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Published: March 9th 2014
"Would you like veggie or non-veg?", asked the air steward before each meal on my way to Nepal. Having previously been reduced to eating an air hostesses packed lunch or left starving because my preorded veggie meal had 'gone missing' I knew this was good omen for the rest of the trip, in terms of being able to eat at least. The rest of the flight was uneventful apart from a medical emergency with the call of 'is there's a doctor on board?' at which point I sat shrinking into my seat hoping they didn't check the passenger register and I wouldn't therefore have to explain that well, I wasn't that kind of doctor! I even managed to get three seats to myself, not that that meant i was able to sleep.. or at least not on the plane. Sat in the terminal at Delhi at 2am with a slow countdown to my 7am flight was a different matter - it took all my effort to stay awake. That's the down side of travelling alone - those times when you need someone to watch your bags, or in this case watch me! Petrified of falling asleep and missing my connecting flight
I got myself a large coffee, an even larger slice of chocolate brownie (it's possible i'm starting to take this 'i'm trekking for three weeks so can eat whatever i want' concept a little too far now :-)) and started to do laps of the airport terminal... slowly - the excitement of seeing the same shop every 10 minutes was almost too much to bare, but it did the trick and not quite soon enough i was getting on the small plane to kathmandu. The views on that flight were amazing - a backdrop of the snow capped himmalayan peaks rising above the cloud and as we started our descent, lush green stepped terraces cut into the hillside with villages or lone houses dotted around them. I was excited already!
It's been 4.5 years since I was last on the road on my own and in the build up to this trip i had been slightly nervous about whether i'd be able to do it again. Ok so i'm only away for 2 months this time not 18 but i was almost dancing around as I queued for my entry visa (an adventure in itself - there was a
man happy to take my fee but finding someone who could process a 3 month visa was a whole different challenge!! The 15 and 30 day queues fairly sped through processing.... still waiting!!!) when I realised those nerves had gone. That said I may have gone soft in the interim as I soon found myself checking into a private room, albeit in a basic hotel, with its own bathroom and balcony - definately not my normal dorm with a shared bathroom! I followed that up with booking a ticket on the tourist bus to Pokhara for a few days time - ohh the indignant cries I used to give to the tune of 'I didn't travel halfway round the world to sit on a bus full of foreigners' on previous trips. How times have changed. I blame the jet lag and the excuse for everything, which is fast runing out, of 'ahh well i'll be trekking for 3 weeks soooo.....'
The first task before sightseeing was sorting out my trekking permits - an entertaining experience which involved filling in a form, queuing to had over cash, and then... being asked to fill in another form with the same information.
I did wonder what i could have put on the first would have meant i didn't get the second... the style of my handwritting??? So permit number one sorted - yeayy! Now move to the next room and repeat :-( I can't complain though - the whole process only took about 30 mins, and then it was time to start exploring. The route took me back passed the military training ground where horse jumping seemed to be the current exercise, except there was less jumping and more chatting or walking horses round the jumps. Reaching the edge of the old town I had one last look at the map to get a rough sense of direction - there are no road name signs, or not ones I could read anyway, so the street names on the map were next to useless and it was more a case of remembering to go left at the second shrine and right at what might be a junction.. or could be an alley?
The streets of the old town are narrow with barely room for one line of traffic and there are no pavements so you just walk along the road edge whilst
hoping the car or moto moving inches away from you doesn't suddenly swerve - that said the 'kind' 'toot toot' from the drivers meant I was never surprised by them, I just am perhaps slightly more deaf than I was before! Every building has at least one shop, often the narrow alley way between being filled with more, a confusing array of shop signs hangs overhead and on the pavement outside or indeed on any empty surface sit more sellers, trading vegetables or other produce. There were shops trading in dried everything, from chilli's and beans to colourful pasta shapes and dried fish, fresh hunks of meat (the circling flies made me glad to be veggie), shoes, material, dresses hanging from first floor windows and more. Basically I spent a fantastic few hours getting lost in back streets and people watching before retreating to my balcony for a well deserved beer and sunset :-)
On my second morning I headed off to Durbar square in the old town - less of a square and more a space full of shrines, pidgeons, tourist stalls and people wanting to be my guide... Within 5 minutes I'd had as many people telling
me I needed a guide and that they were the one for the job. Given how easily I'd walked around elsewhere with no hassle that came as a bit of a shock so still feeling tired from the flight I headed off to the old royal palace that sits on the edge of the square - no guides here :-) A series of buildings around a number of courtyards, some with elaborately decorated sunken pools and baths others overlooked by ordinate carved windows and columns, this was the home of the royal family until the 1800's and is where the kings used to be crowned. The earliest parts date from the 16th century although it was added to on numerous occasions after that and it's entrance is guarded by the Hindu monkey god Hanuman. Back outside in the main square I was again fascinated with people watching - the national trust member in me shuddered but all around me the temples, which although many had been modified or restored over the years were several centuries old if not more, were covered with people sitting chatting, playing chess, selling vegetables, flowers, postcards etc. The only part I didn't really like was
Kumari Chowk, home of the living goddess - a prepubescent girl selected at a young age until she reaches puberty at which point she is pensioned off and another selected. As the central courtyard within the building she apparenlty rarely leaves began to fill with tourists the guides were insistent that she would appear briefly to us in the central of three first floor windows and that under no circumstances were we to take her photo.. Well I' don't know quite what I was expecting but a heavily made up, sad looking young girl just felt a bit.... well weird is an understatement.
Leaving the mayhem of Durbar Square behind I headed off towards Swayambu, apparently a 20 minute walk with directions in the guide book that simply said take the lane running northwest from Maru Ganesh shrine.... well needless to say I wasn't holding up too much hope of reaching it without a few wrong turns! The walk there was lovely though - only minutes from the square the streets were again narrow, local and I wasn't hassled once. Women selling more vegetables from the pavement, everything green and layed out in front of them, men wheeling bikes
overladen with fruit for sale... and finally the tell tale sign that I might be on the right track, shops selling Buddhist religious wares.. lots of them. Crossing the river I caught my first glimpse of the stupa to which I was headed, and then as the road wound upwards it disappeared from view completely until I found myself at the bottom of a very long and steep looking set of steps.... the path to holiness is never easy it seems! By that point I hooked up with John, another English guy (if in doubt of the way always look for another foreigner... and hope they know the way, failing that at least you've got company when you get lost!!) and chatting all the way up, passing numerous souvenir stalls and monkeys on the way, took my mind off the several hundred steps. Part of me was slightly worrying that if I was finding this tiring... ahem, blame the jet lag again!
The site itself was well worth the climb - the white dome of the stupa, surrounded at it's base with prayer wheels, and affixed by a spire of gold rings representing the 13 steps to enlightenment, with
the all seeing eyes on each side. Surrounding the main stupa itself are number of other smaller shrines and a small monastery where monks were busy keeping hundreds of small candles alight. In amongst all of that were the inevitable tourist stalls where you could by everything from Tibetan prayer flags to buddist statues, prayer beads and somewhat less religious tourist items, but with none of the hassle of the Durbar Square merchants. It was peaceful and the views over Kathmandu amazing, perfect for relaxing with a cup of (organic grown in Nepal - I love this country already!) coffee. As we headed off to begin the walk back down we came across a crowd of locals avidly watching what I can only describe as a mix of pool (in so much as there were two colours, 4 pots and a black... which in this case was red) and tiddly winks (in that you were pushing winks across the table rather than using cues and a ball). Three games later we thought we'd got the rules sussed... except then I got chatting to one of the locals and it seemed that there was a rule around if you got x
your opponent had to get 29 to win and ahhhh.... suddenly it wasn't so simple! Fascinating and addictive to watch though - as much as we tried to pull ourselves away it was a case of .... well, just one more game.
I'm now in Pokhara and having spent a day relaxing by the lake with a few guys I've met here, plus sorting out a last few minute bits, I'm on another 6am bus tomorrow... this time for the start of the Annapurna circuit. I've a small bet with myself in terms of how many days before I start cursing myself for being so daft... definitely as far as carrying my stuff is concerned if not the 2.5 weeks of walking as an idea, but either way I figure it'll be an adventure. I hope!
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