Sunday, 15 November 2009

Arriving to Kathmandu

It is virtually impossible not to be charmed by Kathmandu. After revisiting Bali last year following many years away from Asia I was sadly disappointed by how much it had changed (and not in a good way) and so I was somewhat nervous to return to a place I had always held in that coveted top spot of ‘favorite places I’ve been’. I was never fully certain why Nepal held such a mystical power over me – but it has long been beckoning me back (as had India) so it was with great trepidation and yet high hopes that I walked across the border just 3 days ago with my fingers crossed.
Since we had been traveling for the best part of 3 full days to get that far we decided we would postpone the last leg of the journey to Kathmandu a couple more days and call in on a little town just an hour from the border named Lumbini which was the birth place of Siddartha Guatama – also known as ‘the Buddha’.

Having skipped right by it last time and after having been considerably developed in recent years due to it’s new status as a world heritage site we thought it might be a nice interlude to buses and trains. We were right. We arrived to a tiny little one street town lit by only a few battery-powered lamps (the power outages in Nepal are a daily occurrence) and at once found a place to stay. Since our travels had thoroughly exhausted us we took dinner at the only restaurant in town and made it an early night wondering what the morning might bring. We weren’t disappointed. We arose to find that the mustard fields surrounding us were shrouded in a thick morning mist, which created a serene and impenetrable wall around us. We had read that the development site surrounding Buddha’s birthplace was very spread out so we rented bicycles (the old school kind with no gears - mine even had a little basket on the front) and headed out to explore. As we entered the gates we were transported to a world of calm and tranquility, and the dirt road we cycled down led us to the centre of it all: a marker stone on the exact spot that the little Buddha in training was popped out into the world.

This in itself was fairly unimpressive (as was the Askoka pillar, apparently erected in the 2nd century BC, as a homage to the Buddha from one of the kings – but that looked more like a concrete pillar that was hoisted some time in the last 6 months), but once we explored further afield and discovered the eternal flame and the many Buddhist enclosures in various stages of completion around the complex we were reminded that sometimes history in the making can be as intriguing as the really old stuff.

Truly there were some spectacular spaces and details to be seen and the grounds themselves are like a bizarre combination of the Palace of Versaille in France, the Cambridge Backs in England and a Balinese Rice Paddy.
So, things had got off to a great start in Nepal. We had a lovely siesta, since the mid day heat was somewhat stifling and then ended the day cycling once more to the far end of the complex where the ‘World Peace Stupa’ stands in all her glory and literally seemed to glow a message of peace in the last golden rays of daylight.

I’m not sure if I was just feeling sentimental, maybe the heat of the day had gone to my head, maybe cycling all day had thrown me a little off balance or maybe the energy infused into the Stupa and the intentions of peace meditated on by the many Buddhists around the world who had been instrumental in the building of this fabulous monument have actually created an aura of peace about this place but as we cycled up to the entrance I found myself having a ‘moment’ and feeling an incredibly moving surge of hope and belief that peace on the planet is a real possibility and if only everyone could visit this place and find this feeling there might be hope for the world and it’s inhabitants yet! Soppy stuff I know but I just thought I’d share it with you anyway!

My hopes had been lifted and I felt that the percentage chance that I would still indeed be smitten with Nepal had just gone up by at least another 10%. Our 7am ‘Express luxury mini bus to Kathmandu’ the following day was ready and waiting by 6.30am and we were off. Even though it turned out the bus was not actually all that luxury and not particularly ‘express’ (arriving at 5pm instead of the scheduled 3pm) I was not disheartened, and when we finally alighted in Kathmandu my spirits began to soar. It actually looked much lighter and brighter and ‘prettier’ than I remembered. After one month in India we have pretty much habituated to the filth and squalor of our surroundings and come to expect dusty and mucky piles of garbage on every street corner and down every alleyway, but the Nepalese have apparently got their shit together far more than their neighbors, in that department. Now I’m not saying they’d win the ‘World’s cleanest City’ award or anything like that – but let’s just say it’s a big improvement. And the construction seems to have become a little more streamlined and colorful than I recalled from my last visit with the tower blocks coming in all kinds of bright summer hues in blue, green, pink and yellow. In my minds eye I always remembered Kathmandu as humble and warm but a little dull and dusty grey. This new Kathmandu was vibrant and energized. Now it’s true that it certainly has come close to stepping over that line of development and in Thamel (the main tourist hub) become a war zone of neon and noise, but somehow, to me at least, it still manages to have that charm that can perhaps only come from the gradual higgeldy piggeldy layering of ‘development’ that has obviously occurred over time as each new establishment attempts to outdo the next to get the viewers attention. It is almost a miniature rustic Hong Kong or NY Times Square– but nothing like either of them at the same time.

Anyway, the real clincher for my seal of approval and affirmation that I still love it here came today when we embarked upon a walking tour of the city, suggested in the ever-faithful ‘Lonely Planet’. We didn’t even manage to complete the tour before the exhaustion and hunger set in because although it suggests the tour will take only 2 hours we had already spent 3 and got only half the way around. The reason was quite simply that everywhere we turned there was something to look at, something to explore and photograph, and something to be amazed by.

It’s like walking into a living museum, only the people are really living there and going about their life without the slightest notice of the centuries old monuments and sculptures that stand in the way of their day. It is truly amazing and magnificent to round a corner of a street in Kathmandu, just like any other busy junction of the tourist zone with souvenir stores and outdoor clothing outlets to be greeted by a square containing a breathtaking Stupa surrounded by multiple shrines and monuments, all centuries old and in various states of repair. Quite literally phenomenal!

And all the while the sun rained down on us with a beautiful warm glow making everything shine.

The Kathmandu that greeted me today was even better than the one I remembered and the accommodation and food has definitely gone up a notch or two. The Nepalese are much, much smarter businessmen than their Indian counterparts across the border. They understand that with so much competition on their doorstep (as new establishments have been built) the quality has to go up – which of course means the price goes up too – but by Western standards it’s still pretty cheap here and we are actually paying less than $8 for a room with a clean bathroom and a hot shower (a luxury that was rare on my last visit).
After an errand run to register our impending trek, an amazingly cheap and delightful late lunch in a non-touristy part of town and tea on our roof-top, overlooking the mayhem of the old city I decided it was time for a bit of a deeper delve into the heart of Nepal and the heart of my journey to this part of the world so I headed off to the Buddhist Meditation Centre for a lecture and guided meditation (free). Strangely the teacher was from Spain – but was very illuminating in the ways of the Buddha and I really felt something click during my meditation – so I am seriously considering a 10-day Vipassana when we return from our trek (silent meditation retreat). We’ll see!
Tomorrow we plan to spend the day making the final preparations for our trek and I have to say, I cannot wait to be ‘off to the hills’ and actually set my sights on the almighty Everest. This is going to be a truly amazing experience. Since access to power will be very limited and internet connection exorbitantly costly (not surprising at 5000M above sea level) I won’t be posting while we are trekking but I am planning on writing the old fashioned way (with pen and paper) on a daily basis and typing it up when we return so have no fear – you will be subjected to the daily details and mindless minutia of life on the trekking trail in due course. (As long as we make it back alive with all of our fingers and toes intact!!)

1 comment:

  1. Fantastic writing Carrie, sounds like you guys are having a really amazing time. Lotsa Love to you both! XOXO Nicole and Justin