By: Laura Schultz
Well my second weekend was certainly no less interesting or adventurous than the first.
After a great first week at the office, I was ready to explore more of what Kathmandu had to offer. On Saturday, I headed to Swayambhunath or what they call the Monkey Temple. I had heard that there were monkeys all over the place and to watch my bags or they could try to steal them, I was intrigued. The taxi dropped me off in front of the most intimidating staircase I have ever seen! All you see are hundreds of stupas, carvings, bas reliefs and monkeys, not to mention the 365 stairs that are straight up and down, with no landings! Prayer flags are strung all over and as you ascend, the history of the place settles on you. I was climbing a staircase that was 500 years old, headed toward architecture, carvings and statuaries that were hundreds, and in some cases, thousands of years old. The place was very colorful, chaotic and peaceful, all at the same time. All along the way the monkeys scamper about, all sizes and ages and with absolutely no fear of humans. In fact, around the 250th stair, as I took my 5th break (I’d pretend that I really needed a photo around every 50-75 stairs since I was in extreme pain and agony and cursing myself for smoking and only watching that Tae Bo video once), I came upon some monkeys that I could have reached out to and touched, less than a foot away. Now, I’ll admit, my first thought looking at what must have been an older monkey with kind of milky eyes, was of that woman who had her face ripped off by a chimpanzee, knowing my luck, this could happen. But I soon realized that they were just lazing about and could care less that I was walking by. When I finally reached the top (happily still alive), I was immediately in front of the main attraction, the Buddhist stupa, stunning with a large white dome and golden spire with the all-seeing eyes and prayer wheels surrounding it. In addition to that, there are more temples, shrines and chaityas all over the place. The monkeys just scamper up and try to steal offerings of rice and other goodies stuffed into the various shrines surrounding the area. And in addition to all of this, there are stupendous views of the Kathmandu valley on all sides.
There was a special blessing and meditation ceremony going on, so I was able to see hundreds of women chanting and holy men offering blessings to all the passersby. Monks were everywhere walking around the stupa, spinning the prayer wheels and chanting. As I was walking by a smaller stupa, which was around 700 years old, I saw a picture of President Obama plastered right next to it (my Republican friends are probably rolling their eyes and Michelle Bachmann will want to launch an immediate investigation into his ties to Buddha, but I thought it was hilarious). I walked through every square inch so as not to miss anything and ended up on an outer balcony where I was able to watch the monkeys swinging in the trees, fighting, babies trying to keep up with their mothers and even playing with some of the stray dogs wandering around the place. It was way better than watching the monkeys at the zoo. After a few hours, I decided to head to my next destination, so started to descend the stairs. You’d think this would be a much better experience than climbing. However, these stairs are 500 years old, with divots and slick worn areas. In addition, apparently monks and other pilgrims’ feet are about a size 4, so with my 8.5 clodhoppers and tendency to fall while simply walking on level surfaces, all I could envision was tumbling down 365 stone stairs to my end. I think it took me longer to get down than it did to get up!
After making it down the stairs, past all of the vendors with “Great Deals” and “Very cheap ma’ams”, I was immediately surrounded with taxi drivers wanting to take me to pretty much every other tourist attraction in Kathmandu. After negotiating the price, since they wanted to charge me about three times as much, I hopped in to head to the National Palace Museum. One enterprising young man tried to hop in with me so he could be my guide on the way there. I politely declined, so he started reciting state capitols in an effort to earn a little money. He was a funny guy, so I gave him a few rupees. The taxi driver immediately started heading in the wrong direction. After asking him to stop and explaining where I wanted to go, it felt pretty good that I even knew a direction to head, given how lost I was last weekend!
We arrived at the National Palace Museum, and I was immediately struck by the formality there. In general, Kathmandu is pretty much anything goes, so the strict rules by the army/police were a new thing. After going through the first security check and leaving my bag in a locker, I followed the signs to where they had another security check. After a pat down that either they or I should have paid for (let’s just say it’s pretty thorough), I passed through a metal detector (to be honest, I don’t think it was even turned on, but it looked impressive). As I approached the palace, I saw some folding chairs set out in a row, and when I got closer, I saw the sign “For the elderly and differentlyable”; I burst out laughing and then thought, given how I was feeling after the steps I had just climbed at the Monkey Temple, that I probably qualified for both categories! Upon entering the palace, I was met by yet another security check, thankfully this time everyone kept their hands to themselves.
The palace is very interesting. As recently as 2008, the king and his family actually lived there, until the king was ousted. Only 19 of the 52 rooms are open for viewing, but there are many historical artifacts, art pieces and pictures showing all of the visiting royalty. One room that was used for coronations and other formal events is extremely ornate and beautiful with an impossibly high ceiling and brightly colored murals and mosaics. It’s a wild thing to see a 18th century art piece sitting next to a modern television set or wander by an antique bed with a phone on the nightstand. The whole museum is cordoned off to ensure everyone follows the same path so after touring the main and 2nd floors, they take you down to the basement. It’s like the Brady Bunch den down there. There’s 70s wood paneling, orange and yellow couches and then memorabilia that’s 200, 300, 600 years old, retro meets really retro. After going through the basement, they direct you outside toward the most sobering spot at the palace. In 2001, Nepal experienced a horrific event when the then crown prince massacred most of the royal family there, including the king at the time. The area where the massacre took place has been torn down but the outline of the area remains. They have signs showing where the king, queen and finally the prince were found. It’s eerie and sad. Beyond that spot though, you walk through lovely gardens with a large pool and fountain and a revolving house (kind of a gazebo on a lazy Susan) that was used to be able to take in the whole view while hanging out in the garden. There are soldiers all over the place, but as I passed by each one they would smile, say Namaste, and ask where I was from. After taking in the palace, I headed back toward Manaslu and lunch. As I walked down the block to the hotel, I stopped at a café that I hadn’t checked out yet. Unfortunately it was up four flights of stairs, so my legs were screaming! You’d think with all of this walking and stair climbing that I’d shed a few pounds. Problem is, I always reward myself with some momos and beer, so it’s a vicious cycle.
With my legs somewhat rested, I headed back to the hotel to wait for Sudichhya, one of our newer team members, who had graciously invited me to her home. We walked through the narrow streets of Lazimpat past embassies and the prime minister’s house to her flat. It’s a cozy place with a great courtyard and she has a very tiny, cute daschund. After meeting her younger brother and treating me to some refreshments and anarsha (a sweet with sesame seeds on top) that her mother had made, we chatted about the differences between Nepal and America and our lives. Unfortunately, her 95 year old grandpa had taken ill, so he and her mother weren’t there for me to meet; I wish him a speedy recovery. It was a great time, and I appreciated the opportunity to get out of the hotel and see more of Lazimpat and her home.
The following morning I woke up at the crack of dawn to go watch the much anticipated futsol (that’s soccer for stubborn Americans) match between our Implementation and Development teams. I had been worried that I might not be able to get out of bed after my stair climbing extravaganza the day before. But I was pleasantly surprised that it wasn’t too bad; the handful of Advil I took had worked! Sanjeev and Sadiksha along with Sabin and Suraksha picked me up at 7:30, and we were on our way to meet the rest of the gang. Sadiksha filled me in on the sites along the way as the others were ahead on their motorbikes, while she and I took a taxi. Everyone arrived on time and despite a small dispute with my taxi driver over the price, the match got underway. It was a lot of fun to watch and at first there was more than a little smack talk. I certainly couldn’t choose a side to cheer for but let’s just say it wasn’t a nail biter. Development ended up winning by more than a few points, but it’s not the score that matters, it’s whether or not you had fun right? As one of the <ahem> older members of the Avionte team, no matter which continent you’re on, I was very appreciative to have been invited to hang out with the team and have some fun. We all agreed that we’ll have another match at the end of the month with all of the partners, Brenda, Lee and Jim. U.S. versus Nepal, and I have secured a spot on the Nepal side.
After the match, I was ready to head out for an afternoon in Bhaktapur with Samar and Sunny. Bhaktapur is in the valley but a little ways out from Kathmandu itself, so we got to ride on a highway! Besides the cows lounging on the median, and in some cases, walking down what we would consider the slow lane, it’s a tried and true highway; I didn’t really worry for our lives at all. When we reached Bhaktapur, it was clear that the pace is a bit slower and a little less chaotic. Passing by a huge public pond, there are more trees and greenelry and the cobblestone streets, not the same state of construction as Kathmandu. It’s gearing up for festival time, so there were more people there selling their bounty and wares than usual but still different from Thamel. The Durbar Square here is fantastic. Samar let one of the many willing guides take us around and it was useful to get some history and background on what we were seeing. For example, did you know that the Nepalese invented pagodas and exported the idea to China? Or that the Nepal flag, decidedly the most unique in the world, is shaped based on the pagoda? Or that pagoda means roof on roof? So much to see and learn.
We saw the famous 55-window palace, a beautiful example of intricate Nepali culture, that allows for the person inside to view our but the outside can’t view in. I was also able to peer inside a Hindu-only temple where there are still animal sacrifices carried out for certain festivals. There are more ponds and public baths as well as a royal bath that is surrounded by stone serpents and giant serpent heads arising from the middle, meant to protect the royal bathers from harm. I can’t begin to describe the architecture and artistry that I’ve seen, wherever I go. Whether it is the tanka paintings, wood carvings on columns, doors or windows or the craftsmanship shown in sculpture and other painting, it’s absolutely extrordinary. I will definitely need another bag for souvenirs! We wantered around to look at and learn about all of the various temples and stupas and window shopping along the way. As we turned the corner, we came upon the crowning glory: the Nyatapola temple, the largest temple in Kathmandu Valley. It’s a five story structure that was relatively undamaged in the 1934 earthquake. There are huge statues along the long stairway to the top. After viewing the potters make some of the clay pots that the city is famous for, we were ready for lunch. We went into a great cafe that’s actually been converted from a real temple, so we were able to st up on the balcony and watch the busy square below. It’s also right across from Nyatapola. The cafe is really an actual temple and the tables are meant for two, but we eventually made it work for the three of us and enjoyed a traditional Nepali lunch with rice and Dal, chicken curry and vegetables. The best part came for dessert though. Bhaktapur is known for its Juju Dhau, King of yogurt, and they aren’t kidding. It’s better than anything I’ve ever had, and to prove it, I had two helpings at the cafe, and when Samar offered me some in one of those famous clay pots on the way out of town, I certainly didn’t turn him down (it was the small pot, but I probably wouldn’t have turned down the big pot either)! After all, I’d walked around all day, so I needed a reward of course! On the way out, we also stopped at another pond and Sunny fed the fish. There were thousands of Koi and Carp, with huge mouths, just waiting for the puffed rice. It was fun. Overall, it was a very entertaining and interesting weekend! Sunny and Samar haven’t had a spare minute to themselves while here, with trying to spend as much time with family and friends, in between working, so I really appreciated that they would spend time to show me such a cool place! Sunday also kicked off the first day of the five day festival, called the Tihar; there are lights starting to show up on the outsides of buildings and houses, and decoration vendors have set up shop with strings and strings of flowers and other party-like garlands. I’m told that this particular festival has elements of Halloween, Christmas and Thanksgiving, all wrapped up into one, so stay tuned. I’m sure I’ll have plenty to tell you about!