Kathmandu – My Magical Mystery Tour

hare krishna hare krishna

krishna krishna hare hare

hare rama hare rama

rama rama hare hare

As a member of the flower-power generation who often listened to artists like the Beatles, George Harrison and Cat Stevens, I have long associated Kathmandu with mysticism and spirituality.

Arriving in Kathmandu on April 20, 2016, almost 50 years after John, Paul, George and Ringo, I had no idea what to expect.

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Final approach to Kathmandu.  Lyrics like “Kathmandu, I’ll soon be touching you” and “Roll up, roll up for the mystery tour” are running through my mind.

US citizens need a visa to enter Nepal.  The visa can be obtained on arrival.  So after deplaning I purchased a 15-day visa for $25 and was quickly processed through Nepal customs and immigration.

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Tribhuvan Airport International Terminal, Kathmandu, Nepal

There is no train service from the airport to the city.  Tribhuvan Airport is in the city.  Even though Kathmandu is a huge metropolis, having the county’s sole international airport within two miles of the city center is no problem since there are no high-rise structures in Kathmandu.

My hotel was in Thamel, the most popular tourist area in Kathmandu.  The Beatles stayed at the Kathmandu Guest House Hotel in Thamel.  “Freak Street” in Thamel is where hippies hung out in the 60s and 70s when hashish and cannabis were legal.

Right after my non-air-conditioned taxi left the airport, I was confronted with the first big culture shock.  Kathmandu is a large city (metro area over 2 million), so I had expected a lot of crowding on the roads.  The big surprise – there were no traffic lights.  Zero!  A handful of the busiest intersections had traffic cops.  Other than that it was every vehicle for itself.  There aren’t any accidents because driving fast is impossible.

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Everyone shares the roads

A few major four-lane roads had sidewalks.  The vast majority of streets, however, were extremely narrow, and pedestrians shared the roads with bicycles, motorbikes, cars and trucks.   That was a little unnerving at first.  I got more accustomed to it after walking around for a few days.  Even though Thamel is the main tourist district, westerners were few and far between.

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Typical Thamel street scene

I had booked a room with a king-size bed at the Royal Penguin Boutique and Spa Hotel.

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The Royal Penguin Hotel.  I didn’t know I’d be sharing the room.

The room had a private bath, good wifi, room service, and access to the hotel fitness center.  The cost was $50/night.  It was a very nice three or four star hotel.  Checking in I received another major shock when the desk clerk told me the power was out and that the power would be out citywide every day for around 10 -12 hours.  Shops, businesses and the front desk had generator power, but my room would be without electricity for long stretches each day.  The reason for no traffic lights was becoming clear.

There’s nothing you can do that can’t be done.

Nothing you can do that can’t be sung.

Nothing you can say

But you can learn how to play the game.

It’s easy.

Exploring Kathmandu 

Kathmandu is located in the Kathmandu Valley in central Nepal.  The city sits at an elevation of 4,600 feet above sea level.  Kathmandu has expanded and merged with adjoining municipalities to form a sprawling metropolis of over 2.5 million residents.

To see some of the sights, I arranged with a tour company for a private guide. My guide was an engineer who spoke very good English.  He said the money he made as a tour guide was more than he made as an engineer.

Patan Durbar Square

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Patan Durbar Square is a collection of palaces and temples built by the Newa people hundreds of years ago.  It is a UNESCO Heritage site.  There is a small entrance fee to enter.

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Palace at Patan Durbar Square housing the Patan Museum

The buildings were heavily damaged by the 7.8 magnitude earthquake on April 25, 2015.

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A damaged temple

In one of the former palaces the government was taking a collection to help restore the site.   Nepal will need considerable outside help to rebuild structures damaged in the quake.

The Patan Museum is located here.  It has Hindu and Buddhist art dating from the 7th century.  One area of the museum was collecting donations for the restoration.

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Paintings showing Durbar Square before and after the earthquake.

Nothing you can make that can’t be made

No one you can save that can’ be saved

Nothing you can do

But you can learn how to be you in time.

It’s easy.

Just outside the square a local rock band was putting on  concert to raise funds for reconstruction.

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Rock concert by local musicians.  The one-and-only Billy Shears?
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A street leading to Patan Durbar Square with beams used to support the buildings

The Living Goddess (Kumari)

A Living Goddess or Kumari is a young girl usually from the Shakya caste of the Newari ethnic group.  Potential candidates go through a rigorous selection process.  The selected girl is then subjected to secret purification rituals.  Once purified the spirit of the Hindu goddess Taleju (divine female energy or devi) enters the girl’s body and she becomes a Kumari.

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Entrance to the residence of the Kumari of Patan
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Kumari of Patan courtyard

 

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The Kumari of Patan, Unika Bajracharya

There are several Kumari in Nepal.  A Kumari is worshiped by Nepalese Hindus and Buddhists but not Tibetan Buddhists.  The Kumari of Patan is considered to be the second most important Living Goddess.

I made an offering of Nepalese rupees and was granted an audience with the Kumari.  She was sitting alone in a room with a concrete floor, a red-drape backdrop, an aromatic bouquet of fresh flowers, and a few small religious objects.   What to do?  I’d never met a Living Goddess.  My guide said that if I approached she would bless me.

I went forward and knelt.  The Kumari then put the red “fire eye” on my forehead.   During my visit the Kumari remained passive and silent.  I’m told that is a sign that my wishes will be granted.  So I’ve got that going for me :).

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The blessing of the Kumari

Nothing you can know that isn’t known.

Nothing you can see that isn’t shown.

There’s no where you can be

That isn’t where you were meant to be.  It’s easy

The Pushupatinath Temple and Bagmati River

Nepal is a very religious, Hindu country.  Finding beef is not easy.  It is the only country where I’ve found no American fast food restaurants.  That may be due as much to the economy as to religious restrictions.

For Hindus one of the holiest spots in Kathmandu is the Bagmati River and the Pushupatinath Temple complex.

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Pushupatinath Temple complex

This temple is Kathmandu’s oldest.  The principle deity is Shiva, one of three major deities of Hinduism.  This temple is also the home of the national deity, Lord Pushupatinath.  Non Hindus and even westerners who are Hindu may not enter the temple complex.

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Pushupatinath Temple Entrance

The Pushupatinath Temple sits on the banks of the sacred Bagmati River.

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Pushupatinath Temples (left) and Bagmati River

My Hindu guide stated that the Bagmati River was the holiest site in Hinduism for cremations. Hindus travel from great distances to be cremated here and have their ashes scattered in the waters.

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Cremation ceremony beside the Bagmati River
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Cremation at the Bagmati River

The Bagmati River in some places at the cremation site looks like little more than a polluted ditch. Yet ashes are scattered there, and mourners bathe or sprinkle river water on themselves for purification.

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Someone who has departed on their next magical mystery tour

The cremation workers are from the lowest caste in society.  Ironically, these are some of the highest paying jobs in Nepal.

There’s nothing you can do that can’t be done.

Nothing you can do that can’t be sung.

There’s nowhere you can be

That isn’t where you’re meant to be.  its easy.

Boudhanath Stupa

While Nepal is a country that is 90% Hindu, it also respects and adopts much of the Buddhist culture.  In addition to a historically indigenous Nepalese Buddhist population, since the Chinese invasion of neighboring Tibet in 1959, each year a significant number of Tibetan Buddhists flee to Nepal.

Boudhanath Stupa is a Buddhist temple built in the 14th century.  It is said to be the holiest Buddhist temple outside of Tibet.20160421_141708

The stupa had been damaged in the earthquake and was undergoing repairs.

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The stupa roof with scaffolding

The day I visited was a festival day and the Stupa grounds were crowded.  20160421_145044_resized

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The festival pertained to remembering and celebrating departed ancestors.  I bought some rice from a monk and had him say a few prayers on my behalf.

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Monk offering prayers

The ground level wall of the stupa had prayer wheels that stretched around the whole base of the stupa.  Worshipers spun the wheels and left rice as they prayed.

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Prayer wheels

Life in Kathmandu and Nepal is heavily influenced by religion.  Hinduism is clearly the primary religion although Hindus are strongly influenced by Buddhism and vice versa.

Wrap Up

The religions of Kathmandu are extremely complex with detailed stories about multiple gods and goddesses often with multiple names and incarnations.  Much too much for me to learn in a few days of touring.  If anyone has the time and the interest to really learn about Buddhism and Hinduism, there are schools offering courses for the curious.

While my trip to Nepal and the blessing of the Kumari failed to bestow true enlightenment, it was a great experience and brought insight into a culture I had not known before.

How is your magical mystery tour?

Other posts about this trip:

Qatar Airways A350 Businesss Class, Philadelphia to Doha

Qatar Business Class Lounge and Qatar Airways A330 Business Class to Kathmandu

Everest Flight from Kathmandu

Annapurna Trail Trek

Ethiad A320 Business Class Kathmandu to Abu Dhabi

Ethiad 777-200 First Class Abu Dhabi to Dallas

Royal Penguin Boutique Hotel and Spa Kathmandu, Nepal

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