15 Nov

Serene Mountain Top Retreat

Lonely Planet says that it would be a shame to travel directly to Pokhara from Kathmandu without making a stop along the way to enjoy the mountain views, and so we decided to break our journey and spend a night at Manakamana expecting  to enjoy a serene  mountain top retreat. Ummmm…..not so much.

Up The Cable Car To Manakamana Mandir Unlike years ago, when the only way up was a grueling 18KM hike, there is now a modern cable car system that whisked us up the almost 1000M vertical in an easy 15 minutes. The views were amazing. We were not yet in the towering, snow covered Himalayas, but the views of the Himalayan foothills were spectacular and seemed to go on forever.

The village at the top exists entirely because of the Manakamana Mandir, one of the most important Hindu temples in Nepal and, as we saw in Kathmandu, the Hindu religion is not one of quiet contemplation.

We followed the crowd up toward the temple and could hear the usual bells, shouting and general noise of the temple, but also ‘boom box’ music…strange. The square around the temple was filled with teenage kids – there were a good number of adults too, but a disproportionate number of teenagers were there…weird. The ‘boom box’ music was coming from one corner where a ‘hip’ group of kids were running a small gaming operation – a ring toss table and what looked like a raffle of sorts. It was the prizes that stood out though – juice boxes, cookies, beer, bottles of whiskey, cigarettes – and it was the  kids playing these games, not the adults. It was a carnival like atmosphere with the boys wandering around trying to look macho and girls hanging about laughing and twittering behind the scarves they held to their faces.

Goat Awaits His One Way Ride, Manakamana, Nepal One of the more interesting, and macabre, things about the temple is that the goddess of the temple is said to grant wishes. Many of the families that flock here come to ask for a wish to be filled…and many of them bring a goat along for the ride to sacrifice and ‘seal the deal’. There are a few special karts on the cable car for the sacrificial goats to ride up…a one way ticket. We saw many goats being led up the path but, thankfully, we only saw one that had met its’ fate and we did not see where the sacrifices were happening.

We were the only tourists there for our whole stay and we certainly got a lot of attention. There were plenty of stares and giggles but most would smile and wave back when we smiled and waved. Eating meals was interesting as we almost invariably had an audience…I guess they were wondering how and why we were eating with utensils (most of them were eating with their hands but I don’t know how to eat rice and curry with my hands!).

The village seemed to shut down after dark but we did manage to find a place to have a beer and play some cards…with an audience of course. The five Nepali boys were fascinated by our cribbage game and watched intently as they discussed it amongst themselves. We pantomimed back and forth a little bit but it was hard to communicate when we speak no Nepali and they spoke no English. I did remember a super simple card trick from long ago and so I tried it on them…the look on their faces when I picked out their ‘secret’ card was hilarious. I think I’ll learn some more tricks as it was a great way to engage with them.

With the village seemingly all rolled up for the night we headed to bed fairly early only to be woken multiple times by groups of kids finishing their night at the temple and hooting and hollering their way down the hill. Where they were going I have no idea as the cable car must have surely stopped by that time. Eventually they all seemed to have made their way down and so we settle in to sleep.

Bang, bang, bang, bang…..bang, bang, bang, bang….’Excuse me….excuse me…excuse me’…bang, bang, bang, bang. I slowly realize that someone is knocking on the door and reach for my watch…6AM. I answer the door….’Excuse me…hot water…shower!!’. What? ‘Hot water…shower’ he repeats, this time pantomiming showering. ‘Oh…Ok….thank you’ I say and close the door to return to my nice warm bed. I have no idea why it was so important for him to come and tell me about the hot water at 6AM but he seemed to think it was urgent. So much for sleeping in.

We didn’t have a bus ticket for our onward journey so we made our way down the mountain to wait on the highway to flag a bus down. Almost before we got to the highway a man was shepherding us to a small bus indicating that it would go to Pokhara. Perfect, we thought, that wasn’t hard at all.

J On The Dodgy Bus, Manakamana to Pokhara The bus stopped in a small town about 20 minutes later and, after a few minutes the ‘conductor’ indicated that we needed to transfer to another bus to continue on. We grabbed our bags and proceeded to the second bus. As I boarded and saw the interior of the bus I knew that I was not going to like it…I should have turned around right then, but  for some reason I didn’t. We headed towards the back to find some free seats for us and our bags and soon realized that almost all of the seats were dirty, torn and broken…not a good sign but, by now, the bus was moving so we just looked at each other shrugging our shoulders.

Within 5 minutes I knew I wasn’t going to stay on the bus – it was the dodgiest bus I have seen. I could just picture something  terrible happening and my mother saying ‘what was she thinking, being on a bus like that?’, so we decided that we would get off at the first chance – we didn’t owe anybody any explanations and, for the money, we could more than afford to pay full fare again on a better bus.

About 30 minutes later the bus pulled into a small stop and we grabbed our bags to wait on the roadside for another bus. Our decision was confirmed when the driver proceeded to get under the bus and hammer away at something under there for a while…obviously not in tip top condition! When he had finished the ‘repairs’ everyone boarded again to continue on…I don’t think a single soul on that bus was surprised that we did not get back on.

Waiting For Another Bus, Manakamana to Pokhara We sat on the roadside for almost two hours waiting for another bus. It was hot and dusty but we didn’t care, we weren’t on the dodgy bus anymore. Eventually another bus came along and suited us quite nicely. It wasn’t any South American or Turkey bus with meals and drinks served aboard…but it wasn’t dodgy and that’s all we needed.

Serene mountain top retreat indeed. Manakanama was definitely an experience, and it was on a mountain top…but it was definitely not serene. We won’t be stopping in on our way back to Kathmandu!

13 Nov

Crazy Hazy Kathmandu

Thamel Area, Kathmandu My face was glued to the window all the way from the airport. We had finally arrived on the sub-continent and I was eager to see all the craziness. Kathmandu did not disappoint.

The traffic was as crazy as I expected – our hotel owner later told us that there are no traffic rules in Nepal – basically just stay to the left and don’t hit anything. Cars, trucks, motorcycles, scooters and bicycle rickshaws are everywhere – if the lane is wide enough for handlebars then a motorcycle will surely be speeding down it.

The smog is unrelenting – at times blocking out the views of the Himalayas. My  nose is already constantly running black and there is a thickness in my throat. Many people, locals and tourists, sport masks to try and minimize the damage.

The noise is overwhelming – honking seems to be a national sport and it pays to heed them as more than once we almost got swiped by a passing motorcycle. Whistles, salesmen hawking, music and general noise round out the ‘symphony’ – it starts early, and ends late.

The colors are amazing – the dresses that the women wear, the ever-present marigolds and red dye at the temples, the bright lights of all the signs overhead – a never-ending smorgasbord of things to see.

Mmmm...Lunch The food is delicious – we love curry and a little heat – every meal we have had has been great…we’re in culinary heaven.

It is fascinating. We spent the entire first day just wandering around, our heads swiveling back and forth as one sight after another vied for our attention.

We visited two temples during our stay.

Devotional Fires, Swayambhunath Stupa, Kathmandu The Swayambhunath Stupa is also known as the Monkey Temple due to the troop of monkeys that also live on the hill. But they were not the highlight that day. We arrived at the stupa to find a mix of Buddhist and Hindu ceremonies occurring. Circumambulating the stupa and turning the prayer wheels is distinctly Buddhist, but the other shrines and ceremonies using marigolds, red dyes, bell ringing, and rice were definitely Hindu. To which religion the rafts of yak butter candles and pots of fire to be stirred by devotees belonged to, I don’t know. There was much merriment and celebration with red-smudged foreheads and marigold petal strewn hair everywhere. It was amazing and we watched for hours as we circled the stupa again and again to take it all in.

Boudha Stupa, Kathmandu The Bouhda Stupa is one of the largest in the world and surrounding village is home to a large population of Tibetan monks and exiles. The feeling here was definitely more serene and in keeping with what I had thought a Buddhist temple would be like. The sounds of Tibetan meditation music floated out from the music shops around the stupa, and the scent of incense permeated the air. We, again, slowly circumambulated the stupa (always in a clockwise direction) and watched as the crowd built towards sunset. By the time the sun set the path was filled with devotees, monks, villagers and tourists – a religious and social event.

After just two days in the Nepali capital our heads were filled. We headed off to Pokhara and the mountains for some natural beauty and peace and quiet.