We were excited to go to Nepal. A new country – although not so different in many ways from where we’ve been in northern India. Nepal and India are similar; yet they are also very different. One big difference is that Nepal didn’t suffer at the hands of the Moslems as India did and its heritage has remained largely intact.
Also, we looked forward to meeting up again with an Australian couple we befriended last spring in Darjeeling. They have now been traveling for nearly a year. Unfortunately we only had one evening with them to hear about their travel and the kind of impact it’s had on them. Barbara, a school teacher on sabbatical and Jim, a scientist, confident he’ll get another job when he returns. It’s not always easy for the most compatible to get along when you’re traveling together but Barbara says the experience has brought them closer. She’s also enjoyed being no one other than herself…not a school teacher, nor a mother – just Barbara. Feeling a different person she doesn’t want to just slip back into her old life when she returns. As the Buddhists say: “Before enlightenment – chopping wood and hauling water. After enlightenment – chopping wood and hauling water!”
Little did we know we would arrive here in the midst of a Congressional Assembly Election, and how it would impact our stay in the Kathmandu Valley. Out of a disproportionate 124 parties vying for seats, there are 3 major parties: Congress, Maoist and Communist. 33 splinter groups decided to boycott the election and call for a ten-day general strike for reasons not completely clear to us. The first day of the strike, the shops are all shut and there is a near total ban on transportation (creating a wonderful peace and space on otherwise busy congested streets). But by evening, some shops have reopened, and by the second day many have. Over the next few days, the transportation ban is eased, theoretically allowing tourists to come and go, but some public buses are firebombed. No deaths are reported, but several passengers are injured, some critically. We tried to get information about how serious the strike is and how dangerous it is to ride the buses but no one can give us a clear answer.
All of this has limited our mobility and caused us to stay longer in the valley than planned. The days prior to the election we saw people lining up to get their voting cards. The young patron in the CD store says he won’t vote. He doesn’t like politics – not surprising in the circumstances. But he claims voter turnout is more than 50% even though there’s so much contention. This morning we read that the border has been sealed for 72 hours, during the period of the election. Jimmy Carter, looking endearingly fragile, has arrived to oversee the election. Though without buses running many are prevented from returning to their home town to vote – it’s hard to see how it can be anything close to a fair election.
A museum in Darbar Square revealed something of Nepal’s disturbing political history. In a bloody massacre in 2001 the king and queen and eight other members of royal family were shot by the crown prince who then turned the gun on himself, for reasons unclear. Suspicions center on the old chestnuts: India and the CIA. But we’ll never know. The crown prince’s brother became king. In the museum, I devoured endless photographs of the last three generations of monarchs their wives and children. Particularly haunting were the larger than life portraits above the reception desk in our hotel of the murdered king and queen looking serene and innocent.
Meanwhile a Maoist insurgency that began in 1996 and lasted a decade brought the country to its knees. Development stalled, tourism dwindled and Nepal’s media was described as the world’s most censored. In 2006 the king dissolved the government and called a state of emergency in order to crush the Maoist rebels. After weeks of protest, the King reinstated parliament and the Maoists and government officials signed a peace accord ending centuries’ long rule of monarchy.
Enough of the politics already! Nepal has three major religions –Hinduism, Buddhism and Tourism! Hinduism and Buddhism are uniquely intermingled – they even worship at the same temples. It helps that Buddhism is not strictly a religion but is focused on philosophy and a code of morality and neither religion is interested in conversion. In fact our friends in Delhi made the comment that Buddhism is an offshoot of Hinduism anyway.
So many temples…so little time… But the ones that distinguish themselves the most are Swayambhunath, (commonly called the monkey temple for obvious reasons) sitting high up above the city, reached via an arduous flight of stairs. Nepal’s recorded history rises from the fog of antiquity. Emperor Akbar allegedly visited Swayambhunath in 250 BC, but the earliest confirmed activity is 450 AD. Ancient carvings are crammed into every square inch. It’s predominantly a Buddhist shrine but in the midst of it is a Hindu temple.
Even more impressive was Boudnath, Asia’s largest stupa, dating by legend back to 600 AD. The first stupa was wrecked by Mogul invaders in 14C; since then it has been rebuilt several times most recently after the 1936 earthquake. The simplicity and purity make it unique. And the thriving life in the surrounding narrow streets and monasteries gives an opportunity to peep into the Buddhist community.
Nepal’s third “ism” is in its full-blown glory in the Thamel district where we are staying – a maze of traffic-jammed streets and alleyways in the old town. It abounds with trekking stores packed with North Face gear and restaurants competing with a range of cuisine – falafel and fried potato roll-up, Tibetan momo, Nepalese thali, pizza and gourmet coffee. In 1955 Katmandu had one restaurant, the guide-book estimates today there are 2400 shops and restaurants probably many more than that. There are also an abundance of Tibetan craft shops overflowing with souvenirs. Gerard comments that they could stop manufacturing for over a decade and they still wouldn’t run out of inventory! There are also roaming hash salesmen. Gerard is proposed several times a day – “Hash? Smoke?” is thrown out into the ether so it can be retracted if G turns out be an undercover cop. (Must be that pony tail!) But the hippies are far now outnumbered by trekkers.
Having an aversion to restaurants where a surfeit of waiters hover around, I look for the little restaurants serving the locals. Down an alley we found one behind a doorway curtained with a Tibetan motif. Two young people man the kitchen at the back of the room, while a very attractive girl serves the handful of tables in the front. The food is limited to Tibetan momo and thupka (soup) but excellent. While we’re eating, a Chinese couple walk in who do not look like tourists except for their hiking boots. In a worse position than us they can speak no Nepalese, Tibetan or English. The broken English between the Chinese girl and the Tibetan waitress is so bad it is as if each has a speech impediment. The pathos in two people who physically look quite similar being unable to communicate. It took a lot of creative hand gesturing to indicate that they wanted soup. The waitress is reluctant to take their Chinese money but they have nothing else. Gerard offers to pay but she says it’s ok. Later we ask the waitress about herself. Her parents came to Nepal from Tibet 40 years ago. Born here, she speaks Nepalese and only a little Tibetan. She didn’t know if her parents came together or met when they got here. Sad a young person should know so little about her heritage. When we left everyone was all smiles!
We were warned of the pollution of Kathmandu – overwhelmed by an influx of Tibetan refugees, tourists, and traffic. It was indeed very dusty but the pollution was nothing compared with the yellow smog of Delhi. Since we arrived in Nepal nine days ago, the sun has shone brightly, the sky blue and climate pleasant. Interestingly, Nepal has the greatest water resources in the world, second only to Brazil. First time in our travels, that we haven’t had to be concerned about water usage.