Beautiful, remote and inaccessible Nepal. I had to agree with the latter adjective before I even got there. The weather over Kathmandu, which is located in a valley surrounded by the highest mountains in the world, is as predictable as the long-term forecast given on television. The plane was flying in circles over the valley while I was taking delight in the magnificent view of the Himalayas. The sight of the peaks protruding above the clouds is really impressive, though not lesser is the desire to land.
It is gray and gloomy outside the window and the blue sky and white snow covering the peaks contrast with the grayness of what lies at the bottom. It is actually hard to say whether you can see the clouds or the ground is still too far away. When we land with a nearly one-hour delay, I realize that what I saw was not the clouds. A huge gray suspension of smog tightly cuts off the sunlight. You can’t see the sun here and the only thing you can recognize is the time of the day. It is less gray in the morning, more gray in the afternoon and completely gray at night. Within all the days of my stay there, I didn’t see the blue sky – not even a patch.
A taxi takes about thirty minutes to get from the airport to Thamel – the main tourist area of the city. I try to take some photos already on the way. I give up when the stink of hundreds of cigarettes gets inside through the open window of the car. I definitely prefer the not the most attractive smell inside the car to the lack of air outside. The ironic laughter of the taxi driver, which I can hear from the front, only confirms the validity of my decision. I guess I am neither the first nor the last one who ingested a lethal dose of smoke in five minutes. I won’t fall for it anymore.
Every now and then you can see people covering their faces tightly with scarves and special masks. Motorbikes and cars are fighting for the smallest piece of the road. Horns can be heard everywhere. I think, "It will probably not be my favorite place on the Earth". The asphalt and not the best quality road sometimes turns into not the best quality pebble path which, in turn, passes into not the best quality sandy path. You can also distinguish combined roads - with mud and stones, and mud and leaves. I really didn’t like the latter ones when, after it’d rained heavily, everything was swimming in the color that I wasn’t able to differentiate. No matter how, what was important was the fact that we managed to get to the hotel.
I am woken up by delightful bells at five in the morning. Their sound interrupts my beautiful dream in which I was riding through the desert on the back of a monkey. The bells no longer become silent. Shivaratri – the greatest festival of the followers of Hinduism began on that day. Every now and then a new person walking past the mini temple hits the bell. This half-hourly concert finally ends my cowboy dream.
The morning coffee was 20 sugar lumps too sweet. Asking the waitress not to sweeten it didn’t help. A cup of incredibly sweet, black, Nepal coffee, however, has its good sides. It is impossible to sleep afterwards, which is good, as your head is becoming heavier and heavier, and the altitude sickness begins to take its toll.
The taxi took me to the front of a huge square where a lot of people were gathering. Some were wearing festive outfit, others were painted from heads to toes. Everybody was moving in one direction. Their destination was Pasupatinath – the largest temple in the city. The crowd was so thick outside the gate that I hardly recognized the entrance. Giant queues were winding into strange shapes. As it later turned out, they were a few kilometers long. Nobody was getting annoyed though. Everyone peacefully waited for hours to get inside the temple. Those who arrived in the morning didn’t have a chance to get in earlier than after 7 hours of waiting. I did not have so much time. My white face, my camera and a moment of conversation solved my problem, even though a sizable crowd of tourists who also wanted to jump the queue was waiting right next to me. I found a police officer whose assistance enabled me to break through all the gateways occupied by armed soldiers within 15 minutes. The temple was to be prepared to welcome more than one million tourists on that day.
The crowd of lucky people, who had already managed to enter, was slowly moving along the stone blocks set between the buildings. Every now and then you could hear the moans of praying women. Some of them were reaching out for some coins or even a handful of rice. The men were singing and weeping spasmodically when trying to persuade the passers-by to donate at least a few rupees. The acrid smell of burning was hovering above the whole area. Although, on no account, did I find it professional, it worked. I didn’t notice any cases of people got injured.
After a few hours spent inside the walls of the temple, I wanted to get out of there as soon as possible. It was not a colorful holiday at all. It was the feast of poverty, of hypnotized and intoxicated men. Some of them were devoted to prayer, some came here in the hope to get anything. However, everyone looked as if they were absent, as if they were somewhere else, and only their bodies were performing some pre-programmed movements.
Kathmandu is located at an altitude of over 1,300 meters. The pressure gets unbearable. Your head aches and no powders help. The natives chew coca leaves, but you probably need to practice, because this (totally legitimate here) habit has no effect with me. What reduces the pain, not for long though, is the third coffee of the day.
On the next day, awakened by a familiar morning melody, I go out of the town. It takes the taxi an hour to get me to Bhaktapur – a town that lies less than thirty kilometers from Kathmandu. Anyone staying in the Kathmandu valley needs to see this ancient city. I roam along the narrow streets for hours, taking pictures and looking into every interesting corner. People here live in extreme poverty. A room, which is usually almost a meter lower than the street level, must be sufficient to live in it. A piece of blanket, some wooden and metal tools, a bowl and a few objects whose purpose I don’t even guess are lying on the stone floor. Water is brought from the huge tanks, some of which can be found in the city. They are so dirty that I didn’t even think that the water could be used for drinking or washing. Women fill small containers and they carry them home. I can see the wells sometimes, but the water there is not cleaner than in the open air. Bathing, washing head, laundry - all is done in front of the house. The dirt runs down the narrow channels into the street.
Small children that are completely left alone can be seen everywhere. They run and shout, playing with everything they can find on the ground. When they see a tourist, they stretch out a long string or a stick across the road, requiring a fee for passage. Everyone is amused but, for a large number of people who live here, this kind of game constitutes the only possibility of earning some money. The tourists smile. Some give a penny, others try to drive away from the small wheeler-dealers. It is worth to spend at least half a day in Bhaktapur. Beautiful buildings and a huge walking area are worth spending a long time here.
Monkeys can be found in many places of Kathmandu. Some quietly sit in the trees, others aggressively try to take some of the more interesting objects out of a tourist’s backpack. You can also come across the monkeys in Swayambunath – a Buddhist temple built on the top of a mountain. 365 high stone stairs lead to the temple. In exchange for the climb, we get fantastic views of the city and enjoy free performances of dozens of indigenous monkeys. According to the legend, a monkey is nothing but the next incarnation of the fleas that Manjushree was keeping on his head. Either way, they feel exceptionally well here. It is best to come here in the early or late afternoon when the apes’ great fun is at its peak. We may enjoy their jumps between the buildings and their attempts to steal everything of value from the bags left even for a moment.
Nepal is also a paradise for gourmets of all kinds of chicken curry, delicious mo-mo dumplings and brilliant appetizers which, when it comes to those better restaurants, often appear immediately after a guest sits at the table. During the meal, the waiters keep bringing the sweets so that the waiting time for the main course passes quickly. You can really enjoy the food here. Apart from the typical Nepalese cuisine, you can also try the entire list of dishes from China or India.
I leave Nepal. Despite the communication obstacles as well as its poverty and dirt, it is a very interesting country. Definitely worth visiting. There are no aggressive traders that are so common in certain regions of the world. The people are extremely nice and always smiling. You can feel completely safe when walking along the streets... not taking the interest of some brave monkeys and the strings stretched by enterprising children into account.