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A Tale of Two... err... Three Cities

Kickin’ It in Kathmandu with the Commies and the Kumari

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View Asia '08 on Bwinky's travel map.

OK, so this blog entry is... what... seven months overdue? As one friend wrote, "So did you ever come back? Last I read you were still in Nepal!" Yes, obviously we did come back, but getting settled in a new city and a new life has taken a lot of time and energy. And, I'm a procrastinator -- sue me.

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“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...”

Our first and last experiences of Nepal (and some in between) were in the Kathmandu valley. Home to over a million people, this bowl between the Himalayas to the north and the Mahabharat Range to the south is Nepal's biggest urban area, combining the historic cities of Kathmandu, Patan, Bhaktapur, and others. Landing here in an airplane is not for the faint of heart: final approach requires a pretty sharp bank and steep descent once you clear the valley's ridge!

The Kathmandu valley from Swayambunath Stupa, a Buddhist shrine overlooking the city

We stayed in Kathmandu long enough that it really began to feel home-like and kind of got into the groove of Nepali life, or at least life with the new friends we made from the missionary organization that our friend Kim had recently left. They were kind enough to look after us for the couple of days we waited for Kim to arrive (she had been delayed due to the closure of the Bangkok airport by pro-democracy protesters, in possibly the only case where I have been annoyed by those calling for liberty...). After so many months on the road, it was great to be among like-minded friends and just hang out, cook spaghetti and watch "The Office." Our friend Anna took me to the Nepali church she attends, which was a fascinating experience; unlike the Indonesian church we attended with my uncle, the music here was entirely indigenous, which I found very interesting.

Nepali men in traditional topi hats, taking it easy in Kathmandu's Durbar (Palace) Square

And there was something about the Nepali people that we were really attracted to. They are beautiful, with the dark skin and hair of their Indian cousins, but almond eyes reflecting their country's proximity to China. And they are very genuine, easy-going and friendly. With dozens of distinct ethnic groups and languages Nepal is truly multicultural, and it's one of the few places on earth it seems to work with almost no ethnic or religious strife. We started to joke that Nepal was India Lite: one-third less pollution, one-third less hassle, and two-thirds fewer cows in the streets.

A hauntingly beautiful Nepali girl in Kathmandu's Thahiti Tole Square

Kathmandu is a city with a lot of problems, though, along with Nepal in general. Although not as bad as Delhi, the air pollution is pretty bad. Like most large cities in the developing world, poverty is rampant, especially on the outskirts. We crossed a bridge over a stream in Bhaktapur where women were bathing and filling water jugs just downstream from a bloated goat carcass. And human trafficking is rampant, with young girls being kidnapped, or even sold by their families, into sexual slavery in Indian brothels.

“It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness...”

Kathmandu is the cradle of Nepali culture -- if such a thing exists in a country this diverse. The valley is home to the Newar ethnic group, a sophisticated culture of merchants, farmers and highly-skilled artisans, and the historic cities of Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur are full of their architectural gems, with multi-tiered temples and brick townhouses with ornately carved doors and window screens.

Patan's Durbar Square: temples on the left, palace on the right, Himalayas in the distance

The façade of Bhaktapur's Royal Palace, from Durbar Square (yes, each city has one...)

The famous carved wood Peacock Window on the Pujari Math monastery in Bhaktapur

The three cities were originally independent city-states that competed architecturally with each other in the valley until they were united (read: conquered) by Privthi Narayan Shah in the 1700s. Nepal remained an absolute monarchy until 1990, when King Birendra made the country a constitutional monarchy. Democracy didn't come easily, though, with lots of ineffective governments and a Communist insurgency that started in the mountains and gradually grew in power, sometimes hassling hikers on remote Annapurna mountain trails. Tragically, things didn't go so well for Birendra, either -- he and the entire royal family were gunned down by the Crown Prince Dipendra in a drunken rage over a woman his parents had forbidden him to marry.

Ironically, Dipendra reigned for three days while in a coma, sealing his fate as the nation's most ineffectual leader

The new century hasn't been much better for Nepal politically. Birendra's brother Gyanendra took the throne, and dissolved the government in 2005 after several years of a new prime minister every few months and an increasing Maoist threat. Pro-democracy demonstrations forced him to restore the parliament, which in turn dismissed him in 2008 and abolished the monarchy. Elections saw the Maoists take control, making Nepal one of the world's only nations with a democratically elected Communist government. The former king was given 15 days to vacate the Royal Palace so it could be turned into a museum. I suppose it's better than the guillotine, if you're going to fall victim to a revolution.

Popular hopes ran high that the Maoists would bring stability to Nepal.

“It was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity...”

For a country that has had such difficulty in getting its act together politically, Nepal is remarkably stable, religiously. In a primarily Hindu nation that was the birthplace of the Buddha and is home to numerous Tibetan refugees, Nepali Hindus, Buddhists, and even minorities of Muslims and Christians coexist with remarkable peace (though not so much for the goats we saw sacrificed in the streets of Bhaktapur on a Hindu holiday).

The iconic Swayambunath Buddhist stupa, with its mysterious eyes of the Buddha on the base of the spire

Red-robed Tibetan women at the Bodhnath stupa

Buddhist prayer wheels at the Bodhnath stupa

Tibetan Buddhism is interesting and very different from the Buddhism practiced by the orange-robed monks of Thailand and Cambodia. Prayer services in the gompas (monasteries) are accompanied by loud banging drums, gongs, and discordant trumpets. At sunset, the whole community turns out to walk in circles around the stupa (always clockwise) in combination of prayer and social gathering.

It's fascinating to be able to experience this unusual culture in Kathmandu's Tibetan community at Bodhnath. Including the rather bizarre traditional cuisine of momos (Chinese style dumplings) and butter tea, which is exactly what it sounds like -- tea made with melted yak butter.

I thought it was disgusting, but Kim was able to choke it down...

Hindus are visibly the most dominant religion, but Buddhism developed out of Hinduism, and in Nepal the two have in some ways blended. A common sight in Kanthmandu are wandering sadhus, or holy mystics. They take a vow of poverty and wander around in robes with painted faces, seeking enlightenment and alms.

Hindu temples in Kathmandu's Durbar Square

A Hindu ceremony in Patan's Durbar Square, where wives are burning sacrifices for their husbands' health

Hindu sadhus sitting outside a Kathmandu temple

Real sadhus are less common, however, than ones who are focused more on getting paid by tourists for posing for photos. These guys were clearly of the economic variety. I prefer the miracle of the telephoto lens, personally.

One of the most interesting facets of Nepal's de-royalization campaign involved a mere girl, the Kumari Devi, Nepal's very own living goddess.

Sajani Shakya, the Kumari from 2001-2007

Chosen from among numerous candidates and believed to be an incarnation of the goddess Kali, the Kumari Devi (or royal Kumari) is worshipped, paraded around the city in a big annual festival, and blesses the king. She and her family get to live in a beautiful home near the Durbar Square and she is venerated until she hits puberty, at which point a new one is found; she gets a big dowry, but that's somewhat offset by the fact that it's not considered good luck to marry a former Kumari -- supposedly, you die coughing blood. Not exactly a turn-on for most guys.

The house of the Kumari, very quiet since the abolition of the monarchy

Of course, because the Kumari is so closely linked to the king, the ascension of the Maoists and the end of the monarchy left her future very uncertain. Ultimately, the Maoists appointed a new one just before we arrived, making a decision formerly reserved for the royal priest. I believe at the time we visited, she was living in her house, but not making any public appearances.

“It was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness...”

For everything that is fantastic about Nepal, there are just some things that make you shake your head in wonder. It's a country plagued with institutionalized inefficiency and corruption. For example, guidebooks practically beg you to avoid flying Royal Nepal Airlines, which is notorious for delays, cancellations, and general bureaucratic mismanagement. If you want to get where you're going, they urge you to fly foreign carriers, or one of the private domestic airlines like Cosmic Air or Yeti Airlines (hey, it's owned by Sherpas!).

Another example: this is one of the most mountainous nations on earth, and there is the potential for enough hydroelectric power generation to light up not only Kathmandu, but the entire country and probably half of India as well. And yet, twice a day, every day... the lights go out. Scheduled rolling blackouts; each neighborhood knows what time each day they'll be relying on candles and batteries. It inevitably happens when you want to take a shower, or cook a meal.

The Browns, an America family at our guesthouse, having a dinner with "necessary romance"

“It was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair...”

All of this was supposed to get better, of course, when the Maoists made the leap from insurgents to the ruling party. The idealists on the Nepali left assumed that now that the right people were in charge, everything would be better. Hope springs eternal, but as is so often the case in these situations nothing really changed. The government was just as inefficient and corrupt with the guys on the other side in charge. The poor were still poor, the electricity still went out twice a day. And a few months ago, the Nepali electorate voted the Maoists out of power, in favor of a coalition government comprising basically everyone else.

(See, procrastination can have its benefits. If I'd written this post back in January...)

Living with this, as well as the religious belief in karma, kind of creates a sense of fatalism in the Nepali people. Your flight was overbooked? The power's out when you want to watch TV? Your new government's as bad as the old one?

You shrug your shoulders. "What can you do?"

“We had everything before us, we had nothing before us...”

And our time in Kathmandu concluded our trip. We set out on a very long trip home, flying from Kathmandu to Bangkok (where the airport was thankfully open again), had pad thai, a massage and a too-short night's sleep, and then flew from Bangkok to Taiwan to Los Angeles and onward to our new home in Houston. There was nothing left of our amazing journey but memories, and a new life ahead.

We came home to a country that had undergone a revolution of its own while we were gone. Like the Nepalis, hopes ran high for some that a swing to the left would solve our great difficulties. It remains to be seen whether the result will be different.

Re-entry was interesting. Lynn, of course, spent the better part of December and January flat on her back with a particularly virulent strain of giardia that required three weeks on antibiotics that turned her tongue black and her skin yellow. And the jobs we'd hoped for at the theatre company in Houston failed to materialize thanks to Hurricane Ike and the economy.

But just like Kathmandu's rolling blackouts, you find ways to create light even when it's dark.

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And so ends the travel blog. Check back again soon, though, for some coming attractions with lots of photos:

• "The Best Butchering of the English Language on Asian Signs"

• "Dead Stuff We Saw on the Road in India"

• "Faces of Asia"

...and maybe more!

Thanks for reading.

Posted by Bwinky 12:44 Archived in Nepal Tagged tourist_sites

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