Gods and Ghouls, Freaks and Fools


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Asia » Nepal » Kathmandu
May 15th 2009
Published: August 21st 2009
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Of all my many foibles, the one that foxes Debbie most is my approach to films.

In a nutshell, I don’t like to know anything about a movie before I see it.

Okay, the title’s always handy to avoid walking into the wrong theatre. And maybe I’ll risk a quick glance at the cast list, in order to gauge its quality and avoid any accidental exposure to Jennifer Love Hewitt. A guy’s only got so many lives, after all.

But that’s it. Any outline of genre, content, or plot is strictly verboten.

Too many times I’ve had pictures ruined by giveaways in the trailers, or plot twists betrayed by another’s careless aside.

Sure, it can make things a bit hit and miss, but every so often you stumble on a hidden gem. Years ago, as a teenager I decided to go to Aliens, only to find it sold-out. Not wanting to waste a perfectly good evening I decided to chance my luck in Cinema 2, and thus witnessed Crocodile Dundee on its very first day of UK release. Who knows, had Aliens not proved so popular, I might have ended up emigrating to LV426 instead, though I’m not sure whether the welcome would have been quite so friendly.

Shortly thereafter another rare victory was Home Alone, from the dear departed John Hughes. Hard to imagine now there was a time you’d never heard of MacAuley Culkin. Back in the nineties he was actually in several decent films, (Oh come on, now! Uncle Buck was a classic!) before retiring at the tender age of thirteen, younger even than female tennis stars manage. Maybe on reflection he should have gone on just a little longer, as they tend to end up with the likes of Andre Agassi and Enrique Iglesias whereas poor MacAuley got lumbered with Michael Jackson (allegedly... just in case his estate is feeling litigious!). Not before he’d popped up in Jacob’s Ladder, though, where he features as an impossibly cute 5 year old. Admittedly it’s hard to go wrong when your co-star is Tim Robbins, marking it out as another of my all-time picks. Moving to the present, I was recently impressed with In Bruges, despite the cute roll falling to Colin Farrell. Ideally, if I were you, I’d watch it In Kathmandu.

After 2 months in Nepal, we’d heard all about Kathmandu long before seeing it for ourselves, and let’s just say the reviews weren’t exactly glowing. Which made it all the more surprising when we finally rocked up to find a pleasant, lively and very beautiful city. It’s all a matter of expectations, I suppose. The Rockies have Aspen and Colorado Springs. The Alps: Antibes, Cannes, Monaco or St Tropez. And the Himalayas, well they have Kathmandu. Now if you’re used to Aspen or St Tropez, sure, it might come as a bit of a shock, but as third world cities go, I’d say it’s top notch.

For a start, it’s not that huge, and despite a fair bit of urban sprawl down the valley, the centre retains a good deal of original architecture, some of it stunning. It probably gets pipped by Hanoi, but it’s a damn site better than most emerging capitals. Which just goes to show, you can’t go by others’ opinions, you’ve really got to get out there and see for yourself, even if it means suffering the odd Waterworld like Denpasar, Guangzhou or dare I say it, Manchester.

From the bubbling, in-your-face travellers centre of Thamel, it’s only a short stroll through the Old town to the Newari Palaces of Durbar Square. The real joy, though, are the little temples in the tiny off-beat vibrant plazas, scattered all throughout the city. And who can fault a town that boasts a boulevard by the name of Freak Street? Stuff Woodstock! Forty years ago, if you were a real hippy, this is where the action was. So debauched was the scene that they were all rudely turfed out in the early 70s, but somehow the name has stuck.

Within ambitious walking distance are several other major attractions, or you could be brave (or should that read stupid) like us and cycle. Well we lived, didn’t we?

Pass a pleasant day at Patan, experience Hindu heaven at Pashupatinath, or visit the Buddhist behemoth at Bodnath Stupa, a great place to wile away an afternoon over an ice-cream or two.

Or there’s always the hike up to Swayambunath, the Monkey Temple.

My eye was caught here by a fine but modest gold edifice, the temple of Hariti, the goddess of smallpox.

This came as something of a surprise.

I was vaguely aware that the Hindus had gods for all sorts of things, but I hadn’t realised it went quite this far.

She was the first god I’d ever come across for which there was actually a cure. On reflection, if only we could come up with vaccines for the rest of them, I’m sure the world would be a much more peaceful and harmonious place.

One can only assume that Hariti was late for school the day they were giving out the godly roles.

‘Jeez, sorry guys, I got held up! The alarm didn’t go off, the car broke down, there was leaves on the line, and then, would you believe it, the dog ate my homework!’

‘This day of all days, Hariti?’

‘Yeah, but come on! It’s the first time all year! Gimme a break here! You’ve seen my Grade Point Averages... I’m sure you saved me something good!’

‘Hmmm. Well what exactly was it you were after?’

‘Well, you know, ideally one of the Big Three.

War.

Thunder.

Naturally Shiny Hair.

Any of those would do just fine. You know I’m good for it!’

‘Well yes, but as you can imagine, all three were in big demand. We had to let them all go quite some time ago. I’m afraid to have to tell you this young lady, but we’re really scraping the bottom of the barrel here. There’s only two left.’

‘Bummer!

Not a problem, though. I can handle anything you throw at me. Shit Happens after all.

So come on, Hit me!’

‘Well, okay, uh... it comes down to, as I say, just the two, take it or leave it...

... We’ve got Smallpox or Breakfast Television.’

Hariti didn’t miss a beat.

‘I’ll take Smallpox!’

If only Hariti had been a little later for school that day, Chris Evans might have got Smallpox, and the rest of us would have been spared forever from his cheesy four-eyed ways.

(*For the Australians amongst you, think Koshie in a red wig, laughing at his own jokes.

Actually don’t.

It’s too unpleasant.)

Hariti, in keeping with her talents, made a good fist of things all-told. Using her prodigious viral marketing skills, smallpox really caught on at first, but after the canning of her own cable show, The Big Smallpox, after just two episodes, her appeal rapidly waned, and these days she lives on only in a few secret laboratory test-tubes, alongside the likes of David Soul and Jan Michael Vincent.

More chillingly for the rest of us, and despite decades of intensive scientific research, there remains no known cure for Chris Evans.

Later, back in Kathmandu, I was shocked to discover there’s even a God of Toothache, a deity so puny that I personally vanquish him on a daily basis. That put a bit of a spring back into my step.

By now feeling a tad templed-out, we headed for the hills once more with a bus-ride up to Nagarkhot, 2 hours from the city. It’s traditionally known for its amazing Himalayan views, but unfortunately, since its heyday, the town has fallen victim to the urban sprawl below it. The views are now entirely obscured by haze and pollution, and you’re left gazing in wonder at the smog instead, safe in the knowledge you’ll soon be descending into it on a two day trek back to town, via the temples at Changi Narayan and Bhaktapur.

We went out with a bit of a whimper at the latter, as once again the reviews proved misleading. Far from an unspoilt paradise we found a grubby town full of shysters and scam-artists, a little corner of India transported to foreign lands. Or maybe we were just totally burned out by now.

Indeed, the best feature of Bhaktapur was the tourist brochure itself, a jewel of mangled English featuring many gems, including amongst my favourites:

‘A standee in this square is pygmised by the towering five-story pagoda.’

or the brutally honest

‘One can smell environments of the medieval period around the square.’

I can personally attest to that one!

Our time in Nepal was almost over, but the surprises just kept coming. I was stunned to pick up the Kathmandu Times and find Jade Goody’s death making front page news, the most convincing argument yet that globalisation might not be such a good thing. Countless young Nepalese girls are left haunted by her spirit, waking every morning unsure if they might be a minger.

On that bombshell, we decided to split town and head for the border, but elected en-route to take one last detour to Lumbini, the birthplace of the Buddha.

Given its auspicious heritage, Lumbini is decidedly low-key. Indeed for centuries it had fallen into total disuse, a ghost-town waiting for the day modern transportation brought in a trickle of pilgrims. Before you knew it they were flooding in from all sides, and a dusty shanty town sprang forth, neighbouring a massive construction zone for temple upon temple, one from each Buddhist community round the globe.

Give it a few hundred years and it might actually be very nice. I’m sure even the Taj Mahal didn’t look up to much when it was still being built. In the future they’ll come to marvel at the ancient steel-reinforced concrete construction technology, all built by humans, with not a robot in sight.

One or two of the temples were actually completed, and very fine they were too, albeit in a naff, avant-garde, supermarket-mall kind of way. Then again, I’m sure they said the same about St Peter’s Basilica way back in the day.

On arrival, you were presented with the rules of entry which were two-fold. Firstly no photos, which seems fair enough in a place of worship, and secondly, no defacing the pillars, which frankly would never even have occurred to me.

It seems I’m in a minority of one here, though, as every previous visitor considered the path to enlightenment involved carving ‘Prakash loves Sangita’ into the woodwork, several at it even now, before taking some nice photos of themselves standing in front of their handiwork.

I’ve no doubt the Buddha was sat up there somewhere smiling benignly down on them.

All in all he sounds like a bit of a funny bloke.

He was born a prince, but after a mid-life crisis elected to eschew his regal ways and take up the life of a Hindu ascetic. Unfortunately, given his lavish upbringing, he found the going rather hard, and before long pulled a Prince Edward and piked out, running home to his mummy. Rather than just poncing off to form a theatre group, though, the Buddha decided he’d continue his path, but tweak the rules by inventing a whole new religion of his own. This allowed him to be as pious as he pleased, but stuff down as many pies, cakes and crisps as he could handle while attempting to blank his mind, a feat still replicated by millions come Saturday night watching Stars In Their Eyes. His image is immortalised as a continuously contented chubby chap, so clearly he could handle quite a few. It’s the ancient equivalent of asking if it’s alright to stay in the marines, but still go home to the palace every night and cuddle your teddy. Still it all worked out for him in the end, and at least spared his family the blushes of Royal It’s A Knockout.

The prince of course went on to gain enlightenment, belatedly realising he could do with losing a few pounds, and found Nirvana. Ironically these days most youngsters learn of Nirvana chiefly through a short weedy white bloke who, despite being married to Mrs Love, went on to blow his own head off with a shotgun. As it happens, I’ve always been more of a Foo Fighters man, myself.

After all that wisdom, we curiously chose to leave town on the roof of the very next bus. Luckily, with the Buddha watching over us, there were to be no injuries this time. Before we knew it we were at the border and facing the long trip overland to Delhi. After three months on the subcontinent we must have become acclimatised, as India seemed suddenly not half as rough as we’d remembered.

As for Nepal, this reviewer gives it 5 stars.

But as we’ve already found, it’s not my opinion that really counts.

In truth, what you’ve got to do is get over here and try it out for yourself.

Just don’t forget to pack yourself a good stash of M&Ms and popcorn.


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22nd August 2009

" There is a green-eyed yellow idol to the North of Kathmandu..."- did you spot him? Cracking pictures by the way. Look forward to reading more. Cheers Steve, Em and the girl.

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