25 October 2017
Today I went on a tour of Kathmandu city that was organised by my trekking company. It was part of my package and I was looking forward to meeting the other people I’d be hiking with to Everest Base Camp (EBC). Groups were advertised as being between two and 12 people and after hiking Mt Kili on a private tour consisting of just my ex and myself, I was looking forward to doing the trek with stranger who may become friends. Unfortunately, I discovered there was only one other person in my hiking group and he wasn’t arriving in Kathmandu until that evening. But I would be joined on the city tour by an Englishman called Dan. Dan had just returned from a hike to Annapurna with the same company and was flying home to the UK the following day.
We hit it off immediately, in a strictly platonic sense, and didn’t stop talking – in the car, at the heritage sites, over lunch, in the temples and all the walking in between. He made what could have otherwise been an interesting but OK day, a great day. He was well-travelled, intelligent and engaging and I very much enjoyed his company. Our guide was knowledgeable and witty and made the sightseeing worthwhile.
We visited the standard tourist sites of the capital starting with Durbar Square. Durbar is the site of the Hanuman Dhoka Palace Complex and was home to Nepal’s royal family until the 19th century. The palace complex is decorated with elaborately-carved wooden windows and panels and includes two museums. At the southern end of Durbar Square is the Kumari Chowk. This gilded cage contains the Raj Kumari, a young girl chosen through an ancient and mystical selection process to become the human incarnation of the Hindu mother goddess, Durba. She is worshipped during religious festivals and makes public appearances at other times for a fee. You are not allowed to take photos of the Kumari but she didn’t make an appearance during our time there anyway.
Swayambhunath is a 5th-century Swayambhu stupa is adorned with a colourful fluttering of prayer flags overlooking the Kathmandu Valley and offers fantastic views over the city of Kathmandu so I’m told. It was nought but pollution and smog the day we were there. It is a World Heritage Site and one of the holiest Buddhist sites in Nepal but it is more well known for its monkeys, earning it the nickname Monkey Temple.
By far the most interesting stop was the Pashupatinath, a UNESCO World Heritage site and an active cremation site used by the Hindu community. I wasn’t quite sure how to feel about it. It’s so far removed from any western experience of cremation and death and so public. They embalm the body, wrap it, wash the feet of the deceased in the filthy river water and then place it on a pyre by the river. The smoke is acrid and makes your eyes water. As the pyre burns, different coloured smoke tendrils rise from the stone platform and made me wonder whether it was the smoke of burning flesh or wood. It was humbling and curious and just plain strange to my sensibilities.
After Pashupatinath, we ate at a rooftop restaurant overlooking Boudhanath Stupa, a huge Buddhist monument housing sacred relics fully enclosed by businesses and residences. We people watched and ate momos and shared stories of travel and home.
By the time we returned to the hotel, sights seen, mandala art bought and photos taken, I finally had the opportunity to meet the other person in my trekking group, Michael. Michael was a 48-year-old Australian. It was quickly apparent to me that besides not being attracted to him at all, he was also not someone I would usually hang out with. But, for the next 12 days, he and I would through necessity be travel partners if not friends. I was disappointed there were only two of us in the group but knew there would be plenty of other people on the trail and in the teahouses to meet.
Tomorrow we need to be up at 5am to be at the airport for our 6am flight to Lukla. I hope the weather is kinder to us than it was for the Aussie boys.