Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Nepal, Winter 2009, Part 2

[I haven't been posting as frequently as I should. Mainly because I have been catching up with work and stuff post-vacation and Dragon Age: Origins has been taking up an inordinate amount of my time.]

Durbar Square in Kathmandu was a riot of sound and color. I took a few pictures, which show the large, brightly colored temples. However, the pictures don't convey the sounds of vehicle honks (which are permitted to pass through the square), the blaring of temple music, gongs and bells, and the cacophony of streams of people coming and going.

The most interesting building in Durbar Square is without question the Kumari Bahal, the home of the Kumari Devi, the living goddess.

The most evident thing upon crossing the threshold into the courtyard of the Kumari Bahal is the quiet.

Away from the hustle and bustle of Durbar Square, the courtyard prompts introspection and contemplation. The second thing that catches the visitor's eye are the very fine carvings surrounding the courtyard.

I felt that the Kumari Bahal was unique in 2 respects. The first is that the Bahal itself is a place of residence rather than a temple serving a purely ceremonial function. People actually live in the Bahal, and it was evident because instead of crowds of worshippers and devotees, I saw a few women carrying platters and wash basins and other household objects as they moved in the compound, all the while speaking in hushed voices.

Second, because of her divine status, it's not a stretch to say that the Royal Kumari's movement is curtailed. The Bahal is as much prison as palace, and I took a picture from just inside the doorway to capture what it was like to see the outside world from within the Bahal.

After 2 days of walking in Kathmandu, I was ready to carry on with my journey. I left Kathmandu on 10 December, and my schedule required me to be in Pokhara by the night of the 13th. So I decided to pack in a short 2-day whitewater rafting trip en route to Pokhara followed by an overnight stay in a small mountain village called Bandipur.

I joined a rafting tour organized by the professionally run Himalayan Encounters on the Trisuli River.

I have no pictures of this part of my trip (well, maybe just one) as it was uneventful (in the fun sense).

First of all, I chose the rafting trip on the Trisuli as it was a short trip and the Trisuli runs alongside the highway from Kathmandu to Pokhara. This removed the requirement for a 7-hour continuous bus ride to Pokhara, but it did mean that we never did escape the sound of traffic; that kind of spoilt the illusion that we were rafting in the wilderness.

The Trisuli in December was … sedate to say the least. There were some exciting moments, but it was primarily a relaxing float. I’m certainly not doing this again.

However, what made the trip unpleasant was that I fell sick after the first night (note to self: never take raw salad unless you are sure the restaurant is fastidious with their washing water). I did manage to complete the trip despite my heaving stomach, but it wasn’t easy.

We stayed in a small pretty village called Bandipur for one night at the conclusion of the rafting portion of the trip. Here’s a picture of the courtyard of the Old Inn at Bandipur where we stayed.

I think I would have appreciated it more if I hadn’t still been sick, but fortunately I got better in the morning after I had voided my system completely.

The company was sorely lacking I’m sad to report. I rafted with a group of 5 women who had each individually signed up for a multi-day tour and met up in Kathmandu, the Nepal portion of the trip of which was organized by Himalayan Encounters. Things started out well enough in the beginning as most of them were friendly but the company wore increasingly thin as the trip continued.

I mean, what do you call someone who throughout the three days, doesn’t introduce herself when I was exchanging names with everyone or address you directly except with a generic “Could you pass the honey please” in my general direction. That was one of the Canadians for you. I could understand why the Belgian girl spoke very little, since her English was poor, but the Canadian was quite patently unfriendly.

I got steadily excluded after I became sick; nobody wants to keep company with the miserable. [Although that apparently didn’t stop the Canadian from going “I’ll eat it” after the tour guide advised me to abstain from the honey fritters served at dinner. How sensitive of her.] I felt like the odd man out, which wasn’t entirely unexpected as I was the only man in the group.

As professionally run as Himalayan Encounters was, I felt that I was treated somewhat differently by the tour guides (with the exception of the rafting guide) and inn operators. Perhaps it was because the other guests were all ladies, or to the point, Caucasian (preferential treatment for white tourists, anyone?), or that I signed up only for a small portion of their multi-day tour package fairly late when I reached Kathmandu. What was certainly evident was that I ended up with the worst room in the inn at Bandipur (completely windowless), and a small kerfuffle where they assumed that I was staying 2 nights in Bandipur instead of 1 night, wherein I suspect that I had been overcharged. Eventually, I stayed only 1 night, but I suspect that the original price was for 2 nights. No refund was offered. I didn’t press the issue as the receipt I was issued said 1 night, but the price for the Old Inn in Bandipur as listed in Lonely Planet indicated that the price I paid would have been for 2 nights.

It wasn’t too bad of an experience, all things considered. Himalayan Encounters still got me to Pokhara safely and without incident. And some parts of the rafting trip were fun. But knowing what I know now, I think I would have given that trip a pass were I to make the decision again.

Next post: Paragliding in Pokhara.

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