Heading for the Himalaya

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Getting Settled In

From the air, Kathmandu appears as a mishmash of colorful buildings crowded into a valley. The pinks, blues and greens of the buildings providing splashes color in the otherwise tan cityscape.  Tribhuvan International Airport is by far one of the smallest international airports I have ever landed at. Without jetways the passenger loading and unloading is done directly from the tarmac. On the way to immigration, signs telling interesting facts about Nepal hung from the ceiling. My favorite: Nepal is home to the tallest mountains and the shortest people in the world. After completing my visa application, waiting in line and paying my $25 for my visa on demand, I dove into my first experience of Nepal.

True to the guidebook’s promises, a barrage of taxi drivers were vying for my business. All I really wanted to do was find an ATM so that I would have Nepali Rupees. Not that having rupees was completely necessary, as most people in Nepal will take US Dollars instead. The first two people that approached me were less than helpful. A third guy, sitting along the windows, pointed me in the direction of the ATM. He too was a taxi driver, and since he was kind enough to help me out and was going to charge me $2 less than his competitors, I accepted his offer.

As the rickety white taxi car pulled up, I almost immediately began to doubt my choice. Still, I got in and off we went into the Kathmandu traffic. Kathmandu traffic was a whole new experience for me. Traffic fills the streets in a chaos of each car and motorbike attempting to find the least bumpy spot of the road, which often means the center or the opposite side of the road. Cars seemingly go every which way and there is a distinct lack of traffic lights. At some of the more major intersections, police are stationed to help provide some sense of order in traffic flow. Honking as communication is necessary, but far less pervasive than in India.

Between two calls to the Shechen Guest house for directions, the driver assured me that he knew where it was just couldn’t remember exactly. Those rea not very reassuring. Eventually, after a trip up a slightly paved street, asking yet another person where Shechen Guest House was, a U-turn, and a trip down a small alley, we arrived at Shechen Guest House.

From the outside, the guest house was picture perfect. The rooms looked out on a lush green courtyard and the brightly colored side of the temple from the attached monastery with strands of prayer flags fluttering in the light breeze. Inside, the drab room with paint that had seen better days and the musty smell was less appealing. The people were friendly, the location was very near the stupa and the proceeds go to the monastery, so that made the room tolerable.

Anxious to explore, I struck out in the direction of Bhoudanath to see one of the largest spherical stupas in Nepal. A short walk and I had my first sight of the white dome, topped with a gold square painted with Buddha eyes on each side, and a gold spire reaching into the clear blue sky. Prayer flags fluttering in long strands streaming from the spire to the four corners. Circling the stupa, spinning the prayer wheels and counting “om mani padme hums” on their malas, were dozens of devout Himalayan Buddhists. Some monks in their deep maroon robes, old women dressed in traditional Nepali fabrics, and people wearing every day clothes made up the worshipers. At the Hindu temple at the front, people were making offerings. An old woman in her maroon robe was stationed outside the shrine door. She called me over and gave me a blessing, for which I gave her my only small rupee bill (50 NPR). I climbed up on the stupa platform, spinning prayer wheels and taking pictures. Seeing the stupa was just what I had hoped it would be.

Bhoudanatha Stupa

Bhoudanatha Stupa

Bhouda is home to several monestaries and the energy of the area reflects their presence. Chanting, drumbs banging, cymbals crashing and horns blowing were omnipresent as each monestary had a different schedule for their prayer sessions. Around the stupa, recordings of “Om Mani Padme Hum” chants played continuously. Collectively it was actually quite soothing.

Kathmandu is a city that is too large for its britches. Approximately 3.5 million inhabitants live in this city with an infrastructure less than adequate to support that size of a population. Most streets are almost paved, at least in the centeral part of Kathmandu. Going out to the edges of the city, such as in Bhouda where I was staying, the roads are a combination of remnants of paving and dirt. Electricity supply is far greater than the demand, requiring rolling balckouts at least once if not twice a day. The rolling blackouts are a part of life, as evidenced by the schedule posted in the lobby of the guest house. Which, if you miss that sign, can lend to a bit of confusion upon returning to your room and finding that there is no power.

Touring Kathmandu

Nepal is just starting to tap into the tourist market. Almost a reflection of the city itself, the idea of providing quality service as part of tourism has not completely been realized. Instead, key tourism destinations generally charge a hefty price to all foreign (non SAARC (South Asian Agreement for Regional Cooperation)) tourists. In one day of sightseeing, the total entrance fees that I paid was 2600 NPR (or $26). The perception that all tourists have money is also clear in the phrase “150 rupee not big money to you” (or 200 or 300 rupee). By the end of my first day of sightseeing this attitude toward me as a foreign tourist had me feeling overwhelmed and frustrated.

My one day of sightseeing was full of the must see locations such as Pashupatinath, Swayanbunath Stupa, Patan Durbar Square and Kathmandu Durbar Square. I do belive that my trip would not have been complete without seeing these sites. The most effective way to see the sites is to hire a driver for the day. Hiring a driver was where fate smiled on me. Shankar, a man with a friendly face and demeanor to match, picked me up promptly at 8 am. Piling into his white taxi car, off I went to see Kathmandu.

On the way to our first destination, Pashupatinath, Shankar and I talked about Himalayan Buddhism and other topics of interest. He gave me history on the city and the area. About the three kingdoms, Kathmandu, Bhaktapur and Patan, that were joined together to form Nepal. He also explained how a long time ago the Kathmand valley was a lake that a king was told to drain so that the kingdom could be established there. Finally, he also gave me advice about the guides at the tourist locations. Because Shankar doesn’t have a tourism license, he is not allowed to walk around with me and explain the temples and the practices. He strongly advised to get a price from the guide. Advice I should have heeded more stringently.

Pashupatinath is a large Hindu complex known primarily for the cremation ghats. After Shankar showed me some of the smaller outlying temples, including one where I recieved a couple of blessings. One being a yellow many stranded string tied on to my right wrist while a prayer was being said. Another was a tikka on my forehead. The gentleman at the temple explained about the Shivalinga (primary symbol of Hindu worship) and the four faces on each side of the pillar in the center of the Shivalinga. Depending on your troubles, you would pray to the appropriate face.

After that small temple, we were approached by a guide. Later Shankar told me that the guide was being very beligerant about the fact that Shankar was telling me about the place and that he would report him if he didn’t stop. To my face the guide was friendly. And when I asked about a price he said to pay “whatever made me happy”. Herein lies the mistake that I made. Being a trusting person coming from a fixed price system that hates to barter, I was not insistent about a price. Off I went with the guide for my hour or so tour.

The guide provided a wealth of information about the rituals and the history of the place. The primary ritual he explained to me about was the beliefs around death and cremation in the Hindu faith. When a person dies, the body is cremated and the ashes are cast into the Bagmatti, the source of the Ganges river. The rituals go beyond just a cremation. The body is wrapped first in white cloth  (for purity) and then gold cloth. The sons carry the body to the river for purification on a bamboo platform. The body is blessed and the gold cloth is removed, because our bodies enter the world naked they should also leave the world naked. After the body is prepared, it is carried to the cremation platform and placed on the pyre of wood that is waiting. The eldest son is responsible for placing the fire in the mouth. What this means is that the eldest son circles the body three times with a lit offering and then places it in the mouth of their parent. Only sons are allowed to perform this part, if the person had no sons thenthe attendant for the platform would perform this duty. After the fire is placed in the mouth, the body is covered with straw and the cremation begins. With the body are gold placed in the mouth to wish the spirit wealth in the next life and bags of rice to wish that the spirit never gets hungry in the next life.

The rituals extend beyond the cremation. After the ceremony, the members of the family perform a ritual to be purified. The sons will shave their head and face, save one lock of hair, and will wear only white for the next year. Rituals to honor the parent are performed once every 15 days for the first 2 months, then once a month for the rest of the year. On the far bank of the Bagmati from the cremation platforms, people were performing these rituals. In addition, for the year the sons are only allowed to eat pure foods and are prohibited from eating items such as garlic or anything that has been dried.

Our tour continued to the far side of the river where many stupas and shrines had been built. Many of the shrines are home to holy men with their continual chanting, smoking of cannabis and offering tikkas to tourists. My guide lead me to one of the “official” group of holy men (which in retrospect I suspect is a group that is more for show) where I received another tikka blessing by three men with their faces painted and wild hair (at a cost of 300 NPR ($3)). My guide also showed me the reflecting shrines. A series of 11 shrines built in perfect alignment so as to appear like a reflecting mirror of shrines. The king built these shrines in the hope of finally bearing a child. 11 is a key number because the 11th incarnation of Rama is the one for fertility and child bearing. Also from the far side of the river, we were able to watch the whole cremation process from purification to lighting the pyre.

At the end of the tour came time to pay. Apparently whatever my guide felt would make me happy was 4000 NPR ($40). 4000 NPR is what Shankar was charging me for the whole day of taxi service. I told him that I could only afford to pay 1000 NPR ($10) (in reality I was thinking that it would only be 500 NPR) and even paying 1000 meant that I would not be able to pay entrance fees or buy souvineirs. Yes, my emotions got the best of me and tears flooded to my eyes. Clearly, I was not happy. He had told me before that if they make someone cry, then they will cry the rest of their life. When he offered me to take my money back so that I wouldn’t cry, I should have taken it. As I walked to the Shankar could read my face and knew what had happened.

Leaving Pashupatinath, we headed for Swayanbunath, one of the largest stupas in the world perched atop a hill overlooking Kathmandu. Swayanbunath is also known as Monkey Temple, so named for the many monkeys hanging about searching for food. Visitors need to be wary that they don’t hold their cameras or purses in a way that a monkey can snatch them thinking they are food. Shankar was able to walk around with me here and explain about the temple. We walked around the stupa admiring the white plaster, the gold square atop painted with Buddha eyes on each side and the spire reaching up into the blue sky. Prayer flags streamed from the top of the spire to all four corners, their red, yellow, blue, green and white flags representing the elements and blowing in the breeze to carry the prayers off into the heavens. Walking around Swaynbunath was a terrific respite from my experience at Pashupatinath and helped restore my spirit for more sightseeing.

In Nepal, Hinduism and Buddhism peacefully co-exist at many of the temple complexes. Some people believe that Buddha is an incarnation of Rama, facilitating the existence of the two religions hand in hand. At Swayanbunath, several Hindus were making offerings at their shrine while Buddhists circumambulated the stupa spinning the prayers wills and reciting “om mani padme hum.

For lunch we headed to Patan Durbar. Durbar is the term for a square where the royal palace is located. On our way in, we stopped at a fruit stand for Shankar to purchase some fruit, a nice assortment of oranges, apples and bananas. Fruits are sold by weight, as measured by a balance scale with a basket on one side and weights on the other. The restaurant was hidden away in a courtyard just off of the main square. While waiting for my food, Shankar shared his fruit and explained that he can’t take food that isn’t pure while he is respecting his mother’s spirit since she had passed away 40 days prior. Outside of the home the only guarantee for pure food is fruit.

Patan Durbar square is filled with a variety of temples adorned with intricate wood carvings. Again, being a tourist location, Shankar was technically not able to tell me about the temples, so I carried my tour guide book with me and read some of the information at each temple. Wandering away from the square, we visited a variety of smaller temples tucked away down narrow alleys in small courtyard areas. Looking at the amazing brick and wood architecture was as interesting as seeing the temples. The cobblestone alleys were flanked on both sides with mud brick buildings that look as though they have been standing there for centuries. The ornate carvings on the window sills and eaves of the roof mimicking the carvings of the temples.

The last stop for the day was Kathmandu Durbar Square and an ATM as I was quickly going through my rupees. On our way there I made the comment that if I couldn’t find an ATM then I would not have enough money to pay the entrance fee and to eat. He told me that if I couldn’t find money, then I could come eat with him and his family in his home. I happily agreed to that prospect. When we arrived at Durbar Square, he dropped me off since no parking was available and pointed to the entrance and where the ATMs were on the other side of the street. Agreeing to meet at 5 PM, I wearily headed off for my last sight of the day.

I’ve decided that whoever designed the game Frogger had clearly experienced trying to cross the road in Kathmandu. The key is to hold your hand out as cars and motorbikes approach, kindly asking that they stop for you. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. Using the protection of some locals to cross the street, I made it across and back successfully.

Almost immediately after paying my entrance fee, I was approached by a person wanting to be my guide. I told him that I had my guidebook and that I would be fine. He blithely replied that the book was written by foreigner and wouldn’t tell me all I needed to know. I simply walked on. A little further on, another want-to-be guide approached me. He told me that the Kumari Bahal (House) was open and did I want a guide. Again I declined and headed for the house. Kumari Devi is a living goddess. A young girl is selected  based on 32 stringent criteria to serve as the goddess until she reaches puberty and becomes impure. At the appointed time, the Kumari Devi approaches the second floor window of her house and looks down at the chowk (courtyard) full of visitors hoping to catch a glance of the living goddess. Pictures are not allowed and she will not make an appearance until is confirmed that all visitors have put away their cameras.

Filing out of the courtyard with the throng of visitors and being accosted by women trying to sell postcards, I headed for the main square. At this point of the day all the temples I had seen blended together in my mind. I stood and looked in my guide book for details and another man struck up a conversation with me as he pointed out the big bell used to call people together for important announcements, the dancing platform and the hippie temple. His initial statement of wanting to just talk for free was after a time followed with an offer for tea and to talk more. Out of a combination of wariness and only having a limited amount of time, I declined and walked away.

Attempting to escape the continual offers for guides and to buy souvenirs, I climbed the stairs to the top of one of the temples. Unfortunately, at the top was a gentleman who I was hoping was also just there to look down on the sights of the square. I was wrong. He too wanted to be a guide and it had been a very unlucky day for him as far as helping tourists. He too struck up a conversation, offering to be my guide. During this conversation I adamantly explained to him how tired I was of being treated like I had money just because I was a tourist and that $1.50 or $2 or $3 adds up to be big money. I told him that for them to look at tourists like they have money is the same for me to look at all Nepali like they are not kind and just want to take advantage of foreigners. He persisted in spoiling my attempt at some respite from the crowds so I climbed down the stairs and headed toward where I was supposed to meet Shankar, hoping that he would be there earlier than our appointed time.

The best and most special part of my day was the very last. Shankar repeated his offer for me to join him in his home for dinner and to meet his family. I gratefully accepted this generous offer. His simple home is on the third story of a typically narrow Nepali building, tucked off the main road. Only his wife was home when we arrived, as his daughter and nephew were off collecting his son from school. His wife handled the surprise gracefully and then insisted on making a second curry because I was there, despite my insistence to not do anything special. When the children arrived, they were definitely surprised. The boys were quiet and shy, hiding behind Shankar or his daughter as much as possible and whispering the questions they wanted to ask. Swastika, his daughter, is learning English in school and is quite proficient in it. While she was shy at first, as the evening wore on she began asking questions about my likes “do you like pets?”, “do you like birds?”, “do you like to camp?” among other questions. While she and I chatted, Shankar, his cousin (who had arrived while we were eating) and wife tried to make sense of my life since as a single, 43-year-old, traveling and living alone, I don’t fit into any Nepalese paradigm. I couldn’t have asked for a better way to end a very long day.

Some Really Tall Mountains

The key when flying into Kathmandu is to get a seat on the right-hand side of the airplane. As the plane approaches Kathmandu, passengers on the right side of the plane get the best view of the Himalaya. Coming from a place with mountains, the height of the Himalaya is truly impressive.

No trip to Nepal would be complete without seeing Mt. Everest. Since I didn’t have the time, training or inclination to even trek to the base camp, I opted for the easier approach of taking a Mountain Flight. Most of the small Nepali airlines offer 2 or 3 Mountain Flights each day. Departing early in the morning, when the skies are the clearest and the views are the best, the planes fly down the mountain range toward Mt. Everest and make a turn and come back up to Kathmandu. Six- to 20-seater planes are used so that all the passengers have a window seat.

My flight was on Simrik Airlines. Nothing instills confidence like the manager of the airline giving a small talk before we boarded about how Nepali airlines have been banned from flying into the European Union citing their poor safety record. With that in mind, the 18 of us boarded the vintage 1900C Airliner. I’m sure not everyone appreciated the low cabin height, vintage upholstery, seat belt buckles that required lifting the metal buckle to actually insert the tab into the buckle or the 3 air sickness bags in the seat pocket; however, I thought it was awesome.

Rattling down the runway we lifted into the clear blue skies. Heading down the Himalayan range, the stewardess would walk down the plane and point out key mountains as we went by. As we neared the turn, everyone had a chance to walk up to the cockpit to see Mt. Everest head on and take pictures. Karma, the agent that had booked my flight, ensured that I was on the best side of the plane. While I didn’t have great views on the way out, I was lucky to be on the side closest to the Himalaya on the return trip, offering much better views of all the peaks on the way back to Kathmandu.

Mount Everest from the air.

Mount Everest from the air.

To be honest, as mountains go, Sagarmatha (Mt. Everest) really isn’t that interesting. Seeing the tallest mountain in the world is impressive; however, its 29,028 feet (8848 meters) is really hard to perceive from the air or from a distance. Looking at the mountain it is merely a granite pyramid covered in alpine glaciers. Several other much more interesting mountains live in the limelight of their big brother.

The most interesting mountains to me are ones that have different faces and contours that catch the light giving the mountain a character of its own. Ganesh Himal (24,350 feet (7422 meters) is one of the Himalaya peaks actually visible from Kathmandu on a clear day. The broad face with three points like a circus tent and covered in snow catch the sunlight like a cloud with sharp edges floating above the Kathmandu valley. Gauri Shankar (23,405 feet (7134 meters)), the holy mountain, has double peaks and a deep bowl that give the mountain depth. The mountain is considered the dwelling place of Shiva and no one is given permission to climb the mountain (either by the authorities or by Shiva). Melungtse (20,660 feet (6297 meters)) looks like a mountain that was never finished, leaving a snow-covered curve of granite in place of a point.

Escaping It All

After my one day in Kathmandu, I was ready to escape the overwhelmingly big city and find something that would hopefully match the image of high snow covered mountains and friendly people that I had in my mind of Nepal. On the advice of my friend that had served in the Peace Corps in Nepal, I headed to Nagarkot. A small hill station higher (7,201 feet (2195 meters)) in the mountains about 1.5 hours from Kathmandu purported to have great views of the Himalaya and provide the ultimate location to just relax and enjoy life.

Leaving the city behind, the drive to Nagarkot took me past tan mud brick houses with wood trim painted bright purple or blue, and up narrow winding roads. By narrow, I mean so narrow that two cars couldn’t pass each other easily, let alone trying to get around the occasional bus or truck. Potholes added another feature to the journey up the mountain.

My destination was Peaceful Cottage Hotel. The minute I arrived at Peaceful Cottage I knew I had definitely made the right choice. Perched near the top of the hill overlooking valleys on both sides and a view of the Himalaya stretching across the horizon, the snow capped peaks reaching into the blue skies, I instantly felt better. The air was crisp and clear and felt amazing on my lungs that had been growing ever more clogged with smog and pollution. Even the people seemed to be more genuine and friendly than most of the people I had encountered in the city.

My room was a room fit for a princess. Located in the new building (so new that it was still under construction), the room with its tile floor and wall decorated in rock was a breath of fresh air from the mustiness of the Shechen Guest House. Two of the walls occupied by near floor to ceiling windows offered an amazing view of the valley and the mountains. One wall decorated in rocks ranging from small pebbles to stones, creating swirling patterns. The heavy wood headboard reminiscent of the temple carvings I had seen so many of the day before.

The most spectacular moments of the day at Peaceful Cottage are sunset and sunrise. At sunset, the red glowing sun slowly sinks into the mists of Kathamandu valley giving everything a mystical quality and taking the heat of the day with it. Sunrise is a must see event, especially from the rooftop. Around 6:30 the first blush of light touches the top of the highest peaks of the Himalaya making them glow like diamonds. As the sun continues to rise, the peaks are painted a blushing shade of pink, the light emphasizing the various faces of the mountains. The beauty of the mist filled valleys, dark foothills and the gentle pink of the snow capped Himalaya is breathtaking. Sunrise is also when Mt. Everest is the most visible, although it is merely a small triangle on the distant horizon.

Sunrise from Nagarkot

Sunrise from Nagarkot

My time in Nagarkot was dedicated primarily to relaxing, writing and just enjoying the view. During the day, I chased the sunbeams across the patio, moving every so often as the shade of the building overtook where I was sitting. In the evening, I staked out my spot at one of the tables in the dining room. Every so often I would take a break from my writing to enjoy the view of the Himalaya and the falcons circling over the valley or to visit with other guests or the staff.

I quickly became friends with Laxman, one of the staff with a vivacious personality, sparkling eyes and genuine heart. He would come over to chat often and made sure I had a thermos of hot water and the occasional cup of tea. The afternoon of my first day he took me on a motorbike ride to visit his village. As I watched him get his bike, I noticed the ritual that he did prior to moving or starting the bike. Three times he passed his hand over the engine then touched his head and chest with his fingers three times. As I never asked, I can only assume that this was asking the gods for a safe journey, which given the state of the roads around Nagarkot was probably a good thing. Laxman’s village is maybe 2 km from the hotel nestled into the side of the mountain. The village’s population of 200 people lives in clusters of homes for each family group. Laxman’s family members have three houses there belonging to brothers and sisters. I met the water buffalo and goats and most of his family. His brother’s sister made us tea. Sitting and drinking the tea I really wished that I knew more Nepali so that I could understand what his sister was saying. Laxman was not exactly the most helpful translator, his jokester personality often making me question if what he was translating was true or not.

After we left his village, we headed up toward an area that is a typical gathering spot for locals on their day off (Saturday). Several buses and large groups of people were playing music, dancing and cooking. We looked at the view for a little bit, then the group of women from Bhaktapur noticed me. One of the kids hooked up some music to the speaker they had brought and the dancing began. Surrounded by women in their bright fuschia and red and turquoise saris, I tried to follow along and have fun. At every turn, I would find a cell phone being used as a camera pointed toward me. One of the women showed me how to do their local dance, which hopefully I didn’t mess up too badly. After 30 minutes of laughing and dancing, we headed back to the hotel. Getting to experience the true spirit of the people makes my heart the most happy. These type of experiences are the ones I treasure most when traveling.

When in Nepal, Do as the Nepali Do

I’ve always found it the best approach to do as the locals do. This axiom applies to everything from eating to dressing appropriately.

While it almost never snows in Kathmandu, it does get very cold. Most buildings have no heat. The first night in my room at Shechen Guest House, I had trouble sleeping because I was so cold despite being dressed in long pajama pants and a thermal shirt and was buried under a thick blanket. After having dinner with Shankar and his family, I realized the importance of keeping my head covered. That night (and for all nights after that) I slept with a bandana on my head. Amazing how just a thin piece of cloth can make such a difference. The second night I was actually sweating.

Shawls or blankets are a key feature of almost every Nepali’s daily outfit. When I made my decision to head to Nagarkot, I knew I would need this extra layer if I had any chance of actually staying warm. My $5 investment in a green woolen wrap was well worth it in the chilly air of Nagarkot.

Ever since I was a child traveling with my dad, I have made it a point to try and learn at least a few words in the native language. Nepal is no different. On my first taxi ride I asked how to say “no” and “thank you”.  Slowly I added to my vocabulary, especially with the help of Laxman and Shankar. By the end of my time in Nepal I now have an 18 word vocabulary where I can say: hello (namaste, nameskar), thank you (thanyibar), a little (torre), hot (tatu), pani (water), cold (tishue), my name is MJ (meru namu MJ ho), what is your name (Que namu ho), no in 3 different ways depending on context (huay naa, huay dai naa, chay naa) and I love you (maa tameli maya gatzu).

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