After attending morning prayers on the Ganges, a quick shower and breakfast at the hotel we hustle to the Varanasi airport for a 45 minute international flight to Kathmandu in Nepal (and setting our watches another 15 minutes ahead – really). The security gets very serious now. Everything gets x-rayed, all our handbags are opened, we get frisked at two security points, and our bags get checked again just before boarding. The flight leaves just a bit late and gives us what could have been even more spectacular views of the Himalayas if it weren’t for a fairly thick cloud layer. We descend into the bowl, surrounded by Himalayan foothills that is the Kathmandu Valley.
After settling in at our luxurious hotel we venture out into the city, a few hundred yards beyond our isolated pod. The difference from India is quite stark. As you can see, the streets are a bit more modern and the buildings are multilevel and better maintained. Poverty is not as evident (but still really there). The pollution is evident though. There are many more people wearing masks and our eyes are already a bit irritated. We are assured it is a lot better than is was.
Our city map makes us think we can walk to Durbar Square (one of two squares of the same name we discover). But, non-existent street signs and misleading distance scales prevents it. But the nearby non-tourist scene is a scene in itself.
Beautiful local beans, potatoes, garlic, oyster mushrooms, squash, etc. It is a bustling place around rush hour…people getting ready for dinner.
Nepal has no real industry, tourism being its main source of income. It has a 22 million population, 2 million of whom live in the small geography of Kathmandu. Part of the tourism income is from mountain summit climbers; $15,000 -20,000 permit fees are charged to each climber. Plus, you have to buy equipment and supplies, hire guides, sherpas, etc. Not a sport for the faint of heart, or the light of pocketbook. One of our fellow travelers had been on a trek between base camps here previously. That’s not as expensive as going for the summits, but plenty thrilling based on his stories (next trip, right Marsha?).
There is a real shortage of water in Nepal, and, as you can see, garbage is almost as large an issue here as in India.
This is a small country with China to the north (Tibet is a mere 75 km away) and India to the east, south and west. Kathmandu is at 1,500 ft. and nearly 10 degrees cooler than most of India. Rice is a major crop.
It claims eight of the 14 highest mountain peaks in the world, including the highest, Mt. Everest.
Nepal is 75% Hindu and 25% Buddhist. The outlook/philosophy is similar to India’s; people are happy with what they have.
Asian/Chinese faces are common now as are other Asian and Buddhist influences.
The next morning we head off to another World Heritage Site, the Boudhanath (“Lord of Wisdom”), one of the most important places of pilgrimage for Buddhists. The stupa is said to be a “jewel point in the center of a natural mandala, a store of sacred energy”.
…and the eyes of Buddha are upon you. There are eyes on two corners and a third eye of wisdom. The shrine has relics of Buddha.
[This part of Nepal has always been a backpacker paradise, and a free, open marijuana area...not sure how it is now, but you still spot a lot of hippie throw-backs].
The movie, “Little Buddha” was filmed here. It is considered a stairway to heaven by Buddhists and we note many monks, especially in Marsha-purple robes.
And a mask to avoid the pollution (not the incense) on a beautifully warm, blue-skied day.
Some of the finest hand-work we’ve seen yet. Indeed a place to do that last minute gift shopping. There are also schools of various Buddhist-related arts.
The paintings are beautiful and intricate…but where can we hang one??? We really do feel both relaxed and energized after this visit, and ready to move on.
It’s actually the Nepalese New Year today so the traffic is relatively light as we make our way past some government buildings. It’s a reminder that Nepal was very recently a constitutional monarchy which was dumped by the Maoists, who apparently are more reasonable here than in other places. Now there is a constitutional assembly while awaiting elections for real democracy. The current coalition government (with Maoists, Communists, etc.) will soon hold a democratic vote. The people are thrilled with the prospect. We shall see.
[You might remember that in 2001 the Crown Prince of Nepal went on a murderous rampage killing the King and nine of his family members before shooting himself (based on his disallowed love for an "outside" woman). The King's brother took over the throne as a beloved ruler, but stepped down three years later, allowing for this democratic course. The ex-King lives now as a (very wealthy via real estate) citizen. He was spotted by our group last night at our hotel for a New Years celebration].
As we head for Bhaktapur City we come across this local cremation site along the local river, a tributary of the Ganges. It is very moving to see the mourners place the body, remove the decorative gold shroud, circle in respect, and individually say goodby with flowers and other offerings before the pyre is set ablaze. It is said that the fires here take much longer to burn than those at Varanasi, and must be covered to avoid rain putting them out.
We arrive at this “living heritage” site displaying the Newari culture. It dates back to the early 7th century and is maintained beautifully. We also remember it’s New Years and the locals like to gather here, evidenced by the expanding crowds as we move closer to the center of Durbar Square.
A pagoda on the square looms above as the New Year crowds and celebrations thicken. Crammed in people and speeding motorbikes not a good mix.
So we take a lunch break at one of the scenic balcony restaurants surrounding the squares. Marsha (Moma as she’s known to the grand-kids) has to try the famous momos (spicy Nepalese dumplings, usually filled with chicken and/or vegetables). We also get some delicious vegetable fried rice and our first Everest beer – we tried the Gorke (Gurka) beer last night- both excellent lagers – today’s in welcome iced mugs as well.
The New Year crowd builds and builds and spills up the steps of the sky-scraping 5-level Siddhi Laxmi temple, an engineering marvel. We learn that the pagoda structure was invented in Nepal.
We head back for the bus for an afternoon drive several thousand feet up into the hills to visit an authentic farming village called Nadarcat. 90% of all Nepalese live in these kinds of villages. The ride and visit deserves its own post. Come along for a wild ride.