Just as our plane circled and began its descend toward a landing at the Kathmandu airport, I began to see out of my window the rugged, snowcapped peaks of the Himalaya mountain range and felt a surge of excitement and wonder at actually finally being able to visit a place that had always held an almost mystical image for me. The line of Himalayan peaks vanished as our plane dove down through the clouds that I would later learn were made up of air pollution as well as water vapor.
The director and guide, Arvind, of our SmarTours tour did a wonderful job of coordinating everything from customs to visas to collection of our bags at the Kathmandu International Airport terminal, and we were on our bus and headed for our hotel in no time, passing through the dusty streets of Nepal’s capital city with its population of over two million people. My idea of Kathmandu being somewhat of a magical city in the foothills of the Himalayas began to be dampened by the rundown look of the buildings and houses we passed and the traffic congestion. There seemed to be the same problem of trash disposal that we had encountered throughout India, and there was a general lack of prosperity in the looks of the crowds of local residents gathered at the market areas.
As in India, when we arrived at the location of our hotel, our bus had to go through guarded gates in order to enter the hotel grounds. Once through the gates, we were greeted to the beautiful surroundings of Soaltee Crown Plaza Hotel. We spent the rest of the afternoon settling into the hotel and visiting the numerous shops that were on the grounds. That evening we wandered down past the large swimming pool area where we had supper at Al Fresca Italian Restaurant, one of the many restaurants on the hotel grounds, and had the best meal ever: lasagna and prawn ravioli, local beer, soup, water and delicious eggplant spread for bread.
After a restful evening we were up and ready to experience Kathmandu and its surrounding areas. We suppose that in order to feel independent and self-sufficient India sets time 30 minutes off from the rest of the world, and Nepal differs another fifteen minutes, so we never knew exactly what time it was. We were so surprised to find that this city, for which we brought all our winter warmest clothes, long underwear, and heavy coats, is about 75 F degrees, so we are in shirtsleeves here at 5,000 feet above sea level at the end of November! Is this global warming?? We are definitely here at the optimum time of year for tourists.
We boarded our bus and headed across the city to our first stop, which would be the Tibetan Buddhist Stupa (shrine/temple) and the area where the Tibetan refugees had settled after China’s take over of Tibet. Along the way Arvind introduced us to Deepak who would be our local guide. Deepak gave us a lot of information about Kathmandu and Nepal in general. Nepal has a population of about 30 million. The entire small country is only 58,000 square miles: 950 miles long, 100-150 miles wide, and most of it is in the high Himalayas and their valleys. Hindus comprise 75%, Buddhists 20%, other religions 5%. The main business is agriculture on small, hand-tilled farms terraced along the mountainsides and in the many Himalayan valleys.
On arriving at the Tibetan center, we walked through an elaborate gate and were confronted with the large, white dome topped with steeple with large eyes painted on each of the four sides. This Stupa is surrounded by shops, restaurants, and housing for Tibetan refugees. The United Nations has been very helpful with the Tibetan refugees who fled over the mountain when the Chinese took over Tibet. At Tibetan monasteries we do not remove shoes. We climbed to the roof of the weird domed worship building. The Stupa is centered in the large square with its eyes watching everything.
We visited a school for artists that were being taught how to paint Mandalas. The Mandalas were very detailed and done with magnificent color. After spending a couple of hours shopping in the many Tibetan shops, we boarded the bus again and traveled a short distance to a stop along the river at the Pashu Pathinath section of Nepal.
The Pashu Pathinath has the holiest Shiva Temple in the world. After a short walk along the Batmati River we came to the cremation area that was located on the opposite side of the river where a raised concrete set of platforms were occupied with various groups preparing and starting funeral pyres. We were told that the Batmati River eventually reached the Ganges River. As we watched, poor women carried huge loads of wood on their back across the river to the funeral pyres. Other than family members of those being cremated only holy people and the firewood carriers are allowed to cross the bridge to the place of cremations. We stayed across the river from the cremation area, but the smell of the smoke, and the filth along the river and around the site created a sickening feeling to most of us.
However, here on the side of the river where we had come to view the cremations we encountered the bizarre Sadhus, the most holy people, who sat at the base of a small shrine clothed in white rag wraps with painted faces and Rastifarian hair which is never washed or cut. They are stoned and with big grins hold out their hands for money. They are the only people who are allowed to use drugs legally in the form of marijuana or hemp.
Varanasi (which was formerly Benares) and Pashu Pathinath are the most holy Hindu places in the world. The legend about Pashu Pathinath is that 2,000 years ago this was a pasture for cows. There was a certain pile of stones where one cow was always milked and gave her milk freely. One day a cowherd was angry because this cow would not give milk. He threw a stone and it bled. The royal priests and authorities came to see the bleeding stone and declared it a holy place and built the Shiva Temple here.
Part of our group chose to travel out of Kathmandu that afternoon to visit some mountain villages where a great deal of Nepal farming takes place. Our bus took us up the very narrow, s-curved mountain road on a trip which had us sometimes feeling that we were hanging out over a cliff at each curve. We arrived at Nagarcort climbing some 6,500 feet above Kathmandu’s 4,500 feet in altitude. The journey took us passed typical mountain houses and tiny villages with terraced farms covering the hillsides. We stopped at a quiet resort, where upper class Nepalese come from the city for the weekend. Here we took a break and had tea and gazed out at the distant peaks of the Himalayas covered with snow. We were high enough to be above the smog of the city, which is rife with coal smoke from many factories in the valley and thick fumes of cars.
After tea we hiked down a little dirt road, which slowly descended past typical farmhouses. The tour company had made agreements with the people on this path for us to visit and take photographs. We went into one home, which had a beautiful garden and a view looking over the terraced hillsides. The home was stucco with dirt floors and neat, with only room for sleeping mats and the few possessions, clothes on hooks on the walls, and baskets of grains etc. around. Goats and other animals were in each yard. This was quite an opportunity to see real Himalayan life, which is constant work to maintain food and shelter. Although the families had been paid, the children still followed us and begged a little, showing how they could roll a small hoop with a stick. After winding our way out of the mountains, we returned to Kathmandu and our hotel, settling in for a nice restful evening.
The next morning many of us were up early to go to the airport to take a plane ride up to view Mt. Everest. The planes that were to take us held 16 passengers and each passenger had a window view. We were not sure we would get to go up as everything depended on the weather being right. The cost of taking the trip up to Everest and then back was $200 per person, but we knew we more than likely would not be back, and this was our one chance in our lifetime to actually see the tallest peak in the world. The flights for the last two days had been canceled, so as we stood waiting in the crowded domestic terminal, we kept our fingers crossed for good luck. After waiting nearly two hours, the sun came through the clouds and we fortunately were taxied out onto the runway and were off.
When we cleared the Kathmandu smog and the light cloud cover, we began to see the line of Himalayan peaks stretching as far as we could see from the west to the east. The plane climbed to an altitude of about 20,000 feet and headed northeast, bringing the mountains ever closer. There was a state of awe for all aboard as we viewed the vastness of so many towering peaks. As we neared Mt. Everest, the stewardess took each of us individually to the cockpit so we could view the mighty mountain out of the front of the plane. Everest was capped with a halo shaped cloud, but we could see most of the mountain and the roughed terrain that leads up to it. The pilot circled so everyone got a good view of the mountain and could take all the pictures we wanted. We then flew back to the west, again able to view the panorama of the Himalayas all the way back to Kathmandu.
Right after arriving back at our hotel the rest of the tour met us in the lobby, and we prepared to head out again to take in more of the sights of the Kathmandu area. We were driven through the main center of Kathmandu with central bus lines, market, military parade ground, Queen’s pool, theater, Nepalase movies, and we drove through this big commercial center, which looks fairly new. The former pink palace now is the Narayanhti Palace Muesum where the drunk son of the king picked up a rifle and killed his father and mother, brother and sister and then himself. His uncle arrived and became king for short time before the Communist Maoist party won the last democratic election.
After our drive through the central part of Kathmandu, we arrived at Bakau or Bakatapur City, fifteen kilometers east of Kathmandu toward the Tibetan border. This is one of most historic cities in Kathmandu Valley. The former palace and many Hindu temples of differing construction in brick and wood are around a huge courtyard or central square. The tall pagoda of intricately carved teak wood was built 300 or more years ago. The famous Mala Dynasty Palace of 55 Windows also has amazing carved window and door-frames and a tall Golden Gate entrance. This place was a separate kingdom/city state for a thousand years from the 9th to the 18th Centuries and was the golden period for art and architecture. It is now a World Heritage Site, and we seemed be visiting all the World Heritage sites of the areas being visited during International World Heritage week. The Little Buddha movie was filmed here. We enjoyed lunch of “safe” and not spicy tomato soup, fried rice and beer, at the Palace Restaurant Bhaktapurnot, which also had a clean restroom. We are grateful for small blessings! The rest of the afternoon we were free to tour the area and shop at the many shops in the area. After a very exciting and interesting day we returned to our hotel for another relaxing evening.
The next day was our last day, and we started out at the famous and ancient Durban Palace, which has a statue of the Monkey God, Hanauman. Nearby, we walked through the small courtyard at the 17th Century House of the Living Goddess, a peculiar tradition in this culture. A group of girls aged four to six years are gathered, the most beautiful one, perfect without any flaws, is choosen from these. The one that is selected to be the Living Goddess holds this distention until she reaches puberty. She must be able to stay in a dark room without fear, and her horoscope must match that of the ruler of Nepal, which in past years was the king. The little girl selected is brought to this house, and it is believed that the soul of the goddess comes to reside within her. Her parents can visit during the day, but she stays with her guardians at night. When she reaches puberty she is replaced and leaves this lonely place of honor. After she retires as a teen she gets permanent monetary support from the government.
We returned to the hotel by late afternoon quite tired. It was time to repack and make a few purchases at the shops near the hotel. Our farewell dinner was a typical Nepalese meal at a former Buddhist monastery in a very old and charming building. We were served small portions of many different favorite local dishes while we watched a group of performers playing traditional crude musical instruments, including strings, drum, horn, and box accordion. The pairs of dancers dressed in colorful traditional Himalayan village costumes performed several dances, which have been part of local celebrations since time immemorial. Normally the meal would be for guests seated on the floor, but tourists are given a table.
We were to leave in the morning on an Air India plane for Delhia, India, and then on to the United States. But when we got to the airport and after waiting for several hours, we were informed that our flight had been canceled. Our tour director Arvind had to get our baggage back and our visas redone as well as get us rebooked on a flight the next day and then find us hotel rooms for the night. Arvind did an amazing job of arranging everything. Because the majority of our tour group were ticketed to go straight on back to the US on a connecting flight in Delhi, Arvind also had to get the SmarTours agency to spend most of the evening getting everyone rebooked on flights back to the US the next day. Amazingly everything worked out, and we were headed back to the US the next evening after a wonderfully interesting journey through India and Nepal.