Noi6 means "the 6 of us" in Romanian.

We are five, you are the sixth one.

We thank you for joining us in our trip around the world...

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Nepal by day

"I don't understand all these people, from Germany, Thailand, Romania... From America, Japan, Romania, what do they find in Nepal? I don't understand why they come here!" said my taxi driver. We are returning from the Thai Embassy and I am probably the first Romanian that he took there. He pointed to me the new American Embassy, an absurdly huge and bunkered construction that could house half of Nepal, but it's actually designed to keep Nepal out. He also pointed to me a couple of other embassies and the palace of the former king's son. Theoretically, the king, now deposed, is living in a simple two bedroom apartment, but from different people I learned that he is a very rich businessman and they need his business in the country, that he has a summer and a winter residence, and, now the taxi driver shows me the son's residence guarded by the army and protected by huge walls. I never had a chance to explain to my driver why people come to Nepal, but I listened to him complaining about their politicians and I assured him, that they are just as bad all over the world, surely in Romania and America. Possibly, with only the five years of democracy their politicians might be better than ours, just beginners, players in the little leagues.
I would have explained to him that people come to Nepal because it has some of the most important historical relics in the world, the highest mountain range, some interesting cultures and a great tropical jungle. But he probably knows that.
As we left China, we crossed the Friendship Bridge. Ileana wanted to take a picture but we were still on the Chinese side and somebody stopped us. Two Chinese soldiers stood at the half point, no Nepalese soldiers countered them, an amoebaen crowd by foot on this small, sorry bridge. When I read about it, I imagined a fantastic construction, but it's nothing. We entered Nepal. I read Marie's account of her trip, and I did not want not to miss the immigration booth. It's there, down the road, after a few houses. We are clearly in a different country, the mix of people is a bit different, but mostly there is something in the air. It's freedom. It's the lack of a militaristic attitude, people smile differently, they wear their head on their shoulder differently.
We travelled for several hours on the worst road we've ever seen, they call it highway and it's a vital link for Nepal. Obviously not as important as their connections to India, but this is the only road to China. It gets washed out in some sections during the monsoon season, they redo it every year. At some point we saw our road and below and above the remnants of the roads from past years. The occasional potholes on the Chinese highway turned into occasional patches of asphalt. We were in a banged up van, Ioan was unhappy that the driver drove too fast. He mostly stopped, waiting for trucks to pass the opposite way, but sometimes he sped up to 30-40 km per hour, for 10-20 seconds at a time. We stopped at some point to see some bungy jumpers, and another time at some restaurant. The landscape was magnificent, the mountains, the river below, the vegetation. On the side of the highway, people and horrible constructions, maybe their houses. Slowly but surely, the road got better, the houses got bigger and nicer, we passed a couple of little towns, after a while we entered the Kathmandu Valley. We went through Bhaktapur, we would have to come to visit here, but later. There were several lines per sense, occasional police officers directing traffic. We got to our hotel after more than 5 hours for 111 km. There are so many images of this trip in my mind, but one will stay for some time. A beautiful young lady washing dishes in a puddle, on the side of the highway, 5-10 ton trucks passing by, her dishes took a bit of the space of the road, we stayed watching her for a few minutes because there wasn't room for two way traffic.
We had an interesting discussion with the children about the different worlds, Nepal being the first third world country and the difference with China, a second world country or with the first world Japan. Ioan reluctantly accepted that our beat up van was a luxurious mode of transportation.
Traveling through Nepal, a break on the side of the road.
Kathmandu has a special allure in the traveling community, apparently in the 60s it was a major destination for hippies, coming to a world where everything was permitted. Things changed significantly since then, but they have this touristic quarter, Thamel, with countless hotels and about 2500 stores! My guidebook mentions the risks and dangers of Kathmandu, and besides the serious warnings, they warn that one of the mistakes is to stay too much in Thamel and miss the real Kathmandu. Our hotel was a bit over our budget, but we had a "family room", actually three connected rooms with two bathrooms. We chose it because we were tired of having the children in a separate hotel room as we did for the past month in China. It was nice to be altogether for a change. The hotel was at the end of Thamel, a little quieter but still crazy. It had an Italian restaurant on the ground floor and we ate there repeatedly. We had nine nights, split four and five.
We had goals, getting vaccinations and the Thai visa, getting some rest and also some school done. The first day we got the bulk of our vaccines, we spent $475, but getting exactly the same injections, same preparations, same company, would have been $4000 in the USA. These are real prices for five people, not estimations! We checked it, we called, we know. We just walked in and we were done in 1 hour.
Next day, following the Lonely Planet guide, I tried to take my family to the most important place, the Durbar Square. We couldn't make it. Maria didn't want to go, it took a bit of energy to pull her against her will, but mostly, it was the street of Kathmandu that killed us. We had to walk 1.5 km, normally a 15 minute fast pace walk, but after two hours we were only halfway. We decided to return home, we already saw countless temples and shrines, windows and balconies, doors and plazas.

First attempt at Kathmandu

A temple. Just a temple. People selling stuff on its stairs.
It seems that almost every house had something historic, a little Ganesh, a little other statue, reading about it, looking at it, trying not to be run over while doing this and then just advancing in the crazy crowd. We couldn't make it. The next day we didn't move (I went to the Thai Embassy by myself) and then we went to Chitwan National Park.
This former royal hunting ground is another World Heritage Site, famous for the rhinos and the tigers, as well as many other mammals, snakes and countless species of birds. It is a tropical jungle at the base of the Himalayas and it's also known for the elephant rides in the jungle.
We took our time there and we enjoyed it. Ileana wrote about the first day, I wrote a bit about the second day. Overall, it was a good experience, despite the two days spent on the bus. It was good to be out of the city for a change.
First night in Chitwan. Sunset
Sapana Lodge, the bar.
Saying goodbye after the elephant ride
Taking of off the back of the rhino

Stuck in traffic on the way back to Kathmandu

Coming back to Kathmandu, we were determined, we had to make it to the Durbar Square. First we had the second shot of rabies, $175 (compared to $1500 in America). Next day we took a cab, 150 rupees, about two dollars and we were there in no time. Maria gave information about Kumari here. Ileana will also write about this here.
We learned a valuable lesson. As we both got tired reading in our book the description of all the temples, we followed their recommendation to pick a local guide. The guide was nice, showed us the pictures of his six year old son and of his wife, he had a good command of English and he seemed genuinely interested to make us understand the basics of their religions and traditions. We payed him more than what he initially requested, then we invited him to lunch to a restaurant that he or other Nepalese cannot afford. It was next to the former royal palace, on the terrace with a beautiful view. We wanted more inside information, specifics about their lives, politics and history. We learned that just a few years after the referendum that decided to replace the monarchy with a republic, now 65% of people want the "good" king back. Big surprise. Of course, they could have asked me, I would have told them that the republic is not a viable form of government. We talked a bit about the other things to see and we decided to go with him to the monkey temple. We got all in a tiny Maruti Suzuki, seven people in a car for four people. We payed him some extra, we thought we were very generous and he was unhappy, he wanted double. He got a little bit more than I wanted to give and the whole experience left a sour taste. We should have stopped after the first sight, we learned that it is important to know when to say enough.

But again, he did a good job of showing the Durbar Square, that is actually a three squares collection of palaces, all of them part of the World Heritage site and really good to see.

Entrance to the Kumari Temple, Kathmandu 
One the squares of Durbar Square, Kathmandu

Royal Palace, King's Observation Tower, Kathmandu

View of Kathmandu from the monkey temple

Swayambhunath, a temple, tourists, sellers and monkeys
They do have a funny side

The children liked the Swayambhunath (monkey temple) and being able to see it on the same day freed up the Friday for another embassy run and more school. Ioan got a haircut, the first in his life with a real professional barber and he was amazed and excited, he wanted to show everybody, he stopped the doormen at the hotel and told the waiter at the restaurant!
On our last day we made it to Patan Durbar Square. There were three rival kingdoms once, Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur, they all had their king and the royal palace and the royal plaza, in front of the palace (Durbar Square). The Patan king "was very very good", he would go up in the observation tower to watch over his people, and if he didn't see smoke coming of some house it meant they didn't have anything to cook for dinner. So he sent them food or brought them to the palace to share dinner! Several other temples, another guide, good experience and we liked it better than the Kathmandu one. The highlight was the Patan Museum, arranged with help from the Austrian government in a restored section of the old royal palace. Small, nice, quiet, with exquisite pieces of old Nepali art and very good English descriptions. A gem.
Patan Durbar Square

Patan Durbar Square
Trying to get the monkey's attention. It has special powers. Golden Temple
We had 13 days in Nepal. At some point we wanted to make it to Pokhara, but we decided to keep it simple and the schedule was more relaxed. We got enough of Nepal for now. We loved many things about it but we also got a little introduction to a crazy, chaotic, dirty and poor Asian metropolis. They have these amazing cultural values in a state of horrible misery, but apparently some things are better now than 30-40 years ago. Any country that would have such a 700 year old statue or temple by the side of the road, would do something to acknowledge and protect it, but in Nepal they have so many, they are probably getting tired of them. I know we did.

Because of water shortages this time of the year, Kathmandu had twice a day power outages, all the hotels, restaurants and most of the businesses had solar panels and alternative circuits. All the rooms had multiple switches and there would still be some light but no electricity. The garbage was another issue, apparently because of their religion people would not have trash cans in front of their house, but they would just dump it in the street and collection trucks would dump it in the river. Watching people drive in Nepal is an unique experience, but it's also a good example of our adaption and on how we are doing so far. You have to trust the driver and believe that all ends well. After a few hours in the car, two buses were coming toward us occupying the whole road and I had no reaction! No reaction!

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comment form message here