I couldn't give a toss

This, I am sure, you will want to know. If there is any 'you' reading this, that is. I have just been on holiday, about which there is nothing much to say, and I had an overlong series of flights home starting late at night, and that evening I went out for my final local meal. My enthusiasm for exploration exhausted, I went to the place opposite where I was staying; it was nice enough and had not many tables. I sat at the corner of a table for six, and in due course the three places in the opposite corner were occupied by a French family. In the corner furthest from me was the little boy, whose name I didn't catch; I am a poor judge but he was perhaps around four or five. Papa was two places to my left and Maman, a smiling and friendly woman, diagonally opposite me. You have the picture?

No doubt apropos of something, Maman started to introduce the boy to the idea of 'heads or tails' (pile ou face?). She had a coin and threw it up unconvincingly a few times, caught it in the usual way, and demonstrated how the question worked. Papa was unsatisfied with her throwing, and felt rightly that it should be flicked with a thumb. So he demonstrated a couple of flicks, but the coin could not really be said to spin; it turned once or twice, perhaps. Your busybody correspondent thus naturally piped up. 'It should spin,' I said. Maman smiled and nodded, and the coin was ceremoniously handed to me. I balanced it on my crooked forefinger, my thumb underneath, and demonstrated the arrangement to le petit. Then --

I should mention, perhaps, in case you should ever need someone to toss coins, that I am an expert. I say this in all humility. Perhaps, for an attraction at a fete, you want a polished performer to stand and toss coins elegantly and accurately all afternoon: I am your man. But the room was dingy and such lights as there were shone in my eyes from the food preparation area behind Maman. I couldn't really see the coin at all, was uncertain of catching it and a bit rattled. Anyway, I flicked it in the usual way and it described a beautiful parabola, up, towards Maman, and straight down her cleavage.

I naturally registered extreme mortification and horror, and the couple, fortunately, were much amused. They were even gracious enough to give me a second chance, and I gingerly demonstrated one or two perfect coin tosses. But perhaps these will not be what I am most remembered for in the family.

Nanjing haggis

Between one thing and another I have not had a moment to spare, which is why you have not yet heard about the success with which our search for haggis was finally crowned. Exhaustive research fails to find haggis in Beijing or Shanghai, but after a couple of false leads in Nanjing, our next destination, we eventually find an old blog post whose author suggests it is sometimes to be found in a certain pub there. Y makes a phone call, and we are in luck: the owner has just returned from Scotland, bringing new haggis stocks in his luggage. We triumphantly book a table and two portions of haggis, despite the fact that when Y searched the web for information in Chinese about the great chieftain o' the pudding race, the first hit had been a disgruntled Chinese diner describing it as 'the most disgusting foodstuff he had ever eaten'.

Finnegan's Wake is a pub hidden in a warren of a shopping district. Swing open the elegant Chinese doors and you are in a welcoming, comfortable Irish pub - or Scottish, perhaps, since a smiling, balding Scotsman is welcoming you with a facetious remark. We stand and chat of Nanjing, and haggis (I bravely recite the first couple of verses of the Ode to the Haggis), and hotels, and whisky - we order two shots of the latter, it being traditional for the occasion - and ask them to get our haggis ready. Meantime Ian, the garrulous Scot - one of the owners, though not the one who has recently returned with haggis - takes us upstairs to see the very plush and comfortable whisky bar, with big soft seats and cabinets full of all kinds of fine whiskies, rare and vintage whiskies, whiskies that can no longer be bought, whiskies that are thousands of pounds a bottle. We go back downstairs. Yueting pronounces the whisky a success, and they bring our haggis. Ian has managed to dig up a copy of the Collected Works, so I give a couple more verses of the Ode. The haggis, to say nothing of the neeps and tatties, are just as one could wish, and Y is a convert.

It is a quiet night - it is still the new year season and everyone is away - and we are the only customers in. Ian has come back with a guitar, promises us an old Scottish song, and strikes up 'Auld lang syne'. For a moment I feel a twinge of disappointment that he is about to sing such an old chestnut; and then he starts, and sings it as I have never heard it before. It is understated, melancholy, nostalgic, soulful, beautiful. He sings all the verses, and I wish there were more. Afterwards I find in Ian's book the lyrics to 'A man's a man for a' that', and wishing I could play the guitar, give a nevertheless not totally discreditable rendition, and we toast Rabbie Burns in the dregs of our whisky. So in the end we got our Burns Night after all, and the best of all possible Burns Nights it was, too.

*

For Y the journey is over: he can return to the cramped dormitory, shared with three other students, at Nanjing University, where he is about to graduate in physics. After a couple of days of sightseeing together I take a cup o' (tea-flavoured) kindness, my leave of Nanjing, and flight for Hong Kong, for the final leg of my adventure.

Xin nian kuai le

The Bund is the stretch of riverside running along the neoclassical facades of long-gone European trading and banking organisations when Shanghai was under foreign control, and opposite the tall skyscrapers of the commercial quarter. It also played a part in the struggle for supremacy between the Communists and the Kuomintang, and with many overlain historical resonances it has mixed associations for many Chinese. But it is still the place in town to hang out.

I have been given to expect New Year celebrations here, and ask of what they might consist. 'Will there be fireworks?'
'Fireworks are not allowed inside the cities.' (Actually the internet suggests there were some fireworks we missed.)
'But will there be a parade?'
'Parades are strictly forbidden by the central government.'
'Why?'
'In 1989 there was a parade in Tiananmen Square ...'
'What about street stalls?'
'Street stalls are not allowed by the authorities.'

There were hundreds of people standing about on the Bund to welcome the new year; the vibe was good but I felt a little cheated in the parades department. A friend of Y's saw dragons and lions dancing in Singapore, as people probably are in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and London Chinatown. But here such things are now considered seditious. We were destined, however, to see an equally remarkable celebration.

Trying to visit the Yuyuan gardens next day, we find ourselves swept up instead in an immense crowd, down a street in the Old Town with all the authenticity that was lacking from Jinli in Chengdu. Lines of police are restricting the flow in some directions to prevent overcrowding. When someone announces we are going to see a bridge (Y translates), the crowds are thicker than ever, and we are spooled through a long chicane, wondering how any bridge can be such a draw.

Finally we are on the zigzag bridge, surrounded by water. The most amazing display of lantern-sculptures has been created in the river, themed, we realise later, on the Silk Road. At the back of the display, famous buildings show waypoints on the road: the Great Wall, the Xi'an pagoda, Mount Huashan, a mosque I can't identify with onion domes, Big Ben, the Eiffel Tower, etc. There are lotus flowers floating in the water (some people are trying to toss coins into them for luck), huge pillar-lanterns, and thematic tableaux of workers engaged in various pursuits. Like everyone else, we gape in wonder, take pictures, and are swept along. In an old wooden building, people are watching from an upstairs window. I suddenly realise it must be some kind of restaurant. A sign proclaims a traditional tea room. We dart inside and out of the throng.

'It would be best to sit upstairs of course,' I say, 'but I expect it is full.' So we go upstairs, where a small photograph on a wall shows HM the Queen and Zhang Zemin when, stuck perhaps for other entertainment, they took tea here, and just as we are about to perch on a shared table where there is not really space for us, two people vacate a small niche by the window, and we find ourselves occupying the best seats in the house. Inside, look round the busy 19th-century wooden teahouse and it's easy to believe you have gone back in time 150 years. Outside, below us, the moving crush of people and life-size lanterns tell the same story, apart from the PA system with a safety announcement playing in a loop.

At ¥100 (£11.50 or so) the tea, of course, is amazingly expensive. But you choose from a selection of fine Chinese teas, and it is served in an elegant bowl, with a special dish for pouring away the bitter lees before refilling from the limitless hot water supplied, and a little plate of kumquats and bag of rice jelly sweets tied up with gold string. We choose teas at random, but looking them up afterwards, it turns out that by chance Y's is from Suzhou and mine from Hangzhou, the two nearby towns said by a line in a famous poem (so Y told me; though the internet suggests just an old saying) to be the most beautiful places on earth. Suzhou is now a major industrial city, but still apparently has beauty spots.

Shang you tian tang,
xia you su hang.

The skies have Heaven,
The earth has Suzhou and Hangzhou.

As dark falls, the lantern-sculptures outside are suddenly lit up, and some of them start to move, workman-lanterns sawing wood, the sails turning on the windmill-lantern. Teahouses like this, Y tells me, were traditionally favourite haunts of poets. Perhaps their spirits still haunt the place, for I take out a notebook and inspiration strikes as we sit at our window and sip and refill our tea.

*

Terracotta

Let mountains rise, let waters flow,
Have armies bring ten thousand men;
Under the earth let them keep watch,
Never to be seen again.


The battle lost, the waters dry,
Routed and broken, no watch they keep:
Through sun and rain, through wars and peace,
Earth under earth, the ten thousand sleep.

A thousand years: men live and die.
Another thousand years roll by.
The rains were late, the rivers dry,
And cursing and laughing and asking why
We dug for water and heard a sigh –


They blink in unaccustomed light.
Assembled for a tyrant's sake
Never to be seen again,
Earth under earth, the guard awake.

*

It had struck me as piquant that the first Qin Emperor's terracotta warriors were buried out of sight to ensure their safety, but - having been vandalised and then lost - only when millennia later rediscovered against his wishes (by farmers digging for water) have they begun to be repaired and arrayed as he imagined, and no doubt saw. According to an early account, the necropolis included model rivers filled with flowing mercury. (The truth of this amazing claim is still unknown, as the tomb itself has not yet been excavated.) The first Emperor, it seems, is not remembered with much affection: his laws were notoriously harsh, and many people died building the first Great Wall and the necropolis itself at his bidding.

China tour

For the past week I have been an unashamed tourist, travelling with my Chinese friend Y and going at the most hectic pace from Chengdu to Xi'an to Beijing and from one famous attraction to another. (This post is therefore the equivalent of 'would you like to see my holiday snaps', and you may wish to skip it.) Everywhere we have gone the streets have been festooned with lanterns and other decorations with more being put up by the hour. Either they knew we were coming, or they are decorating for the New Year, for which the main celebrations are tonight. Incidentally the main reason for our frantic dash from city to city has been our aim to arrive in time for New Year in Shanghai, where (Y tells me) the celebrations are likely to be particularly grand.

I have frantically attempted to finish a post about our gallivanting, but like Tristram Shandy have fallen further and further behind. Happily we are now on a five-hour, 1500km train journey to Shanghai, which gives me leisure to bring the story up to date. Chinese public transport is excellent: buses are heavily subsidised and a city bus trip costs about 25p; trains are fast, comfortable, and pack in a lot of passengers while still giving plenty of room to use a laptop. But to be here I have already had to show my passport twice in the station and once on the train. For all its many pleasant amenities, China is still a country where Big Brother really is watching you. There are not even any legal protections that the government has to secretly flout to collect data about everywhere you have been and all you have done. They just collect it in broad daylight.

This post has resisted my valiant attempts to keep its length within reasonable bounds. Quite a lot of it seems to be about food. Vegetarians may wish to skip these portions.

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Open mouth, insert foot

It is an enchanting flight from Kathmandu to Chengdu. If you can, get a window seat on the left-hand side. We took off in bright sunshine and, continuing in the same vein, were soon cruising over an amazing craggy sunlit wilderness, with snow-capped peaks to the north. There is no sign of any human activity: these are the very highest places in the world. The distant snowy peaks are white and black: is the black deep shadow or rock? It looks almost glassy, luminously and icily black, like something from a different world entirely, and the snow is the purest and whitest you have ever seen.

On and on the eerie landscape goes, jagged bare sunny ridges and ravines, even as the snows disappear. The first sign that the flight is nearly over is that a few scattered houses and settlements are seen along the line of what appears to be a river, and some of the valleys running into it, though how any river can rise at this tremendous height is a mystery. Then, long after the descent has begun, finally there is the first sign of cloud: a whole sea of it ahead and far below us. As the mountains descend into the cloud their boundary makes a long seashore, with headlands, promontories, inlets, and offshore sandbanks where a peak still rises out of the cloud. Soon afterward we plunge into the cloudy sea, and all is blank.

Chengdu, my local friend Y tells me, is permanently in cloud all year round, and now I know why. With the vast Himalaya rising above the clouds, they pile up and have nowhere else to go.

*

Arriving in Chengdu, picked up by Y and his father, who is kindly taking us to dinner and paying for a night's accommodation for us in a hotel. We drive around and stop a few times seemingly looking for a place he knows - I am not really sure what is going on - anyway, we end up in a chuan-chuan restaurant. And what that means is this: from a vast array (some in fridges), you select armfuls of skewers with unidentifiable bits of food on the end, and put them on a tray. (I leave this part to the others.) The trays are handed in at a hatch, and meantime you take a bowl and put in it your favourite selection of spices and flavourings from a selection of tubs including onion, chopped chilli, soy sauce, coriander, and numerous things I can't identify. You go to your table and into your bowl of mixed flavourings empty a large sachet of oil. In due course, a big tub is brought to the table of spicy broth in which our skewers have been cooked. You take a skewer (or a few), slide the food off it using your chopsticks and into your own bowl of oily sauce, and eat it.

A few of the skewers are things I might recognise - a bit of meat or kidney or a mushroom - but most are less obvious.

'What's this?'
'Oh that's ... [checks translation on phone] ... "intestinal"'.
'How about this vegetable?'
'Kelp.'
'Is this another bit of intestine?'
'No, that's bamboo root.'
'And this is more kelp, right?'
'No, that is ... [dictionary routine] ... fungus.'
'What's this interesting looking thing?'
'Lotus root.'
'And this is some kind of meat?'
'Um, throat. Yes, pig's throat.'
'And what on earth is this?'
'That's a chicken foot.'

Chicken feet are bigger than you imagine and remarkably difficult to eat. Attempts to hold the foot with your chopsticks and nibble at the skin-covered flesh are easily resisted, even in death, by the unfortunate chicken. It turns out, should you ever need to know - I cannot very heartily recommend them - that the trick is to bite hard enough to disarticulate one toe at a time, placing the rest of the foot back in your bowl for later. Then you chew on the detached toe, getting the skin and meat off the bone. The bone is discarded in the usual way - which, if you are Chinese, is to spit it directly onto the table or, if you happen to have one, onto a small plate provided for the purpose. I can't get out of my habit, probably repulsive to the locals, of taking bones delicately out of my mouth with my fingers.

Some items have two or even three skewers through them - representing their price. As you eat you put your empty skewers in a tall metal jar, and at the end of the meal they are taken away to be counted in order to calculate the bill.

Members' dinner

I'm posting from Kathmandu airport, where my flight has just been announced. My last few days in town have been uneventful, mostly catching up with some old friends and acquaintances.

One evening I go for dinner to what I remember as a very good Chinese restaurant. A group of Chinese men sit at the big round table in the middle of the smallish room with the lazy susan. They nod and smile when I come in, and then, no other staff appearing, one of them comes over to take my order. I assume they are vaguely connected with the restaurant. The menu is a series of pictures of things and one more or less has to guess or take advice. A woman appears and confirms or denies some of his information, and I order some kind of spicy pork.

The man goes back to his companions and they start to receive an endless supply of wonderful-looking but unidentifiable dishes. Halfway through the meal he calls over to ask me how my pork is. 'It's delicious!' I say, 'but tomorrow I want to eat with you and your friends,' pointing at their array of assorted dishes. To my surprise he looks stricken with sudden conscience for some social fault - admixed with humour - and immediately invites me to take the empty seat at their table.

My new companions, it turns out, work in the Nepal office of a Chinese mobile phone company whose name I forget. As they turn the lazy susan - a delicate operation since someone is always helping themself from a nearby bowl - I try one delicious dish after another and they tell me what it is - pork, mutton soup, aubergine or what have you. 'This looks interesting,' I say, extending my chopsticks towards some meat dish. They smile shiftily and laugh in Chinese. 'Take, take,' says my patron. 'We will tell you afterwards what it is.'

The meat is very soft, slightly sweet, mildly flavoured and delicious. They ask what I think it is. 'I expect it's stomach or something,' I say, hoping I sound offhand. No, they tell me, sniggering, it is not stomach. But I am close. 'This is part of a buffalo. The most important part. For a male.' It is imagined to have virtuous effects on the corresponding part of the consumer, they say, which is why so-and-so - each speaker nominating another person at the table - is particularly keen to sample it. I do not think this dish was on the menu provided to me - not that it is easy to be sure - and it might be awkward to ask for it again if I went back alone.

They tell me more about their company - based in Shenzhen, the great factory of China - which though unknown in Europe is big in Asia. Some of them are going home next week for the Spring festival, i.e. the Chinese New Year, and I learn where they are from and what I should see in Sichuan. When the lazy susan comes round again I reach out my chopsticks for another helping of buffalo penis, but it is all gone.

In the camp

The next day we visit a village close to the town where four brothers of S's and their families live, which is very beautiful and where I meet many excellent people and see many wonderful things of which time, however, is too short to speak. I stay the night while S zooms off to take care of some things. He reappears next morning and takes me off to a local beauty area, a steep river valley whose name I have remembered, perhaps wrongly, as Khudi.

On the way back we stop in Beldangi, a camp for Bhutanese refugees. No photograph, except perhaps an aerial one, could convey the vast area it covers, filled with an endless grid of wooden huts set unhealthily close together. The expulsion of over 100,000 ethnic Nepalis from the south of Bhutan in the 1990s is the shameful blot on that country's recent history. The great majority had no papers, and the Bhutanese authorities used this as a pretext to claim they were illegal immigrants; a small proportion probably were, but most not. Bhutan and Nepal have never agreed on their status and while many have been resettled in third countries, tens of thousands are left.

Here and there along the roadside are some little stalls and cafes, and we stop for a cup of tea, before I pluck up the courage to approach a group of residents and speak to them. One woman with reasonable English says she was 13 when her family had to come here - she looks perhaps 40. They are from Gelephu in the south of Bhutan. Some accounts of the expulsions say that the Lhotsampa had remained culturally Nepali leading to ethnic tensions, so it is interesting that she tells me she had to learn Nepali when she arrived, previously speaking only Dzongka and some English. All the Dzongka I can remember is 'Kuzuzangpo la', and they all nod and smile happily, and then from my description help me remember the name of the region of Bhutan where I lived for three months.

She tries to sound an optimistic note: at first the refugees had many problems but now things are all right. A younger man, says that he was a year old when he came here, contradicts her: there are still many problems. Without papers, the refugees can neither get work in Nepal nor travel ouside it. (These two are both volunteering in a UN health centre within the camp.) They get rice rations from the UNHCR, but these are only about half what they used to be. (They tell me the numbers in kilograms per week, which I have forgotten.) I ask what they think should be done. 'We still hope Bhutan will let us back,' the man tells me.

*

That evening is taken up with mournful farewells since I'm leaving early next morning to get the bus back to Kathmandu. S is returning to Maldives in a few days, but not through Kathmandu, so gives me my last scary motorbike lift into Urlabari through the cold morning fog.

Taken for a ride

When I rise in the morning S is outside trampling on a circular pile of straw nearly as tall as himself. A much bigger pile is over by the field, where it has been left by the thresher after a bale or two of rice were threshed a few weeks ago. Now it's time to start packing the straw into a huge bullet-shaped bale of a type which litter the landscape, which will keep it fresh so that the buffalo has food for the year. The straw is being carried from the one pile to the other bundle by bundle: children are pulling out armfuls of straw, tying it up with a cord made from the spine of a banana leaf, carrying it over and throwing it up to S, who unties the cord and throws it back, and then sprinkles the straw around the top of the pile to distribute it evenly, trampling all the while. The nose of the bullet, which will be shaped last, will throw off rain, and the tightly-packed straw will not rot or decay all year.

Agricultural life in the Terai looks idyllic, but with most of the technology remaining much as it was in biblical times, it involves a lot of hard work. While a threshing machine now goes round the farms in turn, it is only a few years ago - as S remembers well - that threshing, too, had to be done by hand.

*

The work is presently put aside and we zoom off on the inevitable and somewhat scary motorcycle for a day of sightseeeing. From Urlabari we turn west onto the East-West Highway, which runs along the Terai the full 1000km length of Nepal. We had planned (or rather S had planned) to visit the town of Dharan, but he'd heard early in the morning that the town was closed.

'What do you mean, closed?'
'It's closed.'
'You can't close a whole town.'
'The roads are closed.'
'Did they say why?'
'Some political rally there.'
'I'd be quite interested to see a political rally.'
'Really?'
'Where shall we go instead?'
'Actually there are no sights in the east of Nepal.'

But it turns out there is at least one sight on the way to Itahari, the next major city on the highway, in the form of the Betana Wetland, a surprisingly large and well-kept wetland nature reserve. In the woods there are designated picnic areas where groups of young Nepalis have brought sound systems and loudspeakers, somewhat unlike my notion of a nature reserve, but there is plenty of space to get away from them and enjoy the woods, clean and well-constructed paths, lake and ducks.

'Let's go. We have a long way to go,' he says, even though we have no particular idea where we are going, so we set off again for Itahari where we have lunch in a canteen restaurant on the top floor of a tall department store. We discuss again whether to go to Dharan.

'It's a long way. Let's not go.'
'Why were we going there again?'
'I just wanted to show it to you. It's a very modern city, clean, nice architecture.'
'It sounds great. Let's go.'

So turning north off the East-West Highway we go 15km or so to Dharan, where there is no sign of the roads being closed, or a demonstration taking place, or the slightest disturbance of any kind. 'Fake news,' shrugs S, when I mention it.

At the entrance to the city there is a statue in some jet-black stone of a man looking noble while tied to a tree trunk with numerous arrows sticking out of his torso. When on the way back we stop to look, I learn from the inscription that he was a nationalist martyred by the wicked Buddhists ruling Sikkim in the 18th century for his efforts to record and preserve the Kirat language and culture.

If you have been led to expect a hypermodern city with interesting architecture, then riding pillion up the main street of Dharan - the city is at the foot of a hill and the road rises steeply - is at first something of a disappointment. You might be expecting gleaming glass and steel skyscrapers, but all you seem to see is the same old functional Nepali concrete shops obscured by impossible tangles of power cables. But look again, and read past the power cables, and you see something quite different from the grimy melee of Kathmandu: the streets are clean, the road well surfaced, there is a broad pavement for pedestrians, the rickshaws are electric and look new and smart, and you suddenly have an odd feeling that you have been here before. In your mind's eye you are riding up the Edgware Road or somewhere in the East End, lined with hip and slightly grungy Asian shops.

I assume we are going to stop in the centre but S drives on and up, till we seem to be passing out of the city altogether.
'I thought we were coming here to see Dharan?'
'So you've seen it now ...'
Near the top of the hill we stop at a 'hotel', which is to say a little grimy cafe or bar, with a terrace perched on the side of the mountain. We have coffee admiring the view over Dharan, which would be even better if it weren't for a thin film of fog.

On the ride back S takes us through back streets and residential neighbourhoods, and it is here that I finally see the real beauty of Dharan. The houses are handsome, well-built, in style distinct but harmonious, the neighbourhoods clean and inviting. Nestling between the Terai and the hills, Dharan also has mild temperate weather all year round; and only about as far again as Itahari is Biratnagar on the Indian border, Nepal's second city with an international airport. No wonder Dharan is, apparently, an expensive place to live. There are a large number of former Gurkhas living in the town. Serving in the British army is one of the few ways in Nepal of becoming comfortably well-off. I remember coming across the breathtaking and unexpected beauty of Ghandruk, a stone-built Gurkha town in the hills near Pokhara, on a short trek there in 2006.

*

There was another reason we did our sightseeing in this direction today: a birthday party for a relative of S's wife, where, perhaps because he has the bike, he will be representing her. I ask if we should take a present. It turns out S's present has been arranged for him - he doesn't know what it is but it is at the house wrapped up waiting for him to hand it over - and he suggests that I should just give some money, 1000 rupees or so. Then he has a change of heart and we stop again at the supermarket in Itahari, but there is nothing I feel it meaningful to give a child (only children celebrate their birthdays, S says) of uncertain age and gender and interests, least of all the horrible things on the 'gifts' floor.

After Itahari we take various back roads and short cuts along paths across fields with children coming home from school ('They're all looking at you', says S) and arrive at his in-laws' home, where we stop for the usual tea on the verandah. It may be different in the hills where it gets properly cold, but here in the south, where to the uninformed traveller it can still seem pretty darned chilly on a January evening, the only communal space in a house is outside. (Everyone also persists in going around barefoot indoors, with sandals for the outside environs of the house, which at this time of year is silly. But it is only this cold for a few weeks.)

We have done around 100km on the bike today. Not a bad haul considering that riding on the back of a motorbike, along Nepali roads full of life-threatening ruts and unpainted speed bumps, with no safety gear, is completely terrifying.

The birthday is of some kind of cousin who lives round the corner, where we presently troop round. There are adults smiling and children in tall conical party hats. With her two younger sisters and assorted other friends, the birthday girl (for such she turns out to be) stands sedately, apart from the hat, on the balloon-festooned verandah, behind a table decorated with vases of flowers and a cake. We have arrived in time for the important ceremony: she duly cuts the cake. Then all the adults line up in front of the table to transact some business; S is looking carefully to make out exactly what is happening, which is more than I can do; but he tells me to put aside 50 rupees for the two sisters. Finally it is our turn. The birthday girl by now has an enormous red tika, or agglomeration of tikas, on her forehead, the size of an old half-crown. S picks up a large petal from a bowl, waves it over the three sisters while incanting something, then dips his fingers into a bowl of tiny red petals and adds his own tika to the girl's forehead. Then he solemnly hands over his unknown gift to her and a small-denomination note to each of her sisters. In return he is given a small square of cake. (No-one has ovens, so the cake is some odd synthetic cake-like substance.) From this he breaks off an even smaller part and puts it in the girl's mouth, and eats the rest. I copy as much of the procedure as I can remember.

Afterwards we are given dinner, which we eat though we are not hungry, and then various giggling young women want their pictures taken with me, and presently we return to the first house, where it turns out we are to stay for the night. I am tired and S, who has done all the driving, is shattered. So we do not return later to the birthday house, where apparently there is dancing.

Among the mustard

Our departure is delayed by bureaucracy till the next morning, and despite sunnier estimates takes over 12 hours, on a very long bus journey to Urlabari, followed by an autorickshaw to S's sister's house where we pick up his motorbike and set off out of town. Though we woke at 5 and arrived at the bus station by 6, it is dark by the time when, racing along crazy twists and turns among narrow raised paths between fields, we finally reach his family home. The verandah is bustling with people: various relatives and other neighbours have come to peer at the visitor. S tells me I am probably the first foreigner ever to visit the village.

In the morning, the brilliant spring-like sunshine gives me my first clear view of my surroundings. The house is built of cheerfully blue-painted bricks with a tin roof, and consists, beside the verandah, of three bedrooms - one of which has been vacated in my honour. The kitchen is an outhouse of bamboo wattle and daub, also tin roofed. The only tap is a pump in the front yard fed from a tube well; a water filter, which consists of concrete filled with sand and pebbles, stands next to the kitchen and renders the water potable; and another tiny outhouse of corrugated tin holds the usual Asian squat toilet. In the fields round about the predominant crop is mustard, whose bright yellow flower is reminiscent of that other oilseed, rape. 'When the seeds will be ready they will be red' (one of the children explains to me). 'We will take them out (of the pod) and they will dry and we will take them to the mill and get oil.' Of course, mustard-greens are also eaten as a vegetable like spinach.

The land is so fertile that it grows paddy in the rainy season and a second crop in the winter. Those not filled with mustard are growing potatoes or wheat or what have you or are ploughed ready for planting. Coconut, betel-nut and banana palms, bamboo, grapefruit and lychee trees grow round about, and goats, buffalo, chickens, roosters, dogs and cats roam hither and yon. Sheaves of rice are tightly stacked in cylinders with the stalks outwards, to deter rats, and with conical tops to throw off rain. Boys play cricket with a tennis ball and a misshapen stick, farmers drive oxen drawing wagons loaded with sacks, and women wash clothes and pots at their pump.

*

Someone decides, perhaps because of my meagre pretensions to have been a teacher once, that I should pay a visit to the village school. It is quickly arranged and we zoom off on the inevitable motorcycle. The school gate gives onto a large field with a row of poky brick classrooms along one edge. All the classes are taking place in circles sitting in the field, the classrooms being deserted (because they are 'too cold', S says, though this makes no sense). But there do not seem to be all that many students in the field, either, at least compared with its size. S together with the maths teacher, the only one who seems to speak any English, explain that this is because more than half of Nepali school students now go to private boarding schools, which are considered much superior to government schools like this one, partly on account of their English-medium teaching. When this school was built many more local children would have been its pupils. The teachers take me to be some vague kind of Official Visitor and soon cheerfully gather round to chat, forsaking their classes, whose ring-shapes on the grass like fairy rings slowly crumble and dissolve as the kids take advantage of their sudden unexpected freedom.

*

Our next call is to a rather grand wooden house as such things go - it is on two storeys - belonging to Bidhya Devi Bhandari, the current and first female president of Nepal. The house now functions as a kind of museum consisting of some dusty empty rooms and a series of photographs, above a doorway, of communist leaders from Marx to someone who may be the President's late husband, who was a Nepali communist leader. Besides its imposing stature and well-kept garden, the house's principal feature of interest is a lookout gallery and series of hidden entrances and trap doors, built when he was a rebel leader and a quick getaway might have been needed at any time. I first take the gallery to be one from which one would wave and address crowds - but it is unlikely that anything much like a crowd would be found in this fairly remote village.

*

Later on we ride into Urlabari to meet some friends of S. The little roadside town now seems like a thriving metropolis. We have tea served from a hatch in the wall and then, on a whim of someone's, zoom off to see a nearby tea plantation, on a large area of land belonging, I'm told, to the former king. Acres of tea bushes, with tall trees planted among them for shade, are criss-crossed by a square grid of broad paths. Nepal's most famous tea is Ilam, which grows not far from here but in the hills, which are supposed to have the best climate and topography for tea. Many Nepalis will tell you - I have never investigated the story - that the still more famous tea garden of Darjeeling properly belongs to Nepal, and that India has effectively annexed it but continues to pay rent for it, or some such tale.

In the evening, after dinner, S tells me that another delegation of relatives has arrived in hope of seeing his distinguished visitor. 'There are lots of pretty girls,' he says. I ask tartly if he couldn't have found any pretty boys but he makes a face and leads me onto the verandah, where assorted people are standing around including some newcomers, young women (some of them married) who are introduced as nieces or cousins of some kind. They are perishingly shy and will hardly speak, so conversation is halting, though I am of course my usual affable self and even play them a tune on the whistle. Before long S decides that the audience is at an end and shoos me, somewhat peremptorily, back into my room, but they soon pluck up courage and poke their heads round the door, and S and a couple of others follow and soon I am hosting a small party. Aayush interprets as they ask me questions. Then he takes down a guitar from behind the bed, and calls on his cousin Anjan to play it. Anjan is summoned, and can fingerpick the tune of some well-known Nepali song moderately competently, while singing the same song, also moderately competently but in a completely unrelated key. ('Excellent,' I say afterwards, with only partial honesty.) Luckily some of the others join in the song and drown out the discordant guitar strings. After that I sing 'Molly Malone', and teach them to join in the chorus; and then the evening is declared a great success and everyone retires to bed.

The unexamined wife

I arrived in Kathmandu on Friday in warm sunshine, but it's nippy at night. The Tibetan family-run Hotel Utse still as good as ever: comfortable, clean, homely, handsomely decked out in a Tibetan style, cheap, with good food, hot water when you are lucky, and these days tolerable wifi to boot.

The glamour has gone out of the tourist district Thamel a little perhaps, but the backstreets of Kathmandu proper are as colourful and noisy and full of life as ever. This area does not show many signs of the lethal earthquake that struck Nepal a couple of years ago, though when I wander down to the Durbar Square, the magnificent array of temples in front of an old royal palace and a World Heritage Site, I see that, as I have read, it is mostly a pile of rubble. Of the Kasthamandap, the square open-sided wooden temple that is supposed to have given Kathmandu its name, there is no sign. Excavations since the earthquake supposedly reveal that it may have been built in the 7th century.

I'm here largely to visit my friend Shikher, whom I randomly met in Maldives, where he works - one of the very many Nepalis who are driven abroad by the lack of work at home and send money back to parents or other family members. (My mother is amused that his name means 'drunk' in Yiddish.) He takes all his annual leave in one go so that he can fly back to Nepal. Consequently, while we've been saying for years that we will meet in Nepal one day, this is the first time we have managed it, apart from an hour over coffee last time I was here, when he arrived the day before I left.

We miss each other at the airport but in the evening I find him and a nephew waiting for me at the hotel. The nephew is studying electrical engineering in Biratnagar. I have booked a twin room and tomorrow S will stay here, and on Sunday, after he has acquired some kind of official travel permit, which will involve queuing all day, we can take a microbus, possibly overnight, to Urlabari, since he is taking me to visit his family home in the remote and rural eastern Terai.

On Saturday we meet at Himalayan Java, Thamel's favourite coffee shop, stop off at the hotel ('this is our place!'), go shopping for a suitcase to replace the one I borrowed from my parents which is falling to pieces, and back to the hotel for dinner. We order our food and sit and chat.

'When we go to your home who will be there?'
'My mother, and my sister and her children. Um and my wife.'
'Your wife?' What is this about a wife? He has never mentioned having a wife.
'This is what I've been wanting to apologise for not telling you sooner ...'
'Since when have you had a wife?'
'I was waiting for the right moment to mention it. When I came back to Nepal ...'
'How long ago is this?'
'About a month.'

He came back all unsuspecting for his annual leave towards the end of November, intending to buy a little parcel of land on which in due course he might build a new and better house. His mother is starting to get elderly and when he is away, there is no-one to look after her apart from his sister, who is living there only temporarily. S, of course, is always under pressure to get married, and this time the family sprang a surprise on him: they had identified a suitable wife. So they went in convoy over to her village, where he met her for the first time, and they spoke together, and decided each other would do. The wedding preparations, which swallowed up the money with which he was hoping to buy the land, were hastily made - even friends from neighbouring villages were forgotten from the guest list - in order that they could be married on the 15th of December, which was the last day of Mangsir in the year 2073, because the next day was Poush, and everyone knows that you cannot get married in the month of Poush.

So all is now well, since his mother has a daughter-in-law to look after her, while S spends 11 months out of the year working abroad to support them.