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Nepal – part IV (Flying with the Gods)

View of a temple in Kathmandu while eating lunch

View of a temple in Kathmandu while eating lunch

And so a final Nepal post and then on to Udaipur tomorrow.

In Nagarkot we stayed at a rather down-to-earth kind of hotel – comfortable and nothing over the top. As usual, we had friendly waiters for breakfast and dinner who joked around with us and asked us what kind of food we liked, where we were from, how long we were traveling. Here’s a view of their dining room – it doesn’t look quite as impressive here as it did there – but Photosynth (the panorama app I used) looks best when you view it in the application. Still, you get a bit of an impression.

Dining Room Club Himilaya

The waiter there in the yellow shirt was a funny guy. I had brought an avocado with me from Singapore. It had been sitting in my refrigerator and rather than throwing it away before leaving the apartment for the last time, I simply threw it into my bag. The second morning at the hotel, I took it out and brought it to breakfast, intending to eat it with some toast as I normally do for breakfast. Andreas was still getting dressed, so I waited for him, drinking a cup of coffee, the avocado placed simply on the table. But the fruit caused quite a comotion. The waiters started circling, asking what it was and where I had gotten it. I explained to them – only one of them had even heard of avocados. So when Andreas came, I cut it open and spread it onto toast, giving them most of it to try. Mixed reviews, some liked it and others didn’t. But even funnier was that they asked for the seed to plant it. We laughed and drew them a little diagram showing them how to hang it over a cup of water to grow the plant. Hopefully about 7 years from now I can go back and eat avocados there.

Day 3 in Nepal was more of the “nature day.” A two hour walk in between villages where we trotted along with cows, looking at the beautiful and simple farm houses there, the corn and chilies drying under the hot sun, chickens pecking away at corn. And of course the requisite patches of marijuana everywhere growing wild.

Corn drying under the hot sun

Corn drying under the hot sun

Village Farmhouse near Nagarkot

Village Farmhouse near Nagarkot

Cows having a stroll and a bite to eat

Cows having a stroll and a bite to eat

Wild Pot near Nagarkot

Wild Pot near Nagarkot

We also visited the famous city of Bhaktapur, enjoying how neat and clean it was. Walked around, grabbing some fried sweets along the way – fresh, hot jalebis, which I love to eat once in awhile. We were introduced to one of the village “Kumari Divas” – there are 9 living Kumaris in Nepal so this was one of them, if not *the* Kumari. We saw a potter about to fire up the most massive number of pots. Rather than doing it in a kiln, he had set up a huge space to fire them all at once. We were told that the guy was a bit of a local celebrity. He had appeared in a National Geographic some years back.

Portrait on a VERY HOT day

Portrait on a VERY HOT day

Yes, looking a little melted and frazzled with sunburned arms here. I think this will be the ONLY photo of me on this trip…maybe one more.

Village Kumari near Nagarkot

Village Kumari near Nagarkot

Massive Pot Firing

Massive Pot Firing

We weren’t even sure if we would be able to venture out on this third day. There had been warnings of a strike – people in Nepal are dissatisfied that they have no constitution. The rather new government has been writing one for the past two years but hasn’t been able to finish. To protest, many workers were going on strike. Our guide explained to us that the strike might be very violent – people throwing rocks at cars, etc. He said if that was happening, they wouldn’t be able to come. But they did in the end, and our car, similar to other cars we passed on the road was well labled – we were just tourists, and therefore a major source of revenue for the country. So we were safe even if we toured around during a strike. In the end, it didn’t affect us at all.

Tourists Only

Tourists Only

As the days in Nepal drew to a close, Andreas got more and more anxious about actually seeing some mountains. I mean, we *were* in Nepal. And we hadn’t trekked. Almost sacriligious…

So we cheated. On the last morning, we bought tickets to a mountain flight – a one hour flight in a tiny airplane to get a bit closer to the major mountains of Nepal. Unfortunately, because of the monsoon, most of the mountains were covered with clouds. But…we did manage to see Everest. Next time I guess the trick will be to do it on foot…meanwhile, we used the power of the Gods to get us there…

Flying with the Gods

Flying with the Gods

But do observe…we were in a PLANE. And there is Everest – eye to eye with us – same altitude. Quite impressive.

Mount Everest...as close as we got

Mount Everest...as close as we got

 

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Posted by on September 20, 2011 in Nepal, vacation

 

Nepal – part III (The Living Goddess)

Green Vistas around Nagarkot

Green Vistas around Nagarkot

As we drove up the mountain towards the hotel in Nagarkot at the end of day 2 in Nepal, it began to rain. It was a welcome relief after a hot and dusty day touring around in Katmandu and the area. We cracked the windows open and our guide suggested turning off the air conditioning, which we readily agreed to.  Once out of the city, the road up the mountain was a windy snaking thing that normally would have been more pleasant to drive up, what with the beautiful green vistas. But the traffic persisted even here where there were not so many cars, but still narrow roads and unpredictable traffic forcing the driver to honk as he drove around every single turn.  It was around 4 pm and our nerves were a little shot.

It had been a reasonably good day, although really hot at times. We started out in “downtown” Kathmandu touring Durbar Square, where I somehow had had the impression before getting there that we would find office buildings and a more modern environment. Nope. A partially restored palace, temples, mostly dirt streets and winding alleyways. Kathmandu and the surrounding cities we visited in general seemed to be in a fairly active state of restoration. Different country sponsors from around the globe (US, Austria, Germany to name a few), were sending money to help bring these ancient monuments back to life. Also, the country had learned that once restored (for instance the city of Bhaktapur, not far from Kathmandu, has been beautifully restored), it can actually charge tourists just to enter the city to look around. A fair trade for us.

We walked around the main square, ducking at one point into a little building to meet the “living goddess,” who apparently appeared in public upon command on a fairly regular basis. But…she refused to appear for us, despite pleas from a number of guides who wanted to show off the perfect beauty of one of the 9 living goddesses.  The goddess(es) is called the “Kumari Devi.” She is a young girl who lives in the building known as the Kumari Ghar, right beside Kathmandu’s Durbar Square.

Kumari Devi's Home

Kumari Devi's Home

From time immemorial the practice of worshipping an ordinary pre-pubescent girl as a source of supreme power has been an integral part of both Hinduism and Buddhism. (We managed to meet a village Kumari Devi the next day).

Our guide walked us through the old streets of Kathmandu, showing us where the hippies used to hang out smoking pot on the steps of the temples, where we saw Sadhus (holy men) greeting and posing with tourists (apparently some are “real” Sadhus and some are tourist attractions…and our guide couldn’t tell the difference, not that it really mattered), where beautifully painted rickshaws occasionally pulled a local from one side of the city to another, where copper pots and kettles and pans hung tempting me from little storefronts (i resisted), and where momos (Nepalese dumplings stuffed with meat and vegetables) were steamed in huge steamers and you could take a handful of them to go. We even ran across a scene being filmed for a local movie.

Andreas walking towards the main temple in Kathmandu

Andreas walking towards the main temple in Kathmandu

View from the top of one of the temples in Durbar Square, Kathmandu

View from the top of one of the temples in Durbar Square, Kathmandu

Getting up to this point was no problem. But getting down was the usual craziness for me because of my fear of heights….with stomach in my throat I somehow made it down the steps.

Real or Fake Sadhu wandering around Durbar Square, Kathmandu

Real or Fake Sadhu wandering around Durbar Square, Kathmandu

Painted Rickshaw in Durbar Square

Painted Rickshaw in Durbar Square

Copper pots being sold from a local store

Copper pots being sold from a local store

Steaming Momos (Nepalese Dumplings)

Steaming Momos (Nepalese Dumplings)

Local movie being filmed - actress looks bored

Local movie being filmed - actress looks bored

Next on the agenda was something we had reservations about seeing. We drove to one of the most famous active temples: Pashupatinath. It sat right next to the Bagmati river where cremation rites were held every day. This too, was a tourist attraction. Hawkers tried to sell us meditation bowls and other trinkets when we got out of the car. As we drew closer, the smell of burning flesh permeated the air. We got out on the far side of the river and listened to the guide as he explained the cremation ritual – who attended, when it was held, how it all worked. The time it took for a body to burn (about 3 hours), the amount of wood needed (I think he said about 200 kilos for an average body?). It was pretty jarring to see boys swimming casually in the river where chunks of burning wood and flesh were falling in just meters away.

We weren’t allowed into the temple (only Hindus allowed and our guide even told us stories of British Hindus not being allowed in because they weren’t wearing Nepalese clothing) , but were allowed a view through the doorway.

Powedered Colors for Ceremonies

Powdered Colors for Ceremonies

Cremation on the river

Cremation on the river

Golden Temple Entrance, near Kathmandu

Golden Temple Entrance, near Kathmandu

Indian/Napalese tourists all wanted photos in front of the temple. I just tried to peer inside to see what I wasn’t allowed to see.

 
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Posted by on September 20, 2011 in Nepal, vacation

 

Nepal – part II (Monkey Temple)

Monkey Temple at Sunset

Monkey Temple at Sunset

Hello there and Namaste.

Money problems aside, there we were in Nepal. Kathmandu. Not really sure what to expect. I’d heard stories about the country in advance from friends who had been there – some very positive, some very negative. One co-worker, who had spent considerable time in Nepal, was flying out from Singapore the very same day to join her Nepalese boyfriend in Goa. She liked Nepal better than India, though, and said she wished she were flying to Kathmandu rather than Goa. Another friend told me that the place (Kathmandu), was like Old Delhi, except dirtier and more crowded. So I had no idea what to expect. My former experience in Old Delhi had been indeed dirty and crowded, but at least at the time that hadn’t meant “bad.” It had meant “interesting and worth a closer look.”

The familiar scene at the airport – a swarm of taxi drivers and porters asking if they could help, where you were from (“Guten Tag!”), if you had your sightseeing tours already fixed because they could give it to you cheaper (“no thank you,” they mimicked us…). The weather was a bit cooler than Singapore, but only by a whisker. Without further ado (after our failed search for David), we were off to the hotel.  We made arrangements with our travel company (yeah, we had help planning and executing the vacation…we were out of time and needed to get it done one way or another), for a pick-up from our guide at 4 pm for some sightseeing. The first day would be low-key after the long flight: a couple hours of sights, then back to the hotel for dinner and sleep.

Our guide in Nepal – a very nice older man and a native of Kathmandu, had prepared a 3-day itinerary for us that was heavy on temples and palaces and a bit light on walking/trekking. (Nepal was supposed to be our “active and nature” location) But to be fair, with only 3 full days there and the fact that I didn’t want to spend the whole of that time doing a trek, there wasn’t much he could have done.  We convinced him to plan in at least one longer walk if not more.

“Namaskar” he greeted us with the traditional hands-in-prayer gesture and I asked what the difference between Namaste and Namaskar was. He explained that Namaskar was more commonly used in India (where he had studied), while Namaste was used more in Nepal. That may be, but further checking revealed that in addition Namaskar is the more formal version of the greeting.  In more formal translations, the literal meaning is something like: “The spirit in me respects the spirit in you,” or “the divinity in me bows to the divinity in you,” but is more commonly equivalent to “greetings” or “good day in modern day translations.

And we were off to our first temple. The monkey temple, our guide called it, although that is not its formal name, and it was not far from the main city of Katmandu.

We got a a second taste of the traffic in Katmandu, which I have to admit, was simply hellish. While I’d been cognizant of it on the way from the airport, I was still a bit shell-shocked from the experience with the visas and hadn’t paid that much attention. Every meter we drove was punctuated by honking horns – both from other drivers and our own, the jumps and side swerves to make it through huge potholes or get around them, and the cows and animals wandering freely in the street, helping to create their own traffic jams.

But eventually we arrived and began a short climb up the stairs to the temple. Tibetan prayer flags were strung through the whole area, monkeys scampered around stealing fruit, vendors sold the standard souvenirs, and trinkets, and for the locals (since usually tourists don’t buy such things), you could snack on cool cucumbers with chili or chucks of coconut.

Prayer flags waving in the breeze

Prayer flags waving in the breeze

Vendors selling goods near the monkey temple, Kathmandu

Vendors selling goods near the monkey temple, Kathmandu

We wandered around a bit, and then made the (CLOCKWISE! ONLY CLOCKWISE!) circle around the main temple area, pausing to look at the view from here or from there. Dogs were stretched out enjoying the breeze that came through at that height. Dark rooms within the various temples were lit with the tiny oil lamps that one could find everywhere that were offered in devotion and prayer to the various Hindu and Buddhist entities. These lamps used to burn ghee in them, but when I called them ghee lamps, the guide corrected me, telling me that ghee was too expensive these days and now they simply held oil.

At one point, we came across a Buddha with the star of David on his chest and I had to wonder at that. We learned later that it is a symbol for knowledge as well.

Dogs admiring the view from the top

Dogs admiring the view from the top

Oil lamps in the temple

Oil lamps in the temple

Buddha with star of David

Buddha with star of David

The guide’s phone rang at that point, and our search for David came to an end as the guide learned where he was staying. On the way back to the hotel, we stopped to find him and give him back what we owed him. At the hotel later, I ordered a Nepalese Thali (small portions of different dishes – daal, chicken, raita, etc.), all very nice. The next morning, we would see Kathmandu proper and then head up the hill to Nagarkot for three nights – a beautiful area about an hour outside Kathmandu with views of the mountains, even Everest if we were lucky.

 
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Posted by on September 19, 2011 in Nepal, vacation