My first night in Kathmandu was a bit surreal. Having secured a room at the Tibet Guest House in Chhetrapati, I ventured over to Thamel (right next door) where lots of tourist shops are. Just like all of the other tourist towns…..this one has it’s streets lined with shops selling gifts and clothes. One big difference here however, is that North Face & Mountain Hardware are the knock off’s of choice. And they are good. I mean really good knock off’s. Shop after shop of ‘high end’ mountain gear going for about 5 – 10 % of the real stuff. One has to be careful….not just of the shop owners, but of the streets. Sidewalks are a luxury that these side streets don’t have. Walking takes place….near the edge of the road, sometimes in the middle of the road. Some roads are really only wide enough for one car, but that doesn’t stop 2 way traffic. Motorbikes just weave through the crowd beeping their horn giving you those precious 2 seconds before you’re impaled by a rear view mirror and dragged through the streets of Kathmandu.
When it was close to dinner time I cracked open my trusty Lonely Planet and searched for a good place to grab some grub. Making a mental note of a few good picks, I headed out and made my way through traffic. K-Too’s it was called. Supposed to be one of the best steak houses in town. We shall see about that. I found K-Too’s but all of the lights were off. Must have been an off night….it was 7:15 or so and the streets were flooded with people, it should have been open. Not to be discouraged I found the second choice on my list. Closed. Finally I just wandered around and looked for people eating. I ended up at a Mexican joint on the third floor. Ordered a couple of chicken enchiladas as a well traveled fellow from New Zealand sat next to me and well over an hour later we got our meals. You might be wondering why every where was closed and my meal took so long. I should also mention that as I was walking around there were large groups of Maoists walking through the streets waving their red flag and making a bunch of noise in some sort of protest. I also noticed that upon leaving the airport, then entranced was surrounded by barbwire and sandbags accompanied by fully armed guards keeping watch. In addition to that there was a heavy police presence around town with vans full of military or police, some wearing riot gear. Even with all of this heavy show of force, everything that I saw was relatively peaceful. But why was everything closing. Turns out that there was a protest by a lot of the hotel and business workers in the form of a strike yesterday because a prominent business owner was kidnapped and being extorted for money by the Maoists. Not to be outdone, the Maoists had to flex their muscles and show their force, claiming that they didn’t have anything to do with the kidnapping. However when this happens…..business don’t want to take a risk and figure that business is better for them if they close……or just employees don’t show up at work thus leaving the kitchen understaffed and a couple of enchiladas taking over an hour to cook. When I finally left the Mexican place about 9:15, I got to the bottom of the stairs to find a metal gate locking me in. The guard on the other side saw me approaching, unlocked the gate and let me pass spilling out into the street. Only the street didn’t seem like the right street, everything was different. This experience felt like I got off the wrong floor on an elevator. Everything looked similar, but ALL the store fronts had somehow transformed over dinner into metal garage doors with 3 or more locks keeping them secure. I asked someone I passed on the street, which was a challenge because the streets that were packed mere hours earlier were now almost a ghost town. Curfew……it was in effect and everyone had to get indoors, and early too…..the Maoists were out and about.
I went to Pashupatinath yesterday. This is the holy temple where they cremate those who pass on. While non-Hindu’s are not allowed inside the temple, we are allowed to watch the cremation process. When an elderly family member dies, the task is bestowed upon the son or younger family member who knows how to cremate a body to do so. There are 7 funeral pyres that sit next to a river that runs along side the temple. These pyres, if that is the correct word for it, are large, flat stone platforms about 12 feet by 12 feet. Wood is stacked up and the bodies are place on the wood and then surrounded by more wood. All of this mind you is going on in the wide open with kids playing and teenage girls flirting with teenage boy on the other side of the river. Even the occasional tourist from the far side will stop with their guide, stand on the steps with their backs to people being cremated and get their photo taken. I can not see what anyone would do with this photo, but to my surprise it’s not frowned upon, at least not openly. Regardless…..I chose not to take pictures of this. I did photograph the site, but no one being cremated. The process is an interesting one as it takes about 3 hours to burn a body, the entire time being tended to by a family member. When all that remains are ashes, they are pushed into the river below which leads to India and a holy place. A very interesting experience indeed. Something else that added to the area were all of the monkeys running around. A bit out of place…..but it did at a certain element to the atmosphere. That and the occasional UN chopper passing over head. That is something that truly gives you pause and forces you to ask yourself……where am I again?
After this I ventured over to the big boudha. It’s pretty much just that…..a very very large bouda. I could even see it from the plane when we were taking off. You are allowed to walk up on it almost to the top. While there I saw my old motorcycle….that I thought had long ago been discontinued. Maybe in the US…but not here…..