Hippies and Kathmandu
Sep 27, 2008
|Expecting to arrive in Kathmandu at midday, we actually did not end up there until about 6pm due to flooding at the airport and having to be diverted to Calcutta for a few hours (I guess it is the end of the monsoon season). Our first impressions of the city was the hectic airport and during the ride from the airport in the pouring rain which took about an hour due to traffic jams, lunatic drivers, blaring horns and people walking in front of cars. So rather a busy city we decided.
The first evening we did not venture out much (our recently purchased second season of Prison Break was calling), however we did manage to try the local dish of dal bhat - basically a lentil soup, rice and curry. We ate the lentil soup with a spoon only to find out later on that you are supposed to pour it onto your rice and eat it! The waiters must have been laughing at us behind our backs at that one!
The sunshine finally came out the following day so we ventured into the Thamel area where we were staying. This area is basically built for hippy tourists and travellers with narrow streets lined with trekking shops, tibet painting shops and loads of 'hippy' clothes shops - you know those horrible brightly coloured stripy trousers and shirts, tie-died stuff and low-crutch MC Hammer pants? Mmmmmm - it seems that the old 1960 hippy days of Kathmandu are still here! The streets are packed with rickshaw drivers asking you if you want a ride and men selling tiger balm and mini flutes as well as the obligatory hashish sellers (well it does grow wild here in the mountains and is known as Himalayan tobacco!). We were also impressed that above the shops were loads of bars and restaurants offering "two-for-the-price-of-one" happy hour cocktails which of course we had to sample. We managed to do some haggling for some last minute trekking supplies (rain-ponchos and socks) all at bargain prices.
Giles and Natalie arrived the next morning and we ventured down to the famous Durbar Square (durbar means palace). This is a rather large square with loads of old buildings including an old palace and lots of large multi-storied temples. Alongside the buildings are locals selling fruit and vegetables and small stalls cooking fried samosas and other Indian type foods. We had a huge lunch (the portions here are unbelievable) overlooking the square from one of the roof-top cafes where Shaun and Giles soon partook in the local beer tasting (the local brews are Everest, Ghorka and Nepal Ice and are approx $2 US for a big bottle and apparently pretty good too). This soon lead onto the cocktail happy hour back in the Thamel area followed by a curry and more cocktails. We decided to give the psychadelic trance party at the funky buddha bar a miss however after witnessing some aging hippies dancing!
After a late start the next morning Shaun decided to do a walking tour for us through the backstreets of Kathmandu. According to the Lonely Planet this is supposed to take 2 hours however we managed to do it in about four- partly due to there being so much to see and wanting to soak up the atmosphere, and partly due to Gile's dawdling and me taking far too many photos. The streets in the oldest part of Kathmandu are full of life and colour and it is hard not to be caught up with the busy atmosphere and the lives of the residents who live their lives both on the street and in the fantastic old buildings. Many of buildings have small alleyways between them or small doors that lead into courtyards containing shrines and temples with motorbikes parked next to them, children playing with their kites or chasing pigeons and old men shelling peas and lots of washing lines hanging up with clothes drying. Some of the old buildings really are old architectural gems with old carved wooden lattice work which could look stunning if they were done up - instead they are crumbling into disrepair but this added to their colonial charm.
The other thing about Kathmandu is that buddhists and hindus live together side by side. We had wrongly assumed that Nepal was predominantly a buddhist country however it is actually mainly about 80% hindu. As such the numbers of shrines is immense (as the hindu religion has many gods). During our walk that day we literally saw temples and shrines every 100m mostly housing stone scultures of the gods with red stuff all over them (known as tikka). When the locals pray and are blessed, a symbol of the blessing is placed onto their foreheads (representing the 'third-eye' of the gods). This tikka is bright red and is either a line of red powder or else a mixture of red powder and rice which is stuck to the forehead. Everytime someone prays at one of the shrines or temples they come away with this 'red-forehead'.
The buddhist temples are basically in the form of stupas - large white-washed domes set on white-washed plinths which are literally littered in tibetan prayer flags and have prayer wheels at their base. They are actually quite picturesque as the rest of the temples and buildings in Kathmandu are all dark colours with the occasional red and gold thrown in for good measure. After walking around the Kathesimbhu stupa, Natalie and Shaun finally managed to drag Giles and I away from taking photos of the prayer flags and we stepped into a small local teahouse for a cup of masala tea (milky sweet tea brewed up with various spices which Giles soon named 'curry-tea' and was actually pretty tasty).
We then found ourselves in dentist street where you could buy real teeth and plenty of false ones as well! There was a lump of wood on one of the street corners here on which thousands of coins had been nailed - supposedly offerings to the 'tooth-ache' god! This lead onto the busiest chowk (market) in Kathmandu called Asan Tole. This linked us back to our silk-road jouney as this area was originally the start of the caravan route between Kathmandu and Tibet. Anyway, this market was the busiest place we had all been in with shops and stalls selling clothes, spices, fish, teas, kites and kite strings, brassware, fruit and veg and material for saris. In fact there were so many people that walking down the crowded street became rather claustrophobic when vehicles tried to drive down the street (I should point out that footpaths do not really exist here so you have to walk on the roads). We were all squashed between the locals and the vehicles and all came out sweating but laughing - it certainly lives up to its name as being the busiest market junction in the city! I swear it was like being in the mosh pit at a rock concert!
We needed a bit of a rest after that so climbed up onto one of the stepped layers on one of the temples and sat watching and photographing people for awhile until we had sufficiently recovered to walk through a small alleyway selling thousands of brightly coloured bangles (that the hindu women and girls like to wear) and then entering onto a huge courtyard (Itum Bahal) surrounded by great old buildings and stupas - if the buildings had been done up and the stupas replaced by fountains, this would have resembled Bruge).
By this time a cocktail was in order so we caught rickshaws back to the funky buddha bar. The rickshaws are basically brightly coloured bicycles with a 'love-seat' at the back which you sit on. Generally only two tourists can sit in the back however the locals seem to fit their entire families on them! We raced Giles and Natalie through the streets of Thamel until we had to scream to a halt as a parade was coming around the corner. We had arrived in Kathmandu at the start of the Dasain festival season (a 15 day festival). People dressed up as gods danced their way through the street with drums which we had chanced upon by accident - bit of a bonus really!
That evening we met up with the trekking guides and the other people who were trekking with us:
Sue - an Ozzie who was a great laugh
Theresa - a 50yr old polish american who was the bluntest person we have ever met but we warmed to a bit when she started insulting some Germans on the trek!
Simon - a very sensible ginga kiwi bloke who ended up being paranoid about leeches and checked for them every chance he had on the trek.
The following day the group got together as we had a city tour to some of the more famous sites on the outskirts of Kathmandu. First stop was the 'monkey temple' or Swayambhunath - a buddhist temple which is home to a number of rather large and scary looking monkeys. It is located on top of a hill overlooking the city so we got great views from the top. The stupa here was huge and there were hundreds of prayer flags about. The monkeys of course blatantly disregarded the religious significance of the site by climbing into the various shrines to eat the offerings and climbing on the prayer wheels.
From there it was off to Patan - the second largest town in the Kathmandu Valley, to see the Durbar Square. The ancient royal palace here is in pretty good nick and built in wood and red brick. The wooden carved lattice windows were pretty stunning really. Durbar Square originates from the 14th to 18th Centuries and has loads of hindu temples as well as an old sunken water conduit (Manga Hiti) where several locals were washing. As well as this were the cheesy tourist tat stalls selling all manner of things and the tiger balm sellers. Just north of the square we visited the Golden Temple (Kwa Bahal) which is a buddhist monastery dating from 1409. There was a live sacred tortoise in here that is supposed to guard the temple - when we saw it it was hiding under a prayer wheel out of the sun!
Next stop was the Pashupatinath Temple on the banks of the Bhagmati River - this is the Nepalese version of the Ganges River. It is the holiest river in Nepal and is where the Hindus burn their dead as well as wash and bath. On the path on the way to the river several sadhus tried to approach us for photgraphs and money - these are the Nepalese equivalent of aboriginals - seriously, they look the same! They are actually Hindu holy men who perform blessings on you and who have long dreadlocks, paint themselves in all sorts of colours and wear nappy like pants. Unfortunately a lot of the saddhus you see are now more into harassing tourists to take their photos and then asking for money however there were some genuine ones about.
The Pashupatinath temple is the most important hindu temple in Nepal and was huge and pretty impressive from the outside, however we were not allowed inside it. Along the riverfront were several ghats where there were burning pyres for the dead. We were lucky??? to be able to witness the funeral and cremation process as there was a dead man burnt while we were there. An odd thing to see really and it felt a bit odd taking photos. While this was going on local children were all swimming in the river just below the pyre and local women were washing their clothes in the filthy water!
The largest tibetan stupa (14th Century) in Nepal was our next and last stop - seriously, this thing was massive! It was surrounded by Bruge like buildings making it quite an attractive square/circle, especially with the millions of prayer flags and prayer wheels. We had a quick lunch on one of the roof tops and then had to wait for the rain to stop before venturing onto the the stupa itself. This area is full of Tibetan exiles and there were a lot of maroon covered monks about as well as many buddhists all walking around the stupa (in a clockwise direction of course). We joined them and spun a few wheels before then visiting a thangka painting school.
Thangkass are Tibetan buddhist paintings that depict deities, aspects of buddha and the wheel of life. They are for sale everywhere in Thamel so the owner of the painting school put the hard sale on us - lucky some of the others in the group made purchases so we did not feel to pressured! They are quite nice but not really our cup of tea.
It was an early start the next morning as we caught our local mini-van off to Pokhara for our trekking adventure, however getting out of Kathmandu amidst the traffic jams and animals on the road took a good few hours. See next entry for trekking updates...
On arrival back to Kathmandu after our trekking, the four of us basically spent most of the time shopping (much to Giles and Shaun's disgust), however we made it up to them by drinking cocktails and rum. We ventured to the south side of Durbar Square as well and wandered through some of the old neighbourhoods and temples where there were no other tourists about. Freak street is in this area - this was where the hippies all used to hang out in the 1960's, however it is not that popular these days as Thamel has somewhat taken over. However we stopped in the Snowman restaurant which supposedly has been making good cakes since those days, and partook in some chocolate cake - not too bad!
The rest of our time in Kathmandu was spent hanging out and saying goodbyes to Giles and Natalie before we went back to Pokhara. We really liked the city it is fully of colour, hussle and bussle and there are hidden surprises around every corner.....shame there are so many 'wannabe' hippies about!