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.

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