November 2012 – Kathmandu felt further from home than anywhere I’d ever been.
It was fascinating.
The older parts of town are mazes of narrow winding streets lined with vendors and packed with Nepalis going about their daily lives. They are excellent for aimless wandering as long as you’re cool with dodging reckless motorbikes and frenzied taxis.
There are ancient buildings with intricate wood carvings around every corner and they still serve as homes and businesses today. Some have been restored. Some appear to be on the verge of collapse.
And they stand shoulder to shoulder with modern buildings from a variety of eras with the resulting contrast making the older structures all the more striking.
Tiny child-sized doorways open up off the streets into hidden courtyards. There are Hindu and Buddhist temples, shrines and stupas everywhere with many bearing the marks of both religions as they seem to have intermingled here in perfect harmony such that Buddhists celebrate Hindu holidays and Hindus return the favor. An inclusive and accepting approach to religion. What a novel concept.
I suppose it’s where India meets Tibet and that’s certainly reflected in the religion, the food, the music, the art and the faces of the people.
Kathmandu is beautiful in many ways. But it’s undoubtedly rough around the edges and, unlike many of the places I’ve visited on tins trip, I could not imagine living there. There are blackouts throughout the day (euphemistically referred to as load shedding) as Nepal is currently unable to generate enough power to meet its own needs. It is dusty and dirty. Every stretch of river that I saw running though town was choked with plastic bags and other trash and fed by any number of drainpipes with the foulest of water spilling out of them. Most of the roads are in terrible condition and if there are any traffic rules, they appear to be ignored entirely. And the air quality makes LA seem downright pristine by comparison.
Nepal may not posses much in the way of material wealth. In fact it’s poor as hell as evidenced by its extremely low positioning in virtually every ranking of national wealth and standards of living e.g. GDP per capita. However, it is sitting on a fortune in cultural and historical wealth with the Kathmandu Valley being the repository for much of it. And thus Kathmandu manages to fascinate and enchant notwithstanding the challenges noted above.
And I had the good fortune to visit during the festival of Tihar which means celebrations for five straight days and a buzz in the streets that felt similar to Xmas and New Years in the States. It is originally a Hindu festival but the Buddhists apparently celebrate it as well in yet another example of the live and let live commingling of religions. There were lights and candles everywhere and quite a few amazing mandalas (I think that is what they are called?) made with colored powders that are destined to wash away in a matter of days. But not before captivating everyone who passes by.
One evening was devoted to Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth. It seemed to be about the most jubilant evening of the festival with kids going store to store singing songs for a few rupees in what appeared to be a sort of Tihar trick or treat. Candles and designs and other offerings are placed in front of each home and business in order to guide Lakshmi in where she will presumably guarantee good fortunes for the coming year.
This very elaborate set up was in front of my hotel so I’m hoping that Lakshmi was sufficiently impressed to have paid Room 202 a visit that evening…
And, no, I don’t know what the giant inflatable Newari couple overlooking the sand drawing are supposed to represent. But I am envious of the man’s moustache. It’s tight and, of all goes according to plan, I’ll be sporting something similar during my time in India.
It’s a good thing the festival was so enjoyable because it wreaked havoc on the buses such that I was forced to remain in Kathmandu several days longer than planned. I couldn’t get a bus to Syabrubesi any sooner because they were all jammed with Nepalis traveling for the holidays. And if a bus ticket window in Nepal tells you a bus is sold out, you can rest assured that it is beyond sold out meaning every seat and every inch of the aisle will be occupied with a fair number of people riding the roof too.
One afternoon I wandered myself into having no idea where I was and so I paused near a small temple at an intersection and pulled out my map to find myself. I glanced across the street in search of a street sign, which are few and far between in Kathmandu, when something on the wall caught my eye. An Invader (aka Space Invader) mosaic! For those of you who don’t share my love of street art, Invader is one of the biggest street/urban artists out there.
He also is apparently one of the most well traveled. Check it out…
I absolutely love it when aimless wandering is rewarded with discoveries like that.
Another afternoon I ventured out to Swayambhunath, a holy site (which, in typical Nepali fashion, is revered by Hindus and Buddhist alike although I believe it’s primarily thought of as Tibetan Buddhist) perched atop a hill just outside of the city center which makes for an excellent view of the pollution choked metropolis at sunset. It is one of the oldest religious sites in Nepal and when something is old in Nepal, it’s seriously old. Apparently it was first used as holy site shortly after the year 400. Yeah. 400. Old. The site is architecturally dominated by a giant stupa…
But it is physically dominated by a huge pack of macaque monkeys that are supposedly holy because their line initially sprung from the head lice of a bodhisattva years ago. (“That’s Bodhi. They call him the Bodhisattva. He’s a modern savage. He’s a real searcher.”) Seems to me to be an unlikely source of holiness but what do I know? Holy or not, they scare me. They’re strong, aggressive, fast, filthy, hungry, horny and intemperate and lots of them were sporting some fairly repulsive wounds and weird deformities e.g. batteries swollen to the size of pomelos.
At one point a good 50 to 60 of them trampled en masse through the main circumambulation route around the stupa. They looked like a football team running out of the tunnel from the lockers and onto the gridiron. It was very unnerving as their speed and strength were on full display. If they wanted to go Connecticut chimpanzee on you, there would be little you could do to stop them. On the other hand, watching them leap around and scramble over the stupa and accompanying temples and statues with tremendous agility was impressive. Nevertheless, the visit confirmed for me what I have long known about myself… I’m not down with being too close to monkeys, even holy ones.
As for the food, well I’d unfortunately have to put Nepali cuisine dead last from among the countries I’ve visited thus far, Indian influences notwithstanding. I suspect some of it might have to do with the lack of quality ingredients as the ideas behind a few of the curries and samosas I had were solid. But the flavors just weren’t there. So for those keeping score the cuisine standings after Nepal probably go something like this from first to worst… Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Bali, Nepal. Nepal is also bringing up the rear in the beer standings despite the fact that I very much wanted to love a beer called Everest. Stay tuned for a post dealing exclusively with such rankings as I’m still quite enthusiastically conducting the necessary research. Food and beer failings aside, Nepal did manage to introduce me to a beverage known as the Hot Lemon with Honey…
It’s a really good name for the drink because that is exactly what it is and it is a perfect evening drink when you’re trying to kick a severe sinus infection which I acquired a mere 48 hours after touchdown in Kathmandu. The drink also plays well during trekking breaks when it’s chilly outside and you’re looking to avoid dehydrating yourself at altitude with coffee or tea. I have a feeling I’ll be stocking plenty of fresh lemons and honey at Chez Kevin upon my return to Venice.
I took a painfully slow cab ride out to Patan on my final afternoon in town. It was once an entirely separate city but Katmandu’s sprawl seems to have enveloped it such that it seems to me to be more of a neighborhood than a separate city these days. Hopefully I’m not offending any of my Patanese readers in saying so. Whatever it is, it has quite a few magnificent old buildings centered around its Durbar Square (not to be confused with Durbar Square in Kathmandu or Durbar Square in Bahktapur).
Regrettably I was battling the onset of giardia that afternoon and thus the visit wasn’t nearly as pleasant as I suspect it would have been without anaerobic flagellated protozoan parasites partying in my stomach. Had I been feeling a bit better, perhaps I would have been outgoing enough to don my Dhaka Topi and take the empty seat with these Newari gents near the square for a chat…
Maybe they could have explained to me what the giant couple featured above was all about and why they think Lakshmi would be more inclined to visit a business guarded by and man and woman who could acquit themselves admirably as professional wrestlers. And speaking of wrestlers… it’s on to Bahktapur!