Kathmandu inspires dreams, inspires adventure, inspires thousands of people each year to get a taste of the fabled Himalaya. Throughout my childhood I had read books on the great mountaineering expeditions, introducing the almost mystical places such as Kathmandu, Namche Bazaar and Pangboche, the hardiness of the sherpa and the awe of Everest Base Camp, I would visit these places one day I told myself. Many years later I found myself at Tribhuvan Airport after a long but luxurious flight from Gatwick to Abu Dhabi then on to Kathmandu. This wasn’t the luxury of business or first class, no, this was the luxury of four seats to myself, my own little airbourne haven.
The Kathmandu I experienced was a city of contrasts where abject poverty rubbed shoulders with opulence. Young children filtered the roadside refuse tips just outside the Thamel district for both food and objects that might possibly have some resale value. Beggars put out a hopeful hand wishing for the much valued dollar as tourists pass by, I even heard from a local store keeper that it was not unusual for poverty stricken parents to purposely maim their children only to send them out onto the streets with the chance that the obvious desperation would in turn generate an increased level of pity from passers by. I had no evidence to confirm such actions were carried out but I could not help to notice the number of children harbouring injuries both permanent and temporary. I was always told that to give to such unfortunate people only perpetuated the problem but my heart was too weak to follow this advice and I purchased a bag of fruit and vegetables to distribute as I saw fit. I have never seen such gratitude from such a small short lived gesture.
It was a surprise to discover that not more than one hundred metres further towards Bhagwati Bahal district stood the Royal Palace with its grand gates proudly betraying the presence of the aforementioned poverty. Instead it exuded a sense of grandeur and wealth that seemed unaware of the terrible drama that would be played out within its walls within the coming month. Walking further out into the residential areas surrounding Kathmandu houses and apartments that would not be out of place in any European city became evident and made it difficult to comprehend the depth of the chasm that seemed to separate the haves and the have-nots within the city.
But Kathmandu is not all about the divide between wealth and poverty. The Thamel district, widely accepted as the tourist capital within the capital, is a hive of excitement and activity both day and night creating an atmosphere that is stimulating and at times intense, an atmosphere to make you feel alive. Walking through the network of narrow streets crammed with stalls and shops their fronts bedecked with prayer flags, second-hand mountaineering equipment and tourist trinkets whilst tour operators touted for my business, bar staff invited me in for a beer, saranghi players sold their beautifully carved instruments and the multi-national throng of tourists created a resonating tone of myriad languages.
I had taken a room in the Kathmandu Guest House, itself located within the Thamel district. It would initially be a short stay of two nights before I hopped on a bus to Jiri from which I would start my trek to Everest Base Camp. I would then return to the capital for a week or so at the conclusion of my trek where I would stay at the Simeone Hotel, a mere stones throw from the Guest House.
My pre-trek stay in Kathmandu was taken up principally with long drawn out meanders around the markets, shops and stalls, taking the opportunity to sample what would be the familiar lentil curry known as Dal Bhat. Although I did not intend to take a guide to shepherd me to Everest base camp I did require a ticket for the flight back from Lukla airport to Kathmandu. My intention was to hunt around for the cheapest possible price but ultimately, after having sat down with six or seven tour operators who seemed less than interested due to my insistence on not taking a guide I became bored of the continual ‘no guide! You will get kidnapped by Maoists’ and returned to the first tour operator I had visited and hastily bought my ticket. The following day I identified the bus, which without the help of a very welcoming local businessman would have proved virtually impossible amongst the seemingly chaotic distribution of transports, and headed off to Jiri.
On my return to Kathmandu and with a nearly a week before my flight home I ensured that I made the most of my time visiting the wealth of attractions that Kathmandu and the surrounding area had to offer. First port of call was Pashhupatinath Temple which is located on the Bagmati River and is labelled as the holiest place within Nepal. At the time of visiting only Hindus were allowed into the temple grounds whilst non Hindus could view the temple and the associated ceremonies from across the Bagmati River. Regular cremations take place on pyres set directly alongside the Bagmati with the eldest son traditionally performing the ceremony. After the ceremony is complete the ashes are collected and released into the river to eventually be washed into the sacred Ganges. When I arrived a cremation ceremony was about to be performed so I stayed to watch, however, as the ceremony progressed and became more and more emotional with family members paying their last respects I began to feel I was in some way invading what was obviously a very personal farewell, so as the eldest son stepped up to light the funeral pyre I decided it was time to move on.
The Swayambhunath Stupa located in the far west of Kathmandu is built upon a hill reached by surmounting a stairway consisting of 365 steps and is also known as the ‘Monkey Temple’ due to the presence of ‘holy’ monkeys that live around the stupa and its surrounding temples and shrines. Although not in any way religious I did find the location itself rather mystical and it became easy to recognise that for many Swayambhunath has become a place of pilgrimage and worship. It is a busy place, hundreds of people flock to it to pray and worship although I noticed few tourists.
Basantapur Durbar Square is a plaza in front of the old royal palace of the historic Kathmandu kingdom and is located further south from the Thamel district. It is the site that probably receives most attention when Kathmandu is discussed and as well as the incredibly ornate and delicately carved and constructed buildings this attention is likely to also come from the presence of the Sadhus who seem to appear anytime you raise your camera to take a shot of, well, anything. When discussing more about the sadhus with a local guide, himself working within the Durbar Square complex, I was informed that they come in two forms, the devoutly religious who are engaged in a true spiritual search and beggars who have determined that this more sophisticated approach makes getting donations easier. Personally I found the sadhus added to the awe inspiring surroundings and was happy to take the obligatory photo with its associated cost. Durbar square could certainly be classed as more of a ‘tourist attraction’ with many nationalities being recognised throughout my own wanderings and despite the large numbers of people it is something not to be missed and was certainly one of the highlights of Kathmandu for me.
The final place I made a point of visiting was the Balaju Water Gardens located in the far North West of the capital. Not knowing what to expect I was disappointed to find that the gardens were in a reasonable state of disrepair but still maintained a taste of the original beauty that must have been present there. Statues and religious monuments sat within pools of, in many cases, still stagnant water. The most striking feature was a huge statue of a sleeping Vishnu reclining in a pool surrounded by water spouts carved into the guise of crocodiles and water dragons. Despite its rundown condition I spent quite some time walking around the gardens soaking up the peaceful ambience of being out of the non-stop activity associated with Thamel constantly imagining how stunning it must have looked when it was originally opened.
The highlight of my return stay in Kathmandu was attending a family arranged Saranghi concert performed in the small backroom of their upstairs apartment. Having wondered not only at the craftsmanship of the Saranghi but also the music that could be gleaned from them I had purchased one as a souvenir. With this purchase came an invitation to attend the concert and I willingly accepted. Crammed in a small room with what seemed like not only the players family but every other family in the district and breathing hard through a cloud of burning incense I was witness to a truly wonderful spectacle where young and old sang, clapped and stamped their feet in rhythm with the Saranghi maestro. The concert went on for nigh on three hours during which I had drunk copious amounts of a dubious, and as yet unidentified, alcoholic beverage. Staggering away at its conclusion I felt as if I had found what I had been looking for, to just get a taste of how the locals lived away from all of the tourism, I would return home content, or so I thought.
Waking the next morning I was informed by the hotel manager that a massacre had occurred at the Narayanhity Royal Palace in which several members of the royal family had been killed. Later investigations would uncover that Prince Diphendra, heir to the throne, had killed nine members of his family including the then king and queen before killing himself. The capital itself went into lock down with a curfew being imposed as shutters on all shops and stalls were pulled down, the airport was closed and demonstrations passed by my hotel. Warned by the hotel manager not to attempt to leave but with the knowledge that I was supposed to be flying out the following day I made the decision to attempt to make it to the airport in the event that it would open. It had been stated that the airport would temporarily open in order to allow tourists to leave the country but when this would be was not clear. Hastily packing I left quietly through a side service door and town map in hand did my best to keep to the side streets. In the event it seemed as though the hotel managers fears were unfounded and possibly an attempt to keep me in residence for outside of the Thamel district life was pretty much proceeding as normal with people milling around, traffic on the roads and the odd tourist wandering along. Feeling far more relaxed I eventually made it to the airport which although still closed allowed me to sleep in the foyer until 13 hours later it re-opened and I was able to return home after an amazing experience full of incredible memories.