Monday, May 9, 2011

My Last Days in the Kathmandu Valley

With these being my last few days in Nepal and of my entire trip, I've been taking it easy. I'm still having a good time, but my batteries are low and I'm ready to come home. But until then, I've got to occupy my time somehow, so as always here are the last few days:

As I had just returned from a week away kayaking and then going to Chitwan, the first full day back in Kathmandu was for relaxing and catching up on the blog. I finished one book, started another, and spent way to long posting the last entry because the internet was going so slow (also, the post was probably a bit long...) This is the sun setting over Kathmandu from the roof of my guest house.

The next day I had only one plan, to go to Swayambhunath, or the 'Monkey Temple'. It is a few km outside of Thamel and I wanted to just slowly wander the neighborhoods on the way to see a bit more of Nepali life. Garbage and cows everywhere is something I'm going to have to get used to not seeing everywhere when I come home, haha.

Continuing to walk up the road to the temple, I passed many shops including this one. This man is making the 'singing bowls' by hand. Here he has the bowl held up, and with a hammer and chisel is making the Buddha designs by hand. That is one thing I'll really miss about coming home: the fact we just don't make many things. I love walking down the street and seeing people working with their hands making jewelry, carving furniture, repairing shoes and any number of other activities.

This is the entrance to the temple at the bottom of the hill. There are a ton of little stupas and prayer wheels. One thing I enjoyed is that the site is also very near a mosque, and in the same place I saw a mixture of Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists. The stairs up are fairly long and filled with people asking for money, selling trinkets or trying to be a guide. The fee to get in for foreigners was 200 rupees.

And the stupa at the top, with Buddhas all seeing eyes watching over Kathmandu. The top is full of the same tourist junk shops selling exactly the same things as every other stand in Nepal, but there are a number of other nice buildings and sculptures in the complex and the view over the city is great.

There is also a Buddhist monetary at the top, watching and looking there made me feel like I was in McLeod Ganj India again! After I'd had my fill of Buddhist imagery for the day I walked back down the hill, got a shave for 50 rupees, wandered the streets of Kathmandu a bit more and headed back into Thamel.

Back at my guest house I was still in relax mood, so I sat on the rooftop with a book and a beer, just chilling out and listening to the sounds of the city. I had a delicious veggie burger for dinner (for some reason, Kathmandu seems to have great veggie burgers, I've had a few) and called it a night.

In the morning, I packed up my things and headed to the bus station for the roughly hour long ride. Another thing I'm going to have to get used to when coming home is that you can't take goats on the bus. Anyways, I hopped on a bus for 15 rupees (though the guy tried to cheat me out of another 15, then another 5 before I told him that I wasn't giving him a single extra rupee) and headed for the city of Bhaktapur. The road between Kathmandu and Bhaktapur is in fact 'international standard' and it shows as that it was the only modern road I've seen in the country. This fact however, is unfortunately only because project was done by the Japanese, and there are signs with Japanese flags on them telling as much. On one hand it shows how developed nations can come to a country and make critical improvements, but at the same time it is kind of sad and shows a massive failure of government (and the Nepali government truly is a failure) when the only modern infrastructure in a nation is only the result of help from another nation.

Bhaktapur is the third main town in the valley after Kathmandu and Patan and it is a sort of restored/preserved medieval town. Like the road to get to it, the town was restored and developed by foreigners, in this case the Germans. They paved streets (in brick), restored buildings and built waste-water management systems. The result of this is that the town itself is a tourist draw and you have to pay a whopping 1100 rupees/$15 to get in. After the initial help from the Germans, the entrance fees go to keeping the town clean and restoring buildings. This photo is of the eastern gate where the bus dropped me off and where I paid for my ticket.

Inside the gates is a fascinating maze of streets, alleys and walkways weaving between brick and wood buildings up to 400 years old. The town is known in particular for it's wood carvings and the intricate work on the buildings does not disappoint.

I walked down the main road through Duttatraya Square and found myself a room for 300 rupees. Rooms are more expensive here than in Thamel and my room was fairly dingy and without a bathroom but it was fine.

With my room settled I went out to explore and right away I was totally charmed. Very active street life is one of my favorite things about this part of the world and the town didn't disappoint. One very popular activity I saw all over was groups of men (and only men) playing board games and card games.

One of the countless alley ways that go through the town.

So while the men are playing, the women are working I guess (not that unusual really...). Here the women are dipping water out of one of the many communal wells to do the laundry.

Graffiti in town.

And life on the main street. One of the nicest things about Bhaktaopur is the lack of traffic. The main road has some cars and buses and as always people are always squeezing motorcycles into places you could have never thought possible, but in general there are very few vehicles making it even better to just pick a direction and wander.

This is Nyatapola Temple, built in 1702 and residing in the Taumadi Square.

And the sun setting on the Bhairab temple sitting right next to it.

As I continued wandering, I found another little square, one lacking any spectacular temples and thus, any other tourists. I sat down to watch some kids playing soccer and building a ramp for a bike, when I was approached by this man, Ek Raj Risjal. We began to chat and after telling me how much he loves tourists and that his daughters are in school abroad, that he studied astrology in school for two years. We looked up at the of the moon and I asked him if it was good for my return home in a few days (not that I believe in astrology).

He then proceeded to tell me my whole future, which goes as such: I'll get a girlfriend next year, we will meet on Christmas eve, she will be from Oregon and her name begins with a 'K' and she is young, 21. She will propose to me, and I'll be married at 27. She will go on to be a doctor and skin specialist. We will have three kids, two girls then a boy. At 36 I will start my own business, a small cafe, and will run it very well. At 40 I will be 'the boss' whatever he meant by that. At some point, forget when, I start a tourism business because I love to travel and will have done so much of it by then. I retire early and at 60 I begin doing social work around the world and am 'a god'. My wife is very good to me, and I have a good life. Finally, on May 16th I die, at 103.

The next morning I set out on the wander again, heading to Durbar Square, the largest of the squares. It has a number of important and beautiful buildings, statues and other items and despite everything that stands today, it used to be even more grand before the earthquake of 1934 that heavily damaged the city. 

This day was a Hindu holiday and the day to sacrifice a goat to the gods. As such, the streets were filled with men (and again, only men) carrying the decapitated heads of goats on platters with offerings. The headless bodies were carried in various ways, some tied on bamboo poles, others simply stuffed onto the back of a bicycle. 

One other attraction in the square is the National Museum. I paid the 100 rupee entrance fee and was greeted with rooms of exclusively religious paintings and sculpture, as art tended to be at the time, and lots of dark dark spaces. Like everywhere in Nepal Bhaktapur has the same limited electricity and thus there were no lights operating. It made it rather hard to see most of the items on display which was disappointing, but still worth the visit.

Another look at Durbar Square.

Continuing my journey around town I found one street that was particulary busy processing the bodies of the sacrificial goats. The process was to lay the body in the street, cover it in straw and burn it a few times. They are then skinned and taken apart piece by piece. I watched as people were emptying goat stomachs into the gutters, rinsing out intestines and sorting various bits in bowls. Just imagine if you tried to do this back in America, haha.

I continued to Potters Square, with pottery being another specialty of the town. This is a kiln for firing the pieces, where they stay for 4 days. I ended up buying one of my first tourist trinkets here, a little Buddha for 50 rupees, about 70 cents, all I was willing to pay for it, haha.

More of the famous Newari architecture and woodwork.

I sat down a number of different places to read my book, and each time I was harassed by kids asking for money, chocolate or other handouts. It was really strange, nowhere else I've been in Nepal has it been half as bad as it is here in Bhaktapur, and the strangest thing was the kids were usually well dressed and didn't look like beggars at all. These kids mostly wanted to chat and one spoke English fairly well, but they also asked for money and treats. I generally have a no handouts policy, but I'm willing to give out pens for school or whatever and luckily I had some on me which I passed out.

In the evening, I went out to a local restaurant for some buffalo momos which were quite tasty, and spend the rest of the evening listening to the rain and reading my book.

The next morning I went out just to wander again. While I didn't manage to witness any of the sacrifices the previous day, the evidence of the event was easy to come by.

A short walk out of the crowded central part of town small scale agriculture, mostly vegetables, ringed the area.

A group of school children singing, marching to drums and doing some sort of exercise/stretching in the street. As I was sitting down reading and people watching, I saw a local guy who I'd met the day before, and he invited me to walk with him to another village for the day. I had planned on leaving that day and had to check out of my room within an hour so I told him I couldn't, but after he left I felt stupid and regretted it. I didn't really have anything to get back to Kathmandu for, I could have easily spent another night in Bhaktapur, and those kind of experiences with locals are always the best, so I kicked myself for not going afterward...

I hopped the bus back to Kathmandu around noon. On the way I noticed there were probably 100 or so riot police at two intersections on the main road. I asked someone on the bus what it was about and was told the previous day a family of five had been hit by a bus. It wasn't clear to me why a traffic accident made 100 riot cops necessary the next day, but as I've mentioned before Nepal has a major police and military presence and this kind of thing is just part of everyday life.

Overall I was really happy I went to Bhaktapur and would recommend it to anyone.  It is a quiet friendly place with vibrant street life, tons of beautiful buildings, and a much nicer place to relax than Thamel, no doubt about that.  It really does feel like a time warp walking around the town and the expensive entrance fee was I think well worth it.

I returned to Kathmandu and Thamel and carrying my bags, was immediately perused by everyone offering rooms. One guy said 700 rupees, then 500 rupees, then down to 300 rupees, which was the price I was looking for. I followed him, and he ended up taking me to the place I'd stayed at before my two nights in Bhaktapur, the place I was headed to anyways, haha. As I sat on the rooftop again, this old monkey came by. It was a little strange to see a monkey on the 5th story of a building in town as I had not seen it before here, but whatever, they are all over so why not? This one in particular is very old looking, has tons of hair falling out and has a gimp back leg so it hops around on three.

On the rooftop, I met a few other guests who are staying in the place as well, from Germany, Quebec, and Switzerland, and we got to chatting. I think we began chatting around 3pm and once it had been dark for a while we finally decided to go down and get some dinner. We ended up at one of the ritzier places I've been here in Kathmandu, a place called OR2K or something like that, and sat down to eat. I ordered a stuffed vegetable platter and it was delicious. After dinner we returned to the rooftop where we continued talking until about 1am.

So, by the time I make my next post, I'll be home, yikes! I hope to see a few more sights, then just take care of business I need to do before leaving. Getting laundry done, buying a few things, making sure my bag packs well, that kind of thing. Then I fly out Thursday afternoon, so that day will really just be sleeping in, eating and then waiting in the airport. My flight takes me back to Delhi, then all the way to Chicago, then to Seattle, arriving Friday the 13th at 11am if things go according to schedule.