Again and again and again and...

Trip Start Feb 06, 2005
Trip End Jul 2005

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Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Kathmandu! City of a thousand-and-one follies, jollies and lick-em lollies. A place where you can get everything, whether you want it or not, at a tenth the price of home, and at least half the price that they initially offer. The centre of Nepal, from which you must leave for every adventure, and to which you must return in order to go anywhere else or get anything done.
The excellent food, the colour and bustle of shops, cheap and good accommadation, fantastic temples: we have explored the city from end to end. Our first impressions were of a modern tourist centre, which had everything (except tourists) at a fantastic price. For the price of a guesthouse in Thailand, we stayed at a hotel with a garden, room service and a genuine Gurkha guard. Being called sir and being waited on hand-and-foot is an easy thing to get used to.
Thamel, the tourist suburb of Kathmandu, has exploded since I was last here in 1999. The streets are paved, there are dozens of bars, bakeries and even supermarkets! There are just no tourists to fill them.
Our first Kathmandu experience lasted two days before we raced off to Gosaikunde. When we got back we had a half week before leaving for Everest basecamp (which we've now earned the right to refer to as EBC). This time consisted of nursing our war wounds and anticipating the pain that would come. Our biggest acomplishment was managing to completely avoid going any further from Thamel than the 15 minutes to Durbar square (the Nepali name for the area which houses the important temples and palaces of a town). However our stay on returning from EBC was of the extended variety, due to a week-long Maoist blockade of the city, and it was soon the very things which made the place seemingly so exotic that started to fray our nerves. Hawkers constantly hawking, cd shops interminably playing the ubiquitus Jack Johnson, the slightly odd interpratations of western food and the lack of variety in local cuisine (ooh, rice, lentil soup and veg curry again? yum!). It all started to get a tad irritating, with one excellent exception- on the day of our arrival we ran into our mate Claudio (you know him. Yes, you do. Alright, just pretend you do and quickly flash back and read the Halong bay entry again).
Our annoyance forced us out of our comfortable Thamel rut and out into the Kathmandu valley. Our first adventure, the day after arriving back from EBC, was mountain biking up the forested hills of Nagarjun. Over 15 km we rose 900m to a small temple being enjoyed by picnicing locals (who drove up... bastards) and a couple of donkeys. The climb up was spectacular, though steep, and while Joe was able to make it the whole way on two wheels, I was forced to walk most of the way. The way down was another matter entirely. My butt hurt for days, but there was plenty of gain to compensate for the pain. There is little better than the rush of careening down a mountain bike track with almost no control and a sheer drop on one side.
Outing number two was Swayambunath, the Monkey Temple. Yeah, monkeys. Cool. The whole basis of this place is to build a huge stupa on top of a really high hill (at the top of a whole lotta of steps which you have no choice but to climb) and then fill it with monkeys. Then protect them so that no matter who they attack, or what they steal, no-one can respond. Cool. With Claudio in accompaniment we explored this big monument to the God of postcard makers and somehow managed to avoid buying any postcards by sneaking out the side way. Small things can satisfy so much.
Claudio, being the enthusiastic person that he is, somehow managed to convince us that it would be a good idea to get up early (we discovered that there's an 8 am! and that there are people awake at this time!) for our tour of Pashputinath and the Boudnath stupa. Pashputinath is a weird place that's very sacred to Nepalese. It is here that they burn their dead and keep most of their Saddhus. It is full of burning bodies, wild monkeys, wilder dogs, and guys who dress in orange. Seems sensible to me: keep all the freaky stuff in one place.
Saddhus, or babbas, are worshippers of Shiva who claim to reach enlightenment through drugs. The cool photos of dreadlocked guys with their faces painted that everyone gets when they go to Nepal is probably of these guys. Money babbas specialise in these photos and in return demand cash for hash. Our favourite is the fat one who walks around Pashputinath with a bodyguard to stop his local fan club mobbing him.
The most famous babba is 'Mr Lifto' whose claim to faim is lifting 8 bricks on a pallet using nothing but his penis. We couldn't find him and I already had photos from last time. Besides, the longer we looked for him the more we realised that it wasn't really cool... just painful.
Another favourite was the 18 year old babba who invited us into his place, an old crypt (of course). Dressed in black, his was a performance to match any of the money babbas. His mute-by-choice assistant babba did everything for him, including light his cigarettes. His reverential supporters sat around and told us we were more than welcome to take pictures, which we had already gathered from the way he was posing for us. It was all very impressive, until he put on his sunnies to smoke. The illusion was shattered, and he just looked like any other kid sneaking a ciggy, pretending to be cool. Through his interpreter (he denied speaking any English, although he magically didn't need his interpreter to tell him what we said) he told us that he wore black because he ate the flesh of the dead and used the wood from their stretchers for his fire. However, he considered himself purer than the other babbas cause he only smoked weed and hash. Then he started telling us his conspiracy stories. We figure it's probably a good thing he doesn't touch acid or crack.
We walked the short distance from Pashputinath to Boudnath, the largest stupa in Asia. By this stage of our trip temples are wearing thin, so the spiritual joy of visiting such an amazing centre for tourist baubles was easily overshadowed by my tripping on the very top of the stupid stupa and watching my camera fly down and consequently demonstrate the complete lack of landing ability incorporated into its design. Expensive little buggers aren't they?
Thus I don't have any photos of Patan, which has lots of great temples and palaces and stuff, so count yourselves lucky.
Our patience wearing thin, we awaited Nepali new years with great anticipation. Not only did it mean the blockade would end, but the city of Baktapur promised to be the place to be. We rocked up early, and walked around the city to find a side entrance so we could avoid the $15 foreigner fee. As promised, we saw three-story high chariots which were raced up the hill, and the giant lingams (for the lay-person: big dicks) which are pulled down in a giant tug-of-war. People are supposed to die every year in the proceedings (they get pulled under the chariot wheels or pull the lingams onto themselves...idiots), and we were quite disappointed when it didn't happen. Still, they killed lots of chickens and spread the blood around liberally, so that's alright.
We came back to Thamel, which boasted a fantastic mandalah made from seeds and flowers and the lamest new years eve ever. All the bars empty and everyone in bed by 11, but that's Nepal for you.
Our mum's will be happy we went to the Pesach seder (that's the passover dinner for all you uneducated, I mean non-Jews...) in Kathmandu. For those who care, Nepal and India are the places almost every single Israeli seems to come after they finish their army service. This means that the Kathmandu seder has become the biggest in the world as several thousand Jews flock to have a good high holiday in the middle of their holiday. It's cool because it has all sorts of Jews, whether they be religious or not, it's just a good time (and you get to meet lots of hot Israeli girls).
We've been back to Kathmandu since, and will be back again, but that's just the kind of place it is, and we do enjoy the comfort even when we yearn to get as far away as possible.
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