PATAN & GOOD-BYE

IMG_8930The flight from Pokhara to Kathmandu in a medium size prop plane was spectacular. First we skimmed the Annapurna range, then turned to approach the airport and the Himalayas appeared, with Everest in the background. Quite the dramatic farewell to our mountain experience and the lovely Pokhara area.

IMG_9037This time we are staying in Patan, another of the kingdoms that originally made up historic Kathmandu, and considered to have the finest collection of temples and palaces in Nepal. Like Bhaktapur and Thamel, Patan has a majestic Durbar (palace) Square, sadly damaged by the earthquake but being actively reconstructed by armies of carpenters and female labourers carrying horrible loads of crushed rock, sand, and rubble in back baskets secured by head straps. Reconstruction of the religious monuments proceeds apace, aided by foreign countries. A golden statue of King Mahendra Yalla which sits atop a high pillar directly in front of the palace toppled to the ground during the quake. Even before beginning to dig people out of the rubble, people rushed to gather its pieces and carry them to safe keeping inside the palace grounds. Aided by Austria, the statue was resurrected 2 weeks ago, and sits as before, in solitary splendour atop its pillar, flanked by a golden Garuda on a similar pillar. The giant bell erected so the townspeople could alert the king to their grievances, tolled throughout the earthquake but didn’t fall. Patan is an elegant city, famous for metalwork which here means complex figures of the zillions of gods and goddesses in the Hindu pantheon as well as some enormous Buddha images which we lust after but which even Doug couldn’t carry home.

We have become so used to the evidence of the earthquake all around us that I don’t think I have ever described how many piles of brick rubble there are everywhere. The way buildings are supported by props from the ground, and “stabilized” by props that run across an alley or street building to building is rather perturbing. The main religious shrines are being repaired and I would think that in 5 years time would be quite back to normal, but housing repairs are lagging, and many people are living in buildings declared unsafe as they have no choice.

According to the newspaper, 625,000 homes were destroyed or damaged, and so far after nearly two years only 20,000 have been completed and of that 17,000 were paid for by the homeowners. The government has promised money to aid in repairs but the money has simply failed to materialize — incompetency and graft most likely. Foreign countries pledged help at the time but the projects did not get off the ground so the money has never been paid out. Joanne, a dentist whom we met in Bhaktapur who flies into remote areas doing dental education says that people in some villages that were totally destroyed are still living in tents supplied by organizations like Rotary and so on, at the time of the earthquake. They have been through 2 bitter winters under canvas with no end in sight. It is terrible how the poorest countries suffer the most from corruption and self serving governments.

As I sit typing this I am on the terrace of our lovely room in a restored 100 year old house, looking at a scene of earthquake destruction in the courtyards of buildings behind, all of which appear to be occupied. Sadly historic buildings that aren’t religious monuments will be torn down and their warm brickwork and ornately carved doors and windows replaced by cheap characterless concrete.

We’ve wandered the streets here, not blithely of course, as to stay alive one must be constantly vigilant of motorbikes, trucks, and cars that roar through narrow streets regardless of pedestrians crammed to the walls, enjoying our old friends among the deities on display in every little courtyard and byway. Not only are the Hindu gods beyond numerous, they all have other manifestations, with completely different names and characters, and each has a “vehicle” an animal of mythic figure who carries them and whose image will often be outside their little shrine. Ganesh’s vehicle is a mouse and for added effect, some shrines are populated by live mice, who feed on the rice offered to the god.

IMG_8972Doug has a particular fondness for Bhairab, the angry incarnation of Shiva. He is depicted in wrathful pose with a massive erection painted red. Doug feels his ill temper may be due to the fact that female devotees hang garlands of marigolds on his member in a quest for fertility. Another wrathful incarnation is that of Narsingha who is Vishnu is more cheerful. He is depicted disembowelling a “demon” ho had been protected by special powers, cleverly circumvented by Narsingha who is using his fingernails to administer the coup de grace.

IMG_9016Another odd twist to Hinduism in Nepal is the concept of the “Living Goddess.” She is a pre-pubescent girl, selected at age 4 by a series of 32 facial and physical characteristics and subjected to a test of “courage” before being chosen. Candidates are locked in a dark room where terrifying noises are heard, they are surrounded by buffalo heads and men dance by in horrifying masks. If one stays calm, she is chosen and then lives in the temple until she reaches puberty. In Kathmandu she is displayed only occasionally, but in Patan the poor soul is on display for a few hours each day and our guide insisted we visit. It was really awful, there she sat, all made up and dressed in red, on a little throne with her feet for some reason in a brass dish of rice, twisting and twisting her hands together, obviously in a state of trauma. Horrible to contemplate her life afterwards too, when she is returned to her family and is supposed to regain normality after 10 years away too. Apparently it is considered unlucky to marry one, so she is pretty much doomed.

We also enjoy Buddhist temples and monasteries of which there are many. Many Nepalis consider themselves Hindu/Buddhist, quite a few are Buddhist, and then there is the significant Tibetan population. In our rambles through the passageways connecting the courtyards of tall houses in each “neighbourhood” (reminiscent of the pols in Ahmedabad’s old city) we often emerge to find a stupa enclosing a Buddha image with a row of small prayer wheels around it.

IMG_9113One day we took a car out to see a particularly interesting Hindu temple called Dakshinkali a rather gory temple to Kali, the blood thirsty incarnation of Parvati (see what I mean?). This is a favourite Hindu pilgrimage site, and to satisfy the goddess’s lust for blood, devotees bring chickens, ducks, goats, and apparently pigs and buffalo on occasion, to be sacrificed to the goddess. Being pragmatic Hindus, they choose to bring something they would like to eat, pack an accompanying picnic, and after lining up for hours in the lengthy queue, they present their animal for sacrifice on the altar. When they are given back the headless corpse they take it to the butchering area where specially qualified priests whack it into pieces. Next is the barbecue area, where they have it cooked and then they all sit down on some patch of filthy garbage strewn ground to spread out their picnic and feast on the holy meat.

It

was quite the riveting sight, the whole thing, and fortunately non-Hindus are not allowed to view the visage of the terrible goddess so we did not have to go through the crushing queue but could observe from a viewing platform above. So glad, since in addition to missing the queue, we also did not have to take off our shoes and squelch barefoot on the floor awash with blood.

Finished with that we repaired to a tranquil Buddhist monastery nearby where Guru Rinpoche mediated in a cave for 15 years before going to Tibet for the rest of his life and spreading Buddhism there. He is, of course very famous there, and these monasteries bring back pleasant memories of our time in Tibet. The tranquility of worship of Buddhists displays devotion in a contrasting manner to the raucous Hindus!

We’ve had a great time here in our room with its “atmosphere” combined with comfort and the lovely terrace, now off back to Bakhtapur where we left some things at the Peacock Guesthouse where we started. We will go to the airport on Friday from there, dreading the journey as we have a 12 hour layover in Delhi before our 14 hour flight. Oh well, no use suffering twice by worrying about it beforehand (I tell myself..)

The last 3 months have flown by as usual. The 7 weeks in Gujarat were so very interesting and varied in every way, from mega city to pre-independence village, jungle to barren desert, hedonistic Diu to solemn temple town, from tribal groups to pilgrims, backpacker basic to palace accommodation, with a rich diet of eccentric hosts and 2 lions thrown in for good measure.

Revisiting Nepal has been a great treat, even more than we expected. The history is mesmerizing and the ubiquity of religion in daily life fascinating. The resilience of the people in the face of natural disaster, lack of infrastructure, and government incompetence is both a blessing and a curse. Every bit of it has been a great experience.

Thanks for sticking with us and sharing our good times, home is next!

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BALMY BEGNAS TAL

IMG_8895After the rigours of trekking I decided we needed some R&R and booked us into a luxury resort at Begnas Tal about an hour above Pokhara. As usual Doug was dubious — what would we do for 5 nights at a remote lake? Well it was love at first sight.

Begnas Tal (Tal means lake) is a tiny gem nestled among hills with, on a mistless day, a breathtaking view of the Annapurnas from the balcony of our room. The taxi dropped us at the gate and luckily two boys were waiting to shoulder our bags and lead us down a long set of stone steps (starting to see stone staircases in my sleep) to the reception perched half way down a slope with fragrant gardens, little stone paths and yes, more steps, meandering between stone Nepali style cottages. Our room was fantastic, huge and comfortable, with a balcony hanging over the view, and — wait for it — an old fashioned claw foot style bathtub!!

The first thing we did was take a hot bath and scrub some of the ground in dirt off our feet, then we headed for massages to relief our still aching calves. The resort has a program of Ayurvedic medicine offered as an option and there were 4 German couples there, having “treatments” daily, and going to yoga sessions, and as far as we could see subsisting on vegetables and rice, accompanied by carrot juice. Really they should just have gone to Gujarat where they could have seen interesting things while eating a pure veg diet.

Anyway, to each his own, we found the massage interesting, quite different from Traci our sadistic therapeutic masseuse who makes us cry but relieves our painful necks and backs. These involved stripping stark naked and being coated with vats of oil while more of a stroking motion was used to stretch the muscles and who knows, remove impurities or some such. After an hour of this, including having our faces and scalps vigorously oiled, rubbed, and slapped, red powder was applied to our heads, necks and foreheads, and we were sent off wearing dressing gowns to relax somewhere. We repaired to our porch and sat stunned, gazing at the mirror like lake surrounded by buff coloured hills dotted with small farms. Sound carries over water, and we could hear farmers yelling at their buffalo as they ploughed and the buffalo complaining back.

IMG_8809Legs restored to health, we set off to walk to a small coffee plantation nearby and then on to the grubby tin roofed bazaar at the end of the lake. There we hailed a boatman to take us back to the resort, an idyllic ride with our single paddler dipping his small bladed paddle soundlessly into the still surface of the lake. Can’t think how these lakes have resisted having motorized transport but wonderful that they have.

Our confidence buoyed by our trekking success, next day we went on a 5 hour walk with a guide from the resort to the top of a ridge we could see from our balcony. We were accompanied by a Dutch mother and son staying at the resort. Mother was full of trepidation, I kind of talked her into it, and she did struggle but they both really enjoyed themselves.

They had not had the experience of walking through little villages, and they were just charmed by the baby goats and water buff, the people carrying heavy loads who passed us at a trot but had the strength to “namaste” and grin at us, mothers readying kids for school — so cute to see the kids emerge from very basic houses wearing neat school uniforms, mums braiding their daughters’ hair and typing in big white bows, farmers ploughing, women spreading manure by hand, and on and on… Of course the ubiquitous stone steps were relentless, and the Dutch mother’s struggles made me both proud of my new found strength and angry with our guide who did not have Sunil’s cheerful helpfulness. It was left to Doug and me to help her as her son was absolutely useless and scampered ahead with the guide, completely ignoring his mother. Oh well, she claimed to be delighted she had come, though she was purple faced by the end.

Our last day was lazy, and Doug admitted that every time he objects to taking a break to “not do nawthing” on a trip, he ends up enjoying himself. There was an abundance of bird life in the area, and the trees below our balcony had some interesting specimens that got well photographed. The restaurant had wonderful views and breakfast was delicious and enormous. We were so very glad we weren’t on the therapy diet, wine with dinner was definitely not part of their regime!

IMG_8798We left reluctantly for our flight back to Kathmandu for the final few days of our trip. The pain of leaving was tempered by the tranquil and beautiful trip in the hotel boat back to the bazaar where a car picked us up to go to the airport. We’ll have a bit more culture before we leave. Patan, another of Kathmandu’s old kingdoms will give us a final dose of Nepali heritage before we leave for home.

POKHARA & THE ANNAPURNAS

IMG_8350During the short drive from Pokhara airport to our guesthouse, we strained to make out some landmark familiar to us from our trip in 1974. Phewa Lake is still there — other than that — nothing. In what was farm land where we struggled to find an extremely basic “room” at the end of someone’s house, between them and the cow shelter, and remember only a pie shop where we ate when we didn’t cook for ourselves, there are now 400 hotels and heaven only knows how many restaurants clustered along the shores of the lake. Para–sailers take off from a nearby hillside and float overhead. Though nothing like Kathmandu, there are far more taxis and motorbikes than any sane person would consider tolerable, and the streets are thronged with foreigners of all ages and provenances, trolling through shops selling Kashmiri and local crafts, garish jewellery aimed at the Chinese tourists, and all manner of trekking gear. Fortunately the lovely Mum’s Garden Guesthouse was located up a side street and at the end of a quiet lane, an oasis of calm.

IMG_8255When I emailed the affable host, Deepak, about reserving a room, he suggested we IMG_8276take a 4 day 3 night trek “suitable for all levels” and we had agreed to discuss it with the guide when we arrived. Sunil, a young fellow of 25, but already an experienced guide, showed up and suggested we take a hike to the Peace Pagoda above the lake with him so that we could gauge how we did with the climb. However, at that point, the most tremendous thunder and lightening storm broke out with torrents of rain, even hail at one point, and went on for two days. So of course we delayed the trek until better weather was forecast. We had to borrow an umbrella and splash out to a trekking shop and buy rain ponchos so we could get out to eat!

We enjoyed having a few peaceful days of eating lovely food and rambling in Pokhara Lakeside as they call it, and did do the Pagoda trail with Sunil when the weather broke, after which he pronounced us fit enough for the trek we had planned. Duly he turned up with his younger brother Amrik to act as our porter. We took all the warm clothing we had which wasn’t enough, our little pack was not heavy but we were happy not to have to carry it.

We set off by vehicle to reach the trail head about half an hour outside Pokhara. The first day was very steep, up and up hundreds of stone steps set into the hillside. The stone trails are the route for the villagers to procure goods and take their produce to market in the absence of roads, and many of them are 1000 years old. The effort and craftsmanship of making them was what I tried to concentrate on as we laboured up and up. Pokhara is at 700 metres and our first stop for the night, Australia Camp, is at 2400 metres, so a fair climb in just over 2 hours. When we emerged from the last set of stairs, the mountains were right in our faces, a jaw dropping sight.

IMG_8467Australia Camp was our first “teahouse” experience, and by far the best equipped of the three we stayed in. It was named for a group of Austrian (not Australian) surveyors who were mapping the trails in the early ’60s and camped there for a number of seasons. It is hard to describe the grandeur of the Annapurna Range and adjacent mountains that faced us from the camp. It was already cold when we arrived but we huddled outside as long as we could to take in the view.

At Australia Camp we actually had a toilet in our tiny little bare cell, and the owner brought us a couple of extra quilts since, as we did not plan on trekking, we did not have sleeping bags or warm jackets like most trekkers. Here we learned that the terrific storm we had had in Pokhara had caused blizzard and white out conditions at the Annapurna Base Camp, a popular 7-10 day trek. One hundred twenty hikers had to be taken out by helicopter so the route had been closed. Hence there were more trekkers using our lower, but known to be spectacular, route. A similar freak storm 3 years ago resulted in 340 rescues and 42 deaths so weather is not a minor consideration in these mountains despite the number of people who go trekking.

Next day we climbed a long way down and then a very long way up to a place called Bhadaure. Despite the ups, we enjoyed the walk as the surroundings were all the little farms and villages that dot this rather inhospitable land. Farming is done on zillions of tiny terraces, and farmers were out with yoked oxen ploughing fields as they had been waiting months for rain to moisten the heavy earth. We kept encountering men and women burdened with impossibly heavy loads of manure, cow fodder, farm produce, or goods from “town” which they carry in baskets on head straps. Quite enough to make us shut up about how steep the steps were for us!

Along the way there are sort of dais-like structures made of stone with 2 or 3 levels. The first level is the right height for the very short Nepalis to back up to, and then they set their loads against the second tier as they slip off their harnesses and rest for a few minutes. On the top is planted a bodi (sacred) tree, or as the altitude got higher and it was too cold for bodi trees, some other type of tree, and a small shrine to Shiva with a couple of tridents poked into the ground. The loads are so heavy that the porters cannot set them on the ground as they could not get them up again without two people helping them. Thus they can rest the load, walk away, then back up to it again and get it up without assistance. We learned to stop and rest our non-existent loads at every one we came too.

The teahouse at Bhadaure was very basic, only an outside toilet and a sink on a wall, we got Sunil to beg for a room beside the toilet and one of the young trekkers, obviously knowing he had no need of a toilet during the night, was glad to oblige. Food pretty minimal, but we met a lovely English couple, late 50’s who come to Nepal every year to visit a charity they are interested in and always take a couple of treks. We spent the next 2 days with them and enjoyed them very much. Fiona taught us to rest WAY more than we had been doing!

In the morning I heard people leaving their rooms at 5:45 and knew they were going to watch the sun rise. I heaved out of my nest of quilts, already clad in everything I possessed, including my black shawl wound around my head and crept to the door to look out. The mountains had been obscured by a sudden downpour of rain just as we arrived the night before, and it was a stunning sight to see the whole range in all its glory from the doorway. The camera fiend quickly jumped up too, and we joined two German girls who were in lotus position on the edge of the porch, swathed in blankets, meditating while they observed the dawn. Now and then their cameras emerged from the blankets and they snapped a quick photo. I was dying to see them do a selfie, but they restrained themselves.

IMG_8619That day we climbed a bit higher, starting to get used to the stairs now and following Fiona’s example, resting more frequently, and ended up at 2500 metres at Panchase. Again amazing mountains right on top of us. Dashed cold though, about 5 degrees in the evening, and we all huddled in a room beside the kitchen where the heat and smoke from the cooking fire warmed us slightly while the hostess cooked us Dahl Bhat, the ubiquitous mountain meal of rice, dahl, and a blob of vegetable, in this case spinach from the front yard . Even more basic bathroom arrangements, and the rooms were on the top floor so we had to negotiate a difficult stone staircase at night. Lived to tell the tale anyway. Washing arrangements a simple tap in the water collection barrel, totally icy water, so by the time we left I was wearing 4 layers of sunscreen and sweat, face like sandpaper! Good fun.

We loved the hike up there, Fiona and Fred told us all sorts of stories of previous treks they’d gone on and we walked through villages and farmland. Their guide and porter were brothers too and come from the village the charity they visit is in. All 4 of the boys were so kind and looked after us so well. I felt like Sunil and Amrit were becoming sons as we knew their life stories and their plans for the future and all about their families..!

IMG_8732Down from Panchase at 2500 to Pokhara at 700 was a long 4 1/2 hours and super hard on the legs. We were all jelly legs by the bottom, and the ill effects lasted 2 days. Funny that all the ups didn’t make us sore, but just as at Palitana the downs were killers. We were sorry to bid all our hiking companions good-bye but the hot shower at Mum’s and a trout dinner at our favourite restaurant were pretty great.

Deepak and his wife and their little boys made us dinner on our last night, such a lovely family. They built the stone Nepali style guesthouse 15 years ago in an area of fields, and are dismayed that the swarm of Lakeside is coming closer and closer. We cannot imagine what the next few years will bring.

Our memories of Pokhara 1974 are not entirely idyllic though. The road was atrocious, actually dangerous with landslides and washouts all the way. The room we had was little better than a barn and not at all comfortable as it was the rainy season, chilly, and we saw the mountains only once when the clouds briefly cleared. We had no source of clean water and cooked for ourselves out of necessity. No guidebook to suggest a guesthouse, there apparently was one on the lake that Kurt stayed in in 1973, then a backpacker place now a very upscale resort, but we didn’t remember it. But our memories of Nepali people are as positive as the experiences we’ve had on this trip — friendly, helpful, and above all cheerful in the face it adversity.

IMG_8270The lake still is beautiful and there is no motorized traffic on it, small flat bottomed boats with one paddler ply it and we rode across in one to get to the Pagoda trail head. The streets of Pokhara are spotless, the hotels and restaurants all supply boiled filtered water to avoid plastic bottles as much as possible, and plastic bags are banned, they use recycled material to make re-usable bags. The businesses and townspeople co-operate to keep the streets clean. Oddly though, no one pays attention to the shoreline of the lake which is littered with juice boxes and candy wrappers, not to mention dozens of decayed and sunken boats. Signs beg people to “Save Phewa Lake” but Deepak says they haven’t had municipal elections for years and money contributed for lakeshore cleanup goes into pockets — sadly too common here.

All said and done, Pokhara is beautiful and the treks that start from here will remain immensely popular and rightfully so. I hope we get back before another 43 years passes! From the “ardors” of the trek to the lap of luxury, next stop Begnas Tal, a pristine lake high in the hills. Worthy of another instalment.

BLISSFUL BHODINATH

IMG_8136Boudha, also known as Boudhanath, is home to the largest stupa in Asia — why not the world I wonder, where else would there be an enormous Buddhist stupa but in Asia? At any rate it is large and beautiful and the centre for Buddhist culture here in Nepal particularly for the Tibetans who now call Nepal home.

We are staying in a lovely Tibetan owned hotel, very comfortable and extremely well run as we have often found in the past when staying in Tibetan places. Tibetans are a small group in Nepal’s population, most having come after the Dalai Lama’s exodus from Lhasa in the late ’50’s, but many are fairly well off relative to the rest of the population with deep roots in commerce and tourism. Nepal is increasingly being pressured by China to be less hospitable to them as overseas Tibetans have financed the construction of numerous large and elaborate monasteries, or gompas, similar to Norobuddha which we visited from Bhaktapur. As in Lhasa, religious devotion is a regular part of life here in this stupa town.

The giant stupa is quite an imposing sight, constructed like all stupas of its type with a multitude of levels representing a “three dimensional reminder of Buddha’s path towards enlightenment” (Lonely Planet). The base represents earth, the dome is water, the square tower at the top is fire, the spire is air. The thirteen levels of the spire represent the stages that a human being must pass through to achieve nirvana or Buddhahood.

IMG_7957The eyes at the top represent the all seeing Buddha, the nose-like figure is a Sanskrit number 1 signifying unity and the crescent moon on the top represents ether, the heavenly element and sacred light of Buddha. For non devotees like us, the spectacle of devotion is still very compelling, though as with all religions, a lot of money changes hands.

IMG_8027We happened along at the beginning of a three day prayer festival — I think there are many of these throughout the year — which is taking place in the middle of Losar or Tibetan New Year. The stupa is festooned with even more prayer flags than usual as devotees buy them, and when enough are collected to make a sufficiently long string they are sent up by a rope to a fellow who sits at the very top, he ties them on and then the bundle is thrown down and it flies through the air landing on each successive tier until it reaches the bottom. All are printed with a mantra or prayer and as they wave in the breeze the prayers are sent to heaven.

IMG_8039People also contribute to have whitewash put on the sides of the stupa and a legion of young men are constantly engaged in this work. Much more fun is the application of gold paint, also purchased by devotees, which is thrown in arcs along the bulbous area of the stupa. Trays and trays of tiny butter lamps are produced continuously and adorn all areas of the upper kora. A large sacred fire smokes constantly by the main entrance which is also graced by an immense bell. We try to avoid breathing in the smoke as it is choking, but devotees waft it into their faces for its blessing.

IMG_8126A constant stream of Tibetan devotees, lamas, monks, and tourists walk the large kora (circumambulation route) at the base of the stupa, reciting prayers using their beads and turning the prayer wheels set into all the walls. Many stop at the niches holding tiny Buddhas to touch them and mutter a prayer. It is almost like being back in Tibet, many of the most devout are elderly Tibetans with deeply wrinkled, sun darkened faces, tiny bent stature, long braids down their backs, huge chunks of turquoise and coral set in gold festooning ears and necks, and well worn traditional garb. Elderly Buddhists, like elderly Hindus often spend their last years in constant devotion and pilgrimage. But lots are young and dressed traditionally in cross wrapped jumpers or shirts at least for the devotions.

IMG_8222Kids are as red cheeked and adorable as they are in Tibet.

IMG_7953Around the lower level of the stupa are arranged a series of wooden sun bed-like objects on which people can do their prostrations, which are like constant sun salutations for you yoga enthusiasts, but done over and over again until they can do no more. In Tibet pilgrims would prostrate continuously for up to a year as they made their way from their home village or from the holy mountain to the main temple in Lhasa, the Jokang. They wear rags tied around their hands and leather patches on their knees but a more exhausting routine it is hard to imagine.

During this prayer festival, mats are set up for the monks on all four sides of the stupa, with wooden thrones at the front for the head lamas. At certain times, they all assemble, pick up their wooden slatted prayer books, their saffron or maroon robes and commence to follow the head lama in a sonorous, monotone chanting, punctuated by blasts of cacophonous sound from a “band” with a huge drum, two types of cymbals, long alpenhorn like trumpets, oboes, bells and so on. Apparently the purpose is to wrest the wandering attention of the chanters back to the business at hand.

At night the stupa is transformed by hundreds and hundreds of twinkling lights hung from the tiers. Since there are conveniently located roof top restaurants all around the outer kora area, it is quite nice to eat lunch watching the chanting, and then to have dinner overlooking the myriad twinkling lights.

No one needs to be shy about photographing the event. It seems that in addition to the traditional five possessions monks are allowed: robe, bowl, sandals (runners here) umbrella, and prayer beads, a sixth has been added — all of them have cell phones and take pictures of themselves and others constantly, even the elderly big wigs have them! There are quite a few robed foreigners and others who just look like they’ve been around a while letting their Rasta locks grow, as the monasteries have classes for those wishing to learn Buddhism and many foreigners come to stay in Boudha for this and yoga training, and live in the monastery guest quarters. There are numerous monasteries just here in Boudha, very elaborate, and tons more in the surrounding area.

Doug went out without me for a little stroll on our last morning and found himself in the midst of a parade of traditionally hatted lamas and monks, the most tremendous variety of head gear, some of which we do not remember seeing before. There were over one hundred of them he thinks, and they first did the lower kora, stopping at each corner for chanting, then went up to the upper kora and did the whole thing over again. Once they were done, a man came with a huge box, collected the hats to take into the stupa office, and they all sat down on their prayer mats again and re-commenced their chanting! Never a dull moment.

IMG_8166Boudha is a lovely place to stay out of the chaos of Thamel, very different again from peaceful Bhodinath. This country has so much to offer just within the confines of the Kathmandu valley, we have not even scratched the surface. Tomorrow we are off to Pokhara by plane. We had planned to go by comfortable bus but we have now arranged a three day “trek” for the day after so will take a 40 minute flight rather than a 7 to 8 hour drive as the road is under construction and delays are lengthy. AIt seems that all the roads in the country are under construction and we are sick of dust. We are hopeful of seeing mountains but sadly the prediction is for rain which we have not seen for 9 weeks. Fingers crossed the clouds break and Annapurna appears, and that we don’t freeze in our rather inadequate wardrobe. Will keep you posted.

TEEMING THAMEL

 

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We left the charming Peacock Guesthouse with its friendly hosts, promising to return for our last few days in Nepal. Our next stop, Thamel, is the tourist central area of downtown Kathmandu, and quite the change from peaceful Bhaktipur. Fortunately the Kantipur Temple House was in a quiet lane just out of the teeming central area.

When we were in Nepal in 1974, we stayed like everyone else in the Kathmandu Guest House which at the time was only 5 years old. It was comprised of 20 or so very basic rooms with shared bathrooms and was the end point of the London-Kathmandu truck tours that became the overland thing to do in the early ’70’s. Its evolution from then to now is a parallel to the evolution of tourism in Nepal.

In those simple backpacker days when we had no guide books and depended on good luck or other travellers to steer us to places to stay (the Lonely Planet Wheelers were travelling Asia for the first time when when we were there and started their guide book empire a few years later) everyone ended up at the KGH. Now the original backpackers rooms are still available on a first come basis but the rest has been expanded to at least three times its former size and is decidedly upmarket. The garden we all loved back then is much larger with a very stylish restaurant set out on patio areas adjacent to the spa and massage facility. Photos in the lobby chronicle its various phases, along with all the famous people who have stayed there including Sir Edmund Hillary and other famous mountaineers, and of course the Wheelers. We took photos to show the Kerrs who may have stronger memories than we do as we had a hard time orienting ourselves. Outside the gate the streets are teeming, you can barely make your way through the melee let alone bike or drive a van as we used to do. So I was glad we did not choose to stay, but just went there to have a very nice lunch and reminisce.

We managed to navigate a couple of the Lonely Planet walking maps, first of all to the Durbar Square area and another day farther south. This area sustained a great deal of earthquake damage to both the religious sites and the residential buildings. Reconstruction is going on constantly with resulting dust pollution which is severely annoying to the lungs. Many people wear masks and we did too in the worst areas.

img_7909Nepalese culture integrates religion with daily life. As you peer around a corner into a small lane or through a doorway into a courtyard, there is a Shiva or Ganesh temple, festooned with marigolds and splattered with red dye. Sitting around are the neighbourhood inhabitants, chatting, playing with babies, and drying their washing on the steps of the small temples. Walking maps are good in that they point out these rather hard to find sites while directing you through the web like maze of small streets. Frustrated by the traffic at times, with perseverance and maps.me we didn’t get completely lost — a state which I find completely natural but which upsets my travel companion no end.

In Durbar Square, which costs a hefty fee to enter which I hope is going towards the reconstruction, I found the least objectionable official guide offering his services that I could (my travel companion was not convinced) and he was invaluable. The brochure given out on admission has pictures of all the temples and other structures as they were, but with the damage, often they were half their previous height and therefore unrecognizable. We thoroughly enjoyed the tour around, ending in the original royal palace which was abandoned in favour of an extremely ugly modern site in the early ’60s. It is still too damaged to safely enter more than a few courtyards, but has an interesting small museum. The guide was in the palace with a couple of German tourists when the earthquake struck, fortunately they were not injured, though casualties in Kathmandu were considerable. Doug’s camera card decided to die during this tour so pictures of Durbar Square will be retrieved when we get home.

We visited the “new” royal palace another day. The entire royal family was massacred there in 2001, apparently by a disgruntled younger son though conspiracy theories abound — one anomaly was that the shooter killed himself by putting a bullet behind his left ear despite being right handed. The building in which this massacre took place was immediately torn down, and the bodies cremated without proper post mortems. In a grisly touch, the area where they all died is now a garden and is marked with signs indicating which family member was gunned down where.

This event was absolutely shattering and humiliating to the Nepalese who, despite his flaws, considered their king to be a father. To this day people avert their eyes and mutter prayers as they pass the palace. A family member who for some reason had missed the fatal dinner was crowned but proved to be disliked by all and incompetent to boot. A long period of civil unrest and instability followed, from which Nepal was just beginning to emerge when the earthquake struck them.

Nepal is one of the ten poorest countries in the world, though you would scarcely realize it judging from the Kathmandu valley, Pokhara and the trekking areas, and as is often the case with these terribly poor countries has a most corrupt and inept government. The vast majority of Nepalis are small farmers and the gross national income is about $730 per year. Remittances from Nepalis working abroad are by far the biggest contribution to the economy, followed by tourism which is still recovering after the years of civil unrest followed by the earthquake. But the Nepali nature is astonishingly cheery, in fact their main criticism of tourists is their reluctance to smile!

A good few days here despite the dust and now we move on to Boudha, home of the largest stupa in the world and a thriving Tibetan Buddhist culture. Hope it brings back memories of Lhasa.

NEPAL REVISITED 43 YEARS ON

IMG_7348.JPGBHAKTIPUR: DREAMING IN THE DUST

On our last trip to Nepal, in June of 1974, we drove in from India over truly terrible roads with our first stop being the lakeside town of Pokhara. This time was far less exhausting, we few from Ahmedabad to Delhi, transferred terminals and flew on to Kathmandu.

Arriving in Kathmandu airport was a casual affair. Since foreigners have to purchase visas on arrival, we expected chaos and long line ups but we have experienced far worse. They even had machines to enter the copious details required and to take your photo.

IMG_7342.JPGWe had decided to start our Nepali sojourn in the historic city of Bhaktipur on the outskirts of Kathmandu, though now what were separate towns have kind of melded into Kathmandu proper as the city has sprawled immensely. The dust and pollution around the airport is terrible, and many people wear face masks as they walk or ride motor bikes. The drive to Bhaktipur took us past an area of brick making, the smoking brick kilns contributing to the insalubrious air quality. The reason for all these bricks rapidly became clear as rebuilding after the earthquake of April, 2015 is in full swing everywhere.

IMG_7245.JPGWe were absolutely charmed by Bhaktipur, once we entered the old city having paid our $15US entry fee each for 1 week, the money going to reconstruction of the ancient religious sites damaged by the earthquake. First stop the Peacock Guesthouse, a 700 year old Newari house. Newars are the dominant caste group in these parts, there being 5 main groups in Nepal.

IMG_7201.JPGWell the Newaris were a short race, back in the day, maximum 5’5″ tall judging from the doorways and indeed the ceilings of our room. Run by a cheerful couple, Arun and Indra and their charming 2 and 5 year old children, the atmosphere was true guesthouse. We entered stooped over through a narrow, heavily carved doorway and found ourselves in a wood carving workshop where they still make the impossibly intricate windows, doors, and wall decorations that adorn the brick Newari buildings. Proceeding around the seated men tapping away with wood chisels, we found ourselves in a central courtyard with small tables and to the side, their “Himalayan Bakery” with a case full of gorgeous looking cakes and muffins, plus a great round of cheese!! Seeing the cheese, I was overcome with longing and asked if I could have a slice of it — “Why don’t we make you a cheese sandwich?” And immediately out came a gorgeous toasted sandwich, thick brown bread, delicious sharp cow cheese, and ripe flavoursome tomatoes. Ambrosia! Plus a cold beer to wash it down…

IMG_7199.JPGOur room was very cutely appointed but oh so low, however we adjusted with one head bang each — it was amusing to hear bumps and then foreigners groaning or cursing — we were not the only klutzy ones. We had such a nice time there, lots of interesting people to talk to, some of them working on various aid projects so regular visitors to Nepal. Sitting around in the evening chatting and drinking Italian wine (!) was a nice change from our solitary splendour in Gujarat.

IMG_7357.JPGWe arrived, unbeknownst to ourselves, on the eve of Shiva Raatri, occasion for a national holiday. It just so happened that the square outside our door held a famous Shiva temple. Somnath is a Shiva temple and faithful readers may recall the fire and light required for pujas to Shiva. Bonfires were lit all around the town, the temple was decorated with hundreds and hundreds of tiny butter lamps, and devotees lined up across the square all through the evening to make their pujas at the shrine.

IMG_7365.JPGOur house held a small but important shrine to Shiva on the ground level, opened only once a year on this day. Indra warned all of us to shutter our windows tightly as “the smoke will come up”. We saw what she was talking about as we looked out our window into the courtyard below (these houses were originally all interconnected and used by large extended families) and saw a little man kindling a very large bonfire right under the guests’ windows! The two little kids were out there too with miniature temple drums to bong, and the wood shavings and scraps from the workshop soon had quite the conflagration going. Shiva was dressed in new clothes for the occasion, and people lined up in the street outside to peer through an opening into the shrine with the bonfire merrily crackling behind.  When we went outside to peer in through the window in our basement, everyone tried to tell us how special it was to see this Shiva image only once a year.

Bhaktipur’s religious monuments are very old, over 1000 years in some cases, and the earthquake damage is sad to see. However the amount of restoration that has been done in less than two years augurs well for the future. Many people lost their homes and are still struggling to rebuild, as Nepal is both poor and corrupt so they are on their own to pay for it. There is more money available to resurrect the temples and shrines, plus foreign aid to help out.

IMG_7382.JPGOur square is the oldest in Bhaktipur but a short walk took us to the Durbar Square with its former royal residence and other large temples. Two other squares of note were the potters’ square and Taumadi with the highest temple in Nepal (of course your hardened correspondents climbed to the top).

IMG_7389.JPGOne day we took a car into the countryside to find a very important temple, Changu Narayan which was heavily damaged by the earthquake and closed for a time. Open again but in the midst of restoration by a team of archeologists with some German funding, it is possible to imagine the grandeur that was. The roads were terrible and got worse as we went to a very high Kali temple to supposedly admire the beautiful view which was completely obscured by mist. We knew this was not the time of year for mountain viewing, we will have to be lucky to get a good look at the Himalayas even from Pokhara.

We got up to a gorgeous, newly built Tibetan Buddhist Monastery called Namo Buddha, such a peaceful spot. Since Tibetan New Years is starting, there were many making their devotions, including a large group from Korea with Korean monks. The monastery is built on the spot where a young Buddha in a previous life as a prince found a tigress who was starving and could not feed her cubs. Out of compassion he allowed her to eat him so that the cubs could be fed. He then ascended to a higher plane of existence. The cave where this all took place is populated now with a stone tiger family, and is a sacred place of worship.

IMG_7349.JPGWe so enjoyed our time there that we have decided to return for our last couple of days and go to the airport from there. We are so charmed already by this country and the easy going Nepalese, that we wonder why it has taken us 43 years to make a return trip!

PALACE LIFE

img_6778Sometimes whimsical choices when travelling yield the most interesting results. I had read about Palace Utelia in a blog about Indian travel that I follow, and on impulse decided we would stop there for a few nights on our final leg of the journey through Gujarat. There seemed no way to contact the Palace so I used bookings.com, something I rarely do.

As usual we left the lovely Nilambag Palace in Bhavnagar in a taxi, the driver assuring me he knew where Lothal, a nearby archeological site is, seemingly confident that the palace would present itself. We are constantly amazed at the way nearly every driver we have had is willing to launch himself on a lengthy journey with two foreigners having not a holy clue of his actual destination. Suffice it to say this was a particularly frustrating example of the type!

The Palace is the quintessential example of the “good from far, far from good” phenomenon. As we were traversing country tracks and passing through the filthy streets of tiny villages, we could see three onion shaped domes on the horizon which seemed to be the only palace like structure in the vicinity. But it was a matter of “you can’t get there from here” until we telephoned for directions, the maps app yelling futilely in the background and our driver refusing to listen.

IMG_6846.JPGSplashing through the muddy and impossibly narrow village streets we pulled up to a decrepit metal gate which was opened by a 4’10” man clad in a white suit with an army tam on his head. He later turned out to be the “butler.” From inside the gate, the palace walls appeared weathered and peeling, with bricks exposed here and there and large cracks snaking across the expanse. We were greeted by our charming host, Yuvaraj Bhagirathsinh, the current Maharajah of this crumbling edifice. No one told him we were coming, he said, he never seemed to hear from bookings.com and of course without wifi, or indeed a computer of any sort, it was rather difficult…. but never mind, of course we are glad to have you, and would you be wanting lunch?

It went on from there, a more ad hoc place we’ve rarely encountered, at least at this price point anyway. It turned out the prince has not only inflated notions of his property’s many charms, but also inflated notions of what a night here is worth! But in the end, if the experience is counted in, it turned out to be good value.

IMG_7127.JPGThe “butler” was one of 2 1/2 servants, and his family have “served” the maharajah’s family for generations. He did all the cooking and was astonishingly good at it — supposedly trained by Bhagirath’s wife who is of the Bhavnagar royal family. The other full servant, Ratan, was a skeletally thin young man, also wearing a moth-eaten tam, who was general dogsbody and seemed to lead a tragic life judging by his constantly horrified expression. He was supposed to wait on the tables and it was painful to watch how much sheer distress it caused him to carry a tray. The 1/2 was a tiny little girl, whom the first morning, when I heard her childish warble as she swept the patio outside the room, I took to be a child of one of the servants. She was at most 4’5″ and about 65 pounds, and always had her head swathed in the end of her sari, completely obscuring her face, and I would judge making it pretty hard to see the dust…not that anyone else did either. She was Ratan’s new wife, and probably at least in her late teens. Like all the women here, she covers her entire head like a little floral ghost when any man of a higher caste approaches (and pretty much everyone would be higher than she) but has no worries about uncovering for Doug so we got a good look at her a few times. Guess foreigners don’t rate on the caste scale.

IMG_6697.JPGBhagirath immediately began planning a two day itinerary for us which was great and turned out to all be great fun. But that night he wanted us to come with him (in the royal car — a 50 year old somewhat refurbished jeep) to a wedding at which he was just to make an appearance — absolute must, offend them if not, been serving our family for generations.. etc. Though dubious after our long day getting there, we agreed to go. We set off at a tearing pace along all sorts of country back roads in the pitch dark, a bit on the hair raising side, and an hour later had not yet reached the wedding.

IMG_6808.JPGWhen we got there, Bhagirath drove into the venue amid a great amount of namasteing and bowing and such, abandoned the car and we all got out, including the butler and the “secretary”, an ancient old man in a turban, wearing a dhoti, who had been forced to leave his walking stick behind as there wasn’t much room in the jeep. They were tasked with looking after us, but immediately disappeared, occasionally waving from across the room. Since neither of them spoke a word of English, we were better off with the curious wedding guests who pushed their kids forward to ask us questions in English and offer information to the best of their abilities.

IMG_6795.JPGThe wedding venue was astonishingly elaborate with a long silken entrance way embellished with photos of the bride and groom and the groom’s parents. Inside was an immense multi-coloured tent where Bhagirath sat down on the floor with a group of men who all greeted him with great deference. Trays of water, then juice, then tea were offered. Soon we were taken to a hall full of tables and given a very elaborate thali, with 4 or 5 sweets in honour of the wedding. Just like the fancy reception at the Nilambag, people just filtered in and ate when they pleased, a bevy of women went around offering seconds and adding special dishes.

A helpful English speaker, brought over the woman who had organized this meal — for one THOUSAND people! Apparently the groom’s father is a farmer who does quite well and had decided to splash out on the biggest wedding ever seen in the surrounding countryside, let alone the village. They were on the 5th day of the celebration, and the bride and her family were at their village where the actual ceremony would take place before the groom brought her to her new home. Luckily Bhagirath got up after dinner, and using us as an excuse, said we would not be able to wait for the procession to arrive — even he thought it would run into the wee hours of the morning.

IMG_6896.JPGThe next day we had a very interesting trip with the son of the “secretary” — a most full of himself fellow called Balraj who went on about his “high” caste (Rajput) and the general lesser qualities of others in the village — mostly Patels (farmers) as well as some even lower.

In another village we visited a group of wealthy farmers who live communally, and have incredible hygienic standards for Indian village life — their houses are all trimmed with green, a symbolic colour for them, and absolutely immaculately painted, especially compared with the peeling stucco of the palace. The streets of their small area are swept clean, and since they cook on gas hot plates, there is no need for huge piles of cow dung, and cow dung patties used for fuel which line the other streets and give rise to an amazing number of flies. The headman toured us through several of the homes, the kitchens impressed me, with the aforementioned gas rings, counters, fridges, and even a washing machine! But the most amazing thing was the Reverse Osmosis machine in the kitchen so the whole clan drinks clean water. I asked Bhagirath later why he didn’t get one, he seemed vague on the concept as he seems vague on many things. The headman didn’t mention his Mercedes or the BMW in the garage, but proudly showed us his beautiful horses, one with the Gujarati ears which cross on top.

IMG_6746.JPGIn the evening Balraj took us on a walking tour of Utelia village which surrounds the IMG_6749.JPGpalace, a more squalid and sewage ridden place we have rarely seen in Gujarat. On the right side of the gate live the Rajputs, minimally cleaner, and on the left, the Patels, really filthy with very unhealthy looking children. There was even a group of Harijans (formerly untouchables) who do itinerant farm labour. The whole place was stuck in the 19th century. Bhagirath considers himself their fatherly benefactor, giving them advice on cow breeding and such, but seemingly unaware how shocking the conditions would look through our eyes — or the eyes of any of his tourists I would think. Just to put you in the picture, he told us he has never set foot outside the palace gates — he either goes out on horseback or in the palace car (the decrepit jeep). If he did, it would diminish his status as the descendent of the Solanki dynasty sun kings….IMG_6853.JPG

IMG_7065.JPG The next day he took us by jeep to visit a band of nomadic camel herders some way away stopping on the way to hit a couple more weddings, (must make an appearance, people expect it etc). He phoned the nomads to arrange to meet at the road and guide us into the desert like terrain where they were camped. They are called Jaths, and this is truly subsistence living — they move every 20 days for new grazing lands for the camels, all of them including the small children walking while the camels carry their meagre bundles.

IMG_7030.JPGThe man who met us looked very Afghani, high cheekbones, very thin, with grey blue eyes arresting in his sun darkened face. Present in the camp were two other men, four women, and three kids, one a most beautiful girl of 7 or 8 judging by her teeth. The oldest woman was setting up their shelters. First she placed four or five wooden sticks about 4 feet high in a circle as tent posts from which she hung a tattered tarp, then enclosed the whole thing in thorn bushes. This was the home for the baby goats, clearly the biggest priority was to get them out of the sun in a safe place.

IMG_7051.JPGThe little structures for the people did not even have walls, just a small tarp suspended precariously on the wooden sticks. They sleep basically in the open on the bare ground. It gets up to 50 C in the summer here, and the winter nights drop to 10. They had a few blankets bought by some Australian students doing their graduate work on nomadic groups but nothing much else.

IMG_7081.JPGAmazingly the women wear the most gorgeously embroidered clothing, with tiny mirrors embedded among rows of embroidery. Their jewellery is also spectacular and I believe constitutes their dowry — silver nose rings for the married women, elaborate earrings necessitating deep slits cut in the ear lobes, arms full of bangles, and silver collars. When we came only the old woman setting up the camp was there — Doug found her fire making technique fascinating — the other two were off washing clothes and fetching water which they came back carrying. Seemed amazing to me that with what little they had and how far they had to walk to the water, they were still washing clothes!

IMG_7058.JPGThis group has 150 camels, many of which were out grazing but numerous mothers and babies were tethered in the camp. It was interesting to watch one of the men vigorously encouraging a day old baby to suckle, I guess it is not just human babies that sometimes struggle with the “latch”. They sell these camels and their goats to make a living such as it is. No schooling for the kids, no health care. But interestingly they were very confident in themselves, with quite a regal bearing, and though they were glad to see Bhagirath, I don’t think they would have cared if he stepped his foot out of the palace gates or not.

img_7118It was a busy few days and we are getting a bit tired, for one thing it has suddenly become extremely hot. We decided to cancel our last destination, stay an extra day at Utelia and have a couple of spare days in Ahmedabad before we fly to Nepal. We spent a leisurely day during which Bhagirath gave us a tour of the whole palace, which he inherited in absolute ruins, explained how his 13 generation dynasty goes back, the history of the princely states — which I did not realize controlled 2/3 of India, the British only 1/3 when Independence came — what a disaster it was when India Gandhi made them give up their privy purses and all their weird privileges and perks in 1972, in his mind a disaster for the people because they were deprived of the fatherly guidance, his pie in the sky plans to restore the palace…etc etc. What a charming, entitled oddball he is!

IMG_6715.JPGWe were reading before dinner when a hue and cry went up outside our room, we heard Bhagirath yell, “Doug, Doug” and went out to find him unconscious on the terrace in front of our room. The family retainer and numerous bodies from who knows where were having hysterics and trying to stand him up. Doug had to fight them to get them to lay him flat, we had no idea of what had happened but immediate thought of a coronary. He was covered in vomit, and drooling copiously, fortunately he came to enough to say “bees”. There had been great swarms of bees coming and going that day, with a humming sound that we could hear before we saw them. He mentioned casually that he hates bees because he reacts to the sting. He was clutching some Allegra tablets which he had made it to his room to grab, not too useful but all he had been prescribed. Since his cousin had very recently died due to a sting, it seemed odd he did not have an epi pen. Anyway to make a long story short, it was a tense time as he experienced all the symptoms of a serious reaction. Fortunately although his throat was itchy and irritated he did not lose his airway.

It was a very difficult situation because he was the only bilingual person in the place, and the only person with the authority to tell anyone what to do. More and more people kept streaming in, offering such remedies as ghee (butter) and honey. The bee man arrived — Bhagirath had asked him to remove the hive but he had to wait for “an auspicious time” so it had not been done.

Doug was insistent that he return to Ahmedabad but of course the only vehicle was the ancient jeep. The stuck up underling managed to contact his wife in Ahmedabad and after 1 1/2 hours during which he improved the son arrived and we all got in the car and went back to a “homestay” his wife runs in Ahmedabad, where we are staying presently and which is extremely comfortable. What a drama! But it could have ended really badly.

We have come to the end of our Gujarat journey. This is a wonderful area to visit, with friendly, accommodating people and few foreign tourists. We have enjoyed learning about the art and culture of so many different ethnic and religious groups. We have stayed in hostels, nature camps, homestays, run of the mill hotels, and historic edifices, both grand and not so grand. We loved observing the craftspeople at work and chatting with friendly Gujaratis. A great trip, and now we move on to Nepal and again, something completely different.