Sunday, March 29, 2009

Jewels of the Kathmandu Valley

I'm regretting a little bit now going on so much about how wonderful it was in India, because now I'm afraid you wont believe me when I tell you that Nepal is even better. The first thing I had to do when I arrived in Kathmandu last weekend was adjust my meanness level - all of a sudden the hassle died down and people got so much nicer. My defensive stance was both unnecessary and unappreciated, and I quickly changed my attitude. The other thing you notice at once is the air quality. Kathmandu is one of the most polluted cities in the world, to the point that by the end of the first day my head was spinning and I was coughing even more than before. I soon started wearing a face mask around, as do many other people here, and that has helped a lot.

One thing that really surprised me is how many people seem to either hop up here for a three day visit during a short trip to India (what a waste, in my opinion) or fly over and just go trekking, missing out on the joys of the Nepali culture and people. I spent the week mostly doing day trips to other towns in the Kathmandu valley, and I was constantly surprised that I was the only foreigner around, or one of very few.

I spent a few days just hanging around Kathmandu, which is quite charming, if very touristy. The first day trip I did started in Pashupati, which is the Nepali equivalent of Varanasi. A big temple complex with cremation ghats next to an almost non-existent river, I witnessed closer than I wanted to the funeral rituals of the local people. Just when I was looking at a guy poking at a pile of burning straw and thinking I must have been mistaken because there was no way a person was in there, a charred leg appeared, and then the rest of the body followed. It seemed a little bit undignified, really, to burn bodies like that in full view of passers-by, but that's probably just my western cultural perspective talking.

I walked from there to Bodnath, which is a major center of Tibetan Buddhist exiles. I had great Tibetan food and wandered around the huge stupa and the gompas (monasteries) scattered around town. At one point I sat down for a rest and then heard lots of horns blowing and drums beating inside the gompa. I walked up to look inside, and two monks made me pour ceremonial water on my face and put a rock on my head (wish I understood why) before I could peer in the door, where I saw row upon row of maroon-clothed, shaven-headed monks sitting and chanting.

After this I went to Gokarna, where there is a major Hindu temple with an "A to Z" of Hindu gods in statues around the temple. There were several bored policemen guarding the temple, and by the time I got halfway through the statues, I had an entourage of about 6 people following me around, telling me about the gods and cracking jokes. I think they got more of a kick out of me than I did out of the temple!

The next day I visited Patan and Bungamati, both Newari villages that have beautiful, ornate courtyards and little temples and shrines scattered about. In Patan I went to the main temple in Durbar Square, and as I entered I saw a bloody horn on the ground and thought to myself, "this can't be good." I climbed the steep stairs and found a bunch of men sitting on the ground, chanting and drumming, and a buffalo lying on the ground in front of the altar. Don't ask me how they got the buffalo up the stairs. Fortunately there was enough of a wall of people that I didn't have to see full on what happened next, but I could see enough to realize they slit the buffalo's throat. I decided to leave, and when I walked past the temple later, a crowd was gathered around, and I saw the buffalo on the ground outside the temple, still whole but separated by about a foot from its head, and a guy supervising a giant blow torch that appeared to be searing the hide or cooking the buffalo whole... I'm not entirely sure what they were doing, but I did find out they only do this once a year, and I just happened to be lucky and witness it!

On several people's recommendations, I visited the touristy town of Bhaktapur, which was my least favorite place in Nepal. They charge one of the highest fees I've encountered in the subcontinent just for the privilege of walking around the town, and while you are walking around, you are constantly besieged by begging children, tour guides, and souvenir sellers. If anyone is considering going there, I would strongly recommend against it until they put that ticket money to better use - like building schools or providing food for those children I saw begging all day.

I got the heck out of there and went off to Nagarkot, in the hills at the edge of the Kathmandu Valley, where I spent a cold night and then hiked back down, enjoying a beautiful view of the Himalayas on the way. Half way through my hike I passed through a tiny farming village (where they grow wheat on terraces like rice!) and was stopped by a group of children who wanted to talk to me. Soon someone my age came over and convinced me to come to his house, and I went and was given tea and sat to talk for an hour. I think most of the village came over to stare at me and try to talk to me, from 2 year olds to 80 year olds. I was invited to come back and stay, and I was infinitely touched by the kindness and generosity of the Nepalis (this is just one of many examples this week). I did have to go, though, and I walked down to Sankhu, where there's an underwhelming temple, and on to Changu Narayan, where there's a more impressive temple.

The next couple of days were spent in Kathmandu, seeing some sights, hanging out with friends, and trying to plan my onward travel. Tomorrow Damien and I head to Pokhara for some trekking, so it'll be a few weeks before I check in again. There's so much more I could tell you about this week in Nepal, but I fear I've run on already, so if you want more, you'll have to ask when I see you. Anyway, I think Nepal might just be one of my favorite places in the whole world, and I don't say that lightly. If you get a chance to come here, I strongly recommend it.

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Adventure map for 2009...