Nepal

Death, life, and wandering in Kathmandu

On the drive to our first destination, Bipin shared snippets of history about Nepal. We all sat in the van, separated into our groups, and listened intently to the story of the royal massacre.

In June 2001, the heir to the Nepalese throne, Prince Dipendra, shot his family members in a drunken rage: his victims included his father, King Birendra. Ten people, including Prince Dipendra, ended up dying, though the official story, and Prince Dipendra’s involvement, is considered controversial.

Over the next few years the nation was fraught with political strife. It descended into chaos, with protests, bombings, necessary peace talks, and the eventual abolition of the monarchy. As recently as September of last year, three months before we sat in the van listening to Bipin, there were protests over the new constitution.

Additionally, beginning in September, a major fuel blockade has severely crippled Nepal. According to some sources, the blockade is India’s way of forcing Nepal to make changes to its new constitution. Others say it’s because of members of lower castes in Nepal.

No matter the cause, Nepal relies on fuel from India. Previously, around 300 fuel trucks would travel from India to Nepal each day. When we were there, 5-10 fuel trucks were making the trip. And as our group traveled from one location to another, we saw long lines of cars, trucks, and commercial vehicles waiting for gas.

Vehicles lined up to get gas. Lines choked traffic, and the vehicles were often abandoned because wait times were so long.

Vehicles lined up to get gas. Lines choked traffic, and the vehicles were often abandoned because wait times were so long.

As the road widened from claustrophobic alleys near the Kathmandu Guest House to wider, manageable streets, we alternated between looking at Bipin as he taught us and catching glimpses of Kathmandu life out the windows.

We passed a tall fence with yellow signs affixed to it. “World Heritage Site” said one. “Pashupati Area Development Trust” was on the other. I was surprised when we turned in.

(Again, I wouldn’t have been surprised if I’d read the Trip Notes from Intrepid once more before arriving.)

Megh parked the van, we got out, and I immediately felt like a tourist. As a group of foreigners, we were watched by locals as we slowly walked into the open area of the heritage site. Our large cameras were another giveaway, but I shook off the feeling and started taking pictures of everything I wanted to remember: the nearly dry riverbed, the piles of trash, and the small bonfires burning across the bank from us. Ahead was a complex with a temple. Bipin called us into a circle.

Pashupatinath

We were at Pashupatinath Temple, a Hindu site dedicated to the god Shiva, and the Bagmati River in front of it would eventually join the Ganges. Elderly men and women from across Nepal and India go to Pashupatinath to die, then be cremated along the river.

The small bonfires I’d noticed were cremations. At this realization, I quickly let my camera fall against my chest. Bipin had asked us earlier to respect the dead and their families and refrain from taking pictures of bodies being cremated.

Pashupatinath Temple

They were wrapped, and the only indication they were the dead was the crying family surrounding the pyre. But the sight jarred me. And the wails from grieving family members got to me.

We continued along the bank, learning more about the site. At one point, across from the main part of the temple, Bipin gave us some time to wander around and take in the area. My first thought was that I needed to just sit.

Bagmati River, Pashupati

I needed to respect what was unfolding across the river. And I needed to let my mind settle after being shocked by the cremations. The shock came from a sudden awareness of my own mortality, and from the sadness emanating from the families.

Photo thanks to Sylvie

Photo thanks to Sylvie

A while later we all congregated to learn more about the Hindu god Shiva and the significance of the small buildings around us.

Photo thanks to Chloe

Photo thanks to Tasha

Bipin gave us ample time to look around, take pictures, and ask questions.

Pashupati man birds

We headed farther up the hill, where there were benches and a good vantage point for the proceedings on the river’s banks and at the temple. We saw some tourists taking video of the cremations.

(“Hey guys! Want to see my awesome vacation video of a buncha people wailing and mourning and cremating their loved ones?” Come on, tourists. Have some respect.)

Looking down the hill toward Pashupatinath Temple

Looking down the hill toward Pashupatinath Temple complex (to the right, gold roof)

We continued up the hill. We foreigners spread out and slowly made our way up the stairs, and Bipin bounded up and down the stairs to answer questions from those farther ahead and those down below.

The Nepalese could probably give Kenyans some stiff competition in marathons.

Pashupatinath treeOver the top of the hill, after passing more religious pagodas and small temples, we met some monkeys, got a great view of more of Kathmandu, and then started down the hill toward the waiting van. Megh had driven to the other side of the site to pick us up.

MONKEY

Kathmandu

Our next destination was Boudhanath Stupa, a Buddhist site. The stupa is large and surrounded by connected, multi-storied buildings.

The facade of a building facing the stupa

The facade of a building facing the stupa

It’s being rebuilt, as the earthquakes caused quite a bit of damage, especially to the top.

Boudhanath Stupa

Near the entrance Bipin corralled us for a while to tell us about Boudhanath and its significance, then told us to meet him after we’d had a chance to walk around the stupa.

monks at boudhanath

We all circled the base, then joined Bipin at the Buddhist Thanka Centre: School of Thanka Painting. There we learned about mandalas: their history, the art of painting them, and how they relate to Buddhism.

Mandalas are stacked geometric designs that represent the universe. Boudhanath itself, from above, is a mandala. Most, if not all stupas, are built as mandalas. Traditionally, mandalas are meant to be created, either with paint or sand, with dedication and many hours (thousands, and years if you include all the training) spent in their creation.

However, the purpose of a mandala is to represent that nothing is permanent, and once it has been completed, it’s supposed to be destroyed.

It’s a metaphor for life. And the metaphor, just like the mandalas, is beautiful.

mandala

(Color photo here.)

Lunch was on the roof of the restaurant next door to the centre, and several of us enjoyed our first taste of mo mo, the Nepalese version of dumplings. This was our first chance to sit as a group and get to know each other a little better, and Sylvie and I had everyone convinced we’d been friends before the trip because our humor was so similar. During lunch we were entertained by a Buddhist prayer, punctuated by sighs and the speaker clearing his throat, recited over loudspeakers at the stupa.

I asked Bipin if I could return to the centre after lunch so I could buy a mandala. Wendy, Joel, and I went together and talked for a long time with the staff there, and Wendy and I both bought beautiful mandalas, with the proceeds going directly to the school.

men painting mandalas

The others were waiting downstairs when we finished, and we got back into the van. Our afternoon was free, and once we returned to the Kathmandu Guest House, each group went off on their own adventure.

Because of the fuel crisis, many public vehicles allow riders on the roof so more people can ride in fewer vehicles.

Because of the fuel crisis, public transportation allows riders on the roof so more people can ride.

Sylvie and I quickly agreed that we wanted to walk around the area, and we ended up threading through alleys, roads, and dead-ends as we explored.

wandering around Kathmandu

Until dusk we were lost, enjoying getting to know the area and people watching.

rickshaws

“Do we know where we are?” I asked Sylvie.

“Does it matter?” She shrugged and continued walking.

There was graffiti around the city, including this mural

There was graffiti around the city, including this mural

That was the beauty of the afternoon, and of the trip. We were safe and free to get to know Nepal on our own terms. The majority of us were comfortable travelers — respectful of the culture, willing to go outside our comfort zones, and flexible.

Approaching a building heavily damaged by the earthquake

Approaching a building heavily damaged by the earthquake

Over dinner at a restaurant next to the guest house, Sylvie and I got to know each other. I had chicken tikka masala, we shared garlic naan, and we enjoyed a hearty meal for a relatively cheap price. There were a number of other foreigners there, both male and female, some traveling solo.

We made our way back to our room just after dark. Sylvie lay down to read, and I decided to take a “quick nap” before writing in my journal. Curled under the covers and warm, I never made it back out of bed. I barely woke up again before my alarm went off around 5am.

I was joining Wendy, Nick, and Sian the next morning on a flight to see Everest, and we were leaving before the sun would come up.

Nepal: The Cast of Characters

After my shower the next morning, I felt like a new woman. Sylvie and I headed downstairs and went to the small breakfast buffet, where they served Western foods like scrambled eggs, pancakes, and small boxes of cereal. We sat alone, chatting and people watching. The room held 50 people or so, and it was about half full with foreigners dressed in various cold weather gear.

A peephole window on the landing between the fourth and fifth floors of the Kathmandu Guest House

A peephole window between the fourth and fifth floors of the Kathmandu Guest House

Before we left she walked me to different tables and introduced me to some of the others in our group: David and Andrew, two Australians who were probably in their forties, were quietly sitting at one table. Four more Australians sat near them – Wendy, Joel, Julez, and Erin were a group of friends just a bit younger than I am. Sylvie and I were anxious to get in a bit of exploring before I met with Pippin, so we bid farewell to the others and set off.

street near KGH

I walked with a bounce in my step. The sun was shining and the blue sky was a welcome sight, and the temperature was cool, but comfortable. I could feel it – a familiar, slight smile that stayed on my face throughout the morning. My face reacted to the energy I felt – adventures and a new country to explore were laid in front of me, and I felt alive. Awake. All the anxiety from the previous evening had completely dissipated.

We walked to a small, open-air bookstore and spent some time checking out maps of the Kathmandu Valley. I couldn’t buy one until I bested an ATM, but we found a good map that Sylvie bought and I planned to get later.

bookstore

Continuing on, we retried the ATM from the night before. It refused both Sylvie’s and my cards. We decided to find an actual bank and continued our slow, exploratory walk down the road.

The area of Kathmandu we were in felt completely different in the light. The roads we walked on were rough and lined with multi-storied, low-key buildings that seemed to lean into the narrow streets.

Kathmandu street

On our way back to the Kathmandu Guest House, we found a bank of four ATM machines in a narrow room up a few stairs from the road. Other foreigners were happily pulling cash, and we all chatted as we accessed our accounts and filled our wallets. I withdrew 35,000 Nepalese rupees, which came out to $335 US.

We made it to the hotel lobby with time to spare. I was looking around, trying to spot our tall blond guide, when Sylvie called out to me.

“Mandy, this is Bipin.”

I turned to see a black-haired man who was roughly my age. For a moment I was confused, and then I realized I was an idiot: our guide wasn’t some eternally backpacking Westerner with a curiously cute name from a Broadway musical. He was a local.

(I learned later that Intrepid Travel hires trained travel guides from host countries. Smart.)

He motioned to a couch by the window, and we introduced ourselves. In clear English, like the majority of the Nepalese I’d encountered by that point, he explained what I could expect on the trip. I trusted him immediately and felt a sense of kinship with someone I’d known for five minutes.

Once we’d gone over the details, he smiled and excused himself so he could get ready for the day’s excursion. Others in our group were starting to congregate in the lobby, and Sylvie helped me meet each of them. There were 13 of us in total, including Bipin.

Andrew and David, the two Australians I’d met at breakfast, largely stayed to themselves during the trip. They often wandered off and did their own thing, sometimes skipping meals with the group and eating separately. Bipin was careful to make sure they were included as often as they wanted to be, but for the most part, the remaining 10 of us spent the most time together.

Nepal travel family

Clockwise-ish starting with the standing man in the gray jacket: the manager of the Famous Farm, Sylvie (in orange), Tasha, Chloe, Sian, Nick, Joel (throwing his best Blue Steel pose), Wendy (white scarf), three Famous Farm staff members, Erin (brown pants), Julez, me, and Bipin

Sylvie, my roommate, was a Canadian who lived and worked in Morocco as a teacher. She’s a voracious reader – I think she read six books during our ten-day trip – and casually dignified, with an adventurous spirit and quick wit. I had a lot of fun rooming with her.

The four other Australians I’d met at breakfast consisted of Julez and Joel, siblings of Filipino descent; Erin, Julez’s girlfriend; and Wendy, Julez’s friend. Julez was the most Australian Australian I’ve ever met, and was chill and very comfortable in her own skin. Joel was her younger brother, a naturally bright college (“uni”) student who, despite making duckfaces in his pictures, was always ready to laugh. Erin was a happy blonde who joined the group on her first-ever visit outside of Australia, which she handled with grace. Wendy was a spunky woman with a contagious laugh whose husband, regrettably, stayed home.

The siblings (Joel and Julez) with their selfie sticks. Say what you want about selfie sticks - they came in really handy on this trip.

The siblings (Joel and Julez) with their selfie sticks. Say what you want about selfie sticks – they came in really handy on this trip.

As the group assembled, I also met two New Zealanders, a married couple named Nick and Sian.

“How do you pronounce it? Shawn?”

“No, like ‘Shan’.”

“Wait… how do you spell that?”

Nick and Sian are Intrepid Travel regulars, a very thoughtful, fun couple. He had a camera around his neck like me, and his pictures from the trip are captivating.

I don't remember what they were looking at, but I love how confused they all look.

I don’t remember what they were looking at, but I love how they’re all obviously concentrating on something very important. (Julez, Joel, Erin, Nick)

Soon two Brits, Chloe and Natasha, came into the lobby. They’re friends who act like sisters, and even in their twenties they give off a air of grace and poise. Their proper manners made it all the funnier when Tasha talked smack during games.

Once we’d all arrived, Bipin corralled us into a waiting 13-passenger van. He sat shotgun, with a wide console between him and our quiet, reliable driver, Megh.

driving

During our drives Bipin often turned around and told us stories and jokes. He’d also share the history of Nepal and our destination, sprinkling in personal anecdotes that made the country feel more like a place where people lived, and not just a place where people climbed mountains. On longer drives, when most of the foreigners were sleeping, he’d turn and check on everyone, smiling at those of us who were still awake. A surefooted guide, Bipin quickly became a good friend. He was our teacher and leader, whip-smart like Joel, a skilled photographer like Nick, and witty like Sylvie.

All eleven of us loved to laugh. With Bipin as our guide, over the course of nine days we became a family. And our family was currently loaded into a plain white van and on its way to our first destination: Pashupati.

Nepal van

And then I was in Kathmandu, Nepal

(All the photos in this post are terrible. But who wants to read a long post about travel and not see some pictures? So… sorry.)

I could feel the anxiety rising. After deplaning with a huge smile, I’d spent at least an hour trying to take care of my landing visa. When I was finally released to roam the country, I collected my ugly green suitcase, walked out of the tired airport, and saw the line of taxis. I’d already arranged for a ride to and from the airport, so I waved the taxi offers aside and looked for a driver holding a sign with my name on it.

I really, really wanted to select Pilgrimage.

Can I select Pilgrimage? Please?

I checked a second time to see if a driver had a sign with Intrepid Travel’s name on it.

Why had I been so determined to travel to this country without doing any research? I pulled out my trip notes. We were staying at a guest house in Kathmandu. That’s all I knew. No address. No phone number.

I looked around. It was dark – I couldn’t see stars or the moon, and it felt like the airport was the lone building for miles. More drivers came up to me, offering help in surprisingly good English.

Outside the Tribhuvan International Airport. To the right, taxis. To the left, drivers. Missing: my driver.

Outside the Tribhuvan International Airport. To the right, taxis. To the left, drivers. Missing: my driver.

“Intrepid Travel,” I said to one. The control in my voice was impressive, considering anxiety was coursing through my veins like cocaine. The man I was talking to, who was likely a few years younger than me, nodded.

“Wait. I’ll call your driver.”

I nearly hugged him.

Two men helped me, and 15 minutes later (it felt like longer, but anxiety makes everything feel like eternity) an old sedan pulled up.

“He didn’t think you were coming. So he left,” one of the men explained. I didn’t care. I had a way to get to wherever I was staying for the night. I climbed in the backseat on the right, behind the driver. Nepal follows the UK’s lead on driving rules.

And by that, I mean the side of the road you drive on; otherwise, the drive was similar to other Asian countries. There were scooters and bicycles skirting around slow vehicles, along with pedestrians tempting death, all in a very confined space that echoed with the cacophony of horns.

Or in the middle

Or they drove in the middle. Whatever worked.

A very dark, dusty, tight space.

It didn’t feel like I was in a major city. The dust kicked up and was visible only because of our headlights and those of approaching traffic. I watched the street life as we bounced down roads full of potholes and broken concrete. Each time the driver slowed, I expected to be dropped off at a sagging stoop, where I’d be faced with the reality of my situation.

I was in a third-world country still rebuilding after a series of earthquakes. I was going to spend nine days with people I’d never met touring part of this country. I was probably going to have a hyper-reactive colon and only holes in the ground at my disposal.

KTM street

The car took a couple slow, tight turns, then pulled into the large, walled-in complex of the Kathmandu Guest House.

Apparently it’s famous. I would’ve known that if I’d done my homework.

I was so grateful for the calm, welcoming entrance of the Guest House that I tipped the driver a $10 American bill. For the amount of relief I felt, I would’ve given him my first-born child.

The front desk had my name on their reservations list, and my relief compounded. A man who was smaller and older than me took my suitcase and led me to my room – up four flights of stairs and at the end of the hall. He hoisted my suitcase atop his head as we went up the stairs, and I apologized to him at every landing. With a smile and a laugh, he helped me to my room and left.

KGH

Rooms straight ahead, a restaurant on the left, and the lobby and higher-end rooms behind me.

My roommate had claimed one bed, so I sat on the second.

I sat the Traveler’s Sit: there was no more traveling to be done. I was where I needed to be. I was in the right place. Everything was okay.

Two 17-hour layovers, three flights, multiple subway and bus rides, and one ride in a car through Kathmandu doubting my decision to come, and I was happy. Tired, in desperate need of a shower, a little hungry, but happy.

Sylvie came back while I was Sitting. We happily, and somewhat guardedly, introduced ourselves, and she told me about the group. The longer we talked the more comfortable I felt, and I was glad to meet her. I heard her mention that I would meet our guide, Pippin, before the group got together for our first excursion together.

I imagined a peppy, wild-haired, blond Brit. Maybe an Australian. Tall and sinewy and a little off, but fun. I didn’t feel the need to ask how correct my assumption was because I knew I was right.

Sylvie offered to venture out with me in a quest to find an ATM and food, but I told her to relax and keep getting ready for bed. I let her know I would be back soon, quickly checked my reflection, snorted at it, and then I bounded down the stairs and into the chilly night with the joy of Julie Andrews singing in the Austrian hills. The doorman smiled and said namaste, and I felt like a Disney princess.

KTM street 2

–The cash-less princess. A few blocks away from the hotel I found an ATM. This machine, standing in a tiny room that was littered with hundreds of discarded receipts, snubbed me. It took a few tries for it to acknowledge my card. I started talking trash, and it finally accepted it, so I cockily punched in my PIN… only to have the machine, like a bouncer, kick me out of the transaction. My PIN was too long. I’d changed it to seven digits after my card number had been compromised, and it had never occurred to me that that could be a problem outside of the States.

GoPro 60

It didn’t matter. I planned to talk to Pippin the next morning and figure out how to get money then. When I got back to the room, I told Sylvie what happened, and we decided to head out early the next morning to eat breakfast, walk around, and get cash.

My meeting with Pippin was at 9:30, and our group was scheduled to meet at 10am. We were going to hit the ground running.