Nepal

Nepal - 2016

I spent a few days in and around Kathmandu, Nepal during November and December 2016 - bracketing a trip to Bhutan.  Kathmandu was a nice counterpoint to Bhutan.  Bhutan was calm and sedate, Kathmandu has that hustle and bustle of Asia, but not as much as a Delhi or a Bangkok - an “Asian Light” version of life.  I have many photographs of Nepal in the Nepal photo gallery at www.bobbarnes.us.

The following video is a short overview of those few days.

I stayed in the Thamel District of Kathmandu when I visited Nepal in November, spending two days there at the beginning of the month and three at the end.  One of the advantages of that location was that I was able to walk to the food markets which were in the various squares in the city.  Photographing food markets is another of my avocations and Kathmandu rewarded me well.

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Market Kathmandu, Nepal

The streets of the Thamel District are narrow and filled with pedestrians, rickshaws, motorbikes, and the occasional automobile.  Shops line the streets and flow out into them.  At every square there are many food vendors.

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Market Kathmandu, Nepal
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Most of the food items for sale are familiar to any western traveler and are often staples of all but the most basic of the western households.  The photographs shown here present just a small sampling of the offerings, including; garlic, ginger, onions, chilies (generally not found in the plains states and mid-west of the U.S.), tamarillos (generally not found in the U. S.), potatoes (generally one kind found in the mid-west of the U.S. while several were regularly offered in these markets), Bok Choy (eaten in the east and west coast of the U.S.), many varieties of lentils (much more limited in variety in the U.S.) and corn (maize).

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Transactions were generally by volume but sometimes were based on weight, using traditional and effective scales.

Chrysanthemums, which are used in a variety of religious rituals in Nepal, are available in all of the markets.

My trips are generally for the purpose of birding and the videography and photography of birds.  But try as I may to avoid it, there are times that “tourist” travel sneaks in occupies a few days.  Such was the case of my visit to Kathamandu.  

I had planned my times in Kathmandu (before and after my trip to Bhutan) to be rest and relaxation periods - no birding.   During my stays in Kathmandu I took photographs of three bird species: House Sparrow, Passer domesticus; Rock Dove (Pigeon), Columba livia; and the House Crow, Corvus splendens.  The offerings are so insignificant that I have not established a photo gallery for the birds of Nepal.

If I was not birding, what was I doing?  Well, I was wandering around.  I had a map but I was having trouble determining if alleyways were simply going to someone’s house (and thus not on the map) or alleyways (but not on the map) or something depicted on the map.  In other words, I wasn’t lost (I knew how by “dead reckoning” I could return to my hotel) but I did not know exactly where I was.  I was in search of markets and Buddhist centers.

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I wandered into a square and discovered something left out of the guide books and something I found very warming about Nepal.  The sound was the first hint, the commotion the second, and the ambiance of a stupa complex set amid shops and houses the third.  The school kids had strewn their back packs here and there and were involved in games of chase and catch.  As they ran about they were careful not to bump into the worshipers performing various religious rituals.  The square was dedicated to the Kaathe Swayambhu Shree Gha Chaitya stupa in Kathmandu.  I am not totally sure of the spelling, the maps I had spelled it differently and it is not referenced very much in the all seeing world wide web.

The mixture of laughter and low religious mantra spoke of life.  Life not segregated into nice little compartments, some for Sunday, some for the rest of the week.  Life which is whole.

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Kaathe Swyamghu Shree Gha Chaitya Kathmandu, Nepal

As I wandered about Kathmandu I was constantly having this experience.  An unexpected image would appear affirming the rejection of compartmentalization.  There are certainly lots of private silent spaces associated with the religion here but much is public and noisy, warm and comforting.

If Kaathe Swyamghu Shree Gha Chaitya is little known and at one end of a spectrum then the other end of that extreme is Boudhanath.  Boudhanath (photo below) is one of the largest stupas in the world, a UNESCO world heritage site, and a popular attraction in the Valley of Kathmandu in Nepal.  In the 2015 earthquake the spire at the top of the stupa was badly damaged and had to be deconstructed and rebuilt.  It opened for visitation just before I visited the site last year on 30 November.

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Boudhanath Kathmandu, Nepal

The Swayambhunath religious complex sits on a hill overlooking the city of Kathmandu, Nepal.  Near the parking area there are various religious monuments.  From the parking area a climb up a series of stairs leads to the “commercial center” at the top of the hill and the religious complex.  

The religious center dates from about the fifth century of the common era.  Since then the site has undergone 15 renovations.  The last renovation occurred in 2010 (the one before that in 1921).  The complex suffered some damage during the 2015 earthquake.

Renovating and rebuilding is common in the Himalayan mountains.  Many of the ancient sites are indeed ancient but the structures at the site may be exact replicas of earlier buildings which have been damaged in earthquakes or burned.  Sometimes the structures have been rebuilt more than once.

Bhaktapur is an ancient city in the Kathmandu Valley of Nepal.  It is about 8 miles from Kathmandu.  Bhaktapur is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is a popular site with tourists.  Plan on spending the day at this site to fully appreciate it, it is a very large site.

When I visited India years ago I was in a small village near a vulture site.  We were sitting on wood stumps beside a chai pot enjoying a delicious drink from small unfired clay cups/glasses.  After finishing the drink you are supposed to throw the clay cup into a mound of clay so that it can be reformed into new cups at some future date - the disposable/fully recycled cup.  Instead of throwing mine away I asked to keep it, the chai dealer wondered why I wanted such a thing but happily agreed, and furnished me with a “clean” cup as well.  Those cups are some of my most cherished tourist souvenirs. 

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Bhaktapur Kathmandu Valley, Nepal
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Bhaktapur is known for its “king curd” (as well as being a UNESCO site, etc.) and I wanted to see what it was like.  I found a shop where I was provided the curd in a “to go” dish.  A small unfired clay dish to eat your curd from and dispose of along the road, to be recycled into the earth.  That dish now sits beside my cups from India as a favored and “important” souvenir.

The statues (King Bhupatindra Malle, right), buildings, temples, and art work in general is extraordinary in Bhaktapur.  Of the small set of sites which I visited during my short stays in Nepal, Bhaktapur is by far my favorite. 

The UNESCO site at Bhaktapur is full of large temples and sculptures.  Focusing on those sights alone, however, will deprive you of most of the beauty of the place.  Seemingly everywhere you look there is a bit of paint, stone carving, or works in metal which are exquisite.  Not as grand as the temple behind them, perhaps, but certainly as beautiful.

Sometimes the work is in gild which sparkles in the sun and sometimes it is in dark stone.  Each can be equally striking.

Tourists walking through the ancient city are obvious prey for the hawkers who will sell you authenticate and very old Nepal knives and singing bowls.  Lucky for you that you bumped into them; all those other guys are thieves with inferior product.  The more you listen the grander the object laid before you and the more you defer the lower the price goes.  In the end, however, you will pay more than you might somewhere else.  Note that I didn’t say you would pay a fair price or that you would pay too much.  The concept of a fair price is difficult in these circumstances.  A fair price compared to what you would pay at home for the same object?  A fair price given what the other hawkers are offering?  A fair price compared to the cost of the item for the hawker?  I am not one of those who feels good about getting the lowest possible price, there are many moral issues associated with that approach.  I can assure you, however, that in Nepal you will have ample opportunity to explore the issue.

On 25 April 2015 a massive earthquake struck Nepal and the surrounding areas.  The quake measured somewhere around 7.8Mw or 8.1Ms.  It was a massive earthquake, roughly 9,000 people died and around 22,000 were injured enough to report.

Throughout the Kathmandu Valley reconstruction continues.  There are still large “refugee” camps of people displaced by the quake.  The walls of buildings in Bhaktapur (and many other places) are held in place by poles but continue to be utilized.  

Cement mixers and piles of brick are everywhere.  Women carrying brick and mixed concrete in large baskets mingle with the tourists in the streets.  Bamboo scaffolding soars to the sky as brick is laid in place raising questions about the soundness of the structures.

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Bhaktapur Kathmandu Valley, Nepal

The continuing scenes of rebuilding from destruction and carrying on with daily life is both heartening and a reminder of how fragile things human are.

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There are three “Durbar Squares” in the Kathmandu Valley of Nepal.  All are UNESCO World Heritage Sites.  On the last morning that I was in Nepal, I wandered off in the direction of Durbar Square, I figured that at some point I would find it, I did.  Lots of my walking in Kathmandu was by “dead reckoning” with an occasional look at the map when I encountered something that looked like it was significant enough to be on the map.  Durbar Square is a large complex with some major temple complexes and is the site of one of the Royal Palaces of the Malla and Shah Kings who ruled the city in the 1400’s, many structures date from earlier than that.

When I was at the square I employed the same technique of just wandering around, it allows me to ferret out the small details of a place, I often find the smaller things just as intriguing as the grandiose.

I was never sure if I should focus on the plain austere things, the myriad carvings in wood, or the bright and “in your face” art structures.  There were many examples of all of these art forms.

Some where guarding doorways, others were integrated into the walls of the buildings.  All, however, were surrounded by some sort of support system.  The damage from the 2015 earthquake was (is) significant.

In Bhaktapur, several of the wooden rafter supports are of “kama sutra” images.  Some of those images have been posted to the Nepal photo gallery along with images of other art in wood.  In this case they are labeled as “explicit image” on the thumbnail.  It is a strange world that we live in, in Nepal those images are part of a heritage and are very public art.  In the conservative west they are not considered public art.

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Durbar Square Kathmandu, Nepal
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The pagoda style towers which abound in Kathmandu’s Durbar Square are part of much more extensive temple complexes.  Above I mentioned the wooden art of the site, the temple canopies are held upright by other examples of these beautiful wooden carvings.  Many of these towers were damaged in the 2015 earthquake and a significant amount of restoration is underway and is yet to be done.

Much of my time in Kathmandu was spent roaming the streets simply trying to get “a feel” for the place, what was it like, what made it tick.  It was in Kathmandu that I finally found Bitter Gourd for sale, being offered with Cauliflower, Okra, and a variety of lentils.  Bitter Gourd is included in the Foods of the World section of the www.bobbarnes.us website.  The markets were overflowing with foods, other goods, and the signs on the shops indicated - services.  And I think the key word here is “overflowing” as I walked the streets of Kathmandu I had the feeling that there was an abundance of the food stuffs.  I have posted these, and other, photographs from Kathmandu to the Markets photo gallery of the www.bobbarnes.us website. 

I spent only a few days in Kathmandu and the Kathmandu Valley but found the area intriguing and hope to return.

Some general impressions:

  • There are still some areas which are closed to entry because of the earthquake damage from 2015.  The locked doors and “no entry” signs were intriguing but you really don’t want to get in the way of the work which is being done.
  • In Kathmandu, the shop keepers are very “tourist oriented”, they will sell you anything at any price they think they can get.  Authentication of the items for sale can be a bit tricky and necessary.
  • If you are visiting the tourist areas, it is easy to find people wanting to give you a “photo op” for a small sum.  Some are very brightly adorned and that is the point, it does not have much to do with something “authentically” Nepalese - except that, of course, it is.
  • Although there appeared to be a thriving commercial sector with lots of goods and services available, it seemed to me that there was more apparent poverty in Kathmandu than in Bhutan.  Bhutanese believe it has more to do with the economic and social structure of Nepal than with the earthquake.
  • The Kathmandu Valley is a safe and easy place to visit.  Car hire is straightforward and a car and driver for the day is relatively inexpensive - and avoids a lot of drama.It was an extremely rewarding time, I enjoyed myself immensely.
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Durbar Square Kathmandu, Nepal

The material in this post was originally published in a series of entries on www.bobbarnes.us.  If you would like to read the original material, which includes many more photographs, it is found in the following posts:

From a post entitled: Sir Edmund Hillary (1919 - 2008) originally posted on January 11, 2008

I took this photo of the Nepalese Himalaya last year at about this time.  Hillary did incredible work for the people of this region -- being responsible for the construction of many schools and hospitals -- he was a man of great depth.

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Sir Hillary taught me a basic and life-lasting lesson.  He was an icon, the world’s greatest climber, a person of both the north and south pole, a tall lean man without much pretense and  accomplishments galore.  When I met him I was impressed, overwhelming impressed, with him as a person.  Not an icon who had done all of these things, a person, a man.  It was the lesson that each of us, all of us, can make a difference as individuals...  It is a humbling and liberating lesson -- the failures of humanity are the failures of each of us.  The accomplishments of humanity have resulted because some of us have stepped beyond greed and power.

I am deeply saddened.

Photo: Hillary and Norgay at the summit of Everest & the Nepalese Himalaya.


© Robert Barnes 2017-2018