Pokhara

The Greenline buses that shuttle between the tourist centers of Nepal are like cocoons that protect you from the everyday realities of travel in the country. The tickets are priced in dollars – the one from Sauraha to Lumbini cost me 23 dollars – and instead of stopping for lunch at the rows of cheap eateries at Mugling, you are taken to the Riverside Springs Resort at Kurintar for a buffet lunch that’s included in the ticket price. The buses are air-conditioned and the drivers are trained to go safely on the notoriously accident-prone roads. Your companions in the bus are going to be predominantly non-Nepalis and you land up in the bus stand near Lakeside, the tourist district of Pokhara instead of the one at Baglung Bus Park or Prithvi Chowk.

When I arrived at the bus stand, an army of hotel owners attacked me with lucrative deals, some with breakfast thrown in, some with bath-tubs, some with wifi. But I was in a tricky situation. DB had given me the address of a home-stay and I had called the owner, KC, the previous evening. His place was fully booked for a couple of nights and he had arranged a room for me at a hotel nearby. But he hadn’t told me where and I couldn’t get through to him. So, I hired a taxi to take me to Hallan Chowk, the main intersection in Lakeside where there was accommodation aplenty. Within a minute of my entering the taxi, KC called back and told me to go to Hotel Asia. This hotel was just a 5 -10 minute walk from the bus stand and we had already overshot it. The taxi driver had an impish smile on his face as he took the 250 Rupees off my hands, probably the most money he’ll ever make and I’ll ever pay for a 2 minute ride.

Hotel Asia looked like a big hotel, something I wasn’t in the mood for in a place like Pokhara. To dampen my enthusiasm even further, there was a big hotel under construction on the opposite side and the only sunny rooms in the complex were facing the abominable drilling going on in that building. I could have ditched KC and gone elsewhere but my conscience was getting prickly because KC had argued a great deal with the owner of the hotel for my stay here. So I took the room, which was bland, dull and business-like but quite clean with an LCD TV, free wifi, hot shower and tea-coffee makers. There was a UN vehicle parked outside the hotel which raised my self-esteem temporarily. KC came to meet me in my room to check if everything was alright and apologized profusely for not being able to accommodate me at his home. In the evening, the hotel was packed to the gills with package tourists from India – big, demanding families from Rajasthan and Gujarat creating much ruckus and noise.

I don’t learn from my mistakes very well and had procrastinated on work yet again. This time, I was up to my neck in deadlines and my laptop punished my lackadaisical attitude by overheating and refusing to boot. I was awake all night trying everything I could – taking the battery out, leaving the device to cool down for hours, refreshing Windows, resetting Windows, formatting the hard disk, reinstalling Windows – and nothing worked. The next morning, I unsuccessfully strolled around Lakeside looking for a place to fix it and then made a despairing call to KC asking for help. I was so screwed that I was ready to buy a new laptop as a last resort. KC knew of a place in Prithvi Chowk that could be of help and arranged for a vehicle to take me there.

The vehicle was a big micro-bus driven by a young Nepali boy dressed in a black leather jacket and ray bans. KC had called him saying he had to pick me up on very urgent business and he took the only vehicle that was available with him at the time to take me around. It felt odd to be the only passenger in such a massive vehicle driven by a guy who looked like a film-star. We vroomed into the computer repair store, which was a small, dusty, garage-like shed with a few laptops arranged haphazardly for sale. They were far more expensive than they ought to have been and I was hoping my laptop could somehow be fixed. The signs didn’t look good. There was a boy in the store who called himself DJ and tripled up as salesman, manager and techie. He confessed to me that he was just out of college and had learnt everything he knew on the job. Nevertheless, he pulled all the tricks he could and after a few hours of unsuccessful tweaking, said he would have to open it up to diagnose the problem. He had never seen my model before, so he went to youtube and took the laptop apart while looking at a video telling him how to do so. It all felt a bit like having a painful dental surgery being done in my molars by a trainee dentist googling for tips and tricks on his mobile phone. Anyway, DJ diagnosed the problem successfully. The heating vents had been clogged with dust and as he painstakingly removed every speck of dirt he could find from the dusty innards, I rued the needless sacrifice of 400 gigabytes of unbackup’d pictures and memories I had made the previous night while formatting my hard drive. DJ could see that I was upset and ordered a round of beers to cool my frayed nerves. Both the film-star driver and I appreciated the gesture, although I had to pay for the whole carton eventually. But I was thankful to DJ for having saved my ass, my laptop and a whole lot of money I would have spent on a grossly overpriced netbook.

The next day, I was supposed to check out of Hotel Asia and into KC’s place but KC had gone incommunicado and all my attempts to reach him were in vain. I did not want to stay in Hotel Asia because it was bland, sterile, sad, soulless and expensive, filled with the same sort of people I sought to escape when I left India. But I didn’t know where KC’s homestay was either. So I checked out and walked around Lakeside past numerous expensive resorts shopping for a decent place to stay. My Rough Guide highly recommended Nirvana Guest House, praising its “huge, thoughtfully decorated and spotless rooms overlooking spacious flower-strewn balconies and a garden”, so that’s where I went first. They offered me a good-sized room on the ground floor with a bathroom outside for 1200 NR. Too much, I said, and moved on. The street was packed with back-to-back hotels hazardously stuck to each other, all looking identical. I settled for the Eagle Nest Hotel for a room with an ensuite bathroom with hot shower and wifi for 700 NR.

As fate would have it, moments after I checked in, KC called me asking where I was. He was waiting for me in his home and had kept a room all mopped up and ready hoping I would arrive in the morning. Would I be coming home for lunch? I must be craving for some good home-cooked food, no? With a heavy heart, I told him about my predicament and he was understandably quite upset, more with the shitty network in Pokhara than my non-arrival. He had refused guests for my sake and the room will have to go vacant the rest of the day. I felt terrible and told him I would come by the next day to stay for a couple of weeks. This pacified him and I went about exploring ways to socialize in my new dwelling. My room was at the end of a narrow corridor near a little balcony. A Chinese guy and a Danish girl were smoking Marlboro’s and we talked about how eerie the buildings in this side of Pokhara looked. There was less than an inch of space between our building and the next and the balconies of two adjacent buildings were stuck together. We wondered what would happen if an earthquake struck here, something I would find out two months later.

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There are few places in the world that are better than Pokhara to comfortably linger while reading, writing, working and whiling away your time. The frenetic hotel searching, laptop fixing and proof reading had given me little time to enjoy the true pleasures of this beautiful Himalayan city by the lake but once I arrived in KC’s Shangri La Home Stay, my routine started falling in place. Shangri La was in a little alley in Lakeside South away from the touristic mayhem of Lakeside Central and was largely a quiet and peaceful place to live. I spent three glorious weeks here, eating didi’s delicious home-cooked food, lounging in the airy balcony, engaging with trekkers who often stayed here, reading and writing. Some days, when the sky was clear, KC would wake me up at 5.30 in the morning to look at the mountains in all their glory. From his rooftop, I could catch the sun rising over the mightiest peaks in the world, from the Dhaulagiri in the east through the Machchapuchhare and the Annapurnas to Manaslu way down in the west. The shimmering lake, the predominant feature of the city, was just down the road and on many gentle strolls by its promenade, I wondered if I would ever want to leave such a glorious setting.

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Chitwan

There’s a certain inexplicable energy to leaving a place and not knowing where you’re going. When I reached the bus stand in Tansen, my mind was still running over the possibilities ahead. A two bus switch and a 6 hour ride would take me to Pokhara. A three bus switch and 6 hour ride would take me to Chitwan. A quick toss of the coin put me on the way to Chitwan. The Royal Chitwan National Park was Nepal’s oldest national park, a densely forested region with a healthy population of tigers, rhinos, sloth bears, hundreds of species of birds and critically endangered crocs like the gharial. It is one of the handful of wildlife sanctuaries in the world that could be visited independently and relatively inexpensively.

An Italian backpacker I befriended in Tansen had highly recommended an allegedly quiet and beautiful place away from the touristic mayhem of the main town of Sauraha. So I called the place up on the way and booked a “deluxe” room for myself. I didn’t expect the world for 400 NR but even by the standards of slummy accommodations, it was a squalorous dump. GR, the owner, claimed he had to give away the “good” room that he had kept for me to a family of “foreigners” and requested me to “adjust” in a terrifyingly shabby room which was a filthy mud and bamboo shack that was infested with mosquitoes and spiders and had big holes in the mesh screens on the windows. He promised to get a “luxury” room ready the next day when the “foreigners” checked out. I took his word for it, plonked my luggage on the dank, muddy floors of the hut and went for a walk around Sauraha.

If you didn’t know Sauraha was the gateway to a UNESCO listed wildlife reserve, you probably would have thought it was a wild and hopping party town. The sandy banks of the river aka “the beach” were lined with back-to-back “beach” bars supplying an endless number of sun decks for people to chill and down a few beers. It was late evening when I took a stroll by the river and the innumerable copy-paste bars had turned up the volume of EDM and Bollywood dance numbers while flashing Happy Hours discounts to lure safari-weary tourists to their decadent pads. At sunset, I could spot a herd of spotted deer on the wilder side of the river walking back into the forest after quenching their thirst. Having come here to experience the wild, I found much of the blatant commercial enterprise terribly appalling. Like Lumbini, Sauraha existed only because of a UNESCO site and it seemed people came here less for the forests than for having a “good time”.

Back in the guest house, the longer I spent in the room, the worse it became. The mosquito net would rather not have been there at all because much of it had been pockmarked with cigarette butt-holes. The wicker chair in my room was broken in half. None of the electrical sockets were working. When I went to GR to discuss these issues, he looked drunk out of his mind. “The mosquitoes are harmless”, he slurred, “Most of the time I just finish 2 bottles of Vodka and sleep peacefully. If you want, I can give you one.” I was fuming with anger inside but being naturally nonconfrontational, chose not to take him on.

The next morning, the place had run out of water. So I packed my bags and left without having brushed my teeth or taken a dump. The property screamed squandered potential. It had a beautiful setting, very close to the buffer zone, set amidst green fields and organic gardens and came with an added bonus of a resident elephant in the neighbourhood. It seemed to attract primarily shoestring backpackers dressed in colourful pyjamas who probably wouldn’t mind living anywhere as long as it was cheap. I drew a line at the basic lack of running water and the swarm of mosquitoes indoors. With the uncomfortably distressing feeling that I was getting a bit too old for this sort of slumming, I lugged around Sauraha looking for a decent place to live.

A street in Sauraha
A street in Sauraha

Everybody in the town must have gone away for their safaris and forest walks because Sauraha looked like a ghost town at 10 in the morning. I cluelessly marched into a few decent-looking resort hotels that lined the main streets and walked out feeling like a penniless outcast. Thoroughly demoralized, I sat down for breakfast at a tiny road-side café run by a very talkative woman. She, like many people in Nepal, was a big fan of the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi because of a speech he gave in the Nepali Parliament. And because of him, she was back in love with India. Her son was useless, she said, who spent all his evenings singing songs, playing guitar and getting drunk but now hopefully, he would be motivated to finish his studies and get a job in India. The son arrived on cue, all woozy and sluggish, ordering his mother to make some eggs. They got into a fight, she asking him to make them himself, he throwing a mad fit, she censuring him for being jobless and unmarried, he cursing her for being a nag. I sympathized with her predicament, paid for my breakfast and left quietly.

Now that I had some food in my stomach and some conversation and drama to liven up my spirits, I was able to think more clearly and settled quickly for a room at the unimaginatively titled “Sauraha Guest House”. It looked brand new and quite desolate. But the rooms, that would have cost an arm and a leg elsewhere, were bright and clean and came with free wi-fi and a verandah that overlooked a little forested area twittering with birdsong with the Chitwan River gurgling in the distance. I learnt the real reason for the deserted look of the village when I spoke to the owner of the restaurant below. The Kathmandu airport had been shut for a week because a Turkish Airlines flight had moored itself on the runway. So there were too many people waiting anxiously to get out and nobody coming in. Much of the awfully new architecture in Sauraha had been built to accommodate hordes of tourists from abroad and the bullock carts and horse carts lumbering about the empty streets looked like period film props on the wrong day of shoot.

IMG_6569The forests in Chitwan were divine and offered an astounding array of options to explore them – by foot, by canoe, by elephants, by jeep. Like most National Parks, the access and entry inside the park were prohibitively expensive for a solo traveler. So I spent a lot of time wandering about the buffer zone all by myself. Every evening, I would watch the sun go down by the river sitting on one of its wilder unpopulated banks to look at a big herd of spotted deer on the other side. Kingfishers, pipits, robins, minivets, treepies and barbets would flutter around in the meadows. Muggers and critically endangered gharials basked in the sun on rocky patches in the river. Spotted eagles swooped down to catch a meal of fresh fish. A rhino or two slumbered across sending a shiver up my spine. It was everything I hoped for, a wild setting where I was free to roam independently for as long as I wished.

Some of the cafes away from the “beach” had local bands playing acoustic pop songs. One evening the “Acoustic Sheesha” café was particularly lively where a big group of young boys took off their shirts and sang and danced wildly to Nepali folk songs. I recognized the sluggish jobless boy, the son of the talkative woman who ran the breakfast café, among the stragglers. He looked significantly happier now and came up to my table to have beers and a chat. He, too, felt sorry for his mother but they had divergent ideas about his future. He wanted to play music for the rest of his life, a line of work his mother didn’t quite understand. Yes, it didn’t pay a lot of money now but he was confident that he would be able to make it big in the future. In any case, he had been a failure in everything else that he had attempted that far. It was music or nothing. He was 28 years old and his only source of income was gigging in the cafes of Sauraha. He felt his mother was more worried about the pretty girls he brought home frequently than his future. I wondered aloud if the lust for pretty girls was keeping him from building a more secure future for himself. He knew of my vagabonding life and retorted back saying I should probably worry about my lust for aimless travel instead. It was a valid point and there was no easy way to counter this. So we clinked beer mugs and toasted to living happily in the moment.

Despite the beautiful walks in the buffer areas of the forest, I quickly grew tired of the overbearing, vacuous touristiness of Sauraha. But I hadn’t been into the core forest areas and it would be a pity to get out before taking a peek inside. So I  booked a seat for myself on a safari to the forest. I felt awkward being the only non-white single solo traveler in the 8-person jeep, my co-passengers being an old British couple, an American couple and a French couple. The British were cantankerous and complained throughout the journey. They’d spent a lot of time in Africa and vocally expressed their disappointments at not being able to “catch any tigers”. Like all my forays into forests, I was happy just being there amid the trees, the bushes and breathing the fresh air in the wide open landscape. It was a more open forest than I expected and the tall grasslands were being trimmed and burnt for them to rejuvenate later in the year. Many rhinos dutifully showed up, sparking some excitement among the Brits. Big herds of spotted deer hopped about and eagles, vultures, cormorants, darters, peacocks and kingfishers were seen in abundance.

A gharial in the wild
A gharial in the wild

Later, we were ejected at the Crocodile Breeding Center, where critically endangered gharials were being force-breeded to save the species from extinction. Gharials look far more photogenic in a more natural setting like a rocky outcrop on a wild river and here, in clusters of different age-groups in big cages, looked like they’d been punished for a crime they hadn’t commitedt. But I guess, when a species has only 120 individuals left on earth, these measures become more necessary than any romantic notions of freedom. And I suppose this was the only way one was ever going to see the young un’s that looked unbearably cute.

Throughout the safari, I couldn’t help thinking that this would have been far more worthwhile if I had just walked. But walking in the forest was both hazardous and expensive on my own. I would have to pay for a guide and a forest guard and since a day trip wouldn’t take one very far into the jungle, I would also have to walk fast enough to reach a village for an overnight stay. More than anything else, I was petrified at the thought of being gored to death by an angry rhino or sloth bear protecting a young one. These budget issues and paranoid fears meant I had a substantially inferior experience of the forest than I would have liked.

Apart from the few interactions I had with the lady at the little breakfast place, her son and a couple of backpackers, Sauraha had been depressing. It was a purely functional place where one came to do a few touristy things and left. The forest walks had been the only attraction to make me linger here longer than I would have liked but once I was back from the walks, it was dispiriting to always be eating alone in a restaurant covering up my alienation with a book in my hand. My mind was numbed into ennui by my loneliness and I knew only one way to cure it. I booked a bus ticket, packed my bags and took the Greenline bus to Pokhara the next morning. There was a girl from Czech Republic sitting next to me. I started talking to her immediately and the sense of motion and the conversation drove my blues away.

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Tansen

IMG_6500Getting to Tansen from Lumbini was somewhat complicated. I had to hop three buses, one to the Buddha Chowk in Bhairahawa, another from Bhairahawa to Butwal and a third from Butwal to Tansen. Just ahead of Butwal, the Siddhartha Highway which provides the most direct route to Pokhara from Bhairahawa twists and curls into the middle hills through scary rock-fall prone sections, terrifying drops down steep gorges and mesmerizing views of the fertile paddy fields of the Madi Valley flanked by green hills on all sides.

I had messaged DB on Facebook the previous evening about a room at the Horizon Homestay that he runs in Tansen but hadn’t received a reply before leaving the free wi-fi confines of Lumbini. Nevertheless, I was determined to seek it out and try my luck. The lanes in Tansen were immensely steep and circuitous and my sense of direction was so awry that I had done many rounds of the lower parts of the town without ever approaching Shitalpati, the center of the bazaar. BS, a garment shop owner, saw me floundering aimlessly about the town and offered to direct me through its maze of alleys. He was a fast walker and my unfit body felt like it had carried 30 tonnes of coal up Mount Everest when we reached Shitalpati.

I was absolutely out of breath by the time I had climbed the near-vertical lane that led to the Horizon Homestay, sweating profusely, ringing one of the more hopeful bells I had rung in a while. A little boy, a friend of the family, opened the door, invited me in, led me to the cleanest rooms I had seen in weeks, showed me how the gas-powered geyser in the bathroom worked and gave me the password for the wi-fi. DB and his family had gone out for a wedding and the boy had been requested to stay in the house just in case I arrived. DB had left a message for me apologizing for the unavailability of home-cooked food that night. I was already impressed. My room was compact and well-kept. The bathroom was tiny yet spotless. The gas shower was scalding hot, which in the freezing temperatures of Tansen was a godsend. There was a small, sunny double terrace up above with a few potted plants, a roundtable, some chairs and great views of the town of Tansen below.

The Madi Valley
The Madi Valley

I was famished and a feast was in order. So I went to the fanciest restaurant in Tansen, Nanglo West, which was a branch of the Kathmandu chain of Newari restaurants. It had outdoor seating, splendid old-fashioned architecture, costumed waiters, a bakery and a good menu. The dal bhat was expensive by Nepali standards and wasn’t very different from what you found in an ordinary teahouse, so I certainly was paying for the ambience here. But it did the job by being delicious and filling. It was at Nanglo that I had my first brush with an expat in Nepal, an exquisitely dressed English gentleman in a broad-brimmed hat who was dining with a Nepali woman in the adjoining table, speaking in perfect Nepali. Later, we met at the bakery while shopping for desserts.

“I couldn’t help noticing that you speak great Nepali. Do you live here?”, I said. He replied, with a wink and a smile, “Well, I couldn’t help noticing that you speak good English. I don’t suppose you live in London, do you?” He looked surprised when he learnt that I came from across the border. “Indians don’t usually travel in these parts, do they? They’re quite happy going to Pokhara and Kathmandu.” We sat outside and had a cup of coffee together. He’d been coming to Nepal since the 70s and been learning to speak the language ever since. Tansen had been among his favourite towns in the country but he’d been falling out of love with it recently. “It was a beautiful town with beautiful buildings all over but after the Maoist strife, people have been pulling down the old buildings and putting up these stupid concrete houses that probably aren’t going to last a decade.”

He had been in the town during the extraordinary attack by the Maoist led PLA (People’s Liberation Army) on the town’s barracks and government buildings. The town’s centerpiece, the Tansen Palace which also housed the police station, came in for a particularly vicious assault where the building was burnt to rubble. It has since been rebuilt but was closed to the public when I was there. He spoke of the harrowing time as a turning point in his utopian view of life in Nepal. The experience made him more cynical of life in the country and forced him to temper his enthusiasm for its people and its mountains.

An old traditional house in the town
An old traditional house in the town
The Mul Dhoka aka the main gate to the Tansen Palace
The Mul Dhoka aka the main gate to the Tansen Palace

Despite its tumultuous recent history and concretization, Tansen cast a spell on me. This was largely because of DB and JB’s beautiful hospitality at the Horizon Homestay. I hadn’t planned to spend more than 3 or 4 days in Tansen but ended up living there for two weeks. Many mornings, I went for a walk through the pine forests up to the Srinagar Hill to take in the gobsmackingly spectacular 360 degree views of Madi Valley and the Annapurna Range from the under-construction tower on the hill. I was joined by DB on some of these walks and my appalling fitness levels stuck out like a sore spine as DB, who was at least a decade older than me, sprinted up the steep and slippery slopes of the hill while I stopped every few steps to catch my breath. On one of these magical days on the tower, the Madi Valley was enveloped with clouds to form what the locals called the “White Lake”. DB wasn’t very happy with the formation of the “White Lake” because he thought the clouds were leaking beyond some of the nooks and corners spoiling the effect but to my untrained eyes, it looked absolutely divine, like a massive lather of soap frothing between the hills.

The white lake
The white lake

Having spent many months on the road eating restaurant food, I was craving for some genuine home-cooked food and JB’s cooking was simple but absolutely delicious. Dinners were served in the kitchen indoors and breakfasts on the terrace outdoors and both were terrific places to eat. DB inevitably opened a bottle of beer every night and we used to chat away for hours while JB made snide remarks about DB’s expanding belly. Horizon was then the no. 1 listed B&B on tripadvisor in Tansen, so DB had a steady stream of guests from all over coming to his place. One night, it was a group of cheerful Italians on the terrace introducing me to Gogol Bordello and underground psychedelic rock, another night, rounds of beer and arthouse film discussion with a big group of very tall Dutch tourists. It was an easy, compact place to get conversations going with anyone and everyone who happened to be there.

Despite JB’s wonderful cooking, I chose to have all my lunches outside and my favourite place to eat was a little momo cafe right next to the City View Guest House. The cook was a friendly and chatty man who’d worked in Delhi for many years of his life and his momos, lollipops and chai were quite delectable. There were many of these little momo café’s littered around the town and some of them turned out to be drinking dens too. Every once in a while, I would stumble into one of them to ask for a cup of tea only to look around and find everyone else getting inebriated on locally made rum while little boys and girls were running around playing hide-and-seek. The only other real restaurant in the town that was unaffiliated to a big hotel was The Royal Inn, which had copied the Nanglo West template, with a smaller outdoor area and a dankier indoor section and served pretty much the same dishes at slightly cheaper rates.

The holi dahi handi
The holi dahi handi

Holi in Tansen was an amusing affair. There are few things I hate more than rowdy kids splashing me with colour when I’m walking on the road minding my own business but it delighted me to know that such loutish behavior was banned in the town. The ban seemed to be having little effect though as the terraces were full of young kids armed with water balloons ready to strike any unsuspecting passerby. Bikers vroomed around the alleys in colourful face masks and right below DB’s house, a group of young kids had strung a rope across two buildings, dangled an earthern pot in the center and were clambering on top of each other in an attempt to build a human pyramid to bring it down. This was familiar but also strange to Indian eyes because Dahi Handi, as it is called in India, is celebrated during Gokulashtami, which was many months away. Nonetheless, it was good fun to watch, with people from the neighbourhood splashing colours and spraying water at the kids while they were perilously perched on top of each other. Roars of laughter went around every time they tumbled down in a heap.

The annapurnas playing hide-and-seek
The annapurnas playing hide-and-seek

One day, I walked alone to Bagnaskot, a hill about 2 hours which commanded the best views of the surrounding area. There had been a lot of rain for a couple of days and the air was clear and fresh. One of the best things about Tansen was walking out of it into the country around, a green, expansive and spacious region full of little hamlets. This walk was largely on the road but there was very little traffic on the way. A perennial breeze was blowing in the air and the views were stunning wherever I looked. I climbed a little hillock on the way and was rewarded with a spectacular view of the Annapurna range playing hide-and-seek among the clouds. The sunlight streaked between the clouds to hit the snow mountains in their folds to make them look like bright patches of light hanging in the air. The effect was quite extraordinary and I dutifully plonked myself down on the grass, took the Canon 550D out of the bag and clicked a million pictures. The only other human presence in the vicinity was a shepherd whose herd was grazing in the pastures. He offered me a cup of tea from his flask and a joint from his pocket and we sat together, drinking tea and smoking up, silently looking at the unbelievably beautiful play of light and shadow unfolding in front of us.

After this tranquil moment, I went to the momo place near the point where the road slithered steeply up to Bagnaskot. I had already seen the Annapurnas and the sky was getting seriously cloudy. So, instead of climbing up the hill, I sat at the momo place with an elegantly dressed old man sharing a bottle of rum and some plates of momos to go with. His face was exquisitely contoured like the face of a mountain, with deep wrinkles and folds weathered by a long journey through time. He had spent his entire working life in the Indian army, fought in the 17 day war in 1965 and the 1971 war against Pakistan and had been shot thrice in combat, wounds on his shoulder and legs which he showed me delightfully. Because of the violence he had witnessed, he believed in a Gandhian ideology and wished Nepali politicians had the intellectual maturity of the Ambedkars and the Nehrus and the Patels to pen their own Constitution, a burning issue in Nepal that had been raging ever since the Maoist-led civil war had ended. We walked back to Tansen together and he gave me innumerable tips for things to do, trek to Ranighat, the temples at Ridi Bazaar, a bus to the Palpa Bhairab temple renowned for animal sacrifices, a homestay in the village of Baugha Ghumma, a walk up to the bridge at Ramdi, another hike through the old trade route to Butwal and on and on.

I didn’t do any of the trips he suggested, putting them in a bucket-list for things to do on the next trip. DB had warned of a big tourist group that was going to invade his house and while he offered to put me up in another homestay, it was time for me to leave. After two weeks, I had imbibed enough of Tansen to last many years. Yes, I would have rather left after doing more hikes and seen more temples but Tansen was such a stunner of a town that the opportunities were endless and I was certain to return in the future.

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Lumbini

The sacred tank outside Mayadevi Temple
The sacred tank outside Mayadevi Temple

The manager at Hotel Mount Everest tried very hard to make me stay and do a day trip to Lumbini when I was checking out of his hotel. “Lumbini is just a village. You’ll get bored there.The hotels are very expensive. You can easily go, see the place and come back in a few hours.” He was desperate because he hadn’t had any customers for a couple of days and a shabby, transit town like Bhairahawa was a truly hard sell. I’d been to Bhairahawa before and if there’s any place I was going to get bored, it was here. So I bid him farewell, thanked him for letting me use his phone and promised I would return some other time.

Buses to Lumbini left from the Buddha Chowk, about a kilometer beyond Bank Road where all the hotels were. I was thrilled to find a bus for Lumbini waiting there ready for departure but my joy was shortlived when I hastily entered the bus and the driver stomped on the accelerator. The coach was packed to the gills and there was no space to breathe. I’m not particularly tall but the buses in Nepal are built for people much shorter and slimmer (and fitter) than I was. The conductor wasn’t happy that I was consuming an amount of space that could squeeze in 3 passengers, so I told him I’d like to get off and take another bus. He laughed, patted me on the back, said he was just kidding and told me I’d get a seat soon as people might get off at the next village. The next village arrived and nobody got off but plenty more got on. I was also irked by the fact that I was made to pay more money than my fellow passengers. Was I paying more because I was bigger than the others? No. This was the “Indian price” which was higher than “local price” and substantially lower than “Foreigner price”. After an hour of banging my head against the ceiling, testing the limits of spinal flexibility, getting stamped on the foot by young Nepali teenage girls in high heels and a crash course in conversational Nepali with a boy from Taulihawa, I got off at the Buddha’s birthplace, Lumbini.

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Lumbini was a two-street town whose only raison d’etre is to provide accommodation, food and basic necessities to people who come in droves from around the world to visit the UNESCO Heritage Site. I checked into the Lumbini Garden Lodge, one of the first few lodges in Lumbini Bazaar, the main backpacker lane and got myself a bright, sunny room with free wi-fi and a sparklingly clean shared bathroom with a western toilet and hot shower for 300 NR (roughly 200 Indian Rupees). That was the sort of deal I used to dream about during my early days of shoestring travel. The cross-ventilated windows in my room overlooked vast sugarcane fields and let in an ample supply of fresh air and sunlight. I resolved to stay here for a while to breathe fresh air and soak in the quasi rural pastoral setting.

I came to Lumbini to find peace, tranquility, time and space to read, write, idle and I found all of these wonderful boondocksian pleasures that eluded me in more urban settings. I also found a lot of mosquitoes. Thrilled to bits at having hit a jackpot on first attempt, I unwittingly left the windows open when I went out to take a stroll about Lumbini. By the time I was back, it was late in the evening and my room was swarming with mosquitoes. Ever paranoid about contracting Dengue/Malaria/Japanese Encephalitis/other mosquito related horrors, I closed the windows, dunked myself in Odomos and ran downstairs to ask the manager to spray my room with whatever poisonous repellant he had. He promptly did so but said I had to stay out for a couple of hours if I wished not to die with the mosquitoes.

So I went for an early dinner at Lotus Restaurant, one of the few copy-cat backpacker cafes on the street. This place, too, had a colony of mosquitoes baying for fresh blood but by now, I was positively reeking of Odomos and the little pests didn’t dare come anywhere near me. I ordered a bottle of beer and some bhatmas sandeko (roasted soyabeans) to go with. This was the end of February, certainly not low season but I was the only one eating there apart from a trio of American students rediscovering the power of free speech after a week of Vipassana. But when I ordered a main course of simple vegetarian curry with rice, it took them over two hours to bring it to my table. When needled about the delay, the manager apologized profusely saying they had a big order for 20 meals from an Indian group that could arrive anytime. “You know how some Indians are, they would like everything ready at once”, he said. I didn’t know if this was a sly reverse psychological tactic to make me feel ashamed of my countrymen and refrain from protesting but it worked. I quickly and quietly finished my meal without saying a word.

The eternal flame
The eternal flame

Lumbini’s UNESCO status is well deserved as here, in the 6th-5th Century BCE (depending on which historical records you believe), the Shakyan Queen Mayadevi, while resting under a sal tree, gave birth to Siddhartha Gautama, who would go on to become the Buddha. The entry to the massive site was flanked by many cycle rickshaws, all of whom banked on tourists wanting to do a whistle stop tour of all the monasteries and “points” within the site. They weren’t expensive and if one only had a day, it made sense to use one to take you around. But I had an infinite amount of time and I needed the exercise. So I marched in, behind a big group of cheerful Sri Lankan nuns from Kandy, all clad in white sarongs.

The first thing that impressed me about Lumbini was the sheer flatness of the terrain. To be in Nepal, the small yet overwhelmingly mountainous country, and able to see an unobstructed horizon in every direction felt magical to me. The mountains weren’t very far away with the mightly foothills of the Himalayas beginning 40 odd kilometers to the north. This was part of the Terai region, the scorching plains that extend from East to West, adjoining Uttar Pradesh and Bihar in India but with remarkably different ethnicities and identities compared to the Indian side.

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Within the confines of the work-in-progress “religious park”, there are the Sacred Garden, a monastic zone and a nature park. The Sacred Garden is the oldest and the most revered section of the complex. Its center-piece is the Mayadevi temple, a newer, whitewashed concrete structure built by the Japanese Buddhist Federation around the archaeological ruins of the original temple built during Emperor Ashoka’s time. There’s speculation that some of the lower foundations indicate the sort of architecture that might have existed during pre-Buddha times. There was a long queue of people wanting to have a look at the sculpture depicting Maya Devi and the Buddha, some devotedly lighting candles near an altar-like structure. I didn’t join the queue but spent a long time walking around the foundations stretching my mind imagining the significance of the site’s antiquity.

There was a beauty even in those deformed and decapitated structures, structures built by people who lived many millenia ago. When you remove the embellishments, the articulations, the complexities, all that remains is the foundations built by the simplest and the most uncomplicated of workers and it’s the foundations that survive the longest. Buddhism didn’t originate here but the Buddha did and the first seeds of thought were sowed here, which he would build upon, debate, revise and carry on to Bodhgaya, Sarnath and to his nirvana in Kushinagar, the seeds of a religion and a way of life that’s still expanding and evolving 2600 years later in myriad forms.

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Outside, a crowd of package tourists from China were huddled around the badly damaged Ashokan Pillar. I took a cursory look at it, not wanting to jostle for space with fellow tourists and took a walk around the grounds. There were monks everywhere, some giving sermons under a tree a la the Buddha himself, some sitting alone reading or meditating in an isolated corner, some cracking jokes and feeding turtles in the Shakya Tank. There were the obligatory Tibetan prayer flags fluttering everywhere. I spent many hours in the gardens, here talking to a monk from Amdo about Milarepa, there underneath a banyan tree reading some chapters of Nicolas Bouvier’s thrilling travelogue The Way of the World and somewhere near the pond watching people and updating notes. I visited the Maya Temple every afternoon for the next couple of days to either read, write or take a siesta because although it was undeniably a tourist site, its austere grounds offered me the peace and harmony I wasn’t quite getting in Lumbini Bazaar.

The monastic zone was a vast complex of monasteries built by the various sects of Buddhism and they all look depressingly concrete and new. What it didn’t have in antiquity, it made up for in variety with over 15 countries represented by their respective monasteries and plenty more under construction. The eternal flame that burns at the head of the reflecting canal was ignited in 1986 to commemorate what was then the International Year of Peace. The two rows around the canal were flanked by Japanese Buddhists dressed in yellow and topped with straw hats busy making colourful oil lamps for what they called “the floating lamp” festival. I was tremendously impressed by the amount space and the spotless cleanliness of the entire complex. It was quiet, serene, beautiful and spacious as any place of worship and contemplation ought to be.

Colourful lamps being readied for the Japanese festival
Colourful lamps being readied for the Japanese festival

It was late evening in Lumbini Bazaar and I was sitting in the open air café of Three-Vision Restaurant having beer with XL, a Chinese backpacker and GT, a long-term American traveler I’d met there. XL was an architect who was on a mission to visit every country in Asia and India was among the countries he absolutely loved traveling around. He strongly disagreed when GT told him he wished some of the Indian temple towns would learn from a place like Lumbini and clean up their act. He felt GT didn’t appreciate the true value of what India offered in its unselfconscious and naturalistic approach to devotion with the jagged and unconventional rhythms of chaotic towns, dirty alleys, cows on the roads and the blatant disregard for hygiene and sanitation that GT disapproved of. He was fascinated by the country and detested Lumbini for what he considered cold, sterile and manufactured spirituality, something that reminded him more of China than Nepal. When he learnt that this was my first stop in the country, he implored me to leave immediately and see the rest of Nepal, which he felt was more original and livelier than the “Buddhist Amusement Park”(his words) we were in at the moment.

When I arrived in Lumbini and snagged an inexpensive room, I thought I might stay here for a long time. My routine too, was set. Every morning, I would go for puri bhaji and chai to the grungy local dhaba on the road and chat with monks and pilgrims. Every afternoon, I would go for lunch to the restaurant opposite to the religious park and chat with the tall, pretty Nepali girl who worked there. Every evening, I would go for a walk around the water body in the park and do some bird-watching. But XL was right. The place was somewhat sterile and felt removed from the ordinary realities of everyday life in Nepal. This was a great spot to contemplate and clear out my head but after a point, the emptiness and the hollowness got to me. I was missing the markets, the hustle and bustle of a well-populated town and I was missing the cool air of the mountains in search of which I had come to Nepal in the first place. After 4 days in Lumbini, I packed my bags for Tansen, a hill town a couple of hours north of Lumbini, which promised everything I was looking for.

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Bhairahawa

It was a night of much squirming and turning on the filthy beds of the retiring room at the Gorakhpur railway station and I wasn’t too unhappy when I was woken up from half-slumber by the hoots of a diesel engine. I packed my bags and went to the waiting room where the toilets were marginally cleaner than the one in my room. I was incredibly hungry having not had a proper meal in almost 24 hours. A row of identical dhabas lined the pavement opposite the Gorakhpur railway station and I chose the most patronized among them to hopefully have a decent meal.

A man in a wet, orange banian that stuck tightly to his hairy, paunchy pot belly came to take my order of parathas, egg bhurji and chai. Two small rats ran around the bowls of cut potatoes and onions that the man casually lifted from the ground to make my bhurjis and parathas. I was about to throw a fit and leave when a group of very old men entered the scene. They had a train to catch in the evening and wanted a place to freshen up and crash for the day. Two of them sat on my table and engaged me in conversation. They were ex-armymen who were on their way back from a pilgrimage to Gosainkund, a high altitude lake in the Langtang region, that requires an arduous week-long trek over the Laurebina pass at over 5000 meters. They were all septuagenarians and were proud to have done without much assistance what people half their age weren’t fit to do these days. They traveled simply and frugally and took whatever unpleasant came their way with good humour and put all my thankless whining of the previous night in perspective.

It’s usually relatively straightforward to find a jeep that goes to the Nepal border from Gorakhpur as there’s a long row of share taxis vying for passengers. I took the first one that implored me to get in and was thrilled at snagging the much sought-after front window seat. Taxis don’t take off until they’re full with passengers. So I waited and waited. It started getting bothersome when I saw other taxis being filled up while the driver of my vehicle was casually chewing paan, making small talk with street vendors and putting no effort to look for passengers. I asked him repeatedly if I should change the vehicle and his answer was a resounding no until amazingly an hour later, he ordered me to get my bags out of the dicky and look for another vehicle because he had a private “savaari” to Kanpur. There’s not much to do in these situations but take it on the chin and move on and I learned, if only temporarily, from the old armymen to develop a more benign attitude to ordinary misfortunes.

I hopped into another taxi which took off immediately as it had been just one passenger short. This was a beat-up Alto with a driver, two people squeezed in front and three at the back. There was an old, cranky, paan-chewing man sitting next to me who had to lean across to the window every 10 minutes to spit out the salival ingredients in his mouth. The driver, meanwhile, was whizzing past at the speed of sound, weaving between equally speedy vehicles coming at us and the slightly less speedy vehicles up ahead. My heart was in my mouth every time he tried to overtake a massive truck completely ignoring a speeding SUV cantering towards us with one hand on the steering wheel while chatting cheerfully away on his mobile phone with the other. The cranky old man and the driver did not get along with each other because the old man made him stop every 20 minutes to take a leak. When the driver refused, the old man started creating a huge ruckus accusing the driver of being highly insensitive to his “needs”. The driver was disappointed with us fellow passengers who, in his opinion, were too docile and non-violent in response to the old man and his peculiar demands.

Matters came to a head at a road-side snack stop where the old man was taking his own sweet time to finish 3 cups of tea and an array of snacks while we were waiting for the vehicle to get a move on. The driver protested angrily against the whims of the old man and threatened to evict him out of the vehicle if he continued in his eccentric ways. The old man asked him to go ahead and reminded him that his boss wouldn’t be very happy when he looked at the accounts of the day and noticed that one of his vehicles had done one of the trips with one passenger less. The driver now looked at us for help and implored us to share the fare of one seat between us. I didn’t mind putting in a 50 Rs. more but the rest of them said they would rather wait than pay more. The old man ordered another paan and chewed it victoriously leaving the driver red-faced and helpless.

An eerie silence prevailed through the rest of the journey as the Alto careened towards Sunauli, the heavily dusty and noisy town adjoining the Indo-Nepal border. The great thing about any Indian border town is that, if one had any doubts about leaving the country, the belching trucks, the honking jeeps and the grimy roads quelled them immediately. Crossing the border over to Nepal never feels like moving into another country though. Walking across the no-man’s land between the two countries is easier and less cumbersome than crossing some state borders within India. There were no questions asked, no bags checked and I was as free to roam about in large parts of this country as I was in my own.

A quick cycle rickshaw took me to the town of Bhairahawa and a quicker hotel hunt led me to Hotel Mount Everest. I took a dingy little room on the top floor which had a tiny bathroom and a little TV (for watching IPL, as the manager suggested) This was remarkably inexpensive compared to what I was paying for relatively spartan comfort in cities like Varanasi and Lucknow. I was paying less money for a little room of my own here than I did for a bed in a hostel dormitory in Varanasi. The Hotel promised free Wifi in the restaurant but the manager refused to switch it on saying it encouraged outsiders to lounge about the place without eating.

One of the reasons I manage to keep my long term travel going is because I also work occasionally. All I need to finish my work and send it across is my laptop and wifi that works. A few weeks ago in Kolkata, when I was merrily plonking away on my laptop in my room, I unwittingly spilled beer all over it. It immediately conked off but I had a backup in the form of a bluetooth keyboard. On this fateful day in Bhairahawa, my bluetooth keyboard stopped working too. I was extremely tired and was kicking myself for procrastinating on the script for 2 days. It was a Sunday too and most shops were closed. But some were open and I went into all of them, mobile stores, general stores, electrical shops, electronic stores, trinket sellers. Finally, two young boys in black leather jackets who ran a mobile shop hauled me to another section of the market which had a line of computer stores. Only two shops were open and only one of them had keyboards. I had to choose between a massive multimedia keyboard with keys for things like “email”, “music” and “My Computer” that cost 400 NR and a slim, sleek, classy, minimalistic piece that cost 2000 NR. I chose the former and have been using it to this day!

My situation was further complicated by the fact that the script that I was supposed to proofread and send was in a wrong format. The wifi in the hotel wasn’t working and my Indian numbers were non-functional. The script was due the next day and I had to get the word across to fellow traveholic MM. The manager was having a long flirtatious conversation with his girlfriend and I had no option but to listen to him finish his amorous exchange so I could borrow his phone. After what seemed like a life-time, he lent me his phone with a sheepish grin saying, “Nepali girls, you know. Not easy to manage. He he he.” I got a deservedly good rap on the eardrums from MM for a). delaying the script and b). not getting a local sim card and I recovered from it by having a couple of beers and watching IPL with the manager.

The next morning, I went to the Nepal Telecom office to apply for a local sim card because my Indian numbers stopped working here. I was expecting this to be a huge hassle that took all day but they only needed a photocopy of my passport and a photograph and my application was processed by the efficient staff at the office in a painless 5 minutes. No clueless customer service boys demanding electricity bills and “local address proof”. This thrilled me no end because I could now move on to Lumbini immediately and finally begin traveling in Nepal.

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Gorakhpur

Having spent two weeks in Lucknow, I was itching to leave and I had many options in front of me – Mathura and Vrindavan for Holi to the West, Orchha and Bundelkhand in Madhya Pradesh to the South, Bangladesh to the East and Nepal to the North. Since I had been traveling without a pause in India for more than a year, it made sense to go to another country and between the cool Himalayan weather of Nepal and the encroaching summer and the resultant humidity of Bangladesh, the choice was easy to make.

So I booked myself a ridiculously cheap “Deluxe” room at the Gorakhpur station along with tickets to the Intercity to Gorakhpur on the irctc website, hauled myself across the mayhem of the twin railway stations of Lucknow Junction and Charbagh and hopped into the bustling cacophony of the AC Chair Car of the Intercity. I had been assigned Seat No. 68 by the Indian Railways, the very seat I was staring at in horror as a little boy wearing a bright yellow T-shirt embroidered with teddy bears was having a wonderful time drooling all over it while playing with a mobile phone. His father soon arrived on the scene. He had no tickets, he said, but was confident enough of bribing the TC to get a seat or two for his family of 3, so could I let the boy occupy my seat while he cracks a deal? Absolutely not, I said, and demanded that the boy be removed from my seat immediately. The two girls occupying the seats next to mine supported my demand which caused the father to lose his temper and hurl fiery misogynistic invectives at them. This enraged everyone from Seat 72 to Seat 48 and the little boy, protesting violently with deafening screams, was forcibly evicted from my seat.

Once the train got moving, I was happy that, for once, I had two pretty girls for company instead of a fat old man in a business suit snoring away. BM and HM were sisters who lived in Lucknow and were on their way to a wedding in Gorakhpur. Contrary to most people I’d spoken to in Lucknow, they disagreed when I suggested that the city had been decaying for a long time. They felt that the people who said such things were elitist snobs who had the luxury to escape and lost touch with the reality of the city. They were particularly impressed with the new malls in Gomti Nagar and places to hang out in the city which were difficult to find earlier. Once they finished their studies – BM wanted to be a lawyer and HM a doctor – they aimed to leave the country. BM had a hopeless crush on a presumably handsome boy from her college and HM kept teasing her about her vain attempts to flirt with him and to distract him away from his current girlfriends. HM was of the opinion that BM would never leave the country until the boy made a marriage proposal to her. BM, in turn, sniped back at HM threatening to reveal some of her cherished secrets. And then, they needled me to open some scandalizing cans of worms of my own. It was incredible fun to travel with the girls and I felt that familiar pang of sadness and regret when the time came to say inevitable goodbyes to people who had become the best of friends for the shortest of whiles.

Because the AC Chair Car was locked out from the unreserved compartments, it had no vendors coming in to serve food or tea. So I had a massive headache on arrival at Gorakhpur Station having had nothing to eat or drink since breakfast. It was now almost 10 in the night, not the time one would ideally want to wrestle with Indian Railway bureaucracy. But I had a booking and the rest of the hotels in Gorakhpur looked decidedly dreary and overpriced, so I went to the retiring room counter to find a long queue in front of the window. If I hadn’t been so tired I would have found the vain attempts of old men grappling with computer technology highly amusing. But every punch of the key, shake of the head and machine reboot was only amplifying my hunger pangs and the resultant headaches tenfold. It took the man behind the counter 30 minutes to process the first person in queue and I was just about ready to give up my booking and head to the common waiting room like ordinary people when the man dismissively waved off ten people in front me. He was about to leave, presumably for a paan or chai break and I frantically shoved my booking printouts in his face. He looked at them sullenly giving me a caustic look or two, a few scratches of the chin, a heave and a sigh. Much punching of keys, shaking of heads and checking of IDs followed and after an hour of standing in queue, I felt victorious at having secured a room for myself in the hallowed walls of the Gorakhpur Railway Station.

The next level in this game of rooms was to locate the caretaker with the keys to my room. This consumed another half an hour and I finally found her, an old, haggard-looking woman, sitting in a dark corner finishing her meal. She was understandably reluctant to pause her meal for a random guest but gave me a bundle of keys and asked me to locate the room and the keys to that room all by myself. This took a considerable amount of time and eventually, I had to wait for the old lady to plod down to the end of the long corridor where my room was. By now, this game had turned from Heroes of Might and Magic III to Dark Souls 2, from an easy game you play for fun to a game you know you have no chance of cracking without cheat codes. It took less than two seconds for the lady to find the key that corresponded to my room and open it up for me.

The keys were “railway property”, so I couldn’t take them outside. I was so hungry and so tired that I put my bags in the room, closed the doors without locking them and walked out to eat something. It was midnight but one of the perks of staying in a big railway station was that dhabas were open all night long. While I was sitting in Hotel Adarsh Palace, trying to finish a roti or two with the greasy, oily, borderline inedible dal and vegetables, I got anxious for the things I left unguarded in my room. I stuffed myself as quickly as I could and ran upstairs to check if my belongings were intact. The old lady was waiting for me in the corridor to give me a dressing down for leaving my room open. She was caretaker and watchwoman rolled into one terribly underpaid profile and Gorakhpur was notorious for being unsafe, she said. Was it too much to ask for guests to get a padlock of their own if they had plans to venture out in the middle of the night? She had taken the liberty to lock my room herself and despite the fact that it was way past her bedtime, stayed awake for me to return.

I thanked her profusely for being so considerate and felt sorry for putting her through all that. The first impressions of the room were good. It was palatial by any standards. There was an AC that, though unnecessary for that time of the year, seemed to be functional. It wasn’t musty, the floor had been scrubbed clean and the geyser in the bathroom appeared to work just fine. Not bad, I thought, for 250 Rs. But when I looked closely, the entire edifice of surface cleanliness started falling apart rapidly to reveal the filth and the rot underneath. The bed sheets smelt of vomit and had a little museum of different varieties of stains (blood, sperm, paan, saliva, you name it) possibly left unwashed since independence, there was a thick crust of something filthy on the pillows that I didn’t want to investigate, the plumbing in the bathroom was non-existent and two cockroaches were running around having a jolly good time. Having already tasted the helpless wrath of the old lady, the last thing I wanted to do was to confront her regarding the state of my room. It was already 1 o’clock and dawn wasn’t very far away. There was a little corner of my bed that looked unmolested and I wriggled there all night, waiting for the clock to strike 6 so I could get moving out of this wretched place into another country.

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