Kathmandu smiles – a glimpse of Nepal
Kathmandu – the name brings to mind images of exotic temples, barefoot monks wandering the streets; it vibrates with the sound of clanging bells, traffic, shouts, and rock music; it penetrates the soul with incense, silent prayer and the backdrop of the highest snow-capped peaks in the world glistening like a silvery crown.
A procession holds up the traffic as I sit in a beaten up taxi from the airport to my hotel. I am aware of brass music, turbans, garlands, T shirts embroidered with ‘Yak Yak Yak’ – and above all the noise, the untranslatable chant ‘Om Mani Padme Om’ rising not from a temple, but from dozens of music shops. A man with three twisted, deformed limbs scuttles along like a human daddy long legs. A woman and her two children lie sleeping next to a dog on the pavement. A smiling man dressed in full doorman regalia calls the greeting ‘Namaste’ and instead of performing the traditional bow, salutes me as I cross the threshold into my plush hotel, from one world into another. Welcome to Nepal.
A hotchpotch of Newari, Hindu and Buddhist architecture, Kathmandu’s Durbar (Palace) Square makes my head spin: there is so much going on. Everyone appears to be participating in festivals, cultural activities, traditional dances or parades in this World Heritage Site Monument Zone. After visiting half a dozen of the forty or so temples I need a rest, and retire to a rooftop café to sip iced coffee and watch the world go by below.
Alongside Durbar Square is the house of the Kumari, or Virgin. She has been carefully selected using rigid criteria similar to those used for finding the Dalai Lama in Tibet, and is believed to be the incarnation of the goddess Durga. A slightly plump child, she appears at her window every now and then to look down at visitors with a stern gaze at visitors. She wears a heavily brocaded dress embroidered in red and gold, heavy make up, and several chains and bracelets. She will stay in her rooms here, looked after by women, with the occasional visit to the outside world, until she reaches puberty or cuts herself and bleeds, when she will lose the status of goddess and try to integrate into normal teenage life. No mean feat when you’ve become accustomed to the worship of others.
Worship is a part of the daily routine in Nepal. Six kilometres from Kathmandu, at Boudhanath, I look up at the thirty six metre stupa, where prayer flags flutter and newly thrown whitewash dribbles down the curve of the dome. The stupa itself is a round, domed shrine with a spire. The all-seeing eyes of Lord Buddha gaze out in four directions from its square base, each side symbolising earth, water, fire, and air, whilst the pinnacle rising from it symbolises ether. The surrounding area is dedicated to Tibetan culture. Thriving monasteries display thangkas – religious paintings - copies of which can be bought in several dedicated centres in Kathmandu and other towns.
After a two kilometre taxi ride I stand at the base of Swayambhunath temple, fondly referred to as the Monkey Temple after the dozens of colombus monkeys which clambour all over it. Toddlers stagger in crotchless trousers - no nappies here - between hundreds of densely packed stone statues. I am overwhelmed by the sight of pilgrims spinning prayer wheels at the base of the stupa as they circumambulate, each turn said to release a prayer to Buddha into the ether. Passing a pagoda dedicated to the Goddess of Smallpox, I am distracted for a moment to laugh at the monkeys clattering and chattering over statues, pillars, pedestals and platforms; then I catch sight of Buddha’s eyes. They are gazing at me from the gold-coloured square block beneath the spire rising from the top of the temple dome, and I am convinced they are smiling.
Patan is the area’s second largest town and has been described as an ‘architectural feast’; it is like visiting an open air museum. The four stupas at each corner of the town were built in 250 BC by the Emperor Ashoka. Stunned by the vast number, I stroll around and lose count of the temples with colourful powders and rice on sale outside, for pilgrims to daub onto their favourite deities in the half-light of numerous butter lamps inside.
A pungent smell assaults my nostrils as I approach the steps of the Pashupatinath ghats - stone steps rising from the river. Smoke rises in billowing columns from the water’s edge and it takes me a moment to register that I am witnessing human cremations. Families gather around ten or so individual platforms on the shore of the river where priests bless the bodies, wrapped in a white or yellow cloth, and set light to the wood on which they are laid. The corpses are in various stages of destruction – one has only two feet left, protruding on blackened tibia from beneath the flames. Bells ring and drums are banged at various stages of the ceremonies. Children play in the water into which the ashes of their relatives have been swept; half-burned shrouds float past their naked young bodies.
With some relief I turn away and set off by bus for Bhaktapur, Nepal’s third city, where rats and cows share the streets with copper deities hidden away in temple courtyards. Pyramid-shaped pagodas house elaborate shrines containing images of Shiva, Parvati and their son Ganesh. Skinny saddhus – holy men - with white faces and thick, matted locks pose for photos in return for money. In claustrophobic alleys, low doors lead to dark rooms from which the scent of juniper drifts out, catching in my nostrils as I locate my hotel. I am lucky; the toilet and washbasin are opposite my bedroom door. Under the smoke-blackened beams of my room I place my backpack onto a straw mat and undress in the gloom. Tibetan prayer wheels rattle as passers-by make their way home in the half-light of dusk, and I lie silently on a thin mattress, nervous about the four day trek ahead of me.
I had met my fellow trekkers the day before, on the roof of theTibet hotel. The noise of Thamel, Kathmandu’s main tourist area, almost deafened us. I had spent the day wandering its tangle of narrow streets among hippies, tattooists, painters, musicians and assorted bewildered-looking travellers. It felt like being in huge souk; every building housed a shop, restaurant, or bar. Apparently the Eton-educated Crown Prince - who died after a massacre in 2001 - used to sweep through these crowded lanes on his motorbike, roar to a halt outside a randomly chosen bar, and insist on taking away whichever young girl he fancied.
Our first joint outing was white water rafting on the Trisuli river, classed a grade three on a difficulty scale of one to six. Needless to say some of us spent more time in the water than out of it, and were applauded not for our rafting skills, but for our swimming prowess. That evening we dined on the terrace of the Old Inn in Bhandipur, overlooking pretty wooden houses and rhododendron bushes against a backdrop of soaring hills. As a reward for our afternoon’s aquatic efforts we were marched uphill in the dark to look at someone’s vegetable garden. Underwhelmed, we hot-footed it back to the inn to get stuck into some wine.
Nepal is one of the poorest and least developed countries in the world. Porters carry baskets weighing around forty kilos, which sometmes contain another porter suffering from altitude sickness. The worst trekking companies don’t train their porters, neither do they provide basic health and safety information, appropriate clothing or footwear, nor insurance nor environmental education. Most earn less than five dollars a day, and are away from their families for up to a month at a time. The aim of many is to become a guide, to get away from the heavy loads.
Pokhara is Nepal’s adventure capital. Here the fifteen of us we met our guide Henry and his team. Within an hour of the welcome briefing we had nicknamed one of our porters ‘Asbo’. When we explained what it stood for, he was delighted, and the moniker stuck. He was lively, to say the least, and had already established himself as the trek rebel, arguing with the guide about what cooking pots to take. He squatted precariously on the roof of the rickety bus which was to transport us to the head of the trail, noisily piling up tin plates, folding tables and chairs, kettles, tins of food, beers, vegetables, mattresses and tents. Meat would be picked up en route. A team of thirty porters would carry all of this, together with our heavy packs. Within moments of setting off Asbo started an ‘in’ joke amongst the porters; every now and then he would call out ‘Mario!’ We all foolishly joined in this chant, none of us having any idea what it meant. Subsequently we learned that it means ‘you’re killing me!’ in Nepalese; we still didn’t really get it.
Asbo was tying the final knots in the ropes holding our bags in place under a tarpaulin. It had taken him fifteen minutes to arrange and squash them all together. Lesley, a witty, sassy nanny from Croydon called up to him, ‘Would you mind just putting this into my bag?’ She held up a pot of Marmite. His look of despair changed instantly into a grin when he realised she was teasing.
Later, as we huffed and puffed our plodding way uphill, she caught him out again:
‘Have you ever had a group as fit as us before?’
We burst into peals of raucous, nervous laughter. It was so obvious that we were far from fit that Henry must have wondered if we’d make it at all.
After climbing the first five hundred metres we slung our day packs onto the ground and lay down for a lunch rest. Thirty minutes later the porters had produced a long trestle table laden with bowls of steaming vegetable soup and chapattis. We quickly discovered that humour was a common link, and had hours of fun deriding each other’s efforts to be sensible, healthy, or in any way useful to society. Poor bewildered Henry never quite caught on, and spent the entire trek smiling happily at every comment we made without ever understanding a word - apart from ‘Mario’ where he clearly had the edge over us.
We teetered across bamboo bridges as local youngsters ran over, shouting ‘Namaste!’ above the sound of distant thunder. Women carried rocks in baskets, or were bent beneath huge branches of bamboo foliage gathered for animal fodder. Men worked in the terraces using hand drawn ox ploughs. I picked some sweet yellow raspberries as eagles soared above the banyan trees. And still the children walked alongside us, dribbling as they sucked on sugar cane, its fibres poking out between their teeth as they chewed until their jaws must surely have ached.
Coconut chunks lay soaking in buckets of water, fat curly caterpillars lazed at the edge of the path, insects buzzed, black and yellow butterflies perched on curly ferns. The neat terraces reminded me of eddies in sand. Trees were bent under their own weight on the narrow ledges, grassy paths led to clay-bricked buildings from which lengths of hose dribbled water into muddy pools, clouds of flies hovering above them. Inside the tin-roofed huts, gloomy in the candlelight, old ladies squatted over steaming pots, or sat weaving bamboo leaves whilst outside, rotting paper and slime submerged torn blue plastic bags from the village shop, among tins hacked open, abandoned to foraging dogs with skinny ribs and scabby tails, who ran off nervously at our approach.
One by one we stumbled by torchlight over to the small square tent in a far corner of our camp field. It was a race to do what you needed to do without exposing any flesh long enough for the flies to bite. After hanging up my torch, I fumbled in the ghost-like shadows it cast as I tried to extract a wad of tissue from my trouser pocket, my fingers unable to find the right button in my haste, all the time one hand holding my trousers at half mast while holding my breath to avoid inhaling the stench, or worse, a fly.
I woke at first light from a sleep disrupted by the discomfort of unfamiliarity and the constant need to rearrange my limbs in the confined space of a sleeping bag. Each of us had our own pre-start routine. Mine required me to visit the loo tent one last time, then apply lip salve, check that my sun cream, wet wipes and replenished water bottle were all in place in their various pockets in my pack, that I had topped up my supply of tissues to be carried in a sandwich bag, together with my camera and travel clock, in my trouser pocket. I gave myself my routine pep talk: I wouldn’t be the one who needed help back down, I wouldn’t keep everyone waiting while I caught up, I would enjoy the views from the top.
At the start of every steep climb I detached myself from whomever I was walking beside, took a few slow, deep breaths and started counting, one to twenty, repeatedly, until I reached the top of the hill. I am not a sociable hiker – I need all my breath just to keep going. I keep my eyes down, don’t look up at the climb ahead, count to keep my rhythm, and try to consider the ache in my knees and the blood pumping in my head as a sign of good hard work, not of near death.
It did nothing for my self-esteem to see our porters cruise past carrying huge packs balanced on their foreheads. I knew that by the time we arrived, they would have set up the dining tent, our tents, boiled and sterilised the water and prepared a feast of chips, curry, salad and chapattis.
We plodded through rice fields, along narrow stepped paths, past chickens and smiling Nepalese children, their teeth glinting in the sunshine. In the distance, the snow-capped Annapurnas glistened above the golden meandering river. The air was crisp and pure. I stopped for a breather and to stare: these moments are diamonds among the billions of ordinary ones that make up our lives.
The last day was the toughest. Lured into a false sense of security by a descent to paddy field level, I was horrified to find that we had to go up again, and this time it was hot. I don’t remember much about the final stretch, other than wondering why on earth I was doing this. When I reached the bus most of the rest of the group were already assembled, patting each other’s backs and giving me the thumbs up (at least I think that’s what it was..).
After a muscle-soothing massage back in our Pokhara hotel rooms, we assembled, shaking with fear, for tandem paragliding. The worst part is running towards the edge of a small field until there is nothing but empty space beneath your legs. The trick is not to look down, as you are already over fifteen hundred metres above sea level. There is no sensation of falling as you go over the edge; you are lifted gently upwards in silence, sitting comfortably. Head reeling with weightlessness, I gripped tightly onto the straps of my harness as my instructor and I rose on the air current, soaring slowly like a giant bird, to two thousand five hundred metres by his altimeter, where I began to feel breathless. We spiralled towards the earth, too quickly for my comfort, but at just the right speed for an adrenalin rush, looking down onto lush jungle and terraced hills. I was relieved that our landing on the shore of Phewa Lake was soft and not the limb-breaking crash I was expecting, and feeling like an intrepid adventurer, I joined the others. We headed straight for the Love Shack restaurant for Planter’s Punch followed by curry and flaming chocolate brownies.
A bone-crunching ride spent squashed into a tiny bus took us to Royal Chitwan National Park, where we were offered the option of elephant washing, and told to wear old clothes as we might get a ‘bit wet’. This turned out to be one of the highlights of the tour. We soon discovered that ‘Elephant washing’ does not mean that you wash the elephants. It means that the elephants wash you. You climb up the trunk holding onto the elephant’s ears, perch on top of his head, and the delighted pachyderm takes great pleasure in dipping his trunk into the muddy river, weaving it up and over his back, to propel what feels like gallons of water at you. Never mind that you can see huge balls of elephant poo floating past you in the same water – honestly, this is fun!
Next morning it seemed that no one appeared to have been infected with anything so we ventured out on mud-encrusted elephants to look for rhinos. We were lucky, and spotted two heavily armoured ones munching contentedly in the grass, while dozens of kingfishers darted along the riverbanks. Later, we lazed in companionable silence in deckchairs at the water’s edge, idly batting at mosquitoes while sipping sundowners and watching the golden orb sink over the jungle.
Back in Kathmandu we made straight for Thamel for our farewell dinner in the famous Rum Doodle restaurant, named after the fictional mountain in W E Bowman’s book and frequented for over twenty years by trekkers and mountaineers. When you enter you are given a large white cardboard footprint to sign and decorate with jokes, poems or obscenities. We left our mark among thousands of others who had completed similar or much harder treks. I got as excited as a celebrity-struck teenager to see Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing’s names in a glass-fronted frame on the same wall as our footprint.
Next morning we rose at five thirty to take a flight around Everest. As we soared above the famous peak and contemplated the scenery for the last time I thought of the children we had met in the hills now far below me. Their smiles, like the view, were dazzling, enduring, and exquisite.
For more information about the plight of porters in Nepal and to find out how you can help please visit www.friendsofnepal.org.np