On the Road »

The other side of the bars – visiting prisoners in Kathmandu

Prison is somewhere that I’d managed to scrupulously avoid so far in life until 1992, and have done since. And long may it stay that way. But my first and last acquaintance with such an institution did provide its fair share of interesting moments.

In 1992, I did a four-month overland trip, starting in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, and ending up in Kathmandu, Nepal, via Kashgar in China’s Xinjiang Province, Western Tibet, Lhasa, and the southern road out to Nepal, which my buddy and I did by bike in around 30 days.

By the time we got to Kathmandu, I had a pretty serious infection requiring several visits to a clinic, and the advice from the doc was to avoid any more significant travelling, get lots of rest and eat well. That sounded fine to me after 30 days of living off Chinese army biscuits, the odd bowl of soup and stir-fry noodles, and camping out under passes in sub-zero conditions.

Kathmandu has its charms, despite sometimes having some resemblance to medieval London on crystal meth. And as it was our first time there, my mate and I enjoyed looking around, but eventually I started to get a bit bored. So, when we saw a notice in a Freak Street cafĂ© one morning, asking for visitors to come and see an American, an Aussie, a Brit and a Frenchman, in Kathmandu’s main slammer, I resolved to go.

It wasn’t more than half an hour walk from my Durbar Square hotel, and there was (in those days) nothing in the way of prior formality required. It took me a while to find the right place, but eventually some Nepalis pointed me to a courtyard on the edge of the prison. I simply rolled up one morning, and asked to see Rhett, the American whose name was on the poster. I didn’t’ even know his surname.

The Nepali guard, armed with an ancient Lee Enfield SMLE rifle and sword bayonet, gave my rucksack a cursory search, and I was in. I strolled across the courtyard and asked the supervisor if I could see Rhett. A few shouts upstairs, and a few minutes later a young American bounded up to me, beaming. We sat down in the courtyard, among loads of Nepalis, mainly men getting visits from wives.

I liked Rhett immediately. He was intelligent, witty, and fun to talk to. He was intrigued by the trip we’d just done from Tibet, and was keen to find out what I thought about it as a possible place to do a runner to if he busted out of jail (forget it, I said).

I was reluctant to ask what he was in there for, assuming that the inevitable answer would be drug smuggling, and probably heroin at that. I didn’t need to ask, however. Rhett told me quite openly. He was in the prison with the three others “for gold.” I asked him to elaborate. “Gold smuggling – we got caught bringing in a record amount of gold.”

Nepal taxed imported gold, in an effort to control currency devaluation in a country where gold retained big cachet and was in huge demand for traditional dowries.

Rhett and his three pals had flown into Kathmandu from Hong Kong, where Nepali mobsters had fitted them out with close-fitting waistcoats loaded with little ingots. He was not keen to disclose if he’d done it before (I later found out that he had).

The deal was supposed to be that the mob had paid off the customs officers, and the guys should have sailed through customs and immigration easily, to pick up a few grand in cash from the mob. But the bent customs man hadn’t show up, and they’d been busted.

They had copped a massive fine, several times the couple of million bucks that the gold was worth. Unable to pay that sum, they were facing a four year stretch in Bhadra Ghol (if I remember the name of the establishment correctly). So far, they had done just a few months, and were not enjoying the prospect of the remaining stretch at His Majesty’s pleasure.

Rhett was a well-read chap, and with plenty of time on his hands, he was getting through a lot of books. He asked me to find him a few on his list. I spent a few afternoons trawling the bookshops of Thamel, Kathmandu’s tourist district, and visited Rhett a few more times. On one occasion, I met his co-conspirators, the French Corsican, Eric, the Brit, Piers, and the Aussie, whose name I forget. I also met Piers’ uncle Tony, who had some kind of spook background, and was trying hard to work out what had led up to their arrest, and was also trying pretty hard to get them out of jail by the front door. I had a chat to Piers and Tony on one visit, over milky Nepali chai, and Ryvita crackers with Marmite.

Piers looked like he was having a rough time in the prison, and didn’t seem to be keeping his chin up too well. He did OK out of it eventually though, becoming a journalist on the back of his prison stories, and eventually making editor of Front magazine, which was the next time I saw his face. And they say crime doesn’t pay!

Visiting, as I’ve said, was a surprisingly relaxed business. I could rock up at any time in visiting hours, and the security seemed pretty negligible. Then, on my fourth visit to Rhett, that changed. I was more thoroughly searched going in, and the guard had been beefed up. There were less people in the courtyard, and the staff were very noticeably more attentive, indeed twitchy.

Rhett explained why. Just a couple of days before, a Nigerian drug mule prisoner had been in the courtyard for a visit, and had suddenly just got up, sprinted for the gate, leaped past the sentry and legged it down the road. By the time the guard had cocked his ancient but lethal rifle, the prisoner was out of sight. He had not been recaptured. The prison staff were left red-faced, and were not happy with the result.

Rhett said he had also considered doing a bust-out, but was counting on a negotiated exit coming off. And that’s indeed what happened a few months later. It turned out that their arrest was part of a double-cross by senior political and law-enforcement people in Nepal. They’d decided that taking pay-offs from the mob was not good enough – better still to just grab the gold instead. Eventually, the whole thing was uncovered and some pretty heavy people were unmasked. The four guys were released.

I imagine they were pretty relieved. Rhett was surprisingly upbeat on the prison. Whilst keen to get out of it, he said the conditions were not that bad, for those like him with a bit of cash to spend on extra food, someone to cook it, some renovation for the cells and various other odds and ends. He appreciated the visits, but said he’d “prefer to see some chicks – nothing personal against you, man.” I could see where he was coming from, and did indeed ask some passing nubilia on the streets of Kathmandu to go and see him. I don’t know if they ever did.

Finally, my three weeks in Kathmandu was up, and I flew home. I never saw Rhett again.

Howard Gethin

Now resident in Moscow, Howard works as an editor and still makes occasional forays into places where men carry guns and mountains are nearby.