Kathmandu: July 1992

In memoriam Kathmandu

In April 2015 an earthquake of magnitude 7.8 devastated Nepal and its historic capital, Kathmandu, killing close to 9000 people. A series of aftershocks caused further destruction to a nation poorly equipped to deal with a disaster of this order. Kathmandu has changed forever. The following is a largely unedited account from my travel journal of an all too brief stay in Kathmandu in July 1992.

 

Kathmandu 1992

We were on our way to Hong Kong for the second time and had decided this time to travel by Air Nepal and have a week’s stopover in Kathmandu. Landing there is apparently a bit tricky—the planes are necessarily small—and we were advised to travel to Nepal by the state airline as the pilots are used to it. No further advice was necessary.

The flight—via Frankfurt (1hr stop after 1hr flying), then on to Dubai (1hr stop after 6hrs flying)—was reasonably comfortable. A 757 sans any entertainment (except that provided by the eccentricities of some of the other passengers) but with excellent vegetarian meals which, though unordered, were provided without a quibble and with a smile. Good Indian/Nepalese food. While Frankfurt was closed, Dubai, on the other hand was another tale. Stepping out of the plane into the sun, the immediate effect was that of walking into a sauna. The temperature was well over 30C (this at 7am) and the air was textured. One could feel it between one’s fingers like a membrane. The duty free shop, advertised as the best in the world, was like a department store on a single marble-lined and floored storey. It had almost every luxury item imaginable plus one or two beyond my imaginative capabilities. A Ferrari 348, a BMW so exotic I had no idea which model it was, both displayed on plinths. How to get one of these home from the middle of the desert? Not a problem I suppose if you could afford to buy one in the first place. On to Kathmandu.

Our first sight of Nepal as we descended from the brilliant blue sky towards the carpet of clouds below was the snow-mantled summits of the highest mountains in the world.

The disarming serenity of this view left us unprepared for the chaos and tumult of Kathmandu airport. The baggage reclaim gave no indication of where our luggage was to appear and the customs check was surrounded by heaps of suitcases, bags, boxes, packages of all sizes and even rolled-up mattresses, from all corners of the sub-continent. ‘Helpful’—i.e. pushy—porters grabbed our cases when they eventually arrived and manhandled them over the other piles towards the customs desk most likely to be free next. We were separated briefly in this scrum and reunited over our suitcase which was by then being searched (without any apparent system) by a customs official. It took 3 different porters (all expecting tips in sterling) to negotiate the customs, the bank and, eventually, a taxi to the Kathmandu Guest House, where we’d reserve a room. The traffic on the way—rickshaws, bikes (motor and push), taxis, buses, 3 wheeled vehicles of various kinds (tuk-tuks, I think they’re called) carrying people, produce and livestock—was tumultuous. The chief hazard, greater even that errant pedestrians, was cows. Principally a Hindu country, it means that cows wander untrammelled amid the traffic and often sleep in the middle of main roads. If they block the road the traffic has to wait as cows must be left to move in their own time.

The culture shock of Kathmandu was an enriching and bewildering experience. I’d had no idea of the variety, colour, clamour, poverty and the sheer medievalism of parts (the largest parts) of the city.

In comparison to all this the Kathmandu Guest House, when we eventually arrived there, was a refuge of peace and tranquillity. We have a 3rd floor room overlooking the garden. It has a bathroom with a huge shower, a balcony and it was altogether much more spacious and comfortable than I’d imagined for $20 per night. Apparently the Beatles stayed here on one of their trips here (to see the Maharishi, I think).

The weather was hot, humid, and the air was still. We walked the streets in the early evening and sought out as many of the places we could find mentioned in our guide book. The Tibetan restaurant immediately in front of the Guest House looked a good place to eat for a start and after a drink or two and a good wash, that’s where we headed at around 8.30pm. We had a selection of the dishes from the Tibetan section of the menu—there were also Chinese, American and European dishes on offer—and it was very good indeed. Noodles (rice and wheat), egg fried rice with vegetables, plain rice, Tibetan dumplings (called momo), vegetable curry and thanka (a vegetable dish), beer and water all cost us 220 rupees (a little over £2). Many of the restaurants and cafes advertise that all water (drinking, cooking, washing salad and vegetables) has been treated. This means there is a faint smell of chlorine, not too intrusive but rather reassuring.

A hot night made sleep hard and was interrupted at around 2.00am by a welcome cool wind and then a calmness during which the temperature dropped to a very comfortable level. This was followed by a tropical downpour. I’ve never experienced rain like it; vertical, thudding on the ground through the still air, it made sleep almost impossible and somehow unnecessary. I lay awake and almost as refreshed as I would have been standing in it. I did drift off and when I awoke and looked out of the window there was no trace of rain.

7.7.92: day 2
Today we walked to Mike’s Breakfast Place, recommended in the guide book. Mike is an expatriate American who’s been in Kathmandu for some time, I suspect from the days of the ‘Hippie trail’, Kathmandu being one of the chief destinations owing, no doubt, to the plentiful supply of high grade dope. I could be maligning him, though. We had a wonderful breakfast that cost us 200 rupees again (the meals all seem to cost 100 rupees each). This set us up well for the walk into the centre of this teeming city.

Durbar Square with its Hindu temples, shrines and stupas was a genuine assault on the senses. The walk back through the chowk and the streets and markets where the locals shop, towards Thamel, where the Guest House is and is the main tourist area, showed us the vivid difference in character between these two areas of the city.

In a central location not far from Durbar Square is the hospital. In fact it is housed in several buildings on either side of a busy square. As we were walking past there was a small commotion amongst the traffic. Then we realised that a patient on a trolley was being brought from one side of the road to the other, through the chaos of tuk-tuks, rickshaws, taxis and other vehicles.

The religious life of the city (and, one presumes of the country as a whole) is vibrant and all around. Predominantly Hindu but with a strong Buddhist presence (mainly Tibetan as it is home to many refugees fleeing the Chinese occupation of their country), there are temples, shrines of all sizes, stupas, monasteries; some combining the Hindu and the Buddhist on the same site.

8.7.92: day 3
We walked out of the city to the stupa called Swayambhuna, high on a hill up a long steep flight of stone steps, which we climbed in the afternoon heat. It is, in fact, a spectacular arrangement of several stupas of varying sizes around a central large stupa with a commanding view over the city. There is a temple there from which we could hear the drums and cymbals as a ceremony (or puja) was under way into which one could go to light a candle (for a small donation). There was a colony of monkeys living in the trees on the hillside. When we stopped for a breather we heard a kind of bark/shriek which I thought was perhaps a dog. Then I saw a monkey running down the hillside and in trying to get a shot at it with my camera I saw that another had been sitting quietly in a tree about 2’ above my head. Suddenly there were a dozen or so more scampering among the trees and rocks. We hadn’t known about them in advance and, even to someone not known as an animal lover, they were charming. On consulting the guide book afterwards we learnt that they are far from charming and can be dangerous.

As usual when visiting any tourist attraction, particularly a religious one, one has to run the gauntlet of beggars seeking alms and others selling knick-knacks, incense and various other votive items. Previous pilgrims (though I hesitate to describe myself as one) had carved inscriptions on the rocks lining the path/steps. The guide book claims the stupa is a 3000 year old Buddhist site of great importance. The only quarrel I have with this assertion is that Gautama Buddha was born (in Nepal) in 624 BCE. I presume the site was Hindu first and, indeed, some of the carved figures part way up to the summit looked like Garudas.

The part of Kathmandu we walked through to and from Swayambhuna was fairly tourist free in the sense that there were no rickshaws, souvenir shops or touts, consequently, one could see ordinary citizens going about their daily business.

9.7.92: day 4.
We decided that today we’d hire mountain bikes to ride to the other main stupa called Bodnath (or Boudha or Bandareth) some 13k outside the city near an old settlement called Chabahil, now a suburb. After a circuitous ride during which we got lost and we tried to consult locals with our map to establish where we were. Though friendly, willing and (they imagined) helpful, they were in fact hopeless. As it turned out they had little idea what a map was, nevertheless, we eventually found the ring road. We followed this—a pleasant ride past paddy fields and other rural enterprises—till we hit Chabahil and then Bodinath. Not a rural or hilltop site as I’d imagined (perhaps because of Swayambhuna) but right in the middle of a suburban area. One had to go through an archway between two shops and into the most spectacular amphitheatre-like stupa. We only realised we were near it when we saw so many Tibetans in familiar maroon/yellow habits.

The stupa was surrounded by shops, monasteries and houses and the place is clearly an important Tibetan centre. The stupa itself has an arrangement of prayer wheels all around its circumference and there are hundreds of prayer flags raised by the devout and strung between several flagpoles. The central gold covered boss of the stupa raises itself impressively and is topped by a dorje. There are other smaller stupas within the outer enclosing wall (which houses the prayer wheels). When viewed from above, apparently, the whole stupa has the appearance of a mandala.

As usual at these religious sites there is no shortage of beggars and others selling all kinds of tat. However, there were also some genuine, highly crafted artefacts, which we reluctantly resisted. Handicapped by not knowing what to do with our bikes we missed a visit to the monastery in which there is a particularly beautiful Buddha. I’m always struck—and I hope I’m not being ungenerous—by how well fed and healthy the Tibetans look compared to most of the Nepalese. They all carry rather full leather wallets and often wear natty loafers or popular brands of tennis shoes.

The ride back by a different route started well. We had intended to return via Mike’s, its being now a latish lunch time. However, as we approached the city centre a few drops of rain falling from an increasingly darkening sky turned rapidly into a full scale tropical downpour from which any thoughts of sheltering had to be put on one side. We stood with our bikes under a tree on the Durbar Marg laughing and shivering as we were soaked to the skin for about 15mins, along with some Nepalese youngsters who were clearly amused by our response and similarly soaked. Some of them sought shelter by lying, giggling under a bus which had come to a halt, its wipers being unable to clear the screen. The road quickly became awash and we resolved that, as we couldn’t get any wetter, we’d head towards the KGH on the pavement. Regrettably we missed Mike’s. The rain had eased by the time we got back and we parked and locked the bikes up and had a long hot shower.

10.7.92: day 5
The plan for today—our last full day—was to do the necessary shopping and eat in the places we particularly relished. A light breakfast of toast, jam, buffalo milk butter (distinctive), and tea made by adding a large lump of bruised ginger to ordinary tea. Lunch at Mike’s: huevos rancheros – fried eggs on cornbread with refried, beans all smothered in a pepper and tomato salsa. Supper at the Tibetan restaurant. Between these latter two meals I bought two thankas from a dealer (a Hindu from Kashmir) for a good price – good for both of us I suspect. Though not exceptional pieces they were appealing, one of them being considerably better painted than the other. He explained that there is little resentment of the Tibetans within the Nepalese community as they (the Tibetans) make carpets, jewellery and thankas, which doesn’t affect the livelihoods of the indigenous population. The Indians (like him) merely act as the middlemen, organising and taking a fair profit. At least it sounds harmonious. I bought J two pairs of silver and semi-precious stone earrings and a silver bracelet (yup, all made by Tibetans) all for around £20.

This was budget day in Nepal, which explained the fact that almost every shop, bar or restaurant had a portable radio around which were gathered crowds of impressively interested citizens.

11.7.92: final day
Awoke early aiming to get a taxi to the airport by 8.30am (our check-in time) after breakfast in the garden. We realised that little other than a large dose of clinical grade stimulant would fortify us for the ordeal that the airport porters and baggage check would represent. In fact the only defence at our disposal was a sense of humour which we both managed to mobilise to full effect and eventually we reached the air-conditioned calm of the departure lounge.

I found myself sitting next to a Tibetan monk who engaged me in conversation. He spoke very good English and it turns out that he’d been to Samyeling several times and knew Akong very well. Coincidence or what? He hadn’t known Thungpa other than by reputation and was rather disapproving of what happened after Thungpa went to the USA. He was returning to his monastery in Tibet and—rather to my surprise—he said he had experienced no difficulty in travelling to and from Tibet, which he did on a regular basis.

On to Hong Kong.

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