So after my unexpected diversion to Chengdu after Air China cancelled my nonstop flight from Lhasa to Kathmandu, I finally arrived to incredible humidity and the craziness I have only found in airports like Delhi, Kolkata, and now Kathmandu.
Now the first thing I did right was to complete my visa on arrival form before I left home, made two copies of my passport, brought along some passport photos and had the exact change for the visa – USD $25. After getting off the connector bus I immediately walked as fast as I could into the terminal and to the visa payment counter. There was only one guy working and already a plane load of people were in the terminal filling out visa forms. It was going to take hours to get through the line once it formed.
Fortuanately for me, I was second in line to the visa payment guy. He looked through my documents, took my $25 and motioned me to the nonexistent visa line. I walked up, handed over the documents and proof of payment and less than three minutes later I had my visa in my passport and was already going into the baggage claim area. Meanwhile the line was already forming at the payment counter. Good luck with that folks.
So the baggage claim area is where the chaos begins. First, your carryon baggage has to be rescreened so you can enter the baggage claim area. No idea why. It’s not like any of us acquired contraband while flying into Kathmandu. I found it hilarious.
Second, once in baggage claim, everyone was crowded around a solitary screen waiting to find out which carousel their bags would be offloaded to. Once the number was posted a mass exodus takes place as everyone and their mother had a luggage cart all pushing and shoving in one direction. It was awesome and hysterical all at the same time.
Finally came the offloading. I suspect the assortment of checked “baggage” I saw is not commonplace in the world. Here comes bags of rice. How about a big screen TV. Hey I didn’t know you could transport a Buddah. Oh yea. It was the absolute best. Unfortunately, my bag came far too quick I could have stood there for a while taking it all in.
Anyway, once I had my checked luggage, I breezed through customs and found a lovely young guy holding a sign with my name on it. (Nothing better when you walk out of arrivals to dozens of touts trying to lure you into one of their cabs.)
So safely ensconced in the little hotel van, we zipped through the dusty, traffic clogged streets, horns blaring and people zipping in between the traffic somehow not dying. It only took about 15 minutes to reach the Thamel District of Kathmandu where I would be staying in the Hotel Mi Casa. A little boutique hotel down an alley only a half a block from the chaosz, but with a lovely little courtyard it felt like miles away.
Once I was checked in (my hotel room name in Annapurna), I sat in the little outdoor bar and made plans with the manager for my three days in Kathmandu. The first thing I was advised is that I had arrived on the eve of the second most important festival in Nepal: Dashain. HUH??? No one told me. Usually I am all over these things (which is why I planned my trip to Bhutan last so that I could take in a huge festival while I am in Bhutan). However, I apparently missed the boat for Nepal.
I quickly learned that Dashain is apparently a fifteen days of celebration that celebrates the goddess Durga and her triumph of good over evil. Throughout the 15 days (the first 5 of which are public holidays), families gather together in the villages (where the majority of Nepalese are from) to sacrifice animals with offerings of blood to the goddess. I immediately realized why we had passed herds of goats lining the roads on the drive in to the hotel.
So when I arrived the city was abuzz with people preparing for the festival, buying food, new clothes and of course goats. So after taking the festival into account, we came up with a game plan for my time in Kathmandu. By 1:00, I had a guide (Arie – who turned out to be a smiling, awesome fella) and a driver.
First stop was the Bodnath Stupa, the second tallest stupa in the world behind the Stupa in Yangoon (hey I’ve been to that one). The Bodnath Stupa is supported by the Tibetan community, so once we arrived there (again driving through the fabulous traffic) it felt like I was still in Tibet with all the Tibetans in their traditional clothing.
Now a little bit about this Stupa. The first thing you see are eyes staring at you. Seriously. In fact, there were four identical sets of eyes on the four sides of the Stupa. It was a little unnerving. Apparently, the original Stupa was built in 600 A.D and then was destroyed by Mughal invaders in the 14th century. It was then rebuilt. There were 13 levels on the spire which apparently symbolized the stages that a human being must pass through to achieve nirvana. (Don’t ask me how to get there.) There were no signs of the 2015 earthquake damage at this site.
The area around the Stupa was a mix of shops for tourists and pilgrims. We wandered around the circumference of the Stupa (a “chora”) and then visited the little monastery across from the Stupa where I walked around the largest prayer wheel I had seen and listened to the chanting of the monks on the level above.
We stopped for a quick lunch at one of the rooftop restaurants overlooking the Stupa and I have to say the Nepali food I ate was awesome. Arie suggested I have the daal bhaat tarkari, which included lentil soup, rice, curried chicken, curried vegetables, achar (a red mashed pickle), dahi (curd or yoghurt) and papad – a crispy fried lentil-flour pancake. To eat it, I would take a Spoonful from one of the dishes (i.e. the lentil soup) and mix it with a bit of rice. The food was spicey, but no overly spicey. And to top it off, I had a banana lassi. Yum.
After lunch, I made a couple quick stops in the shopping area and …. yep found me a Christmas oranment. Still batting 100%. I think my guide thought I was a little crazy at how excited I was about my find.
So second stop was to the Pashupatinath Temple and ghats. This temple is apparently Nepal’s holiest Hindu shrine, but it was badly damaged in the 2015 earthquake. Signs of the damage were everywhere from scaffolding and piles of bricks to workers painstakingly rebuilding the outer temple buildings.
The temple was beside the cremation ghats on the Bagmati River. As a result there were hippy looking, holy men all over the place. Now I saw cremation ghats on the Ganges in Varanasi, India so I wasn’t particularly interested in “going there” again. However, Arie seemed to think I would be seeing something new. And in a way he was right. Funeral pyres were burning to my right (I do not believe in taking pictures of such things – it would be the equivalent to taking picture during a funereal service), and I had seen this before.
However, what I did not know is that the body is cleansed in the river before cremation. Apparently the Hindi culture requires the body to be cleansed in the holy water to wash away the sins. I did not recall hearing of this ritual before.
Now I ended up taking a picture of a view down the river and across to the temples where a body shrouded in orange lay on the banks of the river waiting for purification. I was hesitant to take a picture, but because the cremation ceremony was not under way, I reasoned that I was not invading the mourning family’s privacy. However, what about the privacy of the deceased. It left me uneasy.
Anyway, we wandered around the temple for a bit where I encountered a rather “erotic” temple with 15th century carvings of men and women in rather compromising poses. Well that’s unusual. Apparently in the tantric side of Hinduism it is common place to find erotic carvings. Huh. Who knew.
So as we were leaving the site, we came across a fellow selling coconuts. Apparently animal rights activists are really pushing the Nepali people to stop with the goat sacrifices during Dashain and instead crack a coconut and offer the coconut water to the goddess rather than the blood of the goat. Interesting concept that seemed to be gaining some traction as I saw a lot of coconut buyers and a lot of sellers.
Our final stop was to visit Kathmandu Durber Square, which was also heavily damaged from the 2015 earthquake. Our driver let us out on “Freak Street”, which got its name from the hippie culture that grew up in the ’60s on this street where hash and marijuana were legal. I would use the term Freak Street now because it was a freak of nature that I survived the walk down this street that was better described as a narrow alleyway surrounded on both sides by stone buildings, which left you claustrophobic all the while dodging a caravan of motorcycles that never let up.
When we arrived in Durber Square I was exhausted. Geez. I was happy to be alive. Anyway, the plan was to take in Durber Square, which had traditionally been a series of palaces and temples where Kathmandu’s former kings ruled. However, becauase of the damage to the temples and former palaces, all we could do was a walk around with the throngs of people. Many of the main temples were entirely flattened or half of a temple lay in ruins on the ground.
Surprisingly, the one temple I really wanted to see the see, the Kumari Temple, was virtually unscathed (except for a few poles reinforcing the beautiful three story brick building.
Why did I want to see this temple? Well the temple is home to the living goddess Kumari,, the living symbol of devi, the Hindu god for female spiritual energy. The Kumari is selected from six well to do families and represents Kathmandu as their living goddess until she reaches puberty when she reverts to mortal status. Yikes! One minute you are a goddess living the life and the next minute your are some smoe going to school every day with the peons. I found this fascinating.
Anyway, We walked through the entrance of the temple into a beautiful three-storey courtyard with fabulous carved wooden balconies and windows. During certain times of the day, Kumari makes an appearance at the center window. As luck would have it, we arrived about 10 minutes before a scheduled appearance. So we waited with a few dozen people and while standing there, I learned that this Kumari was giving up her reign on Thursday. She had been the Kumari since age 3 and was now 12. Her privileged life was ending in just 2 days. Uh … welcome to the real world kid.
So we stared at the balacony and suddenly the Kumari, with pale skin and made up face dressed in a colourful sari, made an appearance. (NO PICTURES ALLOWED.) She sat there staring off and then suddenly turned and she was gone. It lasted all of 10 seconds. She seemed really pissed and who wouldn’t be … pretty soon she is going to be with the rest of us standing below a balcony looking for a child deity who feins interest in her subjects. Yikes.
So with Kumari in the rear view window, we continued our walk through the mayhem that was Durber Square and on up through the street markets. It was absolute pandemonium. There were throngs of people of every ethnicity, motorbikes weaving in and around pedestrians, rickshaws, pilgrims, construction workers and touts. You name it we saw it. Even a cow here and there. It was a melange of people, dirt, acrid smoke and lots and lots of horns and yelling. Men pulled on my arms to buy tiger balm. Women shoved necklaces in my face to buy. There were food vendors, flute sellers, sari salesmen, women selling veggies and fruit. And oh that noise ….
Now Arie and I were going to make the 1/2 hour walk back through the myriad of street markets leading out of Durber Square to the hotel and this craziness did not cease the entire walk back. I dodged more motorcycles coming at me full bore than I care to count. You had to be on high alert constantly.
I told Arie that it was quite possibly the second biggest cluster f**k I have ever been in (nothing will top the drive from Delhi to Agra where even a camel caravan made an appearnce). It was pandemonium Arie. “What is pandemonium Deborah.” This – I made a sweep of my arm above the heads of the folks I was shuffling along with through the crowds. Arie still did not understand, and I told him it meant “utter chaos”. Aha. Arie got it and seemed to love the new word he learned. He used it many times over the next 1/2 hour.
We finally made it back to the hotel (but not before I stopped and bought a beautiful cashmere pashmina – and Arie made sure it was the real deal and not some fake stuff imported from China).
Once cleaned up, I had one of the best pumpkin soups I’ve ever had (although the pumpkin soup in Vienna was probably the best) at a restaurant called Gai (Lonely Planet was right again). After dinner, I called it a night. Now being in the Thamel area does not make for a lot of quiet in the neighborhoods, but my room was surprisingly soundproof (or close to it) and with the help of my trusty earplugs, I was able to block out the remaining noise and get a little rest. My feet hurt and I was generally done in.