One of our panelist CA Pavan partner of Balakrishna Consulting LLP a startup consulting firm, had been to Kathmandu a few months back (before the earthquake) and here this a journal of his travel. Hope you like this.
Day 0 – 3rd April 2015
I landed on the 3rd of April 2015. It was the first time I had experienced what ‘air traffic congestion’ means. The flight from Delhi (Indira Gandhi International Airport – Terminal 3) usually takes around 1 hour to reach Kathmandu (Tribhuvan International Airport). My flight (Indigo 6E 31) took 1 hour 45 minutes due to heavy air traffic. So, the pilot had to take the plane around in circles, turn the plane back a few miles away and attempt entry into Kathmandu. Pilots are given far less credit than they deserve. It’s a tough job and they do it amazingly well.
I finally landed at the airport and one look could tell why there was so much congestion. Tribhuvan Airport is a tiny place for a tourist hub like Nepal. There are not many runways (only 2 I guess) and the terminal is small. There are only 3 conveyor belts to get luggage and it took 1 hour only to get my baggage back. It then took 1 hour to get a Nepali SIM (Ncell ) and finally 1 more hour or so to get to my hotel in Hatigaunda (pronounced Hatti-gow-da) – Royal Astria. My hotel is further from the main city close to the foot of a range of small hills (by Himalayan standards that is – so they are quite a decent size). The air around is crisp and cold. The temperatures fall to 12 – 13 degrees by nightfall. All in all – a wonderful place to stay.
I grabbed some lunch and by the time I finished it had begun to rain. There was no way I could go out far and so, I decided to have a walk on the streets by my hotel. Despite the distance from the city, there are quite a few shops around. Most of them sell vegetables, meat and liquor. What is interesting is that liquor shops here are run by women and you can also get liquor from a small provision store. There was also a shop selling ostrich meat. After my fiasco with the Turkey, I can only imagine how an ostrich would taste. I was back to my hotel soon. The first day had been uneventful. I slept in anticipation of the next day.
Day 1 – 4th April 2015
I woke up early today. The day breaks at 05:15 / 30 here. After my morning chores, I decided to head out. My first destination was the famous Pashupatinath Temple.
@ The abode of Shambo
Pashupatinath literally means the ‘ruler of all living beings’. After PM Modi’s visit I had read about the temple and was fascinated by it. It was this temple that tempted me to visit Kathmandu in the first place and I was not disappointed one bit. If you can, please read more about it online – it is the only (I guess) temple in the world where cremation takes place within the temple complex.
I started from my hotel at around 05:45 deciding to talk to the temple. It is 5 kms away from the hotel. In 2 kms I was close enough to a bus stand to ignore my temptation to reach the place sooner. I was on the bus from Maharaja Chowk to Pashupatinath Temple. The bus stops close to a lane that leads to the temple.
The lane from the bus stop winds down through shops selling flowers & offerings to the deity, small temples, shops of astrologers and those selling items like the rudrakhsh, bronze idols and photos. The lane led to the entrance at the temple walls where a large metal ‘dwara’ reads “Let us join to save the heritage site of Pashupatinath”. Once in, you are witness to a large temple complex and the main temple is right at the center. The river Bagmati (the people of Nepal treat it with the same reverence as Ganga – this it is no surprise that the river is just as polluted as the Ganga) flows through the temple complex and is just behind the main temple.
The main temple’s entrance has an imposing statue of Lord Shiva beautifully painted in blue. A massive bronze Nandi can be seen from outside the entrance. Photography is prohibited within the main temple complex.
Once inside the main temple, you are overwhelmed by the devotion and fervor around. There is a strong smell of incense and ‘dhoop’. The ‘garbhagudi’ is built of wood and the roof of structure spreads outwards. The roof and walls of the garbhagudi are beautifully decorated. It stands on top of a stone plinth. It must have taken special skill to carve out deities on the gudi’s roof as they spread at a 45 degree angle outward. The queue was a bit erratic but short. While I was in the queue, I saw the temple priests who had just begun the morning Pooja. They were circumambulating the main temple. They are dressed similar to the way Shankaracharya dressed and are called Bhattas (the connection between the two is wonderful – please read about it. Shankaracharya truly deserves the title of the greatest of all Hindu saints). The priests enter the temple in a strange manner. They don’t walk inside the gudi, but jump through a window in the main door of the temple using a chain. I have not seen this anywhere else.
The queue gave me an opportunity to look around. The carvings on the gudi’s walls are exquisite. There is a carving of a deity made fully of bones. I am not sure if it is Kali. There is a similar carving in Ellora – only that the one in Ellora is huge and grand in its appearance. I was finally at the window from where you can see the Lord (same window from which the Bhatta’s jumped in).
Lord Pashupatinath is a shivling – it is made of black stone and had the face of Shiva inscribed on it. There are 4 faces in all directions. The linga is decorated as per Nepali tradition where the lips of the Lord are smeared with red paste. The image of Shiva looks wonderful, one that will stay in your memory for long. It is intimidating and captivating at the same time. You are allowed to pray for a few seconds. It is quite peaceful – no one tugs at you or pushes you when you are by the deity. The experience was wonderful.
I walked down the stone plinth and walked towards a group of devotees singing bhajans. This was a unique experience. Their voice, instruments (a dhol, chimta, dhol and damaru) and music is one that you will not find easily elsewhere. The whole crowd joins in the singing. The bhajans may not confirm to the accepted meaning of melody, but is has a profound effect on you within those temple walls. A few feet away from this group was the parapet that overlooked the Bagmati river and the ghats where cremation takes place.
One look down and my mood changed. There is no other place where death and life come so close. A few feet behind me were a group of devotees singing in an exalted mood celebrating life and wishing for the grace of Lord Pashupatinath. A few feet below were 4 dead bodies and grieving relatives. The bodies would soon be cremated. The ghats are massive in structure and the public is allowed to witness the cremation. I stayed back for as long as I could. No wonder photography is banned within – I would not be surprised if someone took photos of the cremation as well – spare some thought for the grieving relatives.
I took a seat by the parapet wall, meditated for some time and was back on my feet to look around. There are small temples within the complex. Many dedicated to Shiva. At one place there is a complex that houses many shiva lingas. At the exit there is a priest who puts kumkum on your forehead. Nepali tradition is very different when it comes to the way kumum is applied. Firstly, it is mixed with rice and is made a thick paste. The kumkum is applied as a large circle on the top half of the forehead at the center – unlike in south India where it is a small dot between the eyebrows. With the kumum on my forehead and most of the complex seen, I headed out; but not without a final Darshan of the Lord. There is another small queue where people can see the Lord from. The final vision was fantastic as I was able to stay a few seconds longer due to an old couple in front of me. With that, the visit to Pashupatinath was complete. Jai Shambo.
# My luck and a bike
Out of the Pashupatinath temple complex, I was back on the same lane that took me back to the bus stop. I was in a fix – should I take the bus or just walk. My next destination was planned as the UNESCO World Heritage Site – Boudhnath. A unique aspect about busses / mini-vans in Nepal is how much they charge for a trip. The standard rate is Nepali Rupees 15 irrespective of distance; so travelling to another town, 20 – 30 kilometers away would cost you the same as travelling between two stops a walking distance away from each other. But I have seen a few passengers being charged a little more or less.
Boudhnath can be reached by walk from Pashupatinath. It is a walk back to the north and a sign-post at a junction will indicate a “right” turn to Boudhnath. There is also a small Buddhist temple on the road that leads to the junction. I stopped for a quick cup of tea; had a chat with the shopkeeper who was from Jharkhand – he was a quirky man whose father worked as a tour guide with the Nepal Government – and I was back on the road.
The road to Boudhnath is a bustling market. Many shops selling all types of things – clothes, mobiles, food, electronics and much more. The famous Hyatt Hotel is also on this street (there is a small board just outside the Hyatt which reads ‘Accident prone zone’ – I wonder why?) and you will also see many Tibetans as Boudhnath is a sacred destination for them. I walked along and saw a shop with a board “Meals &…” seemed like an ordinary shop and I took two steps forward and realized there were 3 Pulsar bikes and 1 Honda bike parked. I looked at the board again – “Meals & Bike on Rent”. I was elated. I went in and checked.
Bikes are available on rent in Nepal. The place where this is most common is Thamel which was a bit far from my place. I was delighted to find a bike rental so close. There was a middle aged woman preparing for the afternoon ‘meals’. I inquired and she said bikes with gear cost NRs 1,000 per day and those without gear cost NRs 800. Helmet and petrol upto nearest petrol bunk are free. All I needed to do was to deposit my passport with her. I chose the one without gear as it would be easier to keep the helmet inside. At that point, her husband appeared from within the darkness of the shop with a cigarette in hand. I do not think he had heard his wife give out the price and said NRs 1,000 for the gearless – I said “But the lady told me NRs 800”; he said “NRs 200 extra for parking”; I said “But I will be parking at my hotel, so why do I have to pay you for it”; he said “I am taking the risk of giving the bike to you at night, so extra”. After a bit he agreed to give it for NRs. 800 and told me that there was great demand for the bike; “come back with your passport soon or it will be gone”. So much for my visit to Boudhnath. I decided to turn back immediately to my Hotel. Caught a mini-van; then a bus (met a man in the bus who visits Pashupatinath every day in the morning) and then another mini-van; in 45 minutes or so I was back to my hotel.
At the hotel is a man by name Virat. A charming man who smiles little but is extremely helpful. He had told me earlier that he would check if he could get me a bike too. I don’t think he was able to get any. I told him about the bike and inquired if he had any. To my luck, he did. A Honda Twister bike – with gear. I requested if I could use it. He thought for a while and said ok. After some negotiation (I still did handover my passport to him) and some 20 minutes later, I was on the Twister. With a bike in hand, the whole of Kathmandu suddenly seemed a small step away. I was soon to realize that the adage ‘a small step in a foreign land; a giant leap in trouble’ is so true!
# the visit to Swayambhunath
Swayambhunath is a Buddhist Stupa located to the west of Kathmandu. It is a half an hour ride from my hotel. The journey on the bike was very different from that in the bus. For one, Kathmandu is a very polluted city. The levels of air pollution are very high. Due to strong winds, the dust on the street often blows right into your face. Contributing to the pollution are the vehicles. I am not sure if getting emission tested in Nepal is mandatory. If not, I would rather have them implement this right away. Busses, trucks, tractors (which are unique as they do not have a steering wheel; instead the front wheels are attached to long arms that look like an elongated scooter’s arms) and other big vehicles let out huge plumes of black smoke every kilometer it travels. Add to it the blazing heat of the afternoon and you have the perfect mix to end up with your lungs clogged. Trust me when I say this – by the time I returned to my hotel, I had dust in the pocket of my shirt. That is how polluted Kathmandu is!
I reached Swayambunath sometime in the afternoon. The stupa is beautiful. Next to the stupa is a park that houses massive statues of Gautam Buddha, Padmasambhava and Avalokiteshvara. Padmasambhava is supposed to have spread Buddhism across Nepal and Tibet. Avalokiteshvara is a symbol of compassion. It is depicted in some cultures as male and in some as female. Some say that this deity is neither male nor female. It is hard to make out which gender by looking at the statue – the same even in Kushalnagar’s Buddhist temple.
As is the case with many Buddhist temples, the sculptor was captivating. I went around the stupa and also turned the prayer wheels. A “prayer wheel” is a cylindrical piece of wood which is wrapped around with a metal plate. The metal plate has a ‘mantra’ written on it. It is believed in Buddhism that turning the prayer wheel is as good as reciting the mantra. I recited a few mantras and a while later, I was on my bike to my next destination – Whitegumba.
# a short ride to Whitegumba
Whitegumba is a Buddhist temple around 15 kilometers to the south of Swayambunath. The ride was interesting as it had some sharp bends and turns. The view from the top was brilliant. Unfortunately, the temple was closed and would be so for another 6 months. I had to turn my bike around and head back.
# 45 kilometers to nowhere
Some 30 minutes later, I was back on the junction which opens to Swayambunath. On my left was the road that brought me here from the hotel and to the right lay a road which supposedly led to Thamel. Thamel is the hub of all tourists in Kathmandu. I don’t drink and had no company – so a visit to Thamel was useless (unless one wants to see many tourists; which you can almost anywhere in Kathmandu). But I wanted to ride through and see how it was; can you imagine the embarrassment if someone would retort later – “What did you do in Kathmandu if you did not visit Thamel?”. I had to save myself from the embarrassment; I pulled out my mobile, tapped on Google Maps, From: My location; To: Thamel. Google Maps showed 15 kilometers to the right & then straight. Seemed so simple. I turned by bike to the right and off I was.
There is nothing picturesque of the roads in Kathmandu. If you had the patience to wipe the dust and soot off your visor, you would realize that the roads are not that large, have plenty of potholes and less tarmac than one would desire. The habitation is not that dense around the roads and shops are scattered around. I was expecting that this would change as I got closer to Thamel.
30 minutes & 15 kilometers later (I should have reached my destination by now), I parked my bike by the road and looked around. I did what Google told me – look not right, nor left, and ride straight ahead. I did not have the bustling market that Thamel is famous for. Instead I had some rusty looking shops and a road before me that looked like it would not end. Time to get the map out again. I typed; From: My location; To: Thamel. Google Maps showed 10 kilometers, straight. I thought I was reading wrong – but half an hour ago Thamel seemed only 15 kilometers away. It now seemed to have magically moved ahead of me by another 10 kilometers. I had no option, I was back on the bike, and rode ahead.
20 minutes later, I find myself nowhere. Thamel seems like an oasis to me now. Somewhere in the middle of all these dusty roads. Pulled the maps out, it now said, 10 kilometers to your right. I was beginning to lose my patience. I decided to take out the map and check it every 5 minutes. I realized that there is no ‘straight’ road in Kathmandu. There is always a small left or right somewhere. It is so obscure that it appears as a straight road on the map.
The route I was on now, first took me beside the Koteshwor airstrip and then took me alongside the Bishnu river. Koteshwor airstrip is used by small planes which take tourists on a trip by air over the Himalayas. One can also see the Everset in one these flight – it costs you plenty though. Bishnu ‘river’ is a canal now for all the dirt the city pours into it. Like the massive canal on Mysore Road in Bangalore. The road that ran alongside was pathetic to say the least. The stench was overpowering. The road was slushy due to the rains. Garbage all around. So much for the tag ‘river’. It took me 20 minutes to complete the journey of 4 kilometers. At the end of this road was a junction and beyond that, the road that led to Chabel which is 7 kilometers from my hotel. It was as good as reaching home.
Back to my hotel, I realized it had taken me almost 2 hours and 45 kilometers to get back – a journey that I had completed in 30 minutes is 7 kilometers. The negative – lot of dust on clothes & face, nasty time with the sun beating on my neck and petrol unnecessarily wasted. The positive – I now understand the roads of Kathmandu reasonably well, I realized the importance of headphones while using Google maps while on a bike, and also saw the ‘less explored; less appealing’ areas of Kathmandhu.
I definitely deserved that hot shower.
I decided to visit Boudhnath in the evening. I knew the road that led to it. Afterall, it is the walk on this road that helped me getting a bike to ride on. The weather was begging to get cooler and it looked like it would rain. I started from my hotel and in 30 minutes as at another UNESCO World Heritage Site – Boudhnath.
The gate that opens to Boudhnath is non-descript. If you miss the massive white stupa inside, chances are you will walk right past the entrance to this wonderful place! Boudhnath is a huge white stupa and around the stupa is the temple complex which houses many shops. The complex also houses a few Buddhist monasteries where hymns are sung in the evening.
The stupa is adorned with the ‘compassionate eyes of Buddha’ – a symbol that personifies Nepal & which you will see everywhere. A walk around the stupa made me realize how big it is and how difficult building this was (read about this on Wikipedia – it is an interesting story; some say that this was built entirely by an old woman and her 4 sons!).
The winds were getting stronger and the flags that are placed all over the stupa fluttered madly. It had begun to drizzle and I had to find shelter soon.
The chosen location was a restaurant called “Stupa view Restaurant”. It was on the first floor and within the temple complex. A got a seat by the window which opened to the stupa; ordered masala tea and looked out. By the time tea was served, it had begun to rain heavily.
Life cannot get better when you can sip masala tea by a massive white stupa, on a cool rainy evening within the comfort of a cozy little restaurant. Nepal was beginning to grow into me.
I looked forward to my next day when I planned to visit the famous Nagarkot. But first, I had to buy myself some warm clothes for the ride next day.
continued Reading Kathmandu Diary by CA Pavan Part 2