Our day starts with an early check-in at Paro (Bhutan) for an 8 AM flight. They pleasantly surprise us with an upgrade & an RHS window seat (the right-hand side windows offer the best panorama)! Once airborne, the metal roofs of mountain houses are swiftly reduced to glittering pinpricks in the morning sunlight. Himalayan peaks glisten like silver while we sail on a quilt of pale cotton puffs. Our next halt is Kathmandu for a day.
Soon the airplane is descending into the Kathmandu valley and terraced rice fields mutate into packed rows of shacks and tenements. We walk into the congestion of Kathmandu airport, and the contrast could not be starker. For a country that collects a fair percentage of revenue through trekking permits from European/American Mountaineers, the airport is an unhappy sigh, almost a heresy.
The flower child of 70s, the bright-eyed, long-haired elfin girl in batik tie & dye, with a rumpled sleeping bag at her feet, seeking peace, love, and free sex, in the haze of cannabis and morphine, has long left (Drum rolls for Zenie baby, strumming ‘Dum Maro Dum!’). Instead, we find rock-butted, sun-burned mountaineering crowd, sporting khaki Patagonians and muddy North Star boots, lining up for immigration.
Outside the airport is a riot! Air is already heavy with smog. Small, battered cars, blaring horns, barrel through the parking lot. Our travel Agent is AWOL. After a few frantic calls from a borrowed mobile, Subodh sorts out alternative arrangements. By now it’s just me, Subodh, Richa, and Raja. Others have flown to other destinations. We make our way to Hotel Eden, with a ‘Paradise Restaurant’ on the ground floor itself. The pollution and cacophony dilute the promise of Nirvana; the hustle is a sharp contrast to Bhutan’s tranquility. Marijuana, coated in diesel soot, is growing in plenty on the roadsides.
Nepal is a Hindu state with an 80% Hindu population and 10% Buddhists. The official script is Devanagari, much like Hindi and Indian rupee works here. It has been a tottering democracy, and both India and China play an intrusive role through trade and diplomacy. The trouble of Mao insurgency exists in the hills on the eastern part. The country trails in most development indexes and finds itself in international headlines for awkward reasons. In 2001, a drunken prince shot dead his entire royal household before killing himself. In2015, an 8.1 magnitude earthquake caused widespread disaster in the valley. And recently in 2020, pictures of hundreds of climbers trapped near Mount Everest’s summit hooked to a single safety line on a ridge with a several-thousand-foot drop shocked the world. The fiasco was blamed on the government’s mismanagement of climbing permits.
Just a few decades back, Nepal offered cheap options of religion and drugs, for the westerners seeking the sedative or the stimulant (and often confusing the two). But it’s best days as the crossroads of Hippiedom and Hinduism are over. Though one can still find peeling posters offering Thanka Painting courses or Himalayan Buddhist Meditation classes, pop spirituality is making way for muscular trekking.
Our first stop — Pashupatinath Temple, abode to Lord Shiva, is a UNESCO’s Heritage Site and the most prominent Hindu spot here. The central shrine is modeled as a pagoda, with carved wooden rafters, much copper and gold, and guarded by the Nepalese army. The complex is on the banks of Baghmati River, and like Varanasi, this is also a place of death. Cremations occur regularly alongside the temple.
Before one reaches the pagoda, there is an immense bazaar selling rudraksha, puja items, and diverse religious trinkets. Hundreds of makeshift stalls display horror-eyed masks, spinning prayer wheels, thanka scrolls, and revolving lanterns. Sweet incense wafts in the air, along with a flutter of pigeons. Long-haired men from East and West, hawkers, hipsters, hustlers, heretics all jostle for your attention or your money.
Our initial halt was at an Old Home within the vicinity. Subodh organized a gift basket of biscuits and snacks from a teashop, and we could go in and interact with the inmates, mostly old widows. There were telltale traces of the 2015 earthquake, yet not repaired.
We skipped going inside the main temple compound for want of time. Instead, we chatted up with many ‘Babas’ from Bihar and Eastern UP, living in dozens of temples spread around the complex. They looked like making a livelihood, hawking pop spirituality to wide-eyed dollar tourists, offering selfies, all for small tips.
This was our second stop combined with a lazy lunch. The Chinese aggression of Tibet in the 1950s led to an influx of fleeing Tibetans and an upsurge of Buddhism in Nepal. There are now two large stupas in the capital (the other being Swayambhunath Stupa — Monkey Temple), and a score of smaller gompas. This shrine is white with a tiered golden top and the all-knowing eyes of the Buddha painted on all four sides. Shops selling Buddhist pendants and prayer-wheels surround the complex, as do several rooftop cafes, with magnificent views of the stupa. We had our ‘Buff’ Thukpa & Beer fix here while watching monks with handheld prayer wheels and tourists circumambulate the structure.
An interesting back-story–A long time ago, an old woman monk from Tibet arrived in Kathmandu and submitted to the Hindu King for some area for a Buddhist shrine. The King allowed providing her land that covered a buffalo’s hide. The wise lady cuts the hide in thin stripes and then ends up taking this sizable piece of real estate!
We come back to the hotel by 5:00 PM. It starts to pour and temperatures plummet. We make our move to the messy airport again. Not a single coffee shop inside. Bought few books from a sleepy-looking bookshop, laden with mountaineering books. The departure is delayed by two hours, the airport loses electricity… AC goes off for some time… they open up the Exit gates to let the air in….
Few hours in Kathmandu were exciting, wonderful, and exhausting.
Good to head home.