrendous black hole past a bunch of wooden crates with ragged cloth stretched over them – these were people’s homes. I reflected upon home and western civilisation, on clean water, central heating, double glazing, Hyde Park, The Serpentine, Knightsbridge, Harrods and all the comfort and opulence that the world I’d become used to had to offer. And yet, these children, with nothing but what Mother Earth could offer them (and she wasn’t offering much), these kids, living in squalor and poverty seemed happy. Happy with their lot, with their surroundings – I didn’t get it!

They were genuinely happy to sing their Disco dancing song obviously learned from tourists, for a few rupees. And then the penny dropped (or should I say the rupee dropped) – they only knew their third world surroundings, they only had their simple life experiences and had not been spoiled by all the western bullshit and consumerism – they had nothing and wanted very little unlike ourselves coming from the planet ‘I want everything and I can get it so I’m going to have it!’

In a small side street off the abattoir from hell, Sarah and Chuzzer were hiring three bicycles from a bicycle and rickshaw man. His shop front was covered in pieces of broken bike – wheels, bits of chains, handlebars, ball bearings – all swimming in little pools of oil on the pavement. His sidekick hammered and filed away at a piece of metal that was going to substitute an important missing bicycle mechanism. The Nepalese fix motor vehicles in the same way. If they can’t get a spare part they’ll make one – so it’s not that unusual to see a motorised Rickshaw (half a Lambretta motor scooter) or a battered Japanese car firing up and clattering off into the distance bearing an assortment of metals under the bonnet that once lived on a pan rack in someone’s kitchen.

Our bicycles were definitely crossbreeds and out of the ark – no gears and mine had a hard leather seat that would have made pumice stone feel positively soft in comparison. We parted with some rupees and pedalled off into the crowded streets towards the American Embassy. Chuzzer pointed out dozens of fruit bats – some eighteen inches in length – hanging on branches of trees behind the embassy gates. ‘Maybe they’re hanging around for visas’ I joked. ‘Chuzz – Do you think they’ll know I’m in town?’ asked Sarah, ‘Who? the fruit bats?’ I joked – ‘I mean the American Embassy will know who Sarah Miles is!’ She went on in a feed-my-ego kind of way. ‘Chuzz – Do you think they’ll know I’m in town?’ I went on in a piss-taking kind of way as we continued our journey on two wheels apiece.

Back at the ranch in Gyaneswor, our leg-breaking, ankle-twisting, ligament-stretching cast iron pedal cycles were dumped at the end of the garden. Pye and Laxmi came to the door to meet us and I chatted to Pye about the typical Nepalese day from his point of view. I learned some weird stuff – like if you have a spot on your fingernail it doesn’t mean you have a calcium deficiency but that you are going to get some new clothes. A spot on your toenail you will receive a new pair of shoes.

Further invaluable gems of wisdom included that it is very unlucky to lose your cap or to be licked by a cow. Oh! And here’s a good one – If the man sees the breasts of an unmarried woman it will bring him ill luck for the rest of the day. Later on over supper, I reflected upon Pye’s wisdom and decided that if these superstitions were true then I should always be unlucky, but with a new wardrobe every day of my life!

The slow pace of Nepalese life started to get to me – after a few months of cycling around on a ten ton cast iron butchers bike I dropped at least half a stone in weight and felt as fit as a fiddle.

L-R Laxmi, Myself, Sarah, Pye in Charles Henry Ford’s garden, Kathmandu 1984

We had been befriended by a lady called Margo who, with her Nepalese husband ran a local antiques emporium called The Ritual Art Gallery in Durbar Marg – they flogged off what were probably the last remaining Tibetan and Nepalese gems and artefacts to rich Americans – Margo who knew everything and everybody in Kathmandu introduced us to Barbara Adams (Mistress to the King of Nepal) – They both kept inviting themselves over to our place in Gyaneswor and flirting outrageously with me in front of whoever was around.

At one of Barbara’s many dinner parties I was told a story of the indigenous Nepalese people who were know as ‘The Newars’, how they had lived in this region since the stone age was incredible and a notable feature of their traditional food habit was the consumption of an organism produced by the rotting of meat.

Especially the high Buddhist Newars are reported to relish this dish. It is prepared in the following manner:-

  1. Take a six inch long section of wide bamboo tube.
  2. Stuff it with meat and tightly seal each end.
  3. Allow it to rot till the flesh is transformed into maggots.
  4. These organisms begin to devour each other and finally become one single maggot the size of the whole internal volume of the tube.
  5. Extract the giant maggot and place in boiling water for a length of time.
  6. When cooked cut into pieces and eat!

I cannot say it was the culinary orgasm I’d had ever been used to before this very surreal moment – I prayed that this dish was not on Barbara Adam’s menu and was about to be served up to the dinner table.

I could smell weed burning all evening and a joint was passed to me – after taking a couple of puffs I offered it to a little Nepalese guy sitting straight opposite me who turned out to be the chief of police. His name was Thomas Bimki. I was very taken aback and asked him what he thought of me smoking hashish here and shrugging his shoulders he explained to me that it was not unusual. I told him if we were in the UK I’d probably be in hand cuffs by now. He began to plead with me over the dinner table to take him back to London on my return home in order that he may learn the basics of British law to bring back and adapt to the kingdom of Nepal.

In a heart to heart conversation this man told me that he’d just been released from prison after completing a six month sentence for carrying out the biggest Nepalese drugs bust of all time (he still held his executive position in the police force as chief of police), the huge shipment of heroin was flown into Kathmandu valley from the far east and was addressed to the men that the Nepalese worshipped like a gods, (at that time close friends to Prince Charles and our own royal family) King Birendra and his brother Gyanendra who were two of the world’s biggest heroin dealers and said to have one of the biggest and dirtiest Swiss bank accounts.

It was around 1980 that Heroin was also being imported from Burma and brought overland from East Nepal on Army and Police trucks by the Royal Family. The Royals controlled every aspect of the black market in Nepal and in doing so controlled everyone’s life who lived there. What was once Hippie Nirvana was now a major heroin market place. To describe this as the height of corruption doesn’t even come close.

(Years later the Nepalese Royal family shot themselves to death)

Kathmandu in the 1960’s and 1970’s was at the end of the now famous Hippie Trail – Hippies would make a bee line for Freak Street which was known as the ‘Hippie Nirvana’ being that marijuana and hashish were legal and sold openly in government licensed shops! At that time there were no opium dens in Kathmandu nor was opium grown or heroin produced in Nepal! There was no such thing as a Nepalese junkie. Cannabis was only illegal to export and Hippies caught at the airport were fined $100 (USD) and deported on the next flight out of Kathmandu.

After the old King Mahendra died in 1972 and his son Birendra took the throne – The huge procession to Pashupatinath Temple where the King was cremated would never be forgotten, or the bizarre ritual of a Brahman priest taking over the bad karma of the King and even getting a share of his earthly possessions and then being banished from the Kingdom on a Royal elephant (probably to a new Beverly Hills home in Los Angeles).

Pashupatinath Temple is one of the most revered pilgrimage destinations in Nepal. Dedicated to Lord Shiva, this Hindu temple is situated in the heart of Kathmandu. Declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, Pashupatinath Temple has a beautiful pagoda – The roofs of the temple are made with copper and painted with gold.

Pashupatinath Temple taken from the other side of the Bagmati River – The steps lead down from the temple’s rear door to the cremation platform.

 

The main festival of the temple is Shivaratri which is celebrated every year with huge enthusiasm and gala. Only Hindu pilgrims can enter the premises of the temple. Non-Hindus can admire the beauty of the temple from the other side of the Baghmati River, on the banks of which Pashupatinath Temple stands.

I remember trying to see in through the main gate and get a closer look at a statue of the biggest golden sacred cow ever seen and within seconds two Nepalese soldiers had the barrel of a rifle pointed straight at my head between my eyes! I backed off rather rapidly as one can imagine – Not the type of reception one gets when peering through the doors of London’s St Paul’s Cathedral.

On a hot day before the monsoon season sets in the Bagmati river runs almost dry – the smell of these cremations were sweet and sickly and turned my stomach instantly – the remains of the cremated bodies are dumped into the river and all mourners present leap in and bathe themselves in the silt, wet cremated ashes and remains – If the family of the deceased are very poor sometimes there is the odd hand or limb left floating around in the water – this, totally a natural tradition for the Nepalese funeral I found unreal and disgusting.

1973 was the year of cannabis prohibition in Nepal. The Richard Nixon administration paid the new king approximately 60 million dollars to outlaw pot in this Hindu country where everyone must take cannabis once a year on Lord Shiva’s birthday. It was a sad day on Freak Street for hippies who were all deported to India but no doubt a happy day at the palace where King Birendra and his brother Gyanendra (the main suspected mastermind behind the royal palace massacre on 1 June 2001) who probably invested the whole of US fortune into importing and exporting smack and also pushing it to their own people, hence starting a huge national heroin problem.

The Nepalese, not really knowing the difference between brown sugar heroin and marijuana, were easily seduced by smack. Smoking heroin was not a new phenomenon. Addicts in Asia had favored smoking heroin since the 1920s, and in doing so also made sense to them because of the fear of spreading AIDS through shared needles. Instead of injecting the drug, a user spooned some onto a piece of tinfoil, held a lighted match under it, and inhaled the upward-curling smoke through a rolled-up bill. This is known as “chasing the dragon.” Mixing heroin with cocaine had been around for a long time, too. Older heroin addicts call it “speed-balling” and say it smoothes the sometimes-heavy cocaine high. A crack high can be more of a roller coaster than highs from most drugs. Smoked in small, hard pellets called rocks, crack produced an intense but short-lived euphoria, followed by a depression so heavily severe that it sometimes leads to suicide.

From the point of view of a regular everyday person leading a perfectly normal lifestyle isn’t this the worst nightmare?

Looking in from the outside I took to recording the sights and sounds of Freak Street, capturing quite a lot of audio footage of drug pushers selling everything from crack cocaine, heroin to young boy and girl prostitutes for the right price – it was horrendous! I was determined to use this Freak Street audio recording somehow in the west to help highlight the state of play and the degradation in this part of the world – (EMI Records /’Freak Street’ / ‘The Anti-Heroin Project’ /double album 1986).

Sarah and I spent eight months in Nepal, mainly in Kathmandu. We visited ‘Tiger Topps’ the jungle safari park in the Chitwan Valley and spent a week living in separate tree houses above our appointed elephants and mahouts – I loved being on the back of an Indian elephant for hours just roaming through the jungle, feeling the sheer power of the animal beneath me, pulling up shrubs and trees to munch on as we went. Wild boars, tigers and just about everything in our wake seemed to stay well clear of this beautiful beast as we roamed.

I came face to face with the biggest spider in the world whilst shaving one morning – it was as big as a man’s hand and apparently totally harmless as I learned when my mahout came to my rescue and clasping it between his little hands took it outside and let run free – it probably ran around my tree house and came back in through the side window to scare the pants off me whilst shaving the following morning.

On our returning to Kathmandu, Sarah went off to see some old Brahman magic man in the foot hills who told her she had been pursued by a dark haired female vampire in her 60’s for many years. Apparently there were lots of salivating vampires looking in Sarah’s direction and she for some reason felt this may be true – every time she asked the Brahman guy what this was all about all he did was take a huge puff on his hooker bubble pipe and blow smoke into her face; eventually he told her of a future illness and swept some dust off his floor, cast a spell over it and told her to take this ‘vampire dust’ with water every morning for eight days. I found this an absolute hoot and laughed my socks off when she told me and suggested she licked our own floor as it was just as dusty, but never the less Sarah being Sarah took the ‘vampire dust’ at breakfast for eight days – As far as I know she hasn’t had anyone with fangs biting into her neck as yet.

I was on the other hand invited to visit the home of our servant Pye – His family home was a seven mile trek over four mountain ranges deep within the Himalayan foothills. It took us almost a day to walk there as I had to stop every fifty yards to catch my breath. Pye carried my rucksack and also held a parasol at all times over my somewhat eternally dazed, pink western head for fear of me either getting sun stroke or passing out with altitude sickness.

Reaching his village seemed to take forever as we trundled seven miles over four mountain ranges and upwards in the region of another three thousand five hundred feet from Kathmandu valley, itself 4,423 feet above sea-level. We stopped at the occasional mud hut to sample some hooch made with maize by some ancient wise man (or not?) – a kind of hot bubbling Nepalese moonshine with dead flies floating around in it, after only one sip of this stuff it instantly blew my head off – it was like smoking twenty Capstan full strength in ten seconds and knocking back a pint of cheap navy rum in one gulp – this was always followed by Nepalese tea boiled up in a great caldron with thick goat’s milk and several pounds of sugar already added to the mix – eventually we arrived in the most beautifully exotic and unreal valley.

I sat looking down over dozens of paddy fields, tiers upon tiers down the mountain sides and then looking up into the distance to see the most impressive huge snow capped peaks – from any vantage point here it all looks close enough to reach out and touch but most of it can be up to two days walk away. A trickle of a waterfall into a stream not far away pricked up my ears and at that very moment the biggest most beautiful butterfly of multiple silky colours danced by only feet in front of my face, as if on a string from above.

It looked like a paradise!

Pye’s parents village in the valley of Kaphleni was more of a little settlement, consisted of about eight one and two storey mud huts, occupied by approximately 40 to 50 incredibly weather beaten people who hardly ever visited Kathmandu city and suffered through the obstruction of communications and development of any kind – I found it staggering that a large proportion of the population are severely handicapped here by overgrown goitres necks through iodine deficiency and god forbid what other illnesses and diseases such as rabies spread through local dogs and monkeys – These people spend their whole existence in the Himalayan foothills growing and eating rice and drinking goats milk for two thirds of the year, the other third of their year they pretty much starve to death. This is unbelievable whilst we endlessly whinge and complain about our own petty western problems with a remedy for just about everything at arm’s length.

As we approached his house I noticed that the ground floor had smoke bellowing out of what I thought was the main door and inside beyond the burning what-ever it was stood a cow and a couple of goats – the ground was just dirt – up a set of bamboo ladders through a hole in the wall stood Pye’s mother waiving at us. I was told to wait outside for a few minutes till they were ready to welcome me up on the first floor.

I thought I’d take this opportunity to pay a visit to ‘the boy’s room’ or whatever that amounted to in the village – I was directed up a little rocky path onto a mountain side covered in marihuana some six feet in height. ‘Pye, does your mother have a toilet roll?’ I enquired not really thinking how ridiculous this request was deep in the Himalayan foothills. ‘Just use the leaves’ said Pye.

So there I was resting my lead weight of fatigue, sitting with my pants around my ankles, haphazardly balanced over a rock grabbing at the nearest flora and fauna to use as a bog roll substitute. A minute later after seeing the biggest rat in the world scamper by I was jumping around like a mad Basil Fawlty having just wiped my bare bottom with a handful of Nepalese stinging nettles!

Back down the slippery slope Pye’s mother’s house has been made ready for me – I climbed up the bamboo ladder into a bare brown and pink coloured mud walled room with only the most beautiful carpet laid out on the floor for me to sit on – I was told by Pye that in order for every Nepali boy to reach manhood he has to weave a family carpet, usually depicting life from their historic and religious points of view – some of these carpets had the richest, magical patterns I had ever seen.

Weaving a rug in the traditional Himalayan way requires hand-processing carefully chosen raw materials – wool and hand-weaving often complex designs using a technique that is unique but kept simple. Rugs and carpets made from Himalayan wool actually grow more beautiful as time passes by, developing a silk-like sheen with age and use.

I knew I had to bestow some kind of gift upon Pye’s family and was told by Chuzzer that the best thing I could give was chocolate, so I managed to produce a large bar of Cadbury’s fruit and nut, obviously one that had been brought into Nepal by a tourist and had been used to barter with at one of the local stores. I felt that this was a pretty pathetic gift but Pye assured me that his mother loved chocolate and had not tasted any for months.

The neighbours were by this time lining up outside the house to see me – Apparently the only other westerner that had visited them in years was in fact Chuzzer and seeing that he was also six foot three in height they seemed to think that all westerners were fair skinned giants – I don’t know how true this was but I decided to believe it anyway. I spent the night sleeping on that magic carpet without a mosquito net and strangely enough wasn’t bothered at all by the little blood sucking bastards in the slightest.

The next morning we left Pye’s village with a great send-off – everyone that lived there came out of their mud and cow-dung huts and waived us goodbye, a couple of women and their kids sang a song for me – more Nepali hooch wine was offered to me for my trek back down to earth – I kindly restrained myself from drinking it!

A typical Himalayan foothills villager suffering from a goitre – (photo ‘The Rising Nepal’ 1984)

By the time we had reached the bottom of the foothills, hours, days, weeks, months had flown by – well at least all morning and most of the afternoon – it felt like I’d been walking for weeks on jellied legs and I felt, well let’s say ‘light headed’ doesn’t even come close to what I was feeling – I remember following Pye into some kind of shop affair and seeing a whole bunch of identical twins staring back at me – of course they weren’t identical twins at all I was actually seeing double.

The strange thing is one normally gets acute mountain sickness (AMS) or altitude sickness on one’s ascent to a certain height not coming back down where you get to inhale air instead of helium.

Back at the ranch in Gyaneswor, Sarah and her big brother played Backgammon and weren’t too interested in hearing about my escapade or even the fact that I was still having trouble catching a breath containing oxygen.

Months passed, I had experienced pretty much all Kathmandu and Nepal had to offer me, it had been a mind blowing education I would never forget – I had been there done it and now owned the t shirt. I really had dug the whole place and re-evaluated all our charmed lifestyles in the UK compared to this third world country.

In that crisp air of post-monsoonal autumn transforming carpets of green into burnished reds and gold, amidst thousands of gentians which littered the ground like discarded sapphires I had started to miss England. Eventually after sitting in that garden in Gyaneswor, meditating upon the two banana trees day in and day out, it felt like the time had come to leave this wonderful exotic, ugly and dirty and at the same time beautiful and magical place.

I also felt in my heart of hearts that it might just be time for me to move on from the Miles camp for pastures anew too. Sarah and I had had our fling, we most definitely were not suited to be with each other – Even a Nepalese fortune teller up in Swayambhunath temple had read my hand and told me that ‘Your woman is no good for you’ – he also, whilst fingering my palm explained that there were two other women in my future who were much younger than I and would make very good wives. This was funny but intriguing! His parting shot for the three rupees was ‘You must drive slowly’ (I have always liked to arrive at my destination before leaving the place I am to drive from) but for that moment, leaving Sarah was best kept only in my thoughts and not verbalised till we returned to London.