Published in The Independent on 2 November 2010
I was looking hard to see her, but I’m not sure that I did. Several others were equally beautiful, and appeared to stand just as tall.
I’d summoned a young Nepalese waiter to help me. “She is behind side, with a black face,” he said enigmatically.
As the waiter reeled off the names of some of the world’s most famous mountains – Annapurna, Dhalnagiri, Manashala, Himchuli, Ganesh, Khancharjungha and obviously, Everest, I wasn’t even sure if I knew which cloud he was referring to as a marking point before listing their order of appearance. I feigned comprehension but later muttered to my travel companion that a labelled photo board would have done wonders for our ability to put a name to the mountain face. It seemed a significant omission from the Daman View Tower, which affords the world’s best unimpeded view of the Himalayas.
But therein lies its charm. Despite the fact that Daman is only 75 kilometres from Nepal’s tourist-friendly capital of Kathmandu, foreign guests are pretty thin on the ground, even during peak season. The bare facilities seem to reflect this, which allows the scenery to gracefully speak for itself. For almost an hour, we’d had the extraordinary view to ourselves. There were no ticket booths, no admission lines and no scheduled opening hours. The View Tower Restaurant, which is located on the lower platform of a structure resembling a small-scale lighthouse, serves cheap meals of momos, chowmein and Tibetan tea. Its simple decorations consist of mismatched floral curtains, tropical-like plants and hastily painted aqua window panes. It was magical.
The journey to and from Daman was almost as memorable as the destination itself. As no tourist bus operates, we travelled on one of the daily local services – along with a large rooster and a couple of inebriated hill men. Seats were scarce on the return trip to Kathmandu, so we willingly obliged to ride on the top of the minibus. We clung to luggage and a spare tyre as the vehicle wound its way around hairpin bends and crossed delicate bridges overlooking waterfalls.
Daman’s three budget guesthouses are run by the same extended family and offer varying degrees of exotic homeliness. At Everest Hotel, lodgers may sleep in tiny rooms partitioned by thin chunks of raw timber, or alternatively, next to sacks of potatoes in the living room. We opted for Gauri Shankar Guest House, whose sparse rooms share a single bathroom at the end of the rear balcony. The shower emits only the freshest glacial waters onto a concrete floor. Whilst grumbling my way towards the bathroom at the crisp hour of 7am, I was stopped in my tracks. Despite arriving before dusk the day before, I hadn’t realised that the Annapurna Range was visible from the balcony, nor that it was only a couple of hundred kilometres away. This was due to the fact that the mountains play a continuous game of hide-and-seek with dramatic cumulous clouds, the latter of which roll in and out in quick succession. The sight transformed my mood and I retrieved my camera and a thicker jacket before running up the steps to the roof for an ever better view, whilst being careful to dodge piles of wood and snoring dogs.
Whilst locals seem to pay little heed to the presence of tourists, Daman’s dogs (who are plentiful in numbers and colours) seemed positively delighted by our arrival. During an afternoon stroll that abruptly concluded at the gates of a private residence and a spectacular view of the valley, a black dog accompanied us throughout, darting in and out of the forest with his nose to the ground and his tail erect. That evening, as I opened my bedroom door for a late night trip to the bathroom, I was greeted by a familiar shaggy mutt who had been guarding the entrance while asleep. He seemed keen to come inside and I took sympathy, figuring that it wouldn’t hurt to allow him a couple of minutes in the comfort of my warm room. When I returned, the dog was in my bed. I finally managed to coax him out by scattering a packet of chips in the corridor, which he had to fight over with another dog.
Each of Daman’s guesthouses serves authentic Nepali meals, though ours required at least an hour’s notice. I was delighted to learn that Coca-Cola had “finished” in Daman at some unspecified date. Unless or until supplies return, Everest Beer and Frooti Juice will continue to half fill the aged, signature red Coke fridges.