My descent back to civilisation was to the extremely picturesque city of Pokhara, which sits by the gorgeous Phewa Tal, beneath the shadows of the great Annapurnas. Almost everything about it is in stark contrast to its big brother, Kathmandu, which made it a very pleasant place to ease my way back into the hustle and bustle of life out of the mountains.
One of the things that made it so pleasant though, was the lack of tourists who had been driven away by the onset of the monsoon, the heavy clouds of which obstructed those amazing views that the city is renowned for. There were however, moments of glorious sunshine and Jarda and I used one such moment to rent a charming, yellow rowboat and go for a relaxing row around Phewa Tal. At one point, Jarda decided to nude up, jump overboard and swim what I thought was to be dangerously close to the Varahi Mandir temple. This modest Hindu temple sits on an island in the lake and is occupied by a constant stream of Indian tourists, whom I am sure would have had quite a reaction to the sight of Jarda’s bare, white, Czech ass within view of their sacred place.
Due to the weather, which was only going to get hotter and wetter, as well as a strong desire to get back on the bike, it was not long before I returned to Kathmandu and released the King Brown from his solitary confinement.
It was here also that I farewelled Jarda who, after three years, would be returning to his friends, family and homeland. It was with a touch of envy that I said goodbye, but I know that once I am satisfied that I have achieved what I feel I must, I too will return home to all of those things I have sacrificed to live a dream.
My first stop in the chaotic city was to one of the many local barbers, where I intended to be rid of my ginger, trekker’s beard. Little did I know just how broad a canvas a Nepali barber’s skills cover. After the smoothest shave I have ever had, he forced my head down onto the bench and firmly kneaded my back, neck, shoulders and arms with his knuckles, before squeezing my head between his fingertips as though it were a giant pimple. Following this, he rubbed a coarse cream into my face and I was instructed to stick my head into an old, discoloured, plastic steamer. Upon emerging, he applied a greenish paste over my face, went outside to talk to his mates for a while, returned and proceeded to, what looked and felt like, peel my face off. After half a dozen more creams, he gave my nose hairs a much-needed trim and did the same to my eyebrows, though far more painfully using what looked like a length of dental floss. Held in a cross by four fingers and pulled taut with an end in his teeth, his head would jerk back and forth like a chicken’s, as he forced the sharp string in a scissor action over my skin.
When he gestured towards my flowing locks with his scissors, I jumped up and said that that will be enough for one day. I handed him 140 rupees ($2) and stepped outside, where the Kathmandu smog quickly undid all of his hard work by instantly invading my pores once more.
For those of you who think that I should have taken him up on his offer, and I know there are plenty considering the number of emails I get along the lines of, “Get a haircut you hippy!”, only a month earlier I had been walking down the street when a man sitting outside a shop yelled something at me. Not paying much attention and not bothering to respond, considering the number of shopkeepers yelling things at me in Kathmandu, I walked on, only hearing the word ‘hair.’ On my return journey not long after, he was still there and he spoke again. This time I listened, “Ohhhh now you look like a lion. I think that you must surely have the hair of God.”
Now whether he was talking about one of the 300-odd Hindu Gods or God the Almighty, creator of heaven, earth and all living beings, I am no sure, but I ask my detractors; if some crazy Nepali man in the darkened streets of Kathmandu said that you had the hair of a God, would you dare cut it off?
Despite my earlier misgivings, I spent a good few days in Kathmandu to visit a few of the sites of this historic city. A short walk and a couple of hundred stairs took me to the top of the 13th century Tibetan Buddhist temple of Swayambhunath. The platform at the base of the imposing stupa offers tremendous views over the Kathmandu Valley, from the endless square, concrete, multistory buildings that dominate the valley floor to the hills that rise steeply from its edges.
That evening, I took a stroll through one of the valleys three famous Durbar Squares. Durbar meaning ‘palace’, the construction of these communal areas in Kathmandu and nearby Patan and Bhaktapur, was initiated by three princely brothers who were fighting one another for control of the valley after their father, the King, died in the 15th century. Dense with stunning architecture, the ‘square’ is actually an irregular shape and laid out in an odd manner, but this only enhances its intrigue, for it creates a number of dark, quiet alleys and corners where one can at least partially escape the chaos.
At sunset it is ‘the meeting place’ in Kathmandu and the many tiers of the temples are filled with locals who meet to drink chai and make their puja offerings to the Gods. Watching the light fade over the happenings on the street below or against the beautiful carvings on the roof struts, lintels, door and window frames of the temples, was very peaceful in a city lacking in peaceful public places.
Particularly intriguing were the erotic carvings that displayed Shiva and but a few of his many consorts in positions that mere mortals can only dream about.
Having become more familiar with it, I left Kathmandu with a little more love the second time around and headed to the town of Boudha, just eight kilometres away. This Tibetan town’s centerpiece is the historic Bohdnath Stupa, the site of which dates back some 1,400 years.
The eyes of Buddha, painted on all four sides of the stupas high harmika, which leads to the tapering spire that represents the thirteen stages of perfection on the path to nirvana, look down over a traffic-free courtyard that runs out from the stupas enormous round base.
Set in the wall of the main entrance to the stupa is a small shrine to a Hindu Goddess, so easily integrated into the main Buddhist structure that it can easily go unnoticed. This is characteristic of the integration these two great religions have managed for many centuries, beginning when Hinduism declared the Lord Buddha to be an incarnation of the great god, Vishnu, so as to stem the flow of converts to the new religion. The way in which Buddhists and Hindus live and worship side by side is a model of peaceful coexistence that many of the religions of the world could take heed of.
While it is a special place to be at any time, the true magic of the stupa is revealed at sunset, when seemingly the whole town turns out to do laps of its base to the sounds of the maroon-clad monks’ meditative music that emanates from the Tsamchen Gompa opposite. Some circle the structure while conversing with friends, others chant mantras to themselves and turn the hundreds of prayer wheels set in the walls and just a few take a single step, lay themselves flat on their stomachs and with their arms outstretched, place their palms together in a prayer-like gesture with fingers pointing towards the heavens. They then stand, take another step and repeat the process.
The atmosphere created by this wave of devotees moving in the same direction is very powerful and one can not help but be pulled into its gravitational field and walk around………….and around…………….and around, until the sun has departed and the night is lit by the soft glow of the sacred butter lamps.
Having spent over six months in Laos and Thailand, I was very interested in visiting a few of the city’s many gompas (Tibetan monasteries) to see how they differed from the wats in SE Asia.
The most outwardly obvious difference was in the temple building itself. The gompas are generally very squared-off, rectangular structures adorned in colourful, detailed, almost cartoon-like images such as a the popular ‘Wheel of Life,’ which depicts the cycle of birth, death and rebirth that Buddhists seek release from. This is in stark contrast to the sloped, multi-leveled roofs of the wats that shine of but one dominant colour; gold.
As I ventured into the temple grounds, a second difference struck me almost immediately in the atmosphere within; it was lively. Child monks ran and played as kids do, while the elder ones chatted casually in the shade of a tree on the lawn. Again, this was in contrast to SE Asia where the temples were often dead quiet and the monks very somber. I will always remember the poor little ones in their robes during Songkran in Thailand. They leaned over the temple wall, looking out at the explosion of fun taking place on the streets and one could see in their faces that they longed to get wet with everyone else, but alas, obviously they were not permitted.
Adding to such an atmosphere was the music. At one gompa I visited, attached to which was a guesthouse of the same name demonstrating the Tibetans’ business acumen they are renowned for, I entered the main temple from which I heard the dull thud of a drum. Inside it was dim except for a softly lit, huge, seated Buddha and a faint light to the side of the room where a lone monk sat cross-legged beside a large drum. As he methodically pounded the taut skin with his curved stick, the sound reverberated strongly throughout the large space. Next to this, more subtle but no less powerful, was the monks’ chanting. The hypnotic drone of his voice complemented the boom of the drum perfectly. During the thirty minutes or so that I sat listening, he mixed it up with the ringing of bells, the tooting of a horn that sounded like a Viking call to arms and the speed-reading of a prayer-book, but it always came back to the drum and the drone.
As I stood to leave, I walked to the centre of the room and closed my eyes. The sounds bounced off the walls and high ceiling and I allowed them to bombard and penetrate me. It was but for just a moment, that my feet left the floor and I floated.