Bhaktapur – Off the tourist trail

Day 36

05/10/12

At half 4 I woke up again to the sound of bells and a churning tummy. Maybe the hygiene disaster of yesterday’s onion balls were catching up with me. I couldn’t get back to sleep so squirmed around till half 6 when I met Decent for our morning hike. He’s in line to take over the guest house soon and as an extra form of income he plans to lead short hikes in the surrounding hillsides, only half an hour’s walk away. He had some routes in mind and wanted to use me as a guinea pig to get some feedback, and for free too! We set off in the rising sun and he led me through tiny alleyways, ducking through low doorways and into little courtyards to see the hidden side of Bhaktapur. No tourist would ever find their way here, some of the doorways look like house entrances but lead into little corridors emerging into hidden courtyards. In some of these were little shrines where local women were making their morning offerings. Decent had brought his camera and we snapped away, he said the locals wouldn’t mind. We passed a kid taking a poo in an alleyway, Decent said back here, times haven’t changed – that’s how people used to live. We shouldered by locals on their way to work or worship. It was a rare treat to see this “real” side of the city, away from the tourist trail.

We came out onto larger roads and passed more temples. Bundles of incense string burned at regular intervals. I watched as a crow pecked at one and took off with it – Decent says they get confused, thinking they are worms. Burning worms, brave crows! By 7am the streets were bustling and the temples and statues were busy with people making offerings, ringing bells and burning incense. The light was lovely and I wished I could get up early more often – but with my lack of sleep lately it was something I hadn’t done for ages. We passed rice fields squeezed between houses, and crossed the busy main road to Kathmandu, heading uphill into the countryside. Everyone else was heading the other way.

As the houses thinned to become woodland, we reached a road where I felt I’d wandered into a army camp. Groups of soldiers in full camo uniform and gear, some toting big rifles, were pounding along at full pelt, doing fitness training. Guys in shorts and t-shirts stood ran alongside and waited on the roadside. We were close to a local army camp. I didn’t want to openly take photos as the military can be touchy about that, but took a few on the sly (Decent said he’d talk our way out of any trouble).

 

Up this road the trees opened out to show what would have been a good view of the city – but unfortunately it was hazy and you couldn’t see far. We climbed a steep flight of steps to find ourselves on a wooded ridge. Some big birds with long tails and blue wings swooped gracefully past, dipping and rising in flight. We passed other people and I asked Decent why they were up in this quiet place. He explained there was a temple nearby which people visit on the way to the city.

At the end of the path a flight of steps led down the hill through the trees, and then straight up another hill to a small temple. It was busy and more unfortunate soldiers were lugging bags of bricks at a jog up the steps – there was reconstruction happening at the temple. We stopped for a breather at the top and the army guys were hanging around drinking water and washing, eyeing us curiously. I hadn’t seen any tourists this morning, and they probably get none up here usually.

We went back down the hill and followed a track circumnavigating the first hill, away from Bhaktapur, through the woods. We passed through the army camp and Decent was shocked to see a soldier hanging from a tree. It turned out to be a mannequin in a paratrooper pose! We saw a barracks, shacks and training grounds complete with crawl trenches covered in barbed wire. Armed soldiers watched us from the gates. Back in the woods you could frequently see big spider webs with yellow and black spiders which were 3-4 inches long. On the grass banks loads of small thick webs covered the area speckled with shining dew.

Occasionally breaks in the trees revealed a nice view to farmyard and wooded hills. It was peaceful out here. We spied a couple sitting in the woods getting some alone time. Decent had voiced his frustrations earlier about the family system here. Most families live together under cramped conditions (including grandparents) so getting privacy is almost impossible, and the culture is very gossipy. If you are seen out in public with a girl it’s going to get back to your parents fast. Public displays of affection between couples are frowned upon so getting quiet time alone you’re your partner can be really hard. As a result young couples are forced to come out to the countryside to elope, away from prying eyes. Which in this case literally means hiding in the woods!

At the end of the track in a field stood a little temple where two old guys were doing yoga. Decent said people used to come to this temple but since the army encamped here the people stay away – especially girls, as they can get harassed by the soldiers. It was quite hot now and we pushed on, up some steps carved out of the hill.

At the top of the hill was a big man-made cutting and through it was a good view of Bhaktapur – although the haze still prevailed. At the bottom, instead of heading back, Decent asked me if I wanted to try some local tea, so we went off down a nice road in the woods filled with crows, beams of sunlight filtering through the trees. At this point my camera battery ran out. I was gutted as I missed snapping some really nice scenes later on!

We arrived at a red building with a bench overlooking a picturesque view of rice fields and the city beyond. Locals sat around drinking tea and chatting. Decent went up to the red building and asked for tea through the shutter. You’d never know to look at the place that it was a tea house! We sat and drank the tasty sweet black tea and admired the view. Then we went down a slippery little path into the rice fields and past some cliffs. It was great down here – we walked past blankets of green rice, many propped up in little bundles to dry. Locals watched us with interest and the path was well used. I couldn’t believe we were just minutes from the bustling city, which we suddenly emerged into.

We walked down backstreets and through fields hidden amongst the houses. Various crops were being grown and little earthen paths wound between them, busy with people. Some fields were made into neat beds separated by earthen ridges, with straw laid out on them to protect the seeds beneath. A little temple was hidden here and we found the remains of another, now part of a field. Just then, Decent pointed to the distance. Beyond the hills, way above, the sky was clear for the first time and I saw the Himalayas for the first time. They towered above the hills, dominating the horizon, white-caps bright in the sun. I was awed. They’d been there the whole time behind the clouds but I’d never known you could see them from here. In a few minutes, they were hidden again.

We followed a stream back onto a main road. Here there was a big square where big poles; smooth tree trunks like telegraph poles were lying. Decent said they were used in the Bisket Jatra festival and showed me a circular stone holder in the square that they are propped in. Leading up from the square was a stone road with two parallel gutters in the middle. These are for the festival too; a huge chariot is constructed from wood up at a temple, and rolled down the hill using the gutters as guides for the wheels. Then after a ceremony in the square they haul it back up again, and at the temple two teams of men have a tug of war with it. Each team is from a different side of the city. Whichever side wins gets to keep it and glory is bestowed upon them and their district. It’s supposed to be pretty chaotic and violence often breaks out between the two sides, but it’s a spectacle!

Back in the centre we devoured a big breakfast after our 4 hour hike. We returned to the guest house and as I was about to go to sleep, Decent knocked on my door apologizing, pointing out that the checkout time was 11am. Damn. I packed up and moved downstairs, spending the next few hours on the free wi-fi.

I bade farewell to my new friend and caught a taxi back to Kathmandu. I really must video this sometime, once you get to the narrow streets every 5 seconds you think you’re going to hit a  pedestrian or a bike, but somehow the driver weaves and coasts and brakes his way in and out of tiny spaces. People jump out of the way at the last second and bikes lurch to a halt to avoid getting squashed. It’s a miracle that no one is hurt when you see wing mirrors flying inches from people’s arms and bikes cutting across in front of speeding buses. Of course the horn was in full swing being honked repeatedly every few seconds.

In Thamel I wandered around to find a guesthouse in a quiet courtyard, that I hoped might mean better sleep than Kathmandu’s usual noisy accommodation. I settled on a dingy but quiet hotel and caught an hour’s sleep before heading out to dinner. The Yak restaurant serves a lot of Tibetan food and I waited a while for a table, having to share with three others, a middle aged bald Aussie man, an Italian bloke and a Chinese woman. I ordered Thungpa, which is warm Tibetan beer. It comes in a towering wooden mug filled with millet seeds, and they pour hot water into it which you leave to brew, and drink through a tapered straw so you don’t get the seeds. The taste wasn’t bad, very wheaty and reminded me a bit of Leffe or those other super-wheaty German and Dutch beers. You get can get as many free refills of hot water as you like, but by the second the taste was quite sickly.

I ate rolls of sour bread with a buffalo noodle soup. We all got chatting and the Aussie was on some epic travels. As a long-serving public servant, he could go on extended holiday with half pay – he was renting out his house so he was basically travelling for free! The Chinese woman was here to start a business exporting pashimas to China, and the Italian man was a professional cyclist, sponsored by biking companies to do expeditions and go on adventures. He’d already been to Nepal about twenty times!

Tibetan beer

Mauro, the cyclist, had some funny stories of failed biking expeditions in Nepal, the best was when he smuggled a big folding bike in a huge rucksack all the way up the Himalayas – cycling is banned up there – in order to cycle all the way down… only to discover at the top he’d forgotten to bring the pedals and so had carried it all that way for nothing! He was here to do some filming about an amazing story which I hope he exposes. Here’s the short version. He met a guy at a Nepalese hospital a few years ago who was president of the Paralympic team in Nepal. At the London Paralympic Games this year, Nepal’s sent about 17 people, but only a few of them were competitors. The others had paid big sums of money to the Nepalese Paralympic team heads to come to the UK – and promptly disappeared from the radar in the UK after the games! They’d used the Paralympics as a way to get to the UK as getting a visa on a Nepalese passport is very difficult. Then the head of the Paralypic team (the guy Maurio had met) was found dead in the UK just after the games in suspicious circumstances. Maurio thinks he was in on the illegal immigration money deal and had some disagreement with the other culprits, who offed him. He had filmed the victim two years ago for interviews, and is now independently investigating the case, doing filming with people the man knew and building a story. He is thinking about selling the story and footage to a TV company to make a documentary. If it ever happens I’ll let you know. Crazy stuff! As Maurio is a veteran of Nepal he gave me some tips on my next destination and offered his advice at any time. Top chap. His website is selvatiko.com where you can learn more about his expeditions. We said good night and went our separate ways.

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