Published: August 7th 2007April 23rd 2007
This blog by Lucas:
Its hard to explain in words, but Kathmandu is one of the craziest and greatest cities on the planet. The tightly packed, narrow streets - often about the width of two people walking side-by-side - somehow can easily fit rusting deathtrap taxis, rogue holy cows, slightly insane cycle rickshaw drivers, definitely insane motorcyclists, roving 8-10 year old kid street gangs, maniacal tibetan curio sellers, unrelenting Nepali tiger balm salesman, and hordes of well-dressed and utterly sleazy trekking trip middlemen. Lining the streets is an amateur mountaineer's wet dream - shop after shop of dirt cheap trekking equipment with all the best brand names sewn onto the outside of dubious (but good enough) gear. And if you need a Tibetan or Nepali souvenir, there are about 1 million pieces on offer...
Add to this great food from all over the planet, including my first introduction to the lovechild of that plump Italian seductress - the Ravioli - and a spicy Chinese Pot Sticker: The Tibetan Momo. Momos come in many fillings, but my favorite was the minced water buffalo with a spicy curry dipping sauce. It goes quite well with Everest beer, though I can't say
Crazy Streets of Thamel
The trekking and backpacker epicentre of Nepal. Here you find all major mountain necessities: North Face knock-offs, yak butter tea, iodine, Buddhist prayer wheels, and Everest beer.
I am a big fan of Tibetan tea - a mixture of tea, yak butter and copious amounts of salt.
Crazy streets, crazy people and crazy food - now add crazy government and royal family. In 2001, eleven members of the royal family, including the king, queen and prince, were murdered by one of the king's own sons, supposedly in a argument over his choice of bride and his mother's apparent dissatisfaction. He then turned the gun on himself but was not successful, going into a coma... upon whence he was proclaimed King, of course, being the only 'surviving' heir. Unfortunately he died a few days later, which led to the current day king, Gyanendra, who was the original king's middle brother. Gyanendra was conveniently out of the country during the 'incident.' Now our trekking guide stated that, with 100% certainty, that all Nepalis know Gyanendra ordered the whole massacre, and the fateful love story was just a cover up. So the sitting king is affectionately known as 'King Murderer' to his subjects. He has just recently agreed to give up power in favor of a more democratic government, including Maoist representation, but as he has the $'s to
aka the Monkey Temple, dating back to at least AD 460.
pay off the army and buy politicians, he appears to be remaining in power behind the scenes. In fear of letting this blog go forever, I won't even get into what Nepal is famous for, the Maoist conflict...
Most of this craziness, including the Royal Palace, is in the backpacker and trekker enclave of Thamel, but just outside this area is easily accessible, amazing Tibetan Buddhist and Nepali Hindu religious sites. We visited the hilltop Buddhist 'monkey' temple called Swayambhunath, which, true to its name, had hundreds of monkeys scurrying about. We got our first glimpse of the gaze from the famous Tibetan Buddhist icon of the '3rd eye' (no Bryan Clement, its not what you think), which symbolizes Buddha's insight. The 'nose' is the Nepali symbol for the number 1 (ek), which symbolizes unity. On day 2 we say Pashupatinath - one of the holiest Hindu sites in Nepal and for Hinduism in general, and then Bodhnath, one of the largest Buddhist stupas in the world. Pashupatinath, dedicated to Shiva, lies above the Bagmati River, where bodies are cremated all day along on the ghats, and just across the river are some colorful Sadhus (wandering Hindu holy men)
hanging out and dispensing wisdom. These guys have to abstain from sex, hard drugs and rock'n'roll, but they get to smoke hash, drink full cream milk, and upon death be released from that damn cycle of rebirth, so I guess its basically a toss up.
We paid a local guide to dispense some local wisdom to us, and he told us that Pashupatinath and the ghats date back to the 5th century, but it was as recent as 150 years ago that the practice of "Sati" was still commonplace. Sati is when a hindu wife, upon her husband's death, throws herself (or is thrown by other family members) onto her mate's funeral pyre to join in the flames. Pretty amazing that this ritual (now illegal in Nepal) happened so recently, but back then (and still evident today, as our guide explained) a hindu widow perhaps could expect little of life after her husband's death, especially if she was childless.
But, sans Sati, the cremation ritual itself is fascinating, and we witnessed a full funeral ritual and cremation on the 'other side of the bridge' where only royalty (including the 11 murdered in 2001) and the rich are allowed
View from atop Swayambhunath
Buddhist prayer flags down to the Kathmandu Valley
to be burned. As per the custom, we watched as the eldest son, dressed in all white with head shaved, lit the fire in his father's mouth. This is done to ensure the door of heaven remains open. Conveniently, if the family does not have a son, then a son is 'hired' to perform the ritual. Although women and the wife were present in the preparation of the body, they quickly disappeared for most of the ritual. Hindu cremation is a strictly male affair. Afterwards the son spends 13 days not touching anyone, sleeps on the floor, doesn't eat spice, etc. Once the body is fully burnt, it is swept by the ghat workers into the Bagmati, which eventually flows to the holiest of rivers, the Ganges. Shockingly, while all this was taking place, local kids just below the ghats were 'fishing' with string and magnets in the riverbed in hopes of pulling up gold fillings, bits of jewelry, or anything else that may be swept off along with the bodies ashes.
Above the ghats just outside the temple (Westerners and non-Hindus not allowed inside), the stones are stained red from the annual animal sacrifices that still take place
Om Mani Padme Hum
Buddhist Mantra Stones (looking at them invokes the powerful benevolent attention and blessings of Chenrezig, the embodiment of compassion)
here. Kali - the god of Anger/Destruction/Sacrifice, apparently prefers the sacrifice of huge water buffalos, whose heads are left remaining in little bloody altars during the annual festivals.
After Pashupatinath, we walked to Bodhnath, where many Tibetan refugees live and work. It was equally amazing, and it is clear that Buddhism and Hinduism exist freely and often intermingledly in Nepal, which would be unheard of in India where religious lines are much more concrete.
All in all, Kathmandu and the surrounding valley is an incredible assault on the senses and the mind, as well as the gateway to Nepal's trekking/rafting/mountainbiking/adventure industries, and we can't wait to go back someday and give it the time it deserves.
Recommendations for Kathmandu:
The first thing you should do is go see the talk and slides by Chris Beale, a UK photographer and 20+ year Nepal expat, at the Kathmandu Guest House. Well worth the entry fee, and he is chock full of good recommendations and updates on the Maoist/political climate.
There are about a thousand guest houses and trekking agencies in Kathmandu. If you want to take the guesswork out of it, stay at the Kathmandu Guest House
Hanuman (the Monkey God)
Statue near Pashupatinath Temple
or Pilgrim's Guest House, and trek with guides from Himalayan Glacier or Wayfarers. Definitely don't trek with anyone who approaches you on the street.
Shona's trekking shop is great for cheap, good quality, fixed price trekking gear. It is run by an British guy and his Tibetan wife, who are very helpful.
K-Too Restaurant for excellent Momos and juicy steaks (a bit unsettling eating steak in a Hindu country though...)
Definitely go see the sights and make sure to spend at least 3 (preferably 5) days in Kathmandu to sightsee and plan your trek. Swayambunath Stupa, Pashupatinath Temple, Bagmati River (Arya) Ghats, and Bodhnath Stupa are all amazing. Unfortunately we didn't even have time to visit the Durbar Squares of Kathmandu, Bhaktapur and Patan, but we heard they are all also worth seeing.
Nightlife: Maya pub and Full Moon Bar
Food: K-Too for steak, Helena's for rooftop breakfast, Tashi Delek for Tibetan
There are more photos below