At 8am, Susanne was well enough to join me for breakfast downstairs. I took this as a very positive sign. The Tibetan woman at the restaurant was very pleased to see Susanne up and around. Susanne thanked her for all of her help. As we ate we talked about sending her something from America as a thank you present – she certainly deserved it.
After breakfast, we began our last mad dash shopping spree in Thamel. Susanne had seen a sweater she liked and she wanted to go back and buy it. I desperately needed some t-shirts for my family. We went back and forth between all of the major t-shirt shops on Thamel’s main drag. It was obvious there was some collusion going on between the shops, because every shirt carried the same price from store to store, and bargaining was next to impossible. I eventually bought three shirts for my brother and parents, as well as one for myself. Susanne got that sweater she had liked – it fit perfectly. I also grabbed a nice long wool scarf in the sweater shop – at three dollars, a good deal, I thought.
At our final stop, Susanne had her eye on a beautiful leather shirt and a vest for her mom. The Kashmiri shopowner drove a hard bargain, but he eventually settled with her for a reasonable deal. There was a bit of confusion over the exchange rate, but that only delayed us for a few minutes. Back at the hotel, we packed up our bags. The backpacks appeared as though they were about to burst, thanks to our free spending. But I was pretty sure that by this point we had purchased as much as we had planned to for the entire trip, so our lack of any more room in our bags was of little consequence. My only problem was that Kashmiri papier mache plate – it wasn’t safe for packing, so I’d have to carry it by hand for the next week. Ah well – vita brevis, ars longa…
We said our goodbyes to our friends at the hotel restaurant and left for the airport around noon. When we reached the terminal, though, I realized that our flight was scheduled at 3:40, not 2:40. This gave us an extra hour to kill at the overpriced airport lounge. Eventually, though, we checked in and went through the efficient immigration process. This left us in the departure lounge for a couple of hours. I was concerned that our flight wasn’t listed on the departure monitors, but the airport staff assured me that there was indeed a flight to Calcutta, and that it would be listed as soon as the flight arrived at the airport. So it was running late, and there was nothing I could do except relax, watch CNN and write in my journal. Our plane arrived at 4pm and our new departure time was set for 5pm. I didn’t like the thought of arriving in Calcutta so late in the evening – our reservations at the Fairlawn Hotel had been for the day before (it was screwed up because of that cancelled flight) and we were unable to call from Nepal, so we’d have to keep our fingers crossed.
As we taxied along the tarmac, we caught a spectacular view of Bodnath stupa with Ganesh Himal soaring in the background. The sun was setting so it was particularly enchanting. I was also quite glad to see Bodnath one last time, especially as my last view of Kathmandu on the ground. We had wanted to go back to the stupa one last time before we left, but Susanne’s illness prevented us from making it back. Seeing it was we coursed the runway was a special moment.
But our wonderful views were only beginning. We took off facing east, and once in the air, the plane made a slow 360-degree turn before heading southeast to Calcutta. This circle offered us a tremendous above-the-clouds view of the Himalayas – we could easily see from one end of Nepal to another. And with the sun so low in the sky, the shadows that reflected off each jagged peak were particularly breathtaking. As we made our final turn to the south, we got what we had been waiting for – a view of Mount Everest. We recognized it immediately. Though it’s set back further north than the surrounding peaks, its profile was unmistakable. For a brief time earlier that day, I had regretted our decision not to take a special mountain flight at $100 each just to see Everest. Well, the sight of the world’s highest mountain as we departed Nepal did more than make up for it. We had now seen Everest and the entire Himalayas, all aglow from the setting sun in the west. I was content.
The flight to Calcutta took a little over an hour, and we were on the ground by 6:30pm. Immigration and customs were a snap, but our luggage took a bit longer than I would have preferred. We hired a prepaid taxi for RS100, but our driver, a slimeball named Mr. Singh, said the drive to Calcutta would take at least two hours, but that he knew a shortcut that would take less than an hour, if it was worth it to us. Obviously, this guy was trying to scam more money just to take the regular route to town, but I told him to just get us there quickly. If there were any problems with him liking my tip, tough luck. He then took off like a madman, swerving through traffic and driving in breakdown lanes. Twice he had to slam on the breaks to avoid hitting trucks (“No problem, no problem…”) He also wouldn’t shut up. We finally got to the Fairlawn, at which point I gave him RS50 extra and walked away. He started to yell at me in Bengali, but I ignored him.
The Fairlawn is a lovely green Victorian establishment run by the same English family since the 1930s. I had heard great things about it, so I hoped we’d still be able to get in for the night, even though our reservations were for the night before. Perhaps playing ignorant would be enough. Unfortunately, my luck ran out at the reception desk. Full booked, no exceptions. I played it up by pretending that our reservations were supposed to have been for that night, and that there must have been a mixup. No dice. There were no rooms left, so we’d have to stay elsewhere. The reception clerk was nice enough to make some phone calls for us, and we asked him to ring up the Old Kenilworth Hotel to see if they had any room. They most certainly did. The LP guide recommended it as an aging mansion full of character, and with an eccentric English/Indian proprietress, a Mrs. Joyce Purdy. We decided to give it a go.
Outside the Fairlawn we tried to hail a cab, but none would accept us for less than 60 rupees- an outrageous fare considering the short distance we had to travel. Then, a rickshaw-wallah approached us on foot and offered us a ride at 30 rupees. Susanne and I looked at each other, dumbfounded – have an old rickshaw-wallah walk us to the hotel with all of our bags? We had previously talked about Calcutta’s rickshaws, one of the last bastions in South Asia where these poor skinny men actually pulled a giant rickshaw while they ran on foot. Susanne had said she found it to be a humiliating profession and didn’t want to patronize is. I too had serious reservations with it, but I concluded that this is how they make our living, and I’d be sure to give him a generous tip for his troubles (besides, Susanne would kill me if I gave the guy anything less than 50 rupees). So, we decided to go for it.
We climbed on the rickshaw seat and held our bags tight. The man then lifted the two polls on each side of the rickshaw and began to run, jingling a small bell with his right hand as we went. I immediately thought of the film City of Joy, which takes place here in Calcutta. I always wondered why in the movie the rickshaw-wallah always jingled that damn bell (it was very loud in the film and got annoying after an hour or so). Now I understood – without that damn bell, we’d be squashed by an oncoming TATA truck or some other form of oncoming traffic. Indian drivers use horns as sonar devices, alerting others of their presence, no matter if it’s an emergency or if they’re just passing by. Rickshaws were no exception, so the bell jingles and the rickshaw-wallah’s precious cargo remain unscathed.
We arrived at the Old Kenilworth 15 minutes later. Let me emphasize the word Old in Old Kenilworth – the place was a decrepit, rundown mansion that was creepy as hell and looked like a backdrop from the Addams Family. We were met inside by Mrs. Purdy, the aforementioned eccentric lady discussed in the LP guide. At first, I thought she was from New York or something – she had an odd, un-British accent, and she looked very Italian or even Jewish. I suppose the blend of an English and a Bengali background will do that. We checked in by signing an enormous old registrar’s book that looked like one of those old leather-bound atlases you only see in good libraries. We were given Room 4, a giant suite with antique wood furniture, a vaulted ceiling, and an old-fashioned ceiling fan that hung off a pole that was at least 12 feet long. The room had the potential of being glorious, but the paint was peeling off of the walls, the wood needed a good polishing, and the bathtub, well it just needed to be replaced. No shower for me tonight, thank you very much.
The room was about $30 – typical for big Indian city accommodations. It would have been worth it if the hotel had been kept up, but because of the Kenilworth poor state, I was somewhat frustrated. But it was getting late and we only needed to spend a night there. At least it had character – that much was true.
November 22, 1996
At 8am, Susanne was well enough to join me for breakfast downstairs. I took this as a very positive sign. The Tibetan woman at the restaurant was very pleased to see Susanne up and around. Susanne thanked her for all of her help. As we ate we talked about sending her something from America as a thank you present – she certainly deserved it.
November 21, 1996
3:30am. Somehow, we managed to get up. Our taxi to Nargakot was to pick us up around 4am. I wanted to leave at 4:30 or even later, but the travel agency that booked the ride for us said that taxis will leave only on the hour, and that 5am would be too late to catch the sunrise. Our driver actually arrived 15 minutes early, but we didn’t head down until the appointed time.
It was cold and dark in Kathmandu as we drove east. Nargakot was well known for having the best views of the Himalaya’s Langtang Range, even though it was a mere 30km east of Kathmandu. Overall, the ride was fairly dull; Susanne commented that it was so dark and nondescript outside that the streets of Kathmandu could have easily passed for a suburb in the U.S. “I think we’re in Downer’s Grove,” she said. I disagreed and said, “Skokie.” Yet as we began the ascent up the small mountain that lead to Nargakot, the ride turned into a series of treacherous hairpin turns which made me feel like I was dangling over the precipice each time we steered left or right. Around and around, higher and higher we went. And the drop down was getting steeper and steeper. I was actually glad it was so dark out – otherwise I would have been scared to death if I could have seen over the edge of the cliffs. Over and over, our driver would pass a truck or a bus on this single lane road, spinning around 300-degree curves, and with a 600 foot drop down at any given moment. Yes, darkness was my friend this morning.
By around 5am we arrived at the top of Nargakot – 8,000 feet above the valley floor. While Susanne hunted for a bathroom with our driver, I climbed up to a large grass and dirt plateau next to a hotel. It was clearly the best viewing point – high in the air, a broad view of the Himalayan horizon, and not much man-made lighting. Thousands upon thousands of starts were in the sky. I hadn’t seen this many stars in years, probably since the last time I spent a weekend in the mountains of northern New Hampshire at my Uncle Jerry’s house. All of Orion was visible to the south. I could also count all of the seven major stars of the Plaeides. And due east, a planet shone brightly, marking the precise spot where the sun would soon appear.
The only problem was the temperature – it was freezing, probably no warmer than 40 degrees. We hadn’t brought our warmest jackets since we planned to trek back to Changu Narayan and then to Bodnath – a six hour walk that would have us hiking through the warmest part of the day. So there I was, on this large hill in the Himalayas, freezing my butt off in a Yale sweatshirt and not much else. I grimly reminisced about our climb to the top of Masada a year ago in the West Bank. It was just as cold that morning, just as windy, and we had no food or water on our pre-dawn ascent. We climbed 1000 feet straight up just to get a view of the sunrise over the Dead Sea. Stupid, stupid, stupid. Susanne got really sick afterwards and it nearly wrecked our last week in Israel. Would this sunrise adventure do the same?
I assumed not. There was no wind to speak of on the hill, so it could have been far less comfortable there. Also, we were smart enough to bring an ample supply of bagels, croissants and mango juice, which would provide much needed energy. I was sure I’d be just fine. But then there was Susanne. She appeared to be getting sick again. The rough ride up the hill had made her carsick, so was very fortunate to have found an open restroom at 5am in the hotel across from our hilltop plateau. She was back up on the hill with me now, though I’m sure the cold and the lack of sleep wasn’t going to make her any better. We now had 90 more minutes to kill before that damn sunrise.
Susanne sat rather quietly, wrapped in a tight bundle. A group of dogs, five of them black and one of them yellow, joined us as well. The black ones appeared to be cold and pissed off at the world, so our driver kept shooing them away with shepherd’s calls every time they got a little too close. The yellow dog, with its long fluffy tail permanently curled over and around its back, looked like some kind of scrawny Siberian mix. It was very friendly, though, and stuck close by us, avoiding the pack of black dogs.
I spent much of the spare time talking with our driver, whose name, unfortunately, I can’t recall. He was a Newari man, about 30, medium height and build, with strong Mongoloid features. I could picture him on horseback riding the Central Asian steppe northwest of Tibet. His English was limited, but he possessed a strong enough vocabulary for us to carry on a conversation. He asked me about where I lived and what the weather was like in different parts of the US. He apparently had a friend in Atlanta, so we talked about the south, Coca Cola, the Olympics, and CNN. I also asked him about Newari culture. He said that they were the original inhabitants of the Kathmandu Valley, and that very few of them could be found outside this area. Since the Valley had become a crossroads for several major empires, Newaris intermingled with other ethnic groups, which eventually led to a variety of facial features. He, for example, looked Mongol, but many other Newaris look Chinese or Indian, yet they all still consider themselves Newari.
Newaris, he explained, believe very strongly in community life. They build houses around a shrine or a stupa, thus forming a neighborhood courtyard. This explained the abundance of small squares in the residential neighborhoods of Kathmandu. Other local ethnic groups, like the Tamang and Langtang peoples of Kathmandu’s hill country, tend to live in isolated houses or farms. They also prefer to carry large loads on or around their heads, supported by a think cloth strap, while Newaris transport things by balancing them on two sides of a pole, carried over a shoulder. We had seen both methods quite often in and around the city.
He then asked me if Americans really ate cow meat. I felt guilty saying yes, even though I personally don’t eat red meat. I told him that America was a beef and pork culture, though chicken and fish were also popular. I asked him what other food Newaris wouldn’t eat. Dogs and monkeys were both off limits. Monkeys are the agents of the god Hanuman, while dogs were more of a practical issue – they make good pets and house guards. Cats, interestingly enough, are the ‘dirty’ animals of Newari culture. Nothing is worse than a cat, he said. When I told him that casts were almost as common as dogs as pets in America, he appeared shocked and puzzled as to why on earth we would do such a thing.
The stars had vanished and the sky was a dark blue, which lightened to softer tones as you looked towards the point in the east where the sun would soon rise. The dogs had left the hilltop, but they were soon replaced by a large group of tourists from India. Then came the Germans, the Australians, the French, and then a few Americans. Before long, a group of at least 100 tourists had gathered and were crowding up our once peaceful mountain top. It was like an outdoor cocktail party without the cocktails.
We could now begin to see much of the Himalayas across the northern and eastern horizons. To our left, facing west, the Annapurna Range could just be made out. Much closer to us we could see the Langtang Range, including Gauri Shanker, Ganesh Himal, and Manaslu, which at around 25,000 feet is one of the ten highest mountains in the world. Further to the right, facing almost east, we could barely see the Everest Range. And somewhere, hidden amongst those snow covered peaks was Mount Everest itself, but at this distance, we were unable to tell which was which. Hopefully, our flight to Calcutta would give us a nice view of it. The blue sky lightened even further and then turned almost white, then orange. The sun was still a few minutes away, but the indirect light created marvelous shadowing effects on the eastern face of Ganesh Himal and Gauri Shanker. I took a couple of pictures but decided to hold off on any more shots until sunrise. It was now 6:30am, and still no sun. Rise, dammit! Rise!
Finally, close to 6:55, the sun finally came up a brilliant orange, in what was probably only a matter of seconds. And just as I started to point my camera eastward, everything through my EOS Rebel’s lens went out of focus. This brand new camera had a great autofocus – what was going on? I took the camera away from my face and looked at it. A huge fog bank had spontaneously materialized on top of us! Previously, only the valley below was blanked in pea soup. Now it was on top of us too, and my poor camera (as well as my glasses) were completely soaked with dew. I was really ticked off.
Meanwhile, poor Susanne looked awful. Apparently 24 hours of good health ended abruptly here at Nargakot. We agreed that she was in no condition to walk anywhere from here, so we informed our driver that we’d be joining him on the way back to Thamel. No problem, he said, since we were paying for the round trip just to get there in the first place. We briefly stopped at that tea house Susanne had visited early for a bathroom. The tea was expensive, but hot and delicious. I even broke my no milk rule and enjoyed some hot cream with it, for the tea was so dark if tasted thicker than black coffee. The fog had diminished by this point, so we took a few more pictures outside before beginning the 50-minute drive back to town. I hadn’t expected driving down those hairpin turns again, but after the yummy tea, I was calm and relaxed. We drove through Bhaktapur before reaching the hotel around 8am.
Susanne wisely went to be while I visited the restaurant for a hot bowl of porridge and more tea. When I returned upstairs, the phone rang. Who on earth could that be? No one knows where we’re staying. It was the tour agent who arranged our ride to Nargakot. He said, “There is a problem, please come to my office.” I asked him to tell me what the problem is over the phone. He refused. I figured he was trying to take advantage of the fact that we had gotten our money’s worth out of the return fare by going both ways instead of one – less commission for him. Since he probably figured I’d give him money if he could confront me behind closed doors, I told him that if he couldn’t explain the problem over the phone, then clearly there was no serious problem, was there? Once again, he refused to explain it. Have a nice day, I said, and hung up. What a jerk.
Susanne continued to sleep, so I headed out for a couple of hours to shop in Thamel. Didn’t find anything too exciting. I returned to the room around noon to see how Susanne was doing. She wasn’t getting sick or anything, but looked very tired. I suggested that we go for a walk to sit in a garden and eat some tea and toast. We went to Le Bistro in Thamel again, but by the time we got there, I realize that it had been a terrible idea. Susanne looked white and sweaty, walking almost in a daze. “I’m having headspins,” she said. I knew immediately that the headspins were being caused by dehydration, just as if she had a serious hangover. Unfortunately, it was because she had thrown up so much she wasn’t retaining any fluids. I’d have to get her to a doctor if I didn’t do something quickly. I got her back to the hotel, where she got very upset, saying that she thought she had ruined the whole trip by being so ill. I assured her that this was crazy, and I’d stay with her as long as it took to get her back on track so she’d be able to enjoy the rest of our stay. But first, I needed to find rehydrating salts, so I went on a hunt for a health clinic.
I discovered a clinic just behind the hotel, as it happened. After I described the symptoms, the nurse there agreed with me that Susanne needed to be rehydrated, and that this was probably her principal problem. I bought several packets of electrolyte solution, enough to make five liters of the stuff, and returned to the hotel. I gave Susanne a liter of the solution and told her if she didn’t drink it, she’d just have to be sick for the rest of the trip. I didn’t like giving her the tough love treatment, but she was tired and being stubborn about drinking. The only way she’d get better was if she would drink two to three liters of the solution a day, so I laid down the law and described what would happen if she didn’t rehydrate herself.
We spent the afternoon and early evening at the hotel, resting, talking, and drinking plenty of fluids. The mineral solution was having profound effects – Susanne was no longer disoriented, she could keep food down, was relaxed, and could sleep without sweating through her sheets. She also started a three day regimen of Cyproflaxin, an antibiotic her doctor had given her for emergencies. This, we decided, was an emergency. The combination of therapies seemed to do the trick, and by 8pm, she was ready to eat some rice – which I had brought up to the room, of course. The Tibetan woman who ran the restaurant was only happy to bring food and other supplies up for Susanne. Every time I saw her downstairs, she’d ask how my ‘wife’ was doing. I assured her she was better, and that her kindness was most appreciated.
We ate our rice and went to bed early. It wasn’t exactly the way I wanted to spend my last full day in Kathmandu, but all things considered, we had to count our blessings. The city had been very good to us, and even though Susanne got very sick, Kathmandu was a great place to recuperate. Hopefully she’d be feeling well enough to walk around the next morning before our flight to Calcutta.
November 20, 1996
When I awoke around 8am, Susanne was already getting out of bed, much to my surprise. Apparently her fever had broken and she hadn’t gotten sick in the night. This was quite a relief. We ate breakfast – my usual porridge and sundries while Susanne braved a pancake as her first real meal in days. I told her about the interesting walk I had taken the day before, so we decided to go back so she could see some of the sights as well. The markets south of Thamel were crowded as always, though this time I noticed more spice dealers setting up impromptu shops on the street corners. Since it was still early in the morning, the sun had yet to rise to a point that would make picture taking desirable, so we left our cameras alone for a bit and enjoyed sights and smells of Asan Tole.
We continued to the Sweta Machhendranath temple, the Hindu/Buddhist shrine that had entranced me so much the day before. Today, instead of finding old men chanting through puja ceremonies, we saw a group of seven or eight kids who were horsing around on the smaller statues and chaityas. Significantly more merchants were there as well, mostly selling flowers, rice and other offerings. The swarm of pigeons was still hovering over the same spot, as they were fed diligently by the same man from the day before who threw pints of rice and corn into the air. The iron cage that surrounded the main temple was quite deserted, so we decided to go inside for ourselves to take a look around. Why this metal fence enshrouded the shrine, I’m not sure, but as we walked around, the intricate molding of the iron caused hundreds of detailed shadows to play tricks off of the temple’s walls. A small statue of Machhendranath stood at the front and center of the temple. It looked like a four-armed Buddha. Prayer wheels were mounted in the inner frame of the iron cage, so we spun the wheels as we walked clockwise around the temple.
At the end of the circuit was a blind monk holding a large brass bowl. I politely placed a five rupee coin inside of it. On my next circuit around the temple, though, a Newari woman who was walking ahead of me approached the monk, reached into the bowl, and pulled out a handful of rice, which she promptly tossed into the charcoal fires that burnt next to the Machhendranath statue. The monk wasn’t a beggar after all – I felt so dumb. In a funny sort of way, I consoled in the fact that the monk was blind, so at least he wouldn’t be able to see who this naive American tourist was.
We continued south to Durbar Square. A small family of rhesus monkeys was hanging out on a wooden shrine just next to Nasal Chowk, the old palace square. The papa monkey, big, fat and slow, roamed where he pleased, stirring through trash bins and scaring the hell out of the local pigeons. Two mama monkeys watched after their rambunctious youngsters, who squeaked a lot and hung off of anything on which they could get a good grip. One of the mama monkeys had a lame hand, and was in a pretty bad mood. Two Nepalese schoolkids kept taunting it by rushing back and forth in its direction. The monkey would show its teeth and even charge at them. Personally, I rooted for the monkey.
After taking a quick peak into the Kumari’s courtyard to see if the living goddess was around (she wasn’t), we crossed east into Basantapur Square to the large souvenir flea market. I started to look at some Tibetan prayer books – handwritten rice paper manuscripts loosely bound by two blocks of carved wood. I found one remarkable specimen that contained ten separate rice paper panels, about 5″x16″ each. I asked the merchant how much it would cost. He said “$140 dollars – very old.” “140 bucks! Outrageous!” I retorted, and started to walk away. He then grabbed me by the shoulder and began what was to be a long, drawn out haggle. After 15 minutes of serious fun, I purchased the prayer book for $30. Who knows what it was really worth, but to me, it certainly deserved 30 dollars just as a cool keepsake. It’s a remarkable piece of art and I’m really glad I got it, though I have yet to figure out how on earth I’ll get it framed.
Susanne wanted to briefly check out Freak Street. We were just north of it, so we took a quick walk. I, thanks to my habitual morning pot of hot tea, needed to find a restroom, so we stopped at the Oasis Cafe to take advantage of their facilities and, of course, get another pot of tea. In retrospect, it would have been faster for me to have just run into the closest guest house, acting as if I were a guest there, and then gone to their bathroom, since every cheap guest house has at least one shared restroom on each floor. But hey, this was a chance for more tea, and I was not one to turn down such a chance. Even though tea would just lead to more bathroom stops. Ah, who cares – I shouldn’t dwell on such endless cycles. That’s what god invented Buddhist monks and koans, I guess.
We finished our mint tea and Sprite and cut through Basantapur to the southwest corner of Durbar Square. Here we found the enormous wooden pagoda, the Kasthamandap Temple. Kasthamandap is one of the oldest pagodas in Kathmandu – so old, in fact, that the city derived its very name from it. Susanne and I spent a few minutes admiring the pagoda, and then decided to begin a walking tour of the southern side of Kathmandu. Before we got started, though, a tall blonde man approached us and asked somewhat sheepishly, “Are you as lost as I am?” I showed him where we were on his map. He was Canadian and was just passing through Nepal after a six-month gig in Australia. We asked him what he did for a living and he said he was “a vet,” at which point I had a vision of this lanky Edmontonian diving for cover in the Australian bush. Of course, he was really an animal doc, but the image was pretty funny. Anyway, he had literally just arrived in Nepal that morning and had seen nothing in Kathmandu, so we sent him packing northeast to the rest of Durbar Square. Meanwhile, Sus and I headed south and walked a long circle that took about 90 minutes to complete.
The communities south of Durbar Square were typical Kathmandu – courtyards of Newari neighbors that appeared quite poor, yet teemed with life and activity. There were a few small temples and stupas along the way, but all in all, this was a residential walk. Eventually, we completed the circuit and found ourselves back at Kasthamandap. I was about to make a comment about our Canadian friend being lost in the alleyways north of Durbar, but I looked ahead of me and saw him, standing exactly where we had first found him. I asked what had happened, and he said had spent the time around Durbar and was now trying to figure out how to head west to the stupa at Swayumbunath. Once again, we pointed him in the right direction and sent him on his merry way. We haven’t seen him since.
We walked back through Jyatha and into Thamel, having lunch at our hotel. Being the healthy one, I wanted to venture off elsewhere for lunch, but Susanne, being the recovering one, called the shots and insisted we stuck with what we knew would be safe. After eating, we decided to go shopping. First, we’d need to cash some traveler’s checks, but before we could do that, one of the boys from the hotel came up to us and said he needed our passports. The hotel had sent him to reconfirm our flights, but apparently the airline office needed to see our passports with our tickets. He headed off to finish the job, passports in hand, but this left us waiting in the lobby for some time, writing postcards and working on our journals. I also read some entertaining anti-Chinese propaganda published by some pro-Tibetan movement. 30 minutes later, the boy returned with our passports and tickets. We tipped him and got ready to shop.
While I normally don’t consider myself an avid shopper, it’s hard to resist the hundreds of stalls and stores around Thamel – an endless Filene’s Basement of cheap wool, rugs, art, and random souvenirs. Thamel is a crossroads of so many cultures that you can buy practically anything here, from Tibetan thangkas to Swiss army knives, all at great prices. First we visited a Kashmiri shop to find a shawl for Susanne. Because of the recent violence at home, many Kashmiris have moved their businesses to Nepal and now appear to be doing quite well. Susanne found her shawl while I fell in love with a large papier mache place that had been hand painted with an incredible Mughal-era seen of a royal hunting expedition. At $50 dollars, it was a treasured find. I just hope I can find a way of getting it home in one piece.
Next stop: clothes. I had wanted to get a light Nepalese windbreaker or perhaps a good wool sweater. There were many items to choose from at every shop. At one store we found several cheap jackets, all ranging from about $5 to $25. The more expensive ones were really amazing, but after feeling the fabric I began to question their durability. I then found a heavier, multicoloured jacket from the kingdom of Bhutan. It almost looked Andean in its many patterns and colors. I asked the store owner how much he wanted for it. He said $40. Once again, I began haggling with the man, and eventually was able to buy the jacket, along with an incredible green and white vest, for about $20. Another shopping success.
Susanne still needed some gifts for her family, so we found a small sweater shop in the heart of Thamel. Susanne saw a nice cardigan for her mom, cheap at around $14. I of course wanted to haggle, but the owner of the shop had a horribly cleft lip, and I could tell Susanne felt bat about negotiating with this poor man over a couple of measly bucks. She bought it for $13. My last purchase of the evening was a Tibetan prayer wheel. I found a style I liked at an open-air stall. The seller quoted a price of $30. All the stalls next to him had the same style of prayer wheel, so I went down the row, quoting the previous seller’s price just to see how low I could haggle. I was doing well until I got the price to about eight bucks. It would go no further, so I bought it and proudly claimed victory (even though it probably cost less than 50 cents to make).
After dinner, we hung out at the hotel, admiring our purchases and trying to figure out how we’d be able to pack it all. Then it was off to bed. Tomorrow morning, we’re being picked up by a taxi at 4am to take us to the remote hill town of Nargakot, an hour east of Kathmandu. It supposedly had the best morning views of the Himalayas in the valley. But 4am? Ugh…
November 19, 1996
Our alarm went off at 8am. I was feeling significantly better; unfortunately, Susanne appeared significantly worse. She wasn’t able to keep down even the piece of dry toast she had for breakfast, while I successfully (and somewhat guiltily) scarfed down a full course meal. Because of Susanne’s condition, it was pretty clear that she was in no shape to wander about just yet. So I agreed to head out on my own for a couple of hours and then check back in at 1pm to see how she was doing.
I spent a bit of time in Thamel browsing for potential souvenirs. Lots of ideas, but nothing stood out and screamed at me. I started to head south to Thahiti Tole, one of the many market squares between Thamel and Durbar Square, but instead of continuing down my usual route south to the palaces and pagodas, I hung a left and walked southeast into uncharted territory. The street and its alleyways were similar to the rest of Thamel – lots of trekking shops, t-shirt stalls, thankga galleries, and curious in every window. But after a couple of minutes of walking, the crass commerce died down and a more traditional Asian market atmosphere rolled in. Women sold huge bouquets of flowers (most of them real, of course, but I did spot a silk flower shop); stall after stall offered fine earthenware, brass and iron crockery. A man squatted under a thin doorway, hammering and polishing gold rings held on a wood rod between his feet. Small crowds gathered to watch two young teenagers playing a game of chess, cheering and passing money back and forth each time a player took one of his opponent’s chess pieces, while just across the street, two old men played their own game, in full concentration and bothered by no one.
I slowly strolled the main road, talking it all in as I observed the crowds. The noise level increased steadily the deeper I went, until it peaked at a huge square and intersection. I had found Asan Tole, a major gathering place for commerce and religious ceremonies. Asan Tole is the crossroads for six major streets, always jammed with shoppers, merchants, and worshippers, no matter the time. Situated in the middle of the square was a temple to Annapurna, the goddess of prosperity and abundance. Whether Annapurna brought prosperity to Asan Tole, or Asan Tole brought in Annapurna to celebrate its prosperity, who’s to say. There were also two other temples, both very small. I didn’t recognize the god in one of them, but the other shrine’s elephant-headed deity gave it away instantly as a Ganesh temple.
I stood awhile by a massive spice shop, inhaling the fumes of the essential oils as men used mortars and pestles to grind cumin, tamarind seeds, anise and coriander. Somehow I managed to get into a brief argument with a bicycle rickshaw-wallah who insisted that I had no business walking around on such a nice when I could instead be enjoying his services as my chauffeur for the day. Once he had moved on, I took advantage of the hustle and bustle of the square and took numerous pictures of people going about their business. Vegetable vendors were the easiest target, and only one of them asked for baksheesh in return.
From Asan Tole I headed southwest to Kel Tole, a much smaller square that bustled with activity, despite its size. As I continued, I noticed a gate and a passageway to my right which appeared to lead to some kind of courtyard shrine. I walked in and there in front of me was a magnificently ornate, two-tiered pagoda, guarded by statues on pedestals and a collection of smaller chaitya shrines. A group of eight men were sitting in a semicircle among the pillars and shrines. They were performing a puja of some sort, throwing rice into a wood and charcoal fire. The men were sporting what appeared to be armor-like vests and crowns that distinctly looked like Burger King paper crowns. To the left, three women in saris chatted away while filling several hundred small pottery cups with rice and drops of tika powder. And just behind them, a huge flock of pigeons swooped and swarmed as local devotees through offerings of corn in their direction, which the pigeons would dive for with every handful.
Where on earth was I? I hadn’t read about this place in the LP. I pulled it out as I sat by the pigeons, whose collective wing flapping emanated a surprisingly strong draft. I flipped through LP’s walking tours of Kathmandu and eventually found a map that seemed to coincide with the route I had just taken from Asan Tole. Aha – there on the map I saw a marking for a shrine. I was at the Sweta Machhendranath Temple, a shrine dating back to at least the 16th century, revered by both Buddhists and Hindus, who interpret the statue of a Buddha-like figure on the main pillar as Buddha himself or an incarnation of Shiva, depending on who you ask. I spent a good deal of time at this temple, walking around the shrines and observing the ongoing rituals. I was the only westerner around, and no one seemed to mind my presence. I was even encouraged to take pictures by some of the people there.
Eventually, though, I backtracked to Kel Tole and hung a left toward Kilgal Tole, a rather dull plaza that served as the entry point to a square that supposedly had several points of interest. I entered a large white courtyard, the Yitum Bahal. Compared to the rest of the neighborhoods adjacent to it, Yitum Bahal was deserted. At the far end of the square was a small stupa, on which three young kids were playing. Behind it, a woman sifted grain into large circles. Just to the right of the stupa, I found the entrance to Kichandra Bahal, a small, but ancient courtyard dating back to the early 14th century. There was a minor pagoda inside it, and on the right was a kindergarten where I could see several dozen kids playing and singing with their teachers. Just above the school were brass plaques of the demon Guru Mapa, including a rather hilarious frieze of Mapa eating a small child, literally seizing the kid’s head by his teeth, while a rather surprised-looking mother stood by, helpless. I can only imagine if the teachers at the kindergarten take advantage of this 600-year-old image for reinforcing discipline among the students.
From Yitum Bahal, I took a couple of shortcuts to reach Durbar Square. I had planned to relax for a while here, but I felt some rather unusual rumblings in my stomach, so I figured I’d better high-tail it over to a restaurant with a bathroom, just in case disaster struck. There were no places to go on Durbar Square itself, so at the southern end, I headed east across Basantapur Square, with its flea market assembly of souvenir sellers, and then cut south on Jochne, more commonly referred to as Freak Street. In the 60s, Freak Street was the place for hippies to hang out, listen to western music, and smoke unimaginable amounts of hash. Nowadays it’s a quiet neighborhood, with most westerners having adopted Thamel as their new place of choice for food and shelter (minus the hash shops, courtesy of a 15-year-old crackdown by the government). There are still a few old restaurants and guesthouses here, so I went into the Kumari Cafe to find that bathroom I thought I needed so desperately. But by the time I got there, the pains had subsided, so I sat down in the cafe for another pot of black tea. At first, the restaurant played classical Indian music, which was what attracted me into the place from outside. But just as my tea arrived, they changed the radio station and began to blast bad Nepalese pop music. For the first time in Kathmandu, I didn’t finish my entire pot of tea. The music made me do it.
It was now around 1pm, so I returned to Jyatha at a brisk pace to check on Susanne at the hotel, stopping only for another roll of film and a few more pictures around Asan Tole (the lighting was irresistible). Back at the hotel, Susanne looked like hell. She tried to get dressed for lunch, but gave up and told me to leave and get lunch on my own. I ended up sticking around the hotel, having a bowl of Tibetan egg drop soup on the roof terrace. It was quite good, but I added a dash of Tibetan chili oil, which transformed my pleasant soup from the mildness of the Dalai Lama to the hot-tempered ruthlessness of the Gang of Four. A mistake made, a lesson learned -hot damn!
I returned to the room to give Sus another opportunity to head outside. We had wanted to return to Swayumbunath to be there for the 4pm Buddhist prayer service at the monastery next to the stupa. Susanne said no way and told me to go on my own, which I resisted at first. Again she insisted, so I agreed, shut off the lights once again, and began the trek through Chhetrapati and across the Vishnumati river to Swayumbunath. The climb to the top was much harder then I remembered. Perhaps it was because I was starting my trip up late in the day, with the sun bearing down on me. Anyway, I was popped by the time I reached the stupa at the summit, and I dropped myself by the railing to recover my breath. It was about 3:30pm, and I could hear the monks making a racket in the monastery. I entered the temple and stood in front of their large golden Buddha, who towered a good 10 feet above me. The chanting and music was emanating from behind the Buddha, so I assumed that the ceremony was in a private chamber. Then, about half a dozen Japanese tourists appeared from around the corner. I decided to go from where they came to see what I could find.
The monastery was certainly not designed for tour groups, I soon concluded. It was painfully obvious: around the corner was a long thin corridor, and at its centerpoint stood a door to the right, which led to the main prayer sanctuary. The monks were in the middle of a service there, and a huge group of tourists, mostly Asians, had jammed themselves around the doorway to get a view of the service. I decided it was hopelessly crowded, so I found a another corridor that ran parallel to the sanctuary and positioned myself by a window that opened up into the sanctuary at its midpoint. It would have been the perfect observation spot if it hadn’t been for a thin curtain on the other side of the window that obscured the view. Nevertheless, I stayed for a while to listen and peer between the curtains to watch the monks perform their rites.
Then, I saw the entire tour group enter the sanctuary and walk through its center, taking pictures of the monks with flash cameras. It seemed rather rude, but the monks didn’t even miss a beat. The good news was that the tourists’ intrusion had opened up the space around the main doorway, so I made myself comfortable in the corridor and enjoyed the rest of the ceremony. The monks performed a cycle of activities, starting with a round of low-toned chanting, then a drink of butter tea from large bowls, a blast of horns and cymbals, and then back to more chanting. At one point, they broke out a pair of Tibetan alpine horns, which created tones so low that the floorboards rattled. There were also many young monks in training, probably around 10 years old or younger. Most of them were sitting off to one side, trying to keep up with the chanting. One boy served as a waiter, vigilantly refilling the monks’ bowls with fresh butter tea. Another boy swept the floor, though instead of dragging the broom along the ground, he pushed it ahead, which seemed to make the task more difficult than it needed to be. Perhaps that was the whole point.
It was now well past 4pm. When I returned outside to the stupa, I could see dozens of rhesus monkeys, apparently reclaiming Swayumbunath from the tourists. Being territorial primates, they would screech at people who got too close to their space. At one point I wanted to walk between two chaityas, but when I tried, the monkey who stood guard on one of them showed me her teeth and leaned toward me. None shall pass, apparently. By 5pm, I was growing tired of playing Jane Goodall, so I began the 30-minute walk back to the hotel.
Susanne was half asleep when I arrived, so I sat downstairs for an hour, reading the International Herald Tribune and writing in my journal. When I returned to the room , she was awake and getting dressed, apparently feeling significantly better. Her fever had subsided and she was hungry, so we had dinner downstairs. I had more momo soup and some fried rice, while Susanne stuck with plain rice and lemon tea. I also had a Tibetan desert of hot rice pudding topped with cold custard and raisins. It was very good. The rest of the evening was spent reading, writing and talking about tomorrow’s plans. Considering Susanne’s earlier condition, I was glad to see that the next day was going to have a plan in the first place.
November 18, 1996
We got up before dawn to get a fresh start for the day. Well, at least I did. Susanne’s stomach problems only seemed to worsen as time passed, so while I showered, she stayed curled up in bed, a bottle of Pepto by her side. At first, she told me to go to Pashupatinath and Bodnath by myself. I refused. It was one thing for me to go wander the streets of Kathmandu on my own, but for me to conquer new places while leaving her behind at the hotel, well, that dog don’t hunt. So with a bit of prodding, she acquiesced.
From Thamel, we caught a bicycle rickshaw to Pashupatinath. I figured a slow bike ride wouldn’t unsettle Susanne’s stomach as much as a motorized vehicle would. In that regard, my instincts were correct, but what I misjudged was the hellishness a poor bicycle-wallah would have to endure in order to get us there. The hills that lead to Pashupatinath were so steep, the poor wallah couldn’t peddle up to the top. So we took mercy on him and walked the last several hundred feet, as he turned around and coasted back to Kathmandu.
Pashupatinath is to Nepal as Varanasi is to India – it’s one of the holiest Hindu sites in the subcontinent, and the river that bisects it is used for ritual bathing cremations. Unlike Varanasi, though, Pashupatinath is much smaller and less crowded, and rituals occur on both sides of the riverbanks. The Bagmati river is only 100 feet across at its widest in Pashupatinath, so a series of small bridges allow pilgrims to cross with ease. Most visitors come to see the Temple of Pashupatinath, but like so many other Hindu sites, we non-Hindus weren’t allowed inside. We observed the goings-on from the east side of the river.
On the ghats across from us, five women wailed uncontrollably as they prepared the wrapped corpse of a loved one for cremation. Technically, photography is still allowed here, but I refrained from getting too close to the ceremony. I considered the reverse: if I were about to bury someone and a busload of tourists from Hyderabad pulled over and started to take pictures and videos of my family, I’d be pretty ticked off.
A series of small shrines lead up a hill to the top of Pashupatinath. There was a sadhu sitting by one of them, strategically positioned to get the best photograph (and in turn, the best baksheesh from tourists). I knew he was worth a picture, so I took the shot, at which point he said, “30 rupees.” Unbelievable – in Nepal, that’s two day’s salary for the average person. I gave him five rupees and he glared at me for a minute, but then returned to his peaceful demeanor as soon as the next tourist approached.
At the top of the hill we found more white shrines, many with bells that could ring out for great distances (I tested one while no one was looking). A playful dog followed us around for a bit, but by the time I got out my camera, he became bored with us and left. There was a small squatter’s camp on the hill’s plateau, and behind it we could see a large wooded area. We walked into the woods and looked around – it was a serene, yet strange place, with dusty sunrays falling between the leaves and branches, and a pair of monkeys challenging each other’s territory. The trees were large, knotted and bent. I could imagine Buddha himself sitting under one of the banyan trees, contemplating the road to enlightenment.
Eventually, we returned to the path and headed down the other side of the hill, where we found another temple at the foot of the riverbank. From there, it was about a 30 minute walk to Bodnath, the largest stupa in Nepal and one of the holiest Tibetan sites outside of Tibet. The walk led us through a semi-developed, semi-rural community. Lots of young kids in school uniforms were trotting their way to school. Farmers tended their crops while a group of teenagers played a game of Tigers and Goats (the national game of Nepal) at an impromptu cafe stand. The LP Guide wasn’t very detailed in terms of how to get to Bodnath, so I was a bit concerned that we might be getting lost. Then, dead ahead of us over a hilltop, I could see Bodnath in the distance, its mesmerizing gaze almost pulling us forward.
We continued up the unpaved road for another few minutes until it terminated at a bustling thoroughfare full of rickshaws, goats and Coca-Cola stands. An elaborate metal and wood gate stood across the street, marking the main entrance into Bodnath. The gate led us up a short step path to the stupa itself, over 150 feet high and occupying at least an acre of space.
At the north end of the stupa, we found the main stairwell that would allow us to ascend the three tiers of the stupa’s platform. We walked around Bodnath, its gargantuan white hemispherical body to our right. High up on the stupa I could see several men who appeared to be doing some kind of maintenance work, fastening new streams of prayer flags and tossing buckets of rusty red water that streaked down the side of the stupa, adding flairs of color to its immense whiteness. A monk approached us and asked for a donation to a refugee charity. I have no idea how much money I handed him – I was so absorbed by the experience that he could have probably asked me for a credit card successfully. We made a circle or two around the highest tier of the stupa and then returned to the ground for a climb to the top of a terraced restaurant, the Stupa View. Stupid name, stupendous view. The tea was weak but sat for an hour drawing pictures of Bodnath.
Ever since the Chinese invasion of Tibet, there’s been a large refugee presence in Kathmandu, and many of these refugees settled in the neighborhoods surrounding Bodnath. Because of this, the shops around the stupa were some of the best places to find a solid variety of Tibetan goods and artifacts – albeit at highly inflated prices. We decided to look around and see if they had anything unusual. There were the usual prayer wheels, singing bowls and gurkha knives that you could find everywhere in Nepal, but I eventually found a nice little paper shop, where I bought a handmade notebook just in case I ran out of space in my journal.
We returned to Thamel and had what might have been the worst pizzas on earth at La Dolca Vita. This probably didn’t help Susanne’s stomach, as she almost keeled over in the street. We took a slow pace and walked south through Thamel toward Durbar Square. Susanne had regretted not purchasing a thangka as I had in Patan, so we browsed through several shops until we found one that had a similar selection. We were so impressed with their collection that I ended up buying a second picture along with her.
Once we reached Durbar Square we climbed up the Maju Deval temple, sat ourselves down and began to draw. Susanne tried to capture random individual images, while I attempted to recreate the entire panorama, from the Shiva-Parvati temple all the way to my left to the Kumari Chowk over to my right. During the hour we sat there, numerous kids joined us to check out our work. Most of them were content on watching us draw, while only one or two approached us for “one rupee, one rupee, school pen, or bon bon.” A cute 10-year-old girl taught Susanne the Nepali word for eyes – “akka.”
As the sun began to reach towards the horizon, the temperature plummeted with it, so we returned to the hotel to try to warm up. We got caught in the rush of the late afternoon markets, as hundreds of people bearing fruits and vegetables made their way along the main road and square, Indra Chowk. We stopped at a chemist on a lark to see if they had any Actifed for our cold symptoms – he did, at about 1 rupee per dose. I bought 100. I figured that was more than enough to get both of us through the trip, and they were a steal here compared to the cost of Actifed in the States. There was a tradeoff, though – these pills weren’t coated and tasted absolutely vile. They were so bad we rushed onward to another stall just to buy toffees to get that damn taste out of our mouths.
It’s a slow night at the hotel. After a day like this, I’ll sleep well.
November 17, 1996
I had a pretty poor night’s sleep thanks to a serious of unpleasant coughing fits. But a large pot of tea, a couple of hard boiled eggs (whites only) and a pancake for breakfast helped make up for it. Before getting started with our trips to Patan and Bhaktapur (both former city-states and the two largest cities in the valley after Kathmandu), I returned once again to the email parlor in Thamel. I had been short a few rupees the night before, so I settled my bill and sent another brief message home. We then hopped an autorickshaw for the 20-minute ride to Patan, just south of Kathmandu. The roads were congested and the exhaust was thick, so we promised ourselves to switch to taxis for a while just to give our lungs a breather, so to speak.
Patan’s Durbar Square is similar to Kathmandu’s, with its pagodas, shrines, and royal palace, all contained in a couple of acres. But the square itself was more spacious, thanks to a series of earthquakes that decimated numerous temples over the centuries. As tragic as these losses were, the eventual effect was to create a square that feels much less claustrophobic and crowded than Kathmandu Durbar Square. I can only imagine what Patan must have looked like before the tremors, even as recently as 1934, the time of the last major quake.
Neither Susanne nor I were feeling fully up to snuff this morning, so our stroll around the square was slow and tempered. Within an hour or so of exploring, we were in dire need of refreshment, so we climbed up to a restaurant terrace which afforded a splendid view of the square. It was perhaps one of the few spots one could actually capture much of Durbar Square in a single picture, so we took advantage of it, taking snapshots and enjoying the scenery.
Three cups of tea later, I was ready to explore some more. Below the cafe were several art galleries that specialized in watercolors and thangkas, traditional Tibetan paintings of surreal Buddhist icons and mandalas. I was particularly taken in by one artist who worked in paint and ink to create thangkas with a modern twist – landscapes of Nepal dotted by dozens of small cartoon people, sort of like a Buddhist Where’s Waldo poster. His pictures had a wonderfully touching feel to them, so I broke down and bought one for a little less than $30, signed by the artist. Well worth every penny, I thought.
We then spent a short amount of time at Patan’s Golden Temple, just north of Durbar Square. It’s hidden among modern buildings, which almost caused us to miss it completely. Yet inside the temple’s courtyard we found gilded shrines surrounded by dozens of prayer wheels. It was quite a sight, but as is often the case, we had to keep a distance from the shrine itself, as the grounds of the inner courtyard were closed to non-Hindus (read: Westerners). Susanne and I then headed back to Durbar Square for one last look. It must have been early afternoon at this point, and I figured we had just enough time to get to the ancient city of Bhaktapur 10 kilometers east of us. Three or four hours there should be more than enough time for a nice walk around the city.
The cab ride to Bhaktapur was awful. Susanne nearly got carsick, so we had to sit outside the gates of the city just to be sure that everything was ok. Feeling a bit better, Susanne and I headed into Bhaktapur after paying the the whopping $5 entrance fee. The old city of Bhaktapur is completely sealed off from traffic, so it’s one of the few large towns in Nepal that still maintains its mediaeval flavour. Through the gate, we were greeted by yet another Durbar Square. It is by far the most spacious of the Valley’s three durbar squares, but not unlike Patan’s square, this extra room was the unintended consequence of numerous earthquakes. I had read that many travelers consider Bhaktapur Durbar Square to be the best of the bunch, but by this point, I was feeling a little durbared out, kind of like the feeling you get after visiting one too many French cathedral or Egyptian mosque.
We decided to take a three hour walking tour of the inner bowls of Bhaktapur, following a well-tread route suggested by the LP guide. As soon as we began the walk, the presence of other westerners decreased abruptly. Now we were alone among the local Newari people as they went about their daily business – women sifting grain and drying out chilis in large piles; men hanging thousands of feet of freshly dyed wool; mothers nursing babies; old men giving pujas at the corner Ganesh shrine. We walked as slowly as possible trying to absorb every sight, sound and scent. At one point we climbed a hill to a small temple, where a woman sat and kept watch while talking with a young friend. We we explored the temple, I found a small pill of red tika powder by a lingam, so I put a splotch of it on Susanne’s forehead. As we left the temple, the woman noticed Susanne’s tika and began to laugh hysterically, giggling something in Newari. I took it as a sign of humorous approval. Susanne did not. She removed her tika.
We climbed up another hill into a series of alleyways. Two women were weaving cloth while a boom box blasted some song that sounded distinctly like Motorhead. It was quite odd. As the music faded behind us we returned to a tranquil street setting, with more women sifting grain and drying chilis, while small children in blue school uniforms chased puppies and chickens around the square. (As an aside, the number of puppies in the Kathmandu Valley is astounding. Around every corner, more puppies. I’m convinced that Nepal must have more puppies per square foot than any other country.)
Around 2pm, we reached another square. There was a nice little restaurant with a good view, so we stopped for a light lunch of soup and buffalo milk yogurt – the local specialty. The restaurant had more than its fair share of Americans lounging about, and the amount of English being spoken made me feel claustrophobic. After lunch, we continued east and then south to a rural part of the city. The neighborhood appeared to be poorer than the previous ones we had seen in Bhaktapur, and there were significantly less people around. Clouds appeared overhead, shifting us into a somewhat somber mood. We pushed forward and crossed a river by some small ghats and a Ganesh shrine. Three children were playing on a tree swing above the ghats, so I took a picture with a high shutter speed to see if I could capture one of the kids as the swing reached upward:
We cut back over the river and made a feeble attempt at not getting lost. At one point, we couldn’t decide whether to hang a left or a right in order to return to Durbar Square. Susanne said left, I said right. We tried left for a bit, then backtracked and went right. Suddenly, we were back at the small square we had just eaten an hour earlier. We should have gone left. At least now I was able to get my bearings on the map, and in about ten minutes, we were back where we started, among the pagodas and shrines of the square.
I hailed a cabby to take us back to Thamel. He wanted 350 rupees to take us back – seven dollars. I bargained down to 200 rupees, and we got in the car. We didn’t get far, though, because the streets ahead of us became blocked by a procession of small children with red costumes and big sticks. Our driver said it would be a few minutes before we could get the taxi through the crowded street, so we got out and watched the parade. It was a Newari stick dance. Lined up in two parallel rows, the children would march and dance in unison, and then engage in ritual combat with their sticks, fencing with the kid in the row across from them. Behind the children, a crowd of cheerful adults played instruments and sang, while teenagers weaved in and out of the procession in large papier mache masks. Susanne and I had a field day with our cameras as the children fought with their sticks and parents smiled proudly at their youngsters’ skills.
As the procession moved on, we hit the road again and made it back to Thamel in about 20 minutes. There was still a bit of sunlight left in the day, so I again opted for tea on the roof. A German woman came up top and said guten tag to me, to which I responded with a polite “tag.” She then started to talk away in German until I was able to convey to her that I couldn’t understand a word she said. Susanne and I wrote on the roof while waiting for dinner – I had ordered Gacok, a traditional Tibetan stew which takes several hours to steam, so we waited patiently and worked up an appetite. It was well worth the wait. The gacok was by far the best meal of the trip and in general, one of the most satisfying dinners I’ve ever had. The gacok was served in a metal steamer shaped like a goblet with a donut-shaped mold at the top. In the mold were cellophane noodles, meatballs, chicken, buffalo, vegetables, tofu, prawns, and other random Asian delicacies. Below the mold was a self-contained wood stove that had been smoldering for hours. In the center of the mold was a round hole full of boiling water, so when the mold was covered with a lid, the top of the food would steam while the bottom of the food was heated directly by the burning embers. The gacok was also served with fried rice, momos and noodles. An enormous feast for ten dollars. More expensive than any other meal on the trip, but worth every rupee.
Good food leads to a solid night’s sleep. Tomorrow’s plan: the sacred ghats of Pashupatinath and the great stupa of Bodnath.
November 16, 1996
We slept til 7am and had breakfast on the roof. It was a hazy morning, so you couldn’t see much of the high Himalayan peaks, but the hills that circumscribed the Kathmandu Valley soared and rolled in all directions. We had hot tea, pancakes and eggs – not the usual healthy fare I would swear by at home, but from the amount of running around we were doing, I figured the extra protein and fat wouldn’t kill us. Besides, I already needed to pull into my next belt notch just to keep my pants from falling off. Ah, the side effects of third world travel.
Our first goal of the day was to climb Swayumbunath, the great Buddhist stupa west of the city. For many people, Swayumbunath is the symbol of Kathmandu, with its four sets of eyes peering in all directions. We cut through the main section of Thamel and Chhetrapati, the next neighborhood south, and then headed west over the Vishnumati River. Just before the river we found a small pagoda called the Indrani Temple. It was our first Nepalese pagoda up-close, so it probably got more attention than it deserved. A group of children were wrapping a large banyan tree with yards and yards of string, as if they were having a May Day celebration. We took a few pictures and then continued west for another 15 minutes, as we could see Swayumbunath high up on its hill. The closer we got, the higher it seemed. Man, this was going to be a steep climb.
We were greeted at the base of Swayumbunath hill by several small temple-shrines, as well as artisans, beggars, tourists, autorickshaw-wallahs, and a couple of monkeys. I told Susanne about the 365 steps of Swayumbunath hill – if you can climb to the top without pausing, you’ll have a year of good luck. If you stop along the way, well, you don’t. But about a quarter of the way up, our ailing bodies reminded us that good health is much more important than good luck, so we used our cameras as an excuse to pause and take some pictures. I tired to get a shot of a monkey as it peacefully ate some fruit. Just as I prepared to snap the pictures, the monkey lunged at me a snarled. I got the shot and got out of its way. Swayumbunath was also known as the Monkey Temple, and its monkeys didn’t have a reputation for friendliness. I’d be more cautious from now on.
About 200 feet from the summit, the steps took an extreme increase in attitude. I felt like I had been jogging up Russian Hill in San Francisco. But soon enough, we could see the eyes of Swayumbunath above us. In retrospect, I’m glad my first experience with a Nepalese stupa was right here, high above the Kathmandu Valley. The exhausting ascent made the exhilaration of reaching the top all the more special.
Swayumbunath is a classic Buddhist stupa – a square platform base and a large, white hemispherical body, followed by a square head and a rounded pyramid as a crown. Streamers of prayer flags connected the top of the crown to four smaller shrines that marked off the corners of Swayumbunath, representing the basic elements of earth, water, fire and wind. On the four sides of the head were those mystical eyes of Buddha that make stupas so instantly recognizable. Below each pair of eyes you would see the Nepali number for ‘one,’ which to most Westerners look like Buddha’s nose. And along the round edge of the body, at shoulder level above the platform base, are hundreds of large prayer wheels, each containing thousands of handwritten repetitions of the Buddhist mantra, Om Mani Padme Hum – Hail to the Jewel in the Lotus. As visitors walked around the stupa clockwise (counterclockwise is strictly taboo), they spun the wheels with their hands, emitting the sacred mantra into the ether millions and millions of times.
After pausing to catch our breath and appreciate the moment, we made a semi-circle stroll around the stupa, spinning the wheels as we walked. On the opposite side you could see several hundred people lining up to give pujas to a small shrine of Hariti, the goddess of smallpox and (more importantly) of fertility. Further beyond that were several dozen miniature pagoda shrines of white marble, none larger than a big tombstone, which gave the effect of being at a New Orleans cemetery.
We spent a couple of hours wandering the stupa platform and the shrines surrounding it, taking pictures of monks, children, monkey, and of course, the stupa. The sun was getting at a perfect height for pictures, so we probably went a little nuts with our cameras – I wouldn’t be surprised if Susanne took an entire roll of film of monks. (nothing wrong with that, though the 20 rolls we brought with us may no longer be enough at this rate.) As late morning approached, we decided to head back down the hill and cut southeast over the river towards Durbar Square, the heart of old Kathmandu.
On the way there, we cut through some fairly poor Newari and Tibetan neighborhoods, but even these appeared to be significantly better off than the slums we saw in Delhi and Varanasi. We also met a pair of girls, around 20 years old, both well-dressed and wearing stylish glasses. I figured they were tourists from India. It turns out they were sisters from Kathmandu who were out seeing the sights of their home town. They had a sister at Georgetown and one of them had recently visited her. They certainly stuck out as being very well off, especially by Kathmandu standards. Before they departed our company, I asked what their family did. “We own the Kathmandu Guest House.” Assuming they weren’t messing with me, that would explain a lot.
We crossed a metal footbridge over the Vishnumati river and within a few minutes had reached the southwest corner of Durbar Square. All the major cities in the Kathmandu Valley have what is known as a ‘Durbar Square’ – a ‘durbar’ is a palace. Until a couple of centuries ago, the three main cities of the valley – Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur – were all rival cities states, often in a state of war. Because of their self-imposed isolation from each other, each city had its royal family, its palace, and therefore, its own Durbar Square. Kathmandu’s Durbar Square is actually a series of interconnecting squares and palaces, filled with countless pagodas, shrines, and shops.
It was odd, wandering among the pagodas for the first time. I felt as if I were in Kyoto or Tokyo, for the architecture is so similar. And for good reason – 500 years ago, architects from Nepal went to Japan to help rebuild after a series of earthquakes, so the Japanese picked up and refined the pagoda style into their own architectural form. But just looking at Kathmandu’s great pagodas, like the 13th century wooden shrine of Kasthamandap (which gave Kathmandu its name), you really begin to feel like you’re in the Far East. Considering we’re due south of China, I guess we are in the Far East. It’s just strange thinking about it.
Durbar Square is overpopulated with tourists and touts, so we ducked into a pagoda that appeared to lead to an isolated courtyard. We had stumbled into Kumari Chowk, the courtyard of the Living Goddess Kumari. Quite literally, Kumari is a living goddess, a young girl whose divine reign ends when she reaches puberty. She’s kind of like a female Newari Dalai Lama, but without tenure. There have been Kumaris in Kathmandu since the mid-1700s, and their worship is taken very seriously. As we looked around the small, ornate courtyard, a guard called out something in Newari and then said to us, “Look up! I present the Kumari.” To our left in a 3rd floor window, the Kumari appeared, sporting a headdress and caked in layers of Kabuki-like makeup. She saw us, appeared totally uninterested, and left the balcony in a matter of three or four seconds. The guard then motioned for us to start clapping and to leave a tip on the courtyard shrine. It’s good to be a goddess.
Our next stop was Nasal Chowk, the old palace of the King of Nepal. King Birendra recently moved into a new palace complex northeast of Thamel, but the old palace was still heavily guarded as if he were still a resident. Also standing watch was a 16th century statue of the monkey god Hanuman, who had been coated in so many layers of red paint that he was hardly recognizable. Most of the palace is off-limits to visitors, so we made due with a brief stop in the coronation courtyard. From there, we continued north through the rest of Durbar Square. On the far end of it, we noticed a sadhu sitting on a shrine. He obviously wanted people to take pictures of him (for baksheesh, of course), as I was more than happy to oblige. I got the shot and gave him a couple of rupees. As I walked away, he mumbled something in Nepali that we imagined must have meant “bloody cheap American tourist.”
We continued up through the city back towards Thamel, stopping at the occasional shrine, miniature stupa, or thangka shop. Back at the hotel, we changed clothes and had lunch down the street at Le Bistro, a popular yet overpriced haunt in Thamel. We then browsed some more in Thamel’s many shops, and at one point I made the regrettable decision of asking a wandering Nepalese violin salesman how much his instruments cost. 90 US dollars, he said. I laughed. I had no plans to buy it, but I was just curious as to how much he would try to get from us. Bad idea. The man then started to follow us around for about 15 minutes, ranting about how crazy I must be to ask for a price yet not have an interest in buying. If I’m not interested, why ask, right? An insult! The funniest part of it was that while he followed us and bitched at me, his asking price dropped lower and lower. By the time I got him to buzz off, he wanted only 20 dollars for it. Not bad, but no thanks.
Susanne and I returned to the hotel late in the afternoon to write postcards and have tea on the roof. We ended up having an early dinner as well, with Susanne getting her beloved hot and sour soup, while I had a delicious bowl of Tibetan chicken soup with momos, the Tibetan equivalent to steamed wontons. We then headed back to the room, worked on our journals, and relaxed the evening away, apart from a brief trip I took down the street to pick up email from my dad.