Saturday, May 31, 2014

Bhaktapur Nepal: Part of seven nights in the valley

Again, unlike earlier posts, I have limited photos in the Blog itself as Blogger makes it too difficult to add many of them in a convenient format.  For this particular post, this is a large limitation as the Bhaktapur experience is best told in pictures.  

If you are interested, you can find photos of Bhaktapur city here

and Changu Naryan, the nearby village, here


I flew back into Nepal after my short side trip to India.  This time, I booked a window seat so that I could catch the breathtaking views of the Himalayas as they peaked through the clouds.

My immediate destination was Bhaktapur.  Many consider Bhaktapur to be the most beautiful city in Nepal, but that may be a low bar.   The city used to be the capital of Nepal way back when, and the old city remains a protected historic zone.  For example, they have banned cars along the narrow cobblestone streets.  Due to this and other measures, the old city appears like the land that time forgot, where people still practice many of the traditional ways of life.

Many tourists go to visit the town’s main squares, but I much more enjoyed just wandering the various random winding streets.  I watched and met the local people as they went about their normal daily lives, and felt enriched in the process.  The visit exceeded my expectations.

I booked myself into the strangely named Planet Bhaktapur Hotel.  PB Hotel is not in the old city itself, but is about 1km outside.  Thus, one has to hike a bit to get to the sites.  At first, I thought that this was a bit of a bummer, but in the end, I appreciated being outside the city gates in an open-field farmhouse hotel like setting.

The hotel driver picked me up at the airport, and then drove me to Thamel to pick up my remaining luggage before heading to the hotel.   The hotel is situated on a hillside, overlooking some farms.  The rooms are basic, but the inner courtyard is a pleasant place to have meals or a drink.  There were only two other guests during my stay, as this was offseason.  Apparently, the high season is already fully booked on many days.

The first day, I limited myself to the west side of the old city, including Durbar Square

and to its immediate south, Taumadhi Square.

The first is the main square, while the latter is considered the most important one, with the highest pagoda in Nepal.  I thought both squares were nice, but was eager to explore the side streets.

I stumbled across many districts, including pottery square and the Siddha Pokhari, which is the largest pond in the city.

I met many people everywhere, and that was clearly the best part of being in the city.

At the pond, I had a brief alarming moment when a group of young kids approached me.  I have a hand disinfectant attached to my backpack.  One of the kids asked what that was, so I explained.  Without asking, he squirted some on himself and smiled.  Soon the next kid did the same and a mob riot soon threatened as all the kids wanted to try.  I could see the headlines: Stupid Foreigner Drowns in Pond Escaping Sanitary Kids.

I pulled back and firmly said no repeatedly.  The kids at first persisted, but eventually gave up.  In fact, the kid who first started the whole thing cracked me up when he shouted in fairly good English: “Yes, don’t give them any! Don’t give it to them! Stay away boys!”

The pond didn’t look particularly clean, but kids were happily playing and swimming in it.  Other young people were in fact bathing or washing their hair in that green and muddy water.

Off in one side, I noticed a group of teenage guys smirking.  When I walked over there, I noticed that they were staring at two teenage girls in the water.  They would shoo the boys away from watching, and then provocatively splash around pretending to swim, while playfully tugging each others’ clothes and giggling hysterically.  There was no way those boys were ever going to leave.

Speaking of water, right around 5pm, many of the women in the village went to the well pumps to get water for the night.  They huddled and crowded around every pump in the old city.  At first, I asked myself why they didn’t just do it when the pumps were less crowded.  Then I realized that for the women, this was also a social event, a moment for their little cliques to catch up on the daily gossip before heading home to prepare the evening meal.

I approached one group with my usual “Namaste”, a smile, and a request to take a photo.  One woman stood up and started yelling at me “Namaste?  Namaste???” followed by Nepali words that I couldn’t understand.  The other women burst out laughing and she started to smile as well.  I gathered that she was asking me to pump the water instead of snapping a photo.  I obliged for a bit.  Let me tell you, pumping those things isn’t as easy as it looks.  After an appropriate period where my manhood wouldn’t be questioned, I bade the ladies goodbye with a smile on my own face.

I awoke the next morning famished.  When I came down for breakfast, there was a new guest who had just arrived from Italy.  The hotel is owned by an Italian, and strange to my ears, several of the local staff also speak Italian.  Consequently, PB Hotel is a bit of hit among Italian trekkers.  I sat with the new guest and chatted for a bit over breakfast.

He was a really interesting guy, off to Everest Base Camp, and we had a wide ranging conversation.  The coffee seemed a little curdled, and the eggs seemed a little off, but none of this registered as I enjoyed talking with my new Italian friend about common places in the world we had seen.

My morning plan was to head of Changu Narayan village and its temple, another World Heritage Site nearby.  It was a short taxi ride away, or about a 1.5 hour hike.  I opted instead to take the bus as other reviewers had done for the “local” experience.  I found the bus stop easily, thanks to the help of a friendly guy carrying a rifle, but had to wait around for the bus to arrive, and then wait further inside a hot jammed packed bus until the driver deemed it time to leave.  I was second guessing my choice.  Eventually, the bus left and climbed the hill to Changu Narayan.

To be honest, I didn’t find the temple to be particularly awesome, and didn’t spend a lot of time there.

I did, however, enjoy the 1.5 hour hike back to the hotel, as it took me through the country side and local homes where I could see village life in action.  I did the usual, watching and trying to interact with the locals, and had a very good time.

Towards the end, however, my joints started to ache.  At first, I was puzzled since I hadn’t really exerted myself.  Soon, I felt like I had a flu.  I frowned.  From prior bad experiences, I knew I probably had a case of food poisoning.  Yikes!  It must have been breakfast.  One of my cardinal travel rules is to avoid restaurants with low turnover.  The ingredients get stale easily, so at a minimum, avoid perishables in such places.  The hotel’s low occupancy puts their kitchen at risk, and the dice had come out wrong in this case.  I am guessing it was the eggs.

I didn’t feel that badly, but I did skip lunch.  I went back to the old city in the afternoon to explore the east side of the city this time.

I had fun doing so, but as the day progressed, I felt progressively worse.   By the time I got back to the hotel, I was definitely ill.  Great.  After four weeks in Southeast Asia and Nepal, I have no problems until I eat my hotel breakfast!  This is always the case.  The most suspicious kitchens never cause any problems; it’s always been the one’s that appear “safer.”

A bad case of the chills attacked me that night, so I got up and put on multiple layers of clothing, including a sweat shirt and rain jacket.  I felt very sick.  I tossed and turned in and out of sleep, until I started getting too hot and thus started shedding clothing.  When I woke in the morning, I was back to my usual T-shirt and briefs.  I had improved from overnight, but still felt under the weather.  I don’t like to take meds unnecessarily, but I carry Cipro with me when I travel to certain destinations.  It was time to break those babies out.  Within 24 hours, I was more or less back to normal.  I should have popped those pills from the beginning.

I don’t really blame the hotel for the incident.  These cases can happen in any establishment, and again, I would have been fine had I followed my own rules.  In fact, for my departure breakfast, I ordered the safer Newari plate (ie. no real perishables).  I enjoyed it and felt fine.

I encourage everyone to wander around the side streets in Bhaktapur’s old city.  The people are wonderful, and eager to engage foreigners.  Approach them with respect and curiosity, and a whole different world opens up.

I even recommend PB Hotel for accommodations.  While the old city is accessible by taxi directly from Kathmandu, I think it a much better experience to stay near the old city itself and hike around a bit, including the hike from Changu Narayan.  I felt a real appreciation for the traditional way of life, and I almost forgot about the chaos of Kathmandu.  This is one place I hope to return one day.

P.S. I later discovered that modern Bhaktapur is a large city as “modern” as Kathmandu.  I saw none of this during my stay at Bhaktapur, as I remained in the old city.  I was enlightened only on my drive back to Kathmandu from Balthali village.

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