I actually arrived in Kathmandu November 1, 2011. The flight from Paro, Bhutan only took approximately one hour but unfortunately I did not get a view of Mount Everest on the way in. The airport was an experience in itself. After landing, there was an extremely long and very slow line in order to get your entry visa. The process was done manually and involved several agents inexplicably. This process actually took much longer than the flight from Bhutan. Once I was through I was able to finally exit the airport and was greeted by about 2 million taxi drivers all wanting my business. It took me a while to get through the crowd but I eventually found Ramesh who was organizing my Nepal trip as well as Ganesh my guide for the next one month.
Driving from the airport to my downtown hotel was also quite an experience. This was the first time I was in a very large Asian city in a developing country. I was simply not prepared for the crowds, the cacophony of continual blaring car and motorcycle horns as well as the general filth and lack of sanitation. It was quite overwhelming and I must admit I took an immediate dislike to the city. It was such a shock from the tranquility and beauty of the high country of Bhutan. Animals were seen roaming and freely defecating everywhere and I saw throngs of people picking through garbage for useful items. The level of poverty was shocking. I tried not to display my shock to my very pleasant hosts who were most friendly. Ramesh, in particular, spoke extremely good English with a Canadian accent.
My hotel was located in the tourist district of Thamel, Kathmandu. This area was full of trekking companies, trekking stores, arts and craft stores as well as numerous restaurants and most of the tourist hotels. It was absolutely packed with action and people. It is part of Kathmandu but not representative of the true culture of the city. In this area it was more common for me to be greeted with “do want to buy and smoke some hash?” as apposed to the proper Nepali greeting of “Nasmste”! After getting settled in my hotel the plan was for my guide Ganesh to take me out to Hanuman-dhoka Durbar Square a World Heritage Site Monument Zone. This was located in the heart of the ancient city of Kathmandu and is a complex of beautiful temples and shrines both Hindu and Buddhist. Most of these structures are built-in the pagoda style embellished with intricately carved exteriors built between the 12th and 18th centuries. It is a living open museum of Nepal. I tried out the video function of my camera and have included a short clip of a dance performance we saw that night.
We were able to walk to the Square from my hotel and during this time I learned the fine art of navigating people, motorcycles, rickshaws as well as cars which all seem to move en masse in a beautiful chaos. One has to be quick-witted and surefooted. I am happy to say I survived the process.
After visiting the Square, Ganesh took me out for my first Nepali dinner. It was absolutely delicious. At this point I was still not brave enough to eat with my hands which is the Nepali style. Sleep came easily that night despite the loud rumbling of the nearby Nepali dance bar blaring out music into the late evening.
November 2, 2011 was a full day of touring three other World Heritage Sites located in or nearby Kathmandu. These included Bhaktapur, Pashhupatinath as well as Boudhanath. We also toured the Monkey Palace to finish off our day.
Bhaktapur has the status of being the Cultural Capital of Nepal. Geographically it is shaped like a conch shell and geometrically designed into the Tantric fabric shaped Shree Yantra, it dates back to the early seventh century A.D. and is spread over an area of approximately 7 km². Approximately 80,000 people live in this particular location. Many arts and crafts including painting, carving, masonry, bronze-casting, jewelry-making and pottery continue to be actively practiced here. It is also where I purchased my Mandela Thanka. I believe I paid more than I should have (I have subsequently learned how to bargain more effectively) but it is a lovely piece and if you do not know what it is you will just have to come over to my house to see it once I have it framed.
The Pashupati Temple is one of the most venerated Hindu temples in the world. It is an international center of pilgrimage and Hindu devotees from all over the world come here. The holy complex extends along both banks of the sacred Bagman River. The main temple is dedicated to Lord Shiva and houses a lingam or his phallic symbol. This is also the location where many Hindus cremate their loved ones when they pass on. We witnessed two such cremations. One can also find numerous “holy men” in this area. They are fascinating characters dressed extremely ornately and colourfully. They own no possessions and spend most of their time in meditation and prayer but are always open to being paid to be photographed. I passed on this opportunity as I generally do not believe in paying to photograph people. The architecture is quite spectacular in this area. Non-Hindus are not allowed into the actual temple.
Boudhanath contains the great Buddhist stupa. It is a jewel point in the center of a natural mandala, a store of sacred energy. It is one of the most important places of pilgrimage for Buddhists. It towers above a small Tamang village that since the arrival of Tibetan refugees in the 1960s has become the centre of a thriving town of monasteries, craftsmanship and businesses. It is the principal centre of Himalayan Buddhist worship and studies in the Kathmandu Valley.
The Monkey Palace certainly lives up to its name with a large variety of monkeys roaming freely amongst several artisans. There are also innumerable handicraft shops selling goods. The location affords a full view of the metropolis of Kathmandu. Unfortunately, the day we were there it was quite smoggy and foggy so we could not fully appreciate the breadth of this very large city.
My initial dislike of Kathmandu was certainly tempered by these beautiful locations and the histories behind them. Perhaps I could come to actually like Kathmandu but time would tell. I was actually relatively tired after all of this touring but enjoyed a wonderful meal with Ramesh, Elsie James and her daughter. Elsie and her daughter had just completed a health camp to assist some of the very poor and orphaned children in Kathmandu. It was very touching to hear of their experiences. Unfortunately Elsie’s husband was quite gravely ill at home and they would not be staying for the entire month of November as planned and were able to book urgent flights out to Calgary within a few days to be by his bedside. My thoughts and prayers went with them. I went to bed early as November 3rd I was due to attempt to fly out to Lukla to start the Everest portion of my trekking in Nepal. Of course Lukla is infamous as one of the most dangerous airports in the world to fly into and flights are often canceled due to poor weather as the pilots are required to fly into the airport by visual approach only and not instrument. Would I make it?