The thrill of travelling in Nepal isn’t about all the things it might very easily be about for me. It isn’t about those impossible boiling masses of white mountains and the moment when, searching through the clouds for a glimpse of them, I realize I’m not looking high enough. The moment when I tip my head back and see the appalling crenellations of ridges, the tearing peaks and gleaming glaciers, floating improbably far above.
The thrill of Nepal isn’t about standing alone by a jungle river, ears bent and hackles aloft for the rustle of rhino – or worse – and wondering when or if my guide will return. It isn’t about sitting in a smoky backroom washing down spiced goat with local spirits that I fear may soon be making my stomach lurch with sickness. Nor is it about when I flailed around lost in glacial moraine, all my energy and confidence and heart sucked away by the insidious thinness of the air at altitude.
What thrills and frightens me about travelling in Nepal is the incredible way it lets me see, touch and smell what feels like history. When you’ve grown up in a ‘mature democracy’ like the UK’s – where the government and the institutions seem unshakeably well-bedded down on their foundations and there are roads and lights and signposts everywhere – you don’t often feel the living pulse of history. In Nepal that pulse is hammering away at a feverish tempo; change is happening so fast that the country is tumbling over itself, and taking cuts and bruises and even serious injuries along its way.
Nepal only really opened itself to the outside world some fifty years ago. People I’ve met on my travels saw it when you could count the number of roads or cars or schools on your fingers. Even since I first travelled there, almost twenty years ago, Nepal has overthrown a virtually medieval monarchy, launched democracy, seen its royal family massacred, started a Maoist insurrection (and stopped it again), deposed its new king and contemplated federalism.
It has sent dirt roads and trucks and gaudy buses spilling out across hills that were once the province only of barefoot porters. It has thrown up real cities; twenty years ago, even Nepal’s capital Kathmandu was basically a low-rise medieval town with two functioning roads joining it to the outside world, occasional electric light, a smattering of cars on empty roads and one celebrated escalator in a solitary shopping arcade. Now travellers are met by a hungry, thrumming Asian metropolis with a swelling population and traffic problems, with shopping malls and apartment blocks, with a snarling ring road and one lone, automated pedestrian crossing.
When you travel into in the Himalayan foothills, it can still feel like stepping into the deep past. There are hill bazaars far from any roads, where you walk on stone-paved paths between rooting pigs and untethered goats, where half a dozen shops sell grain and vegetables and cakes of washing soap from wicker baskets. And where, on market day, the animals are slaughtered in the schoolyard. There are mud-built villages straggling across precipitous rice terraces where even Hinduism hasn’t quite percolated yet and where the Nepalese farmers still dress in homespun cotton and use buffalo to pull wooden ploughs.
But change is, of course, coming to Nepal – even to the deep hills. Children are being sent away from the villages to seek a better education in Kathmandu or the cities of the plains. Men are travelling to the fearful construction boomtowns of the Middle East and coming home with new ideas about the world and the way it operates, and roads are slowly reaching out into the hills. People like me are discovering that you can trek far from the glamour routes to Everest or around Annapurna, and we are accidentally demonstrating a radically different image of how the outside world might be.
One night, I stood on a pass deep in the massive Middle Hills, and saw, across the massive valley, the lights of the road ahead. Clustered around the distant township was a miniature constellation of electric sparks which stretched out a few spidery, weakening arms into the darkness. Beyond that, around me, there was nothing but darkness broken by the odd glimmer of a kerosene lantern or open fire. But the road and the light and the rest of the modern world were coming to Nepal, and I could hear their hungry roar.
James McConnachie is the co-author of The Rough Guide to Nepal.