EBC Day 03 - Boudhanath & Pashupatinath
I had decided to head to the TIMS office as early as possible in order to obtain my TIMS card as my main reason for being in Nepal was to go trekking. I also wanted to get it over with so that I could enjoy Kathmandu without it weighing on my mind. So after extending my stay in the hotel for another night - I gave USD10 and received NPR170 in change (which would mean that it come up to about NPR870) - and after my compulsory morning coffee which cost NPR30 at my favourite Newa Mo:mo Restaurant, I went in search for a mountain bike to rent.
On the way I stopped by several bookshops that were nestled in, and at times almost engulfed by, the rest of the shops that lined the crowded streets of Thamel. I had read a lot about the trek that I was to do beforehand and had guidebooks in e-book format on my Kindle Paperwhite but thought that an actual guidebook may come in handy. I was surprised by the high costs of new guidebooks however and was dismayed at the complete lack of second-hand copies so I ended up taking up the offer of one of the shopkeepers who had photocopied pages that detailed the treks of Nepal from the extensive Lonely Planet guidebook. This ended up costing me NPR200 instead of NPR2400 for a new guidebook.
As I stepped out of the bookstore, I realized that I was starting to feel very comfortable with the streets of Thamel as they were a lot more calm and less noisy than the other backpacker haunts in other major cities in Asia such as Kho San Road in Thailand and Pham Ngu Lao in Vietnam. The early morning light also gave the streets a much softer look as the sun was still low in the sky and the sounds were more hushed as everyone was still groggy from their sleep. The newspaper man seemed to be the only exception to this though as he walked up and down the streets screaming something in Nepali with his hand outstretched to the sky holding the latest edition of the newspaper written in the Devanagari script. The sound of his voice would always surprise me every time I heard it as I would not have expected something so loud to come from a man with such a small frame!
After a while I came across a little shop that rented out mountain bikes tucked in one of the little alleys hidden from sight. The cost of the bike was NPR1000 for the whole day including a little chain lock, which was pretty steep. I was also extremely reluctant to leave one of my passports behind as a 'security deposit'but after some contemplation I decided that I didn't have any other option, so after checking the brakes and the suspension, I passed my passport to them somewhat hurriedly as I was very eager to brave the Nepali roads!
Directions to the TAAN Office
I was familiar with the route to the TIMS office (Nepali : नेपाल ट्रेकिङ एजेन्सीहरू संघ) as I had walked there the previous day and it also turned out that cycling on the roads of Nepal was far easier than I had assumed. The traffic was far less chaotic than some that I had encountered before although the prevalence of motorbikes was definitely comparable to the streets of some South-East Asian cities. The biggest difference that I noticed however was the sheer number of Royal Enfield bikes with their low guttural rumble on the roads. After 2.83km of cycling, I reached the TIMS office and all I had to do was just fill in the form, show them my (other) passport, pass them 2 passport sized photographs and pay the fee. The fee came up to NPR1745 and funnily enough they only accepted Nepalese Rupees. Fortunately I had changed sufficient USD into NPR prior to the trip. Once I happily had my green TIMS card (green is for individual trekkers and blue is for group trekkers) in hand, I proceeded to make my way to Pashupatinath.
Although this part of the route was much shorter (1.78km) than the one I had just done, it did take longer to complete. This was both due to several narrow alleys that I had to cycle through that were packed with college students in uniform at certain points, since there are several schools and colleges in the immediate vicinity; as well as having to pass through the Ring Road. The Ring Road was a cacophony like no other! It is a 4-lane two directional major road that circles around Kathmandu and connects a lot of major sites around the Kathmandu valley such as the airport and Swayambhunath, that is jam packed rim-to-rim with cars, trucks and buses with motorbikes trying their best to squeeze and weasel themselves into whatever gaps they could find.
I must have looked strange and out of place as everyone stared at me as I tried to navigate through the chaos, reminding me of the way the Cambodians looked at me when I was cycling around the Angkor Wat Complex in Siem Reap several years ago. Other foreigners didn't seem to venture this far out, especially on a bicycle, and were more inclined to travel around via taxis or vans that were included in their tour packages. Just after Ring Road however, I entered the village of Deopatan where the streets very quickly turned into narrow alleys. I found myself cycling down a steep hill that brought me right to the entrance of Pashupatinath.
Directions to Pashupatinath Temple
After paying the entrance fee for Pashupatinath (Nepali : श्री पशुपतिनाथ मन्दिर) which cost NPR500, the touts descended upon me quickly, trying to get me to hire them as a guide. After wasting several minutes trying to convince them that I did not want nor need a guide, they shambled away with perplexed looks. I then went to a quiet corner (as quiet as it would ever get at a place as busy as this) and took out my Kindle to bring up a map of the temple.
Pashupatinath Temple is one of seven monuments that make up the UNESCO Heritage Site of Kathmandu Valley. The temple lies in the center of an open courtyard in the middle of the small town of Deopatan. It is a two-tiered pagoda temple that has been built on a single-tier plinth and only stands about 24m high. What is interesting however is the complex in its entirety and the many temples and shrines that are scattered about the extensive Pashupatinath grounds.The cremation ghats that line the banks of the Bagmati river were very intriguing. The ghats themselves are basically steps that descend down into the river with elevated platforms at various intervals where the open air cremations take place daily. There were several cremations that were ongoing when I arrived and the heavy smoke permeated the air and enveloped the balcony where I was observing the rituals from. The thought that the smoke was from a dead body was somewhat disconcerting, although not to the point where it would cause me to retreat as it did with so many of the others that were watching.
One thing that struck me after a while was how calm all the relatives and close friends of the deceased were but then it dawned on me that their belief incould very well be the reason why they were so calm, almost to the point of appearing devoid of feelings. Despite this, there was still a heavy grim feeling that hung in the air.
After a while I decided to cross the bridge to walk along the river that lead due south. As I walked along the river I tried to look for children that the books had described that fish for coins but the only people that I saw in the water were three men who seemed to be dragging logs out of the river. I couldn't discern exactly what this was for and I doubted that it was to keep the river clean as the river was polluted with so much waste and pollution that I found it hard to fathom how they could step into the water at all! The men did seem to get agitated whenever someone tried to take their picture but then again I wouldn't blame them as what they were doing could come across as ignoble to some.Lining the river were plenty of both children, that were running around playing, and Sadhus, who are renunciates who had chosen to live apart from society in temples or caves. The difference between the two after taking their picture was that the former tried to engage in conversation and asked for sweets whereas the latter just held out his hand expecting you to give him some money. I didn't like the idea at first but took so many photographs of Sandus that I ended up spending NPR50 x8.
Whilst walking, I jumped from one tourist group to another listening in to see (or rather hear) if I could glean any useful information from what the tour guides were saying. I didn't end up learning much as most of what I had overheard had already been covered in the guidebooks on my Kindle Paperwhite.
After turning around, I decided to head back to the bridge that I had originally crossed. Upon reaching it, I instead veered east and made my way up the steps towards the Votive shrines known as the Pandra Shivalaya complex. By then the sun that had come out in all its glory and the unsheltered steps leading uphill had left me completely parched. Fortunately I stumbled upon a strategically placed store selling refreshments shortly after and so ended up spending NPR140 on drinks.
The steps leading up the hill were swarming with long-tailed macaques (Macaca fascicularis) getting into all sorts of mischief. After passing through Gorakhnath Temple, the steps lead up to a viewpoint up on the hill before heading straight back down to the Bagmati river where it flows west just before turning southward.
Following the path brought me along the river that lead back towards the main entrance of Pashupatinath where I had chained the mountain bike. As I was walking, I noticed that across the river was a very large bamboo swing that was easily 6 metres tall. A fairly large crowd had gathered below the swing where I presumed others were waiting for their turn.
The cycle to Boudhanath (Nepali : बुद्ध स्तुपा) was far more pleasant than the one to Pashupatinath had been, but this was only the case after I decided to turn off the Ring Road and cycle through the villages instead of the main roads. Boudhanath was only 3km away and was easy enough to find (given that you have a decent sense of direction).
Directions to Boudhanath Temple
I ended up bringing the mountain bike that I had rented into the complex as there seemed to be no where that I could lock it up safely elsewise, as the entrance to Boudha was just off the main street. The entrance fee cost NPR150. From the entrance I walked the mountain bike through the alley, and the complex just opened up before my eyes with the massive Boudhanath stupa and its imposing scale dominating the center of the courtyard. Tourists and locals alike just stared at me and the mountain bike (as most take taxis or vans to get to Boudhanath) so the first thing I did was to find a place where I could safely leave the bike.
There were several myths surrounding this stupa, which is apparently the largest Buddhist stupa in the world. The first refers to a woman who had asked the king for some land to build a shrine to Buddha. The king agreed but only to give enough land to cover the hide of a buffalo. The woman then went on to cut the buffalo hide into small strips in order to lay them out to mark a large circumference that apparently went on to be Boudhanath as it is today. Another myth states that the finger of the Buddha is buried beneath the stupa itself!
Once I moved into the courtyard, I was quickly caught up in the throngs of both worshipers and tourists who were allthe stupa in a clockwise direction. Witnessing the devotion and hearing the bells and sombre chanting of monks in unison from the nearby Tsamchen Gompa made the entire experience somewhat powerful.
It dawned on me then how those who lack the education and awareness can attribute such an experience to the divine, somewhat akin to those who go on the hajj or any other mass ritual of other religions. I suppose the main reason would be how rituals such as this tend to reinforce social homogeneity by strengthening the group identity either through the emphasis of a common purpose or the repetitive acts of the ritual itself. This also seems to be the case for non-religious rituals such as those practiced in university fraternities and exclusive clubs.
After wondering on and around the stupa, I found a quaint little cafe where I could take some time off for some well-deserved recuperation. Strangely enough, the cafe itself seemed to have a Japanese theme and was called Mochiko Food. I spent NPR160 eating the always delightful buff momo whilst sipping hot coffee. During this time however, an elderly man approached the tiny table and sat down across from me without uttering a single word. The man looked harmless enough but kept on staring at the momos that I was eating which was fairly unnerving. I came to the obvious conclusion that he wanted some food so I offered him one of the momos but to my surprise he declined by just smiling and shaking his head. His coffee arrived soon after and we both sat there in silence sipping away at our coffees.
Back to Thamel
The cycle back to Thamel was enjoyable as the traffic seemed to have eased considerably. The distance was 6.92km but seemed much shorter at the time. This time I actually caught sight of another tourist on a bicycle and we traded nods of acknowledgement (or was it encouragement?) as we passed each other, just before a military convoy whizzed past waving everyone aside.
Directions to Thamel
Sophie, a friend of mine from Malaysia, had advised me earlier that she would also be in Nepal and had given me the rough time when she was expected to arrive. Before meeting up with her I decided to get something to eat and so ended up spending NPR215 for more momos and some fried rice at the pleasant 'Newa Mo:mo Restaurant'.I met up with Sophie shortly after, who was exhilarated to see a familiar face and she went on to introduce me to her group of friends (Mazlim, Razlan, Hayati, Jasni, and their guide Binod). They invited me to join them for dinner but since it was getting fairly late, I figured that I would have to return the mountain bike first. Finding the shop after dusk proved far more troubesome than I had anticipated as things looked different with the change of lighting and the little shop was hidden in a little alley well out of sight from the road. Just when I was starting to get desperate (as seems to always be the case), I came across the narrow alley. I was due to fly out to Lukla the next morning and they were still in possession of my passport so finding the shop was an immense relief.
The restaurant that the group had decided to meet in was more opulent than what I was accustomed to, so after having a drink that cost NPR435 and after a brief discussion about the flight which was scheduled for 09:30 the next day, I left to do some last minute shopping. I ended up spending NPR6000 on a -20 degrees rated goose down sleeping bag as well as a water canister, before retiring for the night.