Into the Heart of Asia
First sight of the Kathmandu Valley
Nothing prepared me for Kathmandu, no photo or written description could ever come close to conveying what it's actually like to set foot there - it is a truly visceral experience which is so difficult to put into words. Here's my attempt...
I felt like I'd stepped into an archaic past. The sounds, smells and sights overwhelm the senses. There is colour everywhere - in the prayer flags, pagodas and paddy fields. The air is thick with mysticism - chiming bells and mountain flutes serenade flickering candles. The roads are ridiculous - cars, mopeds, pedestrians, rickshaws, tractors and cattle come at you from all angles down streets barely wide enough for one vehicle. 'Health and safety' was not high on the agenda for the man carrying a sofa on the back of his bicycle. Chickens and monkeys wander around. Most of the road surfaces are covered with potholes and everyone likes the sound of their own horns. They have power cuts every day which can last 10 hours or more, the tap water is undrinkable, the food can make you ill, sewage infiltrates the rivers and black exhaust clouds choke eastern skies. There are public cremations and monkey-ridden temples, living goddesses and chanting holy men. I felt my emotions constantly seesawing between awe and disgust, amazement and despair. I quickly started to realise how lucky we are in the more developed countries - electricity, cleanliness and safe food should never be taken for granted.
My volunteer organiser Sujan arranged for me to stay with a family (mother, father and daughter) for a couple of nights which was a good introduction to Nepali people and culture. I took Nepali lessons from them and was escorted around the Kathmandu Valley on the back of the father's moped - I'm just glad I wasn't driving, you need nerves of steel...
Rarely do International Airports give much indication as to the character of what lies beyond their perimeters - Marrakech, Heathrow, Hong Kong, Toronto - they're all a bit generic.
Not in Nepal.
Tribhuvan International Airport is a low rise red brick building, with a distinct lack of facilities - no restaurants, no cafes, lax security - a few cattle could have wandered in and no one would have noticed. It is the smallest, most basic international airport I’ve seen this side of the Cook Islands.
You have to pay around £60 for a tourist visa which you buy on arrival at the airport. After queuing up at passport control I was told that they only accepted payment in cash and, bizarrely, in US dollars only. I tried one of the cash points inside the airport but it didn’t work so I went to one of the security guards and he allowed me to go outside of the airport to get my cash! I literally just walked past an unmanned security station and into the actual country without anyone batting an eyelid. I could easily have just not gone back. Of course I did go back as I had just met Sujan and didn’t want him to think I was a crooked tourist, plus I’m far too honest for that, I think. After struggling with cash points, Himalayan money exchange counters, photo booths and queuing for what seemed like an age I finally got my visa and was ready to leave the airport...again.
Welcome to Nepal, where the craziness starts as soon as you get off the plane…
Namaste, Welcome to Nepal...
My host family
Sujan (middle), Shankar and his wife having morning tea
My first tika (Hindu mark painted on the forehead)
Introduction to the Nepali dish Dhaal Bhaat
"Neil let's go to the monkey temple..." Sujan
Monkey Temple gates
Path to the monkey temple
We're watching you... 'The eyes of Buddha' can be seen on many of the temples and stupas throughout Nepal
Singing bowls produce a sound when rubbed and are used for meditation
Swayambhunath (Monkey) temple sits atop a hill overlooking the Kathmandu Valley. The Tibetan name means 'Sublime trees' as there are many trees surrounding the temple. You get a great view of Kathmandu and the surrounding hills...
These people were having some kind of feast in the Temple grounds
A familiar face in a foreign land...
Musicians getting tired?
Nepali Art Gallery
Back to ground level...
Dinner with the family
The next day was spent sightseeing with Shankar...
Shankar's motorbike which we used to navigate the Kathmandu Valley
Let's go... I needed to wear a scarf over my face because the pollution was so bad
First stop - Bhaktapur
Bhaktapur is a town situated around 10km from Kathmandu City...
Bhaktapur town square
It is a bustling 'medievaloriental' town crammed with pagodas, statues...
and people just sitting enjoying the view...
Exploring Bhaktapur's alleyways
Schoolchildren playing table tennis
This Buddhist holy site is home to the largest stupa outside of Tibet, temples and a monastery. The atmosphere is typically intense, robed men chant and burn incense, golden rooftops gleam in the sunlight and prayer flags sway in the wind...
Boudanath main concourse
Boudanath Stupa, largest outside of Tibet
Candles and chanting
Men burning incense
Young Buddhist students attending the monastery
These are the Pashupatinath Temple grounds. The temple is one of the largest Hindu pilgrimage sites in Nepal. It is situated on the banks of the Bagmati River, considered holy by Hindus and Buddhists. The temple itself is off bounds for non-Hindus but just walking round the grounds is an experience in itself...
I was shocked to see riverside cremations taking place - I knew it happened in India but was not expecting it here...
The remnants of a cremation by the Bagmati River
A 'Sadhu' - Hindu holy man
Holy man on his phone
After an exhilarating few days it was time to head away from the city...
Heading towards the bus station
Waiting for a bus east