How can you tell when a Nepali travel agent is lying to you?
His lips are moving.
Try as I might; I could not get a clear idea of what the situation was like up in Lukla, the airstrip closest to Everest. I talked to my hotel’s travel agent in Kathmandu. He reported that everything in Lukla was fine and that I should buy my ticket as quickly as possible before they sold out. I held off. I went out to the airport the next morning when the Lukla flights were scheduled to arrive in Kathmandu. It was a hot mess. Passengers from Lukla reported two to five day waits for flights, sudden cancellations, Lukla hotels gouging trapped tourists with doubled rates and food shortages. So much for Everest. You do what you can do and then move on.
Back at the hotel I threw the travel agent the bird. Fly that Bozo.
We booked flights for India departing on May 27th. We looked for something to do in the meantime and decided to do a night in Bharaktupur just outside Kathmandu. Known for it’s old architecture, traditional culture and high ticket prices how could we say no?
Our original plan was to take a taxi downtown and catch the public bus there for 50 Rupee each for the one hour ride which would have cost us a total of $4 but after speaking with our very astute taxi driver we decided to cab it the entire way for $9 total. Fought traffic and arrived an hour after we set off. The public bus would have taken at least two hours. Taxis are not allowed in the old city so our cab dropped us at the West gate. There we were met with a sign which read: Entry ticket 1,500 Rupee or $15 US. Another no-brainer as the exchange rate is 93 Rupee per Dollar so paying in American currency is cheaper than paying in Rupee except that suddenly the ticket seller cannot accept US currency. First he tells me that he can’t make change in dollars so I tell him to make the change in Rupee. Then he states that he doesn’t have any of the ‘Special’ dollar denominated tickets behind the counter (there is no such ticket) and advises me that I have to pay in Rupee and that I can exchange my Dollars right across the street at a shop offering 3 Rupee below the official bank-rate. The whole thing is a scam. The ticket seller takes the Rupee, converts them to Dollars, balances the accounts in Dollars and pockets the 7% difference. Welcome to Bharaktupur.
The city was founded in the 8th Century and was the country’s capital at one time. Completely walled-in it is a 1,300 year-old throwback. A cultural time machine as it were. Our guest house, the Nyatapola, is in an old shop house. 6-foot ceilings, crooked walls, doors out of square and the electricity is, of course, not working. Cost is $12 per night and they WILL accept US Dollars. Go figure. Our place is located in Potters Square and yes, they do make make pots here on giant wheels with local clay. Pots by the thousands are set out to dry in the sun. Nearby, farmers thresh freshly harvested wheat sheaves; Beating them against rocks, tossing the golden kernels into the air to clean them, chopping the leftover straw for brick making. It’s the real deal here folks. I haven’t seen anything like this since Ethiopia in the 1970s. Every free hand in town; No matter how old or young, is busy with the harvest. Women and children sit along the winding streets tossing wheat kernels into the air and catch them in big, round, flat woven baskets. Chaff litters the red-brick streets like winter’s first snowfall.
They are a small people averaging 5 feet in height. Dark-skinned and frail in old age. The men and women wear gold earrings along the curve of their ears. Pierced through the cartilage. The women wear a Hodge-podge of old and new Sari parts while the men are dressed in long pants, shirts, vests and those hats that Nehru favored. The natives here do not appear to be long-lived. Most of the elderly men I have seen (elderly here is anybody 50-years or older) are suffering either from disabling strokes or milk-glass cataracts that have rendered them blind. I see evidence of infestious disease. Disfiguring epidermal cysts. Parasitic infections; Primarily Amoebic dysentery. 25% of the population is infected with Giardia. Cholera is not unheard of in some of the precincts here. The women do most of the manual labor while the men sit idly by. They are not the most outgoing people I have met though they will always respond to a Wei with a smile and a hello. Sometimes you have to force the issue.
They are the most religious people I have ever encountered including the Balinese. They spend the early morning hours here going from shrine to temple to statue making offerings of flower petals, rain water, brightly colored pigments rubbed onto deities and in some cases; Animal sacrifice. Usually goats. The sacrificial altars are almost Mayan or Aztec in construct though smaller. Blood is collected in stone gutters and fed into a spout that pours out upon the ground. They practice a hybrid religion rooted in animism and flavored with Buddhism and Hinduism.
The architecture consists of red brick masonry topped with wooden structures that project out over the Herring-boned brick streets. The main squares are complexes of stone temples and tall, massive, wooden towers. In the evenings the locals cover the old buildings like kids on monkey-bars. They sit and talk and send text messages to who knows who. There are dogs everywhere but cats are a rare sight. The big issue here is the traffic. As beautiful as the city is, the noise and dust are without end. Everything from scooters to cars to farm tractors pollute the narrow streets with gunpowder-black exhaust fumes. Drivers lay on their horns constantly. The street noise under our balcony is mind-numbing.
Unlike the rest of Nepal, the sales people here are on you like white on rice. Try to take a quiet walk and you will be approached every block by some guy who wants to be your personal tour-guide. Small children will ask for your name which is immediately followed up by a request for money. The shops are brimming with decorative brass bowls, wooden drums and postcards. Heavily made-up ‘Holy Men’ will pose for you at a dollar per photo. Dark, slender, Sari’d women with babes in arms press the crowds of tourists for alms. Most people come out for a day trip and then go back to Kath. The only way to fly. We stayed overnight and as darkness fell we soon found ourselves a distinct minority. The streets roll up at dark and all electricity is turned off in the town. You haven’t seen darkness until you’ve experienced it here.
We did not get electricity until 2 AM this morning. I know this because that’s when every light in our room went on. We scurried to plug in our electronics as by that time the batteries were completely depleted. By 5 AM the noise started up again and we got ready to return to Kathmandu though not unhappily.
We are going to India tomorrow. Flight to New Delhi and then an overnight train north to the town of Shimla in the Himalayas. We have never been to India before so we are looking forward to the change in scenery and food. Though the food may not be that different from Nepal. I will never forget Nepal. I came here at exactly the right time. After the hectic months spent in SE Asia those long treks I made in the Annapurnas were like taking major chill pills. I met a lot of wonderful people here. It has been a memorable month.
Shouts to Klaus and Ulf. To Tom, Ellen and the kids enjoying the Maine summer. Happy Memorial Day to everyone Stateside and our boys in Weisbaden.
Notes: Bharaktupur is a day town. Don’t bother staying overnight here unless you need practice trying to sleep in a noisy environment. The town is lovely but the hassles are many. At $15 per person it becomes an academic question as to whether it is worth your time.