Sunday, June 8, 2008

Nepal Trip: Bhaktapur, Patan

On the way back we stopped at another big stupa which is actually in Kathmandu city. This was the "Golden Temple", it was a very big stupa, though it didn't have the complex of other temples or the bits and pieces all around it.

Golden Temple

What it did have was a complete circle of little shops of all sorts, and the whole life of the city - people going about their business, little children playing, and so on. It was absolutely fascinating, it would have been easy to spend half a day here. We walked the whole way round, taking care not to lose our bearings, for there were entrances at each of the four points of the compass, all looking pretty much the same, and it would have been very easy to lose track of which one we had come in.

The next morning we got up at 4.30am, and left the hotel with our guide at 5.00am. It is very chilly and foggy. We are off to see the sunrise over the Himalayas.

We are told that we can't go the usual viewing point because the road has been blocked by fallen boulders. The fog is so thick we can only see a few yeards of the road ahead.

We drove for about an hour. At first there were lots of people already making for the city, carrying their wares for the various markets. We went further and further into the country, and eventually arrived at a hill which, in the dark, we climbed.

There was not a soul about now. Well, actually there was one, a man who had climbed the hill behind us, and was now squatting down, doing what people do when they first get up in the morning!

Cold and damp, so high, and so early in the morning. We had our jumpers and jackets on, but still felt chilly.

After a short time the sky started to lighten, and slowly, we began to see the outline of the snow covered mountains. And, ever so slowly, the tips of the mountain tops became tinged with pink. Then, as the sun came up, the mountains came to life, glowing like jewels in the distance.

It was very, very beautiful, and we understand we were very lucky to see it. Very few people do actually see the sunrise (NOW they tell us!!) as so often the fog doesn't lift in time. In fact the very next morning some friends who we had met in India went on the same trip and saw only fog. Apparently, the fog as we left Kathmandu was a promising sign, for when it is foggy in the valleys, it is often clear over the mountains. And vice-versa.

We were disappointed when we saw our photographs at home, and we had to remind ourselves that we were seeing the mountains at a distance of about 70 miles. It was fine to the naked eye, but there must have been a lot of haze intervening, and the conditions were not good for photography. Still the main thing was, at least we saw it. Was it worth getting up at 4.30am?? You bet it was!!

We left the hills, as most of the local village seemed to be coming up to our field for their morning loo call. I needed a loo by this time. Everybody else in Nepal seemed to be gaily squatting in the fields as we went by. "They are there in the fields every morning" our guide says, "just like mushrooms."

Our guide was a bit flummoxed by my needing a loo. We were on our way to Bhaktapur and he didn't think there was one, anywhere in Bhaktapur!! When we got there the driver made straight for one of the main squares - Nyatapola Square - and here was a rather famous coffee house, which actually had - according to him - the only loo in the town. There was one, pretty primitive, but I was glad to see it, I didn't fancy being a 'mushroom'. After an excellent coffee up on the first floor which was open on all sides, we sat and watched the town come to life. Being high up in a main square in the middle of town was a perfect place for people-watching

Bhaktapur means the "City of Devotees". Bhaktapur is about eight miles east of Kathmandu. It is an elongated city, built in the shape of a guitar. Fields fan out on all sides. The City has essentially one major street which passes through a large gate to reach the Durbar Square.

Time now to explore. What can one say of Bhaktapur?? A wonderful, enchanting experience. It was like being in a time warp. Totally medieval, one can imagine London being very like this five hundred years ago. Old buildings with all their timberwork heavily carved, almost meeting at first floor level in the narrow alleys and streets.

The shopkeepers started to open up for trade. They sit on earth floors in their tiny little open-fronted shops, plying their trades. We saw silver smiths, embroiderers,

Corn merchants, vegetable shops, fruit growers. Some of them had already walked miles into the city with their produce. There was just about every trade you could think of. We stopped and watched a man who was making bright braids for plaiting into hair. Very clever.

In the town, down a very narrow alley, was the famous Peacock Window. This window is 600 years old, and carved from a single piece of teak. The whole window consists of a carving of a peacock in full display.

Close by, we saw the priest's house, where they use an unusual in/out sign. When the priest is out of the house, a puppet is placed in the window, and when he is in, it is removed. We looked up, and sure enough, there was the puppet, and the priest was out this morning.

We remarked to our guide that the Nepalese people always looked and seemed happy. Our guide told us that even if they are sad, their religion says that it is wrong to go around spreading gloom. And if they do, they will lose some 'Brownie points' for the next incarnation. He say he sees people "with corrugated foreheads," and he thinks they are not as happy as they seem.

Back in the main square our guide obviously wasn't hurrying us along, and was quite content to let us just wander around, soaking up the ambience.

We saw a temple with large stone figures sitting on the steps which led up to the entrance. These figures depict increasing levels of power as they go up. So, wrestlers at the bottom, but the elephants above them are stronger, and the lions of the next level are stronger still. Then come a pair of gryphons, and at the top, most powerful of all, Ganesh the Elephant God.

Young children were playing happily. One little boy with a wooden bat had a flat wooden "ball" which he was tossing into the air. He was very adept at it, and concentrating hard, but when he realised that Ralph was videoing him, he went all shy and embarrassed, and dropped his ball, much to the amusement of his Dad.

All the people were going about their business. A couple of young girls doing their laundry at the public standpipe in the square. We loved this place and would love to come back one day.

On the way back to civilisation we saw Annapurna, but again, it was a long way off. The sky had cleared, and we were able to get some distant views of the high Himalayas.

Our guide told us about the way the Nepalese give offerings to their shrines. One fifth of all the wheat and rice grown in Nepal is given to the shrines as offerings. Even though the people may at times be starving, still they give all that food "to the gods". Some of it is given by the priests to the really destitute, in a sort of social service. Still it seems a rather hard discipline.

Jack Glatzer, the American violinist who we met at Delhi Airport has left a telephone message to confirm two complimentary tickets for us at his concert tonight which is at the American Clultural Centre.

After lunch we went on a tour of Patan. When we got to the city gate, which is very colourful, bedecked with large eyes and parrots, and a sign saying "wel-come."

Patan means "city of art" and it boasts the the finest wood carvers, the best bronze-casters and possibly the most talented painters in the Valley. Wood carving has been a tradition here for at least a thousand years, and probably more. Master carvers still exist, working with time honoured religious patterns handed down through the years, turning out new pieces as they sit beneath exquisite wooden relics of the past.

In the Palace Square is a tall pillar, with a statue of the King, overtopped by a cobra with a bird on its head. Local legend has it that, if the bird flies away, there will no longer be a king in Nepal.

We went into the temple where the young boys go for a month to decide if they really do want to become monks. The whole family go too, and their job is to look after the boy: he is not allowed to do anything. The courtyard of this temple is quite small and dark, but very ornate, and obviously very richly endowed. Most of the boys who come here are from the guild of goldsmiths, so it has become a very rich temple.

We walked around the outside on a raised ledge. We could have gone into the inner courtyard, but we would have had to take our shoes off. There was a statue in a glass case which was of solid gold.

In one of the old royal buildings we went in, in the middle of a rather darkish courtyard, was a huge walk-in sunken bath.

Here the King used to bathe every morning, and it took six hours! First, he had to "wash" in cow dung, then several more applications of various unspeakable concoctions, ending up with honey, and finally, water. No wonder it took six hours!! Then, naked, he sat on the sacred stone and prayed. Whilst we were being told this, a cow wandered in from the street, went through a door into one of the apartments, came out again, and started licking one of the doors. Cows are allowed to wander wherever, and do whatever they please. And they do.

We saw a little girl who was hugging a black puppy; she obviously loved it. Ralph gave her some rupees for the privilege of photographing the two of them - and thereby clearly made another life-long friend.

We wandered around the city admiring the magnificent carved work on the buildings. Our guide drew our attention to pots which are hung from some of the roof struts. These are filled with water or honey for the benefit of ancestral spirits. And the water, etc., disappears (by evaporation), thereby proving that the ancestral spirits appreciate a drink!!

From the city we went to visit some Government craft workshops. The main business here is the renovation of the city itself, replacing the decaying metalwork, and especially the magnificent carved timberwork, where it is falling into disrepair.

We were greatly impressed watching some young men doing superb paintings, highly coloured religious paintings. Some of the paint is actually metallic gold, and much of it is done with a brush of just a single hair. So intricate and delicate, quite lovely.

But what impressed us most were the wood carvers. The work these people were doing was quite breathtaking, and we were quite surprised to find that many of the carvers were women.

They were carving doors, door frames, screens and panels. Tables, chairs and bureaux, and lots more. And with what patience and skill. So far as we could judge, craftsmanship equal to the carvings from way back, all over the old town.

There was a scaled down replica of the Peacock Window, and after a lot of thought we decided to buy it. It was a sandalwoody sort of colour, and we left it to be stained and delivered to our hotel tomorrow.

We took a taxi and went to the American Cultural Centre. We enjoyed the recital no end, although by the end of the concert my eyes were starting to droop - the 4.30am start was rapidly catching up with me.

Jack explained the story and background behind each piece he played, which made it so much more interesting. And he certainly played the violin beautifully. After the concert we thanked Jack and got him to sign our programme, maybe we will see him in London one day.

When we got back to the hotel we found that our flight over Mount Everest is booked for tomorrow morning.

The following morning we again have fog in the valley early on, but it seems to clear by about 10.00am. This morning we are going on our flight over Everest. The Mountain Flight has its own check-in desk and in no time we are sitting in the small departure lounge. The flight has been delayed because of the fog.

There is lots to watch. There are lots of locals waiting to fly back to their villages. Small aircraft, mostly Islanders, are coming and going all the time. Quite an aerial bus service. There was a group of Nepalese waiting for their flight to Pokhara. One of the women had a baby in a straw cradle. When the flight was called, she slung the cradle on to her back, with a wide strap across the top of her head. It left her hands free for all the fruit and vegetable she was also carrying. They were all loaded down with goods and produce they were taking home. I don't think they can recognise excess baggage on Nepalese domestic flights!

We are finally called aboard a couple of hours later. I had a window seat. It was a very good flight. The only criticism would be that the windows were very heavily scratched, which was no help at all to photography, as we discovered when we got home.

The cabin crew were very good. We were given a chart of the mountain range, and they kept coming back and forth, pointing out where we were, and which mountain we were looking at.

It was a spectacular flight, one of those "Once in a lifetime" occasions. We flew along the mountain range. On the outward leg, the people on the port side had a good view. We had been asked to keep our seats, as everybody would in due course get their turn. Then the plane was turned around, and on the return leg, those of us on the right hand side got the view.

What surprised me most was that I had expected Everest to tower above everything, and it is only slightly higher than the other mountains all around. In fact, if the cabin crew hadn't pointed out which was Everest, I wouldn't have known.

It was all very impressive, and good to know we had flown alongside and seen the highest mountain in the world. The tops of the mountains were all snow and ice, but the valleys are black rock at this time of year.

Our last morning in Kathmandu. We took a taxi down to New Road. We ambled around the old town, in and out of the squares, and up and down the narrow streets. I was sure we would get lost, but it was good to be free of guides and on our own, for once.

Time to leave for the airport. We have enjoyed Nepal. The people are friendly, they smile a lot. And the towns are so much cleaner than in India, in fact the whole country smells clean, even the back streets. Even though they are mostly dirt streets. And even though there are no loos!!

We are aware of political tensions here. Our guide told us, and we have read of it in the local papers, that there is a strong pressure group working for "democracy" and to limit the power of the King.

As we drove to the airport our courier told us about the unrest in Nepal. They are worried that serious trouble may start tomorrow, and "Kathmandu will not be a good place to be." Both the courier and the driver were obviously worried. People, it seems, are already trying to get early flights out of the country.

The King is due to open the new airport building officially tomorrow, so there are flags and bunting everywhere. Security has been tightened up, and our courier wasn't allowed into the airport building with us.

As we went through into the departure lounge we discovered Jack Glatzer, our violinist. He had been at the airport all day, they had cancelled his flight this morning and he was concerned because a lot of people are trying to leave Nepal before the trouble which is expected to start tomorrow. Certainly, the locals are nervous!

Our visit to Nepal was in 2002. I do hope that it hasn't been spoiled. It is such a beautiful country. If anybody has been to visit Nepal lately, I would very much like to hear from you.

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