In Kathamandu we were awestruck by Darbar Square and the ancient structures throughout the old town. But then we went to Patan and the Darbar Square there was even more exotic, and walking through the town revealed so many enclosed squares and courtyards only accessible through small portals. Now landing in Bhaktapur, most of the town, not to mention three major squares, was built between the 14th and 16th Cs.
And even many new buildings are built in the Newari style of the period with the same workmanship and artistry, demonstrating the Nepali pride in their culture. To encourage local people to build in the traditional style, the municipality is in fact distributing grants for woodcarving, brick and tile work. We can’t imagine any other city in the Valley that will surpass this. Gerard with his love of antiquity is in his element!
Bhaktapur is reputed to be one of the ten cleanest cities in Asia and we have been dulyimpressed by how many trash cans are located around the city and people actually using them. The brochure advertised the city as being traffic-free, but this is not true. Like India, it’s obviously impossible to enforce things like traffic rules in Nepal. Most of the vehicles are motorcycles, and “one lungers”, tiny tractors with one piston engine that chug by early in the morning to deliver to the restaurants and hotels, or pick up trash.
Our guesthouse, the Khowpa, is an antique right in the middle of the old town just off the main square. The ceilings are barely six feet tall and the carrying beam even lower. But it’s cozy and clean, the patron is wonderfully helpful… and best of all it’s reasonably priced in an otherwise high-end market.
We’re both a little surprised at how expensive food and lodging is; a country poorer than India, yet prices are higher. Initially an entrance fee to Bhaktapur of a whopping $11 each was irksome, but within a short time we could see where the money was being used – to maintain the historic building, keep the city clean and encourage traditional crafts. Money well spent!
Walking tours in the guide book trace a zig-zag route through many of the neighborhoods, each peppered with little squares and temples. In Taumadhi Tole, the second largest square, the most imposing temple is reached via a huge stone staircase – at regular intervals a pair of statues either side of the stairs guard the temple. The representations are fiercer the higher the stairs but conversely smaller in size: on the first rung are a pair of human wrestlers, then elephants, gargoyles, demons, until on the top step is the frightening god Kali. Another temple houses a god that is so ferocious that no one, except the priest, is allowed to enter inside. There’s always a group of people hanging around the doorway making offerings to the deity or perhaps like Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird they can’t keep away even though it’s so scary!
The 1936 earthquake caused much damage in Nepal. We’ve noticed a lot of cracks in the old buildings – one leans so much it looks as if it will fall down. Why don’t they repair when they’re doing so much new building with such care? They reply, “Why bother? We’ll wait till after another earthquake when the building completely falls down and then we’ll rebuild.” You have to love the logic!
As the obvious takes place on the street, the more private home life can be seen on the rooftops spread across the city. Women wash clothes…dry their hair…children play…roosters in cages crow night and day. In the early morning light, a grey haired lady in a beautifully colored sari carefully waters her plants from a large brass bowl. When finished, she touches the empty bowl to her forehead in gratitude, or perhaps prayer?
At dusk the snow-capped mountains turn from white to pink to lavender.
One of the biggest challenges here (other than getting a decent meal – Nepalis eat a lot of meat especially buffalo and eggs are classified as a vegetable) is to stay attentive and absorb as much as possible of all the fine historic architecture laden with exquisite wood carving. One of the best examples is the Peacock Window.
There is such a proliferation of one magnificent building after another that we have a tendency to stop looking and became blasé about our surroundings, and look no further than the end of our nose. This place definitely deserves repeated visits to take in more than on first glance so we’ve decided to stay several more days. It’s very exciting to discover a town you feel you could come back to numerous times and still find it fascinating.
On Election Day everything came to a standstill. There was no traffic and no garbage pick up… the peace and quiet were the tradeoff for other inconveniences it caused. From the long lines at the many polling booths around town it seems everyone is voting. Our patron proudly says, “Democracy!” as he shows us his ink-stained finger indicating that he’s cast his vote. Despite the boycott and strike, an estimated 70% voted adding insult to injury to the marginalized Maoist groups. So the pendulum swings – 8 years of getting little or nothing done, they had to go.
There’s a strong mood of anticipation – and a surfeit of police security wandering around with their batons. Some unrest was reported (25 injured throughout the whole of Nepal) but nothing too serious. In the evening everyone gathers around the polling booths where young people are counting the results from printed sheets. For those who can’t read, each candidate has a symbol – a tree, a drum, a hammer and sickle etc. It takes over three days for all the counting nationwide to be completed manually. Meanwhile men gather around computer screens displaying the TV news from Kathmandu waiting for the results to be posted. Finally the breaking news – Congress has slim majority over the Communists while the Maoists have taken a severe beating.
It seems like most of the people who come to Nepal are trekkers, especially so in Kathmandu which was crowded with them, coming and going. We love the mountains but the time for trekking has come and gone for us – we don’t have a lot of shared experience with these people. But Bhaktapur is not a place you come to stock up on mountain gear; it appears to us people stay here breaking from trekking, to absorb a town that is renowned for its traditional arts and crafts.
Several interesting people we’ve met in our age bracket (give-or-take) have all been in Nepal 20-30 years ago and are now retracing their steps. A spry Irishman just off the boat from Tipperary, retired and spending his winters here teaching teenagers English. But he realized that public school children who had no kindergarten were starting with a huge disadvantage than those who went to private school and attended kindergarten. So now most of his time is taken up with establishing public school kindergartens across the city to narrow the gap. We asked him if he was lonely. “No way!” he says, “Nepalis are so friendly I have more than enough social interaction.”
A Canadian has returned with his son to see how much Nepal has changed in thirty years. But who we’ve spent the most time with is an Australian. Michael, a computer programmer for heavy industry, was last here in the early 80s. Quitting his job, he has come back to Nepal and trekked up as high as 5,100 meters. Later he’ll move on to India. Gerard and I gave him a few ideas for his itinerary based on places we know and love. Hours spent sharing memories of our travels to common places decades ago – Yugoslavia before Tito’s death, East Berlin before the wall came down….long discussion over breakfast in a restaurant that could be a NYC diner with its checkered tablecloths, bustling waiters and coffee-brewing aroma; while out of the window we enjoy a spectacular view of ancient Bhaktapur temples that is worlds away from NYC.
Michael leaves Bhaktapur before us. It’s unlikely we’ll see him again, but you never know. He says, “Traveling is saying goodbye.” Yes, it is but so isn’t living – nothing is permanent, we move on – obviously at a slower pace in our daily life than when traveling – but we always have to say goodbye. As we say goodbye to Bhaktapur, even though we may return, we will never see it again for the first time.