We arrived in Kathmandu on 17 October and emerged from the Tribhuvan International Airport at around 11pm into a world of chaos. Almost immediately I spot a man with a sign bearing our name, as he struggles amongst a crowd of men grasping similar signs. He is mildly excited to have found us so quickly, though I think we are the ones who found him.
He ushers us off to a waiting car where two men from our guesthouse wait. The sign holder stands blocking the closure of my door, expecting a tip. I provide a dollar (USD) and he asks for more, but my next lowest denomination is a $20. I lie and tell him I have no more money.
The drive is a phenomenal introduction to Nepal. The streets are dark this late and there is rubble everywhere, there is everything everywhere – cows, people, bricks, rubble, dogs, motorcycles, etc. The roads are in varying levels of disrepair – from ‘you might need a tank to drive on this’ to ‘completely impassable’. Somehow the little hyundai makes it on both.
We climb the guesthouse stairs tired from a long day to a room which is not what we’d booked but is the only one left, a room with 3 twin beds instead of a double. The kind guesthouse owner closes the door after showing us our room. A cockroach scurries across one of the beds. We sleep on the other two.
The morning reveals a much more pleasant place than our dark tired impressions of the night before. This is still no place you’d expect to end up on a midwestern family vacation, but it is nice enough and the family running the place is very nice. We soon come to realize this as the normal situation in nepal – the people always make the place.
We walk the streets of thamel and this is chaos. A tiny road, cows, people, cars, bikes, motorbikes, dogs, everything. Our first day we walk to durbar square in Kathmandu and take a walking tour of the city. we walk freak street, the hippie hangout of the 60s, still with some charm.
The next day we head to pashupatinath, one of the most holy hindu sites. Pashupatinath rests on the shores of the bagmati river, a sacred river which feeds into the ganges somewhere downstream. Pashupatinath is a large complex of temples and other monuments, and is particularly interesting due to the open-air cremations which take place on the pedestals lining the river. The ashes are swept into the sacred river.
This was a very interesting place, filled with sadhus – who we were told were mostly ‘fake sadhus’ who did not deprive themselves of much but instead posed for photos with tourists for money. We did see one man who is apparently a very well respected sadhu. He lifts objects with his penis, though we did not actually witness this act.
There were also many monkeys around. Both cows and monkeys are sacred in hinduism and while there were cows all over kathmandu and most of nepal, this is the only place we saw monkeys.
The following day we take a look at Boudhanath, a huge stupa sacred to tibetan bhuddists and the site of a large tibetan refugee population in Nepal. We take a cab to what looks like a normal kathmandu street and our cabbie points a general direction towards boudhanath. We follow a short entrance off the street to a large circular complex completely shielded from the view of the main street. In the center sits the very large and sacred stupa, topped with the peace eyes that are common in tibetan bhuddism. There is a walkway around the perimeter of the stupa – you only walk clockwise – and shops, temples and restaurants rounding the stupa. In the surrounding area there are many elaborate bhuddist monasteries which seem very out of place shuffled in among the small backstreets of this kathmandu suburb.
The following day we pack up our bags and take a cab out to Bhaktapur, the ancient capital of nepal and a much more relaxed, old and laid back town. We love this place and end up staying here for the next few nights before our scheduled flight to Bhutan. We luck into a room at the Shiva guesthouse right on the durbar square, although we have no view and are in a completely internal room. No worries this is a great place.
Bhaktapur is filled with squares and temples and little cobbled alleys with endless walking possibilities. To add to our experience, we are here during the main part of dasain, the most prominent hindu festival and the one time when hindus sacrifice. We see tens, maybe hundreds of goats sacrificed, decapitated with their heads charred, their intestines cleaned and hung from the front of cars, buses, trucks, bikes or any other transportation form, the fur charred off their bodies with straw and the remaining meat stewed and feasted upon. We also see some ducks and other animals sacrificed at the altars of many small temples strewn across this town. Additionally, this festival marks the end of the monsoon season and the start of the winter, and the kids fly kites above the cities to remind the gods that no more rain is needed. This is the kite runner, the kids on the rooftops fly kites in groups, battling. When one is clipped, a roar goes up from the rooftops and the kids on the streets go running to catch the falling kites. One obviously homeless boy entertains himself on the steps of the temple in the bhaktapur durbur square, a perhaps 100m long string and kite tied to his pinky finger. His hand waives like an orchestra conductor and the kite responds accordingly, flipping around with precision. The older teenagers collected nearby look on with amusement, the 18-20 year old males look on longingly, wishing it was still age appropriate for them to partake in the kiting. It is wondrous to watch.