Killing Time in Kathmandu
Wednesday 11th - Tuesday 17th July
We were immediately seduced by Kathmandu and, with another nine days at our disposal, pledged to explore as many of its enigmatic crannies as possible. Of course, no week in Kathmandu would be complete without several supplicatory sojourns at the Indian visa office or, since the city functions as a base from which tourists can do all sorts of adventurous things, a trek.
For us this meant three days of trudging through dank rainforest, scrambling up escarpments intended only for mountain goats, torrential downpours and leeches. The first day involved walking uphill for six hours to the 2,300metre-high village of Chisapani and one of its four tiny, deserted guesthouses. Now, here it is vital to note that I am absolutely climb-up-the-nearest-person, shriek-like-a-madwoman terrified of spiders. Give me snakes, swarms of cockroaches, give me ravenous bears, but KEEP THE SPIDERS AWAY. The rainforest, paths and paddies were crawling with my least favourite creature, but I had expected this, and managed on the whole to let them go about their business in the understanding that it was I who was on their turf. Quite reasonably then, I felt somewhat shortchanged after a sleepless night in freezing, dirty beds when, at 6am, I happened to open my eyes just in time to see a very large spider rounding the top of the mattress towards me, and a mere 3 inches from, my nose.
Naturally I screamed bloody murder (and several profanities which I’d like to hope the sleeping hotel staff couldn’t understand), jumped out of bed and climbed up Luke (my boyfriend), who had also sprung out of bed thinking the hotel was on fire. Not the world’s best wake up call.
Luckily this was more than made up for when, after a day of clambering to the hilltop town of Nagarkot, we glanced at the horizon and, as the sun set and the mist cleared, were treated to the other-worldly spectacle of a hundred snow-capped peaks suddenly appearing above the clouds, hovering over the world as we were on our guesthouse rooftop. Natural wonders rarely take my breath away, but being suddenly confronted by the Himalayas in all their grandeur is a sight I won’t soon forget.
Unfortunately the trek also marked our first run in with Delhi-Belly (or, in this case, Kathmandu-Valley-Mountain-Village-Belly). It’s not surprising since we dined exclusively (and otherwise wonderfully) in mountainside sheds containing three tables, one kitchen and a single be-saried woman. Needless to say, this made the trek a lot harder. Also, when we returned to Kathmandu (two aching bodies, one infected foot, two colds and a lot of damp clothes later), the trip to the Indian embassy and visit to the new royal palace, all the more delightfully challenging.
The Narayanhiti Palace was, nonetheless, fascinating and I will freely admit, thanks to my insatiable morbid curiosity, a place I was particularly intrigued to visit. It was here, amongst the sumptuous décor and 1960s architecture, that Crown Prince Dipendra murdered nine members of his family in a shocking, alcohol-fuelled rampage in 2001 that left devotedly royalist Nepal reeling and led indirectly to the end of Nepal’s monarchy in 2008.
The foundations of the room where the massacre took place are even part of the area (now a museum) open to the public (complete with diagrams detailing the location of each death) and, as you’d expect, is a chilling reminder that things are not always what they seem.
We also paid a visit to the Boudha district, home to the Great Stupa. It’s one of the world’s largest Buddhist monuments in the world, set in the centre of a thriving town of monasteries and craftshops, and thousands of exiled Tibetans are drawn to the area by its famed sacred energy. As an example of Kathmandu’s beautiful, ancient culture the stupa is outdone only by Kathmandu’s most famous attraction, Durbar Square, which lies in the heart of the city, flanked by Jhochhen (or ‘Freak Street’, the former heartland of the hippies and free spirits who flocked to the city in the 1960s and 70s). The square itself holds the old royal palace and a collection of temples, as well as the small palace of the Kumari or ‘living goddess’ - a pre-pubescent girl believed to contain the spirit of the goddess Durga and worshipped until the deity leaves her body in her early teens.
The rest of our time was spent wandering aimlessly - deliciously - through the unending alleys of Thamel, buying things made of hemp, drinking lassi, taking in the glorious smells and generally gorging on dal, thali, paneer and momo (Nepali dumplings), before finally - Indian visas (at last) in hand - it was time to leave Kathmandu and head for Nepal’s second city, Pokhara.