There is something mythical about the Himalaya’s, Nepal and Tibet. The mountains (Everest) at the roof of the world, that man has striven for so long to try and conquer, coupled with its amazing myths (Lama’s and Yetis) and its unparalleled trading, cultural and religious meeting points and legacies. Nepal is where the Buddha was born and is now home to many of the Tibetan Buddhists forced to flee and live in exile, it also a huge Hindu country and home to more than 70 different ethnic groups. All this and more, attracted us here and it feels like this is where our real adventures begin. SE Asia was really just a soft landing, a safe exploration of the known – Nepal really kicks off the rest – new, colourful, rich and uncharted.
The change was palpable before we even boarded the plane in Bangkok. Over the last 2 months we had gotten used to being surrounded by young, independent travelers and in some senses had subconsciously started to assume that this was our ongoing travel environment. The crowd waiting to board our flight to Nepal however was different – gone were the cheap cotton t-shirts advertising exotic versions of SE Asian beer, replaced here with designer outdoor fabrics and brands. Backpacks were now tighter fighting and smaller, boots had replaced thongs and the average age had jumped up by some 20 years. Strange definitely, but it felt comforting for some reason. The draw of something different and potentially more exciting!
On arriving in Kathmandu, we caught a taxi into downtown Thamel and started lapping the streets to find a cheap guesthouse. Thamel is I guess the trekking equivalent of Khao-san Rd in Bangkok. A teeming hive of activity just north of central Kathmandu, based completely around travelers and the foreign market. The place literally buzzes, as motorbikes and cars endlessly honk they way through crowds of international trekkers, travelers and the odd hippy, all working their way through the labyrinth of hawkers, clothing, Tibetan souvenir, trekking supply shops and agencies as they prepare to embark on a trek or adventure into the Nepalese outdoors and other adventure thrills. Bangkok (and Tokyo) have prepared us well for this; the crowds, noise and touts seem to fade comfortably into the background as we focused on the cities treats.
The days when Kathmandu was the essential destination on the hippie trail are long gone it seems, replaced as with our fellow plane passengers, by largely amateur 30 -50 something trekkers (much like the mountains of Japan actually). But the hippy trail legacies still remain everywhere. The clothing stores along Thamel, all hawk an amazing profusion of cheap, alternative, colourful fashions with fairytale like qualities, though I suspect their business is much more of the wholesale variety thee days given the pedestrian profiles. Equally and most especially at night, the streets fill with whispers, where every step brings another dark face, followed by discreetly projected offers of ‘hash’ or ‘marijuana’. Though nothing quite prepares you for the same discreet whisper, that mystically projects ‘Tiger Balm’ covertly into the chill night air. After 4 days here, this never fails to bring a smile to my face as I contemplate the changing of the guard that this really represents – from the escapes of the hippy high, to the soothing of aged, sore muscles – how things have changed indeed!
We are camped in Kathmandu for 5 days or thereabouts. Once again, Megumi has picked up a translation project and I am free to catch up on the blog / website side of things and plan out our trekking adventures. But we are also taking time to explore the city and greater Kathmandu Valley. As one of the original trade routes connecting China, India and the west it abounds with ancients sites and cultural legacies.
On our second day, we ambled south to the old city, following the ancient alleys and cobbled streets as they transition into an eclectic mix of markets, squares, spice shops and teahouses, dotted throughout with ancient temples, effigies and side streets – unchanged in hundreds of years, holding on resolutely amongst the bustling, colourful cacophony of everyday life. Further south we come to Durbar Square, the site of many of the cities grand temples and the former Royal Palace, immersed in an eclectic mix of Sadhu’s, beggars, touts, gurkha’s, overloaded porters and tourist groups, the square hums with activity and it is simply enough to be there. We sit atop one of the temples and soak up the view and fascinating patchwork of passing lives and cultures.
On Day 3 we made the half hour trek across Kathmandu through the slums and suburbs to Swayambhunath, a Tibetan / Hindu temple perched on a hill providing a fantastic vista of the city and valley. Over run with monkeys, flags and ancient carvings, Buddha himself is said to have sermoned here once and it provides a great perspective of the city, mountains and valley at sunset, as we join the locals in parading clockwise around the Stupa spinning prayer wheels as we go.
The next day we head in the other direction to Pashupatinath, the most sacred Hindu temple in Nepal, set by the river its ghats are a major cremation site and the surrounding streets teem with the devout; women and families in bright sari’s and Sadhu’s in their strange outfits posing for photo’s and seeking donations. We keep walking to Bodhnath, a magnificent stupa at the centre of the most accessible Tibetan community in the world. Joining the hundreds of tibetan women, monks, tourists and others as they circle the stupa and prayerwheels clockwise, we stop off in our circuits to admire and explore the many surrounding monasteries (Gompa) and backstreets stocked with hundreds of Tibetan vendors (Thangka, Singing Bowls, jewellery etc) and other sellers. The place resonates with a deep and special energy, by its very nature unavoidable as you are immersed and whisked along in the participatory clockwise loops with all the other pilgrims.
As we prepare to leave Kathmandu and head across to Pokhara for an ambitious attempt at some Himalayan trekking, we realize once again we haven’t even scratched the surface here. The city with its crowded, loud, dusty and poverty ridden backstreets we won’t miss that much, but still the pervading atmosphere tingles with potential and of stories untold. Further out in the valley, there are more ancient sites and temples, villages and ancient tales to explore and further still there is Everest itself. Not for the last time I wonder whether I will ever get the chance to return, but our destiny lies elsewhere this time in Nepal – wistfully once again it is time to move on.
- “The Snow Leopard “, by Peter Matthiessen