We were up at 7.30 this morning, despite the time-difference. Looking out of the window, we could see that rain had fallen overnight; indeed this is the start of the monsoon season, and the temperature was hot and humid, despite our 4,300 feet altitude in the Kathmandu valley.
We got ourselves sorted out and went along to the restaurant, where we sat with John. I enjoyed a fairly Western breakfast of sausage, egg and tomato, washed down with a couple cups of coffee and some watermelon juice. I saw that they had some Yak cheese, so I had to try that. Where else would you come across Yak cheese?!
At nine o’clock we met up with Anal and the rest of our party, and we went outside and into the waiting mini-bus, where our driver Madern gave us all a litre bottle of water each. Once we were settled, we set off into the Wednesday morning rush-hour traffic which, like in India, was an experience in itself.
Driving through the dusty streets with their potholed roads and ramshackle buildings, we stared agog out of the windows at what passed for daily Nepalese life. Battered cars, vans and motorcycles vied for space on the roads with numerous stray dogs and cows; most of the time the vehicles just drove around them, their drivers completely nonplussed in the chaos.
We passed clothing shops with their colourful ladies’ dresses, saris and pashminas, small cafés, bars and restaurants, auto shops and other dilapidated, but nonetheless charming, buildings. Cyclists and pedestrians weaved their way in amongst the traffic with complete sang froid, many of them wearing face masks to protect from the clouds of dust and the lorries belching black exhaust fumes into the atmosphere. Several times we had to stop because vehicles in front of us had stopped to put on their spare wheel following a puncture; looking at the state of some of the vehicles with their almost-bald tyres, this was not really surprising.
After the entertainment beyond the minibus windows, we parked up and continued on foot to the first of our sightseeing stops – the Buddhist stupa of Boudhanath. A stupa is a large hemispherical shaped monument containing Buddhist relics, and the dome was topped by the all-seeing eyes of Buddha. Boudhanath is the largest and holiest stupa outside of Tibet. Radiating out from the pinnacle of the stupa were a lot of streamers containing colourful squares of cloth, a bit like bunting. Anal told us they were prayer flags.
There were also a lot of ornamental, free-turning cylinders which passers-by would start spinning; these were prayer wheels and they were quite hypnotic to watch. There were also various sized bells tinkling and chiming, as well as the evocative hint of incense over it all. From here, we also had a superb view over the Kathmandu valley; however, the cloud was quite low so we couldn’t see for miles.
After having a good look around, we continued on our way to the ancient religious complex of Swayambhunath, which is also known as the “Monkey Temple” due to the numerous wild macaques that live and roam around the grounds. The monkeys were very agile and they jumped and swung from trees to rooftops to walls, some of them with little babies clinging to their sides.
The Swayambhunath complex consists of a stupa, a variety of shrines and temples; a Tibetan monastery, museum and library. There are also shops, restaurants and hostels. The site has two access points: a long staircase leading directly to the main platform of the temple, which is from the top of the hill to the east; and a car road around the hill from the south leading to the south-west entrance.
We saw a number of the monks walking around, in their distinctive orange robes with their shaven heads.
We puffed our way up all the steps so we could look around the beautiful, ornate buildings with their intricately-carved wooden decorations and their gilded statues. Everywhere we walked, we were watched by Buddha’s eyes. There is a large pair of eyes on each of the four sides of the main stupa which represent Wisdom and Compassion. Above each pair of eyes is another eye, the third eye. It is said that when Buddha preaches, cosmic rays emanate from the third eye which acts as messages to heavenly beings so that those interested can come down to earth to listen to the Buddha. The hellish beings and beings below the human realm cannot come to earth to listen to the Buddha’s teaching, however, the cosmic rays relieve their suffering when Buddha preaches. Between the two eyes (also called Wisdom Eyes), a curly symbol, symbolizing the nose, is depicted which looks like a question mark, which is a Nepali sign of number figure one. This sign represents the unity of all things existing in the world as well as the only path to enlightenment through the teachings of Buddha. It was all extremely interesting, and Anal explained to us how it is the aim of each follower of the Buddhist religion to reach nirvana, which is the ultimate spiritual goal in which there is no pain or suffering.
After we’d looked around the temples and buildings, we had about 40 minutes of free time, so Trevor and I decided to take a look at some of the local craft and souvenir shops around us. I wanted to purchase a kukri, the distinctive curved knife typical of the Gurkha regiment. We had a look in some shops at the different knives available; some of them were large and very sharp, and were sheathed in leather, hand-tooled and decorated scabbards. These ones were expensive; over a hundred pounds each. However, I only wanted a decorative one to put on the wall at home so, after browsing around some of the stalls, I got a smaller one (which had a dull blade) in a leather scabbard decorated with old Nepali coins and brass. This one only cost 550 Nepali Rupees, or about four quid. 🙂
As we made our way back down all the steps, ladies were approaching us selling pashminas, singing bowls (metal bowls which vibrate and ring when struck) and little satin embroidered bags. One lady offered to sell me 10 of these bags (assorted colours and designs) for seven dollars; we got them for about five pounds so they worked out at 50p each. At that price you couldn’t be robbed! I also bought some postcards and a couple of fridge magnets.
It was then time to meet up again with Anal and the rest of our group to go to lunch. We all boarded the minibus and made our way to Patan Durbar Square, where Madern parked up and we took a short walk to a local restaurant, and up some steps to tables and chairs, covered with parasols, in a pleasant roof top location. We took our seats (under the shade, as the sun by now was fairly hot) and ordered a freezing cold beer each; I had an Everest and Trevor chose a beer called Gurkha. We could then order anything we liked to eat from the menu, as lunch was included. I’d had a good breakfast so I just opted for a plate of the house salad, which consisted of radish, carrot, cucumber, onion and coleslaw. The others chose some of the local dishes, but I decided I’d wait until dinner tonight before eating something more substantial.
We passed a pleasant hour or so at the restaurant, then we had some free time to look around the square. As ever, the colourful local shops were fascinating; I hoped I would be able to find a hand-knitted jacket made out of Yak wool to take home as a lovely (and useful) souvenir.
We went into the “Singing Bowl Centre”, where the shop-owner showed us how the singing bowls worked. Some of them are made out of seven different metals, and they are created in such a way that, when gently struck in various places with a soft hammer, they set up a vibration and held a long, ringing note (think of a tuning fork). Placing the vibrating bowl on your body in various locations gave a relaxing and massaging effect, and putting in on your head and feeling the vibrations and listening to the ringing notes was supposed to help you relax, and get rid of any tension headaches. However, the bowls were very heavy and we thought they wouldn’t be suitable for carrying in our luggage.
Our final visit of the day was to the impressive Bhimsen Temple at Lalitpur. This large temple contained many bells and intricate wooden sculptures, pillars and carvings. Gilded doorways and thresholds were in abundance, flanked by ornate statues of Hindu deities. We saw lots of images of the Hindu goddess Ganesh, who has the head of an elephant, as well as Parvati, has many arms and is always brandishing a variety of weapons and attacking the buffalo demon Mahisha. It was all very interesting and I took lots of photos.
It was then time to board the minibus once again for the return journey to our hotel. Once we got back, we dumped our bags and our purchases in our room, and hotfooted it along to the bar for a cold beer. Then it was time to get washed and changed and adjourn to the restaurant, where once again we enjoyed a selection of the local dishes and had interesting and stimulating conversations with our fellow travellers.
Trevor and I then returned to the bar, where they were showing the Germany v Korean Republic match. So far it was a 0-0 draw, but it wasn’t looking good for Germany because they needed to win to stay in the competition. At first, there was only Trevor and I in the bar (apart from the barman), but we were quite amused when, one by one, more of the hotel staff, including the chef in his whites and tall hat, came into the bar and gathered around the TV screen to watch the match! It ended up Germany 0 Korean Republic 2, so Germany were out!
Afterwards the bar emptied out, and we stayed for one more drink before turning in for the night, after a very full and interesting day. We had to be up at 6.00am tomorrow, in order to leave the hotel by 7.30am for the 90-mile drive to Bandipur.