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Vagabonding in Asia 2009, part 5 of 11: Nepal

Table of contents:

Part 1
China, southeast
Part 2
China, southwest
Part 3
China, north
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6
India, south

Part 7
Part 8
Sumatra and Java
Part 9
Bali and Lombok
Part 10
Part 11
Laos, Cambodia, Bangkok

Tour dates: 17 March - 17 May 2009.
Air travel is shown in blue; bus and train travel is shown in pink. The starting point was Hong Kong.

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Saturday, 25 April 2009

The small Nepalese village on the other end of the bridge is small and primitive, but the officers are friendly and relaxed, immigration only takes a few minutes. I set my watch back 2 hours and 15 minutes. They run pickup trucks to Kathmandu from here, so I share one with three Chinese visitors for 600 Nepalese Rupees (Rs); 1 Rs is a little less than 1 euro cent. It takes five very scenic hours through the mountains to reach Kathmandu because the road here is no better shape than the Chinese version. Can't be done without a 4WD.

Thamel district of Kathmandu Garbage-strewn park in Kathmandu
Thamel district of Kathmandu Garbage-strewn park in Kathmandu

In past blog entries I have complained about China's faceless and sterile cities. Kathmandu isn't like that at all. It's a noisy chaotic maelstrom and we passed through suburbs that looked a little like third-world slums, complete with smoking garbage dump fields with scavenging animals. Downtown is ok, but still very crowded and cars are squeezing through impossibly tight alleys, honking at everything that moves. Kathmandu is so alive with chaos that Beijing feels like a mausoleum in comparison. It was also very warm, and 4000 meters lower than yesterday so I hardly needed to breathe at all. Same odd feeling I had when reaching Lhasa, only in reverse. Now I understand why bicycle athletes train in Peru.

I was staying at the Tibet Peace Guesthouse at the edge of the Thamel downtown region. It offers what seems impossible here - it's quiet, it has a fairly spacious garden with flowers and little tables to relax (and which my room overlooks), and I heard birds sing. I did walk around Thamel for a while. Kathmandu's smog is worse than the one in Bangkok. The policemen and soldiers so common in Beijing and Lhasa are absent here. Once some guy came up to me and whispered, "hasheesh?" Ah, Kathmandu...

Sunday, 26 April 2009

Kathmandu's Durbar Square is a temple complex centered on the old royal palace, now a museum. Dozens of pagoda temples with tiered roofs and stepped terraces, some low and some nearly as tall as the pagoda on top. Plus a shining white neoclassical palace in the middle that looks quite out of place there. The pagodas are made from wood, mostly cracked and without paint. The carving is incredibly detailed and really deserves repair. Cows, dogs, and pigeons wander freely; have to watch out not to step on a sleeping dog. It's quite hot.

Durbar Square in Kathmandu Durbar Square in Kathmandu
Edge of Durbar Square in Kathmandu Holy man posing for money
Durbar Square in Kathmandu

Cars, motorcycles, and rickshaws go through this Unesco World Heritage, honking all the time to get the tourists out of their way. I saw an open army truck, four soldiers standing in front and eight in the back, and lots of handcuffed people in between.

This is a fantastic place if only they had shielded the place from the encroaching city and its traffic better. And spent more effort on restoration. The whole of Kathmandu I saw has many little temples, old houses with the same fantastic intricate wood carving, and beautiful old plazas - but it's all neglected, decrepit, and not too clean, especially outside downtown. The Rata park is positively filthy. Like in China, people drop their garbage where they stand, but unlike China the armies of sweepers are absent.

Monday, 27 April 2009

There's more than Kathmandu in the valley. Swayambhunath, a.k.a. the monkey temple, sits on top of a hill with a very long stairway leading up to it. Visitors get waylaid by souvenir vendors every 20 steps or so. The main stupa totally looks like a huge birthday cream cake with a candle in the middle. And the usual prayer drums, statues locked away in little shrines, and butter lamps. The temple is clean because they literally throw all garbage over the walls, where hordes of monkeys sort through it.

Swayambhunath, the monkey temple, in Kathmandu Swayambhunath, the monkey temple, in Kathmandu
Swayambhunath, the monkey temple, in Kathmandu

Speaking of garbage - on the way to the monkey temple I crossed Kathmandu's Vishnumati River, which is so dirty that there is more garbage than water on the surface. I am beginning to like Kathmandu's chaotic, loud, and crowded Thamel downtown, at least they are taking care of it.

Public well in Kathmandu Kathmandu's garbage-choked river
Public well in Kathmandu Kathmandu's garbage-choked river

My second temple of the day was Boudha on the other side of Kathmandu. This one is the mother of all cream cakes, on top of three huge terraces. It's surrounded by a circular ring of buildings, most of them souvenir shops of course but there are few visitors. Their style, if not the ornamentation, feels almost mediterranean and is very pleasant to walk. This is a Tibetan community, and it very much feels like Tibet except that you can say "Dharamsala" [the Indian exile of the Dalai Lama] without risking to get arrested.

Tibetan temple in Kathmandu's Boudha district
Tibetan temple in Kathmandu's Boudha district

Back in Kathmandu, I checked out Freak Street, but it's a tired shadow of its '60s fame. All the action, piercing and tattoo shops, forlorn-looking rasta youths, and hasheesh hawkers are now in Thamel.


Tuesday, 28 April 2009

The bus ride to Pokhara northwest of Kathmandu takes seven hours. The bus is supposed to be the best they have but it's wheezing up the mountains at 25 km/h. But it's clean and everyone has a seat, unlike on Nepalese local buses, which pack as many people, bags, and animals as they can fit inside and on the roof. Trucks, buses, cars, motorcycles, animals, and people carrying impossible loads share the narrow road. We passed eight army checkpoints because of some Maoist rebel activity, but everything is quiet at the moment so there is no delay. (Later in Pokhara, I saw a small group of protesters carrying red hammer-and-sickle flags shouting paroles walk past the Internet café.)

Tourist district of Pokhara Residential district of Pokhara
Tourist district of Pokhara Residential district of Pokhara

Pokhara is touristy, as usual meaning many souvenir shops and trekking agencies but not a lot of actual tourists. An amusing number of teenagers do their very best to look like their hippy parents back in the sixties. Pokhara is supposed to be like Thamel but it's far too relaxed for that, and much more spacious. And warmer. Unfortunately it has become hazy again so I can't see the mountains; Pokhara is located at the Phewa lake in the Annapurna range of the Himalayas. Maybe tomorrow.

I had dinner at the Thic Thac restaurant in Pokhara. I pointed at a fish in a tank, and twenty minutes later I had it on a plate. I wonder if the fish in the tank tell legends according to which it's a bad omen if big shadows appear in the sky for a minute. Is there life outside the tank?

At night I could see the mountains, at least where the forest fires burn.

Wednesday, 29 April 2009

The next morning, I walked around the dam into the hills. There are no signs, so I work like a wild west trapper - broken twigs, a paler shade of brown leaves, scratches on stones - and of course the trail of plastic bottles, soda cans, candy wrappers, and chips bags also helps. I always know after 50m when I lost the garbage trail. Got rowed back across the lake by two children, who, like everyone else here, speak English.

Rice fields on the other side of the mountain Temple on an island in the lake
Rice fields on the other side of the mountain Temple on an island in the lake

Also walked to Old Pokhara, where real people live and nobody sells souvenirs and trekking tours. It's fairly dirty, especially in between, where people hammer on radiators, lay in oil puddles under buses, cut trucks into small pieces and recycle tires are way past recycling. If there was such a thing as subsistence engineering that's what they would be doing. It was a long, hot, and polluted march. The old downtown itself is fairly nice, a no-frills neighborhood with a little market, and the Seti river which is very narrow but flows so fast that it has cut a 50-meter deep gorge through the town. You hear it but it's difficult to see deep down.

Spent a little time on the monastery-and-temple circuit, but it's quite unremarkable.

Thursday, 30 April 2009

The next day, a van took me up 600m on top of Sarangkot Mountain. I got a harness that is clipped into my pilot's harness, I ran a few steps down the hill, the parachute inflated and we were up in the air above Nepal's Pokhara valley. We were circling for a while to find the thermals rising up from the valley, and they carried us up a kilometer above the valley. The views of the mountain ridges, the valley, and the lake were fantastic. Unfortunately it's still hazy; on a clear day the Annapurna range of the Himalayas is visible from here. The flight was quite smooth, with only a little buffeting above the mountain ridges. My pilot is a paraglider acrobat but I declined his offers to show me how to drop 30m per second. After half an hour, we stopped circling the thermals, and gently floated down to the lake, and landed in some fields where the van waited. Totally exhilarating!

Truck in Pokhara Paragliding from the top of Sarangkot mountain
Truck in Pokhara Paragliding from the top of Sarangkot mountain

Friday, 1 May 2009

Got a thunderstorm in Pokhara last night unlike any thunderstorm I have seen before. Strongs wind bent the trees, there was torrential rain, and lightning. At home you can estimate the distance of a lightning flash by timing the delay between flash and thunder. Not so here. There were many flashes per second, far too many to count. The sky flickered like a broken flourescent light.

And it cleared the sky. The next morning I got up at 5:00 and took a taxi up on Sarangkot, and was rewarded with a last view of the Himalayas - the Annapurna range in the background and the holy mountain of Machhapuchhare, shaped like a perfect pyramid, lit up in the morning sun. Pokhara is at 800 meters and the peaks rise up to 7000m. As the sun rose, the mountains once again faded into the mists like apparitions.

The bus ride back to Kathmandu took seven hours. Not much to report there; various accidents, huge trucks belching black smoke as they creep up the mountains, and the delight of returning to Thamel's chaos. I was staying at the Tibetan Peace Hotel again, in the same room overlooking their lovely quiet garden.

Bakhtapur and Patan in the Kathmandu Valley

Saturday, 2 May 2009

Kathmandu is only one of three royal cities in Nepal. The other two are Bakhtapur and Patan, each of which has a Durbar Square similar to Kathmandu's. Smaller, but much less commercial, and there are few tourists. (I seemed to be fairly lucky on this front so far.) The Bakhtapur temple complex contains an Erotic Elephant Temple. A local specialty is homemade yoghurt, very rich and creamy. I helped a Nepalese who had spent some time in Germany to fill out his Rentenbeitragsrückerstattungsformular.

Durbar Square in Bakhtapur in the Kathmandu Valley Durbar Square in Bakhtapur in the Kathmandu Valley
Durbar Square in Bakhtapur in the Kathmandu Valley

In Patan, the Machhendranath Festival is on, which involves carting an icon around for a month in two huge temple chariots with two-meter wooden wheels, and a huge tilting tree-like thing on top. It looks thoroughly impractical. They move so slowly that children play under the carts. The purpose of the whole thing is praying for rain, which has a good chance of success because the monsoon rains are approaching around that time of the year anyway.

In Patan I had lunch at the edge of the Durbar Square, in a restaurant on several levels. I climbed all the way to the top, where a single small table stood on a tiny platform barely larger than the table, which could be reached only by a steep steel stairway. Great views, great food.

Street in Bakhtapur in the Kathmandu Valley Erotic Elephant carving in Bakhtapur
Street in Bakhtapur Erotic Elephant carving in Bakhtapur

Returning from Bakhtapur was tricky because two bombs were found on a bus there, and police were rerouting traffic away from the Kathmandu-Bakhtapur road. Rumors flew that an army convoy was blown up, but actually the bombs didn't explode. So instead of seeing that filthy third-world slum road a third time, the taxi (yes mom, I don't use local buses in Nepal, I don't want to get squeezed to death by goats) had to detour through the villages. And they aren't rich, but clean and pleasant. Maybe my initial impression of Kathmandu's suburbs really was too negative. We also saw long lines at gas station, they have fuel shortages. (And power outages, all the time.)

What is Tiger Balm anyway? Half the town sells that stuff.

Children playing ping-pong in Bakhtapur Machhendranath Festival in Patan in the Kathmandu Valley
Children playing ping-pong in Bakhtapur Machhendranath Festival in Patan

The original idea was to take the bus to Varanasi in India, but that would have meant about three full days in buses in places that aren't very safe (they still have communist rebels in the Terai and in northeastern India), and it's difficult to go south from Varanasi too, so I reversed my schedule and flew to Mumbai (formerly Bombay), where I am now writing this post. Not much to report.

I have deleted my flickr albums because I no longer trust US cloud services.

If you liked this report and would like to read my exotic travel guide, click here.

Continue to Part 6: Southern India >>>

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