Bye Bye China... And Hello Nepal! Wednesday July 5th - Tuesday July 10th
After an evening of tearful goodbyes in Jinhua and an early start, followed by a hysterically inefficient ‘inspection’ of our apartment by the caretaker (six inches of water and a pack of feral dogs would have gone unnoticed, but at least he knows the light switches work), we donned our heaving backpacks and headed to the local railway station.
We took the luxury, speedy and (crucially) air conditioned D-train as far as Suzhou, a canal town near Shanghai, then waited in the blistering afternoon heat for the decidedly less salubrious night train which would take us 13 hours further west to Xi’an.
We had bought our train tickets a day later than planned to find that - disaster - not only were the hard and soft sleepers sold out, but so were all the seats, leaving us the glamorous option of a sleeping on the seed and spittle-coated floor. Luckily, a Chinese friend had told us that several sleepers are often reserved for students or soldiers, easily procured with a bit of sweet talking and a few extra Yuan - to our infinite relief this worked a treat, and by ten o’clock we were sleeping soundly, merrily bouncing our way towards western China.
The next two days were spent exploring China’s ancient former capital, Xi’an, and visiting its most famous attraction, the Terracotta Warriors. We checked into the Han Tang Inn - absolutely everything a hostel should be - then set about pounding Xi’an’s pavements. Having dutifully snapped the drum and bell towers we got happily lost in the winding alleys, bazaars and food streets of the thriving Muslim quarter, our noses full of the lamb skewers smoking on ubiquitous barbecue grills. Next was a trip to the vast old city wall, then our last Chinese meal - a sad affair - and a return to the Muslim quarter, a thousand times more frantic and colourful when lit against the night sky and thronging with people.
And then, finally, it was time for the Terracotta Warriors - endless rows of detailed figures, each with a distinct [removed]the 8,000 workers who crafted them, killed upon the tomb’s completion so as to keep it secret, would copy each other’s’ faces onto their work), spread across three enormous, trench-like pits and still in the process of being painstakingly excavated - a unique experience, totally incomparable to any other.
By 5pm we were at Xi’an’s airport, anticipating two short, uneventful flights which would deliver us to Kathmandu by mid-morning the following day. How wrong we were.
The first flight was delayed by two hours, depositing us at Kunming airport at midnight - a gigantic, gold monstrosity, brand new and pagoda-shaped but conspicuously lacking in hotels. I suggested finding an obliging departure lounge to nap in but Luke was hell bent on finding a bed, so instead we drove deep into the city, slept briefly in the aptly named Big Goose Hotel and drove back to the airport at ungodly-o’clock, only to find our second flight was also delayed for two hours (which quickly became four) and that the super-duper new international departure lounge contained a grand total of one coffee shop and no WIFI.
But the best was yet to come. We flew for two hours and eventually began to descend over Nepal’s capital, a gorgeous, sprawling city peppered with low, sand coloured buildings and tightly packed into a valley of enormous green mountains. We came within ten meters of the ground, then the engines gave an alarming boom and we began to climb again, taking off from mid-air until we were back at 35,000ft and the captain saw fit to inform us that, due to bad weather (it was sunny and temperate), we were going to Calcutta instead. An hour later we landed (in the wrong country), sat tarmac-bound for three hours whilst bureaucratic armageddon occurred, and finally took off again - arriving a not-unimpressive nine hours late into Kathmandu.
Thankfully, any amount of hassle would have been worth it to spend even an hour in this incredible city. Our stay did not begin well - the HI hostel we had booked online was actually a dilapidated hellhole where our third-floor room sported a bed, blood-spattered sheet, suspiciously ornate hat stand and little else, the manager was rude, and ‘call reception if you want hot water and we’ll turn it on’ translated to ‘a grumpy old woman will barge into your room shortly afterwards and turn on the tap’.
Despite this, we were immediately smitten. We were staying in the bohemian, backpacker ghetto of Thamel, a teeming network of narrow streets bursting with restaurants, tour agencies, internet cafés and hostels, an intoxicating whirlwind of music and colour, hectic and vibrant, a new wave of spice, incense and noise washing over you with every other step - a true feast for the senses. Here we would spend the next week, waiting for our Indian visas, tasting the delights of the city and discovering that there is more to Kathmandu than meets the eye.