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Published: December 22nd 2009
Monkeys rule at Swayambhunath Temple
Apologies now for the Abba-esque title, but I couldn't resist! On either side of Kathmandu, up in the hills, are pretty big stupas - Swayambhunath to the west and Bodnath (also known as Boudha) to the east. I decided to have a bit of a stupa-thon and do both in one day, so I set of from Thamel in the early morning cool to walk the few kilometres to Swayambhunath.
As with quite a lot of temples in this part of the world, Swayambhunath is also known as the monkey temple... an unimagniative moniker applied to any temple where monkeys hang out, and this temple does indeed have monkeys. They're a big scraggly and unkempt, but pleasant enough and they seemed to delight in climbing on religious icons and eating any devotional food left unattended. The stupa itself was being repaired when I visited, but it made an impressive site as I approached up a long set of stone steps from Kathmandu. Once up there, it's a curious place... looking a bit like the result of a temple crashing into a bric-a-brac stall, with shrines and prayer wheels intermingled with shops selling brass and bronze buddhas, grotesque wooden masks and
The impressive stupa at Bodnath
dolls on strings. There was also an old man teaching a group of Nepalese kids how to body pop... I remain puzzled by how that one fits into the scenario, but it seemed natural enough to all present. Sadly the view was clouded by haze, so after a few circles of the stupa I walked back down to Thamel to prepare for the afternoon's visit to Bodhnath.
I read that Bodhnath was one of the closest experiences you can get of Tibet without actually going there. As I was preparing to go to Tibet in just a few days, I saw Bodhnath as a bit of a taster. The journey there was a bit tortuous... I young rickshaw-wallah collared me outside my hotel and agreed to take me there for a reasonable price. I was intending to get a taxi, but as he offered I thought I'd take the scenic ride. Unfortunately it was a 45 minute ride... mostly uphill, so I spent half the journey round the back pushing the rickshaw, which was about three times too heavy for my scrawny little driver! Once there, the journey was well worth it. Unlike Swayambhunath, at Bodhnath the main draw
A mass drying at Potters' Square in Bhaktapur
is the stupa itself, which is big and bedecked in lines of prayer flags. The central gold pinnacle stood out from the greying sky, and the flags fluttered in the wind, contrasted against the stark white of the stupa. The most impressive thing about Bodhnath, however, is the constant stream of people encircling the giant base... many Tibetans, most spinning prayer wheels or clutching beads as they go. As a taste of Tibet, I was encouraged by the general feeling of friendliness and devotion, and left just after 4pm, when children leaving the local schools join the mass of tourists, pilgrims and monks in one concentrated movement around the stupa... a great experience.
The next day, my last in Kathmandu, I headed to the nearby town of Bhaktapur - home town of my trekking guide, Ratna. Bhaktapur is just a 30-minute bus ride from Kathmandu, and it offers an opportunity to see a well-preserved Nepalese town, where life has been lived in pretty much the same way for centuries. Grudgingly paying the Rs.750 fee to enter the old town (equivalent to the Taj Mahal... way, way too much), I walked to one of the main squares, Tachupal Tole. The
Bhaktapur's Nyatapola Temple
town is built on a nice scale, with narrow streets connecting squares and courtyards. Most of the important buildings have been restored - some extremely well, but the town retains a slightly dog-eared feel, and sadly there's more rubbish and general decay than I think there should be (where is all the entrance money going?!). Having said that, the two main public squares, Taumadhi Tole and Durbar Square (no good Nepalese town is without one!), are impressive and very well maintained. Taumadhi Tole is anchored by the tall, narrow Nayatapola Temple, whose steep steps are guarded by a tag-team of smiling men (think Super Mario Brothers), elephants and dragons. Durbar Square is bigger and grander, with the Royal Palace framing the northern edge. The 55 Window Palace, part of the palace complex, has some amazing carving... and lots of windows (something about the name told me I didn't need to count). It's another nice place to sit and watch a while in the shade, but it lacks the vibrancy of both Kathmandu and Patan, and I actually thought Taumadhi Tole had a bit more to it. But Bhaktapur is really more about exploring the backstreets, and doing so I found
lots of little alleys and courtyards. My favourite was Potters' Square, where women arrange the pots made by men in workshops lining the square. If only I'd wanted a terracotta Ganesh plant holder...
Returning to Kathmandu, I said my goodbyes to wi-fi and burgers, and prepared to venture into Tibet the following morning. I hope to post some Tibet blogs soon, but worryingly my memory card froze on one of the last days in Lhasa, so I've had to post it home to Dad (aka my technical support!) to see if the photos can be extracted! If not, everything from Shigatse onwards will be strictly words only!
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