Tuesday, January 31, 2012


Narrow streets of Kathmandu
Afraid that we would no longer fit in our riding gear, we had to leave. After five lovely and relaxing nights in Pokhara, we waved goodbye and headed to Kathmandu. The morning was cold and clear leaving Pokhara, and we had a beautiful view of the mountains leaving the city. As we rode, we descended into a valley that ran along a river. The sky turned foggy, the air colder and gray. The damp soaked through our gloves, leaving our fingertips numb, but even with the discomfort, it was a gorgeous ride. The gray sky set off the lush greenery of the valley, and everything looked vaguely surreal in the mist. After about fifty miles, the sun returned and we warmed up. We were still riding along a river, which was the distinct blue-green of limestone. As we neared Kathmandu, the road climbed up and around a steep hill for about ten miles to reach the city. The pavement was in horrendous condition, but unlike the roads in India, which were potholed, this one seemed to be in the process of sliding off the hill. It wasn't that the pavement was broken, it had just sort of slumped and left an irregularly undulating surface without guardrails. There is only one road between Pokhara and Kathmandu, and we joined the slow conga line of trucks, buses, cars, and motorbikes proceeding to the capital city. It was only about ten miles, but this last leg of the journey took about an hour to finally reach the edge of Kathmandu. After another two and a half miles of dodging and weaving in city traffic, we made it to the Thamel district and to our guesthouse.

I climbed the four flights to the guesthouse (it is the fourth floor of an office building), only to find that it was overbooked, but they put us in a nice room in a small hotel across the street. We thought this arrangement was fine until I tried to take a shower later that evening, only to discover that there was no hot water, only a tepid trickle dripping from the shower head. Since I was already more than half wet, I was committed to finishing the job, so I washed the road grime off, dried as quickly as I could, and took a flying leap to get under the blankets to warm up. Colin, having witnessed the shower's effect on the proverbial canary, decided to forgo a shower that evening in hopes that the water would be warmer in the morning. Unfortunately, it wasn't, so at breakfast the next morning, we told the proprietor of our desired (and reserved) guesthouse about the water situation and asked what to do. He gave us two options: a) we could move to another of his hostels, or b) we could stay put until the following day, when we could move across the street to our reserved room. We looked at the other hostel, which was very nice, and considered moving there until we spoke with another guest, who said that the water there didn't get exactly hot either. In the end, we stayed put for another day and discovered that the optimal time of day to shower in Kathmandu is late afternoon, when the solar water heaters have had maximum time to work.

Pigeons in Durbar Square
One major problem in Nepal is power supply. The endemic fuel shortages in the country mean that the power is only on for between six and ten hours each day. Most businesses (and I assume, homes) have gigantic truck batteries with an inverter to run a few lights and whatever other essentials they need. So things like water heaters are either solar or gas powered (which is very expensive), and I don't even know why people bother with things like televisions, since they're rarely usable. Around the first of the year, there was no diesel and very little petrol available in the Kathmandu valley. Nepal imports its petroleum from India, and the government sets the prices. The Nepal Oil Corporation was basically selling its products at a loss because of the government-set rates, and didn't have enough money to buy enough petroleum to meet the country's demands. Now, the government has allowed them to raise their rates, much to the chagrin of the Nepali people, but there is still not enough fuel to power the country. While we were in Kathmandu, there was a general strike one day to protest the petrol/diesel rate hikes. Nearly all business were closed, and people marched in the streets. The day of the strike was the day we decided to do some sightseeing in Durbar Square, which is an old section of the city that is filled with Hindu and Buddhist temples and palatial buildings. The streets were devoid of traffic besides pedestrians, and very few shops were open. As we walked, we heard groups of people chanting as they marched in the street. When the shopkeepers with open doors heard the approaching crowds, they slammed down their roll up doors before the marchers arrived. We saw nothing more than marching protesters, thankfully, since the newspaper reported that several students had threatened self-immolation.

Waiting for the Kumari Devi to show herself
We did our sightseeing in Durbar Square, which is filled with really pretty buildings dating back hundreds of years. Many of the temples have pagoda-like roofs and beautiful carved wood door and window frames. The buildings themselves are red brick. It wasn't at all what I expected (not exactly sure what I did expect). In addition to the interesting architecture, we also got to see the Kumari Devi, or Living Goddess. She is a young girl (between four years old and puberty) who is chosen to fill the role until she has her first period or other even that results in massive blood loss, at which time she is sacrificed and eaten by her replacement (No, no, no, no, no. I am just kidding. She returns to her normal life). While we were in the Kumari Bihal (her home during her reign) a man announced that she would make an appearance momentarily. We stood and waited with a number of other tourists until she appeared at an upstairs window. Photographing her is absolutely forbidden, so you will have to look for a picture of her on line. She looked to be somewhere between eight and ten years old and like she would have rather been somewhere else, playing with her PS3. She stood at the window, looking down without expression at her admirers for several minutes, before she disappeared again. We all clapped at her performance, but some people were practically in hysterics, with tears and all, when they saw her. Neither of us was that overcome with emotion, but it was kind of a treat to see her, nonetheless. We also spent some time in the Tribhuvan museum, which traces the history of the Nepali King Tribhuvan and his progeny, with displays of everything from portraits to hunting rifles to his personal photo developing equipment. We learned waaaay more than we ever knew we wanted to learn about the personal life and hobbies of Nepal's royal family, but not why their history ends abruptly in 2001.  None of the displays date later than 2001, and a placard for a palanquin says it was used as a funeral palanquin to carry (I believe) the Queen's body.  I had a vague recollection of some murder involving the Nepali Royal family, so later, I looked it up.  On June 1, 2001, Crown Prince Dipendra shot and killed his parents and eight other members of the royal family before shooting himself.  It supposedly was over a woman, the Crown Prince's choice of brides, of whom his mother disapproved.  Wacky.

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