Thursday, October 23, 2008

A High Point

Kathmandu! The name conjures up images of mountains, climbers, and Sherpa guides so I wasn't prepared for this bustling metropolis of over a million people. As we fought our way into the city through the usual frenetic traffic, we passed huge, golden Buddhas, temples and high-rise modern buildings. Our hotel is in a tourist district full of schlock shops, outfitters and tour operators offering trekking, rafting, bus and city tours. Like Pokhora, there are tons of tourists, mainly young Europeans, all looking lean and fit so we blend right in with the crowd :-)

There was lots to do here so we booked a city tour for $20 each which lasted six hours and took in the Buddhist Monkey Temple, a Hindu shrine, and the walled city of Bhakapur dating from the twelfth century.

The Buddhist temples are huge domes that contain some relic of Buddha such as bone, hair or fingernail. They are sealed but on each compass point, there is an alcove containing a statue of Buddha where people go to pray. Incense fills the air and as does the sound of people ringing a bell to announce their arrival to the deity. Prayer wheels of all sizes line the perimeter and people walk along the row gently making them turn which sends the mantra carved on the wheel up to wherever. Above it all, multicoloured prayer flags fly in the breeze overhead like some used car lot also carrying their message on the wind.

Bhakapur was a huge walled city containing a royal palace and numerous temples including the highest one in Nepal. People still occupy the buildings and the narrow streets are filled with the daily life of shopping, gossiping and children playing. We are always amused at how the kids here make games and play with nothing more then stones or each other. Swings are popular but there isn't a Play Station in sight.

The most interesting but disturbing stop was at the Hindu shrine. Apparently, this one has the same importance to Hindus as Mecca has to Muslims. We were unable to enter certain areas but did catch a glimpse of a giant, brass bull that is revered as Shiva's ride. Then it was down to the ghats, steps leading down to a river, where we witnessed a cremation taking place. The body was wrapped in a shroud and placed on a stack of wood which was then set on fire using small kindling and gee. The males of the family sit behind a grate and watch while a worker completes this unsettling task. In the short time we were there, there were four cremations taking place. When they're complete, the ashes are swept into the river where children were merrily swimming and fishing! To break the somber mood, Bill said "Imagine when that guy goes home at night and his wife says 'Do you want to barbecue'?"

I had imagined that we would be able to see Mount Everest at 29,028 ft, from Kathmandu but it was not to be so we took a plane ride to within 5 nautical miles of the face and it was truly spectacular! Everest, known in Nepal as Sagarmatha, Goddess of the Sky and in Tibet as Jomolungma, Mother of the World, was named for an English surveyor in 1865. It wasn't until May 29, 1953 that Sir Edmund Hilliary, a Kiwi, and his Sherpa guide, Tenzing, were the recorded people to reach the summit. For a fascinating account of a doomed climb, get Into Thin Air by Jon Kakauer.

Road to Darjeeling is washed out and bridge to Sikkim is gone so tomorrow we head south, back to India.