The next morning I hired a car to take me to a small village 35 Km west of Kathmandu called Panauti. Nestled among the foothills of the Himalayas, the Historical City of Panauti is in the Municipality of Panauti, in the district of Panauti, in the Kathmandu valley. I think that most of the addresses there read “123 Temple Street, Panauti, Panauti, Panauti, Nepal”.
It is actually a very holy site where two physical rivers meet a third invisible one. At that point, a ghat was built, and Nepalese from far and wide come to be cremated there, and then their ashes are thrown into the river. A huge pyre is built and the flames can be seen from all around the hillsides.
There are also a large number of temples and alters in the town (in fact there are a great many in Nepal period).
The drive from Kathmandu nearly broke my heart…
Nepal is just coming out of a ten year civil war. The fighting ended in 2008, but the war was only officially declared over last month. That, coupled with a recent earthquake, has left the country in a shambles. Poverty, garbage, pollution, crime and corruption are a real problem and the infrastructure has been neglected to the point of disaster. Roads, sewers, electrical systems, and government are in the process of rebuilding, but it is a slow process and they have just begun.
It is common to experience “Load shedding” where the entire city of Kathmandu loses power for 30 minutes (one of the guys in the hotel told me that during the war, sometimes they lost power for days). This is so the overloaded electrical grid doesn’t fry itself. Also, mounds of burning garbage are everywhere and over 90% of the population lives off of less than $3 a day (240 Npr).
That being said, 240 Npr goes pretty far here. A liter bottle of water sells for 20 Npr, a pack of cigarettes 150 Npr, breakfast in Panauti of a 3 egg omelette, dry toast and tea goes for 65 Npr, and a hotel room from 250 to 1000 Npr a day, and those are inflated prices for the westerners.
The drive in was a hell of a ride. Rules of the road seem to be more of a suggestion than a hard fast rule. Although all of the cars here are right hand drive, I can’t tell you which side of the road they drive on because they drive on all sides… and the sidewalks. A lane on one of the main roads could contain a car in the left hand lane, a bus in the right hand lane, and sixteen motorcycles coming down between them going the opposite direction. It is absolute chaos…
But it’s a controlled chaos… everybody seems to understand what is going on, and the sounds of horns can be heard 24-7 in Kathmandu. But here they use their horns to communicate and not to express anger. A beep from my driver says “Hey, I’m here and I’m passing you”, a double beep reply from the listing bus that has 400 people crammed in it says “Oh, ok, I’ll slow down and move over so you can pass”, which my driver does, and then double beeps “Thanks, and say hi to the wife and kids”. In Kathmandu, the air is filled with these motorist conversations that to a western ear seems like everybody is angry at everybody else.
As we were driving, I was waiting to exit the city limits so I could see the countryside. I was expecting the city to end, then mountains and sherpas would appear pulling their yaks around and guiding mountaineers to their snowy destinations… That didn’t happen. Instead, I found out that much of the Kathmandu Valley is just vast stretches of urban areas against the highway that lead to other urban areas. With the exception of climbing one hill that had no buildings or factories or warehouses, all I saw was one big city.
When I arrived at Panauti, I found out that much of that urban sprawl ends there (mostly because there is a mountain range in the way). I’m not sure whether my driver had ever been to Panauti before because he had to ask for directions several times. Eventually we pulled up to The Ananda Cafe and Guesthouse, an “authentic Newari house” converted into a hotel… which means plywood beds with bedrolls, dirt floors, no windows, an outhouse with a hole in the floor, and really low ceilings. It’s right beside the Indrashwar temple, a beautiful 900 year old pagoda style temple that also has a museum in it’s square.
The countryside is stunning, with farmland carved into the stepped hillsides. In the morning, a thin veil of fog covers everything, and the outlines of the Himalayas can be seen in the distance. In the afternoon on the first day, there was a thunderstorm, but it was clear and sunny most of the time. Temperatures during the day reach the high 20s and dip to 3 or 4 degrees celsius at night.
The streets are very narrow, about the size of a Winnipeg sidewalk, which apparently is plenty of room for four way traffic of motorcycles, busses, dump-trucks, bicycles, pedestrians, chickens, packs of dogs and the occasional cow or goat. Every second building is a corner store selling everything from cooking kerosene to bags of chips and feed for the chickens.
As I walk the streets I hear “hello” or “namastē” every two minutes. Sometimes somebody will ask where I’m from or what my name is. They are a really friendly people and the town is lovely.
The only thing that kind of gets to me is the spitting. Everybody over here spits. Men, women, children, grandmothers, grandfathers, priests, everyone horks then spits on the streets. I swear I saw chicken hork a loogie and then cluck down the road.
The mornings in Panauti start around 4am when everybody gets up, horks and spits for about an hour, then goes to the temple for puja. After that, they sweep the front steps, horking and spitting, and then open the storefront for business.
Western clothing has definitely invaded here, especially for the men. Jeans and knock-off tee shirts with cheesy slogans are the norm. “Bart Simpson doesn’t have a cow” or “Ambacrambie & Finch” or “Nike: Just dew the dew it”.
Some of the women still wear traditional style saris or shalwar kameez, with the prevalent colour being red. One morning I saw a young girl, about 8, accompanying her grandmother to the temple by the ghat. The girl was carrying a small ghee lamp with a sacred flame, and her face was beaming with pride with being given the task of carrying it. Dressed in red and gold, she looked at me and smiled saying “Namasté” in a sweet little voice…
Then she horked a loogie and continued to walk towards the temple…