Today I was off to find Swayambhunath (or as it’s more commonly known, the Monkey Temple) across Kathmandu’s main river. I strode through the mayhem of the streets, as usual in this maze losing my way a bit. I came upon a high school (all schools have signs in English). Outside children were filling into buses, many sitting on the roofs. There was some kind of rivalry going on between two buses and they were shouting out good-naturedly to each other as they sped off. Some of them waved at me.
Back on the correct road, the buildings began to change in style, becoming more modern as I left the old town. I passed two cows on the road, which nonchalantly strolled along whilst cars and bikes swerved around them. Sometimes passers-by would touch a cow with their hand and do a holy sign against their own chest. Like India, cows are held sacred here so they can go where they want and pretty much do what they want. Someone recently told me the punishment for killing a cow is the same as for murdering a person! I noticed one had an ear tag so I guess they still have owners. I overtook the chilled out bovines and went by a little butchers’ – with a whole buffalo leg propped up against the wall. Don’t look, cows! Butchers here are basic, usually just a room filled with meat and a chopping board. I’ve never seen a cooling system or ice – the meat just lies out in the open often with flies crawling on it. It’s not just the expensive cuts either, I’ve seen jawbones, heads and feet on display.
I came to a primary school which was crammed into one of the tiny old buildings, I could see kids through the upper shutters. It looked dark inside. A beggar came up to me but I ignored him which is the best way to get rid of them. Kathmandu has its fair share of beggars, especially in the tourist areas and at temples. It’s the eternal moral dilemma of whether to help, and if you do, who to help. Who needs the money most? The guy with one leg? An old woman? A street kid? You can’t help everyone and you have no idea what the money’s going towards. Undoubtedly some of the able bodied make a good living from begging when perhaps they could be working. You just don’t know. I rarely give for these reasons, and of course my low budget. I would rather give to charities that help people on the street, or donate more concrete things than money, such as clothes or food so you know it’s going to be used for a worthwhile cause. In the case of street kids, the Lonely Planet advises not to give to them as it encourages more kids to turn to begging, and adults even send kids to bring in money for them. If you want to help it’s better to give to NGOs (non governmental organizations) who assist kids on the street, getting them an education and accommodation. I’ve even heard stories of street kids here who will accept packaged food, and then immediately go and sell it back to a shop, to get money to spend on drugs!
Anyway, you could discuss the moral minefield of beggars for hours. Back to my trip. I came to the road bridge over the Vishnumati river. Near to it I saw men stuffing pillows with down, a man sorting through a mountain of plastic rubbish and as I got closer to the river I could see, and smell, how polluted it was. The inlets and banks were covered in piles of rubbish. The water looked a nasty colour and was dotted with islands of rubbish. It all stank of sewage and rot. When you see the state of one of the major rivers in the city you can see why Nepal has serious water problems. You wouldn’t go anywhere near that river with a barge pole.
On the bridge a boy was flying a small square plastic kite. It looked like it was made from food wrappers. Kites are popular with the kids in Nepal and you sometimes see them flying above the roofs, or caught on high cables. This guy was pretty good, saving it from certain death a number of times and swooping it back around, skyward again. Further up-river I could see cows on the banks, and kites (this time, I mean the birds of prey) soaring overhead. Over the bridge I turned down a side road to check out a small temple, which accompanied an array of shrines, most of the statues were worn away to almost nothing, but were still red with tikka dye and had remnants of offerings; rice and flowers stuck on them. For many people of Nepal making offerings at shrines is a part of daily life. Beyond the temple was a very smelly canal where hens roamed on the pathways. I went back to follow the winding main road uphill.
After five minutes I reached a break in the buildings and realized this hill had been a cunning decoy! In fact the real Monkey Temple hill was visible about a mile away in the distance! I could see the golden pyramid poking out through the forested hilltop. “A leisurely stroll” from Thamel, the book said. If that’s what you call a leisurely stroll you need help mate!
The views between the building gaps were impressive, the sprawl of Kathmandu rolled out into the distance and green hills lay beyond. Kites and crows whirled around above the rooftops. The city was much bigger than I’d thought and an array of coloured and irregular buildings fuzzed into the haze. The road wound its way up for another fifteen minutes as the sun blazed down.
I reached the base of the Monkey Temple’s hill, where taxis and beggars swarmed around the beginning of the large stone staircase disappearing into the trees where it got much steeper. The staircase was flanked by big statues, some golden. The staircase coursed around small shrines. Children, some as young as 3 or 4 years old, were sent by mothers sitting nearby to say “hello” or “please” and follow you with their hand outstretched. They were dirty and looked bedraggled, and didn’t give up easily. I felt angry at the mothers for making their kids do this from such a young age, but it probably works.
Along the wide staircase were many souvenir vendors, most selling nice metal embossed plaques with ornate patterns or messages. There were also old or injured beggars sat on the stairs. A lot of tourists were around, mostly oriental or South Asian. Pretty soon I saw the monkeys that give the place its name. They are called rhesus monkeys, grey-brown and big. There were loads of them; males, females and babies, lounging around on the stones beside the steps, running around in the bushes nearby, swinging from the branches of trees. Tourists flocked around them and some monkeys were taking food from them, whether offered or stolen I’m not sure!
Some of the monkeys scurried off you if you got close, others were totally un-phased. Babies clung to their mum’s backs or bellies, sometimes sprinting to grab on if their parent legged it. Groups of monkeys were grooming each other. Sometimes you’d see ones with a biscuit, a wrapper or a plastic bottle in their hand, with puzzled expressions, trying to figure out if there was food inside.
The last stretch of stairs were very steep and a little ticket office was right near the top. The trees cleared and the amazing views around the valley were revealed when you looked back. A few more steps and there stood the big white stupa dome, topped by a golden pyramid with curved Buddah eyes painted on each side. Colourful strings of prayer flags were strung from the top down to the corners. Around the stupa’s base were prayer wheels and round lamp holders. Smaller buildings, shrines stood in clusters, only meters apart. There were some food vendors and small souvenir shops in little old buildings around the small paved hilltop. On the edges were fenced viewing platforms where you could admire the panorama of Kathmandu stretching in every direction into the shimmering haze.
To the north close by was an adjacent, smaller, wooded hill covered in huge strings of prayer flags and more little statues. I descended some stairs to have a look. It was a really nice spot. Monkeys, dogs and pidgeons were everywhere, around a collection of small stupas and big groups of Indian tourists got off at the bus park nearby. A little monastery was up here, in bad shape, and a little temple with colourful prayer wheels. There was also a wooden structure in the temple where people had scrawled white graffiti all over the beams.
I walked back up to the main temple passing many beggars with crutches and a few robed monks with collection bowls. and made my way down the flight of steps to the entrance. On the way down I passed some western girls I’d spoken briefly to earlier and asked if they wanted to share a taxi back to Thamel, I couldn’t be bothered walking all that way in the afternoon heat. They agreed and we went back to Kathmandu. Turns out they’d only met each other an hour earlier at the temple and were both travelling solo. One girl, Anya, was Swiss and would shortly be teaching in a Nepali school for 5 months, the other was Dutch, Rose, and she was travelling around the country. We went for lunch in Thamel and swapped email addresses in the hopes of meeting up in a week or two in Pokhara, the hub town near the big mountains.
The girls each had appointments in the afternoon and we parted ways. I went to see the recommended Garden of Dreams five minutes walk away. It’s an old walled, colonial-looking garden, quite small but very nice, with lawns, fountains and white pavilions. It’s a place to go and relax, unfortunately the car horns still pervade, but other than that it’s very calming, and was full of couples and tourists taking a break from the madness of the city. I explored the garden and indluged in an ice cream. There’s even foam mats and rolls to use so you can lie on the grass in comfort, so I grabbed a few and chilled out, catching up on my diary. I had paid for the wi-fi here too but the connection kept dropping. Kathmandu is cursed with the most unreliable wi-fi ever. I stayed a few hours until dusk, when every bird in Kathmandu descended into the garden’s trees making a massive racket. The mossies started to appear too (though compared to Thailand they are scarce here), and I made a move.
I grabbed dinner at a Tibetan restaurant in Thamel and chose a thick soup served with dense coiled sour bread. It’s served with chilli and curry dips, so you put that onto the bread and then dunk it in the soup. Very filling! Soon after I got back to my hotel, Bhupen from Fantastic Nepal called and arranged to meet me at a restaurant nearby.
The restaurant, OR2K, had a cool vibe, with colourful painted walls and UV lighting, filled with a younger crowd and had low tables with cushion seating. Bhupen showed me a suggested itinery for the Annapurna base camp trek I was interested in doing, complete with photos. It looked nice. We chatted and I also got him to organize a guide for my trip tomorrow to Bhaktapur. I turned in early.