Day 107 – Kathmandu
Now that all of the admin. had been sorted out, and the crating of the bike scheduled for Sunday, we had a day to spend exploring Kathmandu. The area that we were staying in was nice, but very much limited to shopping for scarves, incense and other hippy-chic, and so we wanted to get a bit further afield. Suraj had invited us to come down to his office to have some fresh coffee and we spent an hour or two chatting with him and the rest of the Eagle Export team. A friend of mine from South Africa had been in Nepal before and had recommended a few places worth seeing. We managed to convince Suraj to join us on our expedition, and at around 11:30, Shan, Dad, Suraj and I jumped onto the two working bikes and we headed out into the Kathmandu traffic.
In India, the traffic lights had been purely decorative, just a set of cheery green, orange and red lights to brighten the day, and had no correlation to how anyone actually drove (for that matter, neither did any of the lines on the road, which served merely as something for your eyes to look at if you got bored). In Nepal, I guess they just decided that they didn’t have the electricity to spare, and so while there are plenty of traffic lights around the place, none of them seemed to have worked in ages. All of this meant that our finely honed intuitive driving skills came in very handy as we moved through the traffic, out of the city and towards the old medieval town of Bhaktapur. Considering what a popular destination this is for tourists, it was quite pleasant to discover that it is only about twenty minutes from central Kathmandu. Along the way, we noticed that many people were wearing masks over their faces, in order to avoid breathing in the pollution too deeply.
We arrived at the outskirts of Bhaktapur and parked the bikes. The area that we had arrived in didn’t seem that different to what we’d seen in the city, but the tourists were everywhere, most of the local tourists moving around with their cameras snapping away. After a few minutes walk we came within sight of the main gate to the central square which is the chief attraction of Bhaktapur. Now, in a country with largely homogeneous population, there is an interesting way of milking tourists for cash that would just never work in a country as diverse as South Africa. At the gate, there is a ticket office where “foreigners” are required to pay Rs 1100 each, which is pretty steep. There is no charge for locals to visit, and no passport checking, so provided that you look “local” enough, you can save yourself quite a bit. Suraj motioned us over and told us quite conspiratorially that he knew a way in, a “short cut”. After all, the whole place was an old neighbourhood, and on all sides of the square were rickety old buildings, and tiny snaking alleyways. He told us to hang for a few minutes while he scoped out the way out ahead. We hung out for a few minutes, trying to look as nonchalant as possible, and after about ten minutes, Suraj returned:
“Ok, I’ve found the way in, but you have to let me walk down first, and then follow me from a distance, so that it doesn’t look like we’re together”.
This sounded intriguing, and so after giving him a sufficient head start, we followed him down a tiny non-descript alley. As we turned into it, we saw him admiring some of the stonework down at the other end. When he saw that we had seen him, he turned left and disappeared out of sight. We strolled down as if we were just disoriented tourists, and when we got to the place that he had turned, we saw him waiting for us a hundred metres ahead. He motioned us over and then gave us our final instructions:
“From now on, just walk straight down this street until you come to the main square. I’ll meet you there. If anyone asks you for your ticket, just say you lost it, or left it at a restaurant or something”.
And off he went in the opposite direction. Intrigued by all the intrigue, we did as we were told, making sure we stopped to take the odd picture, to make it look convincing. After passing between buildings that seemed to be leaning towards each other like protagonists in a bar-fight, we emerged into the square itself, right by a massive temple.
We hung around for a few minutes, pleasantly surprised by the sheer number of people that made absolutely no attempt to sell us anything. Normally these tourist spots are swarming with touts, but here, everyone seemed left largely to their own devices. And after a couple of minutes, we saw Suraj coming towards us. We had got it.
The perfect crime.
Suraj explained to us that he had brought foreign visitors here before, but he had been stopped by security, and because it was clear that he was showing them the way, there had been problems. But if the three of us were by ourselves, then they would just assume that we had got lost in the winding streets, and leave us alone. Pretty smart!
The main attractions of the square are the temples, many of them hundreds of years old, and still in use by the local population. Foreigners aren’t allowed in, apparently since the Muslim invaders tore up the place centuries ago. Thanks for ruining it for the rest of us, guys!
We also got to see the palace of the king, which had been turned into a museum. The palace was quite stunning, even though most of it was off limits to the public. There was even a pool where the king used go with his harem, and …. well, there were no specifics given, but its seems that it was pretty much a case of count-the-legs-and divide-by-two.
We stopped into one of the restaurants for a bite to eat, and it was pretty funny to see that we all asked for suggestions of local Nepalese dishes (Dad tucked into a plate of spaghetti, a safe travellers staple through most of the countries we’ve been through), while Suraj asked us for suggestions on something foreign and exotic, and we suggested the chicken Kiev.
The real highlight of the afternoon was not in the main square, however. For centuries, Kathmandu has drawn immigrants from all over Nepal, and so the city itself has a very culturally diverse population. But here in Bhaktapur, the original population of the valley still lives and works. As we left the main tourist section, we passed small groups of elderly women, smoking cigarettes and chatting in groups. A circle of men of varying ages in almost identical outfits were sitting playing cards, while some younger boys watched them enviously. Often, the neighbourhoods were completely given to specific craftsmen castes, so in one section were all the potters, baking their products in open fires, another area had the metal-smiths, and so Suraj, who had been living in Kathmandu for many years now, said that he wasn’t able to understand their language, which was pretty much specific to just this area. It really was like going back in time by six hundred years, and seeing what life was like. The number of other foreigners that we saw in these areas could be counted on the fingers of a blind butcher, which made it the perfect place to just walk around and escape the bustle.
At around 4:00, we headed back towards our bikes, followed by one particularly enterprising young urchin, who kept asking us for money for a school book. What made him particularly memorable was not just his persistence, but when you told him “No”, his next question was “Why not?”, which is actually a pretty good question, and much harder to answer.
Suraj was meeting his uncle at the airport, and so we weaved our way back into town to drop him off there. There were still a few hours of daylight left, and he gave us directions to Pashupatinath, one of the most holy Hindu sites in Nepal. It is here that people are brought to be cremated, and luckily for today’s modern widow, they aren’t burned alive with their husband. Ain’t progress great? With no-one to show us the free way in, we bought our tickets, and we were immediately approached by a young guide, who offered to show us the place. By now we knew that these places are always much better with someone to actually explain the symbolism and history of the place. I won’t go into the actual information itself, which is useless devoid of the context, but some of the things that stood out for us were watching young boys trawling through the river next to the cremation sites to see if they could find any gold teeth or jewellery that had adorned the body when it was consigned to the flames. There is even a special cremation site where politicians are burned, although it wasn’t clear whether this was before or after they had actually died. In Nepal, white is the colour of mourning, which made for a very different picture compared to a typical Western funeral. Wandering sadhu’s, Hindu holy men, were everywhere, and would happily let you take a picture, as long as you were willing to grease their palm with paper. One even gave us the red tika mark on our foreheads for good luck. In some of the caves by the river, some sadhu’s would spend days playing on drums and singing. Others had made a vow to drink nothing but milk for their entire lives, which can’t have done much for their social lives, except perhaps amongst dairy farmers.
Our last stop on the tour was Nepal’s only government sponsored old-age home, where a population of one hundred and twenty seven lucky octogenarians spend their final days. The place had been a kitchen serving the temples for many years, until a visit by Mother Theresa, who had managed to convince the government to turn in into what it is today. As we were being shown around the place, we stopped at a shrine, with an old man sitting nearby. Although I’m sure that our guides explanation was fascinating, it was impossible to concentrate as the old guy proceeded to do his best to evict his lungs from his body with some of the worst coughing I had ever heard. It went on for almost a minute, and just when it would seem that a new space was about to open up for some lucky pensioner, he spat out what must have been a good portion of his internals onto the pavement in front of him, and then proceeded to light up a cigarette. They say there’s only one road to your lungs, might as well tar it…
With that the tour was over. Shan managed to get in a photo with one old guy who seemed to find his own appearance absolutely hilarious, as he burst out laughing every time we showed him one of the photos we had just taken. The sun was starting to disappear, and we were keen to try and get back to our hotel before it became too dark to drive. With no map, and just a vague sense of the direction of our hotel, we made our way home, sometimes on major congested highways, sometimes on narrow streets that wouldn’t have accommodated a bike and a car at the same time. But, very impressively, we actually managed to find our way home without having to stop and ask for directions, always a neat trick in a new city.
John was back at the hotel when we returned, and it seems for once we may have done more sight-seeing than him, as he had spent most of the day trying to get oil put into his shock in the hope that it would give him just enough service that he would be able to drive it to the airport in Nepal, and from the Thai airport to wherever we will be staying. After a busy day, the rest of our evening was spent relaxing and blogging. Tomorrow is going to be quite a busy day, as we will be packing the bikes in order to fly out on Monday. After all the chaos of shipping from Cairo, this was turning out to be a much smoother process, and we were all in bed fairly early, but being a Saturday night, it was a lot longer before we actually managed to fall asleep.