I’m glad to get out of Kathmandu a couple of days after I touch down in Nepal. The capital is dirty, noisy and full of hassle. I go half a day’s bus journey westward to lakeside Pokhara and then onto Sarangkot, a small village uphill with great views of the valley. It’s monsoon season, so it rains every day. Staying here is worth it but I miss out on the views of the Annapurna range of the Himalayas due to the continuous cloud cover. It’s a quiet time and I don’t meet any other travelers but when I return to Pokhara after a few days I bump into some neighbours from back home. Thomas and Bernadette live a 10 minute walk from my family home in County Armagh – their daughter Bridget who I went to primary school with is doing a placement in Nepal. While sitting outside a restaurant I watch them get out of a taxi but it doesn’t click who they are till I hear my name being shouted from across the street. It’s a pleasant surprise and we spend the evening together. They invite me to dinner the next day in Kathmandu, as I happen to be getting the bus there in the morning. I don’t enjoy being back in the big city but having the craic with folk from home gives me a nice boost before heading off to Langtang National Park for a 10 day trek (more about that in the next post).
After the trek I return to Thamel (the main tourist area) in Kathmandu and can’t wait to leave. It’s one of those places that gets worse the longer you stay. Getting hassled by touts, rickshaw/taxi drivers and drug dealers is a regular occurrence and like cities in India, the continuous noise pollution of vehicles beeping every few seconds has me cursing the pointlessness of it all. On the bus back into Kathmandu, it’s a depressing sight with endless Coca-Cola and Pepsi covered shop/cafe fronts and I wonder how this country got the way it did. The poverty and corruption makes India looks prosperous. Regular electricity blackouts in the capital city are a reminder of the incompetence of its government and the inability of its citizenry to properly hold their ‘leaders’ to account. Nepal sells electricity to both China and India and yet most people here live off-grid. The small streets of the country’s main tourist area flood after downpours, which are regular at this time of year and as I wade knee deep through the water I vow to spend as little time as necessary here before I’m tempted say ‘to hell with all of it’ and take an early flight.
The world heritage site of Bhaktapur is unlike anywhere else in Nepal. Foreigners have to pay $20 to enter the city but once you’re inside you realise why they want to protect the place. It’s an interesting mix of Hindu and Buddhist cultures but feels more like an old European city, with all the red brickwork and clean paved streets.
A couple of days after I arrive there are festivities going on for something called ‘Gai Jatra’ (Festival of the Cow). Hindus believe the cow helps departed souls on their journey to the after-life and this festival was created long ago by a King in honour of his wife who had lost a son. To ease the pain the Queen’s grief he organised his subjects to celebrate this festival in honour of all their loved ones who had passed away, to show that she wasn’t alone in losing someone close. By midday the city and its streets are thronged and for about six hours there are non-stop processions through the streets where most people partake in ‘dances’, which are really just lines of people who beat the sticks they carry to the rhythm of a simple band, reaching an intense crescendo every five minutes or so. For hour after hour thousands of them move slowly through the streets like this, almost in a trance-like state, their energy never appearing to falter even by the end of the day. This strange spectacle is something to behold and yet I don’t know what to make of it. The participants certainly seem to be enjoying themselves anyway, in no small part due to the local home-made liquor doing the rounds.
Each day I spend in the city I visit a local painter in his studio off the main square with the intention of treating myself to a painting or two once I’ve decided which ones I’d like. Madhu Krishna Chitrikar has been painting his whole life, following in the footsteps of his Grandfather who also painted intricate Buddhist and Hindu pieces. He takes great care in explaining certain paintings and their meaning to me. I’ve been reading The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying for the past couple of weeks so it something I enjoy listening to. The more I learn about Buddhist philosophy, the more fascinating it becomes. I buy a small Mandala painting from Madhu as a souvenir and he reminds me of its significance, “a man can only physically occupy one metre, no more no less – that’s his place in the universe”. I leave Nepal knowing it’s highly unlikely I’ll ever come back but I’m grateful for having the time to learn about the brighter side of some of its culture and heritage, especially from trekking near the Tibetan border and my time in Bhaktapur.