Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The Kathmandu Scene

In general, we've been really impressed with the places we've visited. Kathmandu, on the other hand, is a bit disappointing. I visited here 15 years ago when I was young and single, and thought it was one of the greatest places on earth. This time, it seems overly touristy, over priced, and not so interesting. The downtown Thamel part, that is. Plenty of Pashmina shawls to buy and tiger balm hawkers, but that's all. The first hotel we stayed at was so noisy and had mosquitos, not to mention the hardest bed and pllow of our trip. And there are no Tibetans here, and no Buddhist souvenirs. So we decided to make our purchases quickly and head out.

We spent the first day bargaining for a thanka, a Tibetan painting. Richard and I had decided to indulge ourselves in one thanka as our major purchase on this trip, and our only visa card purchase. After shopping around all day, we settled on a really high quality mandala painting designed by the Dali Lama. If you come to visit our home when we return, it should be in our living room as a daily reminder of this wonderful trip.

The next day was very unusual. There was a country-wide strike by the Maoists. The essentially demanded that all stores stay closed, and requested that there be no wheels on any roads. No bikes, no rickshaws, no cars, no motorbikes, nothing. So, what could we do? We walked, of course, to a temple only 3 kms out of the city, perched on a hill. We'd been planning to visit the Swayambunath Temple, but this seemed like the best day, with the city streets desserted of vehicles.

This is the classic Kathmandu temple with the 2 eyes and what looks like a nose but is really the Nepalese number 1 that look out at you from 4 sides. It's quite distict, and has a really nice vibe there. This temple is also known as the Monkey Temple, because of all the monkeys that live in the trees around the temple. Adrian fell in love with these critters, and we could barely pull him away at the end of the day. He loved watching their silly antics, and how they drank juice from garbage juice boxes, and teased each other. He especially loved the mommies and their little babies, who clung to the mommies for dear life as the mommies jumped around and dug through garbage looking for food. These weren't the scary monkeys of India, and these had seemed to have gotten used to the people around them, especially since many people feed them directly or simply leave them garbage.

At the end of the day, we decided to check out th Durbar Square, on a day when we didn't need to pay the hefty ($7.50 US for foreigners each) fee. What we didn't realize was that we also walked straight into the square where the Maoists were demonstrating. We tried to lay low, and did escape without notice, but there were huge crowds, all chanting and waving wooden batons around. They were harrassing anyone with wheels, but they left us alone.

We were happy to wake up today to a little noise and see that life was back to normal on the street and the strike was over. So we rented bikes for the day and our new friend, the thanka salesman, took us for a bike ride out of the city up to the top of a hill to view another new temple and monestary. It was the most stunning aray of Tibetan buildings we have seen yet. Beautiful colours and designs, all made by sculpting cement and then painting.

The ride back, however, was during rush hour, and I have never heard so many honking horns and seen such chaos. Even at busy intersections, they mostly operate like 4 way stops, only with bikes, cars, motorcycles, rickshawa, and pedestrians all competing for space. Adrian was a little freaked out, and it shows what a fantastic cyclist he is that he could even manage it. And without a helmet, of course. Richard got knocked once by a motocyclist a bit, but otherwise we managed unscathed. Quite the experience! I'll nver worry about Adrian navigating the Toronto bike lanes ever again.

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