The Beauty of Kathmandu

We spent our final 3 days of Nepal in the Kathmandu valley.  Amid beauty, pollution, serenity and squalor.  We have 3 other blog entries from our time around Pokhara that we would normally sequence first.  But at risk of overwhelming with photos, I wanted to share with you some images of the beautiful side of Kathmandu before the quake hit.  We know you’re seeing lots of the destroyed Kathmandu in the news.

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Our trip back to Kathmandu from Pokhara was so much more pleasant than the trip to Pokhara.  The sun was shining, we were again on the correct side of the bus for river viewing, and mostly, Jake wasn’t throwing up.

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The morning weather provided us one final view of the Annapurna range as we left Pokhara.

As you approach within 1 hour of Kathmandu from Pokhara you begin to climb out of the deep river valley.  The sheer drops down to the river and the ubiquitous steep slopes take on new meaning now as rescue crews try to navigate to the outlying villages through landslides and instability.

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The switch-backing highway was actually jammed with busses and minivans - carrying tourists and locals.
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This bad photo has a police officer waving good bye to our bus as we approach Kathmandu. He stopped the bus and came on to tell us that since the New Year (April 14th this year .... Hindu calendar is different) Kathmandu had banned plastic shopping bags. Who'd a thunk?! He asked anyone on the bus with plastic bags to hand them over. In markets the next few days we had to remind some sheepish looking vendors that they shouldn't be offering us food in plastic bags. "No problem", they would say.

Kathmandu suffers from high levels of pollution – especially air pollution.

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We are on the outskirts of the city but can't see the buildings for the smog.
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Face masks are ubiquitous. Probably 1/3 of the population in the street has them on.

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Traffic in Kathmandu is oppressive and overwhelming ... even compared to all other crazy traffic we've experienced this year. There are virtually no stoplights or stop signs - it is traffic anarchy. Be uber aggressive, and honk to warn others of your aggressiveness. Somehow it sort of works. But imagine the free for all at an intersection of 6 busy roads! Then look at this photo and see that cars and motorcycles will drive down any tiny street with horn going, regardless of how crowded it may be with pedestrians. It rather commands your attention as pedestrian. I can't imagine being a driver!

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These little 3 wheelers are popular public transit but are slowly being phased out. I believe it is for the same reason 3 wheeler ATVs were banned in Canada - they flip over too easy.

We took the local buses around but they creep, amidst the crazy traffic.  Face masks are a must, and we bought and wore them. I just couldn’t imagine commuting amidst this every day.  But of course, you do what you need to do.

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😦

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Solar lighting at one of the many bus stations.

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Fruit by bike is popular in Nepal.
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This recycling vehicle looks a little different from the ones in Peterborough!

We spent our first few days of Nepal in the tourist Thamel area of Kathmandu.  During these final three days we visited two of the cultural districts just east of Kathmandu – the Buddhist “stupa” (round temple) of Boudhanath and the ancient city of Bhaktapur.

Boudhanath is the largest Buddhist temple in Asia.  It is simply awesome. 

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Built about 1500 years ago, it was traditionally a stopping point for traders coming to/from Lhasa in Tibet.  It is still a very important Buddhist center.  Buddhist monasteries surround the stupa and there are many educational workshops (meditation, thangka painting) for Buddhists and tourists alike.  The monks are easily recognized by their maroon gowns with gold ornamentation.  Most of them apparently are Tibetan refugees from the Chinese invasion/occupation who started arriving around 1959.

A number of music CD shops surround the stupa, and many of them pipe out the Buddhist mantra “Om mani padme hum”.  It became embedded in our consciousness.  To help get in the spirit of Boudanath and Bhaktapur,  click here to load the chant in the background while you read. 

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Did any of you notice that everyone is walking in the same direction? You only walk clockwise. And monks and other Buddhists come here by the hundreds to walk circles around the stupa.

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Here we arriving at the Stupa. Our guest house was just 50m to the right, but we joined the "pilgrims" and walked a lap to our turnoff.
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The Buddha's eyes are a very important symbol. For Buddhists, of course and for makers of tourist paraphernalia near the stupa. You'll see in Kaia's next blog that I succumbed to the draw of Buddha's eyes in a t-shirt purchase.

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These prayer wheels surround the stupa ... hundreds of them. They too are spun only clockwise.
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Some prayer wheels are bigger than others.
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Pine and cedar mix incense was burning all around the stupa. I LOVE this smell and it is now etched in my mind.

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This monk was doing a series of "prostrations" - down on the knees with hands out front on ground, then up like this. It is a form of meditation that also takes care of the heart.
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Pidgins are actually revered here ... and fed!

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So sadly, many monks feel compelled to wear masks.
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This temple is across the street from the stupa.
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Monks reciting texts recorded on long narrow strips of paper.
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The activity around the stupa continues into the evening.
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I'm not sure that I like the neon light effect. They lit the stupa up for 2 days to celebrate Hindu mother's day.

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We discovered "singing" bowls during one of our earlier meditation sessions. The solid colour ones are hand crafted by monks as a form of meditation (read "it takes a really long time"). The coloured ones are machine made. When you rub the wooden stick around the bowl in a circular pattern, the bowl literally starts to hum (sing). They are addictive to play with, and if done the right way they make a gorgeous relaxing sound. Done too loud or abrasively, they sound like fingernails on chalkboard. We bought one ... come to our house later to play with it if you like 🙂

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Boudhanath is a well known spot for “thangkas”.  At a basic level, thangkas  are phenomenally detailed paintings done on cotton by monks.  But they represent much more than art.  It takes anywhere from a week to a month of continuous work to complete one (sitting 8 or more hours per day) and this represents a form of meditation.  Thangkas most often are done in one of two forms; the circle of life, and the circle of time.  Both of these representations follow established forms, and represent many important Buddhist teachings.  We went into one of the centers where Buddhists are trained in the art form, and saw the progression of talent from beginner to intermediate to advanced to master.  We had no intention of making a purchase but were so taken with the stories and details represented that we bought one.  The money goes to the school and monasteries for general use; the monk/artist receives nothing directly as a result of a sale and does not, in my understanding, do it as a commercial activity.

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We watched this artist work. What a steady hand. And patience. And commitment!

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This is our purchase - a representation of the "circle of time". Click on the image to fully appreciate the level of detail. Much of the painting is done with a brush that has a single horse hair!

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This thangka is of the form "circle of life". Each graphic tells a story. Again, click to enlarge to appreciate the detail.

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We really enjoyed soaking in the atmosphere of Boudhanath for a couple days.  There were some fantastic roof-top cafe’s that overlooked the stupa, and we found some very cheap, tasty local eating spots. 
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Our guesthouse was on the higher side of our budget but accommodation is a premium here, with so much interest from monks and tourists.

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This is the view from the top of our guesthouse. Immediately in the foreground is monk residence. They would stream out in the morning, on their way to workshops, monasteries or to walk around the stupa.

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Many of the monks looked between 10 and 20 years old.

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This guy is hanging out on the monk residence. I can recall as a little boy being confused by the two words "monk" and "monkey". I thought they were sort of the same thing 🙂
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The sun sets on Kathmandu, as seen from our rooftop.
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Our favorite little local restaurant for eating momos.
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We bought some Nepali pepper here so we could make the chutney for momos at home.

I was happy to learn that the Boudhanath stupa itself survived the earthquake, and suffered only some cracks to the spire.  The Buddha still looks out across Kathmandu.  Buildings around the stupa were however heavily damaged.

We spent our last full day in Nepal in the ancient city of Bhaktapur.  Bhaktapur was the capital of the kingdom of Nepal up to the 1500s and it represents the best preserved (until last week 😦   ) ancient architecture of Nepal.  UNESCO designated the city as a world heritage site because of its buildings, wood and steel carvings and especially its temples.

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I grabbed this photo from the net. We couldn't see the mountains during our visit because of the smog.

Although the city is also popular for tourists, it is a fantastically alive, vibrant city of 300,000.  We wandered the narrow streets, contemplated the temples, marveled at the carving, soaked in the music, enjoyed the momos, sipped coffee, and enjoyed the renowned Bhaktapur curd (yoghourt).  Hopefully the photos below convey a sense of the city’s vibrancy.

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momos for lunch

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momos for snack.

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I spent a lot of time soaking in the ethereal sounds of Tibetan and Nepali music. Kathmandu has a thriving homegrown music scene and all sorts of fusion sounds are emerging. I have a few new CDs for my world music collection! You can listen to one of these (traditional) CDs at https://youtu.be/KpraoWWzNBY The first track holds some significance for us: Journey to Annapurna Base Camp

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Bhaktipur curd is famous, and the authentic version is served in these little clay pots. Yvonne has recollections of being served Bhaktipur curd by her friend Heidi in Switzerland!

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Bhaktapur is also well known for its profusion of sweet street treats. We sampled. Heavily 🙂
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tapestries

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A Srivasta ("endless knot") wood carving.

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I was surprised to learn that the Nazi swastika was adapted from the ancient Buddhist symbol. I couldn't help but be taken aback when I saw these doors.

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Coffee shop perch over one of the many squares that are surrounded by temples.

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Bhaktapur was breathtaking. But it was devastated in the earthquake. Apparently more than 50% of the buildings were destroyed. 80% of the many temples were destroyed. I don’t know the status of the temple 3 photos ago, but can guess. But I do know the status of the stone temple in the middle of my photo above. Look below.
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I know many of these very sad before and after photos are surfacing in the media. We spent a few hours on our 2nd day in Nepal hanging out at Kathmandu’s Durbar square.
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I take some comfort from knowing how strong Nepalis’ Hindu and Buddhist beliefs are. I read the Dalai Lama’s autobiography during my last week in Nepal and Kaia is reading now. We soaked in some of the Buddhist thoughts during our last several days in Nepal. They are compassionate people that will take care of each other. I saw the t-shirt below in one of the tourist shops that surrounded the Boudanath stupa.

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I will leave you with my favorite photo from Nepal. This little girl came running out of her house to greet me as I was finishing my solo trek to Mardi Himal.

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Namaste.

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Cam

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