Friday, January 09, 2009

Varanasi to Kathmandu, Santosh’s story, the subject of toilets, Nepal, the Dwarika Hotel, Mr. Lama, flight over Everest and getting to know Kathmandu.

Mountain flight over Everest this morning
Hi again,

This post covers Thursday and Friday 8th and 9th January, the 13th and 14th day of our fascinating tour.

Yesterday we had a luxury late wake up at the Radisson hotel in Varanasi. You could tell it was a Radisson but truth to tell it was a bit run down with rather old upholstery. We had a good hearty breakfast to last the day. On this trip we usually have a good breakfast and good dinner but more or less skip lunch or just have some fruit so as not to lose time during the day or eat too much. We travel such a lot by car that we are not exercising enough and are missing our one hour daily walk back home.

We were leaving for the final part of our trip, 3 nights in the remote and exotic country of Nepal, the roof of the world and the home of the highest mountain in the world, Mt. Everest.

We were picked up by Santosh our driver. I had a good long talk to him as I guessed he needed some mothering and I am always game for talking to the locals and finding out more about the country. Santosh who is a delightful, well mannered and well groomed young man has a difficult life and I felt for him. He is good at his job and has a great attitude, not like some of the guides we have met. He has so much talent and yet is in a catch 22 situation. He is from a humble village and had to leave school at the age of 10 when his Father died, to work and keep his Mother and fellow siblings. He would love to study but cannot afford it as his salary is very low (1.800 rupees per month (less than 40 euros per month!) and he has to keep his wife and children who live over 250km away and in order to get on in his job, he needs qualifications which, of course, he cannot get. It was very frustrating to hear. Furthermore he said he only sees his family once every few months because it costs 200 rupees to get to his village and 200 to get back. We went on to talking about mobile phones and cars, Indians’ favourite topics and he asked whether we had a BMW. I felt ashamed to tell him that not only do we have a BMW but that we actually have 4 cars! I promised to send him a mobile phone when I got back and only hope it will get to him. We gave him a tip to more than cover a journey back to his village and when we parted at the airport he had tears in his eyes, bless him. I wish I could help you more Santosh, you and many more people I have met in India.
Santosh
At the tiny airport of Varanasi we were met by hundreds of porters offering to carry our luggage. I made my way to a small kiosk outside to try and buy some chewing gum. I asked how much a tiny pack of Happydent cost and I was told 50 rupees but I must have been cheated blatantly as when I gave them a note of 100 they had no change. The same happened the day before in Varanasi when we bought a gaudy cheap calendar with the image of my favourite God, Ganesha. They charged 25 rupees and again had no change for 100.

The airport terminal was acceptable, not so the bureaucracy of the check in procedure, security and customs. Everything seems to be done more than twice. To top it all at customs we were told we could not take notes of more than 100 rupees (1.5 euros). We ended up having to change 18.000 into dirty and brittle 100 rupee notes and stuffing them into Eladio’s travel bag. They took up so much room! By the by we paid 720 rupees in commission. You get the feeling that wherever you go in India they try and make money out of you.

I must mention at this point, the subject of toilets as the experience at Varanasi airport is definitely worth mentioning. At the toilets you usually get given some very thin paper from someone standing outside, you go in, do what you have to do and then pay that person. Sometimes you even pay twice, the person outside and another one inside. At Varanasi airport there were 3 barefooted ladies in a tiny dirty loo. One offered to “clean” the loo seat I was supposed to use. She did so with the dirtiest looking cloth I have ever seen. And I was expected to pay her for this service!! Varanasi is meant to be the cultural capital of India. I think they have to introduce the culture of cleanliness. There is an English expression my Father used to tell me when I was a child and it is: “cleanliness is next to Godliness! It could be of great use in India but most turn a blind eye. I can’t. I can understand poverty but I cannot understand the extreme lack of hygiene.
The loo at Varanasi airport
Throughout our trip we have tried to go to the best toilets possible but that is not always easy. Thus you go to the best you can find or the only one. Most of the latter are quite dirty but tolerable. Often they are the stand up type which I hate and at the airport in Nepal today I even came across the stand up type which are open and are in a row. An Irish girl I met said she had seen many. I hadn’t so I took a photo. In fact Lou gave me the idea of starting to do “loo photography” on my travels and then put the photos in our bathrooms at home! I’m going to take her up on that and started the photography today as you can see. Nice eh? Apparently it’s hilarious when women are using them because you get to see 3 bottoms’ up!!
The open stand up loos, 3 in a row - Kathmandu airport!
Our flight on Air India was delightful, mainly because we were in Business Class. We weren’t expecting it; maybe the flight was nearly full when the travel agency made the reservation. We got a lovely Indian meal but best of all we got a glimpse of the Himalayan range of mountains including Mount Everest. So yes, we knew now that we had reached the roof of the earth and the top of the world, Nepal.

Nepal is a remote landlocked country in between India and China. In fact its capital, Kathmandu is 300km from the Indian border and 120km from the Chinese border (Tibet). It has a population of 29 million, the capital having 1.5m inhabitants. It is multi religious with over 80% being Hindus, over 10% Buddhists and the rest Moslems and Christians. Nepal is one of the poorer underdeveloped countries and ranks only 96 in the world. We noticed too that the light goes out frequently and there are great problems with running water.

Nepal now has a Moaist government but not so long ago it was a monarchy. However in 2001 the whole family was assassinated by one of the family members. Since then monarchy has been abolished in Nepal. Well I suppose there is no one left to carry on the succession!!

A silly observation of mine is that the Nepalese flag is the only non square flag in the world. Funny eh?

India is definitely a richer country than Nepal. However we were soon to notice that Nepal is slightly cleaner and that there is somewhat less misery here. The time difference is weird. It is 15 minutes ahead of India! It is obviously Winter now in Kathmandu but it was 18ºc at mid afternoon when we arrived. It gets cooler in the evenings and mornings when it is about 1ºc. Mt. Everest, though is 18º-c which is quite a difference.

We were met by Mr. Rajan Tuladhar from the travel agency and by Mr. Titendra Lama who was to be our driver of quite an old Toyota. We have ended up calling him Mr. Lama. He told us he was Buddhist and we asked him if he was related to the Dalai Lama which of course he wasn’t.

Mr. Lama told us that the village he was from stands at over 2000m2 and that it used to take 10 hours to walk to the nearest point of public transport. Today it takes a 5 hour bus ride and 2 hours on foot. While we were in Kathmandu his wife and 2 of his children were going there. He also told us his wife cannot read or write and nor does she want to! He excuses her by saying she is a "village girl". I told him this was no excuse at all. As we got to know him a bit more we asked him another burning question we had which was about arranged marriages. He admitted his was an arranged one and that today, at least in the cities, it was going out of fashion. I asked him whether he had been happy with his parents choosing his wife and he said "no". I asked no further questions.
Mr. Lama's wife
They drove us to the nearby Dwarika’s hotel and we soon realised we could not have made a better choice. We were given a very warm welcome with the offering of the Buddhist scarf, the "kata" which was put around our necks.

The Dwarika hotel is something special in Nepal, a garden or oasis with a cluster of traditional Newari (area of the Kathmandu valley) ethnic buildings separated by brick courtyards. Everything from the furniture to the atmosphere breathes peace, quiet, elegance and even romance. The rooms are decorated in the same style and absolutely everything has been made in Nepal.
A partial view of the Dwarika hotel
Ours is lovely, big, spacious, light and we adore the Newari style of stone floor, carved wooden furniture, ethnic cushions and low tables. The bathroom is big and similarly decorated with a sunken bath and wonderful kimono type bathrobe I shall be buying to take home. If anyone reading this is coming out to Nepal, then again I would urge them to come here. You won’t be disappointed. This place is absolutely authentic.
Our lovely room at the Hotel Dwarika
After settling in and as soon as we had freshened up, Mr. Lama drove us to the Tamel tourist district, a great place for shopping. First, however, we went with him to park the car near where he lived, just off the Tamel district. Here we met his wife and children who were playing in the street. They were very friendly and posed for pictures very spontaneously. I even got them to say “cheese”.
Mr. Lama, some of his children and their friends
The Nepalese look part Indian and part Chinese and this is certainly so of Mr. Lama. We actually think he looks like Mr. Tenzing, Edmund Hillary’s famous Sherpa. Mr. Lama is a very positive happy sort of person and extremely willing to please. I apologised for being late once and his answer was: “it’s my duty”. He meant, of course, it was his duty or part of his job to wait.

Mr. Lama took us shopping and not once did he take us anywhere he was going to get a commission and that was so refreshing. With him we enjoyed shopping for tiger balm against headaches for my niece Marta and I, for silver bracelets for the girls and for even more baggy trousers. We also got some lovely incense holders which I know we will enjoy back home.
Mr.Lama and Eladio buying tiger balm and other Nepalese things such as tea and curry.

In the evening we had dinner at the hotel but the dinner wasn’t just any dinner. It was really special. We went to the Nepalese restaurant called Krishnarpan. It has been frequented by the likes of Jimmy Carter and Hillary Clinton and really is the best you can find here. The whole experience was very enriching. First you walk in and you take your shoes off, then they wash your hands and afterwards you are lead into the dining room by a beautiful Nepalese lady in ethnic dress. You are lead to a very low and wide table and somehow get yourself into the chair. Next another beautiful Nepalese waitress puts a huge white bib around you and then the gastronomic feast begins. We went for the smallest menu of 6 Nepalese traditional dishes. You could have anything from 6 to 22 believe it or not. With the first dish you were supposed to take some food from you plate and leave it for the Gods! I happily removed the piece of egg I wasn’t interested in eating. The food was laced with rice licquer, a sort of saki. I loved it. The food was served on century old plates and bowls and beautifully served. It was one of the best dinners of our trip and again I highly recommend the Krishnarpan restaurant.
Eladio enjoying the Nepalese dinner experience on the first night.
This morning we were up really early at 6 to catch the 8 o’clock mountain flight over the Himalayan mountain range. We were worried the fog would be an obstacle and had heard from a Spanish couple in Varanasi that they hadn’t been able to fly. We were not sure ourselves until the very last minute. The plane was delayed for more than an hour but then finally we took off with “Buddha Air”. It was a 16 seater with each person having a window seat. There were actually quite a few flights, at least 9, going up at the same time. They were full of tourists like us and that was where we met Lou and Paul, a lovely couple who have been teaching English in China for the last year and who have been travelling extensively in India and roughing it from what I understood in our exchange of experiences. Lou is from Waterford in Ireland and Paul is actually from Sheffield. If you read this, hi, guys, it was good to meet you.

We finally took off on this very exciting flight and we were soon to see all the main peaks of the Himalayan range in Nepal, on the Nepalese side that is. Everest is best seen from China but we could not enter Chinese air space. Not only were we able to view the peaks from the window but each and every one of the passengers was also able to go up to the cock pit twice and take photographs close up. The one illustrating this post proves I saw Everest. As the certificate they gave us on completion of the flight says: “I did not climb Everest but I touched it with my heart”. The experience was one of the best of the trip so far, and was probably the third most exciting highlight together with the Taj Mahal and the Ganges at Varanasi. Wow is the best way to describe it.

The rest of the day was spent exploring Kathmandu and here we soon realised it was the temple centre of the world. First Mr. Lama took us to see the Boudhanath, one of the holiest Buddhist sites in Nepal. It is one of the most visited monuments in Nepal and a tourist landmark. It has the biggest spherical “stupa” in Nepal. I first came across this word at Sarnath in Varanasi and here it was again. It is, I think, a round structure which often holds religious relics. It is, of course, Buddhist.
The Stupa at Boudhanath
Here I also came across “praying wheels” for the first time and they are everywhere in all sizes, from hand held to any size. They are used to spread spiritual blessings and well being and are filled with rolls of many copies of the mantra (prayer) Om Mani Padme Hum. They are really beautiful and tomorrow I know I will buy one to take home and remember the Buddhist temples I have seen here.
Buddhist praying wheels.
From here we went to see the famous Hindu temple of Pashupatinath Temple on the shores of the sacred Bagmati river. Not surprisingly it is dedicated to Shiva as most Hindu temples seem to be. Here Hindus come at least once in their lives to purify themselves. Only Hindus can enter.
The Pashupatinath temple we couldn't go inside.
The river is sacred and flows into the Ganges. Here too cremations take place on the Arya Ghat and people bathe. We talked extensively to Mr. Lama and to a guide and heard that women, as in India, used to throw themselves on their husband's funeral pire in an act known as sati. Apparently they could not bear life without their husband but I think they probably could not envisage life as a widow as widows in Hindu society are somewhat shunned, can no longer marry and have to wear black and white all their lives. Thankfully these practises are disappearing.

We also heard that the mountain people of the villages in the Himalayas often cannot cremate their deceased because there is no wood and they cannot bury them because the ground is frozen. In this case the bodies are cut into pieces and thrown to the nearby vultures!! This we found difficult to stomach.

Here we also saw and visited a Social welfare centre for old and infirm people and went to meet the oldest inhabitant, a woman of 102 who was unfortunately asleep. I walked out feeling humbled once again.
Cremation on the Bagmati river
Afterwards we visited the Durbar Squares at Patan and Kathmandu and saw even more temples. Durbar apparently means "palace" and it seems there is a palace square in every village in Nepal.
Eladio on the Durbar Square of Patan
Durbar Square in Kathmandu
At the former we saw the famous Golden Temple and at the latter we actually saw the Kumari, a living goddess who is 3 years old. She is from the higher Nepalese caste and lives in the Kumari Ghar until puberty. Then she is no longer a Goddess and another one is chosen. She is worshipped by Hindus and Buddhists in the Kathmandu Valley.
She looks out of the window only once a day and we were lucky enough to be there when she did. Quite extraordinary is all I can say. Judge for yourself.
The Kumari, the living goddess
Our last visit of the day was to Swyambhunath, an ancient religious complex on the top of a hill in Kathmandu. It is also known as the monkey temple as there are plenty of them guarding it. We heard earlier from a guide at Boudha Nath that in the Hindu religion there are 4 holy or sacred animals. I only knew about the cow but apparently monkeys, bulls, dogs and snakes are also holy. I thought bulls and cows were in the same category and am surprised about the dogs as they seem like the lowest of the low to me. This was new to me.
Swyambhunath
What I have noticed today is that, although very similar to India, there is slightly less dirt, people tend to use western dress a bit more and that the streets are marginally less noisy. The architecture in Nepal has a Chinese look about it, specially the tiered roofed temples in the Durbar Squares. Contrary to the one low and flat houses you see in India, here they are all made of red brick and have 4 or 5 floors. There is always a terrace at the top which seems to take the place of a garden.

Funnily enough the Nepalese play football, unlike the Indians, although they do play cricket too. Nepal was not part of the British Raj, I think, but was given its independence in 1923. The Nepalese fought with the British Army in the area and are very famous for their tough, hard and resilient Ghurka soldiers.

On the subject of sport or play, Nepal is another great kite flying country like India and Afghanistan. It is also an "early to bed" country to quote the Lonely Planet Guide. And this we experienced as were not able to book a table for dinner past 19.30h.

I like what I have seen of Nepal so far and feel really at home here. I just wish we had more time to go and see Pokhora and to do some trekking. We do have one full day tomorrow though and Mr. Lama will be taking us to see Bhaktapur City and Nagarkot from where we hope to glimpse the Himalayas up close from the ground, although according to Mr. Lama it would take 15 days to walk there. Well, we won’t be doing that.

More tomorrow, from Kathamandu, Masha.

5 comments:

kiran said...

i'd like o correct some infos in ur blog about kathmandu being just 20 km from indain border and also being a british colony. in fact kt mis around 300 km away from indain border and Nepal was never a part of a British colony. In fact Nepalese defeated British many times. and the LOO PIc u posted of KTM airport is a wrong one.

Masha Lloyd said...

Certainly will correct the info on the distance between KTM and India and also about belonging to the British Empire. Thx. However, the loo is the loo I used at KTM airport.
BR Masha

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful read....

Can't wait to do my el cheapo trip around India and leave Varanassi for Nepal...

Great words and pics....thanks

Linda

Savdana said...

Hi,
One of the reasons why you felt Nepalese architecture resembled to Chinese is because a well known 2nd century Nepalese architect named "Arniko" invented "Pagoda style" and was thus invited to show cast his talent in China. Unfortunately, he was very well paid there and decided to stay in China forever. So to sum it up, the pagoda architecture was Arniko's idea.

Anonymous said...

Hello,

Good luck and have fun on your journey. It has been nice reading your blog and hearing about your adventures. I'll be in Kathmandu in nine days, so look forward to seeing what you have captured here.

Cheers from Canada.