Wow…That is the first word that comes to mind in thinking about Kathmandu. We are literally half way around the world and it really feels that way. After a 6 ½ hour flight from Istanbul, we landed in Kathmandu around noon. Immediately from our departure from the airport we were fully immersed in to the chaos of Kathmandu traffic. What seemed like a relatively short distance, took almost 40 minutes in the car. Finally, we got to the hotel, dropped off our and went straight out.
After grabbing a late lunch, we ended up walking through the main drag of the Thamel neighborhood where we are staying, which is the center of the historic city. To be honest, our first evening in Kathmandu was a bit overwhelming. The narrow streets (more like alleys) that make up much of the Thamel neighborhood, are not only packed with restaurants and shops (spilling their wares on to the edge of the street), but also completely over run with pedestrians, cyclists, scooters and cars (which clearly weren’t intended to be on these streets!), in the space of about a 1 lane road. Of course, there is no sidewalk, so you’re basically sharing the road space with every other type of vehicle. It has similarities to South East Asia and even Cairo, but also feels totally different. People said that Old Hanoi was crazy and overwhelming, but honestly, when thinking back on it, it seems completely calm and orderly. Oddly, there was some form of organized chaos in Hanoi, which can’t be said for the old streets of Kathmandu!
We also did a walking tour of Durbar Square, the center of the historic quarter. Durbar means royal, and this was indeed the Royal palace, which included the main palace compound plus various temples and shrines. Sadly, much of the old square, with some structures dating back to the 12th century, were badly damaged (even completely flattened) in the April 2105 earthquake. It’s really heartbreaking to see. The good news is that the International community, mainly the US, UK and China have committed to helping rebuild many of the damaged historic buildings over the next 10 years. I guess we’ll see the fruits of our labors in about 10 years!
Of course, by around 7:00pm, we were all pretty exhausted. Thanks to a late lunch we were able to skip dinner and crashed pretty early. Sadly, jet lag kicked in and most of us were up between 3:00 – 5:00 am. But it sure did feel good to lay down flat in a bed after a 27-hour journey, and an afternoon of walking!
The following day, we went off with a driver that we arranged to take us around to the key sites. Our first stop was at Swayambhunath Stupa aka The Monkey Temple. This complex was founded by King Manadeva during the 5th century, and includes a Stupa, temples, shrines, Tibetan monastery, museum and library, and MANY monkeys! It’s located on a hilltop to the west of Kathmandu. If it wasn’t for the incredibly thick smog we would have had a clear and beautiful view of the city.
Of course the kids loved watching and taking photos of the many monkeys. They were hilarious to watch, and of course the many baby monkeys were adorable! We found them to be a lot less aggressive than the monkeys that we encountered a couple of summers ago in Bali, when we visited the Monkey forest. This was clearly not just a tourist site as we saw many Nepalese people coming to make offerings at the temples and praying. And since they consider the monkeys to be holy (there is a monkey god as one of the many Hindu deities) people were regularly feeding them.
We then headed to Patan, which is the oldest city in Katmandu Valley. As we were paying to get into Patan’s Durbar Square, we were approached by a Nepalese man who offered to give a guided tour. Given it cost only about $10 and his English was really good, we decided to go for it. It ended up being a great decision because he was a really great communicator, very engaging, and a genuinely nice guy…not to mention that he taught us a great deal about the history of Patan, Kathmandu Valley, the structures within the historic center, and Buddhism in general.
One thing we learned is that long ago, Nepal consisted of over 20 different kingdoms. The King of Katmandu Valley had three sons. They each competed with each other and wanted their own kingdoms, so the king decided to split up the kingdom into three, one for each son. And as expected, each son built their own lavish Royal palaces and series of temples in competition with the others. Which is why there is a Durbar Square in Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur.
Anyway, we toured through the palace, which was beautiful. Most impressive was all of the hand carved columns made from teak wood. The detail and artistry are just amazing. We also learned about an annual celebration that still takes place every October, in which each of the Darbur/Palaces sacrifices 108 (lucky number) male Water Buffalos. The meat is then shared with the community and the blood is used for the blessing marks that you see on people’s foreheads between their eyes.
In Nepal, foreigners are not allowed to go inside Hindu temples. However, our guide took us a bit off the main drag of the complex to a Buddhist temple, which we were allowed to visit. Again, the history and details he shared were super interesting. We are not a religious family and as a couple we come from different religious backgrounds. But to be honest, the one religion we tend to connect with the most is Buddhism. It’s not that we worship Buddha or go to a temple, but many of the main principles are similar to how we choose to live our lives.
After the temple, our guide asked if we wanted to see the work of a master metal worker, specifically the “healing bowl”. All around the markets, we saw “singing bowls” for pretty cheap. He explained that those were machine made and make a specific type of sound, but that the “healing bowl” is hand made and has qualities that are actually used for healing. Desmond has actually been wanting to buy a singing bowl for MANY years, and always said that someday when we go to Nepal, he would plan to buy one there, so we were definitely interested to see what the guide had to show us.
This ended up being one of the coolest experiences in Patan. The healing bowls are incredible, in the vibration and sounds they make. Roxy had a large bowl placed on her head, while the owner of the shop gently banged on it from different sides. The vibrations could be felt throughout the body and are supposed to help you find balance and focus. The kids and Desmond each tried out stepping in a large bowl and felt sensation going from their feet all the way to their heads! The most amazing however was watching how water in a bowl reacted to the vibration made. Here’s a video. Needless to say, we ended up buying a small bowl. We even tested the water trick in our hotel room and it really does work.
Once again, it was really sad to see and hear about the earthquake and all of the damage done to the many historic buildings, as well as the thousands of people who died as a result. Restoration was underway on many of the structures already, but some had a VERY long way to go…still it was interesting to see before and after photos posted on the gate of each structure under construction.
Our last stop for the day was at the Pashupatina Temple and Bagmati River. Unfortunately as non-Hindus, we weren’t allowed in the temple itself. However, there was still lots to see. The temple’s exterior and its surrounding buildings are definitely beautiful. Sadhus (Hindu holy men) just hang out on the grounds of the temple and some even encourage visitors to sit with them for a photo, for about a dollar each! We found the photo opp to be well worth the price.
Probably the most interesting and meaningful is the activity around the riverbanks of the Bagmati River, which are a popular place for cremations. We actually witnessed the beginning of the ceremonies for two people. It was fascinating and moving to watch. Ella in particular was very apprehensive about seeing an actual dead body and cremation. Fortunately the bodies that were presented were wrapped in beautiful cloth and we did not see the actual cremation. Nevertheless, the visit left its mark on us.
At that point, it had been a long day out and we headed back to the hotel to meet the rest of our Build On group (except our friends Helen and Hans who would be meeting us in Dhangadhi) for a welcome dinner. It was great to connect with the rest of the people who has raised money as part of our group. I think this experience will bond us together in a very special way.
Yesterday we flew from Kathmandu to Dhangadhi, where BuildOn has a local office, and our final stopping point before driving to our village.
The flight on Buddah Air was an experience it itself, beginning with our departure from the very small and overly crowded (seemingly used by only locals) domestic terminal, to walking out to our propellor plane. Once we got up to cruising altitude we were blessed with a view of the Himalayan Mountains on the right side of the plane (where our group was fortunately sitting thanks to prior planning by our group leader Supachart) throughout the fight. It’s amazing to be in a plane flying at cruising altitude and still be below these majestic mountain range. Also amazing to be flying over the beautiful and rural Nepalese country side.
Once we arrived in Dhangadhi we met the rest of the BuildOn staff that will be with us in the village, which was great! We have two interpretors, our two Trek leaders and a cook that will be making our breakfasts and lunches. Dinners will be spent with our host families.
The ride from the tiny one flight a day Airport to our hotel was incredible….gorgeous country side and rural scenes that are out of a National Geographic magazine. After we arrived at the hotel, we had a group orientation to prepare for our time in the village and some language lessons. Learning Nepalese is certainly not easy, but we’re all trying really hard to get some of the key words and phrases down so we can communicate in even a small way with our host families. We ended the evening with a really fun group dinner and we are all ready for an adventure of a lifetime!