Kathmandu Nepal March 2011
(Pictures at https://picasaweb.google.com/109837841352688899289)
I had arrived in Kathmandu along the clogged and chocked ring road that seemed to quite literally cut right through and around the capital looking down on the city below and behind sprawled for miles right up the sides of the far away mountains that surrounded the place and whose outlines were just about visible through the smog. It rivaled anything I had seen in India with regard to pollution and gave me the first impression of a city in the process of being destroyed, though it seems it is actually being built or re built. I had asked a few friends who had visited here and some who had lived here to show me photographs before I had set off, they never had, it had puzzled me at the time, but I understood why now. They had obviously seen the shine in my eyes and didn’t want to shatter my illusions. I had ideas of a green lush and idyllic place based on things I had seen at the British museum and simply the magical name Nepal. How wrong I was.
I had spent a few days in transit from the border via Lumbini to visit the birth place of the Buddha and the Buddhist colony with its many temples from around the world that had been established there as a symbol of peace and just to stay a few nights in its peaceful little adjacent village. I had been relieved to have left India, it felt like I just got out just in time before something bad happened, I was able to breathe out and just relax. One of the most striking things I noticed immediately was how clean Nepal was compared with India. It was just up the road from the actual border crossing when it dawned on me how clean the place was. There was of course garbage and dumping as I went along and areas of Kathmandu itself are no better than some of the worst cases I had seen in India but the difference in the country itself was very noticeable, it was as if the people here actually loved their land particularly in the smaller towns and villages I passed through.
There is and is no really hard sell in Nepal and I have really liked the Nepalese even with its very visible military presence, its drug dealers, taxi drivers leaning out of any available window and anybody and everybody selling some sort of tour, hotel, trek or tiger balm. There are little flute riffs men wandering through with little hip violins and “om mani padme hums” set to music floating along the airwaves of the narrow streets all punctuated with people enthusiastically coughing up great mouthfuls or perhaps a chest full of flem. If you stand still for a moment to long here somebody will try to sell you something. But there is no threat and though persistent, most seemed to have had a twinkle in their eye. I had thought there was nothing to see here but once I had adjusted to the poor visibility I found there is a wealth of amazing sights sounds and smells that have really charmed and won me over. Kathmandu is a great place and the frequent daily power cuts that the locals have learned to work around when you’re in the mood for it simply add to the charm in the dim shadowy streets at night. Mind you if your half way though a long well crafted email or perhaps even open heart surgery in the local hospital it soon looses its charm.
One of the first things I noticed after I had found the hotel in the heart of the dizzying labyrinth of streets in an area called “Thamel” was the sound of Rock n Roll booming out of just about all the bars open windows above and at street level, I hadn’t realized just how much I had missed the crack of a crisp snare drum and the crunch of a Les Paul, oh it was sweet and sweeter still, real coffee. The streets themselves are literally covered with signs and advertisements like a jungle where every available space is quickly filled and every hint of sunlight is fought for and fiercely defended.
I was supposed to have gone up into Tibet on the 21st April but due to Chinese sensitivity around the Tibetan new year which this year fell on the 5th a little to close to the 10th April which is the date in 1959 of the last serious Tibetan revolt which they celebrate every year now but which the Chinese crushed and with all the unrest in the middle east, the border had been closed until April fools day, April 1st which meant that I would have two unexpected weeks here, I wasn’t worried at the time and in fact has turned out to be a blessing as we have been able to explore the city in a little more depth and also go hiking up in the Himalayas breath taking Annapurna region.
The first few days were spent getting reacquainted as Orsi had been here a week earlier at a retreat and we had arranged to meet for a few days before I was due to leave again. We hung around the Thamel area nosing in the trinket and art shops. The religious art style called Tanka is just so beautiful with its rich colours and gold leaf, I agonized at owning a piece of it over and over again. We visited the Monkey Temple up on the island like hill in the west of the city. We crossed the Bashnumati river to get there which once must have been a glittering steam but was now nothing more than an open sewer clogged with filth and garbage even a headless decapitated bloated cow floating in it, it was disgusting and brought up all my sadness about the disrespect shown to the natural world and questions about the supposed sacredness the Hindus and I have to say Buddhists say they have towards their holy rivers. As we crossed a footbridge we watched to our astonishment a woman throwing flowers into the dark stinking waters and praying to some god I was damned sure not longer lived there. Next day we bought incense in the shops around the Supa Stupa as I called it and walked the circle around it with the crowds of pilgrims and monks gathered there. Then visited up at the Buddhist Kopan Monastery in the foothills to the north whose temples were a wonder of colored drapes and beautiful murals with its chanting playful monks and panoramic views across the city. It still surprises me to see monks riding motorbikes with their robes tucked up in their legs, but it is the preferred mode of transport in the city and in fact Nepal.
The food to is great and though I have heard many many stories of travelers belly here in Nepal I have definitely relaxed since I crossed the border. The Tibetan restaurants here are great, I have become a definite convert to Tibetan food, stews, soups and steamed stuffed dumplings called momo’s, we shall see about the faith later, though I have a great leaning in that direction as it is about the searching and acceptance of your self, taking responsibility, becoming more aware of your actions and of course love.
To tell the truth yesterday I was really upset with the tour company who have been arranging the Tibet trip, I won’t go into the whys but I have lost a few precious days up there and was irritated. We ended up at the Kopan Monastery again, simply because we had really enjoyed the atmosphere there. On the wall is written a saying along the lines of “What is the point of being angry if a solution can be found. What is the point of being angry if a solution cannot be found” It really stopped me in my tracks and made me think about my behavior at certain points along this journey. I came to the conclusion that my impatience and perhaps my angry outbursts were pointing out a great lack of self worth within me and that the double edged sensitivity that in fact I have been blessed with was in the hands of a child at times. I had been stewing all the way there and then had to walk the last half of the way because the taxi driver although he had quoted us a price actually didn’t know how to get there and I actually did, my inner compass is pretty good, and in all honesty it points to intelligence. I say these things without the slightest conceit, in fact I had given others credit and myself none and so had been impatient and had simply acted angrily because of a lack of confidence in my own knowing.
You see if I credit myself with sensitivity I would have realized that the taxi driver didn’t know the way, I actually did know immediately but brushed it aside and put the responsibility onto him even though I instinctively knew. All these moments are to bring us into the awareness of how much we do actually feel and know and if I credit myself I cannot credit others with the same reality as I have and that must be remembered at all times, but that is the difficult thing. On the way I became angry because he was driving around in circles when I could have directed him myself, but I don’t live in this town, am not a taxi driver and so again left it to him. I have noticed along the way that I had been angry at times at the speed with which things were done also with lack of manners and incompetence, or I perceived it all as such. In fact it points to a great lack of self esteem within myself. If I allow myself to acknowledge or remember that In fact I am intelligent, quick witted, and can see solutions in the blink of an eye, but at the same time realize that all people do not run or see quite as fast, or perhaps have thicker less sensitive skins than I, that these things are not a conceit but simply are part of the gifts I have, it removes the anger replaces it with knowing and allows the sensitivity that is certainly part of my make up to come to the surface in a positive way instead of a destructive and childlike impatience. It was quite a realization.
On the way back to Kathmandu from Pokhara I had noticed pictures of a little girl with a red painted forehead an black coal rimmed eyes on the walls at all the pit stops and cafes on the way back to the city so I’d asked at the Tibetan tour office the next day who she was and was told she was the living goddess called Kumari who lived in the ancient royal quarters in Durbar square just 10 minutes walk south from the Thamel where we were and that we could see her and if we requested we may even get an audience with her, I didn’t want that, what would you say to a living Goddess?
That was the day that the city really began to get under my skin as we walked through the narrow ancient streets filled with startling sights smells and shrines all oozing the most delicious clouds of incense and the square itself was just so unexpected with its ancient palaces and meeting halls. Mind you some bright spark who had been obviously been impressed with European architecture had built a white Masonic type hall, pillars and all right smack bang in the middle of it and simply ruined the line of the place. But regardless of that carbuncle you could sense the history of the place.
We found the Kumari Palace ducked under the doorway and into the peaceful courtyard with its white washed walls and dark beautifully carved 16thcentury lattice widows that looked down on you from above to be told that the goddess would be appearing at 4pm. As I took a few photographs a little face appeared at a window above it was such a strange moment as there was only the two of us there and the face was observing us. She ducked away when she saw the camera but obviously couldn’t help her curiosity and popped up again as you can see from the photo I have posted. It was a strange affair it all seemed a little too staged for me. The male guides were the ones who seemed to be running the show and pulling the little girls strings but is said that for 300 years the spirit of the goddess Taleju has been incarnating in a succession of young prepubescent girls and her presence seen as protection for the Nepalese people and much more http://www.thingsasian.com/stories-photos/2167
The interesting thing was as we were stood there in the drizzle of that afternoon and the hour approached white cranes began to land on the roof top just above the window where she was due to appear, pigeons began landing in the court yard and around the window, crows flew noisily over head too, it was quite strange. Then she appeared, dressed in red with her painted face, she looked down upon the square impassively at all the upturned faces, somebody called
She simply looked from left to right and then vanished back into the shadows of the ancient palace and that was that. We were puzzled and somehow a little sad for the little girl. I don’t know about goddesses incarnating in human form, I had really hoped it was true, some part of me still does, but I just felt a little sad.
We’d found out that there was a sacred river called the (*) to the north west of the city a place holy to the Hindus where they practiced the cremations I’d witnessed in Varanasi I’d wanted to go, not sure why, maybe to make peace with the 83 million gods (I kid you not) I’d famously not got along with down there. It turned out to be a good move. The place was in the midst of celebrating some thing, which didn’t surprise me, in a great pink tent filled with hundreds of colorfully dressed Hindus, some up dancing at the far end of the tent but the majority sat clapping along cheerily to the eerily beautiful rhythms and vocals. A couple called us in to sit with them which again didn’t surprise me and is something I really like about the Hndus, they always invite you in to join them in their celebrations, it is a great credit to them as people to my way of thinking.
As we approached the Ghats the by now familiar smell began to fill the air and our nostrils, we paid our 500 rupees into the ancient world heritage site, walked into a court yard up some stone steps looked over a wall and there were the fires below. At this point a guy came up and began talking with me about the site and the rites that went on there. He turned out to be a student priest called Chabbi Lal Upadhyay I was super respectful and we struck up a conversation that went on for quite some time he answered many questions that had wanted to ask. About the castes, about the holy men, pointed them out who was real and who was not among them, he explained the 13 day mourning ritual how it was performed and why. As we talked, down below the Ghats in the shallow river were a group of young men who were panning the murky waters for gold teeth, which at first seemed so disgraceful to me, but as Chabbi pointed out the relatives had the chance to remove them before the cremation and some chose not to, and though Nepal is full of charm it is apparent that there is desperate poverty here and a gold tooth could be seen as a gift from the gods in fact. He pointed out the houses where the old and sick awaited their death he said most were happy to be able to die there, most attended by relatives or carers, there were even Christian Nuns at one “house” who had been there since a visit by Mother Teresa in the 1980’s.
The trouble was with all this openness and conversation was that as we were stood there at one point looking across to the “waiting houses” a man obviously a relative walked out into the day light and tossed a black plastic bag right into the slow moving river, I at first just blinked as the bag sat on the surface right outside the door. Then he reappeared and threw an orange carton onto the water which floated right there, he disappeared inside again and threw something which splashed and sank into the depths. I just don’t get it his mother or father or for sure a close relative was going to be cremated on that very place in a matter of days and the ashes cast into the sacred river to be washed down into the Ganges and out to sea. I couldn’t help but ask Chabbi who looked a little uncomfortable but he just said “It is just the culture people throw everything into the rivers”
Me I just don’t get it and never will
I will write about more about Nepal It really has been such a wonderful surprise, the hiking in the mountains of the Annapurna Region, riding again on the tops of busses, kayaking, the beautiful villages and the wonderful people I came across both Nepalese and travelers and the cast system that is still very much alive here. It has been like a well deserved holiday these last few weeks and though I have written a lot I simply haven’t had time to reread and edit them and tomorrow I am up at 5am here in Kathmandu to go up into Tibet. I hope if you have been following me you will forgive me this and I will post them all when I come back down and do my very best to post my impressions as I go along across the roof of the world. I have lots of pre conceived ideas of what to expect there, but all the way along my ideas have been so very different from the realities I’ve come across. I have to go.
Much love to you all as always