KATMANDU

A young man who was amused by his task walked us to Satish’s office. I know what street it is on but cannot locate the building. There is so much signage in KTM that I don’t “see” things. There are, by the way, no street signs in KTM. I don’t believe I have ever seen one, nor are there any stop lights.

We went over our arrangements for our trek and my schedule for Lhasa, Tibet for ten days and paid. Satish, while we were going over our dates, received a call. One of their guides had an Israeli man on the Annapurna Circuit who, having made it up to the pass, went into severe altitude sickness, couldn’t walk, couldn’t breathe. They were trying to bring him down on a horse. As we sat there Satish ordered the helicopter to take him out.

One of the problems of being young, Israeli, and just out of the army is you are very sure of your strength. But altitude is not about strength. It is a totally eccentric testing of your physical abilities.

I trekked the Annapurna Circuit just after I turned 70 in 21 days. It normally takes 18 days. The ascent to that pass, Thorung La (17,700 feet) is extremely steep and arduous. I’ve done passes a thousand feet higher but it is often the angle of ascent, the steepness, not the actual height that causes the problem. I kept having to stop to get my breath and was not sure I would make it so I had a certain sympathy for the Israeli man. A Japanese man, who went over the pass with us with a friend and a girl friend, had a sort of temper tantrum on the pass. He wanted us all to stop and wait for him. You don’t do that. Each person goes up at her/his speed. Altitude can also cause mental distortion.

As Satish was ordering the helicopter my long time guide, Sarosh Magar, walked in. I introduced Ethan to him. Sarosh guided me for the first time on that circuit around the Annapurna Massif. That’s ten years ago. Sarosh was young, unmarried then. At the trailhead as we were about to start walking, I said to him, “I think you should know my age. I’ve just turned 70.”

“Oh,” said Sarosh looking at me with interest. “My grandmother is 70. But you have excellent teeth. She doesn’t have any.”

I decided this was definitely my guide. He further endeared himself that evening when we stopped for the night at a teahouse where there was a six month old. I asked the baby’s name. “Renaldo.” I raised my eyebrows at Sarosh. “We used to name our children after the gods but now we name them after football stars,” he explained.

Ethan and Sarosh seemed to take to each other to my delight.

Having ordered the helicopter, Satish turned his attention back to us. “We were able to get you the Tibet visa, although it is very uncommon for someone to go to Tibet for ten days to do nothing. However, Dawa Dorje was able to reassure them that you were all right.” Dawa Dorje is their agent in Lhasa and he and I have known each other for over fifteen years.

I wasn’t planning on “doing nothing for ten days”. I wanted to find out if I could, at 80, still breathe at 12,000 feet and how bad my reaction would be to the altitude. I also wanted to revisit places, see what changes the Chinese had wrought and visit a friend.

Ethan and I walked down to Durbar Square, me with my guidebook determined to do a little serious tourist work. We started at a tiny shrine just in front of the Tana Deval Temple that used to be entered only by the King. Just in front of it there are two little shrines, one had a handsome Garuda, a giant bird usually with snakes in his mouth who belongs to an earlier, lost tradition, kneeling before a Shiva shrine, and a Ganesh shrine in which the statue is slathered with red paste. Here I had a long discussion with a man who was selling onions on a tarp about Ganesh, how he got his head and lost his tusk. He didn’t know they tusk story. I knew, by his skeptical glance that he was going to check this out.

We walked across Indra Choke Square in front of the Akash Bhurav temple with rampant, shiny lions, tails up and mouths open on its balcony. It is another Shiva temple but unbelievers are not allowed in. Because a festival is coming, there was an image outside that was so crowded with offerings you couldn’t make it out. People lighted candles. The image had a smear of red paste with, I think, rice in it over its mouth.

We walked through the blanket bazar, Kel Tole, to the Sweta Machhendranath Temple where I have not been in probably fifteen years. Its age is not known but it was repaired in the 17th century. It seems to be one structure inside another, an exceedingly ornate gilded cage around an inner wooden, earlier core. There are prayer wheels as the place is Hindu and Buddhist. Ethan suddenly went into mock American germ terror over how many hands had turned the wooden spokes of the prayer wheels. We walked around the cube looking at various images and then came back to the central image, I believe, a Buddha. There were offerings around his big niche—marigolds, rice, bouquets of flowers, banana leaf plates of food. Little mice, perhaps a dozen, were nibbling on these and then scurrying into holes or cracks where they live.

I then took us rapidly to the big road with the park on the other side of it to catch a taxi to Babar Mahal Revisited, heading almost immediately to Chez Carolina. This is one of the best, possibly the best, restaurant in Kathmandu. They serve a green salad that you can safely eat. I have good duck and excellent tomato soup. We were joined by a young, affectionate grey and white cat that tried to suckle on Ethan’s shirt with great enthusiasm.

We then made a tour of the shops. Babar Mahal Revisited is at the back of an old Rana palace. There are lots of leftover Rana palaces in KTM. What was once the stables, has been reinvented as and elegant labyrinth of shops, restaurants, galleries, spas. It is a lovely quiet place to ramble through, very enjoyable after the horns and traffic downtown. As I found out later, a very fine boutique hotel is about to be added by some grandsons of the original Ranas.

Shirish had asked us for lunch the next day. She lives on the other side of town in a house that looks down on KTM. We had the best dahl I think I’ve ever had, beautifully spiced with a light flavor, chicken for me, vegetables for Ethan, a delicious dish with okra and a plate of cucumber, tomatoes and onions. We ran off before coffee because I was dead set on getting Ethan to Pashupatinath and then walking to Bodhnath.

Shirish got us a bus instructing the diver that we were to get off at Goashala. It was not at all a bad bus or ride although Ethan objected to it but he was sitting in the back. I could hear him talking to the man next to him.

We got down at Goashala. To my satisfaction I immediately recognized where we were and was able to take us to the open square building that is an old people’s home. It is a hollow square with little temples to Shiva on a mound in its center. People live in the square composed of four corridor like buildings, which surround the mound. A man insisted on following us around, talking all the time, which killed his chance of getting any money out of us. The building was injured by the earthquake and is under repair. The old people, those who have no children to take care of them, are here taking care of themselves, washing clothes, pots and arguing.

The temple is on the banks of the Bagmati River, sacred but heavily polluted, and is dedicated to Pashupati, the gentle form of Shiva as the protector of beasts. If you are not Hindu, you may not enter but you can go down to the river to watch the cremations. Above the bridge are the ghats for royalty. Some one was enveloped in grey, billowing clouds of smoke on that side. Below the bridge ordinary people are cremated. We watched a corpse, brought to one of the commoner ghats, lifted off its bamboo litter onto the firewood already arranged. I then realized that on our side of the river there were soldiers lined up with rifles, standing at attention to honor a fellow military man.

His son poured ghee, clarified butter, around his head and lit the fire as a bugle played from our side of the river, saluting him. It was, despite the crowds milling about, a moment quietly set apart in time.

All around us there were young men in lungis, with the sacred thread, the upanayana, across their chests, having their fortunes told, while others read scripture aloud. Rarely were the men alone with the fortunetellers. They all seemed to have brought a friend along.

We climbed up the hill away from the river. Ethan was delighted by the monkeys along the way. We passed through the area of small shrines with a massive brass Shiva trident in front of one. The monkeys danced above us on the ridge rising over the path as we started down hill. We came down beside the temple, Guhyeshwari Temple that commemorates, Kali’s vagina. Guhya is vagina and ishwari is goddess.

The goddess Paravati, her fierce form is Kali, when her husband, Shiva, was insulted by her father became so angry that she leapt into the fire—this is the basis of Sati. Shiva carried her corpse, grieving, and wandered about with it as it fell to pieces in his arms. Various parts fell to various parts of the earth. This temple marks where her yoni, her vagina, fell. It is an important tantric temple.
We crossed the bridge before the temple after passing under the beautiful tree that provides shade for worshipers and wanderers. Without much difficulty we found our way, in about half an hour to Bodhnath, the big beautiful stupa. Unfortunately the top is being repaired so we did not get the full effect. We stopped in one temple as we circled and Ethan bought a bracelet from one of the prayer bead places.

In the middle of the night Ethan knocked on my door looking sweaty and unhappy. He had picked up, it is pretty inevitable, an intestinal bug which was giving him pain as well as the usual diarrhea. But some pills took care of much of it by morning.

I contacted Satish so that we would have alternate plans if Ethan wasn’t all right, had coffee with my friend Abhi Subedi, who is always doing 47 things in 50 countries. He is a superb human being and wonderful writer of plays and poems particularly.

I spent the day running around doing errands. I got to the main post office but my postcard lady was not there. However, the one who had the franchise gave me a good price on 100 postcards that were rather dusty and a bit bent here and there.

I found a tiny drug store off Durbar Marg where I bought my Lumigan eye drops, 75 in the US, for 7.60 US. By the time I returned to the KTM Guesthouse Ethan was eating magnificently again.

Photo 1: The Kathmandu Guesthouse terrace at night.
Photo 2: Tamil streets, Kathmandu.
Photo 3: Tamil streets, Kathmandu.

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