Finding Nemo

Monday, May 16, 2011

The Wonderful World of Nepal

Nepal is a magical place.

back home
When you first step out of the airport, what greets you is just another typical Indian city, full of belching cars, smog, trash and cows holding up traffic.  But then the taxi dumps you off, and you find yourself in the narrow atmospheric alleys of Thamel, the trekking nexus of Asia.

The first thing I always notice is the faint smell.  Its a mix of spicy body odor, incense, hemp, and perhaps a whiff of burning trash.  The smell of a place faraway from home.  Brilliant colors dance before your eyes:  women are dressed in bright red, yellow, and blue saris festooned with gold trim, giant gold earrings, sparkling bangles and henna hands.  Storefronts bristle with rainbows of baggy pants, technicolor hemp shirts and hats.  Souvenir stands overflow with Ganesh statues, Buddhas, beads, rings, brass lotus candle holders, and sharp decorative Ghurka knives.  It is hippie shopping heaven.

And to much the amusement of the locals, the Westerners dive right in and emerge looking like they could walk any hippie catwalk with pride.  The alleys are covered in a maze of misspelled signs announcing trekking shops, hiking gear, nutty T-shirts, internet cafes, bars, and restaurants of every kind.

Little goddess... or abused child?
Just a short walk from Thamel is Durbar (also called Durban or Durba) Square, a wonderful place of temples, demons, and an ancient royal palace.  You can walk up the steps of one of the 3 multi-tiered temples and just relax and watch a fascinating parade of colorful people walk by.  Offerings are constantly made of flowers, fruit, and incense.  The temple eaves have small pornographic images, men with huge penises and women with large breasts in all sorts of kama sutra positions.  In the southern end of the palace a living goddess lives inside a gold cage!  If you pay a small fee to the guards this incarnation of Kumari Devi will generally come out for you to worship her.  Its a little bizarre, they pick a very young girl of around 5-7 years old and lock her up for a couple years.  Who knows what kind of life that is.

Travel Durbar Square with your mouse

"I like to collect heads.  From gods."
My favorite part of Durbar is the big colorful statue of the fearsome Bhairab, a nasty incarnation of Shiva.  He uses serpents for jewelry, in one of his left hands he holds a severed head of the Supreme Creator Brahma (they got in a little spat), and in the right he holds a spear and a sword.

Walking back to Thamel you might wander into an outdoor market, little ancient shrines and temples, packs of novice monks, and lots and lots of rickshaws.  A good way to navigate is by the trash, directions might consist of "Take a left at the 2nd garbage pile."  And you will definitely notice a lot of scary "dentist" shops selling fake teeth that look like vampire fangs.  But none of this compares to Pashupatinath, a huge temple complex alongside the Bagmati river to the East.  Cremations occur every day on the ghats, holy cows wander around, naked kids swim and play in the nasty water, and you can meander for hours taking pictures of all the temple goodies.  When I was there last time, there was a festival and hundreds of women dressed in blood red saris were giving offerings at the river and jumping in.

Awesome Bodnath
There are two huge Tibetan-style stupas that are really worth checking out.  Bodnath to the East and to the West the cool Swayambhu Monkey Temple up 365 steps to a hilltop overlooking the city.  A thunderbolt statue lies at the top of the stairs in front of the large festooned stupa.  Monks are often walking around clockwise, turning the prayer wheels.  Its fun to give it a whirl yourself.

KGH is where its at
My favorite place to stay is Kathmandu Guest House, a large rambling (and a little rundown) mansion setup around a quiet grassy courtyard, complete with a barber shop, masseuse, tandori clay oven, tea shop, and outdoor restaurant.  Its an affordable oasis in the middle of crazy Thamel.

But the best part of Kathmandu are the travelers who come there.  Thamel's alleys are mercifully free of the three banes of Asian travel: 1) Packaged Asian tour groups stampeding in and out of shops and tourist sites, 2) Couples on honeymoon, and 3) Old Germans looking for sex.  The first two types stay in high-end resorts that drive out mom and pop B&B's and blow cash in a way that attracts the worst kind of aggressive hawkers.  And the 3rd type attracts pimps, prostitutes, drugs, and crime.  Nepal is an oasis, people who come here are here for different reasons.  They are hippies looking for enlightenment (and hookahs), fit Colorado types who love trekking the mountains, blissful young girls teaching yoga, and older people looking for something new and different.  Everyone has a tale, everyone is a proper traveler who has been-there done-that in Europe.  Afternoon tea or a night out always leads to good conversation and interesting stories.

Excitement crackles in the air.  Trekking among the vast mountains of Nepal energizes people in a strange way.  Those who have just finished have cameras bursting with once-in-a-lifetime photos, those about to leave can't wait to go.

Everest from Kala Pattar
I remember 5 years ago waterfalls tumbling off steep hills, green forests on mountains, steep peaks capped in glaciers miles above, icy rivers tumbling miles below.  Scale that the brain has trouble understanding.  Suspension bridges, yaks, bluest of blue skies, monasteries perched on faraway mountaintops, fresh clean air so pure you want to bottle it and take it home. The colorful cheeks of the Sherpa kids, snot hanging off their noses in the cold air.  Tibetan prayer flags fluttering off of chortens, memorials to climbers among the moonscape in the high valleys, glaciers rumbling along, unseen landslides roaring off in the distance.  The entire journey is guided by the huge peaks of the Himalaya.  And from atop Kala Pattar, the view of the mother goddess of the Earth, Sagarmatha, the roof of the world.

Truly the most wonderful place on Earth.  An unspoiled jewel hanging on in a world that might soon pour in and ruin it.  Hopefully it doesn't change anytime soon, but ... I know it will.  And I don't like to think about the fact that the glaciers are melting like an ice-cream on a summer sidewalk.

If you want to visit, better come soon.

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