Thursday, December 30, 2010
Kathmandu - Part One
I arrived by bus to a different place than I'd expected, apparently in the far North end of Kathmandu. Since I was on a tourist bus, I expected to be at Thamel or nearby, but alas, no. Of course, I was greeted by the hotel touts and cab drivers, trying to overcharge the new arrivals. I tried to orientate myself so I could walk to Freak Street, where I planned to find my room, nothing in Kathmandu is too far away, but I didn't even know where I was; I was forced to take the pricey taxi. He took me to Freak Street, which is the original hangout of all the old hippies who flocked to Nepal in the sixties. At one time, it was the center of the action, with ridiculously cheap rooms and food, only a few feet south of Durbar Square, the main tourist attraction of central Kathmandu. Now, the flocks head to Thamel, where after my one night a month and half ago, I vowed to never return, unless absolutely necessary. Freak Street was now a quiet area with a few hotels, all quite cheap still. The restaurants are cheaper than in Thamel and still draw some old hippies, but the locals seemed to have reclaimed the neighborhood, which was fine by me. A guy greeted me with a business card the second I opened my door.
"You need room?"
"Nah, I'll find one myself." Typically, the people pushing rooms will get a commission; the traveler getting a higher rate.
"It's a good room, quiet."
"Ok, where is it." I decided to follow the man. I doubted I'd find much cheaper. He lead me away from Freak Street, down a winding street, past a market square and into an alley. He was right about the quiet part. The whole way there, he kept trying to sell me on the place until I finally burst out. "Hey man, I'm walking with you ain't I? I'll see the place."
Right before we entered the hotel, he pulled a bag of hash and a bag of weed out of his pocket, "You like to smoke?"
The room was very nice, clean, with a great view of the city. I had my own private bathroom and a running lukewarm shower. For 200 rupees in the center of a major city, this was a steal. It was out of the tourist area, but only five minutes from Freak Street and Durbar Square, so if I wanted internet or western food, I was set.
It was evening on my arrival, so I merely checked my email, orientated myself a bit and had a meal of momos and the world's tiniest chicken burger, burned into a crunchy brown wafer on a giant bun (Where the beef, I mean, chicken?). My bed was comfortable and the room was quiet, until 6:00am when the roosters woke me up. A person has to love being the middle of city of 5 million people, yet still hear roosters at dawn.
I ventured to the hilltop temple of Swayambhunath, nicknamed the "Monkey Temple" for its difficulty of pronunciation and the large population of rhesus macaques that dwell on the grounds. When I arrived at the east stairs, I was shocked by the lack of monkeys; I feared I wouldn't see any. My fears were quickly alleviated when I came across a sole monkey, sitting next to gorgeous golden Buddha statue. It was a beautiful climb up the hill, past many smalls stupas, through some woods. These were nothing compared the great stupa at the top. It was massive, towering over the whole city, prayer flags ribboning in four directions form the center, with monkey hanging from every point, ignorant of the religious significance or beauty. I wandered the grounds, the great eyes of Buddha watching me at every point. The monkey which I'd hoped so much to see were quickly becoming irritating, fighting at my feet, blocking paths with much intimidation, sliding down the hand rails, the alphas, protecting their territory with wild shrieking. Although cute in zoos, wild monkeys are aggressive, dirty, carriers of rabies. They are still a little cute. I tried my best unsuccessfully to keep my distance. The temple was quite stunning itself, but the monkeys gave it its own special ambiance.
I walked back to my hotel through Thamel, glad I wasn't staying there. I did stop for a glass of real Himalayan coffee, which was quite the treat after drinking so much instant coffee. Honestly, the instant coffee is not so bad, especially when made with hot milk, but nothing beats the real deal.
The worst part of Thamel is the street workers. Always feigning friendship, the walk, engaging conversation, telling stories, sometimes they stick for ten minutes and just when it seems as if you've made a new friend, they offer to sell you hash, only to disappear after turning them down. Walking South, I passed many hidden temples everywhere. Kathmandu is one of the great wandering cities. Getting lost in the many alleys and side streets is one of the joys of the city. Every odd corner has something interesting, a stupa, a small shrine or temple. Walking through Kathmandu is equally frustrating. The streets are so narrow, there is barely enough room for a single car, much less the droves of foot traffic and endless motorbikes. The best way is to stick to the left and trust the vehicles won't run down.
My next day was dedicated to Kathmandu's Durbar square. The Kathmandu valley was the home to various small kingdoms and the old palace lies in the square. The government doesn't operate from there anymore, but it still stands as a concentrated collection of old architecture from the 16th and 17th centuries. The temples are quite neat and the Durbar Square is a good way to observe the religious customs and intricate carvings without seeming too imposing. There are enough tourists doing the same. IF one looks closely enough, many of the roof's carvings are quite erotic, showing scenes of a typical missionary position, next to threesomes, next to threesomes involving a horse. Hinduism seems like one crazy religion! The most extravagent is the great pagoda style temple that towers over the square. It is the tallest building in town.
I wandered, people watched, and studied the buildings up close for a few hours. Since it was a holiday, everyday seems to be, the inner square was closed, leaving me with more time for the day. I figured I'd go to Thamel, find a book and a map of Langtang National Park so I could plan my upcoming trek. I saw a narrow inviting arcade, so I ventured in, finding the office for The Last Resort, owners of the giant bungee. I actually wanted to visit the place anyway; the bungee was tantalizing. I was just rounding a corner when a familiar voice called me.