Kathmandu

Kathmandu, Nepal - November 11-15, 2004

Kathmandu is definitely the most intriguing city we've played in on our brief escapes from Dhaka. Maybe it's even the coolest place ever. I regret very much not having gone there decades ago, say, before the Beatles. The upside of a developed tourism infrastructure is that the popular things are logistically easy to do, they're well maintained and you can have pretty much any level of comfort you please, but of course in exchange you have to put up with lots of other poeople like yourself and sales pressure from natives eking out a living flogging knick-knacks. In spite of that we were completely charmed and must return. Because of the Maoist insurgency the city wasn't overrun with foreigners like some Thai places are. We had stayed away for the same reason but finally came to our senses, knowing that it's not likely to improve during our sojourn in Asia. The situation will remain unchanged until the Indian government discourages support of the insurgents from their side of the border. The Maoists control 80% of rural Nepal. They seem to be relatively benign from a tourist's point of view, at least compared to other "terrorists"; they collect tolls from trekers and give receipts. No beheadings reported so far.

A not-so-brief travelogue follows ... Pepa had a few days off from her job at the American International School during the Eid ul-Fitr (end of Ramadan) holiday so we got a Biman flight out of Dhaka November 11, soaring over the wreckage of another Biman flight that overshot the runway on October 12 attempting to land, happily with no fatalities. It's a short hop, barely time for the meal service before we descended into the Kathmandu smog. We got a glimpse of Mt Everest!

The outside of the terminal was a mad-house of hotel touts and taxi drivers in cheap wind-breakers feeding on the arrivals. A broker hussled us off to the parking lot as soon as we agreed to 300 rupees for the trip into town, but Pepa smelled a rat when she saw far too many people involved, and when another Nepali dude got in the front seat beside the driver, she insisted that we find another ride. We unloaded our bags and left the baffled abductor-bandits and their tiny car in search of other transport.

Kathmandu is still a four-story town, from what we could see. Maybe the seismic risk keeps the building height down. Our new taxi driver took us through a labyrinth of narrow winding streets, past tottering brick houses jammed together, shop fronts below and tiny windows above, perhaps with someone gazing out contemplatively.

The air quality isn't good, I guess because many people use wood for cooking fuel, and there are brickworks burning who knows what and the zillion 2-stroke motorcycles can't help. Presently we entered a lane that barely fit the car, into the tourist ghetto called Thamel (pronounced tam-EL by some and rhymed with "camel" by others). It's a warren of curving passages and cul-de-sacs, maybe 300m square (but it's not square), with shops, guest houses, hotels, travel agencies, restaurants, internet cafes, etc. On the third try we found a room that suited us, dumped our bags and set out to look for dinner. Almost every store was interesting, particularly to Pepa. There must be at least five bookstores, pretty good ones, several bakeries with pastries for European tastes, places selling used expedition gear, brass castings of Hindu deities, Buddhist paraphernalia, silk carpets, jewelry. Compared with Dhaka it's heaven but since you aren't deprived of these pleasures as we are, I'll skip over the Thamel shopping. Except ... as I passed a stall of knick-knacks the merchant muttered to me "hash, marijuana?". I said no thanks, but then I stopped and came back to ask if I could get some opium. The guy scuttled off and presently came back with a skittish fellow who, after some furious haggling, agreed to provide a half-gram for $10. He darted away and returned with a squishy little ball of something in a gum-wrapper. We made a furtive exchange. Back in the hotel room I unwrapped it and found a wad of recently chewed gum inside, spearmint I think.

By coincidence the Hindu subcontinent was in the throws of Diwali. Every house and shop had a mandala of coloured powders on the street/sidewalk outside, with a golden trail leading inside and rows of little earthenware dishes of oil with burning wicks, or the eves festooned with safron-yellow marigolds threaded tightly on string.

Children in groups went from house to house chanting for sweets and money. The temple courtyards had big mandalas maybe 5 meters across made of rice, beans, sugar and particles of other colours. Bands of warbling flutes and crashing drums coalesced here and there.

Next day we hired a car and a guide and gave him a list of places we'd filtered out of the Lonely Planet guidebook. First was Durbar Square, a complex of temples and markets near Thamel. The temples are of various kinds, some small and low and others multi-tiered pagoda-like buildings perched on tall stepped pyramids, with a steep stairway on the front (north?) face, through a gauntlet of fierce mythical beasts. The profane market permeates the sacred place and from the top step of one of these Aztec-like structures it teems with fabulous colours of fruits and vegetables, swamis and monks, women in saris shopping and thousands of pigeons.

Many people wore a crimson mark annointing their brow, looking like they were miraculously walking about after having been shot in the head. I had one for a while.

We entered the courtyard of the house of the Kumari, living goddess, a pre-pubescent girl selected, aged five or so, from the priest caste to succeed the previous Kumari who retires on her first menstruation. Until then she gets out just once a year to be in a procession but is otherwise spoiled rotten. We learned that Kumaris have a tough time getting married because they have a reputation for being hard to live with. Non-Hindus aren't allowed to enter the house but she might be seen once in a while looking out a window. We waited in vain for this event and left.

Then we crossed the river to another Durbar Square, this one in Patan, a neighboring town with centuries of history. The guide took us on a walk to a more modest temple complex, through narrow passages reminiscent of Cusco, emerging in a sunny square of about 40x40 meters. A huge banyan tree shaded part of it, its aerial roots cradling smoky little shrines.

Aromatic wood smoldered in a big brazier. People were bathing and washing clothing in a big tank, a stepped cavity at least 5m deep, formed as though impressed into the ground by the temple pyramid, inverted. The men wore briefs, the women mumus and little kids were naked.

We saw many tanks like this, some quite ornate with bronze cobras rearing out of a pool in the middle and bronze spouting fish for the convenience of people coming for household water.

Patan was full of our guide's relatives trying to sell us stuff. Hunting a commission, he also took us to the "Tibetan Refugee Camp", a wool rug-making sweatshop set up by the Swiss Development Agency in the '70s, now a bit high on inventory judging by the small number of weavers at work. Or maybe it was the holiday. We weren't impressed by the rugs which don't compare favorably in quality or price to silk ones imported from India that Pepa bought later and which will delay the shock of getting out of bed onto the cold tile floor these winter mornings.

The most impressive place that day was the monkey temple, Swayambhunath, a stupa and attendant temple buildings on the top of a hill a couple of km west of Thamel. We would have walked up from the bottom on one of those thousand-step stairways but fearing we'd miss the sunset we went in the car, through hundreds of monkeys gamboling on the roadway. The low rays of the sun bathed everything in honeyed light and gleamed like pure gold on the spire of the stupa. We could pick out places we'd been during the day looking down on the city sprawled in the haze below. Atmospheric chanting music blared from a shop selling CDs. The chill evening air felt refreshing after months of sticky monsoon weather in Dhaka.

The main attraction next day was Bhaktapur, a medieval town about 10 km east of Kathmandu. The Lonely Planet suggested a circuit walk that looked interesting, and fun in the orienteering sense, so we did that and straight away got lost in the maze of narrow lanes and meandering passages, serendipitously blundering into one charming situation after another. The "keep turning right" tactic to go around the block didn't work. However, we found most of the places we were looking for.

Many buildings, old and new, are made of brick but the roof supports, doors, windows and frames are elaborately carved wood in Hindu and Buddhist motifs. I'm confused now about the difference between Buddhism and Hinduism, so mixed together they seem in Kathmandu.

Near sunset again, on our way back to the city from Bhaktapur we stopped at Bodhnath, a huge Tibetan stupa built in the 14th century, with 600 AD origins. We were morbidly curious to visit the burning ghats near Shiva's Pashupatinath Temple where bodies are cremated, just across the river but by the time we were finished with Bodnath dusk was falling and we were pooped so we headed back to the hotel.

Day four ... after squandering the morning trying without success to reconfirm flights we took a taxi 30 km east to a rim of the Kathmandu valley from which Mt. Everest can be seen on clear mornings. We didn't expect such luck but the ride through the country-side was interesting and worthwhile, seeing rural life and the graduation of climate and vegetation climbing from 1300 to 2100m (4000 - 7000 ft) in altitude. The air on the rim was chilly and clean. We regretted that we hadn't come the day before to stay the night in one of the hotels there. Next time.

Day five ... we finally got our seats reserved for the flight back to Dhaka. Pepa bought me a very cool Nepali hat after days of searching for one big enough. At the airport the officials were impressed with it which I think made the difference when I got into a dispute with the security people who claimed that my spare rechargeable camera batteries were a prohibited item and tried to take them away from me. They're really serious about security there, more than I've seen anywhere: we went through three x-ray stations, a bag search and a pat-down, and they made us pick our luggage out of a pile on the apron before they loaded it on the aircraft. Thankfully no cavity search. Those pesky insurgents!


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