The return to civilisation from the Annapurna Circuit came as a shock. Burning through the last few days of the 21-day trek, Bob and I managed to arrive in Pokhara soon after experiencing the first inclement weather of the trek, which was lucky timing. Rain smattered the windscreen of the bus as we wound our way from the track end at Beni, smudging the dirt into impenetrable patterns for the driver to negotiate on the hair-raising journey through the paddies and ponds of the foothills.
I'd already reintroduced myself to the concept of the outside world when I discovered a couple of Business Week magazines in the lodge at Kalopani, our penultimate hotel stop. I was surprised how fascinating I found the articles on huge international conglomerates, turnovers, profit margins, executive pay packages and fluctuations in the mutual trust markets. I read it as a Nepalese local might read stories of Hollywood or Disneyland, with no feeling of connection or understanding but only one of incredulity; that's what happens when you cut yourself off from the world for weeks at a time.
But after these attitude-altering shock-tactics, reality turned out to be routine, albeit an extremely enjoyable one. Bob and I booked into a quiet little hotel in northern Pokhara, the opposite end of town to where I stayed just before the trek, and the days sunk into a litany of late breakfasts, trivial jobs (writing postcards, washing clothes, booking bus tickets and so on) and far-from-strenuous five-minute walks into town. I dined with and said goodbye to friends from the track and exchanged addresses for future travels, but after a few days I realised that above all, I wanted to be back in India.
In a best man's speech I'd made for a dear friend called Neal, one of the most crowd-pleasing lines had been, 'Neal isn't boring; no, Neal's an actuary!' (The audience had been quite, quite drunk at the time and were clearly easy to please.) This same construct works for Nepal: Nepal isn't boring; no, Nepal's a tourist trap. Food doesn't tend to produce a churning in your colon; bus transport is almost comfortable; hotels are cheap, efficient and clean; showers are hot; people aren't intrusive; and city streets are (comparatively) clean. Compared to India, Nepal is tame.
Of course, Nepal's landscapes are far from tame, and indeed, after some time immersed in the culture, it becomes quite obvious that Nepal is still a thrilling place. It has a fascinating religious culture, with its uniquely Buddhist Hinduism and tolerant tendencies. It has a political system and a still-thriving monarchy that provide just as many corruption and scandal stories as any other Asian government. It has temples, ashrams, cows, sadhus, rickshaws, mad drivers and wonderful arts and crafts... but whatever it is that makes India so addictive is missing in Nepal, for me anyway.
That doesn't mean to say that there aren't plenty of mad things to see. Take this piece of advertising on the back of every box of Ball matches:
100 PER CENT SAFE SAFETY MATCHES
Flame only eminates leaving splint
Sticks completely put out with one puff
No burning tips
So no dropping on clothes etc.
Or take the countless posters of pretty houses and manicured gardens that dot the country's restaurants and offices, carrying meaningless idioms like 'The true use of Speech is not so much to express our Wants as to conceal them', or 'Financial security is the guarantee of spiritual bankruptcy' (the latter turning up on a picture of a particularly glorious house).
Then there's the large number of westerners in Nepal who have learned the local language and who have taken Nepalese culture into their hearts in much the same way as India's ashram casualties have; and in that time-honoured fashion, they enter westernised restaurants and order complicated bespoke meals simply so they can get involved in a discussion with the waiter in Nepali about whether the pizza comes with oregano and whether the vegetables are fresh. They still end up ordering the burger and chips, but it sounds cool.
And the other travellers I met were of a particularly high calibre, with most of them taking time out in Nepal as a rest from the more burdensome experiences of India, overlanding from Europe, resting after China or whatever, and we swapped stories about particularly welcome visits to McDonald's in Java, lounging on the islands of Thailand and dealing with the hassles of Asia.
But it wasn't quite the thrill of India, and I longed to get back, so I soon bid adieu to Pokhara and took the bus to Kathmandu, as my first step towards being immersed back into the madness that I've learned to love.