Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Nepal, Winter 2009, Part 1

I traveled to Nepal in December 2009 for my vacation. It was my first trip to Nepal. This will be the first of a multi-part series on my experiences and reflections from the trip. Apologies to those expecting incisive political discourse or criticism, I won't be blogging on those for quite a while. Not unless there is something that utterly demands my attention.

[And to site administrators who manage aggregator websites (like say Singapore Daily), I would appreciate it if you did NOT link to these posts. The content is somewhat personal.]

I arrived in Kathmandu in early December. Tribhuvan International Airport was, as expected, fairly dilapidated, and there were hordes of touts at the exit of the arrival hall. Again, an expected occurrence.

It was when I got into the car of my hotel pick-up from the airport and started the drive into Kathmandu proper that I got my first real impression of Kathmandu.

The immediate impression was undeniably that of a city in a third-world country. Poverty was certainly evident: garbage was strewn everywhere (and I learnt later that a lot of it was piled up and burnt each night by the homeless), there were beggars and street hawkers scraping out a living from the streets, and the buildings were blocky and worn down. Traffic was heavy; it took about 40 minutes to get to my hotel. The air was heavily polluted with exhaust fumes, and the streets were a cacophony of incessant car honks. The roads naturally, were full of pot-holes, and pedestrians scrambled along the same roads the as the vehicles. All in all, as the hotel manager of the Hyatt Regency in Kathmandu (whom I met later on my trip) put it, Kathmandu was a "disaster".

[Did I mention the pollution? To put it in the earthiest terms possible, snot that emerges from one's nostrils each day is colored black. Yes, black. Imagine what goes into the lungs each day.]

Not that I had a pejorative opinion of the city. I knew that Nepal was overwhelmingly poor before I traveled there, and had adjusted my expectations accordingly. Still, coming from Singapore, Kathmandu was a bit of a sensory overload.

I stayed in a district called Paknajol during my 2 nights in Kathmandu, northwest of the tourist district of Thamel. It was a deliberate decision on my part as I can't abide staying in a noisy district while traveling. I'm not exactly the partying-till-late-and-getting-wasted sort.

This is Thamel:

This is Paknajol:

After I had settled into my hotel room, it was just a couple of hours till nightfall and dinner. I have no problems traveling alone, but I generally do not like taking my meals alone. Walking into a restaurant and saying "Table for one" is probably one of my least favorite things to do while traveling. As luck would have it, I met three ladies on the airplane to Kathmandu, recognized their Singaporean accents, and asked if they would like to have dinner together that night. Well, actually, it was more like I imposed myself on them. Anyways, it turned out that they were all teachers and were in Nepal on a trekking trip; one had apparently come to Nepal every year for the past 8 years.

We had Italian food for dinner that night. Unlike most Singaporeans, I'm not a avid photographer of gastrop0rn, but here's a pretty picture of the antipasti platter we had:

I parted ways with the teachers after that night, and being the flaneur that I am, I spent the following day walking around Kathmandu. Most of my time was spent walking in and around Thamel and Durbar Square.

Kathmandu reminded me of a number of different places that I had been to before. The strongest first impression was that it reminded me of Cuzco, Peru. The poverty of the city, and the importance of trekking and mountaineering tourism, so evident in the Thamel district, and how the local people are employed as guides and porters, gave me that overwhelming parallel impression. In Cuzco, the Andean mountains and Machu Picchu are the big draws. In Nepal, tourists come for the Himalaya and Everest.

Kathmandu also quite unexpectedly reminded me of two other places: Bali and Tokyo.

The Bali connection is easily explained: Nepal's religious culture is a curious mix of Hinduism and Buddhism, and the prevalence of roadside shrines in Nepal, where offerings (such as marigold petals) are made recalls the practice of canang sari in Bali. Here's a roadside shrine in Kathmandu:

The Tokyo connection is less obvious. How does Kathmandu resemble Tokyo?

I visited Tokyo a few years ago, right after watching Lost in Translation. Now watching a movie or reading a book set in a particular city before visiting it is sure to color your perceptions of that city. Tokyo was no different. Just as I am a fan of Pedro Almodovar and speak some Spanish, my perception of Madrid is quite a bit different from the average Singaporean who knows little of Spain.

To cut things short since this post is really about Kathmandu and not Tokyo, what struck me most about Tokyo was the juxtaposition of the ancient with the modern, the traditional with the progressive. Tokyo was a city of skyscrapers and city towers as much as it was a city of quiet temples, tea houses and ryokan. Kathmandu is no different in this respect. It is a modern, if poor, city, but with crumbling, centuries-old temples, shrines, stupas and relics.

The Lonely Planet guidebook that I toted around in my backpack described Kathmandu well. Kathmandu does indeed have an ancient mystique that has captivated and fascinated travelers for centuries. Perhaps the best description of this was how the writers of the guidebook wrote of how, in Nepal, it is not at all remarkable to find in a household a centuries old statue used as a prop to hold up a broken shelf or as a support for a clothesline.

Clearly, Kathmandu isn't a modern city built upon the ruins of an older one, but more like a modern city layered upon the still vibrant and living culture of a far older city. As an example, this is an antique, ornate carved wooden window, found right above a photocopy shop.

It was mentioned in a walking tour in the guidebook, and in this I have to agree with the guidebook. The sublime is paired with the quotidian, in a incongruous juxtaposition. That is part of Kathmandu's, and Nepal's, unique charm.

Here is another example: a stupa in a small square that is also a street market. Again, the divine is placed squarely next to the earthly, or in this case, mercantile.

Perhaps the clearest example of Nepal's living ancient culture is how Nepalis habitually touch relics or shrines whenever they past by them. Typically, a Nepali would touch the shrine and then raise their fingers to their lips, all the time mouthing a silent prayer. It is a gesture not unlike Catholics crossing themselves. I waited only a few minutes to capture this picture, and I am glad I did because it captures so perfectly the relationship that Nepalis have with their religion and their culture.

Next post: Kathmandu's Durbar Square, and my route to Pokhara.

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