Thursday, May 24, 2018

A Strange Bewildering Time...

The flight traced the Himalayan skyline, along the row of peaks sacred to local and mountaineer alike.  I misidentified Everest as Lhotse at first, then was quickly corrected when I saw the former's familiar shape. It's been said that the peak isn't even particularly beautiful, but I disagree, as its grandeur lends itself to beauty. 

Kathmandu itself was barely visible in the haze of early spring.  The farmers were busy with their burning to prepare the soil for the planting.  And since the quake, masons were frenetic with their baking of bricks, which further muddies an already murky sky.  My first impression wasn't the best, of a city sprawling out of control, Asia continuing to eat itself. 

The mind of the traveler is fickle.  No matter where you go, someone will have gotten there first, and never fails to tell you how much better the place was back when.  Yet your own experience is valid in that it is your own.  But for the second time in my life I was feeling that I'd arrived too late. (The previous was with Cambodia.)  I'd thought about going to Nepal about 15 years ago, but friends had suggested I wait out the Maoist insurrection.  Not that my security would have been at stake, but because one of the true beauties of Nepal was the character of its people, and the Nepalese had been under extreme duress at that time.  And as the years passed during my waiting, refugees from the volatile countryside flooded the city, which grew and sprawled and lost a lot of the charm it had had.  Then of course, came the quake...

The effects of this were immediate as we strolled Patan, and it seemed as if every third building had collapsed into piles of brick, and every other remaining building was propped up with timber.  The already narrow lanes became narrower for this, and progress was ever impeded by a motor bike racing through.  The Durber Square was more or less off-limits, the museums and palaces still closed three years on.  This scene would be repeated over the next few days, as we moved through the city, all the monuments in critical condition.  

I was amazed that nothing had been rebuilt, until I was told that this was due to its World Heritage status, which handicapped them into rebuilding exactly according to the original materials and design.  And UNESCO doesn't provide money for the upkeep, it simple adds the name to the list.  The optimist in me wants to believe that the government had put their resources into rebuilding the lives of the people first, which is of course the proper course of action.  So we sat atop a balcony restaurant and pondered this, as below us a pair of temples took form as mere piles of brick.    

The more important temples were in better shape.  The Ashoka stupa courtyard was bright and open and ringed with prayer wheels, under the watch of multi-story apartment blocks.  The Banglamukhi Temple was undergoing repairs, but kids still frolicked in the plaza outside, and local women drew water from the step wells.  The Hiranya Varna Mahabihar was the true gem, and was hosting a festival where shorn young boys were celebrating a rite of age.  Bells rang, priests chanted, and mothers fawned with their selfies.  I immediately got a sense that the religion of the Newar people was different than the Hinduism of India, diffused as the former was with elements of Himalayan Buddhism.  (A topic for further study.)  There were also a few training temples, now seemingly abandoned.  They reminded me somewhat of the madrassa of Central Asia, though with much less adornment.  These open courtyards were now being used by local men and sleeping dogs.  

A festival of another sort was underway at Shree Chandeshwori Mai, its narrow grounds filled with musicians and men chanting.  A few minutes before we'd been passed by a handful of young men dragging a headless goat carcass back to their hotel.  The temple was the scene of the sacrifice, a stone before the altar stained a bright red.  I've never seen a red so red. 

The following day we expanded our circle to outer Kathmandu, beginning with the perpetual circles around Bodhnath.  The ring of cafes and shops was almost Roman, and I intend a return here, to spend an afternoon on one of the balconies to watch the wheel of dharma take human form.  I underwent my own circuit, distracted most non-buddhistically by all the bells and whistles. 

Nearby Pushupatinath was much more open, more serene somehow, but that is befitting this place of burial ghats.  We moved quickly past the ruined temples to the river, and spent a few quiet moments watching the journey of others.  A trio of saddhu were sitting on one bank, bodies whitened with ashes.  A couple of other saddhu looked more polished, these being retired sannyasi, renunciate householders moving quietly through a bifocaled later life.  

A short drive took us part way up Swoyambhunath Stupa,  its lower grounds filled with young couples, its upper deck the playground of monkeys.  The central round stupa was off-set by the ziggurat of winding lanes leading up from all directions.  More young people enjoyed the views of the city through the haze, while the older generation revolved and spun and muttered prayers. 

Our driver dropped us off at the renowned Yak and Yeti Hotel, where we had a mediocre lunch served by a numerous and therefore non-attentive staff.  I wanted to see the famed casino here but it was under heavy restoration.  So we ambled over to Durber Marg and looked through the windows at what Kathmandu's leisure class might be buying. (I also learned two new verbs: 'shirting' and 'suiting.')   Hanging a left at the Narayanhiti Palace (post-abdication, now a museum) and over toward Thamel.  The way was lined with outdoor shops aimed at trekkers, many selling knock-off brands, which presents certain dangers.  Finding a proper North Face shop, we bought a few last minute items for our upcoming Kailash kora.   

The length of Thamel was a cavernous tunnel of low-hanging prayer flags.  Legendary and infamous in the way of Bangkok's Khaosan Road.  It was busy with backpackers and punters shouting about goods and services. ( I'd have loved to have based myself here ten or twenty years ago, but sadly I am getting a little soft and pampered.)  We detoured a street over to Vajra books, on Tshering's suggestion.  He'd emailed ahead, so the owner was waiting for us.  Luckily I wasn't in a buying mood, as I could have spent a whole afternoon here, both perusing books and taking with the owner.  Yet another reason for a return.     

We found a locals only counterpoint to Thamel in Asan Tole, a spiderweb of lanes running into a market buzzing with dinnertime shoppers and motorbike commuters.  We braved all this, moving down Indra Chauk to Durbar Square.  Here too was a ruin, with couples and families sitting happily amidst the wreckage.  We paid our admission despite just passing through toward the opposite side.  It was humbling to face so much destruction, and reminded me of my visits to a shattered Kobe in the early months of 1995. 

UNESCO is doing absolutely nothing here.  The US and the Chinese offer the most assistance, the latter of course to counter the balance of long-term patron India (whose own influence is on the wane, mainly due to their embargo of petrol to Nepal not long after the quake, which paralyzed an already devastated economy.)  The Chinese influence can be seen as responsible for subtleties like more governmental pressure on Tibetan refugee communities, and may take form in the tangibilities of a railway that is expected to cross over from Tibet and perhaps eventually reach as far south as Delhi.  The government of Nepal seems to be doing what it needs to do, making some sensible choices, despite a lack of perspective, and lousy sense of timing.  Every decision made seems to alienate someone.      

Beyond the Square was the legendary Freak Street, still pretty grotty but today punctuated with internet cafes.  We ducked into the Snowman Cafe, closing a circle that began at Istanbul's Pudding Shop one year ago.  These two places were the internet of their time, providing travelers with relevant information before they embarked on a journey along the hippie trail.  Today, most in attendance were young Nepali hipster types, but the bearded old fellow serving up lassi looked like he'd been behind the counter since the 60s.  And he probably had been. My lassi tasted slightly narcotic, but I rode out the rest of the night without feeling any effects. 

LYL took the following day off as I broadened the circle outward to the perimeters of the Kathmandu Valley.  Roads muddied from the previous night's rain led us beneath newly sprouting deciduous trees toward Namobuddha.  This old monastery was clean and tidy compared to those of Bhutan, hinting at a funding by the Westerners who come to study with the renowned Rimpoche.  There were a few French here who appeared to be on retreat, quiet, glassy-eyed, and wrapped in pashmina.  A nearby sign read "Keep silence," heeded not at all by the monks gossiping about me.  Another young monk sucked a lollipop, and another talked loudly on his mobile, moving with a definite swagger.     

Despite their efforts, it certainly was a quiet place, high above the surrounding villages that stretched themselves along the hilltops. There were apparently also a lot of rhododendron, unseen by my color blind eyes.  I wandered along the high ridge between the stupa and sub-temples, then dropped down a long flight of stone stairs shaded by prayer flags, buzzed over by cicada whose song I'd never heard.  Midway down, an old woman was chastising a young couple who'd overtaken her.  At the base was another stupa and a small temple, along with a small set of buildings that served as cafes serving cold drinks.  As people circumambulated they stirred dust that swirled into the into the air.  All very wild west, as set in an Italian village. 

Over a drink in a cafe on the square, I talked frankly with my guide about the political situation in Nepal.  I knew that the King had abdicated, but was considered that upon his death, there might be a power grab by his son, a known wild-card who'd been close friends with his cousin who had massacred the royal family in 2001, an event in which he too was injured.  But the guide assured me that the son was a drug addict and didn't have the clout. 

We backtracked to Bhaktapur, where we had lunch on a balcony overlooking the quiet Tachipul Tole, the light music coming from somewhere adding a fair amount to the atmosphere. Taumahi Tole was bit busier, on the day following a battle between neighboring shrine floats.   Foreigners had staked out all the tables of Nyatapole Cafe, so I climbed up Nyatapole temple itself to sit awhile and get into their photos.  We meandered down a narrow lane where I bought a kukri, then continued over to Potter's Square where most of the work was being done outdoors, many kilns and shops having fallen in the earthquake.  Durbar Square suffered the most, with only a few people sitting before the now shuttered museum. 

Our final stop was up the hill at Changu Narayan, a World Heritage site that hardly looked like one, and thus was mercifully spared the crowds.  The temple approach was through a hilltop village that would have been at home in Tuscany.  The temple seemed to have undergone no renovation at all despite its great age, the buildings looking simple dignified.  The grounds were a veritable museum of Vishnu statues, represented all of the gods many incarnations, as well as one stone dating back to 464.  There were only a few people around, namely two girls playing badminton sans (Indra's) net, and a curious trio of Chinese who appeared to be Hindu, diligently going through their rites. 

 The drive back took us past the airport.  People were lined up and looking through the fence, little surprising as people do that throughout the world, watching the flights come and go.  It was only at my hotel that I read that a plane had slid off the runway onto the grass in a non-fatal accident.  This would take on greater significance the following day as we checked in for our flight to Lhasa, to find that all the passengers from flights cancelled the day before were flying out today.  Long queues extended every which way, but hey, at least there were queues.  I thought upon arrival a few days before that certain countries seem to impede their own advancement and modernization as their top-heavy bureaucracies create policies that seem to do little but create havoc.  How many security and bag checks do we actually need?  

And there was one more journey on the other end, after we crossed the border on our return from Tibet two weeks later.  We'd been warned about the road down to Kathmandu, one barely deserving the name. Leaving Tibet was easier than entering Nepal, and the passage between was over a pile of rubble that was once a bridge.  We banged and bumped over stone and brick, moving at a pace only slightly faster than the walking farmers and their livestock.  This area had been seriously hit during the earthquake in 2015, and it's miraculous that the road was open, though only just, as nothing at all crossed the border before October last year.  Nearby villages looked far better than the city of Kathmandu, though there were a still the odd collapsed house.  

We meandered along a track clinging to the hillside, many offering incredible views when one was brave enough to look down.  The hill towns looked as extensions of terrace fields; those in the valleys stretched laterally along rivers.  The scenes along the way were a wonderful encapsulation of rural Nepal.  Road crews were busy in pushing dirt around.  They were often paired off, one shoveling, and other pulling a string attached to it, for some reason.  There were also people planting rice, mainly women, bent at 90 degrees, moving steadily.  Old men sat in front of shops and smoked or dozed, women squatted in colorful skirts and played with babies.   

There were also the checkpoints.  At each one we'd have to unload and open our bags, as the police searched for smuggled gold or pieces of snow leopard or red panda.  The cops proved to be as bored with this as we were, so a few times we would leave a bag or two in the back of our 4x4.  We were told that there would be as many as fourteen checks, but after four or so they merely gave us a quick glance and let us through. Our driver laughed and told us that they would only search those with Chinese faces from here on.    

The 130 km journey took us nine hours.  Each of those hours brought adventure, mainly in the form of a stuck vehicle, or a crash.  Most fun was the muddy hill that sent vehicles skidding and motorcyclists sprawling, all watched over by the townsfolk on the hill above.  And again and again we sit and wait, never certain about how long. 

Which brought its own joy.  The journey was the sole event of the day, and it never failed in being colorful.  And there was peace in all this uncertainty, which reminded me of how I used to travel:  never quite sure when I'd arrive somewhere, but sure I'd eventually will.  This alleviated any pressure around time or expectation.  That lack of expectation was the most profound Buddhist experience of the entire Himalayan journey.  

After the jarring journey sleep was easy.  Just before leaving the hotel the next morning, I noticed a tidy structure nearly hidden in the corner of the grounds.  It was a shrine, but it wasn't even real, just a conglomeration of images and icons cobbled together.  But still, standing beneath its clean lines of brick and polished wood, something strongly resonated in me.  I need a return to this culture, to these people.  After a few more years, and a bit more time to rebuild, I know I'll come back.

On the turntable:  John Coltrane: "Live in Japan"
On the nighttable:  Patrick Leigh Fermor, "The Broken Road"

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