Thursday, October 4, 2007

Kathmandu. Cruising around in a rickshaw and Swayambunath stupa.

Meet Ramachandra, my driver for the day. 42 years old, father of 4, grandfather of one and rickshaw driver for the past 15 years. Physically smaller than me all the way around, this man must have legs of steel to have been able to haul me around Kathmandu for several hours!

Up until today, I've been travelling solely by car. Today, I decided to go on rickshaw mainly because the streets are so narrow that it's actually faster to get around on the back of a bicycle than in a car.

I found Ramachandra on the street outside my hotel, After I negotiated the itinerary and price with him, I climbed into the seat of his rickshaw and he pushed off. Ramachandra has obviously ridden these streets countless times atop his bicycle but it was my first. Fifty feet into the ride and I was hanging on for dear life! 100 feet later and I was wondering what had gotten into me to think that this was a good idea. Did I not sleep enough last night? Not eat enough breakfast?

Unpaved, narrow roads, crammed with people and vehicles of all sorts and us trying to make our way through the chaos. What a harrowing experience it was!
500 feet later, Ramachandra started asking me the usual bunch of questions - What's your name?, Where are you from?, How many days are you in Nepal? - and I asked him the same. Soon, my nerves calmed down.... a bit. I still hung onto the side handles of the rickshaw.

A short ride, my heart still pounding and 10 white knuckles (mine not Ramachandran's) later, we arrived at Kathmandu's Durbar Square - another dizzying collection of temples and people EVERYWHERE.

Maybe I'm a bit "templed" out at this point having seen Patan and Bhaktapur yesterday but I found myself not as interested in the religious sites as I was yesterday. In contrast to Durbar Square in either Patan or Bhaktapur, Kathmandu's Durbar Square is much more commercial - not from the standpoint of having more stuff for tourists but more for the locals. Everywhere you look, someone is selling something or other - from vegetables to grains and local residents are out shopping for their daily meals.
Vendors set up shop wherever they find a convenient spot.As with Patan and Bhaktapur, temples dominate the landscape. I was trying to take photos of each but there were so many but they all start to look alike after a while that I think I missed out on quite few. Durbar Square is also where the original Royal Palace of Nepal, Hanuman Dhoka, is located. It's now a museum dedicated to King Tribuvhan who ruled Nepal in the earlier part of the 20th century. Looking at the place now, it's hard to imagine that it was once the home of royalty as it's a bit run down - not at all preserved or maintained. As a museum, there's not much of a collection other than a lot of photos of Nepalese royalty and personal items belonging to the King.
Hanuman Dhoka to the left, temple to the right.Inner courtyard, Hanuman Dhoka.
Photography was not allowed inside the palace so I had to check my backpack and camera at the guard's desk. Thirty minutes and I was back outside.

More wandering the streets of Durbar Square - got lost for a short time period as navigating the streets in Durbar Square is a challenge indeed! There are no street signs, what signs there are are in Nepalese, and the stores and temples all started to look the same after a while. Very dizzying. Thank God for the street vendors though - turn left at vegetable lady, right at meat stall, left at coconut man, etc. No need for a compass or a GPS when you have vegetable lady to show you the way!

I managed to make it back to where Ramachandra dropped me off. Back onto the rickshaw and it was onto Swayambunath - the holiest of the Buddhist stupas in all of Nepal. Along the way, we passed where Ramachandra lives and he dropped off a 5 rupee bill for his youngest daughter. A beautiful girl with smiling eyes - I think she will capture the hearts of many a man when she grows up.As Ramachandra cycled on, we chatted and he showed me a few points along the way. We crossed the Bagmati River where Hindus are cremated after death.

As we passed over the river, Ramachadra pointed out the ghats where the funeral pyres are laid atop. Fortunately, there were no cremations going on when we crossed over the river.

The road to Swayambunath is rather hilly so at times, poor Ramachandra had to pull the rickshaw. Other times, I got out and we both walked and chatted along the way. It's been amazing to me how many people in Nepal speak English and most have learned, not through any sort of formal training but from interacting with tourists.
We arrived at Swayambuth and agreed to meet back with Ramachandra in an hour. I then began to climb the 365 steps that lead up to the stupa. The first few steps are a gentle incline and then the grade gets steeper. Fortunately, I could stop along the way to catch my breath and admire the view of Kathmandu Valley.....
....and statues that flank the steps.
I even managed to catch glimpse of the creatures that give this temple its nickname, "the Monkey Temple".
A few dozen steps from the top and soon you see the eyes of Buddha looking down upon you.


Smaller that Boudanath stupa (which I visited yesterday), Swayambunath is less crowded with devotees but there are more religious structures crammed into very little space. I circumambulated the stupa and snapped a few photos along the way.




In Nepal, Hinduism and Bhuddism have coexisted for centuries and I see a melding of the two religions - particularly in Nepalese religious art. In the photo below, the top part of the statue depicts Bhuddist symbols and the lower part, Hindu symbols.

After circumambulating the stupa twice (you're actually suppose to do it three times), I took a few minutes to view of the Kathmandu Valley below and then headed back down the steps. Part way down, I met up with Ramachandra and we walked back to this rickshaw together. Back on top the rickshaw and off we went back to the hotel.

All in all, it was another memorable day - sightseeing punctuated with a few harrowing, yet exhilarating rickshaw rides through Kathmandu!