Published: September 21st 2009August 28th 2009
Our flight to Kathmandu took an hour and a half and sadly we didn't see any major mountains - maybe from the direction we flew you weren't supposed to but we had been expecting to see some. After landing and going through customs and visa control (One month visas cost US $ 40 each, payable only in US dollars) we were met by the driver from the guest house we had booked into. Kathmandu looked like most other Asian cities, though there were no obvious high rises and the streets appeared to be very clean. It didn't seem to be as colourful as India - most women were wearing western dress - and there were no cows wandering everywhere! Our guest house was outside the main tourist area, Thamel, and we were given a room on the top floor. The room is large, has cable (BBC included which seems normal here - in India only the expensive hotels had it) is shabby but clean. We can see the hills around the city from our room - I wouldn't call them mountains as they seem to be fairly low.
We were told the Kathmandu is quite polluted but the air quality seems
fine - maybe we are comparing it to India!
The population of the city is under 1 million so it's very small by Asian city standards and after settling in we went for a walk. Tourism is well and truly entrenched here as it has been a travelers mecca since the 1960's. It was once on the hippie trail from London to India - today it is a rest area for trekkers and mountaineers. The streets of Thamel are lined with hundreds of shops selling climbing gear and outdoor clothes, scarves, Tibetan products, pirated CDs and DVDs and books. Also great cafes with steaks, pizzas and Aussie wine! Plus a couple of good bakeries. Bliss!
We spent our first couple of days wandering around the main city area - there were so many temples. Most had the most amazing wooden carvings - roof struts, doors and window frames - and many were situated on the top of high flights of stairs so they looked very high. All had slate roofs and were built from brick and rubble. Durbar ( meaning palace) Square was where the city's kings were crowned, lived and ruled from. A large area of magnificent buildings and
temples - it was a hive of activity with painters and priests decorating the buildings with red hangings in preparation for the Indra Jatra festival which was to be held in a few days. September is the beginning of the festival season in Nepal and we were to see many whilst we were there, most small and local. We spent a lot of time in the Durbar Square area whilst we were in Kathmandu - it was a great place for people watching and was surrounded by tiny lane ways lines with local shops selling all sorts of odd and interesting things. I noticed that a lot of the women were wearing red - it is the traditional colour for married women. They wear long multi strands of tiny red or green glass beads and arms of green and red glass bangles as well.
Another day we hired a driver to take us around some of the various temples. First stop was the large Buddhist stupa, Bodhnath - one of the largest in the world. It was a very busy site with Buddhists from and all over the world visiting it. Above it hung hundreds of strands of colourful
prayer flags, Buddha's eyes looked down on us from the top of the stupa and the sound of mantras from the CD stores surrounding it filled the air.
From there we drove to the Bagmati River and the Hindu temple of Pashupatinath. It was a fascinating place even though non Hindus are not allowed to enter the main temple which is a large part of the complex. The Bagmati is a holy river and a popular place to be cremated. A bridge crosses the river - on one side are the cremation ghats for the poorer people and there were bodies being burnt whilst we were there. We saw was a teenager using a coffin as a boat - totally macabre and nobody seemed the slightest bit concerned about it. On the other side of the bridge were the burning ghats for the wealthy and it was there that the Royal family were cremated after 10 of them were murdered by a family member in 2001. The day we were there a group of teenagers were knee deep in the water using their fingers as strainers in the mud in the hope that they would find gold teeth or jewelery
from the cremated bodies. After the cremation the ashes are swept into the water. On the other side of the river were rows of stone stupas each containing a phallic symbol! One small temple near the river bank was surrounded by semi naked sadhus (religious men), a couple of whom were covered in ashes from the ghats. Most looked like they were stoned - and they probably were as they smoke marijuana all the time. A fascinating place and yet another insight into the importance of religion here. As with all religious sites the streets leading towards the gates were lined with stalls selling flowers, beads and offering baskets.
Every street in Kathmandu has tiny temples and they are all covered in offerings of flowers and food and stained with red tika colours. There are so many of them they are almost taken for granted - somebody will be worshiping at one and another person will have his stall set up beside it and will be using part of the same temple to hang his goods from. The streets are also full of washing areas, all with very elaborately carved stone spouts which are a hive of activity daily with
women washing and collecting water. Late in the day the men and boys strip down to their underwear and wash under the spouts.
The last temple we visited that day was the another Buddhist temple, Swayambhunath, the symbol of Kathmandu, as it is perched on top of the hill behind the city. It is also known as the Monkey Temple as it is home to a large group of monkeys. There was a great view of the city from the grounds - the city was large and blanketed in a pall of pollution. The area around the temple was crowded with souvenir shops selling the usual Buddhist prayer wheels and beads. One wanders how any of these shops make a living - there is just so many of them all battling for the same tourist dollar. No wonder you get so much pressure from the stall owners.
The afternoon was spent in Patan, the second largest town in the Kathmandu Valley and on the opposite bank of the Bagmati River - it's basically a twin city. It is renowned for it's metal workers and the shops were full of bronze and brass statues. Some really beautiful work - it was
great to watch the men hammering the pieces in their workshops. The centre of Patan also has a big Durbar Square, with many temples and palaces with similar architecture to the ones in Kathmandu. The Royal Palace was heavily carved with lots of big brass doors. All extraordinary and unlike any temples we've seen in other countries. And there is just so many of them! The next couple of days we didn't do much except wander and read - I had a massage, Jerry went to the Nepali Army Museum - but we booked an early morning flight to see the mountains around Everest. Up early the next morning and out to the chaos of Kathmandu airport. It wasn't open and big groups of trekkers were lining up with enormous piles of equipment ready to catch a plane to the trekking areas further afield. How the airport copes when the trekking season actually opens properly I don't know! It was very rundown, the toilets were disgusting and there seemed to be no organization. It wasn't giving me a lot of confidence to board one of the planes. Our flight ended up boarding one hour late, no sooner were we aboard
then we disembarked due to a technical problem, waited another 40 minutes before re boarding the same plane. By this stage I wasn't feeling at all comfortable about the flight. We took off 2 hours late for the 45 minute flight. We were sadly disappointed - we did see the peak of Everest and the top half of many other peaks but not much else other then a lot of heavy cloud. It was a lot of money to see only the tops of the mountains and cloud! I wander whether we would have seen more if we had left at the correct time. We put in a complaint but didn't get any response - we didn't expect to I guess. Other people on board were just as unhappy as us but they had all gone on to India and had had no chance to complain.
Our last day in Kathmandu was spent amidst an enormous crowd in Durbar Square waiting for the Indra Jatra festival. It was very hot and the crowds just kept getting bigger. We had no real idea of when it was to start - nobody knew the exact time - but we at least had
Note the multi strands of tiny glass beads that the women wear. They add gold attachments of various sizes (depending on wealth) to close them
a seat on one of the temple steps which had been set aside as a tourist view point. The military presence was very obvious - lots of rifles, riot shields, dogs, horses and even snipers on the roofs. The President and Prime Minister were coming and the Maoists had been protesting in small groups around the city for days. All the invited guests took ages to come, their cars forcing their way through the increasing crowds. There was no organization of anything, people broke through the barriers as fast as the police put them up (they were only bits of tape) and it just became more chaotic and scary. We were trapped - there was no way we could leave if we wanted to. eventually the festival started with a puppet cow and some men dressed as demons being chased around the square. We initially thought it was a riot when everybody on the ground started shouting and running. This went on for over an hour - it got very boring after the first 15 minutes! By this stage heaps of other people were pushing their way onto the stands - the police were watching the show - but I
didn't live in China for nothing. After waiting for hours in the searing sum I wasn't giving my place up for any latecomers so I'm afraid I defended it with my elbows! Anyway the mainpart of the festival (it's all very complicated - includes erection of tall poles, animal sacrifices, and the opening of screen doors covering another ugly idol ) is the child idol Indra - the God Of Rain - who is kept locked away in Durbar Square comes out once a year to allow everybody to worship her. She rides in a large golden hand pulled chariot around Kathmandu for 3 days, accompanied by 2 other Gods also riding in their own golden chariots. I cannot pretend to understand it but for us the whole thing was a bit of an anticlimax. Watching the people pray to the large 'ugly idol' Seto was more interesting. He spent all the time with a long stick of incense in his mouth which looked like an enormous cigarette! Eventually we did sww the chariots being pulled and lifted by large groups of men. the crowd was at fever pitch by this stage. I actually enjoyed watching the police trying to
crowd control as much as anything else. We read next day in the paper that the Maoists had caused problems in the square around the corner from where we were. they seriously injured one of the policemen and threw - rubbish at the guests cars as they drove past. We enjoyed our time in Kathmandu despite the pollution. It was a very busy city, spoilt by the pollution, but the temples are amazing. The Nepalese people are charming and have a wonderful sense of humour - the nicest people we have met this trip so far.
Next day we left Kathmandu to spend the night in the small town of Bhaktapur - it took an hour to get there through the most horrendous traffic - as it was pretty well a suburb of Kathmandu. I'll write a few lines in the next blog about the town.
There are more photos below