Kathmandu and Tigger Too - Kathmandu, Nepal

Greetings, we have finally escaped the prohibitively expensive communications cartel of western Nepal and landed in the ruthlessly competitive Kathmandu market, where internet and everything else is cheap. 

We're heading to Kathmandu, a place where hippiedom met Hinduism, where the Haight- Ashbury met the Himalayas, and where 'hi' didn't mean hello. The Kathmandu of Cat Stevens fame has been relegated to the memory books. Back in the 60's and 70's, Kathmandu was the great gathering place on the road east, and the hippies came with flowers in their hair. They discovered a  perfect venue for doing the things they were best at - getting stoned, growing their hair, and staring unfocused while looking cool. They came for a month and stayed for years. Some are still here, these aged wonders, frozen in time with long grey stringy hair and tattered clothing, mumbling about the good ole days.  

But Kathmandu has cleaned up its act. Vendors still keep up a steady litany: "My friend! Change money, buy hashish, you want ganga, acid, smack ..." but it's more polite, and whispered to you in your ear ... "Madame, opium, hashish?" Back then, on arrival, nearly all made their way to Freak Street - the first step on the stoned stairway to heaven. Today, Freak Street is but a shadow of its former self, a row of souvenir shops still peddling tie-dye t-shirts and drug-paraphenalia. Today, the action is in Thamel, a modern backpacker ghetto, where the Nepali language is about the last thing you would hear and the cuisine is anything but local. The restaurants of Kathmandu are legendary for its imitation of every type of cuisine. A common sign above a typical restaurant is "We specialize in Indian, Mexican, Italian, Chinese & Continental Food!" But for all this variety, the food taste amazingly the same. Using the most bare-bones ingredients and far-more ingenuity, these chefs whip up a chicken burrito that tastes and even looks the same as a chicken pizza as a chicken lasagne as a chicken curry. The common denominator in all these dishes, MSG, the wonderful all-purpose 'tasting powder.' If MSG is not fo you,, ask them to take out 'the flavor.' They understand. The menus are a laugh riot and sometimes a game in which you have to decipher what's on offer. You take a chance on dishes such as: Nuddles, pisa, rosti, chop sewee or chopsway if you prefer, mewsly, lazanya, chicken keyev or just chicken with saws.  

Kathmandu proper is located in the beautiful Kathmandu Valley with seven other cities all situated under the shadows of the Himalayas, especially the Big One, Everest. To get to Kathmandu, we took another fun-filled adventure ride on a Nepali bus. The rear-wheels of the bus were roughly half-way down the chassis, turning the back fifteen rows into a spring loaded joy ride. The slightest bump in magnified in what is already a staggeringly uneven road. Our time was roughly divided between gravity defying weightlessness and being spanked by the seat as we traveled back to earth. Occasionally, you were hit from both ends, as the overhead rack came down to make the acquaintance of your head. Love this third world travel.

The trip took us across much of Nepal and through many small villages and rural areas. As we mentioned before, illiteracy is a big problem, but it was only then that the point was hammered home. It must be difficult to imagine just what 75% illiteracy means in everyday life. For example, we noticed along the way, trees and suns painted on buildings. Some buildings would be marked with green trees, while others marked with red suns. Their meanings didn't become clear until we saw signs in Kathmandu where more of the population can read. There, they read 'Vote Sun party' or 'Vote Tree party' or candidate pictures under the symbols. At the ballots, illiterate adults would merely check the symbol sun or tree to cast their vote.  

Once in Kathmandu, we split our time between eating, sleeping, and wandering around the maze of narrow, alleys that would open up to beautiful courtyards of hidden shrines. As we walked around Durber Square, a small area chock-a-block full of temples, we noticed the blood on the streets, much of it fresh. The big festival, Dasain, that we mentioned before, was celebrated here with a vengeance the day before, and many of the sidewalks and gutters still had blood running. 

Swayambhunath is the oldest Buddhist Stupa in Nepal, built on a hill overlooking the valley. As the legend goes, Manjushree, the Boddhisatva of Infinite Wisdom came upon a large lake with a single exquisite lotus but he couldn't reach it because it was protected by nagas, the snake gods. In his desire to bring Swayambhu 'self created' to all mankind, using his sword which slices through all darkness to bring enlightenment, he sliced into the mountains surrounding the lake, at a place known as Chobar Gorge, and drained the lake. The lotus came to rest on a small hill, and that spot is still worshipped today as it has been for over two thousand years. 

The all-seeing eyes that bless the Kingdom of Nepal

At one end of Durber Square, we visited the palace of the Kumari, the Living Goddess venerated in Nepal. She is chosen at the age of five, and once picked as the new Kumari, she and her family go to live in the Kumari Palace. There she is hidden away, and locals and tourists alike crowd the palace courtyard for a brief glimpse of her. At the onset of puberty (or any major bloodloss) she reverts back to human status, and is summarily kicked out of the palace and the hunt is on for a new Kumari. Now a young women, the former goddess has a tough time finding a husband because it is said to be very bad luck to marry a Kumari (more likely because she is spoiled rotten.)  

The architecture in the Kathmandu Valley is incredibly distinctive. A blend of eastern Buddhist pagados and Indian hindu temples and shrines with very intricate external wood carvings, particularly of the erotic nature. Culled from the Buddhist Tantric philosophy, the erotic art tended toward the extreme explicit and deviant nature, to us westerners at least. They often included numerous people and even animals, but one has to delve further into Buddhist Tantric practice to gleam the meaning and depth behind such provacative art, esp in such a modest society. 

One day we travelled to Boudanath, site of the largest Buddhist stupa in the world. In the immediate vicinity were over ten monasteries and monks were the norm on the streets. The stupa itself is a large dome-shaped structure topped with a tiered tower painted with the all-seeing eyes of the Buddha staring out in the four cardinal directions. On every level of the stupa, pilgrims and monks alike were preparing thousands upon thousands of yak butter lamps to be lit at sunset that day. Some were placing the roughly hewn saucers in clean, even rows around the perimeter of each and every level. Others followed, placing cotton wicks one, at a time, in each saucer. Lastly, falling behind the other, pilgrims, clutching large tea kettles full of steaming hot yak butter, slowly and steadily pouring the mixture into the small saucers, filling them to the rim and moving on. Candle-making in its essence.

Other pilgrims were going through the ritual genuflections that take them from a fully upright, standing position. their arms raised overhead in pray  to completely prone on the ground, stretched out and back up again, over and over and over. The serious pilgrims had all the necessary props, special hand slippers that allowed the body to glide easily across the ground on each genuflection and rosaries, prayer wheels and prayers books.

Tibetan bread offering upon an alter inside a monastery

One last funny footnote to Nepal. T to augment his personal collection picked up a few CD's that are cheap and ubiquitous. At those prices, copyrights are not really an issue. When you buy them, you just know they are bootleg, but as long as they sound good, we didn't really question it. Until T picked out that fateful Celine Dion CD. Now we not going to make any judgments about his choice of music. Celine is a viable artist with a magnificent voice. Which makes it all the more ironic. As he was listening to the CD for the first time, it struck him as sounding funny. Then we listened. Again and again. By then, we were sure. It was definately not Celine, but rather some very good Vegas lounge act imitation. Of all the people to imitate, Celine??? Even worse, the greatest hits album included the duet Beauty and the Beast with Peabo, and they used a fake Peabo at that. It all seems very strange indeed to actually go to all the trouble to do a fake recording when you're surrounded by million of bootleg CD's but that's Asia for ya.

next time, all that glitters in Bangkok ...

over and out

Ann and doug

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