January 9th, 2012: Pokhara, Nepal
I came into Nepal on New Year’s Eve thinking it would be a good place to ring in the new year, but I was mistaken. Nepal follows a different sort of calendar that puts their new year somewhere in the middle of April. So instead of festivities, I sat in the cold around a small burning barrel outside of my hotel and had a beer with a Belgian guy I met. He wouldn’t tell me his real name and insisted I call him Roma. He’s almost 40 and has been traveling for about 3 or 4 years; he’s not sure. Nice guy, but a little off the deep end.
Nepal sits on the threshold of the largest mountain range in the world (8 of the 10 highest peaks are within its borders). Stuck between the Tibetan Plateau in China and the plains of India, it’s landlocked with little economic power, suffering the whims of its geographical entourage. Sooner or later, one of these powers will gobble up the country “for it’s own good” or some other such nonsense. For now, it’s an additional barrier between the countries and is greatly dominated by their policies.
Nepal, a small country, was once a kingdom controlled by a monarchy and closed off from the outside world. 60 years ago it opened up its borders to tourism, 20 years ago it removed the monarchy, and 7 years ago it ended a decade long civil war with Maoists. Undeveloped and struggling, it is among the poorest countries in Asia and the world. The IMF ranks it as the 22nd poorest out of 182 countries. That being said, the dollar goes a long way here.
Like most countries deficient in wealth, they are a mixed bag of drawbacks and charms. In January, cheap deals are easy to find because there are so few tourists. I can get a hotel for about 5 dollars a night in the capital since I’m willing to go with no heat or hot showers. The concept of heating buildings is alien in this part of the world. Load shedding (about as euphemistic a term as “wealth deficient”) is a nice way of saying that Nepal suffers chronic controlled power outages, not weight loss. From 12 to 13 hours a day, businesses and homes run on generators (or at least those that can afford them). There is some sort of schedule to this, but I never seem to know when the lights will go out on me. Power is only consistently available at 4 am, which is real helpful. Those charms I alluded to? It’s that cellphones and cigarette lighters have small flashlights built into them (they always make me smile). After that, the charms are a bit of an acquired taste. Africa is still the undisputed champion of power outages (when a place even has power) for it’s tendency to go on and off like a strobe light at a high school prom. Transportation strikes are common here, too, for various reasons. They happen, and you show up for your bus, ready to go, and the drivers laugh at you. We all laugh, what are you gonna do? I’ll have a cigarette with the guys and hear them out about the cost of fuel and commiserate. Even though they aren’t allowed to take me anywhere, they are really friendly. I’d go as far to say that Nepal has the friendliest people of any country I’ve ever been to, easily. Even if they won’t take me to Bhaktapur.
Kathmandu is the capital and largest city in the country. It’s where everything begins. Mountaineers originally flooded the city before and after expeditions into the Himalayas, (in the same manner that I have). Sometime later, hippies began congregating here and a tourism industry was born. Thamel is the neighborhood where cheap hotels line the crowded streets of rickshaws, restaurants, and knock off goods. Hustlers wade in the crowds of people and try to sell you Pashmina cloth, over priced tours, and drugs. This paradise is where I stayed while preparing to go into the mountains.
After my first New Year’s Eve by myself (sorry Roma, you don’t count) I made a list of supplies I’d need and went shopping. Shopping has always been one of my least favorite activities, ranking lower than attending church and sitting in traffic. As a side note, have you ever met someone who’s hobby is shopping? How can that be a hobby? Acquiring and disposing of objects to derive accomplishment or enjoyment? I don’t want to be friends with someone who considers shopping to be some enriching experience. Fortunately, I was shopping for stuff I needed and wanted, unlike the excruciating task of picking out shoes.
Anyway, Thamel is the best place in Kathmandu for what I needed because it caters to backpackers, trekkers, and mountaineers. The small streets are lined with hundreds of shops selling ice axes, heavy duty down jackets, dynamic ropes, Gortex gloves, and cheap knock offs of every expensive brand like The North Face and Patagonia. I got a down filled jacket, medicine, first aid supplies, Gortex gloves, wool socks, a topographical map of the region, and a few other items. The trek I intend to do, the Annapurna Circuit, is going to be cold. January in the Himalayas is supposedly brutal (pretty obvious) so most of my purchases were for medical or cold weather considerations. I’d never buy climbing gear here (especially the safety equipment). One of the most accomplished (and poorest) mountaineers in history, Jerzy Kukuczka, died using a cheap rope he bought in a Kathmandu market that snapped when he plummeted to his death. He also liked to go into the mountains in the winter but knew far more about what he was getting into.
After my shopping spree, I got a rickshaw to make my way to the immigration office where I could obtain permits to enter the Annapurna Conservation Area. The rickshaw boy said he knew where it was after I showed him its location on a map. We went around the general area before he randomly stopped and said we had arrived. I knew it was wrong so I asked him where we were. He was just silent, uncomprehending. I broke out the map again and pointed at it, asking him to show me where we were so that I could make my own way there. Blank stare. I pointed at where I thought we were and said “Are we here?” He said yes but I didn’t believe him. I pointed again, somewhere else on the map, and asked if that’s where we were. He said yes again. Since I was fairly certain that we hadn’t teleported within the last minute, I figured I was dealing with a Nepalese quirk I had read about. They never want to disappoint you or say no. So when he didn’t know where we were or how to find the place, he just told me we were wherever he thought I wanted to be. I admire the intent, but it’s usefulness is limited. You have to phrase questions so they can’t be answered with a simple yes or no because you’ll get a yes whether it’s correct or not. This is hilarious and frustrating, like the Tea Party (but less dangerous).
I eventually got everything figured out and was free to roam the city. Kathmandu is a glorious mess of temples, pagodas, shrines and stupas, small statues and large sculptures flanked by garbage fires surrounding ancient squares. Palaces open up in hidden corners and out of dark alleys in the city. Seemingly dead end streets reveal ancient squares and monastic courtyards where Hindu and Buddhist worshipers gather for pilgrimages and displays of piety. Though most of the population is considered Hindu, they practice a dual faith in Buddhism, blending the two forms into something unique yet familiar (that’s a relative term for my ‘Merican brethren).
Durbar Square, in the heart of Kathmandu, is an ancient pile of palaces and temples surrounded by markets and teeming with the devout, camera armed tourists, beggars, and people peddling knickknacks with ferocity. There is a law of commerce that can be mathematically expressed as such: For every sight worthy of a photograph, there should be no less than 3 people to approach you with something to sell. The more useless the item is, the better. One of these mathematical constants tried to sell me a chess set. He started at 25 dollars and incrementally dropped the price to 1 dollar after my continual dismissals. Very persistent. I still didn’t buy it but would have gladly gave him money to leave me alone.
In Durbar Square, the Kumari Palace has the distinction of housing a living deity. The palace is home to the Kumari, a young girl selected by some means to be Kathmandu’s living goddess. There are a lot of requirements to win this divine beauty pageant of righteousness. Firstly, like Miss Teen USA, there is an age guideline; only prepubescent girls are in the running. After that, there’s the swimsuit competition for the would be supreme being. Judged on 32 ascribed perfections, here are a few of the characteristics to be met: A neck like a conch shell – A chest like a lion – Thighs like a deer – Eyelashes like a cow – A body like a Banyan tree – and a voice clear and soft as a duck’s. This is what Frankenstein would make with a little knowledge of genetics and a night at the zoo.
After the contestant has proven that she can’t yet have children and that if she did, her offspring would resemble a hippogriff, she moves onto the evening gown event. This is also my favorite part! At this stage of the selection process, a festival of sorts takes place at night where 108 buffaloes and goats are sacrificed. Their corpses are strewn about a courtyard, romantically lit by candle light, while masked men jump around and convulse like addicts in withdrawal. No fear can be shown by our 5 year old Vessel Of The Gods. From here, she spends a quiet evening with the severed heads alone in a room that probably resembles a meat packing plant. In the morning, she walks across Durbar Square to her palace where her feet will never touch the ground again until she menstruates and becomes mortal again. WOW! I would have sacrificed a lot of goats to see these shenanigans go down.
Despite the absurdity and my constant cynicism, It’s hard not to get lost in and appreciate the mysticism of some of these practices.
Like India, the water here is poison. After a short time of shopping and conversing with street hustlers, I got sick and spent a number of days recovering in my hotel room. Rarely with light and never with heat, it is one of the best places to recuperate (if you judge it against Guantanamo Bay). I did research on trekking through the Annapurna region of the Himalayas and stared at walls mostly. I never got much better, but good enough to enjoy the 7 hour bus ride to Pokhara, my launching pad into the mountains.
Pokhara is a low key town set on Lake Phewa in central Nepal. It’s relaxed and beautiful. Behind Pokhara lie the beginnings of the colossal Himalayas, mostly hidden by fog while I was in town. All the normal adventure guides and outfitters exist here as they do in Kathmandu with the addition of a new species. It’s called parahawking. This is the combination of falconry and paragliding. I only mention it because it’s comically unique and neither of these pursuits are that interesting to me, and the marriage of the two is silly. People ride parachutes around and follow birds. I’m over simplifying it because I don’t want to think about it anymore.
I crossed the lake on a small boat to the other side. From the shore, the ground rises steeply out of the water. A generic restaurant called “A Typical Restaurant” (not joking) monopolizes the banks. I pass it and hike to the top where the World Peace Pagoda sits. It’s a Buddhist stupa (a mound like structure containing Buddhist relics or remains) for all races and peoples designed as a physical manifestation of the search for peace. They have been constructed all over the world. The inspiration for the pagoda was born from the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by a nifty new invention called the atomic bomb. Shortly after this, a large part of the world realized that it may be a good idea to take a step back and think about the consequences of annihilating whole populations of civilians. Shortly after this, a large portion of the world quickly forgot about it. I guess you could say that the world has America to thank for the World Peace Pagoda.
Tired of thinking about humans, I went back to my hotel and packed my gear to head into the mountains…