New year in Kathmandu

Returning to the city from Lukla was a little of a culture shock. Swapping very basic wooden lodges with plastic sheet windows and long drop toilets in quiet valleys, for a plush hotel in Kathmandu with (relatively) endless hot water and busy traffic outside.

Swapping freezing at night in a sleeping bag clutching a hotwater bottle, for sprawling out on a bed under clean sheets with the air conditioning on.

And while I celebrated New Year’s Eve in Thamel with cocktails and dancing in the street in the dark amidst the crowds, the following morning I had to remove myself to find peace and tranquillity like I had in the Hinku valley – as close as I could find.

I couldn’t face the walk through busy streets from Boudha stupa so I negotiated a taxi to Kopan monastery and had a few hours of quiet bliss overlooking the city.

Kopan monastery caters for westerns keen for retreats as well as training local Buddhist monks. In its grounds you can wander round stupas and admire the gardens. It turned out to be a perfect way to relax.

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DSC00761 Just down the road is the Kopan nunnery and while I could sneak in through the gate, the nuns were all out having lunch in the sunshine so the monastery wasn’t open. Three dogs greeted me with barks as I approached the building and on realising I wasn’t the enemy they circled for attention. The nuns were incredibly generous and offered me to join them for lunch, it felt rude to decline but I’d already eaten at the main monastery cafe. It’s a shame the nunnery clearly does not have as much spent on it as the monastery and I suspect it doesn’t get as many visitors, even in Buddhism Nepal isn’t equal across society. DSC00768DSC00769

Back in Kathmandu – Swoyambuthan temple and Durbar Square

I set off wandering through Thamel to attempt to reach Swoyambuthan temple up in the hill. Armed with a crap map and a good sense of direction I found the tiny signs and meandered out of the back of Thamel towards the temple up on the hillside. It can’t be that hard to get to, as its so visible on the hill top, or so I assumed.

It was nice to wander the back streets through housing areas and local neighbourhoods to see places tourists in Thamel rarely venture through. My sense of direction was a bit off, and while I got there in the end it was certainly not the most direct route.

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Also known as ‘monkey’ temple I was disappointed to see only a handful of monkeys there, perhaps with the lack of tourists they too have moved on. The temple sits on top of a hill meaning there are a hundred or so steep steps to access it. The temple and surrounding buildings must be well built as they have suffered only a little in the earthquake and what damage there has been is already being repaired. DSC00268DSC00272DSC00273DSC00275DSC00277DSC00279DSC00282DSC00285DSC00289DSC00293 Having no idea which way I wandered to get there, instead of getting lost trying to retrace my steps I jumped in a taxi back to Thamel to see Kathmandu’s Durbar Square. When I arrived there was a small festival taking place for Hindu women. DSC00301

While Bhaktapur seems to have lost the most tourists, Kathmandu’s Durbar Square has definitely lost the most buildings in the earthquake. And yet, it’s still an amazing place – no less interesting for some of the buildings being in ruins.

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I was surprise to find the former museum partially open with its rear courtyard accessible despite severe damage. While restoration work is underway it’s clear it’s going to take many years.

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Escaping Kathmandu for Bhaktapur, Pashupatinath temple and Boudha stupa

Of the three Durbar squares in the Kathmandu valley, Bhaktapur seems to have suffered the most from the Earthquake in terms of impact on tourism – the day I visited I was one of only a handful of tourists there. The fuel crisis hasn’t helped – it cost me 4000 rupees or about $40 to get there, so I made the most of the taxi ride to also see Pashupatinath temple and the Boudhanath stupa too as they are on the same side of Kathmandu.

Bhaktapur is a small town with an amazing history and worth a 30 minute taxi ride at any price to be able to escape the pollution of Kathmandu. It’s peaceful and beautiful despite damage from the earthquake and I think that is why it is my favourite place of those I visited.

I knew in advance that the town was expensive for tourists to enter but it was worth it to wander the 4 squares. The cost to enter at 1500 rupees is quite expensive but the area has been a world heritage site since 1979 and so the cost is comparable to visiting other world heritage sites and the money goes to the upkeep and restoration of buildings. Which after the earthquake it felt like the right thing to do my bit.

I don’t know if it was the peace and quiet but it is a very pretty town despite damaged to buildings from the earthquake. The biggest impact on the town is clearly the fuel crisis as I spotted only one other tourist while I was there.  There are 4 squares in Bhaktapur so make sure you visit them all.

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Pottery square in particular is small but interesting and worth a visit to see local Newari pottery being made.

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On the way back into Kathmandu I stopped at Pashupatinath temple the main Hindu site for cremations in Nepal. I was glad to hire a guide here to explain the site and the rituals taking place. It seemed intrusive and rude to visit a holy crematoria as a tourist and gawp at people who are amidst their grief, watching them ritually wash their dead and cremate them. But at a distance on the other side of the river it’s possible to be there and not be too intrusive – in the hour I was there I saw 6 bodies lovingly washed and wrapped and 4 pyres lit.

Not being Hindu myself I couldn’t go into the main temple but the whole site is so big it didn’t seem to matter. This did spark an interesting conversation with my guide about religion as he assumed I was Christian as I’m a white European and was surprised for me to say I’m in fact Buddhist. So as he was Hindu we had a long debate about karma, death and rebirth. As a Buddhist I didn’t find Pashupatinath a sad place, perhaps because people are celebrating the lives of the dead and perhaps because I don’t belief in death being the end.

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From there I headed to Boudhanath stupa. I knew in advance that it had been badly damaged in the earthquake and was being restored. While the top of the stupa is gone there has been a lot of worth to clear rubble and begin rebuilding work. Its a shame it has suffered so much damage being the largest Stupa in the world, and on the world heritage list since 1979. Despite the damage it is a very important site to Buddhists, said to house the remain of the third incarnation of Buddha, so it was still busy with pilgrims circling the stupa and praying.

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Whilst there I also visited Shechen temple which was very badly damaged and currently having its foundations reinforced.

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Around the stupa are many of the Tibetan Thangka painting shops and having had a tour of a painting school where students were creating mandalas and other images, it’s easy to see why they are so expensive.

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The temple in the centre of the stupa circle was certainly worth a visit as despite being busy with tourists it was the first place I managed to find a sense of peace in the bustling city, meditating long enough to still my mind and feel calm.

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Heading out of Kathmandu to Patan city 

I intended to walk the 7km to Patan today, but when I negotiated a taxi down to 800 rupees I then realised quite how far it was and I would have got quite lost along the way.

Arriving in Patan I made the mistake of hiring a guide to take me around the Durbar Square, which in hindsight wasn’t necessary as he didn’t give me that much information and the town is easy to navigate. At least I didn’t pay to enter Patan’s Durbar squarem, the only one of the three Durbar Squares in the Kathmandu region which I managed to get in free.

The square has faired well in the earthquake and while a few buildings are propped up with wooden struts not many have significant damage. Of the various buildings only 2 were completely flattened and one statue destroyed.

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We also headed to the golden temple which is tucked discreetly down a side street and at 50 rupees seemed like a bargain even if it’s only small. Covered in gold it is very beautiful with its Buddhist icons. The guide explained that the temple is run by a monk who is training a small boy to also be a monk- he certainly wasn’t camera shy!

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Ditching my guide I visited Patan museum in the centre of the square. Patan Museum is one of the old royal palaces of the former Malla kings of the Kathmandu Valley and dates back to 1734. It focuses on the history and iconography of Buddhism and Hinduism, mostly from Nepal, but also Tibet and India. It was worth visiting this without my guide so I had the freedom to wandered as I wished through the exhibits and statues.

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Back in Kathmandu I spent the afternoon in the Narayanhiti Palace Museum – it’s not especially old nor beautiful architecture, but worth a visit to learn about the recent history of Nepal and see where the King and Queen were assassinated. It’s an interesting glimpse into Royal life, though no photos were allowed beyond the gates. The existing building was built in 1934 after the earthquake destroyed the previous palace and improved in the 1960s. In 2001 the existing building was the scene of the royal massacre when the federal state of Nepal was formed.

Exploring Kathmandu

My first impression of the city is that you’d never have guessed there’s a fuel crisis in Kathmandu!

The traffic is crazier than that I experienced in Phnom Penh which suggests there’s possibly more wealth here despite both cities being in third world countries, and despite a lack of fuel people are still whizzing around in their cars and bikes. I’m told the traffic is calmer than normal.

Here people seem to pip their horns to alert others to their presence, to scare the tourist as they pass to deafen them, or simply because no one else is pipping and someone always has to be.

Unlike Phnom Penh however there is some order to the traffic, there’s just too much of it for it to be disorganised. Except for the odd motor bike that drift across to the wrong side, generally traffic sticks to one side of the road. It works. My typical method of just walking out in traffic, quickly and with purpose, would get me killed at home but here it works.

The president went passed at lunch and his motorcade had police roadblocks. Impressive. I was the only idiot walking across the side of the road oblivious to who it was, I had to ask a police officer.

The volume of traffic does mean that a scarf is necessary to prevent a coughing fit but despite that most tourists will eventually succumb to a cough brought on by the pollution. I learnt that on day one, with a coughing fit on my way back to my hotel.

Turning off the main highway which is definitely the worst area for your lungs, I headed to the tourist district of Thamel. Thamel is a network of tiny roads and alleys which reminds me of medinas – full of shops selling wooden carvings, paintings, clothing and felted objects, everything the tourist could ever want. With no street names it’s easy to get lost, but that’s half the fun. The other half is dodging the motorbikes and trying not to jump out of your skin as they pip at you from behind.

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It didn’t take me long to get bored of Thamel though. There’s only so many hippy clothes and knick knacks a person can look at; so I continued along the back roads and alleys towards Asan. Asan blurs into Thamel seamlessly with its similar alleys and roads but here they serve local’s needs of kitchen paraphernalia and practical clothing. From here you can also get to the most famous of the Kathmandu valley’s Durbar squares, but on my first day I wanted to get my bearings and just wander.

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Heading back to the main highway bracing my lungs for the onslaught, I paid 25 rupees to enter Ratna park – a municipal park which despite being surrounded by busy roads, manages to provide an escape from the traffic.

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Next door is the serene Queen’s Pond, closed for most of the year except religious holidays. From the bridge over the highway it is an unreachable nirvana in the crazy city.

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My last stop near Thamel is the attainable bliss of the Garden of Dreams – you have to pay for the pleasure of enjoying the escape from the traffic, but at 200 rupees it is worth every penny to lie on the grass and enjoy the sun on your face.

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