Kathmandu: Two Days Is Not Enough

As the plane descended through the clouds we searched the mountains for the Himalayas but they were shrouded in haze. Still the sight of Kathmandu was exhilarating.  When we arrived at our hotel, right in the heart of Thamel the main tourist district of Kathmandu, we had just enough time for an hour long stroll through the markets, the narrow streets and alleyways crammed with everything you can imagine; blankets, saris, shoes, downfilled sleeping bags, winter jackets, hand knitted wool clothes from mittens to jackets, as well as electronics, shoes, and the vegetable and spice market filled with the aromas of cardamom, cloves and cinnamon mingled with every other spice you can imagine as well as Himalayan salt, a delicacy and medicinal aid known around the world.  The shopping is unbelievable, things you won’t see anywhere else, and prices that are hard to say no to.  But it’s the architecture that I found captivating, the narrow wood buildings, some with elaborately carved doors and windows and temples everywhere, Kathmandu is known as the Valley of Temples and I now understand why.  Nepal is a unique blend of Buddhists and Hindus (80% Hindu/10% Buddhist) but Buddhists visit Hindu temples and Hindus visit Buddhist temples, both believe their religions are closely linked as well as their deities. Our quick two day visit to Kathmandu was highlighted by tours of some extraordinary temples, some hundreds and even thousands of years old.   The city itself was not built to handle a population of 3 million so there are some problems like water shortages.  But even worse is the electricity shortage.  Several years ago Kathmandu began rotating power outages of about 2 hours at a time, then 4 hours a day and now it is several hours per day with residents expecting it could get as bad as 18 hour blackouts in the near future.  When the power goes off businesses use generators but it isn’t really practical to keep all the lights on, so usually just a few lights are used and sometimes the business is kept in the dark until a customer comes inside and then they turn them on. It also means ‘free wi-fi’ is only available when the power is on.  The streets at night are dark and potholed so it’s a good idea to bring along a flashlight if you plan to venture out after sunset.  There are a few traffic lights in Kathmandu that are powered by solar energy, otherwise traffic police are set up in the middle of the busy intersections directing traffic.  Since Kathmandu is in a valley pollution can be very bad, we could feel it in our throats almost immediately.  Another one of the negatives is the large number of beggars and touts especially in the main tourist areas, trying to get you to buy whatever it is they are selling, you just have to ignore them, show any interest and you won’t get rid of them.  The people are the warmest, friendliest people I have ever met, they greet you with a smile and ‘namaste’ but it comes right from the heart and isn’t hollow or fake, they appear genuinely happy to see you and want to make a connection, no matter how brief.  Kathmandu and Nepal are also very spiritual places, all the temples (and there are hundreds) bring the people an innate calmness.

On our first day of touring we visited the oldest Stupa in the world, Swayambhunath aka the Monkey Temple.  You can take the 365 steps to the temple site or drive up. It was a magical site, despite all the vendors scattered around selling their wares.  As we wandered through Durbar Square in the old town we saw  worshippers making offerings to the shrine to Black Bhairav, one of Shiva’s many forms, the former King’s palace now a museum, as well as numerous 15th century buildings scattered around the main square, and one temple dating back to the 11th century, we also visited the Kaasthamandap temple that Kathmandu was named after.  For someone who comes from Canada (with only a few buildings in the entire country dating back to the 17th century) it was simply astounding to see so much history.  We also visited a temple devoted to Kumari, the living god.  The young girl and her family live in the temple and occasionally give audiences to people.  She is chosen by committee at the age of 3 ½ to 4 years old and a new one takes over once she reaches puberty.  There are 32 requirements for her, the main ones are that she must be a virgin, have no scars, be brave/bold, come from a Buddhist family (even though she is a Hindu goddess), she must have physical strength and talent.  Hundreds of young girls are gathered together for the ‘competition’, an overwhelming experience for these young girls, but if they cry or cling to their parents, they are automatically disqualified (they are not considered brave/bold enough). 

We also visited the city of Batan, like a suburb of Kathmandu only it is much older.  It dates back to 43BC and is also known by the Hindu name Lalitpur or the Fine Arts City.  It is where most of the exquisite crafts you see being sold in Kathmandu are created.  The beautiful Nepalese artwork, silver smithing, golden statues, woodwork.

On our second day of touring we got up early to  try to get a peek at the Himalayas before the clouds and smoky fog rolled in.  We drove to the community of Nagarkat where most tourists are dropped off but then continued to drive up the winding mountain road, past the army range to Point Zero and were treated to a spectacular view of the snow-capped mountains in the distance. It was still too foggy to see the peak of Mount Everest, 172km away as the crow flies.  But laid out before us were green valleys with stepped farm fields, small villages framed by the smaller Maltovar Mountains with the Himalayas beyond. There was also a team of soldiers doing their bit for the environment by collecting tons of trash that was strewn around the forest.  There were also a few Buddhist monks at Point Zero, cooking tea over an open fire.  Scattered among the green trees were Rhododendron trees, the national flower of Nepal. We stopped for a snack before heading back to Nagarkut to begin a 2 ½ + hour hike to the Changnarayan Temple dating back to 454 BC.  The walk was refreshing after all the smog and smoke we had encountered. We saw rural life in the valley as it has been for decades, if not hundreds of years.  There were hills to climb but the views were well worth it.  We encountered a battalion of soldiers out on manoeuvres, who of course were a little camera shy.  We also met up with 3 young school girls on their way to class for 5th grade exams, a 45 minute walk for them each way.  They were shy but our guide Arun managed to engage them in conversation.  It was such a great experience to see the rural way of life first hand, outside the big cities.  At one point we ran into a family herding their goats down a mountain path when suddenly one of the kids took off running toward us in the other direction. The older woman gave chase but wasn’t getting close so we joined, trying the catch the elusive goat.  Whenever the woman would get close she would hit the goat with her stick making it run again. We told her ‘No Hit… don’t hurt the goat’.  When she finally got the message we managed to catch the goat and she threw it over her back and headed back to the herd.  After our tour of the  ancient Changu Narayan temple we got back in the van and drove down the mountain to the city of Bhaktapur where we wandered among the ancient buildings and shops before heading back to Kathmandu.

Our visit to Nepal and Kathmandu was far too short… just two days for touring but it was captivating and we both can’t wait to return to spend more time exploring the country outside the city.  Our guide Arun suggested we should spend at least two weeks doing the CMRZ tour – C to experience the culture of the Kathmandu Valley and the various tribes that make up Nepal (there are at least 70 different tribes, each with their own culture and languages), M for a mountain trek in the Himalayas, maybe to the Everest Base Camp but we would need a minimum of 5-7 days, R for river rafting, something he says everyone should experience at least once, and Z for a jungle tour (not sure why Z), exploring the forests and wildlife from leopards to monkeys to wild boar and wild buffalo.  I hope to make it back to Nepal to do just that, before my two year adventure is over.

I can’t say enough about our guide. Arun Bukharel is extremely knowledable about every aspect of Kathmandu and Nepal.  He gave a tour to the authors of the book ‘Journey Through Nepal’ and is mentioned in the credits.  He was also commissioned to give a tour to King Juan Carlos of Spain and his family in 1989.  Our driver Babu was also the calmest, most patient drive I have had in 4 months of travel.  If you plan to visit Kathmandu contact Nepal Sanctuary Treks (tell Tuisi I sent you) and you can request Arun, but he doesn’t work a lot any more, if you are lucky though he’ll be available to show you this magical place.

We stayed at the Hotel Utse in Thamel and again if you are planning to visit Kathmandu, I highly recommend it. It’s a nice Tibetan run older hotel, clean, beautifully decorated with carved wood and Tibetan antiques, and is inexpensive.  But it’s the staff that made it such a wonderful experience.  Everyone is extremely friendly and can’t do enough for you.  The restaurant is also award winning and the food is delicious, try the Momo (dumplings stuffed with meat or vegetables and steamed or fried).  I also developed a love for Nepali tea, spiced with cinnamon, cardamom, ginger… and I don’t drink tea. 

Despite the pollution and big city problems, Kathmandu and Nepal are near the top of my list for places to come back to… truly a spiritual part of the world, no matter what beliefs you follow.

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