With my breakfast I tried Masala tea, a Nepal staple. The leaves are infused with sugar and cinnamon giving it a very sweet, almost sickly taste. I set out exploring Thamel, the tourist area, looking for cheaper accommodation. The streets were manic. It’s really stressful walking around the narrow streets as you need to be on constant alert for the vehicles trying to run you over, horns are beeping right next to you, people are plying you for business and you’re squeezing lots of other people trying to get along the same as you. There’s so much for the eyes and ears to take in, it’s a sensory overload.
Most of the recommended budget places were fully booked, but I found Hotel Potala had space, it’s smack bang in the middle of the party area. It was on the second floor, below it was a shop and a bar. This is typical of Thamel’s buildings, multiple businesses crammed into each one. It was cheap and basic, but had everything I needed.I ate at the hotel’s restaurant which looked out over the street. There was no respite from the noise though. I ordered chicken Momos, which are Tibetan steamed (or fried) parcel dumplings – much Chinese dim sum or Japanese Gyoza. They had a spicy dipping sauce and were pretty tasty.
Next order of the day was to find some bootlaces, mine were wrecked. Thamel is rammed with trekking gear shops as everyone coming trekking arrives here first. Most of the laces were weak and poor quality, I eventually got lucky in a shop that sold the exact same boots as mine and bought the very same laces! Score!
After chilling at a wi-fi café I met Bikrant, the marketing guy from Fantastic Nepal. As a gift from the company Bhupen, his boss, was sending Bikrant to me to show me the Indra Jatra festival that afternoon, which I’d wanted to see. Indra Jatra is a big festival running over a number of days, commemorating a local legend, celebrating the upcoming harvests and remembering the deceased. In the legend villagers capture the god of rain, Indra, who is up to mischief – on his release his mother promises to give the crops dew, and take the year’s dead to heaven.
Bikrant was younger than I’d expected, only a year or two out of uni. He seemed a friendly, stylish chap and had brought a friend along, Logan. I hopped onto the back of his rumbling Lee Enfield motorbike and Logan followed. Now we were part of the honking traffic, weaving in and out of tiny spaces and dodging people and vehicles by inches. As the airport in Kathmandu says, Nepali people express themselves creatively with use of their horns! Good fun though! We drove south a few kilometers along the narrow streets, heading for the Durbar Square – an ancient collection of palace buildings and temples where the festivities were starting. As we drove past looking for parking, the old buildings looked awesome and already there were loads of people standing on the high temple steps ready for Indra Jatra to begin.
We parked in a dodgy looking little courtyard with menacing dogs, Bikrant assured me was safe to leave the bikes there – in fact, one of the houses was a restaurant, though you’d never know from its appearance. In Durbar Square we found a place in the crowd and met another of Bikrant’s friends. The police were making preparations, dressed in their standard blue camo, holding big wooden sticks and some had riot gear. A drumming band was playing nearby. In the ancient buildings families peered from the ornate wooden windows, and each big step of the tiered temples were full of locals and clumps of tourists. A sea of SLR cameras could be seen held above the crowds whenever anything of interest occurred.
The first event was the appearance of the white “elephant”, represented by a painted tent with people underneath it running at full pelt. A group with crashing cymbals and drums followed it around with a guy holding a flaming torch. The elephant was running around randomly, it’s really funny because the guys underneath can’t see – they just charge in any direction and hope their minders aren’t guiding them into a wall!
Next a running demon surged through the crowd; a person with a red mask and a big red mane. People jeered and shouted at it. Another group of drummers and cymbal crashers followed. Meanwhile on the far side of the square there was a large, brightly painted golden chariot which people were climbing onto. A young girl in decorative, glimmering dress and a white-painted face was placed on the chariot’s high throne, with men clustered around her. This is the Kumari – a living goddess who lives in a palace in the square. There were cries of wonder and happiness from many of the women when they caught sight of her. After a load of jostling in the crowd below, the tall chariot lurched forward at some speed, carrying at least ten people perched around the throne and on the lower segments. People pushed and shoved to clear a path for it. I’d assumed a car or something was pulling it and then to my amazement saw a big team of men hauling with all their might on about 6 ropes to power the chariot. They were yelling and chanting.
The chariot rumbled into the middle of the square, sometimes stopping for a minute or two to deal with whatever obstruction or issue was in the way. Then two more big chariots came into the square holding boys dressed like the Kumari. They represent gods from the legend. Ten minutes later the chariots had started to leave, now they’d follow a route around the narrow streets of the old town. We walked north passing more amazingly old buildings and all manner of little shrines and statues.We reached a big colourful statue of a face where two women were planting tikkas on peoples foreheads. These are the red dots on the forehead signifying a blessing and represent the mystical Third Eye. The tikka paste was made from rice and red dye. Some people gave money as an offering to them. We went up to receive ours. My massive hair made it a bit difficult for the poor woman!
We continued north coming to a busy square filled with little temples and shrines where a band was playing. It was very busy. People were lighting little oil lamps and placing them by the statues. The guys led me to a little temple through a doorway with a sign saying “This temple welcomes all religions” said the sign outside. Some temples in Nepal only allow Hindus inside. This temple was really old and surrounded by little stupas. Small prayer wheels surrounded its base. The golden exterior was fenced and padlocked off as it was evening. Bikrant’s friend told me that in the old days there was no fence and the paneling would have been real gold, not just painted. No-one back then would dream of stealing from a temple. Sadly in more recent centuries people aren’t so trustworthy and a lot of temples and shrines go under lock and key at night to protect their valuables. At the courtyard entrance was a room filled with women singing hymns from books, whilst an old man tapped out a rhythm on his drum. Bikrant’s friend explained that most temples are the responsibility of a single family who live next to it and maintain it, and some of these people singing would be from that family. My sign language request for a photo of the singers was denied by the old man – here they sometimes don’t like you taking pictures of prayers and worship.
The guys led me to a street stall selling Lassi, a traditional Nepalese drink. It’s a bit like a milkshake but more yoghurty. It was ladled from a big metal bowl into glasses for us. Lassis come in a variety of flavours, this one had sultanas and nuts in. It was very curdy but surprisingly tasty and refreshing.
We arrived at another intersection full of people waiting for the chariots to arrive. It was too dark for photos now. There were families up on the roofs in the square and peering down from the windows. We heard the white elephant coming before we saw it, shouts and bangs echoing down a narrow street towards us. The police moved us aside. The “elephant” charged down into the intersection surrounded by shouting youths. Next the red “demon” rushed in, and further up the street you could see the first chariot, which barely fitted in the narrow road. The police made a more concerted effort to clear a path and soon the men pulling the chariot surged into view yelling, the chariot rolling behind them and a big press of people following it. The square was filled with shouting, chants and the crashing of cymbals and drums. People barged past left and right. It was madness but awesome.
The chariot stopped here and after a while the next one came trundling along. The elephant continued to cause mayhem randomly running into groups of people. Red Cross men with big flags walked around looking for the inevitable injuries that would be caused by this chaotic festival. The second chariot was preceded by three red “demons” who danced around energetically. One had a sword. People came forward to give them offerings of food and drink, presumably some kind of appeasement.
We walked up the narrow street which the final chariot was creaking along. As it approached a wall of police led the way, pushing people to the side. We had to stand on a shop step and loads of people crammed onto it in a great hurry to avoid being crushed. The throng of chariot haulers tore past, yanking hard on the ropes and the chariot came lumbering past inches away from us. It had a wooden stopping mechanism at the front which was lifted and dropped repeatedly to stop it running out of control. Behind the chariot a loop of policemen marched, arms locked to prevent anyone coming too close, and after them was a crowd people, drummers and a Gurkha band playing flutes. It turned out we’d stopped at a mobile phone shop and I wanted a Nepali phone, so Bikrant talked to the shop owner and found me a second hand Nokia for about 6 quid!
We walked back towards Durbar square where another crowd had congregated, this time there were two dancers in masks and costume playing out a battle. One had a bow and arrow. The chariots were heading this way and the press of people was so close that even with a grip on each other we still couldn’t stay together. Big groups of youths yelling manically came charging through and the white elephant appeared again, people running to get out its way. Drummers and cymbals bashed as we were jostled around madly, pretty crazy!
We into the modern shopping district and through narrow back alleys back to the motorbikes. Bikrant said the alleys here were filled with restaurants. No foreigner would ever know about these, they just look like houses. As you walk past tiny doors you could glimpse a kitchen or sometimes someone eating. At the bikes we went into the house/restaurant there and went upstairs. Seating was traditional Nepali, with tables a foot off the ground and us sitting on the floor. The light was very dim. A few other people sat inside and I passed a guy playing on a PSP. The games console seemed at odds with the ancient looking surroundings!
The four of us chatted about life in Nepal and differences in our cultures. I learned about the castes in Nepal culture and their religious differences. Like in the UK, the past two generations has seen a change in the mentality regarding religion and class. Inter-caste relationships are frowned on (Nepal’s caste system is very strict and has been around for centuries), but the younger generation are starting to ignore these social boundaries. All three guys had been to, or were at university and spoke good English, but they’d all remained in their own county to do good there which was commendable. Bikrant told me more and more Nepalese are getting uni education abroad but many don’t return, giving their home country no benefit.
Our snacks arrived. One was buffalo tongue, another buffalo brains and the last buffalo mince and egg pancakes. I haven’t tried brains before. It was fried up in pieces in a sauce. The texture was soft but not squishy and it was ok. The tongue in pieces had sauce and a tasty chilli dip. After dinner we said our goodbyes and Bikrant whizzed me back to Thamel on the bike. It had been a crazy but great experience and it was good to meet Nepalese people and experience their culture with them.
Back at the hotel there was a power cut. This happens a few times a day in Kathmandu. Due to Nepal’s limited electricity, there is a power sharing scheme in place, which basically means that for hours at a time there will be no power. Most places have a generator but this only powers a dim light in your room. Usually the wi-fi routers die in a power cut too. It’s pretty frustrating, and the poor residents of Nepal have to put up with it every day. When you need to send an urgent email or go to the toilet, having no power can be really annoying!