Magic bus, p.25

Magic Bus, page 25


Magic Bus

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  Four decades later, many of Nepal’s 400,000 annual visitors are smoking joints at Pokhara’s German Bakery. Next door at the Boomerang Kosher Restaurant, Israeli girls order French toast and agree it is impossible to stick to the Atkin’s Diet in Asia. A Jamaican in dreadlocks on a mountain bike sails past vanloads of trekkers heading off for the Annapurna Circuit. Tibetan refugees, displaced by the Chinese and resident in Nepal for a generation, sell Native American prayer wheels and Buddhist thangka paintings outside the Holistic Barber Salon. A child presses into my hand a flyer for Oktoberfest at the Fulbari Resort (‘an unlimited free flow of San Miguel’) and whispers, ‘Hashhhhh, Mister?’

  The outside world’s intrusions do not end at Zorba’s Restaurant and the edge of town. In the mountains, moraines crumble on trekkers’ ‘highways’. Foothills have been denuded of trees, in part to fuel hungry guests’ cooking fires. At Khumbu’s Saturday markets, only lodge-owners can afford to buy eggs, passing on the hefty price to mountaineers. The few short decades of tourism have turned much of Nepal into a vulnerable Himalayan theme park.

  Alone, I hurry out of the laid-back holiday haven, past earthen-walled farmhouses transformed into cafés by new front porches, following the lake’s gentle curve into an embrace of hills. I have no illusions about finding the remains of the ‘real’ Nepal. I don’t kid myself that I’m travelling on the edge. After the long journey from India, I – like most travellers – choose not to trek to the far western Humla district, where four out of every ten children die before their fifth birthday. Instead, I settle on the short climb to Sarangkot, a viewpoint on the ridge north of the lake.

  Beyond a chestnut forest, the garden walls are hedged with thorny spurge. Mustard fields are lined with flowering cacti. At a painted marker, I fork away from the cool water and climb a stony path between hillside hamlets. Half a dozen children chewing sugar-cane sticks follow me with their light-golden eyes. Pots of lentils boil in single-room houses with mismatched windows. A farmer clears the weeds from a vegetable patch. At a tea stall, I pause beneath posters of Hindi cinema stars and the god Saraswati to look back at the green terraced shores. Sailboats drift across the glittering lake. Shadows of hang-gliders slide over the rice paddies. Ahead of me, razor-edged Machhapuchare is hidden from view by the hill.

  ‘May I walk with you?’ asks a man.

  ‘Thank you. I’m not looking for a guide,’ I say.

  ‘I want to practise my English. It’s a two-hour walk to the top and the paths can be confusing for you.’

  I walk on. Rishi stubs out his Yak cigarette and clings to my side, asking the usual questions. Where am I from? Where am I staying? How do I like his town? His country? My freedom?

  ‘My freedom?’ I repeat. This isn’t a usual question.

  He spits at the undergrowth before answering me. ‘To walk anywhere. To travel anywhere.’

  ‘I’m not looking for a guide,’ I say again, pushing ahead.

  ‘This way,’ he says, indicating the obvious path. He falls into step behind me as I climb through thickets of rhododendron and laurel, their waxy leaves glistening with the last brush of dew. His slippers flip-flop in the dust. After a hundred steep yards, he calls after me, ‘On television last night I saw a man being arrested in London.’ His English is fluent and confident. ‘The police treated him with dignity and I thought, yes, that is correct. But in Nepal, if a policeman catches a thief, the first thing he does is slap, slap, give me a hundred rupees. I have done it myself. I beat the thieves because I thought that’s what you do.’

  I glance back at Rishi’s compact build, his sharp features, his grave, sunken eyes. His manner is assured, but I have no wish to subject myself to his droning patter. We walk a dozen more steps before he adds, ‘But the worst thing is when you have the chance to kill someone after you have taken him.’

  I stop in my tracks, alarmed. If this is a sales pitch, then it’s very effective.

  ‘Don’t be so surprised,’ shrugs Rishi. ‘I’m a soldier.’

  Nepal is a yam between two boulders, a rugged land straddling the icy boundary between India and China. The country is an ethnological crossroads, traditionally tolerant yet not cohesive, where Hinduism and Buddhism intertwine with animist rites and shamanistic practices. Four separate New Year’s Days are celebrated within its borders. Its vital bonds are of family and caste, not nation. Never colonized because of its inaccessibility, Nepal didn’t inherit a functioning bureaucracy and judiciary. Instead, its enduring legacy is one of autocratic dynasties which ignore their subjects’ needs in the pursuit of personal gain. The Royal Nepalese Army has long sustained the status quo. Ninety-eight per cent of its officer class are of the Chhetri caste, from which most of the ruling families are also drawn. The rule of royal authority, the army and successive corrupt governments was so absolute as to go unchallenged until 1996.

  ‘Once, my unit captured a big guy in the Maoists. We knew that whoever killed him would get a medal,’ explains Rishi. I assume he’s on leave, trying to earn a few extra dollars. ‘And a medal means promotion, money. The commander gave the order just to hold him, but any of us could have finished off the man, at one o’clock in the morning, saying, you know, he was running away.’

  In 1996, after years of injustice, compounded by the frustration following a dismal flirtation with democracy, the tiny Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) declared a ‘People’s War’ on the state. The government’s brutal and indiscriminate response alienated many countrypeople and drove thousands to join the insurgency. In less than a decade, the nascent movement went from attacks with ancient muskets on rural police stations to blockading the capital.

  ‘Maybe you think this is strange, but I went to the temple that night and lit candles and prayed that the Maoist would not be shot. In the morning, I was happy that he was still alive.’

  ‘I don’t think it’s strange,’ I say.

  ‘Months later, I was going through his village, and I met a man who was his spitting image. It was his father.’ He shrugs at my surprise. ‘Nepal is not a large country. We are used to such coincidences. He took me inside his house and showed me photographs of his son. I knew then, if I had killed that man, I could not have faced that day.’

  As we climb the terraces, new mountain ridges are revealed behind us. Across Phewa Tal, I catch sight of the World Peace Pagoda. Then a green canopy of trees closes over us, snatching it from view. In the doorway of a bamboo shack, a woman picks stones from rice.

  ‘Maybe you also think it strange that I wanted to see action from close quarters,’ he says, now moving ahead of me as the path narrows. ‘All my life I dreamt of winning the battles for my country. But Nepal had no foreigners to fight other than tourists, and we can’t fight you. There are too many,’ he laughs. ‘This way,’ he says, showing me a shortcut up the wooded hill. He pauses at the crest for me to catch my breath. ‘The insurgency brought the chance for me to see action.’

  Over ten years, the bloody conflict has claimed more than 12,000 lives, two-thirds at the hands of the soldiers like Rishi. In the course of waging their ‘revolutionary struggle’, the rebels – motivated by a grass-roots idealism and the Naxalites across the border – resorted to torture and murder. Their leaders ordered the conscription of children and the execution of school teachers, landowners and village headmen. To try to contain the violence, the government spends $100,000 a day on the military – in a country where the average annual income is $230. In its hunger for revenge, the RNA has acted with equal ruthlessness, killing innocents forced to shelter Maoists and burning villages in the mountains. In police ‘search-and-kill’ operations, like the recent Kilo Sierra Two, hundreds of women are alleged to have been raped. But Nepal is not only losing its people to bullets and pressure-cooker bombs. In some months, as many as 100,000 young Nepalis cross the border into India, desperate to escape the daily extortion of money by the rebels and of information by the army.

  ‘I was posted to the Mountain Warfare School and the 4
th Brigade in Nepalganj,’ says Rishi, pausing on a wall to light another Yak.

  ‘You learnt your English there?’

  ‘From the British advisers,’ he nods. ‘I always volunteered for seek-and-destroy missions. My unit received reliable information about a Maoist camp in the Mugu valley. With forty soldiers, I moved across the lekhs for three days and nights. In the small hours of the third morning, we intercepted a rebel group. I chased their leader and pinned him down after a hand-to-hand fight.’

  Rishi flicks ash on to the dry stones. I listen, his story interrupted only by the calls of cuckoos.

  ‘We took defensive positions against counter attack. But we weren’t prepared for being surrounded by nearly three hundred women. They claimed that the captured men were their innocent husbands and sons. This was a trick situation, of course; the militants played very smartly, because the villagers blocked our exit routes and tried to force their way through our cordon.’

  ‘We couldn’t fire on them but we had to move out before the situation became violent. There was no possibility of air evacuation – my country has only six helicopters – so I made a decision to climb down from the mountain at night. We started around midnight, cutting through the forest to avoid both the women and potential ambush sites, changing our routes so as not to be trailed. The Maoists assumed we’d try to get back to the main camp, so we headed instead in the opposite direction to a police checkpost. It was across difficult terrain, but it was the safest.’

  ‘Later we learnt that the man I’d caught was a district commander. He had been going home to meet his newborn son and celebrate with his family. For the first time, I saw the human face of insurgents, and I went to our unit temple and prayed for him.’

  He tosses aside his cigarette.

  ‘My brigade commander recommended me for a medal. “So, tiger, you have tasted blood,” he said to me. I felt like a tiger, roaring for more: more action, more honour…’

  ‘More money?’ I ask.

  ‘Of course. I hear the Mugu valley will be reopened to trekkers soon,’ he replies and starts to climb again.

  As the day warms, a diaphanous haze gathers in the valleys. We walk above it and the woods through an encampment of handicraft-and tea-stalls. A few other travellers join us here, though none has passed us on the path.

  Foreigners had not yet been targeted by the Maoists but, as almost all the trekking routes pass through their areas, many are required to pay a 1,000-rupee ‘donation’ – about $13 – to the cause. Only last month, the Minister of Tourism assured the world that Nepal was safe for visitors. The next day, the Gaida Wildlife Jungle Camp was burnt to the ground and four bombs were dropped on the tennis courts of Kathmandu’s Soaltee Crowne Plaza Hotel. That same week, in a lodge in Gangdrak, an American trekker watched a government Puma helicopter gunship swoop down on a populated valley, shooting ‘at everything that moved’.

  Back along the trail in Morocco, Penny’s first little paradise, forty-three people were killed a few months ago when suicide bombers attacked a tourist restaurant, a five-star hotel and the Belgian Consulate. Like the Luxor massacre and Yemen kidnappings, the Casablanca bombings marked the start of an international campaign targeting Western travellers and the expansion of domestic terror campaigns to Bali, Mombassa, Sharm el-Sheikh and beyond.

  Rishi and I walk past the last restaurant beneath the summit of Sarangkot. A grand sweep of mountains suddenly appears before us, pure white peaks rising steeply above stone-blue flanks, dazzling the horizon and my eyes. I stagger back, unbalanced by the sight, grabbing a metal railing. Beneath a boundless sky, no one speaks, and the silence, broken only by the distant rush of water, heightens the sense of timelessness.

  ‘You see now why we have to fight?’ says Rishi. ‘For this paradise.’

  ‘This paradise is a war zone,’ I say.

  A Japanese tour group appears at the look-out. A young Nepali puffs up ahead of his chubby English girlfriend, carrying their motorcycle helmets. Only then do I realize that on the opposite side of the hill a paved tourist road snakes up to Sarangkot.

  ‘I have brought you to the most beautiful view in the world,’ says Rishi, nirvana’s warrior. ‘I wouldn’t say no to a tip.’

  That evening, a story circulates around Pokhara about the latest government action in Doti district. In response to a provocative ‘cultural revolution entertainment’ show at the Sharada Higher Secondary School in Mudbhara, the army surrounded the building, pulled off its roof tiles and started firing into the classrooms. Eleven Maoists and four school children were killed in the firefight, and more than a dozen others left wounded.

  ‘The injured students have not been treated as of yet,’ reported the Kathmandu Times. ‘Bullets have not been removed from their bodies due to lack of money.’

  29. It’s All over Now, Baby Blue

  ‘When that Thunderclap Newman song “Something in the Air” came out, I thought it was a signal,’ says Penny, ‘to go back on to the streets and restart the revolution. I was gutted to realize it was just a song.’

  We’re sitting by the lake at Mike’s Breakfast. A twisted band of cloud separates the foothills from the mountains, as if levitating the silver peaks above the earth. A seasoned dharma bum with orange protection cord and hiking boots sits at the next table. Penny slept through the previous day and following night but woke from her dreams in an irritable temper. Earlier this morning, she grumbled at the bathroom mirror, ‘You know, Jack, I preferred being young and impressionable.’ I hadn’t counted on a free restaurant newspaper further darkening her mood. Or on it evoking an extraordinary story.

  ‘Did you read this?’ she asks me, shaking both the Nepali Times and her head.

  ‘About Sharada School?’

  ‘About Charles Sobhraj,’ she says. She swallows her coffee in a gulp. ‘He’s been arrested in Kathmandu.’

  In the summer of 1970, a personable young Indo-Vietnamese and his pregnant French wife drove an old Triumph Herald along the trail to India. The charismatic couple had met in Paris two years earlier, the twenty-four-year-old Sobhraj proposing to Chantal behind the barricades that tumultuous May. But unlike many of their contemporaries, they weren’t heading east to work on their karma. Sobhraj, a petty thief and compulsive gambler, was on the run from the police.

  In Bombay, Sobhraj – intelligent, arrogant and rebellious – graduated from cashing bad cheques to black-marketeering. Born in Saigon to a prosperous Sindh businessman and his Vietnamese mistress, he aspired to live the wealthy life which the family had lost on emigrating to France. With his mixed features and gift for languages, Sobhraj was able to disguise his identity, travel on pickpocketed passports, smuggle duty-free Rolex and Cartier watches across borders. He advanced to stealing Alfa Romeos and BMWs to order, driven from Europe and around India’s import ban by backpackers. Those backpackers – and passports – were usually acquired at a crowded, hippie café called Dipti’s House of Pure Drinks on Ormiston Road.

  Sobhraj had no sympathy for the overlanders’ pleasure in recreational drugs or their rejection of parental conservatism. As an outsider, he wanted to snake his way into established society, not to reject it. But he realized that many young travellers were gullible and that he could use them. He manipulated their vague ideals and enlisted their help by giving an air of revolutionary glamour to gem-smuggling and the robbery of ‘bourgeois’ tourists.

  Sobhraj was a ruthless, amoral and ambitious con-artist. In the course of his travels, he escaped from half a dozen police lock-ups, smuggled arms into Iran, sold passports to the PLO, abducted his own child and abandoned his wife in a Kabul jail. When Chantal divorced him, he hardened himself against attachment and offered his services to the major operator in the Chinese heroin trade.

  By the mid-seventies, amateur drug-smugglers had disrupted the business of the larger organizations. Naive kids carried half-keys across borders, got caught and attracted unwanted publicity. Sobhraj was commissioned to discourage small-time c
ouriers and dealers. The method he decided to use was killing them. In India, he had learnt to use pharmaceutical drugs – Librium, Largactyl and Quaaludes – to disable and pacify his prison guards. Now, he applied his knowledge to young travellers, often on the spurious assumption that they were involved in smuggling, sneaking laxatives into their drinks to induce illness and then soporifics to numb them.

  His first victim – after he suffocated a Pakistani driver in the back of a Chevrolet – was André Breugnot, a Frenchman who may have worked for a European heroin ring in Chiang Mai. Next, he abducted Teresa Knowlton, a twenty-two-year-old American en route from Seattle to Nepal for a meditation course. He offered to take her to the beach at Pattaya. There, he and an accomplice drugged her with 150 milligrams of Mogadon, dressed her in a bikini and swam out into the South China Sea to let her drown. He battered and incinerated a flamboyant Turkish pusher and a young Amsterdam couple who had saved for five years for their ‘trip of a lifetime’. Their charred and smouldering bodies were found dumped on a Thai roadside. In Kathmandu, he killed a burly Canadian trekker named Laurent Carrière and the Californian junkie Connie Jo Bronzich, who had arrived on a bus from London a few days earlier. Her blackened, naked body was found beside the Bhagmati river.

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