At the end of 2010 I went to Nepal for two and a half weeks, to review a program promoting renewable energy in rural communities. I spent several days in Kathmandu as well as traveling to the central regions: near the Chitwan National Park on the Indian border and around Pokhara in the mountains. These are some glimpses of another world.
After breakfast on my first morning in Kathmandu looking across the terrace and the rooftops towards the mountains – from 6000 over 8000 meters above sea level – I was driven up a hill to the “monkey temple.” This is a giant bell shaped construction with a golden spire and big painted eyes of the Buddha (called a “stupa”) surrounded by smaller wooden buildings, prayer bells, prayer wheels, incense burners, sleeping dogs and hundreds of monkeys.
The whole hillside swarms with monkeys, mixed up with pilgrims, monks, beggars and tourists. It’s an incredible place, with a fine view across the town and strong smells of dirt (there’s lots of rubbish everywhere and grey dust) and of worship (joss stocks and candles burning).
From the temple my driver took me towards the central square. This was a tiresome journey, stuck several times in narrow streets where buses, cars, motorbikes, rickshaws and pedestrians were battling for space to move forward. It was the wedding season in Kathmandu, so there were lots of processions with mariachi like bands and smartly dressed couples in taxis covered in flowers and paint. The streets were very congested and the colours, noise and smells took a while to get used to!
To round off the excursion, after a quick look at the central square and some downtown temples, a couple of palaces and a lake, not to mention thousands of shops buzzing with business, we went to the “ghats” along the river where the hindus – around 50 percent of Nepalis are hindus – burn the dead. This was a much quieter place but with an extraordinary atmosphere. The smell of the funeral pyres mingled with the stench of rotting flowers in the river.
There were three bodies blazing on the opposite side of the river and below a bridge a body was being prepared for burning. Wrapped in an orange blanket, the feet were dipped into the river. Then the body was laid out on flowers and a pile of straw and wood was set alight. There were lots of holy men hanging around wanting payment for ‘photos, mourners with shaved heads and young boys collecting the wood and kindling for the fires.
I watched for a while and then went back to the hotel through the crazy traffic. The driver promised to show me the best places in town to buy souvenirs. I took as many ‘photos as I could, but I was glad to retreat to the peaceful terrace of my hotel for a burger and coffee. There’s no doubt that “exotic” is the best word to describe Kathmandu, although “slightly mad” would probably do too.
A view towards the mountains from central Pokhara
Crossing a rope bridge en route to a remote village
Some villagers assembled and ready for a meeting
I have been back to Nepal this year (2016) for a short stay in Kathmandu only. There has been massive destruction caused by the 2015 earthquake. Life is hard for the people of the Himalayas, a region of “terrible beauty.”