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Kathmandu - 1

I had a long weekend with the Eid-al-Fatr holidays, so was off work from Tuesday afternoon until Sunday am. Most of the other Brits in my compound were leaving town to go to places of their choosing, and it looked as if I'd be here on my own, and I didn't fancy that. Eid is the festival in the first few days of the month of Shawwal, and it is the time when the Muslims let their hair down after the strictures of Ramadan. I went onto Skyscanner [the website that acts as the market comparer for flight bookings. I totally recommend it because a) it really does unearth the cheapest flights, b) it is Scotland based, a genuine home grown computing success story, and c) hasn't been bought up by Google or Microsoft] and set search parameters from Riyadh to "Everywhere", filtering results by my time available and cheapest flights first. Amazingly, after the expected Gulf States, the next place offered was Kathmandu, Nepal. I had never even considered such an exotic location, and after a quick search for hotels, I had booked myself flights and 3 nights in KTM for £380.The downside as that the outward flights were at pretty unsocial hours and both ways involved lengthy stopovers at Muscat, Oman. I flew with Oman Air, an unpretentious carrier that serves many European, Middle East and south Asia destinations.

Nepal is a mountainous country, located in the Himalayas and adjoins two countries. It has India to its east, south and west, and Tibet* to the north. It is semi-isolated as there has been a border trade embargo with India for much of 2015, which has now been lifted, and the Tibetan border is the high Himalayan peaks, including of course Mt Everest which is the world's highest at 29,028 feet. Until 2008 Nepal was a Kingdom, and the King abdicated to make way for a federal republic. There had been a Nepali royal family massacre in 2001 when the Crown Prince killed kis father the King, the Queen and six other senior royals and then committed suicide. The new King (brother of the deceased) ruled until 2008 but had overseen a period of unrest and civil war when Maoists had tried to take over. *Tibet is no longer a country, it was annexed and snaffled up by China when the world wasn't looking in the 1950s and its nationhood is still disputed today.

The country has another claim to fame, which I didn't realise until I arrived, in that the time difference from GMT is 5h45m, it is the only whole country on the planet to have anything other than multiples of a whole hour or (more rarely) a half hour deviance from GMT. Possible church quiz question, folks.

I arrived at KTM just as the sun was setting, but there was a lot of cloud cover and I didn't manage to get a good view of the Himalayas. My hotel was in the Thamel area of the city, this is the main tourist hangout. I took a taxi from the airport, this was a fixed price of 700 NR (£4.50). Much better than Kuwait. My residence had the highly improbable name of Atlantic Hotel. My room was comfortable and clean, even if it didn't have an ocean view. The hotel staff were so helpful and friendly. It was family run and had about 15 rooms. It didn't have a restaurant (but did do breakfasts in the lobby)  so I asked them to recommend a restaurant that was authentic Nepalese and was hygenic. The manager walked with me 5 minutes away, out of the tourist area and then up a flight of steps in a nondescript building, which opened out into a 30 seater restaurant. He sat and ate with me, describing the menu and making suggestions. It may well have been owned by a friend of his, but I did have a good meal which was spicy chicken stew, and it was pretty cheap too.

Over dinner he asked me all about my plans for my visit. He was very surprised that I only had 3 nights before leaving again, and that I wasn't either on a trekking holiday or going to any of the other tourist centres in the country. I said that I wanted to explore the city, appreciate its culture and see some of the ancient temples. There are seven World Heritage sites in the Kathmandu valley area (more than the whole of Scotland, which has six), and I was interested to see some of these, having acquired some inside knowledge of how WH works over the past few years. We devised a programme, and he arranged a private tour guide, a car and a driver for two days, all for less than £90. I might have been able to arrange it for less had I trawled the numerous travel and tour agencies, but the convenience factor and the man's helpfulness was worth it.

Kathmandu isn't a high rise city. One thing which  was evident was the devastation the April 2015 earthquake had caused. This had been at a magnitude of 7.8 on the Richter scale, which is pretty severe. Several thousand people sadly were killed, and it was equally bad in the surrounding towns and villages in the Kathmandu valley. As a result there was a sudden migration to the city from homeless Nepalis and this has swelled the city population substantially. All over the city were buildings propped up for stability, and everywhere there were piles of rubble debris, and stacks of bricks for re-building. Fortunately the Atlantic was 100% intact.

The following morning saw me being collected by Nihoj, an accredited guide and he was accompanied by a driver with an airconditioned car. You engage one person and employ two - very Indian. Our itinerary was to three temples. I won't describe the places I visited in great detail, this is a fun blog, but please feel free to look them up in the internet for detail. First stop was Swayambhunath, also known as the Monkey temple. This is situated on a hill to the west of the city, reached by a flight of 365 steps, or if arriving by car like me, 20 steps from the car park. It is a beautiful place and if in the UK, I'd happily pay £15 to enter and explore, far less the £1.15 that the Nepalese charge.  Swayambhunath translated means "self-constructed" as if built by the gods. It is important to Bhuddists and Hindus alike and is a great centre for pilgrims, and both religions co-exist peacefuly and respect each other's shrines and rituals. If only Jerusalem was like that..... There is a little earthquake damage and rebuilding is underway. There are monkeys everywhere and Nihoj advised me to keep tight grip of valuables. There is a swimming pool for the monkeys and it was entertaining seeing them playing in it, swimming and bombing in from height.




Next visit was across the city to the Pashupatinath temple. This is a sprawling collection of buildings which are the oldest and main Hindu centres in Nepal. It is approached along a path then across a bridge over the river. On the bridge was a live bull with gold covered horns. Nihoj explained the symbolism. On the banks of the river below were a dozen or so raised stone plinths, which are used for Hindu funeral cremations. It sounds a bit voyeuristic, but there was a certain fascination in watching the rites from a distance (there were three funerals on the go when I visited) and Nihoj explained the rites that the deceased and its mourners go through.  Amongst other things there is a washing and anointing of the body, the cremation, and then the senior male mourners shaving their heads and wearing special robes. Inside the complex are a series of temples and other buildings, all very interesting. As a non-Hindu I was not allowed entry to the main temple sanctuary, but there was more than enough around about to  provide interest.



Then we moved a few more miles up the valley onto the Bouddhanath Stupa which is the most important Tibetan Bhuddist shrine in the world. Unfortunately the main building had suffered quite severe earthquake damage last year, but even so the site and dozens of monasteries that surround it are these were impressive. Bhuddists are more open and we were welcomed in all the areas. It will be nice to see the main building rebuilt.


Bouddhanath Stupa 

After this visit I was dropped off at the hotel and then went for a wander around the city centre by myself. I was also treated to half an hour of monsoon rain, and had to buy an umbrella. I walked to the south of the Thamel area and found the Basantapur, or Durbar Square. This is the former Royal palace and temple complex for the city and is another place which would have been far better to have visited pre-earthquake. Sadly half of the buildings were destroyed and the rest are cordoned off as they are in a dangerous condition. Rebuilding has started but will take several years by the look of it.


Kathmandu Durbar Square. "Should have come here before the earthquake, sir"

After walking about and souvenir hunting (I bought a lovely reproduction prayer bell) I stopped for dinner at an appealing looking restaurant. I don't mean this an any way that can be construed as disparaging, but it was really refreshing to find a city of over 3 million people that isn't polluted by multi-national chains. No Starbucks, KFC or any other American based fast food outlets. Dinner was a fusion of Indian and Chinese influenced foods, all nice. I treated myself to several beers during my escape from Saudi. The local Everest beer was tasty but rather strong at 6% a.b.v, and I found the first and only craft brewery in Nepal and had some of its wheat based German-style lagers, these were rather refreshing   

To be continued.





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