Saturday, May 2, 2009

Kathmandu is only one of three royal cities in Nepal. The other two are Bakhtapur and Patan, each of which has a Durbar Square similar to Kathmandu's. Smaller, but much less commercial, and there are few tourists. (I seem to be fairly lucky on this front so far.) The Bakhtapur temple complex contains an Erotic Elephant Temple.

In Patan, the Machhendranath Festival is on, which involves carting an icon around for a month in two huge temple chariots with two-meter wooden wheels, and a huge tilting tree-like thing on top. It looks thoroughly impractical. They move so slowly that children play under the carts. The purpose of the whole thing is praying for rain, which has a good chance of success because the monsoon rains are approaching around that time of the year anyway.

Returning from Bakhtapur was tricky because two bombs were found on a bus there, and police were rerouting traffic away from the Kathmandu-Bakhtapur road. Rumors flew that an army convoy was blown up, but actually the bombs didn't explode. So instead of seeing that filthy third-world slum road a third time, the taxi (yes mom, I don't use local buses in Nepal, I don't want to get squeezed to death by goats) had to detour through the villages. And they aren't rich, but clean and pleasant. Maybe my initial impression of Kathmandu's suburbs really was too negative. We also saw long lines at gas station, they have fuel shortages.

What is Tiger Balm anyway? Half the town sells that stuff.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Got a thunderstorm in Pokhara last night unlike any thunderstorm I have seen before. Strongs wind bent the trees, there is torrential rain, and lightning. At home you can estimate the distance of a lightning flash by timing the delay between flash and thunder. Not so here. There are many flashes per second, far too many to count. The sky flickers like a broken flourescent light.

And it cleared the sky. The next morning I got up at 5:00 and took a taxi up on Sarangkot, and was rewarded with a last view of the Himalayas - the Annapurna range in the background and the holy mountain of Machhapuchhare, shaped like a perfect pyramid, light up in the morning sun. Pokhara is at 800 meters and the peaks rise up to 7000m. As the sun rose, the mountains once again faded into the mists like apparitions. The pictures aren't sufficiently impressive so I'll show the sunrise instead.

The bus ride back to Kathmandu took seven hours. Not much to report there; various accidents, huge trucks belching black smoke as they creep up the mountains, and the delight of returning to Thamel's chaos. I am staying at the Tibetan Peace Hotel again, in the same room overlooking their lovely quiet garden.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

PG50. Some material in this post may not be suitable for parents.

A van took me up 600m on top of Sarangkot Mountain. I got a harness that is clipped into my pilot's harness, I run a few steps down the hill, the parachute inflates and we are up in the air above Nepal's Pokhara valley. We were circling for a while to find the thermals rising up from the valley, and they carry us up a kilometer above the valley. The views of the mountain ridges, the valley, and the lake are fantastic. Unfortunately it's still hazy; on a clear day the Annapurna range of the Himalayas is visible from here. The flight is quite smooth, with only a little buffeting above the mountain ridges. My pilot is a paraglider acrobat but I decline his offers to show me how to drop 30m per second. After half an hour, we stop circling the thermals, and gently float down to the lake, and land in some fields where the van waits. Totally exhilarating!
Walked around the dam into the hills. There are no signs, so I work like a wild west trapper - broken twigs, a paletr shade of brown leaves, scratches on stones - and of course the trail of plastic bottles, soda cans, candy wrappers, and chips bags also helps. I always know after 50m that I lost the garbage trail. Got rowed back across the lake by two children, who, like everyone else here, speak English.

Also walked to Old Pokhara, where real people live and nobody sells souvenirs and trekking tours. It's fairly dirty, especially in between, where people hammer on radiators, lay in oil puddles under buses, cut trucks into small piecesand recycle tires are way past recycling. If there was such a thing as subsustence engineering that's what they would be doing. It's a long, hot, and polluted march. The old downtown itself is fairly nice, a no-frills neighborhood with a little market, and the Seti river which is very narrow but flows so fast that it has cut a 50-meter deep gorge through the town. You hear it but it's difficult to see deep down.

Spent a little time on the monastery-and-temple circuit, but it's quite unremarkable.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Not much to report today - the bus ride to Pokhara takes seven hours. The bus is supposed to be the best they have but it's wheezing up the mountains at 25 km/h. But it's clean and everyone has a seat, unlike on Nepalese local buses, which pack as much people, bags, and animals as they can fit inside and on the roof. Trucks, buses, cars, motorcycles, animals, and people carrying impossible loads (picture) share the narrow road. We passed eight army checkpoints because of some Maoist rebel activity, but everything is quiet at the moment so there is no delay. (As I type this, a small group of demonstrators carrying red hammer-and-sickle flags shouting paroles walk past the Internet cafe.)

Pokhara is touristy, as usual meaning many souvenir shops and trekking agencies but not a lot of actual tourists. An amusing number of teenagers do their very best to look like their hippy parents back in the sixties. Pokhara is supposed to be like Thamel but it's far too relaxed for that, and much more spacious. And warmer. Unfortunately it has become hazy again so I can't see the mountains; Pokhara is located at the Phewa lake in the Annapurna range of the Himalayas. Maybe tomorrow.

PS. Now it's dark and I can see the mountains, at least where the forest fires burn.

Monday, April 27, 2009

There's more than Kathmandu in the valley. Swayambhunath, a.k.a. the monkey temple, sits on top of a hill with a very long stairway leading up to it. Visitors get waylaid by souvenir vendors every 20 steps or so. The main stupa totally looks like a huge birthday cream cake with a candle in the middle. And the usual prayer drums, statues locked away in little shrines, and butter lamps. The temple is clean because they literally throw all garbage over the walls, where lots of monkeys sort through it.

Speaking of garbage - on the way to the monkey temple I crossed Kathmandu's Vishnumati River, which is so dirty that there is more garbage than water on the surface. I am beginning to like Kathmandu's chaotic, loud, and crowded Thamel downtown, at least they are taking care of it.

#2 temple of the day is Boudha on the other side of Kathmandu. This one is the mother of all cream cakes (pictured), on top of three huge terraces. It's surrounded by a circular ring of buildings, most of them souvenir shops of course but there are few visitors. Their style, if not the ornamentation, feels almost mediterranean and is very pleasant to walk. This is a Tibetan community, and it very much feels like Tibet except that you can say "Dharamsala" [the Indian exile of the Dalai Lama] without risking to get arrested.

Back in Kathmandu, I checked out Freak Street, but it's a tired shadow of its '60s fame. All the action, piercing and tattoo shops, forlorn-looking rasta youths, and hasheesh hawkers are now in Thamel.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Kathmandu's Durbar Square is a temple complex centered on the old royal palace, now a museum. Dozens of pagoda temples with tiered roofs and stepped terraces, some low and some nearly as tall as the pagoda on top. Plus a shining white neoclassical palace in the middle that looks quite out of place there. The pagodas are made from wood, mostly cracked and without paint. The carving is incredibly detailed and really deserves repair. Cows, dogs, and pigeons wander freely; have to watch out not to step on a sleeping dog. It's quite hot.

Cars, motorcycles, and rickshaws go through this Unesco World Heritage, honking all the time to get the tourists out of their way. I saw an open army truck, four soldiers standing in front and eight in the back, and lots of handcuffed people in between.

This is a fantastic place if only they had shielded the place from the encroaching city and its traffic better. And spent more effort on restoration. The whole of Kathmandu I saw has many little temples, old houses with the same fantastic intricate wood carving, and beautiful old plazas - but it's all neglected, decrepit, and not too clean, especially outside downtown. The Rata park is positively filthy. Like in China, people drop their garbage where they stand, but unlike China the armies of sweepers are absent.

[Added pictures to the previous three posts. Check out the Himalaya picture two posts down.]