June 24-27, Kathmandu
Kathmandu is a city of 1.5 million people, hundreds of temples, 7 World Heritage Sites, and dozens of cultures smushed together in 1 semi-functioning city. Because there are so many sights, I decided to share stories from my time here in no particular order.
Located just off the side of the airport runway is the most important Hindu temple in Nepal. I went with my friend Carolyn, who I met at the hotel. After taking a $4 taxi ride and paying the hefty $10 entrance fee (which excluded the main temple which is only open to Hindus), we wandered to the riverfront.
Pashupatinath is located on a tributary of the Ganges, so everyone in Nepal wants to be cremated there. Hindu cremations happen 2-3 hours after the person dies, so it is kind of hit or miss if you see one.
There happened to be a funeral for a Brahmin going on in front of the temple. The funeral occurred on the temple side of the river next to a stone bridge. We tried to get a viewing spot on the bridge, but people and cows were blocking the way, so we got a spot on a viewing platform on the opposite side of the river. In total about 200 people were watching the cremation. They included a few groups of European tourists grasping large cameras, Hindu pilgrims in saris , and the mysterious paint-clad sadhus.
The body, covered in a white sheet and orange flowers was placed on a stone platform called a ghat. 10 feet away from the body were 2 musicians, a drummer and cymbals player. The drum beat constantly.
The family was gathered behind moaning uncontrollably, their tears clearly visible from the other side of the small river. Occasionally, someone would collapse on the ground in sadness. Once the body was prepared, the family members one by one circled the body before placing his or her hands on the face of the corpse. One of the women, unable to cope with the situation could not walk and had to be dragged around by another family member. After the last member finished circling the body, 3 men then removed the flowers and placed wood on top of the corpse. Finally, they lit one piece on fire and touched the flame to the corpse while the cymbals crashed in a great final crescendo.
All 200 observers stood in awe as the pile of wood, cloth, and flesh turned into a huge flame before simmering down to a short black ball of smoke. In 2-3 hours, there would be nothing left except ash, which would then be dumped into the river.
Thamel is the center of tourism in Kathmandu. Virtually every tourist in Nepal stays here for at least a little bit. Entering for the first time was a sensory overload of sights, sounds, and smells. Kathmandu only had 1.5 million people, but I probably saw all 1.5 million of them on the streets of Thamel. The narrow streets- 1 1/2 lanes wide- were packed with equally narrow shops selling Tibetan thangka paintings, pashminas, Buddha statues, wooden masks, and other curiosities. Most stores (except the high end ones) had a young man out in front hawking all who pass. Additionally, there were bicycle rickshaw drivers and other wandering people selling (non-hygienic) flutes, tiger balm, weed, or anything else they could think of. The restaurants here ranged from every cuisine: Nepali, Newari, Tibetan, Italian, Thai, Cajun, Israeli, and so on. Because the streets were so narrow, crowded and poorly maintained, the steady stream of cars and motorbikes honked in a never-ending soundtrack.
While at first I was overwhelmed by the humanity and the dirtiness of Thamel (you would think that the government of Nepal would be able to pave it’s most visited streets), I eventually got used to the pace of life here and learned the geography. Every trip outside, no matter how short, became a life-threatening yet interesting adventure.
I stayed in the Khagsar Guest House The staff was great and they had free wifi. It was also basic enough to force me to get outside every day- the perfect combination for a hotel.
Every day, the manager of the hotel, Raj, and I would get tea in his office for 30 minutes or so. We really didn’t talk about much- actually it was 90% silence, but I appreciate the gesture. He helped organize my Everest trek.
Durbar Square x3:
The Kathmandu Valley is home to 3 medieval city states: Kathmandu, Patan, and Bhaktapur. Each city has a palace square (Durbar Square), which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. These Durbar squares are crowded with temples, palaces, golden statues, and a living goddess. Each of the 3 Royal palaces have been converted to a museum of some sort- the Kathmandu one is the largest and describes the history of the Royal family. The Patan one is a well maintained art-museum.
While the Durbar squares themselves are very similar, the backstreets set them apart. Kathmandu was the busiest and most touristy. It was bordered by Freak Street, which used to be the center of hippie travel in search of the exotic. Patan, the valley’s center for craftwork, was bordered by dozens of quiet courtyards featuring the country’s best thangka artists and metal statue makers. All the crafts were still done on a small scale. Bhaktapur, was the best preserved of the three and didn’t allow any motorized traffic in it’s city limits. It was therefore called a living museum since the people here are living in conditions closest to those during medieval times (not a good thing for progress and cleanliness but great for preservation). Bhaktapur also had the world’s best yoghurt called Royal Curd. Trust me, it tasted better than it sounds.
Swayambhunath (Monkey Temple)
The Monkey Temple was located on a hill just a 30 minute walk from Thamel. After reaching the main gate, it was about 600 steps up to the stupa. Hundreds on monkeys patrol the steps searching for loose cameras and food. The keys are to avoid looking the monkeys in the eye and keep cameras away because the monkeys can and will snatch them.
The reward was a beautiful golden stupa studded in Tibetan prayer flags and the best view of the city, especially at sunset. I went here on my first evening in Kathmandu– absolutely magical.
Boudha to Gokarna:
The largest stupa in the world, Boudha, was also located in Kathmandu. The locals called it Asia’s largest stupa, but lets be real, South America isn’t going to have a larger Buddhist stupa than Asia. Here hundreds of Tibetans circled around the giant stupa in a clockwise fashion. That said, it felt too touristy for me. The stupa was located in a courtyard surrounded by souvenir shops and rooftop cafe restaurants that don’t fit the scene (I went to a Spanish tapas place with Carolyn from the hotel).
The best part of the visit was the 3 mile walk through the nearby neighborhoods to Gorkana, a Hindu temple. While places like Thamel felt incredibly busy, this neighborhood was relaxed and quiet- maybe because a lot of the people who live here work in Thamel. Additionally, the people were much friendlier than in Thamel. We stopped at a Buddhist nunnery and played with some goats before ascending a hill. At the top of the hill, a couple of small kids played with me and tried to grab my legs and drag me somewhere. I could only imagine what would happen if this were to occur in the US.
We then walked through a forest on top of the hill before descending down to the riverside temple. While the temple wasn’t all that interesting comparatively, the walk was a great way to see a not-touristy side of Kathmandu and to breathe some fresh air just outside of one of the world’s most polluted cities.