This entry could also be titled: Cool Kathmandu, but I thought more people would read the ensuing dribble of words if I gave it a more intriguing title
I dunno. Maybe it is just because we hadnt slept in 36 hours, and because I was worried about my lost luggage, or because we had just left Hanoi but my first impressions were that Kathmandu wasnt as crowded, that the traffic was not at all congested, and that it was more like India, than I had expected it to be!
I had been told that Kathmandu was just another city really and that its polluted, dirty and the traffic is crazy and for some reason I thought the city, and Nepal in general- would look more Tibetan than Indian. I also was surprised by how many men were working in the shops and street carts and selling fruit what a difference to the very male-dominated Vietnamese culture where women do the dirty work. Ok, they were first thoughts.
After some sleep, a great day out and the return of my luggage I penned some notes down on what I thought of Nepal, and specifically Kathmandu so far
The smell of incense permeates the air. It intermingles with the tantalizing smell of freshly baked goods and motorbike exhaust fumes, but the smell of Nag Champa is all-powerful over these other scents. Its the busy hour: 9:30am. All the Nepali children are walking to school which starts at 10am. They are all dressed up in suit pants and white collared shirts and ties- both boys and girls. The really wee kiddies are holding their mums hand, while the 8 and 9 years are seen walking next to their mum who is very close by. Some older students walk with their friends, girls are laughing with their shiny black, pigtailed and plaited hair which is tied together with big red ribbons and hangs over their book bags which are slung over their shoulders. The boys walk 3-by-3 arms around each other. Things are as casual as the late school starting time. Yet there is action happening all around.
Men are selling bananas from their painted-red wagon-style cart, shopkeepers are sweeping the street in front of their store, making it presentable. Brightly coloured people-powered rickshaws blow ridiculous-sounding horns to warn they are cycling past at-speed. Big, beasty looking motorbikes made for rough terrains honk and broom on by, squeezing past a rickshaw thats on the wrong side of the road and a few bewildered pedestrians not sure which way to move. Pastries and sweet delights are luring customers to the bakery window; silver and other gems sparkle from the many jewellery shops. Women in their colourful flowing saris and sawar kameez with silken scarves slung over their shoulder are bartering for meat or fruit at little street-side shops with small dwarf-sized (or Nepali it seems!) doorways painted blue or red or yellow behind which lies the counter selling their wares. Im walking down the maze-like streets of Thamel, the ground is cobbled stone or mud while the street is so narrow it seems more like an alley or lane than a major thoroughfare. This area of town oozes with history and old-ness. We stop in for a Yak Breakfast at the Yak Café which serves a big breakfast set for less than $2. Our seat at the front window gives us a great people-watching vantage point. Were treated to an intimate moment between mother and child. The mother had a scarf over her face and was rough-playing with her small son in her arms. He would laugh and then shed kiss him with open affection and lovingness, lips to his soft face. It was beautiful.
Thailand has its motto as the Land of the Smiles but I think that this would be more fitting for Nepal where peace, compassion, friendliness, co-operation and understanding is shown to us with everyone we come into contact with. Our hotel manager brings us free coffees and chats to us proudly about his new position in the Office of Tourism and invites us out for dinner; shopkeepers want you to buy, and they do sometimes seem so desperate for the sale that it hurts, yet they also want to know everything about us and will start on a diatribe about their own desires to study in Australia, talk about the current political situation or whatever; and it is all done with a smile that gushes warmth. Maybe Ive just been living in Hanoi for too long, where everyday interactions with locals are quite cold and straightforward, where such behaviour is not rude, just their culture, so I have got used to being treated almost standoffishly and now I am in Nepal and suddenly this cultural norm is very different but so recognizable I realise Ive missed being treated nicely!
The Nepali equivalent of Vietnams pho (noodle soup), which I usually would eat every day, are Momos which are essentially dumplings. Unlike in Vietnam where I miss out on eating the meat-only bahn bao dumplings, I can indulge here as, with what is great about this region, there is always a vegetarian option. I can also indulge because a plate of these steamed vege momos is about 30 cents. Woot! We ate many in Kathmandu, getting our fix of the delicious goodness of thin pastry filled with sprouts or potatoes or carrot or whatever mix of food the particular restaurant had. I just love how they are presented too! Most of the food in Kathmandu is NOT Nepalese cuisine, with everything from Italian, to Mexican, to Chinese to English none of it is done all that well, but its pretty cheap (though not as cheap as Vietnam) and our tastebuds and stomachs dont go uncared for.
Our second day of exploring this interesting town involved Durbar Square and The Monkey Temple. Durbar Square was just as I had imagined it to be like- old temples and people intermingling in their everyday life among tourists who come to see the 17th Century buildings where kings once ruled. The square is quite large, and within are many different Hindu temples each with their own story. Maju Deval has terraced steps where common people these days languidly lounge. A man sleeps on his back, a newspaper over his face; two women chatter and laugh together; a young couple sit awkwardly side-by-side, not-quite-touching on a very public date; a sadhu sits and stares with his stave in hand. This is once where the hippies hung out and smoked ganja when they put Kathmandu on the map in the 60s. Today this is where I hang out and people-watch. The activity below in the square is constant. Persistent guides offer their services to tourists who look newly-arrived, rickshaws, taxis, motorbikes and bicycles to and fro, men push carts selling peanuts and fruit and chaat, a group of women in saris congregates then disperses, a small child walks clumsily, people meet in front of a landmark and then stroll off together, shopkeepers sell fruit and veg and newspapers and postcards in shops which surround the main square squished in beside another temple, and everyone strolls through as if oblivious to the surrounds in this ancient square. I felt that all I needed to see was a snake charmer and the scene would have been complete (this I actually did get to see in Thamel later in the day, my minds eye picture painted before my eyes in reality).
Were treated to a viewing of the Kumari Devi, the living goddess, who is a beautiful young girl who lives in the Kumari Buhal building in the square. She has been chosen for passing 31 stringent appearance and personality requirements, at the age of 3 when she reaches puberty she resumes her life as before (when she was 3!) as a normal girl. She looked spoilt if you ask me. She poked her face out of the turret, we looked up at her and greeted her with Namaste and then she peered back down at us. She seemed to be wearing a lot of makeup for a 8 year old girl, and before I could think anything more, she had vanished, biding us farewell. No pictures of the living goddess are allowed, so youll just have to imagine what she looks like!
There were two other temples worth mentioning. One is what we dubbed the Karma Sutra temple for the very erotic wood carvings on its outer walls- ooh la la, makes a girl blush- as well as the colourful depiction of the Hindu character Khala. I just love how the square is like a living museum, that its okay for people to walk through it, sit on any part of the outer temples and that there is even a cow with millions of pigeons sitting around it- something every square should have!
We also climbed the Monkey Mountain, 213 steep steps brought us to the top and some magnificent views of the Kathmandu Valley. It setting was beautiful but the environment was surreal, with hawkers selling mangoes and coconut, shops selling handicrafts and several cafes and restaurants sharing the space with a working Buddhist monastery which has prayer flags strung in every tree top as well as a Shiva shrine. A perfect example of the Nepali harmony. We chat to a boy selling Buddhist crafts at a stall, I buy a prayer wheel which caught my eye, and the knowledgeable guy chatted to us for a long time about life in Nepal, all the time in the world to talk to us about everything and anything.
By evening were weary, so we go to get a feed. The previous night when wed gone for dinner wed ended up with cocktails and a hubbly bubbly (sheesha pipe) on our table which had made us feel very happy. We then had got lost navigating the dark streets which all look the same and had to get a rickshaw to take us home On this second night we first had to squeeze through a traffic gridlocked roundabout. Even though the traffic in Kathmandu has nothing on Hanoi, this was one traffic jam you would never see in the constantly moving Hanoi roads. Here, everything had ground everything to a halt, so that there were cows, cars, people, bikes all squashed together unable to move. Somehow we squeezed, clamberd, climbed through the traffic and no sooner had we emerged from the traffic ruck once again on our way to find some dinner, and we got caught in a torrential downpour of rain which required us to purchase umbrellas. I thought the rain might stop the moment I bought it (Murphys Law!) but instead the steady, persistent and hard rain poured down all night. The monsoon season has well and truly begun.
The wet weather did not deter me from shopping, and I still felt like I was in heaven. All the clothes are in any colour imaginable, theres too many pieces of beautiful silver jewellery, great shoes and handbags, purses, singing meditation bowls, wooden masks, yak-hair shawls, pashminas, and cool jackets and coats, all at cheap discounted prices. I walk past shop after shop in a blur down streets that have all started to look the same. It was like overload, so as a result I bought barely anything a few gifts and thats it, I knew that once I opened my wallet and began I would be unstoppable.
So thats Kathmandu. It treated us well and was a very cool place to get a feel for the local life, to get a shopping fix and to take in some architectural and cultural heritage. It was difficult to leave so soon, after only just scraping the surface of a small part of the Old Town. On the other hand, its always a pleasure to leave any city and to start exploring a new place where the air is clean and the scenery is sweet!