Kathmandu in the Rain

We arrived back in Kathmandu last night without further mishap and the first order of business (after checking for mail from home and that the rest of the world had not actually imploded while I was out of contact) was a long soak in a hot bath. This morning a few of us got up extra early and set off for the airport (yes, the airport!) for the early morning Mountain View flight. I guess they call it “Mountain View” in case you don’t actually get to see Everest, that way they don’t have to give everyone their money back. Mind you, a full refund does occur if the cloud cover means that you don’t even get off of the ground and that’s just what happened to us.

Back at the hotel for breakfast, we decided to make the best of things and commandeered the tour bus so as to get around as many of the sights of Kathmandu as were going to be possible in one day. Even so, half of the group did not join us, being content with a bit of shopping and offering up their grateful thanks at the Pushtupatinath temple. To be completely fair to these pious ladies, this trip was never marketed as anything other than a Hindu Pilgrimage and any excursions to see Buddhist monuments or other cultural sites (including the highest mountain in the world) were purely optional and undertaken, when time permitted, at additional cost.

As a matter of fact, one of the Tibetan Sherpas had asked me why I has accompanied them on the trip rather than coming out with an “English” tour. Well, I explained that we were indeed all of us “English” and that, on consideration, it was better to be the fittest person in a group of pilgrims than the least fit person in a group of trekkers. Besides, the average trekker is not overly renowned for his or her interest in archaeology or anthropology and you are more likely to be able to engage them in conversation about different brands of sunscreen than you are about comparative religion. If I want more time with the cultural heritage of Nepal then Kathmandu is only a short hop from Darjeeling (Visa on arrival) and if I want to visit more high-altitude Buddhist temples, then Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh remain to be explored; both places where I can have the additional comfort and security of remaining within India.

The Vale of Kathmandu contains no less than seven groups of monuments with World Heritage status and, while some of them are little more than piles of rubble these days, we managed to visit the remains of the three old royal palaces in the Durbar Square, the Bhagmati Ghats, the temples of sixteen-handed Ganesha and the Kumari Devi (living goddess) and the two magnificent Buddhist shrines of Boudha and Swayambhu. The latter is situated in lovely gardens on a hill on the western side of the city and there we took tea and noodle soup in what I think must be one of the nicest little restaurants I have ever visited. Situated at the top of the temple complex, on four tiny floors, each accessed by a spiral staircase more precarious than the last, it boasts a simple menu and magnificent views across the city; which, it must be admitted, looks a lot more picturesque from this far up.

Everywhere tourists picked their way over the broken pavements and past piles of rotting refuse; WHO rates Nepal as  one of the poorest performing countries in the world (outside of Africa) for the health of its citizens and it is certainly possible to see why. My mind just keeps coming back to all those parties of fit-looking, European youngsters that we’ve encountered. They wear t-shirts bearing logos such as “The Children’s Society”, “Border Mission”, and “We trek for Science” but just what do they hope to achieve here other than a philanthropic glow, a few souvenirs and a series of selfies with the world’ highest mountains?

We discovered too late that it was a public holiday and that the Narayaniti Palace, scene of the Royal massacre and now a museum, was closed for the day. Perhaps it was just as well, I am all too familiar with the story and the sight of bullet holes in the throne room might just have been too much for me. During the trip I have been able to talk to one or two Nepali people about Crown Prince Dipendra and how his homicidal actions struck not just at the heart of his own family but at the heart of whole population, leaving stunned disbelief, confusion and a grief which has hardly begun to dim with the passage of time.

You might wonder from these musings which Himalayan country I found most depressing: Nepal or Tibet? Well, the scenery was often sublime and the mountains are imbued with a magic which no photographs or written descriptions can convey but it was definitely a journey for a traveller rather than a tourist. This is a region best remembered from a safe, warm armchair back at home and, after all, not all far-flung destinations can be expected to keep on calling you back.





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