Monday, December 12, 2016

Nepal postscript

Upon returning home from Nepal I got together with my friend Ben to compare notes. He had some hilariously effective solutions to the ever-present gringo-pricing dilemma that I faced. Here are his recommended haggling techniques:

  • Go into a store and tell them you're a wholesaler. See if they can give you a good deal on a thousand scarves or twenty thangka at once.
  • Ask for something plainly not in the store. Say, " I would pay anything for a ______."
  • When waiting for an airport cab tell them that you will pay $4 and whoever catches you gets the fare. Start walking.
  • Just wait. You have all the time in the world for a $5 sweater. Wait and wait.
Let me know if you try any of these ideas or your own tried and true solutions!

Nepal - Kathmandu - the end

At our dinner, Ambika arranged that she would pick me up on her way to the airport and drop me at Bodanath. I was waiting in the sun (early, because I never learn) at the chosen corner when this car came roaring over the curb and onto the sidewalk and Ambi opened the door and waved me in, almost without stopping. We set off through rush hour traffic to stop 15 minutes later at what looked like a random store in the continuous strip mall that is the outer city. Saying good bye to Ambika I saw that to the left was a gate that opened into a wide courtyard dominated by a large white stupa, the structure around which Buddhists walk (clockwise of course) to worship. Surrounding the courtyard are quaint multi-storied stores and restaurants. It's like a Tibetan Disneyland.

I was immediately approached by a VERY close-talking man who offered to be my guide for $10. He is the first person in Nepal who made me feel genuinely uncomfortable and I considered paying him an extra $5 just to stand further away. He took me to three monasteries (the first time I am allowed to take photos inside), a thanka-painting workshop (which given my last experience I clarify before entering that I have no interest in making a purchase), and  a small shrine. He told me nothing I don't know already and I was glad to get rid of him but sad about the waste of money -- I could have bought like 30 momos instead!

I walked my three rounds of the stupa and ducked into a restaurant for a lassi. Sitting next to a group of older French tourists I hear their guide refer to momos as Chinese ravioli which cracks me up -- but then again I don't know the word for dumpling in French either.

I took the opportunity to look in my Lonely Planet for directions to Pashupatinath, the holiest Hindu site in Kathmandu. Ambika had given me the sage advice to just yell my intended location every once in a while to see where people point me. I countered that I can barely pronounce Pashupatinath. She then suggested that I try to choose people who look like they might speak English. Sigh. Lonely Planet directions are also charmingly misleading. Anyway, I walked in a straight line for 20 minutes until I saw a river which I assumed was the one I'm meant to cross. I saw neither hide not hair of a "well sign-posted tree temple." In fairness, a lot has changed since my edition of LP was written; it still thinks Nepal is a monarchy. I wandered around among some structures looking for the bridge encountering a man washing himself in the river, a young woman exhorting her toddler to say hello to me, and several monkeys. I really don't like monkeys.

Upon crossing the bridge, I encountered a lone man who tells me that it's $10 to enter the temple. No kiosk, no sign, just a peanut seller and a man in an oft-repaired uniform with a plastic bag full of tickets. My concerns are only assuaged when he takes out a rubber stamp. No con man would be so official right?

I wandered in, taking photos of structures that I only understand after a tour guide takes me around the site for a second time.
The holy Bagmati river where funerals are held. By the bridge is where important people are cremated and closer to me are where less important families hold ceremony. My guide appreciated that I didn't take ridiculous amounts of photos here

As a non-Hindu I was not allowed to enter the main temple but this
photo represents the workaround for tourists

15 votive shrines, the Pandra Shivalaya, which my guide told me conferred fertility upon the visitor.

Niches where acetics meditate
My guide also told me not to look monkeys in the eye if I didn't want to get attacked. After showing me around and giving me such useful advice he asked for a fee. I told him I could pay $10 because that's what I paid the last guide. He said that he normally got $30. I said I only had $15 and he then asked me for sweets or food for his children. I was steamed but I gave him those Nature Valley granola bars that taste like cardboard. Sorry kids.

Travelling alone and a lack of previous knowledge in a country with suddenly very few tourists put me at the mercy of price-setters. In general, while travelling I suck up the possibility that I might be overpaying because in the grand scheme of things it's never too much money, especially in a poor country but on my day in the two holiest sites in Nepal I felt cheated and angry (and I went back to the hotel to find that I had to negotiate that price too!)

So the next day, I just didn't want to deal with that so I spent the day at attractions with set admissions and no need for guides.

First I went to the Narayanthiti Palace Museum where I am so sad that I wasn't allowed to take photos especially as my notes are sketchy:

  • moth balls on the floor
  • hunting trophies galore especially elephant foot side tables
  • throne room with tapeworm type structures
  • dark panelling. marble, slate, parquet, tile
  • each room named after one of 75 districts
  • small room = earthquake proof 

Then I moseyed to the Garden of Dreams where Nepali teens come to take selfies and European tourists fall asleep on provided cushions to the soothing sounds of hocked lugies. It was actually quite pretty:

After a nap of my own, I headed to the airport for the long journey home. Funnily enough, I flew home with the same ladies I had arrived with! Last anecdote: on my last leg of the trip a man on my flight was being very rude to the flight attendant, citing that he had been travelling for 24 hours. I piped up that I still managed to be polite despite going on 30.

Nepal - Kathmandu trek - Nagarkot to Bhaktapur

The next day it was fairly obvious that the blister situation was untenable. My feet didn't even really fit into running shoes. It was sort of embarrassing because I'm not a complete noob and I had worn these boots long distance before but my feet were swollen into oblivion so the guide and I decided to take a bus to Bhaktapur. However, the bus schedule was such that it would be faster walking most of the way. We meandered through several small towns stopping in each to check the bus schedule but we were still ahead. Eventually we stopped for tea and the delay put us at a bus stop at a time when there would be a vehicle. We hopped on and I fell immediately asleep, which I only considered a potentially bad idea once I woke up.

We were dropped outside of the Bhaktapur Durbar Square, the administrative center of town, and got me all settled in the Sunny Guest House which doubles as a wooden carving store. Fulla and I then walked around town, taking bad photos, and had snacks in Nyatapola cafe, a roof top cafe with a view of the square which was particularly vertigo-inducing as the seats are right on the edge of the balcony...and post-earthquake all the buildings are held up with wooden posts.

bad tourist photo!
The view from the Cafe

Fulla and I chatted about how he had thought I was on a gap year before college (so flattering!), how his wife was a grad student in Colorado, and how the guide at the table behind us was trying to sell drugs to his client while ascertaining if Australians "have sex like Americans." I also learned that Argentineans are still bitter over Nepali Gurkhas' participation in the Falkland War.  Then I sadly said goodbye as my crew returned to Kathmandu. after agonizing, of course, over what would be an appropriate tip. I think I missed the mark by a lot.

While I hobbled around that afternoon I saw some of the efforts being made to restore the temples, houses, and the art museum.

It's a never-ending battle methinks; while lying in bed at 8PM I felt a teensy tiny earthquake!

The next morning, fortified by a delicious breakfast in bed (because the rooftop restaurant was not earthquake safe), I set out for a morning of tourism. My first stop was the national art museum. Like much of Nepal it had inconsistent electricity and was earthquake-damaged but had a heart of valuable an interesting religious works. Because the ticket was also good for the woodworking and metalworking museums, I headed there. I got lost of course but in the process wandered into a woodworker's shop and a paper-making factory.
These guys are actually making keychains.

Also known as D. papyracea

They assured me it was earthquake safe...but fires?
Hand printed...
...or machine printed?
Then I wandered to the only coffee shop in all of Nepal, an expat-owned, surprisingly cozy nook of the city under a pomelo tree. They didn't have any tea! Can you imagine! Instead, I chatted with the proprietor over wafer cookies and he gave me infallible advice, "Don't step on any carpets in the street. You will fall to certain death."

So informed, I went plazearing. As you may remember from your Bolivia vocabulary, the Spanglish "to plazear" is the act of sitting in a public space and people watching. One may read, write, chat with locals, eat, and/or drink but in general the activity implied by plazearing is free, unstructured, and intensely lazy. I suppose in Nepal it would be called "temple-ing." Especially because I chose to sit here:

I was immediately approached by a potential tour guide/love interest. He said that he had noticed me the day before but didn't want to impinge on my guide. He was surprisingly uncreepy and when he learned that I spoke Spanish he immediately handed me his notebook. (This bonding over vocabulary nerdiness happens frequently.) I gently and truthfully extricated myself from the conversation by saying that I was meeting friends in Kathmandu for dinner.

I didn't really have a good idea of where the buses left from, how many stops it would be, how long it would take, where they arrived in Kathmandu, or how much it should cost. As such, I told the attendant that I wanted to get off in the Thamel. He came to collect money but didn't take mine. We stopped a few times and at one place, sat quite a while. Most, but not all, of the people got off the bus and some new people got on. As we sat there, I began to get nervous. I turned to the person next to me and asked where she was going. She answered, "Bhaktapur." Evidently we had arrived in Kathmandu and were heading back soon. I got off the bus, went up to the driver (who spoke no Englsh) and indignantly yelled "Dude! What the hell?!" He doubled over laughing and I stormed off. I got a free bus ride for his stupid joke.

I also wasn't sure how to get from the bus depot to my hotel but my faith in humanity was restored when I asked a pedicabber and he told me I was three blocks away and gave me directions instead of extorting me for a ride.

That night I had a lovely dinner with my Yale girls and they suggested several things to do in my last two days in Nepal. Unsurprisingly most of them involved nice places to sit and read with a cup of tea. They know me so well!

This last picture represents how I felt in the lovely city of Bhaktapur:

Nepal - Kathmandu valley - Dhulikel to Nagarkot

The next morning I woke up to a distinct lack of beautiful mountain views but some pretty considerable fog in which I enjoy my first cup of tea.

As we set out I reflected that I lucked out in my selection of guide and porter and I hope they feel that they've lucked out with me: perfectly ok with companionable silence and not whining despite having three of the largest blisters known to man. (My guide is missing an entire toenail and hiking in sandals so he gets it.)

All day we hiked up goat paths and through people's yards, stopping for tea, and chilling with the kidlets. I was not super hungry all day and this was frustrating to everyone. Nothing much "happened' but it was a lovely gimpy day.

A swing of sorts in a tiny village. The guy in blue is my guide Fulla. Note his sandals.
Our trekking route.

Tea shop. Will I get parasites?

Hiking back down to Nagarkot through glades of pine trees.

A gravity station.  Google says "the observation tower and fundamental geodetic stations within the premises was misused by the picnic-goers from Kathmandu city and it was converted into merry making place, especially on Saturdays." I can vouch for that. Makeout central

At this house we were beset upon by women selling small trinkets.
If I gave you coin purse for Christmas, know that it was purchased here.

Traditional process for making rice wine. It did not look particularly hygienic and gave me insight into why "I died" in Bhutan"

Marigolds and mustard!

A small hillside temple as we came into Nagarkot

That evening, after five cups of tea in one day I ordered a hot cocoa just to be contrary. And although I still wasn't eating much, the same can't be said about the mouse in my room who destroyed all of my granola bars. And spoiler alert: the sunrise view of the Himalayas was another morning of stunning fog.

Nepal - Kathmandu Valley - Panauti to Dhulikel

It was recently brought to my attention that I never actually published this post and the ones that follow. This is embarrassing particularly because I wrote them last year. Ah well, better late than never

When I was searching for a hotel in Nepal I inquired about the possibilities of going on a trek, Due to the fuel crisis and the fact that I was travelling alone, I was a little nervous about venturing far and wide in Nepal. However, I definitely wanted to do some trekking, scope the Himalayas, and see some farming communities. The hotels I spoke to said, somewhat unreassuringly, that I could set up a trek once I arrived. I wanted a teensy bit more lead time so while in Bhutan I scoped out the one and only Nepal trekking company mentioned in Lonely Planet and lo and behold Wayfarers had a compromise for me: a Kathmandu Valley Trek. And indeed, they had spaces (all the spaces really) available for the next week. (This is not commonplace as it turns out. It's my understanding that normally these treks fill up months in advance but Nepal is really suffering for lack of tourists. So just be warned, I'm not sure for how much longer you'll be able to just wing it.)

Upon arriving at the hotel, I was immediately set upon by their in-house travel agent who set out two options which seemed poorly thought out and slightly creepy (much like the rest of their hotel): no flex time for travel emergencies, not knowing the guide's name, lack of any sort of set prices, etc. As I was gently extricating myself from the negotiations, it somehow came up in conversation that I live in which point the guy at the next table jumped in. Turns out that this guy, a reporter in Georgia (the country) but with Ukraine as his beat, has a house in my neighborhood! As he sucked down the ten plates of food in front of him (I thought he was high but he said he never got good food so he always ordered a lot. I still think he was high because Georgian food is fabu and this hotel food was some of the worst I had on my whole trip) he warned me away from the hotel's travel agency. Armed with this second opinion, I braved the Thamel to visit Wayfarers.

I walked past it three times. It didn't bode well for my trekking ability.

The office was almost completely empty with four abandoned desks and in a separate room one man on the phone. This man, Rajeev, was the smoothest salesman I had encountered since the mandala shop. It must have been his deep, liquid voice...because his smile prominently lacked a tooth and his hands were adorned with rings that immediately bring to mind mafia dons and used car salesmen. In his sing-song Nepali accent he described centuries' old temples, exploring Newari towns steeped in tradition, and hiking along pine ridges with spectacular mountain and valley views from both sides. He did not, however, mention trash heaps, fog, blisters, or living in fear of amoebic dysentery...but I will!

At 8 the next morning, I was met at my hotel by Fulla the guide and a porter who's name I never caught -- a situation that became increasingly more embarrassing to rectify as this guy carried my dirty undies across hill and vale for me. I always find porter situation distressingly awkward but in this case moreso because 1. It's a three day trip. I really only need one change of clothing but 2. due to  a lack of storage at the hotel, I am making this poor man carry some items that I will never use/wear, and 3. I have three books because I'm a sadist.

We set out in a van through what seemed like a never-ending Kathmandu to disembark an hour later in Panauti. (I was told that the drive was short because due to the fuel crisis, there was no traffic.) After grabbing some bananas, we walked fast through the town to a Hinfu temple situated where three rivers meet. Fulla pointed out where bodies are burned before being scattered in the river.

We sprinted on to a small village where we stopped for tea, I peed, and I was stung by a bee. All distinct incidents. Continuing on, I got my first view of rice paddies. (First time in Asia, what can I say?!) At this point of the year (November) the farmers were harvesting and threshing their crop using a foot-pedaled  machine. They told me that they can do one field per hour and that the work is done communally; each family works in the others' fields. No one seems to mind overmuch that I'm standing in their field taking photos but then again my Nepali doesn't extend to "Who is that woman and what is she doing?" This nonchalance is good though because we basically spend the whole day (and the next three) cutting through people's fields and traipsing past their houses and corrals and no one blinks an eye or sets their dog on us. 

Then we started heading uphill. I'm not sure if my guide always hikes this slowly but we were taking baby steps. The path wasn't steep but even at the valley altitude of 2000masl my heart rate was surprisingly high. I've lost my big Bolivian red blood cells! 

Around noon we arrived to a tiny shrine and I think uncharitably that the entire country is a bust -- especially because we stopped for all of five seconds. But I misunderstand: our destination of Namo Buddha is further on. NamoBuddha is a stupa and monastery that is important primarily to Tibetan Buddhist. (Keep in mind that Tibet is a mere 60km away!) because it is the location that the Buddha came across a tiger and her starving cubs and sacrificed himself to them.  I find this particularly interesting because this is the exact same precarious situation the Buddha found himself in in Bhutan. You'd think he'd be better at avoiding hungry she-cats.

Since we arrived at lunch time all of the baby monks were either eating or playing soccer. Fulla convinced someone to let us in the temple anyway. (I'll say it again: slip-on footwear is the most appropriate for temple-hopping.) Honestly, I thought it was the most beautiful temple I had been in and it felt familiar and church-like because it had rows of benches and cushions for meditating monks. Later, we descended to a cafe which wasn't serving food yet but which gave us the opportunity to look out over the valley and watch the monks play soccer int he courtyard below. Fulla gave me bananas and boiled eggs because he evidently has ample experience with hangry American tourists. Lunch, when it was finally served, was noodle soup which I mention only because when I bit into a carrot that was so tender and sweet I made an audibly appreciative noise which I felt I had to explain, "best carrot ever."

Fortified spiritually and physically we continued to hike, ending our day with climbing down 1000 stairs to the town of Dhulikel. (No, I didn't count the stairs, I was told later how many there were. Ok, I did count the stairs but I didn't start until we had already been walking for a while so I only got up to 187). We ate a delicious buffet style dinner and retired with the promise of a spectacular sunrise over the Himalayas.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Tiger's Nest Monastery

On out last full day in Paro, we hiked up to Tiger's Nest Monastery (Taktsang). This spot was where the Buddha first arrived in Bhutan on a flying tiger. It is a holy place for Tibetan Buddhists and the site of many a pilgrimage. A monastery built into the side of a cliff, it has become quite a tourist attraction as well. And the hike has evidently been recently improved with the installment of railings on the thousand stairs. Evidently there had been some 'incidents' with clumsy people and overzealous picture takers. In fact, we had to swear to Kunzang that we would be careful on our hike and she called several times to remind us of our solemn vow.

The hike is about three hours up but if you are weak-kneed or weak-willed you can take a burro up the first half. Interestingly, on the way up we ran into Michael Rutland, an Oxford professor who was the 4th King's science tutor and is now honorary consul and famed television personality (a sort of Bhutanese Bill Nye). He told us that this was about his nth trip up to the monastery including one trip with Prince Charles who hiked well although his bodyguards suffered.

We followed him for a bit and then continued on, taking photos and not falling off cliffs all the while:

The monastery was originally built in the 1600s but has been rebuilt several times. Buddhists, in fact, feel that rebirth and rebuilding are necessary as structures are temporal yet the ideas that they represent are immortal. Upon arrival, all visitors must remove their hats and shoes and store their backpacks and cameras. We explored the different temples and took a few moments to meditate before heading back down from 10,000ft. Apparently many people have spiritually transformative moments in the monastery (including this National Geographic correspondent). I'm glad I wasn't aware of this before going because I would have been disappointed by my lack of enlightenment.

Perhaps next time.