I woke up early in the morning to catch the 7:00AM bus to Kathmandu. As I walked down the stretch of gravel highway from the guest house to the bus stop I could see the Himalayas to the north looking as if their peaks had been gilded by the morning sun. I arrived early and this was good because the bus actually left at 6:45AM instead of at 7:00AM! Nepal has no train system so people rely on the highways to get around. Buses are a commonly used form of transportation in the country. However, they only loosely follow schedules. They will also cram as many people as possible into a small bus, tie all the luggage to the roof and blast Hindi pop songs for the whole trip.
It was, needless to say, a long trip to Kathmandu. It was only supposed to take eight hours, but it ended up taking twelve hours for a few reasons.
The first was that the bus broke a wheel half-way to our destination and we needed to stop at a garage to have it repaired. The men in the bus stood around watching the repairs. I went to buy a plate of fried noodles from a highway merchant and enjoyed chatting with one of my fellow passengers who told me he works in Dubai at a hotel.
He told me all about how Nepalese often go abroad for work as suitable employment is scarce in their homeland. He also told me that he felt obligated to go overseas to make money for the simple fact that he is the eldest in his extended family and would want to support his younger cousins. I was quite humbled by such an attitude to life and work -- here is a man who is not even going to work to send money home to his mother or wife, but to his cousins and extended relatives. I told him that, unlike in much of the west, he will surely always be surrounded by loving family and as an old man will never know loneliness.
Travelling by bus through Nepal also was an opportunity to see much of the countryside. Nepal is a mostly mountainous country with some flatlands here and there.
The atmosphere of local roadside towns was quite different from Lumbini and Kathmandu which are well used to tourists. Nevertheless, I found the locals friendly and curious. The food was also tasty and fresh.
Arriving at Kathmandu's border you encounter a police checkpoint where they board the bus, pretend to inspect a thing or two and then leave. The inspector actually gave me a second glance probably because I was wearing an Indian style long-sleeve shirt and sported a long beard. I think I didn't look Nepalese, but then I also didn't look like a western tourist either. So he asked where I was from, smiled when I said Canada and then looked through my passport for a few seconds. The Nepalese on board the bus found this highly amusing.
The other reason for the delay was that there was a traffic jam in the single road leading into Kathmandu. One of the locals said a tree had fallen on top of a truck ahead and so the road was backed up a good distance. I was actually prepared to get out and walk, but it was late and not having ever been in the Kathmandu Valley I decided to just wait it out. Two and a half hours later we slowly made our way into central Kathmandu.
Kathmandu is a crowded city with very poor air quality and daily scheduled blackouts, but I found the people generally quite friendly and hospitable. My first few nights I stayed in the backpacker's quarter of Thamel, which is a tourist area filled with shops, pubs, restaurants and travel agents.
The typical dish in Nepal is actually not curry, but dal (lentils) and rice with a few pickles, fried vegetables and curd. In general the restaurant will fill up your dish until you are completely full leaving you quite satisfied.
When I was in the city I had also arrived at the start of Losar or Tibetan New Year. There is a large Tibetan community in the city and for their celebrations almost everyone was in Tibetan garb. There were also celebrations in the area of Boudha which is the main Tibetan area on the east side of the city.
The undeniable central point of the Boudha area is the ancient Boudhanath stūpa which as I understand dates back to at least the 5th century CE, though many legends surround it.
There is apparently a connection between Padmasambhava and the stūpa. There is reference to it in the text The Legend of the Great Stūpa of Boudhanath.
"Again King Trison Detsen spoke to the Lotus Born Guru, "Great Guru, in the kaliyuga, the age of decadence and corruption, when the Voice of Buddha is a mere echo, will this Great Stupa, this Wish Fulfilling Gem, be destroyed or damaged? Will it decay? And if it is neglected or damaged what will be the portent of its ruin? What vice will corrupt this area of the transitory world? When the signs and omens are seen, what must be done?"
Guru Rinpoche replied, "Listen, Great King. The real perfection of this Great Stupa is indestructible, inviolate and incorruptible: it is inseparable from the Body of Infinite Simplicity of all the Buddhas. But the phenomenal fabric of the Great Stupa is perishable, a transitory form in a changing world, and it can be damaged by the four elements. The damage will be repaired by the incarnations of the Lords of the Three Families - Manjusri, Avalokitesvara, and Vajrapani - and the Wrathful Bhrikutis and Tara Devi." ... (continued)
Click here for further details and translation.
The stūpa is surrounded by numerous shops, restaurants and cafes.
In the immediate vicinity there are several major monasteries and shedra (colleges).
It was in front of the stūpa that I just happened to encounter an internet acquaintance whom I had never met in real life yet had been chatting with for some years on internet forums and then Facebook. I turned the corner on the walkway leading to the stūpa and there he was. If I had turned that corner five seconds later I would not have encountered him. I knew he was in Kathmandu, but we had yet to be in contact and he didn't know I was even coming. It was just like in Bodhgaya where I just happened to run into an old Buddhist friend from back home in Canada. I think this was more than mere chance. We had Italian food with his two colleagues and for the next week he told me all about living in Nepal and his experiences with Tibetan Buddhism.
On the other side of the city there is Swayambhu Stūpa which is famous for the resident monkeys who seem to own the place.
The stūpa is atop a mountain and it takes a few minutes to climb the stairs to the top.
The stūpa is surrounded by numerous smaller temples and shrines.
One also can find an aged Buddha statue of exquisite design:
There are also numerous merchants selling an array of merchandise:
Down the hill on the other side there are also three statues worth seeing:
Overall I found my stay in Kathmandu quite enjoyable. The Buddhist sites were of particular appeal to me and being able to meet some local monks was a memorable experience. Kathmandu is a large bustling city, but still has many places worth seeing scattered throughout the valley. The Boudha area is also notably different from Thamel. The latter is for general backpackers and tourists looking to shop. Boudha, while a popular tourist attraction, generally seems to attract Buddhist pilgrims more than anything else. Even the sign on the door in my hotel room made this clear: