Kathmandu

Trip Start Oct 29, 2011
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Trip End Jun 01, 2012


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Monday, April 23, 2012

So onto Kathmandu. Over my 6 weeks I had quite a few days before/between/after trips in Kathmandu. So to introduce it I will do my usual thing of stealing a bit from the good old Lonely Planet (it's not plagiarism I single handedly keep the L.P. in business with the number of their books that I own). 'For many people, stepping off a plane into Kathmandu is an exhilarating shock - the sights, sounds and smells can quickly lead to sensory overload. Whether it be buzzing around the crazy polluted traffic in a taxi, trundling down the narrow winding streets of the old town in a rickshaw, marvelling at Durbar Sq or dodging the tiger balm sellers and trekking touts in Thamel, Kathmandu can be an intoxicating, amazing and exhausting place’.


Well when I arrived it wasn’t quite as this projects. I got in about 10pm at night and it was like arriving in a village with very lights. First of all the airport is quite an experience. It’s more of a little regional (in fact that’s too much – let’s go with local) airport. It’s meant to be the airport of a capital city and it makes Ronaldsway (Isle of Man) or Baginton (Coventry) look like Heathrow. They seem to get a complete shock as they are totally and utterly unprepared every time a plane lands. I know they struggle to fill one board of flights for the entire day for but surely it can’t be that much of a surprise when one of the big birdies comes out of the sky.

So after leaving the airport I headed off in one of the little taxi’s to the hotel. There were very few street lights and it fell like we were riding along country lanes, rather than being in the supposed thriving metropolis of Kathmandu’s capital city. When I arrived at the hotel it seemed to be this little oasis of civilization in an oasis of ruralness. Even though Nepal has never been colonised it had the aura of an old colonial hotel in India, where all the staff treat you like a King (or a Queen or in my case just a minor Royal – Princess Michael of Kent maybe – would you know her if you fell over in the street? No, neither would I. Not to be confused with the Duchess of Kent though– she’s the one with the shoulder who all female tennis players cry on when they’ve just lost in the Wimbledon final – I’d know her, and I think she’d be great to fall over in the street, as she always seems so sympathetic and nice).

But the following morning all had changed – I decided to leave the hotel and do a bit of exploring (well find a cashpoint if I’m totally honest). I walked out of the hotel into a warm spring day and then all of a sudden I was hit by lots of little cars, lots of beeping and a complete lack of any form of traffic management !! This wasn’t good (I do like a bit of order – and all that beeping was just too much – I had several rants on that topic)

So as the largest (and pretty much the only) city in the country (although not as big as you might think – it’s only about the size in terms of area of Watford) and has a population of approx. one million (pretty low in terms of other capital cities). Kathmandu also feels like another developing-world city rushing into a modern era of concrete and traffic pollution. However, there was a major difference to other developing world cities I have visited. Most of them in South America, Affrica and Asia had been colonized and hence had some form of infrastructure and obligatory old colonial area full of the nice hotels and embassies. Kathmandu however does not have this. There is a major lack of infrastructure, particularly with regards to electricity. There are no underground cables, just thousands of cables hanging above the streets and it is totally over capacity, hence the several hours a day where there are power cuts. Each of the major restaurants and hotels have generators so several times an hour the lights will go out for a seconds (great fun when you are in the shower). There are no traffic lights in the city because of all of the power cuts. Instead at the major intersections there are traffic police wearing immaculate white gloves who wave their arms around and blow their whistles (can’t be heard above all the beeping) and who are completely ignored. When you cross a road you have to say a little prayer (yes I do know I have little sway with that one), close your eyes, start running across the road and really hope for the best. By only hope of survival was based on the fact that the Nepali’s all have little cars that really are going to get a rather large dent in them if a slightly podgy British tourists hit it so they will do in their power to prevent this from happening. In terms of dealing with the problem of traffic congestion, Kathmandu has an ingenious idea – road widening. However, Kathmandu’s idea of road widening is to bulldoze along the sides of road to widen them, talking out homes, shop fronts etc. When Sue, Amanda and I were heading out to visit some of the temples we thought we were driving through a bombed out city in the Blitz. Either side of the road there was piles of rubble.

The city stands at an elevation of approximately 1,400 metres (a few meters higher than the highest point in the UK – Ben Nevis). Historically, only the Kathmandu Valley was referred to as "Nepal" by people who lived outside the valley. After the annexation of the valley by the Gorkha kingdom, and subsequent conversion of the valley as the capital of their empire, this designation of "Nepal" was extended to every land they conquered. The valley itself was referred to as "Nepal Proper" by the contemporary British historians. Kathmandu, as the gateway to Nepal Tourism, is the nerve centre of the country’s economy.

The city’s rich history is nearly 2000 years old, as inferred from an inscription in the valley. Most of Kathmandu's people follow Hinduism followed by Buddhism. People of other religious beliefs also live in Kathmandu giving it a cosmopolitan culture. Nepali is the most common language of the city. Nepal Bhasa is the indigenous language spoken by older residents as it is the center of the Newar people and culture.

So it might be the capital city and the hub for all tourism and development However, Kathmandu is renowned for it’s temples and courtyards full of drying chillis and rice, and tiny hobbit-sized workshops that have remained largely unchanged since the Middle Ages. And to be honest this is what I was expecting. I was pretty na´ve on what to expect on the whole Kathmandu, guess I had visions of lots of temples surrounded by stunning mountains, not a heaving city full of lots of little cars beeping. However, all the rest aside there are lots of temples and this is what I went off to see…

The first temple that I visited with Amanda and Sue from the first trip was the Boudhanath Stupa and this is one of the holiest Buddhist Nepal. about 11 km (6.8 mi) from the center and northeastern outskirts of Kathmandu, the stupa's massive mandala makes it one of the largest spherical stupas in Nepal.

The Buddhist stupa of Boudhanath dominates the skyline. The ancient Stupa is one of the largest in the world, however there doesn’t seem to be much agreement on how old the site is, but it is likely that the first stupa was built some time after AD 600, after the Tibetan king, Songsten Gampo was coverted to Buddhism after his two wives : the Nepali princess Bhrikuti and Wencheng Konjo from China. The stupa was said to have been built by a prince as penance for unwittingly killing his father. The current stupa structure was probably built in the 14th century. Stupas were originally built to house holy relics. It is not certain if there is anything interred at Boudhanath, but some believe that is a bone that once belonged to the Buddha. As of 1979, Boudhanath is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Along with Swayambhunath, it is one of the most popular tourist sites in the Kathmandu area.

Around the base of the stupa’s circular mound are 108 (a very significant number for Buddhists) small images of the Dhyani Buddha Amitabha. A brick wall around the stupa has 147 niches, each with four or five prayer wheels bearing the Buddhist mantra om mani padme hun. Access to the inner stupa is gained through the northern entrance, where there is a small shrine dedicated to Ajima the goddess of smallpox (interesting choice – could have chosen the goddess of the sun, or children or even Chocolate Buttons – yes of course there is one - but no – they went for smallpox). Below the stupa there are hundreds of Tibetan pilgrims who circumambulate (love that word – of course I coped it – it has more than 6 letters so I couldn’t have possibly have known it’s existence all by myself- could you imagine if you manage to get that one on countdown – how Carol would be impressed – yes I do know she’s left, but I’m sure she’s pop back in if you got that one). They were also selling white cement. It’s used to whitewash the stupa in a once-yearly ceremony. 

After Boudhanath we headed the Pashupatinath Temple, which is one of the most significant Hindu temples of Lord Shiva in the world, located on the banks of the Bagmati River in the eastern part of Kathmandu. The temple is also listed in UNESCO World Heritage Sites list.

The temple is one of the 275 Paadal Petra Sthalams (Holy Abodes of Shiva on the continent) and is the oldest Hindu temple in Kathmandu. It is not known for certain when Pashupatinath Temple was founded. But apparently the deity here gained great fame there as Pashupati, the Lord of the Animals. Pashupatinath Temple's existence dates back to 400 A.D. The richly-ornamented pagoda houses the sacred linga or holy symbol of Lord Shiva. Thousands of pilgrims from all over the world come to pay homage to this temple, that is also known as 'The Temple of Living Beings'.

Hindus alone are allowed to enter the temple premises so we couldn’t get inside and take a look but we Non-Hindu visitors were allowed to have a look at the temple from the other bank of Bagmati river. The Bagmati River, which runs next to Pashaputinath Temple, has highly sacred properties. Thus the banks are lined with many ghats (bathing spots) for use by pilgrims. The Arya Ghat, dating from the early 1900s, is of special importance because it is the only place where lustral water for Pashupatinath Temple can be obtained and it is where members of the royal family are cremated. This is the location where in 2001 ten members of the Nepali Royal family who had been massacred were cremated.

It's a story worthy of Shakespearean tragedy, populated by characters plucked from a farce. There is the beloved monarch, magnanimous and complacent. There is the moody crown prince. There is the prince's cousin, a playboy with a belly and a ponytail, who after years of silence professes alone to know the truth of his royal family's demise. And in the background are the Maoists, who at the time were guerrillas, but then used spin to turn the massacre to their advantage and take power to become the rulers of Nepal.

In 2001, the royal family was massacred, reportedly by King Birendra's son Crown Prince Dipendra under the influence of drugs. Victims included the king and queen, their two younger children, and three of the king's siblings. According to reports, Dipendra had been drinking heavily and had "misbehaved" with a guest, which resulted in his father, King Birendra, telling his son to leave the party. The drunken Dipendra was taken to his room by his brother Prince Nirajan and cousin Prince Paras.

One hour later, Dipendra returned to the party armed with an H&K MP5 and an M16 and fired a single shot into the ceiling before turning the gun on his father, King Birendra. Seconds later, Dipendra shot one of his aunts. He then shot his uncle Dhirendra in the chest at point-blank range when he tried to stop Dipendra. During the shooting, Prince Paras suffered slight injuries and managed to save at least three royals, including two children, by pulling a sofa over them.

During the attack, Dipendra darted in and out of the room firing shots each time. His mother, Queen Aishwarya, who came into the room when the first shots were fired, left quickly, looking for help. Dipendra's mother Aishwarya and his brother Nirajan confronted him in the garden of the palace, where they were both shot dead. Dipendra then proceeded to a small bridge over a stream running through the palace, where he shot himself. Dipendra was proclaimed King while in a coma, but he died on 4 June 2001, after a three-day reign. Gyanendra was appointed regent for the three days, then ascended the throne himself after Dipendra died.

While Dipendra lived, Gyanendra maintained that the deaths were the result of an "accidental discharge of an automatic weapon". However, he later said that he made this claim due to "legal and constitutional hurdles", since under the constitution, and by tradition, Dipendra could not have been charged with murder had he survived.[4] A full investigation took place, and Crown Prince Dipendra was found to be responsible for the killing.

The widely circulated rumor is that Prince Dipendra was angry over a marriage dispute. Dipendra's choice of bride was Devyani Rana, daughter of Pashupati SJB Rana, a member of the Rana clan, against whom the Shah dynasty have a historic animosity. The Rana clan had served as the hereditary prime ministers of Nepal until 1951, with the title Maharaja, and the two clans have a long history of inter-marriages. But I don’t think she was seen as being the right sort (although Kate ‘the commoner has done very well).

However, following the massacre there have been many conspiriscory theories about the massacre and many therany suspect that Gyanendra was responsible for the royal palace massacre, possibly in connection with the intelligence services of India. Promoters of these ideas allege Gyanendra had a hand in the massacre so that he could assume the throne himself. His ascension to the throne would only be possible if both of his nephews Dipendra and Nirajan were eliminated. Moreover, Gyanendra and specially his son Prince Paras were grossly unpopular with the public. On that fateful day he was out of town (in Pokhara) while rest of the royals were attending a dinner function. His wife Komal, Paras and daughter Prerana were in the room at the royal palace during the massacre. While the entire families of Birendra and Dipendra were wiped out, nobody amongst Gyanendra's family died; his son escaped with slight injuries, his wife sustained a bullet wound but survived. There were claims that Paras, son of King Gyanendra and cousin brother of Dipendra, came to the palace dinner party that night accompanied by a person wearing a Dipendra look-alike mask, shot Dipendra dead and then went onto kill all of the other royal family members.

However, it did not all end well for King Gyanendra. In the face of unstable governments and a Maoist siege on the Kathmandu Valley in August 2004, popular support for the monarchy began to wane. On February 1, 2005, Gyanendra dismissed the entire government and took to exercising his executive powers without ministerial advice, declaring a "state of emergency" to quash the Maoist movement. Politicians were placed under house arrest, phone and internet lines were cut, and freedom of the press was severely curtailed. The king's new regime made little progress in his stated aim to suppress the insurgents. In April 2006 strikes and street protests in Kathmandu forced the king to reinstate the parliament. A seven-party coalition resumed control of the government and stripped the king of most of his powers. As of 15 January 2007 Nepal was governed by an unicameral legislature under an interim constitution (no not the faintest either). The Nepalese Constituent Assembly came to fruition on December 24, 2007 when it was announced that the monarchy would be abolished in 2008 after the Constituent Assembly elections and on May 28, 2008, Nepal was declared a Federal Democratic Republic (The USA and Germany are one of these apparently).

So after all that it’s onto Swayambhu, also known as the Monkey Temple (although there were monkeys at the Hindu one as well). Anyway it’s known at the Monkey Temple as there are holy monkeys living in parts of the temple in the north-west, the temple is also among the oldest religious sites in Nepal. Although the site is considered Buddhist, the place is revered by both Buddhists and Hindus.

The stupa consists of a dome at the base. Above the dome, there is a cubical structure present with eyes of Buddha (a little bit scary) looking in all four directions with the word "unity" in the main Nepali dialect between them. There are pentagonal Toran present above each of the four sides with statues engraved in them. Behind and above the torana there are thirteen tiers. Above all the tiers, there is a small space above which the Gajur is present. There were also a few Buddhist monks doing as you would expect – no not praying or doing other monk stuff (yes blatantly I can’t think of anything), but they were on their mobile phones !! ‘Yep can I have a deep pan with peperoni extra cheese but hold the mushrooms’).

After my expedition up to the monkey temple (I’d decided to walk and got a tad lost as Kathmandu isn’t too brilliant with the old street names thing, so ended up seeing rather more of Kathmandu than intended (I did come across the UN building) I headed back to Thamel and seem to hit the one day of the year when everybody in Nepal gets married.

Weddings in Nepal are momentous occasions which are often planned years in advance of the wedding itself. In line with other festivals in Nepal, weddings are colourful and beautiful events.Traditionally, weddings in Nepal are arranged by the respective families.  It is not uncommon for matches to be decided when the two individuals are still children (could have been me and James Lomas then).  However, child marriages in Nepal – as with the majority of countries the rest of the world, are illegal and the couple therefore wait until adulthood to complete their marriage rites.

I obviously didn’t see any of the ceremonies (that’s called gate-crashing) but I did see many of the wedding cars and the procession of the friends and family accompanied by a marching band.

The final place I visited in my attempt to culture myself in Kathmandu was it’s Durbar Square. ‘Durbar’ is an Indian word and means a meeting place between the people and their ruler. I visited Durbar Square with some of he guys from my second trip. In Kathmandu, Durbar Square, or Basantapur Durbar Square is the plaza in front of the old royal palace of the Kathmandu Kingdom. It is one of three Durbar Squares in the Kathmandu Valley in Nepal, all of which are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Durbar Square contains a series of palaces, courtyards and temples with quadrangles in between them. There is spectacular architecture by the Newari artists and craftsmen. The first palace was built on this site 1,800 years ago and through the centuries the buildings have been continually rebuilt. Now I would love to tell you all about the different temples and palaces but to be honest at no point at all did we have the faintest idea which one we were looking at. We had the L.P. and a map but not a clue at all. So we took a few photos, found the old fire station (although knowing Nepal it probably wasn’t a museum it’s probably the actual fire station), then went for a pizza (I had a four cheese one as a I recall as I was still on the vegetarian diet).

So that was Kathmandu – lots of temples, a complete lack of infrastructure and organisation and just far too much beeping for my liking. 
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