Sunday, September 30, 2012

A new stamp in the passport

2,000 miles from KL: Here's Kathmandu from the air
It's a bit shameful, really. I've now been here in Malaysia for a surprising four years, and though I've certainly traveled around a fair bit, I've only managed to add one new country to my passport that wasn't already there before I moved to KL, and that's Thailand, a country I've now visited six times, I believe. Last week, that changed as I finally added a new country to my soon-to-expire passport: Nepal.

Malaysian dancers on hand to perform at the
gala dinner hosted jointly by the
Malaysian and Nepali Tourism Boards
Malaysia Airlines just launched its thrice-weekly service to Kathmandu, and I was invited along for the inaugural flight and all the commensurate pomp and circumstance that accompanied it. This was much more than just a new flight route; it was a major opening of trade and tourism channels between Malaysia and Nepal, so both countries really worked hard to make it a great event.

 As for me, I was thrilled to get the chance to experience firsthand the amazing twin landscapes of Nepal: the cultural and the geographical. The landlocked nation is justly famous for them both. Of course, Nepal is probably most well-known as the home of Mt. Everest, but it's also recognized as the birthplace of Lord Buddha.

Amid the omnipresent rubble, workers carry their
baskets to one of their seemingly endless demolition sites
Women load the baskets, which
are supported solely by the head
and neck, with bricks to be
cleaned and reused
It was quite a rush as our plane descended into the bowl-shaped Kathmandu Valley, ringed by four major mountain ranges... a whole new place, a new experience. We stepped out onto the tarmac and as we made our way into the airport, wow... well, let's just say there wasn't much doubt we were in a third-world country. This perception was only heightened as we made our way to the hotel. Nepal, isolated by rugged geography and possessing limited natural resources, has long been a country beset by poor infrastructure and fairly extreme poverty. Much of that is clearly on display. Just along the street on which our hotel was located, they were working on widening the road, but with labor so cheap, it makes more economic sense to do the work by hand than to pay to bring in heavy equipment, so buildings are being gutted, reduced in size, or sometimes razed altogether... all by hand. Men and women with sledgehammers and chisels, carrying away rubble and bricks in rattan baskets. Workers painstakingly chip away the dried mortar from bricks because, even though it takes hours, it's more cost-effective than crushing the bricks and remaking them. It's frightful how little the average worker in Nepal makes – in local currency, it's about 6,000 Nepalese Rupees per month, which is equivalent to US$69. And that's for a month's worth of hard work, too, often 12 or so hours a day with no weekends, no holidays, no medical benefits. To say that a trip to Kathmandu puts my own life in perspective is an understatement. Nepal ranks 161st out of 180 countries in terms of wealth (per capita GDP PPP). Even Bangladesh is a full 10 spots higher on the list. To put it in real perspective, it takes the average Nepalese worker over three years to earn what his American counterpart will earn in one month.

A body being prepared for cremation on the
banks of the Bagmati River, Pashupatinath
The cultural landscape, however, was quite different from the economic one. The rich history of Hinduism and Buddhism have filled the country with temples, festivals, rituals, and a great tapestry of bright colors, seemingly at every turn. The first holy site we visited was the great Hindu temple and grounds of Pashupatinath, one of the most venerated Hindu temples in the world. The temple is dedicated to an incarnation of the Lord Shiva called Pashupati, the lord of the animals, and is situated on the banks of the Bagmati River, considered a holy river. Although only born Hindus are permitted to enter the actual temple, the rest of us could wander the grounds freely, as well as view the temple from across the river. Next to the temple itself are ten open-air crematorial platforms where the deceased, wrapped in cloth, are ceremonially burned as is obligatory in Hinduism, then swept away into the fast-flowing waters of the Bagmati. Far downstream from Pashupatinath, the Bagmati joins the mighty Ganges River, and ultimately drains into the Bay of Bengal. On the morning we visited, a body was being prepared for cremation by the riverside. Family members drew water from the river and splashed themselves with it as the men prepared the kindling and tinder to ignite the blaze. Just steps away from the temple, a centuries-old hospice stands. Our guide told us that many Hindus, as they grow old, will make plans to enter the hospice at the end of their lives, awaiting death on the banks of the holy Bagmati, and will not only end their mortal life there, but in cremation, take their place in the next life from a sacred and auspicious portal. Though all of the activity underway there – and there was a lot of it – was obviously quite lost on me, Pashupatinath was admittedly a special place.

A Tibetan family visiting Boudhanath
I also got to visit Boudhanath, a large Buddhist stupa on the northeastern outskirts of Kathmandu. This was a very enjoyable stop, as the 36-meter high stupa, built over 1,500 years ago, is surrounded by a ring of shops, galleries, and restaurants, giving the UNESCO Heritage Site a very "town square" feel -- though in a circular shape. The dominant culture here is Himalayan/Tibetan, and we saw a number of maroon-clad Tibetan monks on and around the stupa, including some teenage boys posing "gangsta-style" and snapping photos with their digital cameras, which was a rather humorous juxtaposition of the traditional and the modern.

The 36-meter high stupa at Boudhanath, festooned with
Buddhist prayer flags
One of the fascinating things we saw there was a shop selling nothing but Tibetan singing bowls, which have been made in the region for centuries. The bowls are actually considered standing bells, and are certainly correctly called musical instruments. The craftsmanship of some of these bowls, particularly the larger ones, was remarkable. Though the word on the street (which we heard repeatedly) was that the bowls were made from "seven different metals," a bit of research upon my return suggested that's nothing more than urban legend. The bowls have actually been found to be made from an alloy of copper and tin, more commonly known as bronze, which is the top alloy of choice for fine musical instruments, so I'm not sure where the story about seven metals originated. I guess the marketing wisdom is that if two metals are outstanding, well... seven metals must be even better!

"And on top of all that, you won't find a better salad bowl!"
The shop we spent some time in was manned by two local guys who were keen to show us pretty much every bowl in the place, but they were pretty charming, so we played along. One of the girls in my group good-naturedly let them put a huge bowl on her head, then set it to "singing" while she assumed a meditative pose. Not sure what healing effect this was supposed to have rendered to her, but since she didn't leave with a ringing headache, we all considered the effort a success. As the young guys shared with us, the finest singing bowls are handmade and usually have a dimpled, hammered finish and produce a rich vibrating tone as you lightly strike the rim of the bowl with a mallet. As you continue to draw the mallet around the outside rim of the bowl, the intensity of the harmonic overtones swells and the distinctive "singing" sound is produced. These bowls are used primarily in meditation rituals, but also for "sound healing" purposes, as the vibration is purported to have some sort of restorative effect on the body. I was so fascinated by these instruments, I bought a small one for myself. It's not a top-quality handmade bowl, but rather a machine-lathed bowl (made from a brass alloy rather than a bronze alloy) likely churned out for the tourist trade, but that's fine; it's a beautiful souvenir and was quite inexpensive.

A brilliant palette of natural pigments
Apart from the singing bowls, an artist's gallery was another favorite shop of mine where Nepalese and Tibetan women sat in the gallery, mixing pigments and working on their paintings. We also ate while we were at Boudhanath, and I'd say everyone's favorite food was the ubiquitous "momo," a steamed dumpling filled with bits of yak or buffalo meat, vegetables, and spices like garlic, ginger, and coriander. Absolutely mouthwatering! I've been on the hunt for a Nepalese restaurant in KL since I got back, hoping to find these little bite-sized parcels locally.

A painter at work
The next day, however, was probably the best. The first half of the day was spent at what was probably my overall favorite heritage site visited on the trip, Bhaktapur Durbar Square. The town of Bhaktapur is about 15km or so east of Kathmandu, and the complex we spent the morning at was just a stunning display of centuries-old workmanship... temples, halls, intricate wood and stone carvings. Most of Bhakpatur's gems fell victim to a massive earthquake in 1934, but the surviving structures have done very well in the intervening decades. One pavilion of particular prurient interest was the "Kama Sutra Temple," although that's not its proper name. On each of 24 struts supporting the main roof, six to a side, various sexual poses are depicted, each naughtier and more graphic than the last. I'd consider it a personal victory to see a passel of hyper-conservative American women stumbling upon this temple and going into apoplectic fits of propriety, clutching their pearls and muttering about those heathen 17th-century sexual deviants.

One of the many impressive temples
at Durbar Square
But seriously, if you ever find yourself in Kathmandu, make a point of seeking out Bhaktapur. There are parts of it which weren't so enjoyable, overrun by tourist shops and the like, but apart from that, the whole of Bhaktapur is fantastic, including Durbar Square, and the amazing Potter's Square, which is run by farmers who make and sell scores of clay pots to supplement their meager incomes during lean agricultural times.

One of several owls keeping a close
eye on us as we made our way through
the temples and buildings at Bhaktapur
Memorably, we also sort of picked up two boys on our meandering way through Bhaktapur. They were both 13, but one, named Rasmundar, looked all of about 8 or 9. What was odd is that the young-looking one never asked for money or anything, either directly or indirectly. He just wanted to accompany us and show us things. He's actually the one who pointed out the owls nesting in the bricks that you see here. The other boy, Bikesh, not only looked older than 13 (and may well have been), he was also a bit more forward, asking me to buy him a dictionary to help him translate Nepalese to English. Well, this is a pretty common scam in poor countries. The unsuspecting tourist, thinking he's helping a deserving and eager-to-learn local child, is taken to a select bookstore, buys a grossly overpriced dictionary, then, as soon as the tourist leaves, the book is returned and the proceeds split between the child and the store owner. I didn't go along with the dictionary request, but in the end, I just gave all the remaining Nepalese Rupees I had in my wallet, plus a couple of RM5 notes, as well, to these two boys. It wasn't a lot – probably amounted to less than US$10-15 total – but they definitely appreciated it.

Rasmundar, one of the boys who latched
onto our group at Bhaktapur

Bikesh telling us something about the building here

So I'll stop here and throw some photos in, then will write part two for the next entry. "Nepal: The Sequel." That part will include more about Bhaktapur, stories of the food we sampled, and all the details of our foray into the foothills of the Himalayas. No, I did not scale Everest; no, I did not do any real trekking; and no, I did not see a yeti. I did, however, take about 400 photos during my short time in Nepal, but of course, only a fraction are really good, and even fewer are suitable for the blog, but I'll put in as many as I can! Stay tuned...

Street scene from the east side of Kathmandu
An elderly Nepalese woman in a
pensive moment near the Bagmati River
An elaborately carved door at the complex of
Pashupatinath temple

Nothing really extraordinary about this photo,
taken near Pashupatinath;
I just liked the colors and composition :)
A devotee at Pashupatinath temple

A shopkeeper takes a break beneath the intricately
carved woodwork adorning the windows of a gift shop
at Boudhanath

A snapshot of the circle around the stupa at Boudhanath;
this place had such a great feel to it – really an enjoyable visit

A Tibetan monk standing outside an ornate building –
I think it was a guesthouse – at Boudhanath

Potter's Square at Bhaktapur
Click here to read part 2 of the Nepal entry. :)