Kathmandu and around

October 2018

I found Kathmandu very fascinating. The dusty narrow streets, the constant smell of incense, the brightly colored sarees worn by women, the crowded and busy streets, fruit vendors on bikes, old and rickety but colorful rickshaws, stupas big and small, the Hindu shrines in almost every corner and people greeting you Namaste when you pass by. What amazes me the most is the rich Buddhist and Hindu traditions of this place. I find it faacinating that these traditions that had been in existence for thousands of years are still very much alive and are right in front of my eyes.

Arriving early in the morning, we tried to stay awake and  wandered the streets without a specific place in mind to go.  With basically zero sense of orientation of the city,  we walked the main street of Thamel and it overwhelmed all our senses.  The neverending honking of scooters, the smell of incense, the colorful displays of pashminas and anything you’d ever need for a hiking expedition, and the constant need to jump out of a scooters way or a rickshaw. There are shrines everywhere, almost in every corner, small and big, all full of red and orange stuff  that had been rubbed by devotees into it. We would linger in busy intersections and watch the hustle and bustle around us.  We kept walking and ended up in a plaza with a stupa, encircled by prayer wheels and laced with prayer flags.  That was the first time I’ve circumnavigated a stupa and spun the prayer wheels. It was also in this place that a guy approached us, saying he is an art student and would like to practice his english, and it turns out this is a common line that we would hear more than once throughout our stay. He kept talking to us, as if being friendly, but eventually acting like he has become our guide. That’s when we left and turned into a street while he wasn’t looking.

We reached Indra Chowk, one of the busiest intersections of old Kathmandu, and stayed there until we started feeling too sleepy.  We sat at an empty table and watched in awe as people stop by the shrine for prayers and rituals. Some would circumnavigate the shrine and ring the bell, some would make a sign of the cross, some would spray water into their face, some would light a butter lamp, some would just say a prayer, some would offer some marigold flowers to the deity, and most would get a piece of tika (a mixture of rice, yogurt and vermillion) and put it in their forehead, then place a pinch of marigold petals on the top of their heads. It was still Dasain festival, so elders/parents would put tika on the forehead of the younger members of the family for abundance for the coming year. 

On our way back to our hotel, we passed by the impressive Kathesimbu stupa, with several chaityas  (smaller shrines) around it, and a monastery on one end.

On our second day,  we then again walked the streets of the main touristy backpacker area of Thamel, passed by traditional markets, spun prayer wheels on stupas, found Buddhist courtyards, residential courtyards with Hindu shrines, and eventually made our way to the Kathmandu Durbar Square, which houses the Royal Palace and several temples, including the bahal of Nepals real and living goddess, Kumari Devi.  Unfortunately, most of these temples suffered a lot of damage in the 2015 earthquake and a lot completely collapsed. Some temples and towers are now just a pile of rubble on an empty plinth. Most of the ones left left have wooden supports on them and you can clearly see the cracks created by the quake. Nevertheless, it’s still an amazing place to see these temples built in the Newari style with their intricate wooden carvings.

Next day, we took a cab and ventured out of Kathmandu to Bhaktapur, the 3rd of the medieval city-states in the Kathmandu Valley. The 40-minute cab ride from Kathmandu brought us to the city gate, where we had to pay 1,500 rupees to be able to enter the city. I’m not sure if it’s the stark contrast with Kathmandu’s never-ending honking cars and scooters, the throng of tourists, and the traffic along the highway, but stepping inside the city gates of Bhaktapur gave me a strange eerie feeling. As we took our first few steps on the dusty cobblestoned steps past the city gate, I don’t know whether I time-warped back into the medieval times or if I got dropped right into a city that just got abandoned after a major catastrophe, or both. Cars are not allowed inside the city gates so the street seemed so empty. I felt like I was being watched as we walked the street lined with old brick and wooden buildings that are either abandoned or about to collapse.

It was sad to see all the medieval Newari buildings complete with intricately carved wooden posts and roof struts in such neglected state, mostly uninhabitable. It’s even more worrisome to see people still living in some of them, just with long wooden poles supporting the walls of the buildings. It got a bit busier as we approached the main square. We passed by a group of chinese tourists with their guide, some locals drying rice in a courtyard and of course the numerous Hindu shrines along the way.

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Street from city gate
bhaktapur (3 of 1)
Street leading to Durbar Square
bhaktapur (5 of 1)
Sifting rice

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We eventually reached the square called Taumadhi Tole which is dominated by the sky-high tower of Nyatapole Temple, the tallest temple in all of Nepal. It was pretty impressive, considering most of these tall temples in the valley had already collapsed from the quake.

We lingered for a while in this square before continuing on to Durbar Square. The damage on Durbar Square can still be clearly seen, with piled rubbles in the middle of the square and temples reduced to empty plinths. Luckily there are still several of these medieval buildings left and some are currently being restored. Hopefully the city can recover sooner than later, houses rebuilt and temples restored.

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It was a full moon that day, so we reserved the evening for a visit to Boudhanath.  Boudhanath, situated in the outskirts of Kathmandu is the largest Tibetan Buddhist monument outside of Tibet and about 30-40 minutes cab ride from Kathmandu through unpaved muddy rough and crowded road.  I had always dreamt of standing on this monument, looking up to the all seeing eyes of Buddha and gazing at the prayer flags fluttering in the wind. Standing right in front of one of the world’s largest stupa, it was just how I’ve dreamt it to be and more.

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 It was almost 5pm and the monument site is teeming with activity, with droves of devotees arriving and starting their kora (the ritual circumnavigation) of the dome. We walked clockwise around the stupa along with the crowd as pilgrims held on to their prayer beads and spun the prayer wheels that line the perimeter wall. There is something calming being part of a throng of humanity all walking into the same direction. Then traffic slows down as we reached the main altar where maroon-clad Tibetan monks are gathered around a massive offering bowl that was quickly filling up with bagged popcorn and biscuits handed over by devotees (and a couple of sacks of rice). We lingered at the main altar for a while and watched the monks do their ceremonial chants, accompanied by horns and Tibetan drums. Right next to the main altar is an incense bowl where devotees stop by to either dip their prayer beads into the smoke, or fan some to their face, or buy a cup of dried juniper to dump into the bowl to keep the incense going.

We went up the stupa, walked around and watched all the activities happening around. Some doing their ritual prayer bows, monks and devotees sitting cross legged along the pilgrims path, pilgrims handing over money to monks, some lighting butter lamps. It was an amazing experience standing on this massive monument that brings all these people together. Around the stupa are numerous stores, gompas (monasteries) and Tibetan workshops. We went up one that’s right across the main altar and watched the monks as they continue to do their ceremonial chants and offerings. The gompa also had a room full of huge Buddha statues though photography was not allowed. We went up the uppermost floor and found tables full of butter lamps. One guy at the corner is continuously cooking butter (ghee) while another pours the ghee from a teapot making sure the lamps are not empty. It was starting to get dark and the view of the stupa from where we were was just breathtaking. This was probably one of my most favorite moments in Kathmandu. I lit a few butter lamps, we did one more complete kora around the stupa and headed back to our hotel.

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Day 4 brought us to Patan, also known as Lalitpur in Sanskrit, which is the second of the 3 medieval-states in the Kathmandu Valley and another UNESCO World Heritage Site.  It’s a short cab ride from Kathmandu and by this time, I’ve gotten pretty good at haggling with cab drivers.  We got dropped off by the entrance of Patan’s Durbar Square and immediately right by the entrance is a (Bhuddist) stupa.  This city has a long history of Bhuddism so there are much more stupas found here than Kathmandu or Bhaktapur.  Though this city fared better than Kathmandu from the earthquake, some temples were not spared and are currently under construction.  The Patan square is probably the smallest among the three Durbar Squares but it is packed with temples, one of which is the Krishna Mandir which is constructed from carved stone, which makes it different from the usual temples made of brick and timber.  As we were walking and taking pictures, we heard some sort of music and drumming coming from inside the Royal Palace.  We went inside a gateway flanked by 2 lions, and found a crowd inside the courtyard gathering around several men wearing colorful costumes and masks performing some ritualistic dance.  We squeezed into the crowd and took pictures of the dancers.  After some time, we were just about ready to leave when the dancing stopped so we were curious on what’s going to happen next. The men in masks sat on chairs surrounding a small shrine and women, men and children went around bowing and giving something (I think money) to each of the masked men.  More rituals were performed, pouring water followed by some orange-colored powder and flower petals in front of the seated masked men.  Little do we know what we were about to witness and we weren’t prepared for the events that followed.  A goat was brought in the middle of the square, and it was then that we realized what was going on.  There was going to be an animal sacrifice.  Curiosity got the better of me so we stayed.  It was such a surreal experience.  Each of the masked men took turns drinking the goat’s blood from the neck where the incision was made.  After the goat, a young buffalo was brought into the square and the same masked men also drank from the buffalo’s blood. We left the courtyard at that time.  Somehow that made us very exhausted so we just sat outside the palace and just watched people go by, still trying to grasp the entire event that we just witnessed.  Later on we learned that it was the last day of Dasain festival, and on this day it’s been a tradition to perform an animal sacrifice to the goddess Durga, the fearless blood-thirsty form of Parvati (Shiva’s wife) and the personal deity of the Malla Kings. It was getting later in the afternoon so we started walking a few blocks past the square, past the usual market stores, then decided to try momos from a local hole in the wall.  An order of momos (about 10 dumplings) cost $1.

It was such a surreal experience and somehow made us feel exhausted so we basically called it a day after that. I was actually surprised that this ritual still exist, but then I also read later that this ritual is starting to get some resistance from animal rights activist.

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On Day 5, we had Swayambunath and Pashupatinath on our plans. The Swayambunath stupa is another Unesco World Heritage site and an important Buddhist pilgrimage site in Kathmandu. This one is still within Kathmandu and sits on top of a hill. The 365 steps to go up the temple is a monkey playground! There’s tons – and I mean TONS – of monkeys around hence this temple is also called the monkey temple. I have to admit though that after being at the impressive Boudhanath the night before, this was a little underwhelming. It’s much smaller didn’t take very long to circumnavigate the stupa. We did linger for a while just watching people (it looked like there was something important going on people all dressed up in really nice sarees and kurtis and all lined up waiting to get to this one prayer altar of some sort). On our way down, we watched the monkeys do their monkey stuff. I have never seen so much monkeys all in one place in my life.

Next on our plan was Pashupatinath.  Pashupatinath on the Bagmati River is Nepal’s equivalent to India’s Varanasi on the sacred Ganges (though not as big). This is where Nepal’s most important Hindu temple is and it’s most important location for open-air cremations. As we approached the holy Bagmati River, we could already see the air thick with smoke. Since it was midday, I really wasn’t expecting anything and just wanted to see the site but it seemed cremations started in the morning and so there were several (at least a dozen) that was either in progress or waiting to start when we got there. The main Hindu Temple sits on the bank of the Bagmati river, and only Hindus are allowed to enter. Right below the temple are the eastern ghats (stone steps that leads down to the river) and cremation platforms. We headed to the opposite bank of the river, along with many other people (more locals than tourists I noticed). Although bodies were prepared for cremation right in front of the main temple, only members of the royal family can actually be cremated in those eastern ghats. Families gather around their loved one as they perform pre-cremation rituals, including pouring something (I couldn’t make out what it is) and wrapping the body in layers of shrouds and marigold flowers. I saw one man having his head shaved, which is also a Hindu practice where the eldest male in the family does when the father of the family passes away. I didn’t take much pictures as I feel it would be intrusive to the family during a vulnerable time but I wanted to show the place so I waited until the ghats were empty before taking a couple of pictures from my phone. Once pre-cremation rituals are done, the body gets carried to the other side (western ghats) where a stack of wooden pyre awaits for the actual cremation. We ended up staying for a long time, captivated by the whole scene.  Just like everyone says, it does make you reflect on death and mortality. The atmosphere was somber but I could feel how important the ritual is to the families.

On Day 6, our last day in Kathmandu, we decided to go mountain biking.  We went with an outfitter called Himalayan Single Tracks, who provided us with bikes, helmets and a guide.  That morning, we (along with out bikes and our guide, Tula) were dropped off to Shivapuri National Park by a pickup truck. We went pretty high up, through forested roads, past several military checkpoints, past a military academy, and finally reached our starting point. Ride started with some flowy single tracks hugging the rim of the park, hence giving us views of the valley. It was a pretty cool trail.

Then we had to do a looonnnggg climb on a (very) rocky trail. At some point I just had to walk my bike, my legs couldn’t do it anymore. But that also meant we had a long downhill at the end, passing by villages giving us a glimpse of village life. I personally had a lot of glimpse since I was walking my bike a lot by then 😂. The first part of the downhill was on steep sandy road that kept going I was afraid I’d wore off the brake pads of my bike.  As we got lower and reached the foothill villages, the roads were very rutted and tricky, as they are mainly the village roads used for walking or scooters. We also saw a makeshift swing made of long bamboo poles customarily made by villagers for kids to play in during festival season (and we asked the kids if we can try it too). We also stopped at a store in one of the villages and we had their local semi-fermented beer called Chaang which is served in a bowl. We also had some snacks that are like dried noodles with spices.  That was a little fun stop. We get to feel the village life even for a short period of time.

Continuing on downhill, we finally reached the flatlands and this is where the white-knuckle adventure started, riding the streets of Kathmandu on a bike! We’re talking narrow unpaved muddy streets in the outskirts of the city where there’s a million scooters appearing from nowhere going in all sorts of directions, mini buses which just randomly stops anywhere, cabs that squeezes itself in the narrowest space there is, and no such thing as lanes of course – and oh, the occasional cows you have to avoid running into. And there we were, in our bikes finding our space in all this chaos, riding elbow to elbow with scooters, squeezing between mini buses and trucks – and then of course crossing or turning the main Kathmandu highways, and remembering they drive on the left side! We reached the neighborhood of Boudha and stopped at a cafe for some Momo’s (the owner was also a cyclist so he gave us free slices of cake!). It was probably one of the bravest things I’ve ever done (and I think that says a lot coming from me). In the end, I have to say I’m really proud I survived the streets unscathed 😂😭 I wish I had my GoPro with me because I can’t really explain how it is being in the middle of those highways and streets on a bike. So of course I don’t have any photos of that part because I was just trying my best to stay alive.

We crashed into our hotel beds, recounting the day’s adventure, completely exhausted but proud of ourselves.

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