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Published: March 17th 2009
I've learned that, in many years, the first several Saturdays after the Tibetan New Year are spent going on pilgrimages (Saturday is the only day off in the Nepalese work week). This year, one of those Saturdays fell on March 14, which in 2008, was the day that many Tibetans in Tibet were killed during demonstrations/protests regarding China's rule of the country. (I can feel my chances of getting a visa for Tibet slipping away . . . ) A demonstration was planned in Nepal, at the Chinese Consulate in Kathmandu, for the 14th. As happened on March 10th, the Nepalese government was interested in ensuring that such a protest did not occur (although, reportedly, some of the police asked resident Tibetans why the 14th was a significant day for protest). Many people from the village had, however, planned a pilgrimage for that day, and had hired buses and drivers for the event. As we first began loading the buses, around 7:30/8 in the morning, the discussions with the Nepalese police, (and/or military - I can't really distinguish the uniforms), began. The initial position was that the group could not leave at all. After about an hour of discussions, which included elderly women being lifted out of the buses to plead their case before the police, it was agreed that the buses could leave, but not go to the desired location. Instead, we were told that we could go to a different site, outside of Kathmandu, and that, afterwards, we could go to the desired location, if time permitted. Of course, the police/government did not offer to pay for the extra fuel involved in this digression. This was contingent, also, on our buses accepting an escort from the police as far as the turn-off from the main road, which leads into Kathmandu. I'm still unsure why the police wouldn't agree to an escort to the turn-off for the desired location, which involved going into a national forest, which they could ensure we didn't leave until the protest was over. Perhaps because they did not want to drive that far, or perhaps simply it was because that was what the group wanted to do. It seems that a large amount of police attention was given to preventing a protest. At the same time, however, a whole section of the country was undergoing strikes for over a week that were impacting the rest of the country - raising produce prices, creating significant petrol shortages, stranding vehicles, etc., but I think often, the goal is to control what you can.
Thanks to the beauty of cell phones, we learned from a group that had left the village earlier, under the same conditions, that once they reached the first site, they had difficulty leaving, so were not sure they would be able to make it to the original destination. So after our police escort was over, there followed a debate as to whether we should go on to the police-recommended site, and risk getting stuck there for the day, or go back to the main road and try to get to the original destination, and risk getting sent home for the day. As there was concern that the police might have already sent the bus numbers on ahead to later checkpoints, we decided to continue to the police-recommended site (from what I could tell, the checkpoint issue was of particular concern to the bus drivers, who were Nepalese). On the way, we ran into another police checkpoint, where we were forced to wait about 15-20 minutes when the police again debated whether we could go forward. The only vehicles stopped by the police were those that they thought included Tibetans. (Apparently last year, in order to deter protests, they pulled over public buses near demonstration sites and made anyone of Tibetan origin get off the bus.) We arrived at the first site about an hour later - it was where I went several days ago, where the Ganesh status is growing out of the rock. Because we had just been there, we left the group while it visited the monastery and walked up to the top of the hill/mountain on which the monument is located for some great views.
Fortunately, we were able to leave when we wanted, and drove approximately 3 hours to the original destination, which is the top of a mountain/hill, with a holy site, that you access by driving through a national forest. The ride, albeit bumpy and on a road that made you pray for no oncoming traffic, was beautiful. Because of the haze, the view was not as extensive as it apparently has been in the past, but it was a great place to have lunch and sit for a few hours. We had to leave the park by 5, so were home by around 6. I never saw anything in the paper as to whether any demonstrations occurred that day or not. The Indian Idol concert, which featured the top three finishers from that contest, did go off though. (I saw part of the final episode and, wow, those guys have to work harder than the American contestants - because it is Bollywood style, they have to sing, dance and, to a greater extent, perform. And by the way, I'm getting addicted to Bollywood music!)
Yesterday, we drove approximately 2 hours (both with helmets!) to a town called Naragot, which is at the top of some hills/mountains, overlooking a beautiful valley, and is famed for its sunrises, during which you can sometimes see the farthest mountains, including Everest. The ride had some absolutely fantastic views. also some of the only rain I've seen since leaving home, although it was quite light and lasted less than half an hour. Thanks to travelling with a local skilled in negotiation, we got the "residents" rate at a hotel, with our meals thrown in as well, and a room with a great view from its balcony. On the day we arrived, we spent a few hours walking around the area, including off of the main road through some village areas. At night, looking into the valley, the whole area was dark, because of the power outages, other than a few small fires - it was a little like Brigadoon, a disappearing village. We managed to get up in plenty of time for the sunrise, in part, because I was a bit paranoid about it, I set the alarm about 40 minutes earlier than necessary and then hit snooze every 10 minutes. (Yes, to all of you who have lived with me, or even next door when I had the really loud alarm clock, I know how annoying that is.) While the haze did not clear enough to see all of the mountains, (a combination of the pollution and lack of significant rain for many months), the sunrise itself was beautiful and we did see more than is visible during the day. I still think I might have caught a glimpse of Everest, but I'm probably deluding myself.
On the way back from Naragot today, we stopped for several hours in Bhaktapur, the third city in the valley. As I'd been told, the area is less developed, and hence less crowded (and also charges a higher entrance fee for tourists). Some of the temples here were really impressive, not for their size, but for the detail of the work and the great preservation. We also spent time wandering down side streets. Here, the streets seemed narrower than those surrounding the squares in Patan and Kathmandu (in fact, when we left, we took an unexpected turn that found us in a passageway through which the motorcycle only barely fit). Because so much of life is conducted outdoors, particularly without electricity to light normally dark interiors, it sometimes felt like we were invading people's privacy by leaving the tourist area.
Finally, in response to several of your comments - yes, the Amazon Kindle is great! (The company should really give me some kind of endorsement for introducing their product to people around the world.) I have the first edition of the Kindle, and loaded it with books before leaving home. Currently, I'm working my way through Dumas' novelettes/novels about true crimes, a good mixture of history and "action story." The cold persists - it was gone for two days but has returned with a vengeance, although skipping several steps to go right to the part where its really difficult to breath. But life is great. While it seems like I've seen a lot of Nepal, I found a map today and realized that all my site-seeing has been within one region of the country. I'll be adding a second soon when I go trekking, but it makes me realize, first, I could spend the rest of my time here and still have more to see and second, my initial plans for places to go were, as people tried to warn me, much too ambitious. I have a feeling that this will not be my last visit to Nepal.
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