It felt strange to leave India after almost three months there, mostly in the Rajasthan desert. We had our sunset boat ride in Varanasi and it seemed a fitting goodbye, our visas were expiring, the weather was uncomfortably hot, and it was time to go but I still felt like we would be back in our Jaipur neighborhood in 10 days in our usual pattern. Yet there we were, heading north to the Nepal border.
And someone was waking me up. The border-we had to cross it. The last time we did this, it was a complicated situation with visas and permits, police checkpoints, and walking a mile with our heavy backpacks at the Myanmar-India bridge. This time, I was a bit groggy but the process was smooth. They even let the twins in for free! As for the bus, we had heard the bus can change, charge you more, or leave you at the border, but none of this happened. The government bus staff were very helpful and soon all of us passengers were in Nepal on the winding roads to Kathmandu. We followed high cliffs along a chalky blue river and took hairpin turn after turn. We watched the Bollywood movie on the screen at the front of the bus, napped, passed the time. Eventually we came to the city and through to the bus stand.
We noticed some new construction, a lack of wandering cows, many motorbikes, dust, smog, litter, hills. It was much bigger than I’d imagined- 1.7 million for the district in 2011, I later read. We took a taxi to the Thamel district- the backpacker neighborhood. We found a hotel and relaxed.
Thamel, like any backpacker part of town, is not a place to get to know your surroundings. It is wonderful for familiar food, coffee shops, bookstores, gear, money changers, and travel companies. What I like to do is peruse the local travel offerings and see if we can arrange them ourselves. DH started talking with random people about trekking and we began planning to head for the Himalayas. But first we wanted to plan our exit to China since we had only 15-day Nepali visas. We also wanted to see some of the city. We ended up staying three nights in Kathmandu, about a week trekking, then another three nights in KMD.
A big disappointment was the Nepal-China border. It is still closed to tourists as it has been since the earthquake last year. We had gone from Philadelphia to Kathmandu without airplanes, but here we were stuck. We did not wish to go back the way we came (complicated Myanmar-India crossing in reverse, back through Thailand and Laos and then into China: we’d love to revisit where we had been, but it would be expensive and time-consuming). We had hoped to go to Tibet, despite the penalties of high cost and reducing our Chinese visas from 10 years to 20 days. Yes! China does this if you visit Tibet. Anyway, our hands were tied. We arranged for a flight through a travel agent. Sigh- so much higher cost than all the trains and busses we had been taking, but not nearly as exciting as a ship. No child discounts. Speaking of children, though, the twins were very excited about their first trip in an airplane! And we would fly over the Himalayas. We considered flying to Lhasa but quickly saw that we would have all the downsides of land travel (high fees in Tibet, downgraded Chinese visas) but very little of the benefits. We were sad not to visit Tibet, but we decided to go all the way north to Xi’an, where we hope to see the terra cotta warriors and then go westward towards Europe.
So we did a little sight seeing in Kathmandu. We took a pedal-rickshaw, actually three of them, to the UNESCO World heritage site of Durbar Square. It was the royal palace site dating back to the third century, though the buildings are much more recent. There was extensive damage from last year’s earthquake and repairs were underway. There were so many pigeons! People were feeding them corn sold by vendors.
We decided we couldn’t really afford the fees for entering Durbar, so we thought we’d view it from outside the gates. But then, just as we were turning away, a twitchy guy who spoke English pretty well made us an offer we couldn’t refuse. He said he could take us in a back way to see the gated area and be our guide for a fraction of the fee at the gate. We had noticed people walking through who did not look like tourists, and it did look like there were other ways to enter. In yet another questionable travel decision, we said ok. The next thing I knew, we were stooping low to pass through a doorway and then walking through a dark alley. “Here are the drunks and monks!”Our guide giggled as he led us through the alley. He giggled some more when he showed us an unexpected sight.
“This is fertility shrine. Couples make offering here when want children.” Yup, we were looking at ancient, UNESCO-recognized X-rated wood carvings. The kids got a little embarrassed, but I was laughing, partly with relief that we hadn’t been kidnapped by this fast-talking entrepreneur we had followed into sketchy environs. And of course this is the first place he shows us! We saw plenty of other things afterwards. Here is a God of justice. If you could survive telling it that you did not commit the crime, you were free.
An interesting thing we learned was about Nepali living goddesses. These are young girls (5yo or so) chosen by religious committees who, until they hit puberty, are believed to embody the divine. There are several throughout Nepal. Kathmandu’s living goddess resides near Durbar square and her home was not harmed in the earthquake- further proof to believers of her holiness. It’s a fascinating Nepal tradition; check out the link for an NPR article about a former goddess.
DH and I decided to walk from Thamel to this important hilltop temple. It took about two hours and we passed through some non-tourist areas. We stopped and had tea at a hole-in-the-wall shop. We peeked into stores where people were stringing some kind of necklaces for offerings. We saw dogs and kids, men wearing the fez-like hat that is so common here. Soon we saw a tall stone staircase and some dogs and monkeys.
We walked up all 350+ steps and were rewarded with a ticket office asking for the entry fee. Ok, no complaints here. It was only $2 and post-earthquake restorations were being done as we watched. There was quite a lot going on up there, actually. A group of women in glittering red saris were making an offering. Many vendors were making and selling their wares. Monkeys were being fed and shooed away and ignored as they climbed and jumped around.
We walked around Kathmandu just to see where the little streets would go. There were lovely little back streets with momo (dumpling) restaurants, tailors, and little courtyards with shrines. We are sandwiches with yak cheese (very good!) and tried a strange beer served hot with many seeds in the wooden cup.
DH with hot beer. It came with a straw that was pinched at the bottom so you don’t drink the seeds. It also came with a pot of hot water to pour over the seeds to make more beer after you drank what was there.