Mountains and mayhem in Kathmandu (Matt & Laura)
May 13, 2007
Kathmandu: for me the name conjured a strange blending of Western and Eastern, of Buddhist monks living alongside the hippies of Freak street, of remoteness, isolation, and foreignness. As our plane flew in low over the Kathmandu valley, I pictured muddy streets lined with dilapidated buildings and where it's easy, so easy, to get sick from the food. In short, I imagined a jumble of all the rumours, gossip, and misinformation I'd bumped into over the past several months.
The reality of this place is both similar and different from my imaginings. Our hotel is in the middle of Thamel, the tourist district of Kathmandu. It is tourism concentrated into an ultra-dense caustic jumble; like nuclear waste, the consequences of the tourist hordes are undesirable and no one likely knows what to do with the place, and many likely hope it will go away. As you might guess, Thamel isn't my favourite place.
Yet it caters to a traveller's every whim. There are internet cafes everywhere, the place is filled with restaurants (do you want a burger? excellent homemade pasta? fresh brewed coffee and a croissant?) and there is no shortage of places to stay. The streets are lined with shops selling every kind of souvenir (or junk, depending on your perspective). Create a place that offers everything a Western tourist might want to spend money on, and I'll show you somewhere that is decadent, soulless. It is not the Nepali people who have created this place, it is us.
Take a walk with me down the street on a typical evening. A cycle rickshaw whistles behind us moments before a wheel grazes your foot. You must stay alert here ... any noise can be a warning that you're about to be run over. Ahead, tourists, motorcycles, cycle rickshaws, and taxis fill the intersection with honking, bell ringing chaos. No one gets out of anyone's way, they just honk. A vendor stops his snack trolley in the middle of the street, blocking traffic. Taxis and motorcycles are backed up for the next block of the single lane street, honking. The vendor calls to passing tourists, oblivious to the chaos he is creating. Children dart through traffic, chasing tourists with outstretched hands with requests for money. Mothers carry their young babies in their arms, clustered outside shops to follow tourists down the street with requests for rupees. Glance at any of the goods in a shop window? You are greeted promptly with a "yESSSSSS?" as you pass. A man calls out as you pass: "Excuse me, trekking?" Another calls, "hash, smoke?" Sometimes on our way to dinner, we'll count how many times we're approached to buy drugs. Five or six times in the 10 minute walk is typical.
I should have expected something like the excesses of Thamel, but didn't. Gone are the hippies of Freak street (replaced by dreadlocked Isreali backpackers, a similar breed but with worse music). The monks, too, are nowhere to be found in central Kathmandu: Hindu temples dominate the city with their ornate wood carvings and colourful tikka-powdered icons set in the middle of streets, sidewalks, and just about everywhere else you can imagine.
Outside of Thamel, however, the city is not too unlike my imaginings: the roads are often muddy and broken, especially after the monsoon rains. The city itself looks much like India, but the infrastructure is clearly struggling to accommodate the growth in recent years. It is an expensive, crowded, and dirty city now, overwhelmed by masses of people relocated to escape the political violence that swept the nation just a couple of years ago.
Yet there is more to Kathmandu than Thamel. We wandered south to Durbar (palace) Square, a collection of Hindu temples around Hanuman Dhoka, the 17th century palace from which the King ruled. Much of the square was destroyed in what must have been a huge earthquake in 1934 (everywhere you go is mention of the historic buildings that no longer exist or were restored after the quake). Nevertheless, the architecture is interesting; the elaborate wooden carvings of gods, goddesses, and intricate patterns around doorways are sufficient to pass the time simply wandering about snapping photos and people watching. The temples are still active: locals line up to leave offerings and pray at the various temples, smoke wafts from butter candles, and colourful patters of flowers, fruit, and coconut are arranged by vendors to be left as an offering to the gods.
Soon I rely upon the camera and the challenge of taking interesting photos to allay a growing sense of ... is it boredom? Frustration at being approached every five minutes contributes to the fatigue (I prefer a simple "guide, sir?" to the meandering conversations that start with "where are you from?" and end, minutes later, with "do you need a guide?"). Maybe its the endless string of vendors selling necklaces, knick-nacks, and other tourist junk. But in the end, I think I've seen enough Hindu temples, their worn facades and clusters of aggressive vendors bearing little, for me, of the spiritual.
On another day, we take a tempo (three-wheeled pickup that crams as many inside as the laws of physics allow) to nearby Patan. It, too, has a Durbar Square filled with a similar array of temples. We return to Kathmandu soon after, Laura suddenly feeling ill and needing a rest. A couple of days later, we return to explore. Again, it is the possibility of interesting photos that keeps me interested and attentive, at least until we embark on a walking tour described in our guidebook.
We meander along muddy motorcycle-filled streets past dogs lazing in the morning sun, frequently jumping onto the narrow curb to avoid being run over by any number of roadway threats: motorcycles, bicycles, tractors pulling loads of gravel, men tossing bundles of hay into the road (no idea why), and other pedestrians. We duck into enclosed courtyards surrounded by apartments, each bearing its own temple and sometimes a sunken water-filled area where laundry is washed and dried and people bathe.
Increasingly, the temples are Buddhist, surrounded by prayer wheels and decorated with images of Buddha. They immediately seem more peaceful places to me. Yes, I admit to a perhaps unfair bias toward Buddhism and the quiet welcome one feels in their temples, the absence of people hawking offerings to passers-by. The highlight is the Golden Temple: through a humble doorway one enters an incredibly ornate courtyard filled with prayer wheels, gold-hued sculptures, and a bustle of devotional life.
We leave Patan after a full day of wandering about, though relatively little is spent in the tourist-hyped Durbar Square. It was in the back streets and squares that we witnessed the most genuine sights: people simply going about their lives.
After our first attempt at a "flight-seeing" trip to Everest is cancelled due to poor visibility, we take a taxi to Bodhnath to see one of the world's largest Buddhist stupas. Originally the start of the trade route with Tibet, it is still visited by people travelling into the mountains who stop to pray for a safe journey.
We join the gathering early morning crowds walking around the stupa. Some make the circular journey with the slow pattern of clasping hands together in prayer, bending forward, laying on the ground, then rising to move their feet where their head had rested on the ground moments before ... only to repeat the cycle of prostration again and again.
We stay at the stupa for an hour or so, allowing ourselves time to experience the peaceful atmosphere. Incense floats upward into the sunny early-morning sky. Young people stand high on the stupa with their cellphones, apparently for better reception. Others are more attentive to the spiritual dimensions of the place: some lie prostrate in prayer, others light butter candles, while the spiral of humanity walks slowly around and around, hands outstretched to spin the prayer wheels and touch the red tikka-stained images of Buddha.
Before long, the local crowd begins to give way to tourists carrying tripods and cameras. The gift shops around the courtyard begin to open. The atmosphere shifts almost imperceptively. It is time to go.
Kathmandu is a place imbued with the self-consciousness of a tourist destination, the people aware that their rituals will be photographed and watched, their streets will be walked as if exhibits in a cultural museum, their religious items purchased as souvenirs of a journey to somewhere exotic. In exchange for this self-consciousness, do the people receive anything? Foreign currency is funneled into their banks and institutions. Yet do the poor see any benefits? Do the people who live outside Kathmandu? I wonder.
I only know that it is time to leave Kathmandu. It has been a good place to rest after our trek. I will take away some positive memories. But mostly, I will recall the rickshaw drivers who steer into you to block your path so you will hire them, the drug dealers whispering 'pot ... hashish' to every passerby, the hawkers of tourist junk.
I will also remember the two men sitting near us in a restaurant, all dark sunglasses and unkempt hair, earrings and tattoos, talking loudly and singing along to "Purple Haze" playing in the background. "You got HASH COOKIES, man?" they ask the waiter loudly. "I know you got 'em, man," they repeat to their smiling Nepalese server. "Hey man, will you DRINK with us?" they entreaty. And so it goes. The strung out, the rock-star-wannabes, the package tourist, the wealthy trekker: all come to scatter their money and take what they can. Thamel is happy to oblige.
"Well, I'm goin' to Kathmandu..." the words to this Bob Seger song run through my head each day as we explore this huge, throbbing city. It is a mess of poor people, insufficient infrastructure and corrupt politics. Once again, we visit a "developing nation" to see the ravages of past violence forcing people to gather in urban centres where slums proliferate along each gully and unused space. The blue tarps here stretch for miles as we bounce along in the back of our tempo (3-wheeled small "bus" that offers local transportation).
We visit two Durbar Squares and quite frankly I was disappointed with the lack of conservation efforts. They are falling apart and I am not sure how much longer they will be around. I realize too that this country has other more important priorities, evidenced the sheer number of children and families living on the streets, hair matted and clothes in tatters. Sometimes preservation of historical artifacts must take a back seat. But then I think that there are so many rich tourists willing to pay the 250rs to visit the site (even though no one ever checks our tickets or even directs us to the ticket counter). Why not force us to pay even more and ensure the money is collected? I don't have the answer but one is needed. I saw a great line graffittied on a wall here and it read "the first step to solving a problem is to begin". Has it begun here? I am not sure. There is lots of money being spent in Thamel where all us rich tourists hang out, but is it being shared? Matt and I make an effort to buy some items at some local fair trade/co-operative shops as we want our money to go where it is most needed. It still doesn't help relieve the guilt as we pass the young mother and her sick-looking child wrapped in a blanket as she hides in a doorway escaping the rain. Again, I search for solutions. All I know is, Thamel is not it. It certainly brings in the money but it encourages begging and drug-selling and every other social ill you can imagine. We look up each night at the window that houses the young women who hang out offering their "services".
I am keen to get exploring some other places that are a bit more off the beaten track. Our hotel has told us these destinations don't have great hotels and he thinks we should book a tour with him to a national park. Well, that is a sure sign to us that our plan will be just what we are looking for right now: a more local, authentic experience.
Fortunately we end our time here splurging on a flight-seeing trip to the mountains. We awake in the early morning and arrive at the airport bleary-eyed, but keen to see the highest point on Earth. The ascent out of Kathmandu is all haze and urban sprawl but very quickly we start to spot the snow-capped peaks of the mountains. First we see Langtang Lirung, the mountain we stared across at during our first summit on our trek. Then more and more come into view as the stewardess points us various peaks to each person as she makes her way down the aisle. We take turns visiting the cockpit and I tell the pilot "you have the luckiest job in the world, seeing this each day". Spread out before us is snowy peak after peak. The sharp valleys and steep sides defy description as their immensity and number are unlike anything I have seen before. The pilot nonchalantly says "the peak in the middle there is Everest". And there it stands, known as Sagamartha to the people of Nepal and Chomolungma to the Tibetans. Sure it is just another peak in an awe-inspiring series of many but it is the mother of all mountains and now I feel as if I can leave Nepal satisfied that I saw it. The brochures don't lie, this is the "best mountain flight in the world".