Nepal is coming to life all around us, as the days become weeks that we've been here. The cold, damp chill that greeted us when we arrived in January has slowly given way to warm, steamy evenings as the equinox nears. Our first day in Nepal, we all went out and bought warm hats and mitts to ward off the cold that forever permeated the deep, sunless maze of Thamel. Last night, I barely needed a long sleeve t-shirt to get me through the night. The entire country, it seems, is in bloom. On our recent Annapurna Sanctuary trek, flowers of all types painted the middle hills with colour. Yellow, purple, blue red pink. I'd heard repeatedly about the rhododendron forests of Nepal in spring, but always shrugged them off in favour of my primary focus: the mountains. Whatever, I'd think. That is, until I walked through one in bloom. Incredible.
The return of warmth also marks the return of tourist season. Thamel was all but a ghost town upon our arrival, with the Nepalis outnumbering the gringos by a wide margin. We had our pick of the lot for anything we wanted. Entire restaurants were empty all day, everyone desperately trying to attract what little business there was. Now, restaurants have waits. No more can we spend an hour at our favourite breakfast spot, practicing our Nepali with the owner. Instead, we have to settle for a warm smile and a quick word, in Nepali of course, as he rushes off to the next table. In Pokhara, we found a little hole-in-the-wall called the Laughing Buddha where we ended up eating half our meals. One morning we were presented with shiny new menus by the Nepali couple who owns and runs the place. We oohed and aahed happily as they smiled proudly at the head of the table, and then we opened them up to order. We were greeted with shiny new high-season prices.
In Manaslu, in February, we were practically the only gringos on the trail. At most, we saw one or two other trekkers a day, and often none. Instead we walked with locals, and were escorted to their villages and welcomed into their homes. In Annapurna, in March, we just missed the Seoul Train, an 80-strong group of Koreans trailing 40 porters, who took over every town they stopped at. One Canadian we met had to sleep behind the snack counter at a guesthouse since all the beds were occupied by the snoring locomotive.
This transition from cold to warm, from torpor to wakefulness, from drab to bright reminds me of spring in Alaska. The first year I stayed in the state for an entire turn of seasons forever changed my understanding of the place. Until then, the concept of change hadn't occurred to me. I'd arrive in summer, and leave when the world was still green. I'd board a fishing boat with snow piled high on the docks, and the snowbanks would only be higher when I stepped off a few months later. I never had a complete picture because I was never around for the crucial periods where night turned to day and with it white to green, or the opposite.
To experience the same here, in Nepal, makes the relentless street vendors slightly less insistent, the pushy touts slightly less strident, and driving the hardest possible bargain considerably less appealing. The season is short, and the winter is long.