Coming to you from Kathmandu!

Trip Start Oct 26, 2007
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Trip End Oct 26, 2009


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Monday, November 26, 2007

Back from a two week trek in the stunning Annapurna area of the Himalayan mountains. I have had a hard time finding an internet cafe, since leaving Kathmandu!!  So, here I am, in the tourist office of a swashbuckling, enterprising Indian tourism officer named Muna.  I stopped into his office to book a train journey from Delhi to Agra, site of the Taj Mahal.. and have ended up booking a "golden triangle" tour of Jaipur, Agra, Delhi and then onto Kerala.. my final destination in India.  I have found my few days in Delhi to be fraught, frantic, frustrating.. and I can't wait to get out of here!  Having said that, I've met some great people - as ever - and Muna has a speedy internet connection, as well as a light/clean office.  I've landed on my feet once again..  But enough chit chat, on with the retroactive update! 

NEPAL... Never Ending Peace And Love !
It is joked that Nepal has three main religions:  Hinduism, Buddhism and tourism! The breakdown is:  81% Hindu, 11% Buddhist, 4% Muslim and 4% other, including Christian.
I want to provide some facts about the countries I visit, as well as my personal experience. 
For the factual, I've lifted data from the Lonely Planet (LP) guide.  Here are some main stats below:
Population: 26.3 million (UN, 2005)
Capital: Kathmandu
Area:
147,181 sq km (56,827 sq miles)
Major language: Nepali
Major religions: Hinduism, Buddhism
Life expectancy: 61 years (men), 62 years (women) (UN)
Monetary unit: 1 Nepalese rupee = 100 paisa
Main exports: Carpets, clothing, leather goods, jute goods, grain
GNI per capita: US $270 (World Bank, 2006) that's gross national income... think about it!
Internet domain: .np
International dialing code: +977

The kingdom has a fascinating, if not fraught with corruption and catastrophe, political history.  Currently, "King Gyanendra ascended the throne in June 2001 soon after then Crown Prince Dipendra gunned down his parents King Birendra and Queen Aishwarya and seven other royals. The 29-year-old prince ran amok at a family dinner in a drunken and drug-fueled rage before killing himself.  Current King Gyanendra was born in 1947. He is married and has two children. His youngest son, Paras, is heir to the throne. "  You can see the country has a bit of a volatile recent history, and a rich ancient history.  More news in this website .

My first impression of Kathmandu was one of overwhelm at the crowds, the noise, the dirt, the bedlam.  An aspect of Kathmandu's crudity is referred to in A Winter in Nepal, where John Morris quotes a surgeon in 1877, "From a sanitary point of view Kathmandu may be said to be built on a dunghill in the middle of latrines."  Dervla Murphy, who also spent seven months in Nepal in 1965, also wrote a book about her time there called The Waiting Land: A Spell in Nepal, and in it she said "..I feel that he was being charitable when he stated that 'this is one of the filthiest cities in the world'.  In some quarters reeking water lies stagnant in square stone public baths, and I doubted the evidence of my eyes when I first saw people drinking this brew.  After the scum has been pushed aside and the liquid - one can hardly describe it as water - has been collected in earthenware or brass pitchers it looks like strong tea; what immunity (or what dysentery) these people must have!  Yet despite all this squalor most of the children seem reasonably healthy, though many of their elders have been prematurely aged by a lifetime of carrying unbelievably heavy loads.. ."

Kathmandu is still filthy, in parts.. and it no doubt seems incredibly filthy to people who've never experienced a third world environment.  I was not prepared, and felt hemmed in by the tightness of the roads, the in-your-faceness of the people, and the squalor.  Having said that, once I left Kathmandu and spent two two weeks in the Himalayas, then returned, I was better prepared for it.. and even enjoyed it!

Our small party of seven trekkers became a close-knit, cheerful group.  Vito, our trek leader, was the perfect host, wanting to make sure we had a great time.  We trekkers were made up of five women, who interestingly all joined independently, and two men, great mates from England.  Ron had just celebrated his 60th birthday, and Paul was dreading the prospect of his in a few years, if his lad-like behaviour on the trek was anything to go by!  Grace from Canada, Ali from Australia, Andrea from Switzerland, Diane - experienced Himalayan trekker, this was her third trek in Nepal - hailed from Bristol, England, and I am using my Irish passport for this world tour, so I was the token Irish woman!

We enjoyed our first day in Kathmandu, and spent it sightseeing with our guide, Neermul.  He took us to the famous Swayambhunath temple, or as it is more commonly known, the Monkey Temple.  It is one of the most popular and instantly recognisable symbols of Nepal.  It's named after monkeys due to the troop of monkeys that guard the hill and amuse visitors with tricks.  I think many people at first think the monkeys are novel and cute.. they quickly tire of them.  The Temple is situated at the top of a tall hill.  It is quite a climb, and proved good practice for our trek to come.  No sooner had we reached the top, and gathered round our guide to find out about the Buddhist shrine, than a kamikaze pidgeon swooped and splattered me on the head and shoulder!  Picture it.. our first outing with people we'd just met.  Thank God I was carrying wet wipes with me everywhere.  I performed a little clean up job, pulled back my foul smelling hair, and I was good as new.  I have to say I could not concentrate on what Neermul was saying at all after that, as I was petrified of the plentiful pidgeons attacking again!  Days later my new friends chuckled when they told me they struggled to hold back laughter when I was shat upon.  They also said I took it well, and cleaned up well!  My relaxed attitude after Mt Abu served me well.  Anyway, what are you gonna do?  It's meant to be a sign of good luck.  I think that's hogwash because later that same day, in fact right after coming down from the very temple where the pidgeon bombed me, I was walking down the street when a young guy with shoulder scales holding vegetables brushed past me.  I was startled and dropped my brand new camera.  It bounced.  My heart almost stopped.  Most of you know my camera passion.  Here I was in Nepal, on the eve of a trek of a lifetime, and my camera was damaged.  It wasn't entirely out of commission, it shut down as soon as you wanted to take a photo, flashing a notice, "Please turn the camera off then on again" every two minutes.  It was impossible to take photos.  Weirdly it allowed you to view photos without flashing the message.  Again, my newfound calm aided me in dealing with the loss.  I thought maybe I was meant to experience and enjoy the trek, without worrying about the perfect photo!  None of my fellow trekkers were especially keen photographers, and I couldn't believe the frequent beauty spots we passed with nary a photo taken!  Such is life.

Our trip around the city took us to Durbar Square also, where we saw more temples and were offered "tikas" from passing holy men.  (Man with glasses and I in the photo. I refused his tika at first, not knowing what it was!  Perhaps I was afraid it meant we would be engaged to be married if I had accepted!) 

Tikas, from LP:  "A visit to Nepal is not complete without being offered a tika by one of the many sadhus (Hindu holy men) that wander the streets, dusty, barefoot and carrying an alms bowl and walking staff.  The tika is a symbol of blessing from the gods worn by both women and men.  It can range from a small dot to a full-on mixture of yogurt, rice and sindur (a red powder) smeared on the forehead.  The tika represents the all-seeing, all knowing third eye, as well as being an important chakra (energy) point, and receiving this blessing is a common part of most Hindu ceremonies.  It is an acknowledgment of a divine presence at the occasion and a sign of protection for those receiving it.  (I should've got one before our trip up to the Monkey Temple...)  Shops these days carry a range of tiny plastic tikas, known as bindi, that women have turned into a fashion statement."

Later on after our day tour finished, we met up for dinner at a traditional Nepalese restaurant.  We ate a tasty typical meal, some vegetarian, some dared eat the meat!  And there was lovely local music and traditional dance.  The costumes were dazzling, and the moves were graceful.. the men as much as the women. 

After our trek (see next entry) we returned to Kathmandu, and I spent a little more time than my fellow trekkers, who left either a day or two after our return.  I had grown to love the chaotic, crowded city.. and discovered a great big book store, with a restaurant in the back.  I spent my last evening dining alone at the fabulous Kilroys...  our team had our final meal there, and the wait staff remembered me - brought an extra candle to my table so I could read my guide! I ordered what I had ordered with our group, a delicious shrimp Newberg, and was brought a complimentary lemon cheesecake to enjoy along with the most fabulous Irish Coffee I have ever tasted.  Including the former best Irish coffee I ever had, that was served with a flame and a flair, as I recall, at a castle in Carcassonne!  The Kathmandu coffee arrived simply and soon knocked my socks off.  I had not had any alcohol on the trek, and thought I would try an alcohol free world tour.. But it was not meant to be!  I did not drink at all on the trek, and then when we returned to Kathmandu I caved and had wine with dinner.  I think the secret for me is to drink when there is an occasion.  Celebrating our friendship, and completion of an amazing trek was quite an occasion.  My friend Nigel's 50th birthday celebrations in Marrakech next year will be quite an occasion!  Anyway, back to Kathmandu.  Kilroys is a restaurant set up by an Irishman.  Along with fabulous food, its claim to fame is having the cleanest loos!  That counts for a lot in Kathmandu.  And this particular loo featured lots of posters of Ireland's countryside, so I felt right at home. 

I had a coat made in Kathmandu.  It may have cost something like 12 dollars.. it's green (!) very warm, as well as nice looking, and coordinates with the shoulder bag that I had purchased at the same store earlier.  The nights were cool in Kathmandu.  Not so in India.. and I wonder if I will need that coat in the months ahead.  Another purchase in Nepal was of loose pantaloon style trousers that are part skirt, part pants, and are very cool.. if not so cool looking!  I left some of my trekking clothes, including my boots, behind to lighten my load. My heavy bags may be a continuing problem for me on this journey.  I set out thinking everything I'll need for two years must fit in my bags.. when in fact, there are things I can pick up along the way. 

So, our time in Nepal had come to an end.  I made many new friends, fell in love with the country, and am determined to return.  There may be a reunion of our small trekking troupe, and I'd love to take my nieces trekking in 10years' time! 

Interestingly, the day after I left Kathmandu, former US President Jimmy Carter was to arrive for four days, to facilitate talks between the seven political parties of Nepal. I was sorry I was not going to be in the city, as even to have caught a glimpse of Carter would have been a thrill.  He was not the most popular of presidents, but he was my favourite!  And I think history will see him out as one of the most effective former presidents.  Bill Clinton may be raising billions via his celebrity chums for philanthropic causes, which is great that he's using his power for "good", but Jimmy has always taken the less glamorous but in my opinion more substantial path, and deals with the issues and works towards solutions.  He is also an "Elder" (if you don't know about the Elders, check out their website.)  Go Jimmy!
Newstory about Jimmy's visit, and another .

I met a Belgian woman on the plane from Pokhara back to Kathmandu.  She and her husband sponsored four orphans.  She and I chatted about the future of the children, and life in Nepal.  It made me think how easy / relatively affordable to Westerners it can be to make a difference in a child's life.  She gave me her silk scarf that she had been given by the orphanage, and wished me well on my journey!  Here's some information on projects in Nepal, and about volunteering in Nepal.
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