January 27, 2003 GMT

I come to you from the Yak Cyber Cafe in Kathmandu. I hadn't planned to come back to Nepal, having spent a couple of months here previously, but it's no great hardship since it is such a pleasant country.

The eternal visa search has brought Bernard and me here. Somebody must have had a change of heart in Tehran, since Iranian visas suddenly became possible and I now probably have two on the way, from two separate lines of attack! Pakistan was the next stumbling block. Despite our entreaties to their embassies in Delhi and London, they wouldn't play ball, so our efforts ground to a halt. We darkly suspect, though, that other European nationalities were being granted them in Delhi. Anyway, the word was that Kathmandu was the place to come, and so it seems. We wondered nervously what we would be asked as we waited to be interviewed at the embassy today, but in the event it was straightforward and our visas are currently being issued, albeit at the rather extortionate rate of 96 dollars. They claim that that's what Britain charges Pakistanis for a visa, so I suppose it's fair enough.

Nepal has suffered in the six years since I was here. Maoist rebels have been mounting an increasing campaign against the police and military. Yesterday they assassinated the chief of armed police and his wife and (ineffective) bodyguard, on the street here in Kathmandu. A state of emergency was declared in late 2001 but the terrorism has continued and there is talk of civil war. To add to the troubles, a few months before that, the crown prince shot dead the king and eight other members of the royal family. The suspension of ordinary government brings with it the usual curtailment of press freedom and civil liberties, not to mention a catastrophic drop in tourism, so the situation all round is not a happy one - particularly tragic for a people so warm and cheerful despite their poverty.

We came from Delhi by a direct route, consisting of a fifteen hour train and about the same by road, travelling north through the attractive rural plains of northern Uttar Pradesh - as flat as East Anglia only far prettier. Up we went into the forested foothills of the Himalayas that rise so precipitously from the green rivers that trace through their valleys. On my previous visit, I spent the final week in Kathmandu being ill, so for a bit of continuity I erupted from both ends within a couple of hours of arriving. After a feverish night, I don't feel too bad today but we've both come down with colds.

Bar the strong police and army presence, the place seems much the same, but the process of gradual development is clear. Kathmandu is yet more geared up for the tourist, putting it way ahead of Delhi, and the increased prevalence of western clothing (particularly amongst young women, not that I'm looking, of course) is noticeable. One thing that amuses me about Nepal is that it sets its time to be GMT plus 5h45min, as opposed to the 5h30min of India, which borders it to the east, west and south. I guess they're making a point.

All being well with the visa, we shall head back towards India tomorrow, with a trip to Varanasi on the cards before returning to Delhi for bike preparation and more paperwork. There are still administrative hurdles to overcome but with luck everything should be in place in a month. Let's hope the regional situation doesn't deteriorate too much by then.

P.S. This entry (being finished in Bharatpur, nearer Nepal's border with India) had to be left in a hurry, since the place was closing due to an 8pm curfew. 'Very volatile area' apparently.

Posted by James Whyte at 01:13 PM GMT

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