Friday, 11 May 2007

First impressions from Nepal: People and Places of Kathmandu

In March I was forced to leave India to apply for a new Indian visa, which can only be done outside the country's borders. For a number of reasons I chose the Himalayan Kingdom of Nepal as the venue for this: It is close to India, I had never been there before, and me and Susanna had long talked about going (she would join up with me later).

Normally I start my posts with a picture of some building or landscape which defines a place, but for Kathmandu I have decided to start with a few portraits before I move on to the historical heritage. I think this guy defines Nepal brilliantly. His amazing face is old and tough , wrinkled and weathered just like Nepal and he wears the typical cap, which most old Nepali men wear.

In the other end of the age scale, here is a look at Nepal's future. Hopefully it will be as pretty and happy as these two smiling girls. Things are definitely going the right way, after the reinstatement of Democracy, side tracking of the dictatorial King and negotiated peace between the political parties and the Marxist rebels. Not everything is all rosy, but much better than just 1-2 years ago.

Another two girls willingly posing for me. Nepal is a country of many beautiful faces.

Now, to Nepal's amazing historical and archaeological heritage. Central in the picture you see the majestic Taleju Temple on Kathmandu's Durbar (Palace) Square. It was a dark and cloudy day, but suddenly the sky clear up just enough for the sun's golden rays to fall almost magically on Taleju Temple, while the rest of the Square remained in the shadows.

In another part of Durbar Square (it is actually three rather loosely connected squares) you see the old Royal Palace from the outside. The Royal Palace (also known as Hanuman Dhoka after the Hindu Monkey God) used to be absolutely gigantic but a big share of it was destroyed in an apocalyptic earthquake in 1934. Allegedly about 2/3 of the palace was lost at that time.

A view from inside the palace onto, Nasal Chowk, the largest of the palace's remaining ten chowks (courtyards). These white and black buildings are the newest part of the palace, built in the 19th century. This courtyard is where the Nepali Kings are crowned, although that tradition could fade, as Nepal is contemplating becoming a republic.

A view to the west from the tallest tower of the Palace. Notice the man standing on top of the roof! He was standing there for a long time on the ridge of the rooftop. Any wrong step would plunge him 4+ stories down to the ground. Occasionally he would move around a couple of tiles, so apparently he was there to fix the roof, although most of the time he was just standing. Not exactly work conditions that would be tolerated back in Denmark. Notice also the hilltop in the left side of the picture. Next picture shows a close up of that hill.

This is the famous Buddhist Swayambhunath Temple, also known as the Monkey Temple. I didn't actually find the time to go there, but seen from far away it looks very imposing on it's own hill top.

A really cool mask shop in Durbar Square. Sure, it's there for the sake of the tourists, but it still easily beats most normal, tacky souvenir shops for authenticity and ambience.

Still in Durbar Square you here see a wonderful relief image of Bhairab, who is the most vicious incarnation of Shiva. In the background there are several smaller temples in traditional red-brick with wooden roof and frame architectural style of the Newaris, who are the ethnic group dominating the Kathmandu Valley. Durbar Square is absolutely filled with history everywhere you look. Whereas Durbar Square is the undisputed historical highlight of Kathmandu, the great thing about this city is that history is very well preserved everywhere. In fact Nepal in general seems much better than India at preserving its cities' living historical heritage. Everywhere you look some old building has been preserved, and many new buildings are made with respect for the old styles, as opposed to India where horrendous, concrete cubes are the norm these days.

Another great feature of Kathmandu are all the large courtyards surrounded by residential buildings. Everywhere you go you can catch glimpses of these lost, isolated worlds through the smaller lanes leading out to the main roads. Often these courtyards will host stupas (buddhist monuments) such as the ones you see here, or other historical monuments.

This corner shop may not look like anything special, but I think this picture neatly sums up many typical features of Nepal. Firstly the way the old sections of the cities have these tiny little houses with tiny shops having tiny doors and tiny windows. It really is tiny. Secondly you see the wonderful importance of wood, a feature sadly lacking in India, perhaps due to differences in climate. Even tiny little houses such as this has richly decorated woodwork (second floor). Thirdly notice the little communist flag hanging on the building. Marxists have a very strong presence in the country, and many places they convince or coerce people to hang their flags out to show. A funny historical side note is that this little house was allegedly the first in all of Nepal to have glass windows. I don't know if the glass is still the same today.

A building in the middle of Kathmandu with cow stables in the ground floor and residential area upstairs.

Shadow play in a Temple Hallway.

Thamel, Kathmandu. This is the seductive traveller's district in Kathmandu. Unlike India you can very cheaply get Western food of international quality here. They also have high quality trekking gear, bars, pubs, massage for weary trekkers and everything a traveller could need. It is very far ahead of India in terms of accommodating to the wishes of travellers. Of course it doesn't really feel much like Nepal, but it is just a 15 minute walk from Durbar Square.

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