ARRIVING AT TRIBHUVAN AIRPORT, Nepal
Me and my accomplice, my husband of 3 years, opted to save on air fare and flew by Air Arabiadirectly to Nepal from Sharjah in the Middle East, without any stop-over’s . Initially the compactness of the air carrier unnerved me but upon settling into my window seat, I was soon satisfied. The meal of hot Barbecue chicken, Cheese Tacos and Potato Wedges for a mere 5 dollars also diminished our hunger pangs mid-air.
Although famously known to awe and inspire globe-trotters, my first vision of the Kathmandu valley held less charm. Little was I to know that in the moments that followed, a lenient, smart but shabbily dressed cab driver would escort us to the very heart of Bhaktapur, a small city within the Kathmandu valley which illustrated a picturesque environment of the rural life of the Nepalese and was much devoid of the modernism, crowded and fast-paced city of Kathmandu.
A bumpy 20 minute ride and a talkative cab driver kept us company on the way to our lodgings. We had opted for a cheaper hotel for a mere 4 US Dollars a night and since we planned to stay in Kathmandu only for two nights and three days, the charge suited us perfectly. We had booked online prior to our arrival by goggling the key phrases ‘Cheapest Hotels in Kathmandu’. Tin-roofed shops and eager on-lookers lined the corner sidewalks of the hotel and noticing our arrival, the hotel manager hurried to greet and welcome us into Silver Home, a hotel heavily sandwiched between the narrow alleys of the Thamel Market, proving to be the perfect hub for bargaining shoppers like me.
I had pre-planned my journey and anticipated a lot of shopping. Hence we had loaded our bags scantily and off loading them at the hotel reception, we settled down in the hotels small café savoring on hot Nepalese Tea and pastries. We then ascended the stairs to our room located on the second storey of the hotel. It accommodated both a queen-sized and single-sized bed. A Bamboo Coat rack matched with a small dresser, a rustic tea table and shaky old-fashioned chairs were the only other furniture in the room. The rustic shower pipes ran hot water, enough to boil our skins down and the toilets were old but clean. We adjusted to the meager settings, showered and got into some comfortable attire. Since we had only a short time to serenade the vast Kathmandu valley, we hurried down the stairs, exited the hotel and wandered straight into the heart of the Thamel District.
Almost immediately, we were taken aback by the exquisite dragon artifacts, Tibetan sculptures and Tibetan paintings that lined the shelves on shops. Sweaters, jackets, warm fleece-lined lined wear were all on display while colorful Pashmina shawls bed sheets and handcrafted linen danced to the soft breeze that blew into the Thamel market.
Soon after, we hailed a taxi and inquired about some interesting landmarks within the city. The cab driver suggested we go to the Hindu Monkey temple or Pashputinath Temple. We readily agreed and embarked upon the splendid short journey plugged with uneven roads. Within only a few minutes we arrived outside the temple and saw a line of wheel crafts with goods on display, mostly pertaining to worshipping at the Hindu temple. These included fresh local flowers, yellow and orange chrysanthemums, chrysanthemums woven into garlands, necklaces adorned by Hindu priests, coconuts, red and yellow powders, tiny sachets of rice and wheat, candles and milk.
Once we got down from the taxi, a street-hawker hurried to prepare us a worshipping plate of all the afore-mentioned goods. Me and my husband were each handed a plate and we were advised to place them before the Hindu idol gods in the nearby monkey temple. A Hindu worshipper then proceeded to guide us into the temple and showed us the various precious deities. We placed our religious platters before the gods as directed and the Hindu priests chanted sacred scriptures. Minutes after our arrival into the temple, the heavens opened and heavy rains drops fell from the skies. As opposed to the Middle East, where rains are rare, we gleefully played in the rain and allowed ourselves to be completely drenched. A while later, our Hindu priest hurried off to fetch his umbrella and shunned us under the dimly lit temple domes. We stared in awe at all the monkeys freely roaming the temple and never minding the human crowds. They danced and pranced around without harming anyone and nobody seemed to be overly interested in them. An hour later, we left the temple with yellow and red sacred markings on our fore-heads, excitedly talking about all the interesting Hindu rituals that surpassed before our very eyes. Our taxi driver was still waiting at the entrance and seeing us arrive, he hurriedly inquired where we would like to go next.
Nepalese Gorkha Beer
We choose to head to the Royal Palace Museum close to our hotel but upon arriving there, we were notified by the security guards that it had closed for the day. Sadly we headed back into the Thamel market and eagerly looked around for a decent meal. Close to where our taxi had dropped us was a food street. Here, we were spoilt for choice as nearly all franchises offered a huge variety of meals including Continental, Chinese, Turkish, Indian and Nepalese food. After choosing Green Olive Restaurant which offered a seated arrangement on their open-terrace, we gulped down some local Gorkha beer and feasted on plainly cooked Indian lentils, Papad, Pickles, Salad and rice for a mere 13 Dollars. While eating, we chatted with the courteous waiter, who was planning to visit the Middle East soon in order to hunt for a job at a 5 star hotel and admittedly we were appeased with the quality of service he offered.
Slightly dazed with a mug full of the Gorkha beer, we left the restaurant and headed straight to our hotel, deciding to call it a day. Within minutes of reaching our rooms, we securely locked all windows, squirmed into the warm beds and drifted off into soundless slumber.
Royal Palace Museum
The next afternoon, after our sore and aching limbs had rested, we called the reception downstairs to order some brunch and to take the laundry. Since they would be no housekeeping involved, we made sure to clear up after ourselves. We routinely washed, changed and while eating, particularly loved the creamy rich Nepalese butter. After some coffee, we again locked our belongings, aired the rooms and descended the narrow carpeted stairs of the hotel. This time round, we hailed a taxi and headed straight to the Royal Museum Palace and looked forward with much anticipation to the eminent historical site.
Huge steel bars protected the entrance at the gateways and security petrol appeared almost everywhere outside and inside the museum. We were asked to put our belongings away in a locker and no cameras were allowed. While walking on the drive way, we felt like as if we were taken back into time. The exterior of the Museum was splendor in itself. What lay before our eyes, was the once impregnable Narayanhity royal palace which had just recently been converted into an open royal palace museum for locals and tourists in Feb 2009, as narrated to us by our excited taxi driver. He went on to say that the palace had once housed the king and queen of Nepal and his voice seemed choked with emotion. The King was now looked upon as a commoner and the 81 year old Queen mother had just recently wished to vacate the over-crowded tourist museum and spend her last days in a religious ashram.
Although the size of the palace seemed huge, the décor and detail in the palace wasn’t as exquisitely grand as we had initially expected. Family jewels, precious ornaments and royal décor weren’t visible. We surveyed the huge royal bedrooms, visitor’s dorms and the bullet holes where the supposed family massacre of 2001 had taken place. The throne room where the King once sat had in my opinion the most omnipotent feel but an aura of death, dismay and defeat hung heavily in the air and we hurried out in to the lush green royal gardens.
Since the Royal Palace Museum was not very impressive, we looked forward to our next destination as our cabbie drove uphill to the much famed Buddhist Monkey Temple or Swayambunath Temple. The site itself was atop a hill and much to our anticipation was filled with naughty monkeys, monks, tourists, locals, fireflies and wild street dogs. This sacred temple was cleaner and less-crowded than the one we had earlier visited. Buddhist monks spinned their Tibetan wheels and were busy chanting sacred scriptures while Hindu relics sang hymns and praises on their harmoniums. The wishing well too had its own charm as it lay right in the centre of the temple and was surrounded by water. Visitors could shoot pennies into the pots at the centre of the well and wish for anything. Searching for Nepalese coins, my husband tried his luck until all the coins were squandered and I was forced to think of it being a basketball game without a hoop. Surrounding the temples are steep stairs and banisters below which lies the busy and fast developing Kathmandu Valley. Since I was eager to start photographing, I got about clicking the various Buddha Statuettes, spinning wheels and wishing well. Most of the statuettes were in real gold or colored gold. There were round sacred carvings on the ground and Buddhist monks were touching their heads to it. Also profoundly visible was the Kali Mata or Black Death Goddess altar. Sacred Tibetan Scriptures hung as lined flags on thin steel wires and stone shrines had miniature carvings of Gautama Buddha. Although on top of a hill and a few kilometers away from the central Thamel Market, we enjoyed our visit to this temple the most. Without much fuss and without any hawkers and priests in tow, we were able to roam placidly.
Shopping in Thamel District or Chowk
After our return from the Buddhist Monkey Temple, we set about shopping in bright evening lights of Thamel Market. Buddha Key chains, Buddha Statuettes, rice-paper lamps, Tibetan picture frames, Tibetan Thangka Paintings, Wall masks, Dragon wall décor are just some of the souvenirs we bought and although we could bargain much, yet we lost out some other important purchases such as mirrored curtains, singing bowls, Tibetan hand bells, antique door-knockers and carved iron kettles.
While walking back to our hotel, we spotted an open restaurant just adjacent to our lodgings. We handed over our purchases to the hotel staff and settled for the local Nepalese Dinner Set at the open restaurant which consisted of freshly cooked lentils, chicken and cabbage curries besides rice and hand-made chapattis. Although it took time to arrive, the food was simple and splendid to eat.
After offering a generous trip for our tasty meal, I head off to my room to shower, change and rest. My husband opted to stay awhile in the hotel lobby area surfing the internet and joined me an hour later. We drank Gorkha Beer and dropped into our beds as we had yet another 6 hour journey to look forward to the day after.
Bidding Farewell to Nepal
As I bid farewell to Nepal, I glimpsed outside the aircraft window and clicked some pictures of the Kathmandu Valley below. It had been a tedious yet adventurous trip, crowded and full of sacred places. I stole a last peak at the Himalayan mountains and needing an excuse to purchase Kathmandu’s Fleece-lined woolen wear, promised to return in winter when warmly clad, we could anticipate snowball fights and masses of white land adding flavor to snow-capped mountains in the Himalayas.