Saturday, May 31, 2014

Kathmandu and Patan 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.  If you are interested, you can find photos of Kathmandu city here

and Patan here


I had never been to Nepal, but always wanted to visit.  The allure of the Himalayas, as well as some of the mystique surrounding this country and its neighbor Tibet, tempted me.  I really didn’t know that much about Nepal.  Of course, I knew about the country’s recent tumultuous political history, including the long civil war that only ended a decade ago, but that was about it.  Still, the country has steadily drawn trekkers, climbers, and other tourists since it opened up in the 1950s.

Because I needed to be in Southeast Asia (in May) and in Europe (in June), I thought this was a perfect opportunity to visit Nepal and Tibet in the middle, both geographically and schedule-wise.  Admittedly, my planning was rushed since my entire trip was quickly turning into something of a mad, around-the-globe whirlwind.  Consequently, my planning and research on Nepal and Tibet left a bit to be desired.  Ultimately, visa and some other issues forced me to nix Tibet, so at the last minute I added India for a couple days instead.  (See the earlier blog post on Agra and Delhi.)

As for Nepal, I soon realized that I needed much more than seven nights to do a proper trek to Everest Base Camp.  Doh!  Well, I also probably needed to get in better shape as well.  I considered some of the shorter multi-day treks.   As I read more about the country, however, I decided to make this trip about the culture and history of Nepal rather than nature appreciation.  Perhaps I would return another time for that long multi-week Himalayan trek.

I decided to stay in the Kathmandu Valley for my entire stay, splitting my nights in the Thamel district of Kathmandu, the ancient city of Bhaktapur, and the remote village of Balthali.  I really had no idea what to expect of Nepal, so plowed forward with a sense of adventure.

The trip did not get off to a perfect start.  I landed at the airport in the evening.  I had booked directly with KTM Friends Home Hotel, and they promised an airport pick up.  I found no one upon arrival.  One of the other hotel drivers thoughtfully called my hotel and asked them to send a car for me.  In the meantime, I went over to the airport booth to pick up my own SIM card for my mobile phone.

When I went back to the passenger pick up area, the helpful stranger told me that the driver was coming so please just wait.  Soon enough, a car pulled up and a fellow got out and took my bag and helped me into his car.  As we drove away, I had an unsettling feeling that I should have called the hotel directly.  What if this guy was just a hoodlum?  How did I know he was actually the hotel driver and not some ill-intentioned thief in cahoots with the guy I thought was so helpful?  If I disappeared now, how would anyone know what happened?

I pushed these uncomfortable thoughts aside, but remained a bit wary.  Ultimately, of course, nothing bad happened, but I need to be more careful sometimes.  The driver dropped me off at the hotel, where the staff welcomed me.  They had my reservation, but for whatever reason hadn’t bothered to schedule the airport pickup, despite having specifically requested my flight info.  I was too tired to ponder over this, so just took the key, and fell asleep without really unpacking.

The hotel is near the southern border of the Thamel neighborhood, off in a side dirt road where there is construction going on in several adjacent plots.  The plots are a bit of an eyesore, but the construction noises really didn’t invade the hotel.  I found the staff to be good.  They created some hiccups (such as the missed airport pickup), but quickly addressed issues as they surfaced.

When I awoke, I went down for the breakfast, which was quite decent.  I pondered what to do for the day.  I decided to explore the Thamel neighborhood in the morning, and then take it from there.   Thamel is  the city’s backpacker area, where most trekkers begin their journey to other parts of the country.  At first glance, Thamel looked like Bangkok’s Khao San Road or HCMC’s Pham Ngu Lao, ie. any other Asian backpacker area.  The neighborhood’s congested store front had some grime and grit everywhere, with lots of foreigners (including very many Chinese) roaming about.

About ten blocks into my walk, I stumbled across a place that rented motorcycles.  I asked them if they had motorbikes scooters, and the owner called someone who brought one over.  It was pretty beat up, and supposedly had a 100cc engine.  It ran more like a 50cc junior scooter.  I didn’t know where to get gas, so I also bought gas from the shop, for a total price of R900.

My phone GPS was working pretty well at this point, so I headed first to Budhanikantha, an ancient temple that was off the beaten path and a bit far away.   In fact, I didn’t see any other foreigner when I visited, other than one who was with a Hindu meditation group.  However, the temple of Budhanikantha is well known to both Buddhists and Hindus, and boasts a huge statue of Vishnu as Narayan lying on a bed of snakes.

The ride to Budhanikantha was crazy.  I have a lot of experience riding motorbikes, especially in Asia.  Nevertheless, I found the conditions a bit daunting with insane traffic congestion (and more insane drivers), incessant smog and low visibility, long patches of rough unpaved road, no street signs, and oh yeah, they drive on the wrong side of the road (from an American perspective).  Dust, dirt, and smog flew everywhere, and I wished I had taken a mask or something.  During the course of the day, I probably ate or inhaled at least a pound of crap, and my body and clothes were caked in gunk.

If you had asked me before arrival to picture Kathmandu, I’m realistic.  I wouldn’t have expected a small pristine Himalayan village.  However, I wouldn’t have imagined the chaotic, dirty, polluted, congested mess that I saw along my ride.  It makes Saigon look clean and tranquil.  I suppose I shouldn’t have been shocked.  Kathmandu today basically looks like many other Asian capitals when they were at this stage of economic development, or like a smaller version of Mexico City at its worst.

Eventually, I made it to Budhanikantha.  The temple was OK, but I found the people much more interesting, especially since there were no other tourists.  Within the complex, many local groups had gathered for celebrations of sorts.  I wandered around, peeking into the various groups, as well as watching those who made the pilgrimage to the Vishnu statue.  (Only Hindus are allowed inside the sanctum.)  Some groups appeared to be celebrating family events, while other groups appeared to have gathered for some educational or meditative purpose.

A group of traditional musicians played off in a corner, and I stopped to listen for a while.

Afterwards, I walked around the local village for a bit, as this was my first introduction to Nepalese daily life.  I generally found the people to be friendly, and learned quickly that a sincere smile and a warm “Namaste” greeting would go a long way toward opening people up.

I hopped back on my motorbike to head to the Kopan Monastery, which is one of the most famous ones in Kathmandu.  On occasion, one can actually watch the monks carry on a lively debate underneath the “debate tree.”  While I missed this opportunity, the picturesque monastery sits atop one of the taller hills and provided a welcome break from the polluted valley below.

Even with the help of my phone GPS, I still needed to stop and ask for directions on many occasions as the maps don’t precisely follow the small roads clearly.  In fact, I saw a spectacular structure atop one of the hills, and I thought that was my destination.  Unfortunately, as I climbed the mountain, I realized that the structure was on the adjacent peak instead.   At some points, I was also unsure whether my underpowered motorbike would make it, as it complained bitterly and noisily as the grade of the incline increased.  I muttered “vroom vroom” noises in an effort to help the engine along.

Eventually, I made it to the top and reached the end of the road, where I came upon a monastery gate.  There was no sign, and no apparent way in.  Just a sign saying something like “Keep Out.”  Huh?  I was confused when the gate suddenly opened and two Western women walked out.  I asked them whether this was the Kopan Monastery.  They replied that it was 30 yards back on the road and that they, too, had overshot it.  One monk here had seen them and was nice enough to let them explore this different monastery, so they did it first.  Ahhh.

I thanked them and turned my bike around while they entered Kopan.  As I was parking my motorbike, one of the women stuck her head back out and asked me if I had booked a reservation, because they apparently require one.  What?  No, I didn’t know that rule.  The woman was kind enough to let me join them as part of their “group”, and we went inside and registered at the office.

The day was getting quite hot, so the first thing we did was seek shade in the gardens behind the main buildings.  The monastery garden was beautiful, with what would have been great views of the city if the smog didn’t obscure the them.  I later learned that the quality of the views in the city varies greatly with the time of year.  The best time is immediately after monsoon season (eg. October), with clear visibility of the background mountains given the relative lack of dust and smog.

I parted with my new Aussie friends here as they rested.  I wanted to explore the campus itself.  I hadn’t realized that Kopan holds huge classes for meditation and related subjects.  In fact, we had arrived during lunch hour, and I could see that about 100 students (mostly Westerners of all ages) had left their notebooks in the main hall and gone to the cafeteria.   Staying in “dorms” provides them with a glimpse into of actual monastery life.

As I exited, I noticed that I had not violated any of the guest rules (at least not while in the monastery itself!), so I patted myself on the back.

Hopping back on my motorbike, I headed back to the center of Kathmandu towards, Bouddhanath stupa, the biggest and most important stupa in Nepal.  Once again, the ride was crazy but by this point, I was actually kind of enjoying it.  I have always liked the freedom of being able to go whenever and wherever I wanted, and to stop on a dime if I found something interesting.  The motorbike afforded that opportunity, and I stopped whenever something interested me.  And notwithstanding the smog, the views are also much better than from the back seat of a bus or taxi.

The roads got really bad again as I neared Bouddhanath, but I managed to get there in one piece.  I found a place to park my motorbike inside the neighborhood, and then just walked around the main square (actually, the main square is a “circle”) and the side streets that radiate from it.  Once again, I found the people to be quite friendly, but here, many were also trying to sell me something.  The stupa itself is certainly big, but I would not call it impressive.  I guess I was expecting something closer to the Schwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, Myanmar.  I was a bit disappointed to see that this basically looked like a large, simple white dome with some colored paint thrown on it for symbols.

By this point, I was getting hungry and looked for a place to eat.  I found a place in the main square, err “circle,” that had Lonely Planet and Tripadvisor certificates.  I ordered the Nepalese set menu.  I can’t recall the name of the restaurant, but the food was quite mediocre.  In fact, I had trouble finding really good food during my entire stay in Nepal, perhaps due to just bad luck.   Every guest in this restaurant was a foreigner, and perhaps that explains something about the way they cook the food.

Heading over to my next stop may not have been the most natural thing to do after lunch.  I was excited to see the Crematory, also known as the Pashupathinath temple.  The site is an important temple for both Hindus and Buddhists, but may be the most important one for Shiva among Hindus all over the world.   During the day, many worshippers come here to cremate their loved ones.  The temple is quite large, and I took my time wandering around.  At the center is the main place of worship but only Hindus can enter, so I could only peek in through the open gate.

Above the main temple and connected by a steep staircase lies a very large park with more monuments.  I climbed the stairs, sweating freely, while the monkeys sat on the railing watching the silly tourists exert themselves.

Overall, I found Pashupathinath fascinating, and thinks it's the top place to visit while in Kathmandu city.

The sun was starting to set, so I headed back to Thamel on my motorbike.  I wasn’t certain that I had enough fuel to actually get me there but I made it, despite the attempts of several bus and taxi drivers to run me off the road.

It had been a very productive day.  My hotel boasts a rooftop terrace that few guests actually use.  After a shower and dinner, I went up there with a beer to enjoy the rest of the evening.  Kathmandu was nothing like I expected, but then again, I wasn’t sure exactly what I DID expect.  Nevertheless, I enjoyed very much what I saw.

I planned to see a lot the next day, but woke up quite late.  Oh well.  I walked to Kathmandu’s Durbar Square.  There are many such squares in Nepal, and the phrase refers to the plaza opposite a royal palace.  During the short walk, I concluded that the city was a quite a mess and definitely resembled other Asian capitals of 40 years ago.

As for the square itself, it was also chaotic and poorly organized, with little direction.  Many areas were also closed off while I was there.  Several touts offered their guide services, but I satisfied myself with my book and managed the best I could.

Around noon, I walked to the Garden of Dreams.  Again, I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect, so this oasis really blew me away.  Its historic significance is somewhat marginal, and it had been restored not too long ago with the aid of Austrian government.  A former Kaiser had used the site originally in the early 20th Century.  The Garden is located right off a busy main road, but as soon as I entered through the gates, I was transported to a different place.  Lush greenery, pretty buildings and verandas, and relaxed people (mostly, but not exclusively, Westerners) sunning themselves on the lawn made me think I was on the college green of some pretty ivy covered campus.  Even the exterior noise somehow seemed softer, perhaps absorbed by the trees.

I stayed and relaxed for a couple hours.  For a R200 fee, this place provided a much needed sanity break from the noise, grit, smog, and cacophony of the rest of the city.

I grabbed a late lunch at Rosemary back in Thamel, another restaurant that I found on Tripadvisor.  I had the Indian plate this time, and once again, I found it bland and uninteresting.  This place caters almost exclusively to foreigners, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but the food didn’t satisfy my palate.  The service was excellent though.

I spent the rest of the afternoon catching up on email, and even managed to get a little exercise in.  Boy, was I getting out of shape….errr, more out of shape.  The air conditioning stopped in the middle of my work out, as blackouts occur every day in Nepal.  The heat just made me sweat more, so I guess that wasn’t entirely bad.

I had dinner at Gaia, another TA recommended restaurant in Thamel.  I had the Nepalese set.  Like Rosemary, I found the food so-so and that the place is really geared toward their Western customers.  I looked for places in the neighborhood with a strong local presence, but in contrast with backpacker areas of other Asian cities, really didn’t find any.

I left Kathmandu afterwards to visit other cities, but later returned for the final leg of my Nepal journey. When I returned for my third day in Kathmandu, I actually headed over to Patan, which technically is a different city.  (As a reminder, photos for Patan can be found at this link: .  Go to the top link for photos of Kathmandu city itself.)

Patan’s official name is Lalitpur.  It is one of Nepal’s original ancient cities and the second ancient capital, although today it is almost a suburb of Kathmandu being only several kms to the south of its bigger neighbor.  During the short taxi ride, the smog became so intense that I felt compelled to put on a face mask.  In the haze, I saw some monkeys on top of a temple next to the busy road.

At first, I thought it might be Swayambhunath, the quirky “monkey temple” of Kathmandu, but then I realized that that temple was to the west of the city whereas I was headed south.  So I’m not sure what exactly those monkeys were doing or what temple that was.  I also passed by a huge military formation ceremony in a stadium.  I gather it might be some kind of graduation exercise, but the taxi driver’s English was as bad as my Nepali.

When I arrived at Patan’s Durbar Square, another World Heritage Site, I noticed that one of the side streets had some interesting shops.  Instead of entering the square, I wandered there instead, and then wandered around the nearby neighborhood for a couple hours.

I came across some kind of religious ceremony in the middle of the street.  To me, it looked like a wagon carrying a giant Christmas tree, except the front of the wagon had a face sculpture to which many worshippers were paying homage.  The wagon blocked most of the surrounding traffic, but no one seemed to care much.  I tried to find someone to explain to me what was going on, but the language barrier proved insurmountable.

I found lots of interesting things during my walk, including an armed guard for a gas station, several holy men giving blessings to worshippers, lots of artisans ranging from sculptors to a massage-giving barber, and just common people going about their normal day.  For the most part, everyone I encountered on my walk was friendly.  I struck up a basic conversation with many of them, who again for the most part were happy to pose for a photograph.

Eventually I made it back to the square.  The square is supposed to be one of Nepal’s most important, but after having seen those in Kathmandu, Bhaktapur, and other places, I was kind of getting “templed out.”  I roamed about and took some photos and stuck my head into a number of the buildings, but eventually I found a taxi and returned to Thamel.

I spent the rest of the day exploring Thamel.  I recalled how I had initially thought that Thamel was kind of a grimy place when I first set foot on it.  After experiencing the rest of Kathmandu, however, I concluded that Thamel was actually relatively clean compared to the other neighborhoods.

I still had not yet had a great food experience, but I had walked by a Chinese restaurant on a side street that was overflowing with Chinese tourists.  I figured that’s a sure endorsement of sorts.  By this point, I was getting kind of tired of South Asian food, so decided to give it a whirl.

This was a mistake.  I ordered a noodle dish.  Ten minutes later, the waiter shows up and says they don’t have it.  So I ordered another noodle soup dish, along with some chicken skewers.  They had set up a propane barbecue grill in the middle of the restaurant.  After a week of curries and the like, the chicken smelled mouthwatering.

The noodle soup was really bad, but I waited patiently for my chicken skewers.  Half an hour later, it never came.  When I spoke to the waiter, he thought he had already given in to me.  He said wait another 30 minutes.  Ummm, no, I won’t.  I asked for the bill, which of course was wrong.  I paid and left.

Still hungry, I stumbled across a street cart where a woman was making what could be best called an egg and vegetable spicy tortilla.  It was only R80, so I tried one.  I don’t know if it was because my dinner was so bad, or because this just tasted different from the typical South Asian cooking, but I devoured that piping hot tortilla with gusto.  It was yummy.

I went back to the rooftop for my final night in Nepal.  I had the terrace to myself, so I smoked a cigar and reflected on my Nepal trip.  I still had a full day the following morning, but I planned to use it to catch up on work and email rather than more exploration.  In fact, I am typing this blog note now!  I had come to Nepal with fuzzy expectations, but found the trip rewarding.  Certainly the cultural and historical exposure was enlightening, but I enjoyed most meeting and interacting with the people in places like Bhaktapur and Balthali.

On the way to the airport, I noticed a couple of things.  The two days of heavy rains had really helped clear the air, and for the first time, I could actually see the mountains that surround the valley.  The streets were also noticeably less dusty.  I can appreciate how the high season provides a better experience than the pre-monsoon months.

I also noticed that there was a golf course immediately next to the airport.  I chuckled a bit at the thought of people playing in the smog and heat.  Do they wear masks when they tee off?  But then again, golf fanatics are golf fanatics.  I wasn’t yet a fanatic of Nepal, but had tasted enough for me to want to come back someday, perhaps in the clearer high season for that Everest Base Camp trek.

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