Friday, June 23, 2017

Day 2: Touring Kathmandu - Bhaktapur - The Old City

After touring Pashupatinath, we returned to the old city center. According to Wikipedia, Durbar Square at Bhaktapur is a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to its well-preserved palatial courtyards as well as metal and stone artworks.

 The word "Bhaktapur" comes from the old Sanskrit / Nepali meaning "City of Devotees." Many shrines dot the Durbar square, including Nyatapola Temple below, a 5 story pagoda style building erected in the early 18th century. The temple is devoted to the worship of Laxmi, the Hindu goddess of wealth.
Nyatapola Temple

Adding a little color to our visit were the demonstrations taking place. Nepal has seen political turmoil in recent years, with the strife and even deaths among the royal family. This has given rise to outside parties seeking power, including Communist parties. During our visit, one of these parties was actively demonstrating in the area. After sightseeing and having lunch, we made our way towards Swayambhunath, the Monkey Temple, which was situated several kilometers away atop a hill overlooking the Kathmandu valley. 

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Day 2: Touring Kathmandu - Pashupatinath

After leaving the Boudhanath Buddhist temple, we boarded our touring van and went to the Pashupatinath Hindu temple.

Pashupatinath Temple, Kathmandu, Nepal
Pashupatinath Temple, Kathmandu, Nepal

A UNESCO World Heritage site, Pashupatinath is a large Hindu temple situated in eastern Kathmandu on the banks of the river Bagmati. Prior to entering the main temple, we toured the temple located across the river up on a hill overlooking Pashupatinath. The temple was referred to only as the "Monkey Temple," and the name was quite apt. The temple was surrounded by a forest that contained many free ranging monkeys as well as a central enclosure that housed many head of deer. The temple complex consisted of a large courtyard that housed the inner sanctum of the temple. The courtyard was surrounded by other buildings associated with the temple, all centuries old.

We prepared to enter, and were all allowed in after paying the fee except our American Caucasian friend EW. Sadly, the temples restrict visitors to "true believers" unless one pays an exorbitant fee, so EW decided to explore the surrounding areas and wait for us at the exit. As we entered the inner sanctum, we were required to remove our shoes. Unfortunately, we left our socks on, which subsequently got soaked due to the mix of water and mud that surrounded the inner temple. As offerings, many people pour milk for the deities, but these offerings just drain down leading to the floor being soaked. The inner room was had a skylight lighting up the deity around which people were placing their offerings. We placed ours, and then eventually exited to reunite with EW.

The exit actually consisted of many steep steps up to a point overlooking the main temple site. It was quite strenuous! But nothing like what awaited us in the Annapurna range itself. Seriously, after this trip, who needs things like weight loss surgery? Just go to Nepal and do the steps. We eventually came back down to the level of the river, but not before crossing between several saddhus (Hindu holy men) dressed in white. Over the years though, the true saddhus have been infiltrated by those of another sort, who prey on tourists and ask for money, hurling insults at those who do not comply.

Saddhu at Pashupatinath Temple, Kathmandu
A Saddhu At Pashupatinath (note the cigarette in his hand)

EW, unaware of this, paused to take a picture of one. The man asked for alms, and EW complied. However, the saddhu, disappointed in the amount, quickly started to hurl abuses at us, so we quickly moved on, crossing the bridge to the main Pashupatinath site.

Centuries old, the temple is made to honor the Hindu Lord Shiva. Per Wikipedia, the legend of the temple's foundation is:
Pashupatinath is the oldest Hindu temple in Kathmandu. It is not known for certain when Pashupatinath Temple was founded. But according to Nepal Mahatmaya and Himvatkhanda, [2] one day Lord Shiva grew tired of his palace atop Mt. Kailash and so went in search of a place where he could escape to. He discovered Kathmandu Valley and, without telling anyone, he ran away from his palace and came to live in the Valley. He gained great fame there as Pashupati, Lord of the Animals, before the other gods discovered his hiding place and came to fetch him. He disguised himself as a majestic deer and would not help the other gods when they asked for his help. When Shiva did not yield to their pleas, they planned to use force. God Vishnu grabbed him by his horns and they shattered into pieces. Vishnu established a temple and used the broken horns to form a linga on the bank of the Bagmati River. As time went by, the temple was buried and forgotten. Then a cow was known to have secretly sprinkled her milk over the mound. Apparently, when the cow herders dug around the spot, they found the lost lingas and again built a temple in reverence.
The temple had a similar layout to the Monkey Temple, with a large courtyard surrounding an inner temple housing the statue of the deity. However, here, the scale was simply much larger. We performed the same ritual offering and then exited. While the inner temple was peaceful enough, the exterior was a mix of crowds and squalor, a depressing site.

We had more places to see in Kathmandu on this day, but soon began to think about the peaks that teased us over the horizon.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Day 2: Touring Kathmandu - Boudhanath

After arriving in Kathmandu and meeting our guides from Earthbound Expeditions, we were ready to begin our trip by touring Kathmandu.

Kathmandu is the capital and primate city of Nepal. Located centrally within Nepal, the city has developed over the centuries to become a bustling center of commerce and tourism. To us though, it looked pretty much like any other Indian city we had visited, although perhaps a bit more cosmopolitan than we expected. One thing that was striking was the wide range of ethnicities / morphologies that constituted the Nepalese people. Beforehand, I would have imagined some were Indian and others, Chinese, but they all considered themselves Nepalese with little distinction made despite varying features. It made me feel quite hopeful to see how the people were able to look past their superficial differences to feel united as one nation, rather than using physical differences to segregate themselves.

The city itself was a chaotic network of winding narrow lanes filled with oversized cars, people, and all sorts of modes of transportation. Our itinerary for the day included visiting many religious sites of significance, specifically Boudhanath, Pashupatinath Temple, Durbar Square, and Swayambhunath.

Our first stop of the day was Boudhanath. The site continues one of the largest Buddhist stupas in all of Nepal. As of 1979, the stupa was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. Construction on the site began in roughly the 6th century AD. We left our hotel in the morning in a chartered van, winding through the narrow avenues of Kathmandu heading towards the outskirts of the city where the stupa was located. From the street, it was unclear what exactly we were going to visit as we exited the van. All I could see was a crowded street with vendors and people strolling about, haphazardly constructed buildings leaning over us all. However, as we turned the corner into the entrance way, the massive white domed stupa came into view.

Boudhanath stupa

The stupa consists of a large base ringed by prayer wheels around which people may walk. One climb upon the base itself and walk closer to the stupa itself. The stupa then consists of a white dome with a gold tower crowning it, rising up from the base. Eight all-
seeing eyes are on the four faces of the tower. On the periphery of the base are many shops and vendors, along with one temple with many large, gold-gilded figures of Buddha and other religious figures. There are colorful prayer flags strung everywhere. The prayer wheels and flags contain prayers printed on them. Our guide told us that within the dome of the stupa, there were a 1000 Buddha figurines, but no one was to ever disturb a single figure. Although there was no way to verify this claim, the stupa was impressive enough that it was easy enough to believe.

After we entered, we walked around the base once, and then atop it as well. After we came down from the base, we went into a small temple adjacent to the base and watched individuals meditating. We also spun the prayer wheels ourselves, which is thought to bring good fortune. Even if it doesn't, it was still fun to do! There are small, hand-sized prayer wheels everywhere, but inside the temples there are massive 15 feet tall wheels which require both arms to turn. After many people had pushed though, these large wheels could get going pretty fast.

Exiting the base temple, we crossed the large walkway to the periphery, where we found the regular Buddhist temple with the large golden figurines. They were impressive in their size and detail. My friends were so taken by the temple, they even went to receive blessings from the local priest! I can understand the sentiment: after the chaos of the street, entering this sanctuary so close yet so apart from the world outside had a calming effect on us all.

Buddhist temple with golden figurines inside

We were reflective as we left Boudhanath, but were looking forward to visiting the Hindu Pashupatinath Temple next!

Friday, August 28, 2009

Books To Help You Prepare To Trek

Prior to departing for our trek, we prepared intensely by planning out the logistics and educating ourselves about trekking and Nepal. As a novice trekker, I wanted a guide that would orient me to trekking and to the Annapurna region of the Himalayas in Nepal. If you are planning a similar trek, I highly recommend Lonely Planet Trekking in the Nepal Himalaya.

The book is written in a plain and easy-to-read fashion. It is written in chapters by various experienced trekkers who have spent many years in Nepal. The medical section is also well-written, authored by a doctor familiar with both wilderness and high-altitude medicine. The book includes many pictures and maps to make your trip easy to navigate. Additionally, local culture is discussed extensively, which helps you better acclimate to your surroundings and act in an appropriate manner.

The book also does an excellent job discussing the history of trekking in general and specifically in Nepal. For example, it describes the history and structure of the Annapurna Conservation Project, also known as ACAP. The group regulates the heart of the Annapurna region, helping conserve the space, going so far as to even set the menus for each teahouse! The standardization has been highly beneficial though, as it has helped visitors understand the expectations both of them and their hosts. By reading the book before your trip, you feel much more comfortable about your health, your lodging, and your ultimate destination: Annapurna Base Camp!

Another book to consider getting is the country guide: Lonely Planet Nepal.

I did not have as much time to read through this guide, but I found the section on Kathmandu and the Thamel district very instructive. Like the trekking guide, it has good tips and maps to help you find your way around. Furthermore, I feel Lonely Planet Nepal has a good balance of historical detail to help you understand the context of your sightseeing and why the places you visit are places of interest. Lonely Planet Nepal complements Lonely Planet Trekking in the Nepal Himalaya quite well.

There is a list of items to take on the trek in Lonely Planet Trekking in the Nepal Himalaya, such as clothing and health-related items. A future post will discuss more specifics about the appropriate equipment to get prior to your trek.

Update: If you love the Lonely Planet series of travel guides, check out this podcast interview with the founders Maureen and Tony Wheeler, and their journey to creating Lonely Planet: How I Built This.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Day 1: Meeting Our Guides From Earthbound Expeditions

After arriving in Kathmandu and leaving our belongings in our hotel, we relaxed a bit as we waited to meet our guides from the Earthbound Expeditions trekking agency.

Per their site, Earthbound Expeditions was founded in 1997 by Mr. Rajan Simkhada. Mr. Simkhada started his career in tourism as a Front Desk Attendant at a Hotel in Thamel in 1994. In 1996, he joined a reputed trekking company, as tour and trek leader. During this period, he led the tours to entire Nepal, Tibet, Bhutan and India. After leading many such tours and treks he established himself as a senior guide and later partnering with few of his friends, started an independent company with the banner "Earthbound Expeditions".

My friend AD who had researched and planned this trip had selected Earthbound after reading through many reviews. The big selling point though was that the price per head was roughly half of what Western companies like REI might charge for essentially the same trek. We paid roughly 30,000 Indian rupees, or approximately $600 USD for 15 days including all our lodging, more than 90% of our meals, and the services of 1 guide and 3 porters/sherpas. It is hard to imagine finding a better deal elsewhere.

The office for Earthbound Expeditions was located in the Thamel district as well, just a few blocks from Hotel Manang, so we strolled down the winding roads to the turn off alley for their office. We proceeded up some dimly lit stairs, with walls plastered with posters of breathtaking vistas from around Nepal and the subcontinent. Once inside the office, Rajan greeted us with chai and a brief summary of our trek. We listened pleasantly, half hearing what he said, half imaging the sights we were about to see. Ultimately though, it came time to transfer payment to Earthbound. Because of counterfeiting, the government of Nepal has banned denominations Indian currency greater than 100 rupees. Which means, we had to pay our 30,000 charge... in 100 rupee bills, or 300 bills in total. When we put our fees together, it was easily the most paper money any of us had ever seen!

Payment For Nepal Trek In Rupees Stack Of Money
The "Money Shot"

I gotta admit, one has some reservations handing over that much money in cash, but they were very professional about it and gave us a receipt on the spot. After the transfer, we actually could breathe easier and lazily sipped our chai before preparing to leave.

Afterwards, we proceeded to explore more of the Thamel district. It has a similar feel to an Indian city center, constantly bustling with people, cycles, cars, and all modes of transportation. However, as Kathmandu draws a fairly cosmopolitan crowd due to the tourism industry, there was an eclectic mix of stores catering to individuals from all around the world. The lighting might strike some as a bit garish, but the colors served to emphasize the buzz in the air. Our merry group eventually settled on a Thai restaurant for dinner, where we enjoyed a pleasant meal on the second floor overlooking some of the commotion below. We returned to our hotels with our stomachs filled and eyes heavy, ready to sleep and begin our adventure!

Friday, August 14, 2009

Day 1: Arriving In Kathmandu

Meeting up in Delhi was quite an adventure in itself. However, even the flight to Kathmandu was less than straightforward. After I met my friends in the Indira Gandhi International Airport international departures terminal at our lower level gate, we passed through the initial gate check without problems. However, instead of boarding the plane directly, we were seated on a bus that took us across the tarmac out to our waiting plane. Although we thought we would be the last ones to board, it turned out there was a whole busload of people who would arrive after us!

After getting off the bus, we thought we would board the plane directly. Wrong. The airline security had set up another checkpoint where we had to go through the entire procedure of checking our persons and our bags again. It was quite tedious and hectic, as the "security" area was a small tent just before the staircase leading up to the plane. Luckily, we cleared security again without issue and found our seats.

I was quite ready to settle down for a two hour nap. However, my stomach tried to disagree strenuously. As we waited for the plane to taxi and takeoff, I perused the menu provided by Jet Airways. I had eaten a little beforehand, so I skipped lunch. I later found out that my friends had had nothing to eat and were banking on this meal on the flight for sustenance. Unfortunately for them, they were seated in the exact middle of the plane. There were two carts of food, but both were empty by the time they reached my friends' seats! Somehow, they survived, but were a bit grumpier than I expected when we landed.

The Tribhuvan Airport at Kathmandu, Nepal is a full international airport, yet has the feel of a Greyhound terminal. Our landing was especially bizarre as it occurred just after the global outbreak of swine flu. Everyone was wearing facemasks, and we had to pass through an additional health inspection. We finally passed through all the hurdles and met our guides from Earthbound Expeditions. The reception they gave us was excellent, meeting us enthusiastically and presenting each one of us with a traditional garland. We were then escorted to a waiting Toyota HIACE to take us to our hotel.

We stayed our first night in the Hotel Manang in the touristy Thamel district of Kathmandu. The hotel afforded decent accommodations, but its major selling point was a high-speed Internet connection in the lobby that let us easily communicate with family back home. We settled in to our lodgings to relax and build up energy for our tour of Kathmandu the next day. We had finally arrived in Nepal!

Hotel Manang in Thamel District, Kathmandu, Nepal
Hotel Manang in Thamel District, Kathmandu, Nepal

Friday, July 24, 2009

Day 1: Flying To Kathmandu

After months of preparation, mostly by one of my friends AD, we met up in New Delhi, India to board our flight to Kathmandu, Nepal. To find our flight, we first tried Kayak Flights and then seeing if Orbitz had any deals. We eventually settled on a JetLite flight from Delhi to Kathmandu that fit all of our schedules well. Since I had been traveling separately prior to meeting in Delhi, our travels required quite a bit of coordination. I arrived in Delhi at about 6 AM via an overnight train from Jodhpur, Rajasthan. The train ride was decent enough. The benefits of an overnight train ride is that you board, fall asleep, and wake up at your destination. The downside is that the cabins and seats are a bit cramped, especially for someone with a relatively larger frame like myself. At any rate, I got to Delhi in one piece.

Upon arrival, I waited with my mother and aunt in the International terminal's traveler's lounge. The lounge at Indira Gandhi International airport is located directly across from the ticketing area on the upper level. Passengers are allowed to enter free of charge up to 8 hours prior to their anticipated departure time. Guests can also enter for a nominal fee. The lounge is reasonably comfortable, with a cafe and food court present as well as much needed fans and A/C. There are also several AirTel phone booths available to place phone calls. We waited in the lounge for approximately 6 hours, passing the time comfortably, napping, snacking, or chatting.

About two hours before my flight departure, I entered the ticketing area. There are several security checks. First, a guard checks that you have a valid ticket prior to entering the ticket area. Then, you have to check in at your airline's counter. Next, there is an exit customs process. Finally, there is a security check where they scan you and your carry-ons, after which you are finally allowed to proceed to your gate. Inside, the airport is like many other international airports, although perhaps a bit smaller. There is a center area with several duty-free shops. Around the periphery there are various cafes and small shops, including a Subway sandwich shop.

For my flight, I proceeded to the lower level, where there are two additional gates. Not the most ingenious design, but I suppose it gives them extra flexibility with flights. Also, they do not have retractable gate ramps, so one must board a bus to drive from the gate to the plane itself out on the tarmac. This process means that one must arrive at the gate even earlier than usual. As the time to board the first bus came and went, I started to get nervous. My friends had not arrived yet! I had no idea where they were, and little means to contact them. I faced a dilemma: do I wait for them and risk missing the flight myself, or board alone but risk being separated? As I watched the seconds tick by, I was unsure what the right thing to do was. Still, my default choice was to remain where I was and stick to the plan. I had seen enough movies (Jurassic Park, for example) where things went wrong just because people didn't stick to the plan, so yea, I was stickin' around.

My strategy paid off: running through the airport, thirty minutes late but undaunted, my friends appeared! Rule number 1 for starting a trek: have all the trekkers present. And off we went!