Thursday, April 03, 2008

Nepal Part 1: In the Valley of Gods

Namaste! This short greeting encapsulates Nepal. It surrounded us from the moment we got off the plane in Kathmandu and headed out into the freezing city, full of anticipation and relief after weeks and months of waiting, till the moment we dragged our weary, frozen bones back onto the plane 15 days later.

“Namaste! Where you go, sir? Want taxi?” “Namaste, want to go trekking?” “Namaste, come inside my shop, take a look.” “Namaste, want some hash?”

It literally means “I see or recognise the god inside you”. Sarah, I can understand, but me? What the hell do they see in me? Anyway, the greeting is everywhere. I think on any given day in Nepal you could find yourself muttering this phrase, depending on your mood, amount of eye-contact and social aptness, anywhere from a hundred to a thousand times a day.

Back to Kathmandu – the Valley of Gods. The city with its population of about a million denizens is nestled in the Kathmandu Valley, with Thamel, the tourist/backpacker area on the northern edge of the urban centre, Swayambhu, the Monkey Temple, away to the west, Patan City down to the south and the airport to the east, beyond which stretches the city of Bhaktapur. Driving down into the city bowl, we were met by a dusty haze hanging over the city reminiscent of a desert city like Cairo, despite the mind-numbing cold that we quickly had to get used to. We were warned that the traffic in Kathmandu was really bad, but coming from Ho Chi Minh City, it was more like a walk in the park on a fine Sunday afternoon.

Thamel, where we and most other tourists stayed, is a bric-a-brac mismatch of little bricked hovels (no more than hobbit hole-in-the-walls), tall, multi-storeyed guesthouses with rooftop terraces, and bright shops selling everything from Tibetan prayer flags, thangkas, trekking gear (think Gore-tex and North Face), Gurkha Khukri knives, yak wool and pashmina and a cornucopia of trance and hippy gear: hackey sacks, jester beanies, clothes, bongs, woven socks – all in Joseph’s Technicolor dreamcoat hues. If you’re a trancemonkey – this is Heaven. Thamel is everything you want in a tourist area – so much so that its possible to actually lose track of time and dawdle in this Middle-Earth meets Alice in Wonderland meets Alien Safari for years before realising it (the number of beared, dreaded, dazed old-timers we saw testified to this scary fact). The range of food is awesome too. From Nepali daal bhat, to yak steak, buffalo chilli balls, to Western pizzas and cappuccinos. Oh and one thing we really miss and need in Vietnam, which the Nepalis just get right: bakeries with sugar-free Western-style breads, croissants, pretzels and other goodies. Yum.

Walking down through the winding, potholed alleys, you’ll find yourself nearing the stupas of Durbar Square and, blinking, and rubbing the Wonderland crust out of your eyes as if you’ve just climbed back out of the rabbit hole into the bright sunlight, you’ll see more of the real Kathmandu, more colourful saris, and more poverty. The Square – the old court of the royal palace – is home to temples dedicated to a number of gods and goddesses, including the Living Goddess Kumari. Unfortunately foreigners are not allowed to enter the living quarters of the Kumari and have to vie for a quick glimpse through the temple window.

Near the Square is Freak Street – the 1960s home of the tousle-haired, tie-dyed hippies seeking enlightenment in Shangri-la, now just a skeleton of its bong-toking past, but still worth a visit.

The further you move away from the centre of Kathmandu, the more prevalent the poverty and pollution becomes, and as you climb out of the valley on winding roads, the smog lies low over the city. A beautiful city with an ugly face, its easy to get lost in Kathmandu without exploring the rest of this beautiful country.

When we were there, political turmoil with their upcoming elections (April 11) caused a lot of tension, with petrol stations being closed in answer to fuel hikes, daily power black outs due to load shedding and political rallies, especially by the Young Communists League, blocked traffic in the city. The newspapers were rife with stories of violence and threats in the rural, pro-Maoist strongholds and the army were on constant vigil. The election next week will decide the fate of the nation, as well as its out of favour king, as the electing of a new Constituent Assembly means their will be a rewrite of the constitution. I wish the best for this beautiful country and its beautiful people.

Souvernir shop on the streets of Thamel

A pipe shop on Freak Street

Joseph and his dreamcoat shop

Thangka Shop in Thamel

Rickshaw and monk

Woman coming out of a hobbit-hole

A religious festival in Durbar Square

A stupa in Durbar Square

Candy-floss monks

Kathmandu through Tibetan prayer flags


Anonymous said...

Jys besig om 'n master of the photog te raak. Ek check al die tricks jy geleer het by trigger happy toeriste van Angkor.

Preyanka said...

Hey Henno--great post and pics. I've always wanted to travel to Nepal!

henno said...

Preyanka, you def have to sometime before you die, it's just awesome.

Preyanka said...

Hmmm...just wanted to say that spammer "Priya" is not me. It's all about the e baby:)

henno said...

I'm not so sure, it's seems a bit more than coincidence... ;p