Day 108 – Kathmandu
After the racket from the previous night, it took awhile before Shan and I emerged from bed. Dad and John, however, had something much more exciting in store for them. We had hoped that if we had more time, we could drive up to see Everest, but with our delays, that had been written out of the program. And so Dad and John decided to go for a plane ride to Everest. So early in the morning, they had headed out to the airport, and were soon high up in an 18 seater plane, cruising along next to the Himalayas. Within half an hour they were in sight of Everest, which is so high that even in their plane, they were a few thousand feet below the summit. It was breath-taking, to be within a few kilometres of the highest point on the planet. After about ten minutes, the plane began its journey home, but for those two hiking fans, I think that this will remain for them a highlight of the trip.
We had said to Suraj that we would meet him at his office at around 9:30, and so after a round of showering and clothes washing (this often happens at the same time), we took the short walk down to his office. We have been in numerous tourist areas now, and I reckon that the Thamel area where we are staying is probably the best we’ve seen. The streets are always clean and well swept, the shops are small, but always with very neat eye-catching displays, and traffic is far more subdued than other places we’ve been in. The touts, always such a pain when you are just wanting to walk around, are completely absent, and the worst that you’ll have to deal with is the guy selling Tiger Balm, who would always stop after the first polite enquiry.
When we got to the office, the team from Eagle Exports were already hard at work. It has been wonderful, and even a bit surprising, how quickly we have taken to Suraj, Sara and Sudan. From the moment we arrived, they have gone out of their way to make us feel welcome here, and have become far more than just shipping agents. The fact that they are also experienced professionals in the bike shipping industry has also been fantastic, as we are able to just relax and leave them to do their job without having to worry if something is about to go wrong and cost us lots of money, as has been the usual pattern. We spent the next couple of hours chatting over some delicious pastries from the local bakery and fresh coffee while the necessary admin was taken care of for our flight out tomorrow.
By 11:00, everything was pretty much wrapped up, and the only thing left to so was to go down to the airport cargo bay at 1:30 to crate the bikes. With an hour or so to go, Dad and I decided to take a walk down to Durbar Square, a major highlight of the city. The walk was just ten minutes, and soon we were standing at the gate. There we were a bit disgruntled to discover that the admissions price for foreigners had gone up to Rs 750, which works out to roughly R75/$10 per person. Toya, a local guide, suggested that it would also be worth getting a guided tour, and our experience thus far has really been that a visit to a big place like this is almost a waste unless you have someone with you who can explain the significance and history behind what you are seeing. Still, it was quite expensive, and we spent a moment trying to decide of it was worth it for the short time that we had available. Seeing our hesitance, Toya looked around, and whispered “Ok, there’s no police around now. Don’t worry about paying the entrance fee, just follow me”. Well, that changed things a bit, and so we surreptitiously followed him into the square.
The square is essentially a large temple complex, all of them still in active use. The first stop was the temple of Kasthamandap, which is purportedly made out of a single teak tree. Considering the size of the temple, this would have had to be a tree of the scale of The Far-Away Tree of Enid Blyton fame, but the name of the temple, which is in the local Newari language means “Wooden House”, which in the Nepali language translates to “Kathmandu”. In one corner of the temple is a small statue of Ganesh, the elephant god, with a small bell next to it. The practice is to ring the bell before you pray, which wakes up the god briefly to hear your prayer.
Next was the Temple of the Living Goddess, a three story complex, which is the home for a young girl, seven years old, who is seen as the living incarnation of the Goddess Durga. She is chosen at the age of three from the caste of the Gold- and Silver-smiths of the Newari, and must meet thirty two strict criteria, such as having smooth and unblemished skin, and possessing a low confident voice. When a girl is found that matches these criteria, she must undergo two tests. The first test requires her to witness a number of animal sacrifices without showing any major signs of distress. The second requires her to sit in a dark room, while very scary music is played outside. A priest then enters, dressed in an evil mask, and dances around her. If she manages to endure without crying, then “Congratulations! You have won the reward challenge and are now a Goddess! OR you can take what’s behind Door Number Three”.
Right by the temple is a statue to the very popular god Hanuman, the monkey god. He is known to have a bit of a sweet tooth, and so worshippers will sometimes come and put some food in his mouth. However, over the years this all adds up, and now today, it is impossible to see his face, which is just a red and yellow blob of fossilized sugar.
Our next stop was a temple to Shiva, which has now become widely known by the locals as “Hippy Temple”. Apparently back in the day (I”m talking to you, sixty year olds!), loads of hippies used to come to this square and get stoned by this temple. Apparently Shiva is quite partial to rolling a fatty and smoking it down, so he wasn’t about to strike them all down. Even today, this is still a popular hangout for dreadlocked tourists in their hemp clothes to come and just “chill out”.
Right by the temple is a huge statue/mural of Shiva looking particularly scary, standing over the bodies of his enemies and surrounded by skulls. Shiva is the god of justice, and so it is believed that to tell a lie in front of Shiva will have catastrophic consequences for one’s next life in the cycle of death and rebirth. This is so engrained that accused criminals are sometimes brought here to answer questions, where they must answer truthfully, or run the risk of being struck dead on the spot. As Toya observed, “You mustn’t lie in front of the statue, if you go a little bit away, no problem, but if you say a lie in front, very bad”.
There were several other interesting stops on the tour, including a Shiva mask that has 200 litres of beer poured from its mouth once a year, containing a goldfish which the lucky recipient must eat quickly for good luck, but I don’t want to ruin the surprises for when you come here to see it all for yourself. The one last surprise that Toya had for us was a photo with him and the members of the band “Michael Learns To Rock”. They had been here for a concert a few months before and he had been their guide for the square!
It was now almost time to go, so we beat a hasty retreat back to the hotel, just in time to pack up everything onto our bikes and meet Suraj and Sudan. We drove with them down to the airport to begin the packing process. When we got there, we were very chuffed to see that the crates were already made, and much lighter and smaller than the ones we’d used for flying from Egypt. We quickly set to work, but even so the process is quite time consuming. A consequence of the smaller crates was that we had to be more creative with the handlebars, which tended to stick out quite a bit and required loosening multiple sets of cables, but finally after about two and a half hours, the last lid was nailed on, and we were done. Suraj got us all to guess the final weight of each bike, and easily beat all of us. Dad was the furthest off, by 100 kg across all the bikes. Still, the final weight was almost 100 kg less per bike than when packed in Egypt, which meant a massive savings on shipping. All in all, it had gone very smoothly. Now we just had to hope that we’d see them on the other side, in Thailand. As we sat eating some chicken and drinking tea, we realised that we could actually see the Himalayas from the airport. This really has been one of our favourite countries on this trip, and this final view of the top of the world was just one more final treat.
We climbed into a taxi to take us back to the hotel, and with five of us as well as a driver, it was quite a squash. So much so that when we climbed out at the other end, both Shan and Dad had completely dead legs, and had to stagger around for a while before they were able to walk without falling down too much. Being our last night, we decided that we would go out for supper with the Eagle Export team to celebrate everything going smoothly and to say thank you for all their good work. We went back to the hotel to shower first, and before we actually met for the meal, I went for one last shop with Suraj to find some presents for people back home. This is textile country, and the quality of the clothes is fantastic, all in silk, cashmere and pashmina. We went to a shop belonging to a friend of his and managed to get a really good deal on a jersey and scarf. The hardest part of the bargaining is always that one never knows what a good price is supposed to be when buying items for the first time, but both of us seemed happy with the price, and I guess that counts as a successful round of bargaining.
We joined them for supper at a restaurant, after a brief scare in which none of the cards wanted to co-operate in the payment process, but finally we managed to get everything sorted out and headed for the Electric Pagoda. It was a really great last evening, with lots of potential plans made to meet up again, either in South Africa or in Nepal. I promise that it won’t take much to get me back here again. This country has so much more to see than we’ve been able to squeeze into our brief time here, and I think a rematch is definitely on the cards.
At around 11:00, we took the short walk back to the hotel, where we found the door already locked, and we had to do some heavy knocking before we managed to rouse the receptionist who had bunked down in the lobby for the night. Once inside, we made our final preparations for our flight early the next morning, and were soon asleep.