In March, upon arrival to Delhi, I was surprised how familiar everything seemed to me. But after all, I had just left Delhi a year ago. I even recognised the railway officials at New Delhi Railway Station. India seemed a lot more peaceful this time -- I don't know whether it was India or me that had changed. I guess it had to be me.
Benares, or Varanasi, is one of the most pleasant places I have visited in India. I had heard all kinds of stories about it being THE place in India, where all the good and all the bad of India come together (and that means a lot). In contrast, it seemed amazingly easy-going and serene place by Indian standards. The more I think about it, the more special it seems. I lived in a basic guesthouse 50 meters from the Ganges, near Manikarnika Ghat. Manikarnika is a burning-ghat; from sinrise to sunset, smoke rose from the ghat, and you could often meet small processions carrying yet another body to the river. The firewood is stacked in piles on the narrow streets. They say the wood is carefully weighted, so the cremation cost could be calculated for the family.
The next major experience was crossing the border at Sunauli. It is said that it is a very lively border point really, but due to Indian transport delays, me and a Frenchman arrived to Sunauli at 2am when it wasn't quite so lively. I'm sure we could have entered Nepal carrying nuclear bombs and no passports if we wanted to. But being the proper citizens as we were, under the starry sky we first dutifully woke up the Indian officials, then assured the sleepy customs guys that we had done so and the passports were in order, and then the same process repeated on the other side.
But not everything was the same in Nepal. I noticed the eagerness and the sincere smile of a Nepalese bus "manager", as he explained why we should take his bus to Kathmandu, and not wait for the direct bus to Pokhara; he said at Mugling I could change to the same company's Pokhara-bound bus and he could guarantee me a seat there. Despite his eagerness and the really really sincere smile, in Mugling the inevitable happened as he discovered there was no Pokhara-bound bus today. So not everything in Nepal is different from India.
This eagerness seems to be a Nepalese trait, for Nepal is the only country where touts have followed me to toilet to pitch their hotel. The happy attitude seems to be a Nepalese trait too, and I will not forget the blissful flute tunes that can be heard everywhere in Kathmandu. Well, I'm sure it wasn't a flute really, but something vaguely like it.
Kathmandu is the nicest Asian capital I have been to. It has a small town feel, unlike Delhi and Bangkok, and it looks interesting, unlike Vientiane, Novosibirsk, or Almaty. Don't get me wrong, Kathmandu is almost as dirty as Delhi, and some of the tourist trinket vendors are just as annoying, but yet something is different. I can't quite put my finger on it, but I liked to wander on the narrow streets of Old Kathmandu, for days and days. Kathmandu smells good. It is not especially beautiful but it feels right.
I was staying on Freak Street, in the heart of this nice place. I discovered
an extraordinary small eatery just off Freak Street proper -- its name is
Cafe Culture, and it seemed to be a gethering place for some Nepali teenagers
having their own sub-culture distant from the usual ideas of Indian
Subcontinent. They played Marley, Sinead O'Connor, Enya, they smoked, they
were with their boy/girlfriends (what is that? I thought this is the
Subcontinent!) and making a big deal out of it, just like their conterparts
in the other places that seemed more like other planets here.
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