A Peaceful Mountain Respite

If Bhaktapur is the most exotic place we’ve travelled, then Bandipur is the most idyllic. The only fly in the ointment was the mountains weren’t clear. But the flowers in bloom made up for it.

It’s rare that a place is even better on the second visit. Our guesthouse has an excellent view of the valley below on a clear day.

The town center has a Mediterranean feel. The stone-paved plaza is entered down several steps, so there is no traffic, not even a motorbike.

The peace and quiet is more than welcome . Even the dogs rarely bark, only the sounds of birds and school children break the silence . Bliss for me—I can actually follow a conversation again.

The center of town has scarcely changed since our first visit. Though Bandipur is geared toward tourists, they haven’t yet come in droves yet. Day trippers arrive for a few hours on private buses from Pokhara, and a few paragliders hang silently in the sky.

The locals are still welcoming and greet us with naamaste and a warm smile. The service couldn’t be better.

An old building at the end of the square has been beautifully restored in the traditional style and can be enjoyed for a mere $100/night.

On a walk outside of town, more beautiful houses and flowers

We have been in Nepal for three weeks and hadn’t seen the snow-capped mountains until this morning. After a night’s rain, in the early morning our rooftop gave us a grand view.

It’s not easy to get to Bandipur, but it’s well worth the effort.

Bhaktapur, worth seeing again.

Our taxi brought us as far as cars could go inside Bhaktapur and the guesthouse owner came out to greet us. But he did not recognize our booking. “I don’t work with Expedia.” “But we’ve prepaid for seven nights!” He showed us a room. The pictures online had little resemblance, but our window looked right out on Taumaudh temple, the tallest in Nepal. “When is breakfast served?” I asked him, looking at the tables in the entryway. “Breakfast?” he said, “I don’t serve breakfast.” “But our booking included breakfast.” Mukunda, the owner was friendly but that didn’t make up for the overpriced room. It worked out in the end, we paid half of the asking price online.

Bhaktapur was on our list of places to return, but after the earthquake (Bhaktapur sat at the 8.9M epicenter) we thought it would be too painful to see all its architectural antiquity destroyed. Time and tide…we had to go before we couldn’t.

The old town (not the sprawling new one) was built between the 14th and 16thC. Three major squares are connected by narrow streets and alleys paved with flagstones. One of the advantages of the uneven surface is that that motorbikes, the only traffic allowed, are slowed down. In spite of dust from continuing construction, the city is still immaculate compared to India.

Apparently, 70% of the old buildings in the town collapsed while many of the new concrete homes survived. If the homeowner rebuilds with the traditional brick and carved timber front facade, the municipality reimburses up to 20%.

The Taumaudh temple remained intact in spite of its height while surrounding buildings collapsed. It’s enormous three tier base may explain why. Or the protecting statues along the ascending stairs did their job.

Across the square, another repaired temple houses a god that is so ferocious that no one, except the priest, is allowed to enter inside.

Life here is steeped in rituals. In front of every house a stone or bronze stylized flower is embedded alongside the paving stones to ensure safety and prosperity to the household. The “pikha lakhe” are lovingly blessed with flowers, rice and red powder.

Around 4 am, the morning ritual begins with the ringing of temple bells by people passing by. With my bad hearing, the different size bells, ringing at intervals, sound like an avant guard jazz performance. Women bring trays of offerings to the ancient statutes of deities. After paying homage, they smear the red powder on their third eye.

In Bhaktapur, young and old alike take their rituals very seriously, lighting candles, touching the deity, then their forehead. As they leave, they take a flower and place it on their head. Every evening, older men sit in front of the temple and chant. One explanation for so much ritual could be Nepalis have incorporated both Buddhism and Hinduism.

Buddhist figures sitting on a Hindu Shivalingam

Unique to Bhaktapur are “patis”, covered sitting areas where old men hang out, chatting or playing cards.

With most of the restaurants and hotels run by young men, where are all the middle-aged men? With few work opportunities, many have left to find work or study abroad leaving the women to fend for themselves.

The guesthouse owner, Mukunda, was sympathetic of my hearing loss and told me about his Downs Syndrome 17-year old daughter. He took us to see her school.

Gerard conversing with Mukunda

The first person we met there was an English volunteer, the other, a young physical therapist massaging the atrophied legs of Mukunda’s daughter. It was hard for me to take in; she didn’t even recognize her father’s voice. The school has 45 students, one of them a little boy was playing by himself silently in a corner. His face lit up when I went over to play with him. What a Godsend to have this school here for these children.

With all the changes here, we were pleased to find the tea and curd lady still in business. In India, you can always count on getting a good chai made by Nepali cooks. But in Bhaktapur they began making coffee for the tourists. Now everyone is drinking coffee and it’s hard to find tea anywhere.

In spite of air pollution and the painfully slow restoration we were glad to return. In our travels, Bhaktapur still remains unique.

Kathmandu: Eight Years Later

Flying toward Kathmandu, the line of snow-capped mountains on the horizon looked more like a bank of clouds in the blue sky. But then we dipped down for landing into a blanket of smog. Once on the ground, we were glad of our face masks. Traffic was heavy, with mostly motorbikes, but unlike in India, Nepalis don’t sit on their horns. The level of street noise was more bearable for my now noise-sensitive ears. The population has exploded like in India.

Happy at leaving Varanasi before Holi (not our favorite festival), only to find the Nepalis also celebrating. Youth and children roamed the streets throwing color until evening when things calmed down. We should’t have been surprised since Hinduism and Buddhism are practiced side by side in Nepal. Buddhist statues sit alongside Hindu deities at all the monuments.

Nine years ago, just before the 2015 earthquake, we came here not knowing what to expect. How could we have known history would come alive through the architectural wonder of Durbar Square in both Patan and Kathmandu? We were apprehensive about returning, to face the devastation coupled with reports of increased crime and prostitution in Kathmandu. But we didn’t see it and were glad to be back.

Thamel, where the budget hotels are located, is still a rabbit warren of narrow cobblestoned streets. Tourists and trekkers seem way down but maybe because the season hasn’t started yet. Everybody seems to be on the hustle but you can’t blame them; tourism and so much else hasn’t recovered since the earthquake.

Gerard asked a few locals where they were when the earthquake hit. Among those we spoke to, no one knew anyone who died. Today the city is still a mix between empty lots and construction. In spite of foreign aid pouring in, it’s rumored that rebuilding didn’t start for years. One explanation: “If we did the repair work, the money would stop coming.” But there are other reasons including lack of organization and finding skilled artisans..

Still vibrating with the impressions of Varanasi, Durbar Square with its intricate architecture and wood carving required a cultural shift in our attention. Even though this was our second visit, the beauty of this 3rdC Royal Palace complex was a feast for our eyes and in much better condition than we’d expected.

Next day we waited for the drizzle to stop, then climbed up the 365 steps to the Swayambhunath or Monkey Temple.

Nine years ago, the steps were of no consequence. So many changes during those years. Surprisingly, the hundreds of stone deities of both religions surrounding the large Buddhist stupa, escaped unscathed.

Unfortunately the nearby Patan Durbar wasn’t as restored as Kathmandu because either it suffered more damage or has taken longer to recover. It was hard to see the deterioration of what had impressed us so much before—some of the finest Newari temples and palaces in Nepal.

Posters around the complex boasted the involvement of Germany, Japan, China etc., then why is it taking so long compared to Kathmandu?

Thankfully, the Patan Museum, with financial help from Austria, has reopened its gilded entryway and still contains a wonderful collection of Newari sculptures and artifacts.

Varanasi Succumbs to Overt Tourism

We weren’t prepared for all the changes in Varanasi. Perhaps they seemed more extreme after three years’ absence. Getting from the airport to the ghats through the clogged streets was a major feat, our taxi took twice the time. We crawled along, directing the driver to our familiar way of entering the ghat through the Moslem quarter. The hotel we’d booked online was a mistake–the photographs were totally misleading, it was a dump! But fortunately we found another literally next door. Under renovation, we were able to book an unfinished but nice room for a bargain.

We quickly dropped our bags and hustled out to embrace Mother Ganges. There she was in all her splendor. But wait! What is happening on the sandbar across the river? A young Indian boy seeing our perplexed expression, said, “How do you like our Tent City?” A mass of white tents are lined up like an army barracks, a protective fence surrounding the ‘compound.’ Gerard asked the boy, “Who wants to stay in a tent in the blazing sun?” He replied, “The same people who will pay up to 4K rupees a night.” We all had a good laugh.

On our first foray out we didn’t even notice no washermen drying laundry on the ghat, no more stately water buffaloes wading in the river. The ghats could certainly stand to be cleaner, but we miss the activity and color. For several years, the government tried to stop clothes washing in the river with little effect. The police are now offering a free ‘bamboo massage’ (beating) to all offenders!

Our friends along the lane were all smiles. Gerard thought they they were pleased to see us but also that it also meant business was resuming. If these two old people can make it back then there’s hope! Just about everyone we talked to had stories about the covid lockdown. With few exceptions (naysayers), most told the same story: initially, there was a sense of camaraderie, the community fed the beggars and dogs. Some restaurants continued to pay their staff; they were the lucky ones.

Then the lockdown dragged on more than a year. With no money coming in, utilities and food still had to be paid for. Ironically, property owners were exempt from the government food subsidies, but still had to pay their property tax. Price of food continued climbing; from pre to post covid the price of cooking oil and flour has doubled.

I was surprised to see a beggar we’ve known for years, to have actually put on weight and look healthier. Maybe he’d benefited from the government handout/? He was also missing his thick glasses—perhaps he’d qualified for free cataract surgery!

Our friend Santosh, a native of Varanasi, said he noticed in the tree outside his window many bird species he’d not seen before. And because the streets were so quiet, he could actually hear the birds sing. The only other sound breaking the silence was the muezzin’s call for prayer at the mosque. Someone else mentioned the surface of the Ganges was like glass with no boats carrying tourists up and down the river.

Manikarnika, main burning ghat

The smoke rising from the dead and the dust of ancient Varansi

Three additional ghats were relegated for burning and to keep up with the demand, instead of one body per pyre, five to ten bodies were burned at once. No vaccines were available at first, the irony when India was making a massive amount but selling it abroad! The only activity was cremation.

We’ve known Rajesh for about 15 years, even before he was married. He and Gerard connected over the classical Hindustani CDs he sold. Then there was only demand for religious music at his stall on the way to the Golden Temple. Today, he just sells bangles and necklaces. His wife invited us to dinner; it was very sweet to be with his whole family.

His 12 year old daughter, Sagan, was engaging, showing me her English language test book with almost 100% scores, while her rambunctious young brother, Vinayak, vied for attention.


As we have done previously, we accompanied Santosh an accomplished photographer, to watch the sunrise over the river and the pilgrims do their morning puja. We’ve done that many times before and it still remains spectacular. During Covid, many walls were decorated with murals, some better than others. But our sense of awe turned to dismay as the new corridor loomed. A wide stone staircase lead up to the entry way and a fast food court. An admission fee is required to go further into the corridor leading to the Golden Temple.

Three years ago when the project began, we were deeply perplexed that they could tear down part of this ancient city. Now 500 old houses have been destroyed to create this gaping hole of modernity and capitalism.

Just past the corridor, Manikarnika, the rambling main Burning Ghat has been contained. I used to find it mysterious and almost threatening with its confusion of burning bodies, sadhus and pseudo policemen forbidding photography at threat of large fines. Now I can walk by unaccosted.

Manikarnika main burning ghat
The smoke rises from the dead and the ancient city

Admittedly, Modi’s a controversial figure but it seems he wants to turn Varanasi into a tourist attraction. Pilgrims have been coming here to worship and to die for thousands of years. They will continue to come but they will have to compete with the well-heeled tourists.

For us, we continue to meet old friends. From the first time we arrived fifteen years ago, we connected with our congenial guesthouse manager, Sanjiv, restaurant owners, shopkeepers, music lovers, chai wallahs, and even beggars. Unimpeded with language difficulties, the friendships strengthened with each visit.

In spite of the encroaching modern world, Varanasi remains remarkably unique: the sun rising over the Ganges, the boats darting back and forth, sadhus performing their spiritual practices.