arresting god in kathmandu

Monday, January 28:  Arresting God in Kathmandu is an insightful book of short stories by Kathmandu native Samrat Upadhyay, who has lived in the United States since he was 21.  Having traveled to Nepal in January of 2013, I was captivated by his portrayal of the ordinary lives of Nepalis and their search for spiritual solutions to their problems.

In the first story, “The Good Shopkeeper,”  Pramod loses his prestigious job at a finance company, and after soothing his wife Radhika’s despair, he makes the rounds of the Pashupatinath Temple to pray for Lord Shiva’s blessing.  He finds himself having to ingratiate himself to a distant cousin of his wife’s, only to be put off time and time again.  As they go through their life savings to pay the next two months’ rent, they become increasingly desperate.   In Pramod’s aimlessness, he begins an affair with a housemaid.  Finally, with no prospects in sight, he tells his wife they should start a shop.  He tells her, “I will have to grow a mustache.”  He then imagines himself as such an important shopkeeper that if the distant cousin came in, he would pretend he wasn’t there.  And, if the housemaid came, “he would seat her on a stool, and perhaps Radhika would make tea for her.  This last thought appealed to him tremendously.”

I can imagine this story and its setting: pilgrims circling the Pashupatinath Temple; the struggle to make ends meet which is so evident everywhere in Nepal; the pipe dreams of Nepalis who have no easy solution to their employment and financial woes.   I love reading a book like this after I travel to a place, and recognizing the deep truth of the stories.

In the story, “Deepak Misra’s Secretary,” Deepak makes the mistake of kissing his “unattractive secretary” Bandana-ji when he hears his ex-wife Jill is back in Kathmandu. He had gotten involved with this Cleveland native after he met her at a party:

Deepak had found her charming, although she was like many of the Nepal-crazy foreigners he knew, people who lived in the country in a romantic haze, love-struck by the mountain beauty and simple charms of the people, but grossly naive about their suffering.

Deepak hopes to renew his relationship with Jill, but finds she has no interest in him. Slowly, he develops an attraction for Bandana-ji, but he denies this attraction, still thinking of his ex-wife.   Finally he asks his secretary to submit her resignation.  She leaves, but Deepak cannot get her, or the sensation of bliss he felt with her, out of his mind.

Having lived abroad for the last three years, I know of these love-struck foreigners, who see only the beauty and fascinating parts of a culture, ignoring the problems and struggles of the locals, or the troublesome aspects of the culture.

There are many more wonderful stories in this collection, stories in which the author explores the effects of modernization on love and family.  Husbands and wives bound together by arranged marriages are driven elsewhere by a strong desire for connection.  Constrained by family and society, people find themselves propelled to transcend their difficult circumstances and escape into a world that is diametrically opposed to the one in which they live.

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last day in kathmandu

Thursday, January 24:  On this, my last day in Kathmandu, I decide I will just wander around the streets of Thamel and do some shopping, have a nice lunch, check out the bookstore, take pictures, and top the day off with a traditional dinner and entertainment.

First I start with a meditative moment in the courtyard of Kathmandu Guest House.

the meditative Buddha in the courtyard of Kathmandu Guest House

the meditative Buddha in the courtyard of Kathmandu Guest House

As I walk out to the street from Kathmandu Guest House, I meet this kind young man who wants me to hire his rickshaw for a little tour.  I tell him I will meet him here in about two hours.

My rickshaw driver

My rickshaw driver

I can do a lot of damage shopping for 2 hours.  I buy a couple of beautiful necklaces, two yak wool blankets, a paper lantern, a colorful embroidered bag, and a bunch of books including Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda (which the Indian guy I met last night highly recommended to me), The Guru of Love, Royal Ghosts and Arresting God in Kathmandu, all by Samrat Upadhyay, and a Buddhist Chanting CD.  Luckily I bought that backpack in Pokhara so I can carry all this loot home. 🙂

I do some more wandering around before the designated meeting time for the rickshaw tour.  This is what I see.

Ohm.

Ohm.

Streets of Thamel

Streets of Thamel

Colorful shops in Thamel

Colorful shops in Thamel

Balloons anyone?

Balloons anyone?

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colorful yarns

colorful yarns

old wood carvings

old wood carvings

busy streets

busy streets

paper lanterns

paper lanterns

Finally I meet my rickshaw driver and he takes me outside of Thamel to where the real Nepalis live and work.  Thamel is quite “done up” compared to the rest of Kathmandu because it’s a tourist area.  The rest of Kathmandu is more chaotic and quite a bit more ratty.

colorful rickshaw

colorful rickshaw

a little temple hidden away

a little temple hidden away

a lady and her bedding

a lady and her bedding

colorful bedding and doors

colorful bedding and doors

hangin' out waiting for a fare

hangin’ out waiting for a fare

Ohm.

Ohm.

the red monkey god

the red monkey god

another hidden temple with bright yellow doors

another hidden temple with bright yellow doors

temple

temple

me in the rickshaw

me in the rickshaw

fruits for sale

fruits for sale

a temple with guard dogs

a temple with guard dogs

After our little tour, I grab a lunch of momos and fresh banana juice at The Roadhouse Cafe.

Ohm.

Ohm.

Momos for lunch

Momos for lunch

my lunch spot

my lunch spot

Finally I go back to my room and take a rest for a bit.  I have now started reading Arresting God in Kathmandu, a book of short stories by Nepali writer Samrat Upadhyay.  This is more appropriate for Nepal than the other book I’ve been occupied with this entire trip, What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt.   I finished this book yesterday evening.

another colorful rickshaw

another colorful rickshaw

I decide to go out to Thamel House, an old townhouse with a covered patio garden that serves traditional Nepali and Newari food.  I order the full course vegetarian set.  The fixed price meal includes the following:

ENTRY:
Alu Tareko (Potato fried and prepared in traditional way)
Momo (steamed dumpling with minced vegetables)
Suruwa (soup ~ typical Nepali soup)

MAIN COURSE:
Sada Bhuja (plain boiled Basmati rice)
Kalo Dal (lentil prepared in iron pot with heated purified butter, garnished with herbs)
Mis Mas Tarkari (seasonal mixed vegetables cooked in local style)
Alu Tama Bodi (fermented bamboo shoot, beans & potato unique flavored and sourly in taste)
Paneer ko Tarkari (cottage cheese cooked in a special way)
Chyau ko Tarkari (mushroom curry cooked in a traditional way)
Saag (Seasonal fresh green leaves boiled and sautéed with spices)

DESSERT
Shikarni (Thick yogurt whipped and mixed with dry nuts and cinnamon powder)

Traditional Nepali food

Traditional Nepali food

While I savor each and every morsel of this delectable meal, I watch some Nepali ladies do a song and dance routine.

Entertainment at Thamel House Restaurant

Entertainment at Thamel House Restaurant

Finally, I return to Kathmandu Guest House where I pack up my things for an early flight tomorrow back to Muscat.  Goodbye, Nepal.  I don’t know when, or if, I’ll see you again. 🙂

good night and farewell to Thamel

good night and farewell to Kathmandu

changu narayan & return to kathmandu

Wednesday, January 23:  At the end of our 4 hour hike, we finally reach the ancient pilgrimage site of Changu Narayan in Kathmandu Valley.   All morning I have been wearing a new pair of hiking shoes that I haven’t quite broken in, and my feet are killing me!  I am happy to see Changu Narayan because it means I will be able to sit in the car for the drive back to Kathmandu.

We take a main street along the top of the ridge to the temple.  Souvenir shops are plentiful and colorful.

colorful souvenir shops along the street to Changu Narayan

colorful souvenir shops along the street to Changu Narayan

Changu Narayan is one of seven World Heritage sites in the Kathmandu Valley; it’s been listed by UNESCO since 1979. This beautiful painted temple is where Lord Vishnu is worshiped by Hindus as Narayan and by Buddhists as Hari Hari Hari Vahan Lokeshwor.

The temple sits in a quiet square of rest houses and pilgrims’ shelters.  According to Lonely Planet Nepal, it is the valley’s oldest Vaishnava site, with a documented history going back to the 5th century A.D.   The temple is said to have been reconstructed in 1700.   The temple has some fine repousse work and carved painted struts supporting the roof.  Most of the statues in the courtyard are related to Lord Vishnu.

the temple of Changu Narayan

the temple of Changu Narayan

the incarnations of Vishnu on the struts to the temple

the incarnations of Vishnu on the struts to the temple

a smaller temple in the courtyard

my guide, Prakash Bhattarai of Gurka Encounters, in front of a smaller temple in the courtyard

incarnations of Vishnu

incarnations of Vishnu

The four entrances to Changu Narayan Temple are guarded by life-size pairs of animals such as lions, sarabhas, griffins and elephants on each side of the entrances.  The ten incarnations of Lord Vishnu and the other idols are carved in the struts supporting the roof.

griffins guard the entrances to the temple

griffins guard the entrances to the temple

closer up to the struts with the 10 incarnations of Vishnu

closer up to the struts with the 10 incarnations of Vishnu

the struts of Changu Narayan

the struts of Changu Narayan

We don’t stay very long at this temple, despite its beauty.   I’m tired and hungry and ready to return to Kathmandu for one more day of exploration.  My guide Prakesh, our driver Raju and I ride back through Bhaktapur and then through Kathmandu’s chaotic traffic mishmash of motorbikes, rickshaws, and honking trucks with flowers in their windshields.

Back at Kathmandu Guest House, I eat a late lunch of Egg Chow Mein, which I polish off in its entirety because I’m famished after that long hike from Nagarkot to Changu Narayan!  When I check into my room, though it’s a nice room with a balcony, I find it doesn’t have a bathtub.  I have been looking forward to a long hot soak, so I ask for a change of rooms.   I enjoy the hot bath, put on my pajamas and continue reading my novel, What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt.  I don’t get up again until I finish the book.   After, I get dressed to go out, but the novel’s disturbing story about a sociopath boy, Mark, and his murderous friend, Teddy Giles weighs heavy on me.

I head for dinner at New Orleans Cafe, where I sit next to a warm fire and drink an Everest Beer.  Because of eating that huge plate of Egg Chow Mein for a late lunch, I’m not very hungry, so I order a “small plate” of mashed potatoes.  The plate is actually huge and heaped with mashed potatoes and mushroom gravy.  It’s delicious and filling, especially as, again, I eat every bite.

a warm fire at New Orleans Cafe

a warm fire at New Orleans Cafe

While enjoying my beer after demolishing my “small plate,” some live traditional music begins on stage and a stocky Indian guy named Jay Krishna, who is sitting at an adjacent table, asks if he can join me.  He’s wearing a red fleece jacket and a wool hat pulled down to his eyebrows.  A software engineer doing some work in Nepal, he returns to Bangalore tomorrow.

Everest Beer at New Orleans Cafe

Everest Beer at New Orleans Cafe

Even though he’s Hindu, he believes in Jesus too, especially based on arguments in a book he highly recommends,  Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahanoa Yogananda.  We talk and talk, and he tells me I should buy this book tomorrow in the bookstore across the street.  When he tells me he’s from Bangalore,  I tell him about my trip to India and about the small-framed 25-old-Indian guy Tao, who I met on Facebook, and who took the train all the way from Bangalore to Delhi to meet me.  I laugh and say I couldn’t understand why a guy that young and small could have been attracted to me.  Jay says, “Why not?  I find you attractive.”  I thank him and change the subject.

warmth

warmth

He buys himself a beer but says he can’t buy me one; I tell him I can’t buy him one either.  As I prepare to leave, he tells me he’d like to spend more time with me, but as he’s leaving Kathmandu tomorrow and I’m leaving on Friday morning, and as I’m incredibly tired, I say I don’t really have the energy.  I say goodnight and head back to Kathmandu Guest House, where, exhausted, I fall asleep.

bhaktapur: durbar square

Tuesday, January 22:  Bhaktapur’s Durbar Square has two claims to fame: 1) It was listed a World Heritage Site in 1979 and 2) it was used in the filming of ancient flashback scenes in the 1995 film Little Buddha.  It lacks the architectural harmony of Kathmandu’s Durbar Square due to a 1934 earthquake that destroyed several of its temples.  It also has never served as a commercial or social focal point to Bhaktapur, according to Rough Guide to Nepal.  However, it is the main square of the city and is a mixture of stone art, metal art, wood carving, and terracotta art and architectural showpieces, according to Bhaktapur Municipality.

Durbar Square in Bhaktapur

Durbar Square in Bhaktapur

The Royal Palace is said to have once had 99 chowks (courtyards), but since the 1934 earthquake and resulting demotions and renovations, it now has only five. This palace was built during the reign of King Yakshay Malla in AD 1427 and was subsequently remodeled by King Bhupatindra Malla in the late seventeenth century, when the eastern wing, known as  Panchapanna Jhyale Durbar (“Palace of Fifty-Five Windows”), was built.  It was home to royalty until 1769.

entrance to the Royal Palace

entrance to the Royal Palace & The National Art Museum

The Palace of 55 Windows

The Palace of 55 Windows

inside the Palace of 55 Windows

inside the Palace of 55 Windows

inside the Palace of 55 Windows

inside the Palace of 55 Windows

The Golden Gate, or Sun Dhoka, is said to be the most beautiful and richly molded specimen of gilt copper repoussé in the entire world. Repoussé  is a metalworking technique in which a malleable metal is shaped by hammering from the reverse side to create a design in low relief (Wikipedia).   The door is embellished with monsters and mythical creatures of amazing intricacy. The Golden Gate was erected by King Ranjit Malla and is the entrance to the main courtyard of the Palace of Fifty-Five windows.

The Golden Gate ~ 1754 AD

The Golden Gate ~ 1754 AD

Turning back from the Golden Gate a doorway on the left leads through to Naga Pokhari, or “Snake Pond.”  This is an early 16th century royal bathing tank.  The waterspout is covered in thirsty animals in gilt copper, overlooked by two gilt nag figures standing clear of the water.

the door to Naga Pokhari

the door to Naga Pokhari

Naga Pokhari

Naga Pokhari

gilt waterspouts writhing with thirsty animals

gilt waterspouts writhing with thirsty animals

a nag figure looking over the bathing tank at Naga Pokhari

a nag figure looking over the bathing tank at Naga Pokhari

The 15th century Pashupati Mandir is the oldest structure in the square.  The temple holds a copy of the Pashupatinath linga, a complex symbol of Hinduism associated with Shiva, representing energy and strength.  Its roof is embellished with wildly erotic carvings.

Erotic carvings on Pashupati Mandir

Erotic carvings on Pashupati Mandir

Door on Pashupati Mandir

Door on Pashupati Mandir

Next door stands the 18th century shikhara-style stone Vatsala Durga was built by King Jagat Prakash Malla in 1672.  Shikhara refers to a rising-tower Hindu architectural style, which translates literally to, and resembles, a “mountain peak.” (Wikipedia/Lonely Planet Nepal).

Vatsala Durga

Vatsala Durga

Vatsala Durga

Vatsala Durga

The Chyasin Mandap, erected in 1990 to replace an 18th century temple destroyed in the earthquake, is known as the Pavilion of the Eight Corners.

The Pavilion of Eight Corners

The Pavilion of Eight Corners

The Pavilion of 8 Corners with the behind

The Pavilion of 8 Corners with the Vatsala Durga set back to the left

the Pavilion of the Eight Corners with the Palace of 55 Windows behind

the Pavilion of the Eight Corners with the Palace of 55 Windows behind

The Pavilion of Eight Corners

The Pavilion of Eight Corners

On the west side of the square, we see a school group clustered on the steps of an unnamed building.

A school group on a tour

A school group on a tour

And then we wander around and check out other interesting things in the square.

Entryway

Entryway

interesting door

interesting door

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Silu Mahadev

Silu Mahadev

Siddhi Lakshmi Mandir

Siddhi Lakshmi Mandir

We leave Durbar Square and go in search of the Kumari’s house.

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farewell to pokhara & back to kathmandu

Monday, January 21: After seeing the sunrise at Sarangkot, we head back to the hotel where I have some hot coffee and an omelet.  I’m tired from waking up so early, so I take a hot bath, since ~ surprise, surprise! ~ there is hot water this morning.  Sadly, I’m still not able to wash my hair because there’s no electricity for the blow-dryer!  On my balcony, I admire my last stunning, and unclouded, views of the Himalayas.   I put my pajamas back on and climb back into bed.  I read What I Loved for a good long time and then nap for a bit longer.

one last view of the Himalayas from my balcony in Pokhara

one last view of the Himalayas from my balcony in Pokhara

When I get up again, I go out into town to continue the shopping spree I started yesterday.  I buy a necklace of silver, coral, turquoise and shell, some silver rectangular earrings with inlaid turquoise and coral, an amazing wooden Nepali mask to hang on a wall, and a book of short stories by Nepali writers.   I also buy a backpack for the hike I will do the day after tomorrow from Nagarkot to Changu Narayan.

last views... :-)

last views… 🙂

I go back to my favorite restaurant, Love Kush, and order the same sizzling grilled fish I had for dinner last night.  Some things are just that good.  Then I walk back to the hotel to pack up all my newly purchased goods so I can fly back to Kathmandu.

lunch at Love Kush

lunch at Love Kush

inside Love Kush

inside Love Kush

sizzling grilled fish... delicious. :-)

sizzling grilled fish… delicious. 🙂

I’m scheduled for a flight on Yeti Airlines at 1:15, but there is not a single airplane in evidence at the airport.  They tell us the flight is delayed and they’re not sure when it will arrive.  They do make the wait quite comfortable, as they invite passengers to go to the outdoor rooftop cafe for a snack.  I’m still engrossed in my book, so I take a seat, order an orange Fanta, and read my book in the warm sun while I wait patiently for the plane to arrive.

the deserted Pokhara airport.  Where's the plane?  Any plane will do.

the deserted Pokhara airport. Where’s the plane? Any plane will do.

Travel can sometimes be a daunting challenge.  In my early days of traveling,  I used to get upset if things didn’t go exactly as planned.  However, I have learned the slow and hard way that I must just LET GO!!  I have to just shrug off inconveniences, otherwise I will ruin my vacation!  Once my peace of mind is thrown off kilter, I may as well write off an experience.  I think the biggest endurance test for me was my 3-week trip to India in March of 2011.  My friend Jayne and I encountered so many hardships and irritations and problems, that we found ourselves wishing we were in Europe, Italy in particular, sitting at outdoor cafes and enjoying the easy life.  We were NOT enamored of India and its trials and challenges, though we found the country and the culture fascinating on many levels.

the rooftop cafe at the airport

the rooftop cafe at the airport

In Nepal, I’ve often been cold, especially at night, with little reprieve,  no place to go to warm up.  I’ve endured no electricity, bad roads, lack of internet services, and flight delays.  Either Nepal is not the hardship that India was, OR I’m just getting used to these inconveniences.  I think that’s a good thing if I am learning to shrug things off and not get too upset by them.

The plane finally arrives at 1:45, at which time everyone piles into the aircraft.  This time I make sure I’m one of the first onboard because I want a left seat, so I can see the Himalayas from the air this time.  I find one and I get some great views, although the mountains are hugged by puffy clouds at this time of day.

airplane view of the Himalayas

airplane view of the Himalayas

When I arrive back to Kathmandu Guest House, the first thing I do is take a long hot bath, wash my hair, and read my book again.   Later, I go out to dinner at New Orleans restaurant.  This restaurant, like all others I’ve encountered in Nepal, has an outdoor courtyard dining area.  In addition it has a heated room, partially open to the courtyard but with space heaters.  I sit inside by the heater.  I just have a light snack and an Everest beer, and then go back into my room, where I get warm under the covers and dive back into my book.  I have an early day tomorrow, as I’m going to Bhaktapur and then up to Nagarkot to spend the night.

the "warm room" at New Orleans Cafe in Kathmandu

the “warm room” at New Orleans Cafe in Kathmandu

kathmandu: durbar square

Friday, January 18:  Under ominous skies, we enter Durbar Square at the southwestern end.  Listed as one of the eight Cultural World Heritage site by UNESCO, Kathmandu Durbar Square is a cluster of ancient temples, palaces, courtyards and streets that date back from the 12th to the 18th centuries. The square is known to be the social, religious and urban focal point of Kathmandu.

The first building we come to is Kasthamandap, an ancient open pagoda-roofed pavilion said to be Kathmandu’s oldest building and one of the oldest wooden buildings in the world.  The name of Kathmandu probably came from this building.  Buddhi tells me it was built in the 12th century from the wood of a single tree.  It has been renovated several times since 1630.  According to Rough Guide to Nepal, it used to serve as a rest house along the Tibet trade route.  It was probably the center of early Kathmandu.

the outside of Kasthamandap

the outside of Kasthamandap

Kasthamandap - one of the oldest wooden buildings in the world

Kasthamandap – one of the oldest wooden buildings in the world

On our way to the Kumari Chowk, we pass the 17th century Trailokya Mohan, a three-roofed pagoda dedicated to Narayan, the Nepali name for Vishnu.

Trailokya Mohan Narayan Temple stands behind the domed pavilion in Durbar Square

Trailokya Mohan Narayan Temple stands behind the domed pavilion in Durbar Square

Trailokya Mohan Narayan Temple

Trailokya Mohan Narayan Temple

North of the Trailokya Mohan sits the 17th-century Maju Dewal atop a pyramid of 9 stepped levels.

Maju Dewal atop at 9-step pyramid

Maju Dewal atop at 9-step pyramid

We then go to Kumari Chowk, where we hope to get a glimpse of Kathmandu’s Raj Kumari, the most important of a dozen or so “living goddesses” in Kathmandu Valley.

The Kumari is a prepubescent girl who is worshipped as the living incarnation of the goddess Taleju.   Apparently the last Malla King of Kathmandu, the weak Jaya Prakash, lusted after Taleju.  Offended, she told the king that he should select a virgin girl in whom the goddess could dwell.  The Kumari is considered a Hindu goddess, but she is chosen from the Buddhist Shakya clan of goldsmiths.  Elders interview Shakya girls between the ages of 3 and 5 and base their decision on whether she has 32 auspicious signs: a neck like a conch shell, a body like a Banyan Tree, etc.  (Rough Guide to Nepal).

Kumari Chowk: the top center window is where the Kumari finally appears for a showing

Kumari Chowk: the top center window is where the Kumari finally appears for a showing

The young goddess lives a cloistered life inside the Kumari Chowk and is only carried outside on her throne during certain festivals.  Her feet are never allowed to touch the ground.  The goddess’s spirit is said to flow out of her with her first menstruation, at which time she is retired with a modest pension.  Apparently, it’s hard for the Kumari to find a husband since legend has it that the Kumari’s husband will die young.

the exquisitely carved windows and doors of Kumari Chowk

the exquisitely carved windows and doors of Kumari Chowk

The Kumari courtyard is decorated with intricately carved windows and doorways.  We are told upon our arrival into the courtyard that she is having something to eat, but we wait for a bit and she finally shows her face at the window, dressed in an auspicious red-colored coat, her eyes heavily made up.  The current Kumari has been in place since 2008, since she was 3 years old, meaning she is currently about 8 years old.  Sadly, it’s strictly forbidden to photograph the Kumari.

Kumari Chowk

Kumari Chowk

me under the window where the Kumari appears

me under the window where the Kumari appears

Walking along, we come to another area chock full of temples — and pigeons.  We see a column topped with a gilded statue of King Pratap Malla.  East of this column is the 16th century pagoda-style Jagannath Mandir.  The struts supporting the lower roof of the temple contain numerous erotic carvings, quite common in Nepali temples.  Other smaller temples surround the Jagannath Mandir.  Cows lounge in the square among the pigeons, and a solitary monk stands silently, not moving, accepting donations in a bowl.  Buddhi tells me that monks don’t ever ask people for money, but just stand silently in the belief that people will give them alms.

Column of King Pratap Malla and the Jagannath Mandir

Column of King Pratap Malla and the Jagannath Mandir

a monk stands silently seeking alms in front of Jagannath Mandir

a monk stands silently seeking alms in front of Jagannath Mandir

cows and pigeons in the square

cows and pigeons in the square

 

one of the many temples in this complex

one of the many temples in this complex

The 17th century octagonal Chasin Dega is dedicated to Krishna the flute player.

Chasin Dega

Chasin Dega

North of the Pratap Malla column is the rotund image of Kala Bhairab (Black Bhairab) dancing on the corpse of a demon.  It’s carved from a single twelve-foot slab of stone.  Legend has it that anyone who tells a lie in front of it will vomit blood and die (Rough Guide to Nepal).

Kala Bhairab

Kala Bhairab

We come across what I think Buddhi says is a Buddhist Shrine.  However, I may be misinformed as it seems to have Hindu deities in it.  It looks a little squished by this banyan tree.

A shrine being squished by a tree

A shrine being squished by a tree

probably a Hindu shrine??

probably a Hindu shrine??

Here is a random building that I think looks interesting.  I’m sorry I don’t know what it is.

an unknown building that looks interesting.  Don't know what it is!

an unknown building that looks interesting. Don’t know what it is!

At Taleju Mandir, which sits atop a 12-tiered plinth, we can see Kathmandu’s largest temple, erected in the mid-16th century by King Mahendra Malla, who made a law that no building could exceed it in height.  This law was in force through the mid-20th century.  Taleju Bhawain is considered by Hindus to be a form of the mother goddess Durga, while Buddhist Newars consider her as one of the Taras, tantric female deities.

Taleju Mandir ~ Kathmandu's biggest temple

Taleju Mandir ~ Kathmandu’s biggest temple

Here is the Lion’s Gate to the temple.

Lion's Gate to Taleju Mandir

Lion’s Gate to Taleju Mandir

Finally, we go to the Old Royal Palace, usually called Hanuman Dhoka.  A statue of the monkey-god Hanuman stands outside, installed by the 17th century king, Pratap Malla, to ward off evil spirits.  The Hanuman idol is veiled to render his stare safe from mortals and he’s been anointed with mustard oil and vermilion paste (abhir) through the centuries.

the monkey god Hanuman

the monkey god Hanuman

We enter the courtyard through the brightly decorated Hanuman Dhoka (Hanuman Gate).

the entrance to the Old Royal Palace is through the Hanuman Dhoka (Hanuman Gate)

the entrance to the Old Royal Palace is through the Hanuman Dhoka (Hanuman Gate)

The large central courtyard inside, called the Nassal Chowk, was the setting for King Birendra’s coronation in 1975.  The brick wings of the southern and eastern walls date from the 16th century.

Nassal Chowk, the interior courtyard of the Old Royal Palace (Hanuman Dhoka)

Nassal Chowk, the interior courtyard of the Old Royal Palace (Hanuman Dhoka)

At the northeastern corner of the square is the round-roofed five-tiered pagoda-like turret, Panch Mukhi Hanuman Mandir: “Five-Faced Hanuman,” which supposedly has the faces of an ass, man-bird, man-lion, bird and monkey (Rough Guide to Nepal).

Panch Mukhi Hanuman Mandir - a five-tiered pagoda like turret

Panch Mukhi Hanuman Mandir – a five-tiered pagoda like turret

After this, it is starting to sprinkle and we hear claps of thunder.  We head back immediately to the car, where we hop in just in time.  As soon as we’re in the car, driving toward the great stupa of Boudha, it begins to pour.

just in time to get out of the rain!

just in time to get out of the rain!

kathmandu: swayambhunath

Friday, January 18:  After eating a great buffet breakfast in the chilly courtyard dining area of Kathmandu Guest House, I sit down over coffee with Uttam Phuyal and Lamichhane Dipak so they can help me plan my stay in Nepal.  As I didn’t have any time to plan or even read anything about Nepal before I came, I rely on their advice as native Nepalis.  They come up with a great plan, which includes a city tour of Kathmandu today (Friday), a flight Saturday to Pokhara with a two night stay there, a return to Kathmandu on Monday, a drive to Nagarkot via Bhaktapur on Tuesday, a long walk from Nagarkot to Changu Narayan on Wednesday with a return to Kathmandu that night, and finally another day in Kathmandu.  All this for the cost of $600, not including entrance fees to attractions, lunch, dinner or my stays at Kathmandu Guest House.

a wishing pool near Swayambhu

a wishing pool near Swayambhu

Of course as they tell me about this plan, the only thing I know is that my colleague Mona Lisa said Kathmandu was “magical,” my colleague Zida hated Kathmandu but thought Pokhara was beautiful, and the couple from Holland raved about Bhaktapur.  Other than that, none of the suggestions have any meaning whatsoever for me.  They could just as easily have said I’m going to blahblahblah and to Lala-land, for as much as I understood about these places.

my guide for the day: Buddhi

my guide for the day: Buddhi

I start out first thing in the morning with a driver and a guide named Buddhi (which he tells me means “knowledge”) to Swayambhu (or Swayambhunath), a 5th century Buddhist stupa that is the source of Kathmandu Valley’s creation myth. One myth states that the Kathmandu Valley was once a snake-infested lake.  Geologists actually agree that Swayambhunath may have been a hill protruding out of that lake that dried up 100,000 years ago.  In the legend, a perfect lotus flower appeared on the lake, which the gods claimed to be Buddhism’s essence, Swayambhu (“self-created”). The bodhisattva of knowledge, Manjushri, drew his sword and cut a gorge south of Kathmandu to drain the lake and allow people to worship Swayambhu.  As the water drained, the lotus settled on top of the hill, and Manjushri built a shrine, and then began to rid the valley of snakes (Rough Guide to Nepal).

Tantric Buddhists believe that an act of worship on this conical hill carries 13 billion times more merit here than anywhere else, according to the Rough Guide to Nepal.  Though many tourists call it the “Monkey Temple,” the name minimizes its importance to Buddhism.

coming upon Swayambhu

coming upon Swayambhu

We start at the hilltop to the west of Swayambhu, at Manjushri Shrine.  Manjushri is the Buddhist god of wisdom and founder of civilization in Kathmandu Valley.  At the shrine there is a wishing pool with a brass bowl in front of a Buddha image.  If you toss a coin and it goes into the bowl, your wish is sure to be granted.  I only have one coin in my possession.  I make a wish, toss the coin, and watch as it dances to the bottom of the pond.

As we walk up the hill to Swayambhu, Buddhi tells me he is Hindu but also practices Buddhism.  He recently married, a couple of months ago, and talks very maturely about how marriage is about compromise.

Near the top of the hill, we come upon a stand of artfully arranged slivers of coconut.

Coconut for sale

Coconut for sale

Buddhi tells me that Buddha’s eyes stand for world peace and the third eye is for meditation.  The all-seeing eyes stare in all four directions.  The completely solid white-washed dome symbolizes the womb.

Buddha's eyes on the stupa stand for world peace.  The third eye is for meditation.

Buddha’s eyes on the stupa stand for world peace. The third eye is for meditation.

Walking up the hill, we pass monkeys flitting about on walls and on the walkway in front of us. As we round the corner, we catch a glimpse of the stupa in the midst of numerous other shrines.  The spire of 13 gold disks atop the pillar represent the steps to enlightenment.

the Swayambhu stupa

the Swayambhu stupa

Monkeys climb and leap around from statue to statue.  They gather for a small community meeting on the walkway. Pilgrims walk around the stupa in a clockwise direction, turning the prayer wheels around the perimeter.   According to Rough Guide to Nepal, there are six thousand small prayer wheels around the perimeter of the hill.

monkeys at "The Monkey Temple"

monkeys at “The Monkey Temple”

Buddhi tells me that the colors of the prayer flags represent the five elements: earth, water, air, fire and sky.  He tells me Nepal’s people are about 75% Hindu, 15% Buddhist, and 5% Christians.

another view of the stupa

another view of the stupa

We come upon the gilt-roofed Harati Mandir, built to appease Harati (also known as Ajima), historically the goddess of smallpox, but now known as the goddess of all childhood diseases. Harati/Ajima is both feared, as the bearer of disease, and revered, as the protectress from disease (if appropriately appeased).

the gilt-roofed temple of Harati Mandir

the gilt-roofed temple of Harati Mandir

Around the edges of the complex are the ubiquitous tourist attractions: a cafe in Nirvana and healing bowls offered as solutions to the soul’s distress.

Nirvana

Nirvana

A courtyard full of monuments are the gravestones of monks who have lived and died here.

cemetery of monks

cemetery of monks

At the northeast corner is the Shree Karma Raj Mahavihar, an active Buddhist monastery with its big Buddha and numerous butter candles, which Tibetan Buddhists light much as Catholics do.

Shree Karma Raj Mahavihar

Shree Karma Raj Mahavihar

On top of the stupa, a monk splashes arcs of saffron paint around the stupa in a lotus-flower pattern.

a monk splashes arcs of saffron paint over the stupa in a lotus-flower pattern

a monk splashes arcs of saffron paint over the stupa in a lotus-flower pattern

On the east side of the complex, at the top of over 300 time-worn steps up to the stupa, is a bronze sceptre-like vajra, the pedestal of which is carved with the twelve animals of the Tibetan zodiac.  It is a tantric symbol of power and indestructibility.

an oversized vajra, a tantric symbol of power and indestructibility

an oversized vajra, a tantric symbol of power and indestructibility

There are twin bullet-shaped shikra on either side of the vajra installed by King Pratap Malla during a 17th century dispute with Tibet.  This one is Anantapur; the other (shown above behind the vajra) is Pratappur.

the bullet shaped shikra of Anantapur

the bullet shaped shikra of Anantapur

Inscribed on a large prayer wheel attached to the stupa are words in Nepalese that are translated roughly by Buddhi as: “Hail to the jewel and the lotus.”

pilgrims and tourists rove around the stupa

pilgrims and tourists rove around the stupa

We look out over the polluted city of Kathmandu, but it’s not a pretty sight.

the view of Kathmandu from Swayambhu

the view of Kathmandu from Swayambhu

around and around the stupa

around and around the stupa

I’m surprised to run into the couple from Holland who I talked with last night at dinner.

I run into the couple from Holland who chatted with me over dinner last night

I run into the couple from Holland who chatted with me over dinner last night

As nice as Buddhi is, I find myself wishing I didn’t have a guide to I could spend time in a clockwise walking meditation around the stupa, turning the prayer wheels slowly.  I have enjoyed these kinds of walking meditations before, especially using labyrinths in the Episcopal Church.   I like moving slowly on predetermined paths that I don’t have to think about and trying to still the incessant chatter in my mind.

colorful prayer flags representing the 5 elements of earth, water, air, fire & sky

colorful prayer flags representing the 5 elements of earth, water, air, fire & sky

After we leave Swayambhunath, we head to Durbar Square, home of the old royal palace and a multitude of other monuments.

namaste! ~ opening night in kathmandu

Thursday, January 17:   Oman Air flight 331 flies in over the green Churia Hills of Nepal as the sun goes down.  Below are soft peaks with winding dirt paths etched into their surfaces.  I get a little choked up seeing these mountains with shreds of low-lying clouds tucked neatly into their folds.  I’ve heard stories of people who have trekked through these mountains and the Himalayas further north.  This isn’t even the Himalayan range, but the scene still moves me.  As we land, the sun goes down in a spectacular array of corals and lavender.

flying into Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu

flying into Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu

sunset as we fly into Kathmandu

sunset as we fly into Kathmandu

We are on the ground in Kathmandu.

Kathmandu Guest House offers a free airport pick up.  I spot the sign, greeting the Nepali man with “Namaste,” head bowed and hands in a prayer pose.  In Sanskrit the word is namah + te = namaste which means “I bow to you” – my greetings, salutations or prostration to you. The word ‘namaha’ can also be literally interpreted as “na ma” (not mine). It has a spiritual significance of negating or reducing one’s ego in the presence of another.

the tourist area of Thamel outside of Kathmandu Guest House

the tourist area of Thamel outside of Kathmandu Guest House

According to Living Words of Wisdom: Definition of Namaste:  Seeing others through Namaste’s meaning will help you see the true divine spirit in everyone and meet them at the soul level. You look beyond the surface into the true nature of every being.

There a many other interpretations of the meaning of Namaste.  Here are a few:

The God/Goddess within me acknowledges the God/Goddess within you.

The Divine in me recognizes and honors, the Divine in you.

The spirit within me bows to the spirit within you.

I greet that place where you and I are one.

I honor the place in you which is of love, of truth, of light and of peace.

I love this greeting and gesture of honoring another person and find myself wishing we all would great each other in this way.

the entrance to Kathmandu Guest House

the entrance to Kathmandu Guest House

I hop into a dilapidated van.  We are apparently waiting for another passenger named Layla.  While waiting, the driver gets a call from Uttam Phuyal, the operations manager of Kathmandu Guest House.  He is a good friend of my colleague Mona Lisa at the university;  Mona Lisa has connected us to each other.  On the phone, Uttam welcomes me to Kathmandu but tells me it is time for him to go home.  He promises to talk to me in the morning with some ideas for my stay in Nepal.   I have made no plans because I only found out five days ago that we were granted a holiday this week.

the outdoor dining room at Kathmandu Guest House

the outdoor dining room at Kathmandu Guest House

When Layla arrives, we drive through the city to the tourist neighborhood of Thamel, where KGH, and practically every other guesthouse in Kathmandu, is located.  Many of the roads in the city are unpaved and we bounce along over potholes in the dirt roads. On the way through the smog and haze of the city, we hear a cacophony of honking horns.  Colorful figures wrapped in yak’s wool blankets move through the darkening sky under neon lights; some sit tending ramshackle shops or hunched over baskets of cabbages and tomatos.  Cars, brightly painted trucks and hordes of motorbikes clog the roads.   The city reminds me of many poor cities, but especially Delhi, Hanoi and Addis Ababa.

I ask Layla about her plans.  She’s young and from Britain, and she’ll be in Nepal through June teaching at a school in a hill village.  In the airport earlier, I had spoken to a young French girl who was heading to Nepal for a month.  My first thought when talking to these people was, What would one do in Nepal for a month?  And how do these young people afford to do this?  Layla tells me she is teaching as a volunteer but all her expenses will be paid and she’ll be provided with a home and food.  While staying in Kathmandu, she’s renting a room at Kathmandu Guest House for $8 a night.  My room is $50 a night.  It turns out I get a lot more amenities than she does for her $8, and I’m glad for those.

sitting in the restaurant getting ready to eat after enjoying a glass of wine

sitting in the restaurant getting ready to eat after enjoying a glass of wine

Though I’ve booked a garden facing room for $5o a night, it turns out that there is no such room available.  They have one non-garden facing room that still needs to be cleaned and one that faces the garden, with 3 beds, for $60 a night.  Since they confirmed the room I booked, I say that I shouldn’t have to pay more for what is basically their mistake.  Finally, they agree to give me the three-bed garden-facing room for the same price at which they confirmed.

I head directly to the garden restaurant for a glass of wine and some dinner.  It’s quite cold, but I sit strategically under a heat lamp to keep somewhat warm.  I order fish tikka and some garlic naan, all delicious.

fish tikka and garlic naan :-)

fish tikka and garlic naan 🙂

During dinner, I chat with a friendly couple from Holland.  They recommend several places to me, especially Bhaktapur and Pokhara.  They tell me that tomorrow morning, they’ll be heading up to Swayambhu, otherwise known as the Monkey Temple.  Then they will be returning to Holland.  Prior to coming to Nepal, they spent 3 weeks in India; they said, as many people before me have said, that India was a hardship and they like Nepal a lot better.

anyone like a ride through the streets of Thamel?

anyone like a ride through the streets of Thamel?

After dinner, I wander out into the streets of Thamel, where there are lots of Chinese and Korean tourists mingling with the Nepalis.  And there are the expected Western tourists wearing their colorful woolen hats with ear flaps & tassels.  Sometimes their hair is dyed platinum or hot pink or matted in dreadlocks.  Sometimes their hair is just clipped up to their heads in a razzmatazz way.  Either way, I don’t think I have to worry about what my hair looks like here, as everyone looks a mess!

colorful shops in Thamel

colorful shops in Thamel

carpets and textiles for sale

carpets and textiles for sale

colorful ornaments

colorful ornaments

embroidered bags

embroidered bags

I wander past shops selling singing bowls, thanka paintings, brass Buddhas and Hindu deities, pashminas, jewelry, Nepali crafts, embroidered handbags, books, maps, guidebooks, meditation and chanting CDs, carpets, scarves, and knock-off trekking gear.  I hear the Tibetan Incantations that Mona Lisa sent me the link to before I came; I buy the CD from a shopkeeper for 250 rupees ($2.91).  Other shops offer every kind of thing a tourist could ever want: money exchange, internet, SIM cards, photo printing, trekking, bicycling or rafting trips. This is the place of dreams; whatever dream you have, these vendors can supply.  I wonder: can they give me the answers to my problems, the dilemmas of my life?

can someone find the answers to my dreams?

can someone find the answers to my dreams?

kathmandu, i’ll soon be touchin’ you

Wednesday, January 16:

Katmandu, I’ll soon be touchin’ you
And your strange bewilderin’ time
Will hold me down

~ Cat Stevens: “Katmandu”

The day after my boys left Oman, on Saturday, January 12, the University of Nizwa finally announced that IF we worked REALLY hard invigilating final exams and marking papers during this week, we would get a semester break from January 17-25.  I have been waiting for this announcement and was about to give up hope that we would get a break at all.   I had researched 6 places I was thinking about going if we got a chance to escape: Sri Lanka, Prague, Kathmandu, Casablanca, Beirut and Zanzibar.  When it came to decision time, Kathmandu had the best price, the shortest flight, and the promise of cool, but not freezing, weather.  So, on Sunday, I booked a ticket to Nepal for 166 Omani Rials ($432).  I fly out tomorrow at 12:45 p.m.

I recently read one of Pico Iyer’s travel essays from Video Night in Kathmandu: Nepal: The Quest Becomes a Trek, which, inspired me to visit Nepal, much as his Lady and the Monk inspired me to visit Kyoto, Japan in January 2011.

My colleague, Mona Lisa, spent several months in Nepal and loved it.  She highly recommended the Kathmandu Guest House (Kathmandu Guest House), so I promptly arranged to stay there.  I downloaded to my Kindle the Rough Guide to Nepal and Lonely Planet Nepal and started reading.  I have not had time to do any planning, but Mona Lisa stocked me up with trekking essentials (which I’m not sure I’ll use since I don’t plan to do any long overnight treks), a city map, a walking stick, and miscellaneous other essentials.  She also sent me the link to some Tibetan incantations, music that will soothe my soul in Kathmandu, music that she says I will hear everywhere on the capital’s streets, music that captures the soul of the place.

Another colleague, Zida, told me she hated Kathmandu because of the filth, pollution and chaos, but she highly recommended Pokhara, which she says is stunning.  I think the Kathmandu Guest House will help me book a flight to Pokhara, home of Phewa Lake, Mt. Machhapuchhare and Annapurna.

I really have no plan and have no idea what to expect.  I hope to bring home lots of pictures.  Stay tuned!