Up at the crack of dawn to catch the connecting flight from Manila to Kathmandu. I'm on my way to an education conference, so I'm playing Spot the Head. I find myself sitting next to a guy reading an article on Key Stage Three, so I think it a fairly safe bet to ask if he works in education. He looks amazed at my perspicacity. Creep into business class to get a window and a view of the Himalayas, so this time playing Spot Mount Everest.
There is so much bustle on arrival that I am missed by the pickup, but eventually make my way to the conference hotel, Dwarika’s. This is a fabulous reconstruction of an Indian style palace, using mainly original materials. My fourth floor room is huge and suitably palatial, with Tibetan style red white and blue cushions and settees, an enormous bed and a marble and slate bath, shower, twin washbasins and shower – all separate.
Last time I was in Kathmandu I went Overland to Tibet. I am met and welcomed by Sandj, the Kathmandu School Head and Ann, a Head from Hong Kong. I'm here for a conference but we will be revisiting all three of the ancient cities in the Kathmandu Valley, including the seven big UNESCO sites: the Durbar Squares of Hanuman Dhoka (Kathmandu), Patan and Bhaktapur, the Buddhist stupas of Swayambhu and Boudnath and the Hindu temples of Pashupati and Changu Narayan.
First, we drive through the streets of the city to visit Boudnath Stoupa, the biggest stupa in Nepal. It is twelve years since I have been to Kathmandu and it has changed considerably. There are many more buildings and it is far more touristy – many more shops. But it still retains its character. It’s also definitely smoggier.
The stupa is huge, decorated with large staring eyes, garlanded with Tibetan prayer flags and encircled by brass prayer wheels of all sizes. Pilgrims stroll around clockwise, nudging the wheels, women in saris, monks, in saffron robes, shaven headed youths twirling their own prayer wheels and gnarled old men with long scruffy grey beards. It is surrounded by fascinating small bazaar style shops displaying jewellery and artefacts. It is a festival day and a procession of monks and acolytes arrives, the beating of gongs and drums. adding impetus to everyone's movement.
It's addictive. After joining in the procession I part company with thirty dollars in a jewellery shop. Silver earrings are three pounds a pair and a choker is five. Beautiful soft pashmina shawls for thirty pounds each in literally every colour of the rainbow.
Out later, back to the backpacker Thamel area for dinner, with about a dozen heads, in Rum Doodle’s. The climber’s restaurant has walls plastered with autographs. Excellent curry.
This morning, an unforgettable flight with Buddha Air, over the Himalayas. Ground service consists of jerks of the thumb and a meditating mechanic (and some monkeys) is ensconced in the middle of the tarmac. We fly along the edge of the mountains right up to Everest; superb views of the highest point on earth ( 8,848.86 metres). and all the surrounding giant mountains sprinkled with snow.
It is only on the descent that we notice the pile of wrecked small planes hidden behind the hangars. Radar is comparatively new here and there is a crashed Chinese jet too – birds in the engines. Then tales emerge of the Royal Nepal flight that arrived from Pokara last week minus any baggage. Apparently, they failed to close the luggage hatch properly and it all fell out into the lake after take-off.
On to Bhaktapur, 13 kilometres away, the oldest, smallest and most densely populated city in the valley. Bhaktapur emerged as a wealthy and a powerful Newar kingdom, mostly due to its position in the ancient India-Tibet trade route. Its antecedents are ancient, though no-ne is exactly sure when. In 1769, Bhaktapur was attacked and annexed into the expanding Gorkha Kingdom, which later became the Kingdom of Nepal.
All the cities have their traditional Durbar Square. This one boasts the Nyatapola, a five roofed pagoda completed in 1702, the tallest building in Nepal., a royal palace, with snake dedicated pools and a Golden Gate. The city looks positively medieval, but the oldest parts are actually more recent, seventeenth century. The architecture is mainly wooden and intricately carved. and has been subjected to several earthquakes over the centuries. There are three other squares and numerous pagoda style temples vying for the attention, as do the even more numerous shopkeepers.
Nepalis wander past in traditional costume carrying buckets on yokes, drying rice in the streets and chasing chickens. The odd cow meanders down the lane. All the shops are playing exactly the same track from a CD of Tibetan chanting. Everyone barters for one at different points and prices vary from 400 to 250 rupees so I am very pleased to get one for 200 rupees, though another shopkeeper says mine is counterfeit. I suspect they are all counterfeit and it eventually becomes obvious that they are playing the same track because it is the only track.
I also purchase too many cards and notelets and venture through an agricultural area, to a river temple where various supplicants have puja offerings, set out on little coloured cloths. All the food and flowers are subsequently tossed into the river or devoured by passing dogs. There are even more cows in evidence here, so it must be a Hindu temple.
We are invited for lunch to the home of a Nepali, Prem. We climb three floors of wooden stairs to the earth-floored kitchen and squat on the floor. His hospitality is very generous and there are mounds of dahl and curried vegetables, all washed down with the local version of Schnapps. They call it rum and it is served in little saucers. I partake liberally in the hope of overwhelming any local bacteria. Last time I travelled via Kathmandu, I ended up in the Chinese hospital suffering from stomach bugs. I have another brandy when I get back to Dwarika’s, just to make sure.
Then, a massage from an American girl who says I have the best view in the hotel - courtyards, rooftops, and in the distance the airport.
Probably my strangest birthday ever. After a day of listening to speakers, Out to dinner at the new Hyatt Hotel. Champagne cocktails first, on the terrace, with views over the lights of Kathmandu.
Then, out to a very seedy bar, with what seems to be an opium den above, and onto the Dynasty Disco. This, it transpires, was the scene of a recent shooting. It is crammed almost entirely with gyrating men who don’t seem to mind who they dance with.
The three men I'm with fight to dance with me, as they attract too much attention from the male Nepalis if they dance on their own. The music is good and I have a whale of a time. We leave at 2.30 a.m. and I go to bed only to be woken mysteriously at 4.30 a.m. as the stereo in my room begins to play Indian music.
A bleary eyed tour of the Kathmandu School, which is based in a rented Rani's palace and has a large duck pond. There are clear powder blue skies and complementary huge red poinsettias outside. Then, lunch in Patan. This city is much closer, almost a suburb, just across the murky Bagmati River.
This is deemed to be the best of the three Durbar Squares - the locals call Patan by its original Sanskrit name, Lalitpur (City of Beauty). Our buffet is at the back of the museum. Two heads retire, complaining of feeling sick. The remainder of the business meeting seems interminable and my stomach begins to ache as well. Oh no not again.......
Swayambhu is known as The Monkey Temple, for obvious reasons. This Buddhist temple is to the west of Kathamandu, on top of a hill, with great views. The stupa here has eyes, eyebrows and a symbolic nose. There are ceremonies involving fire taking place. The monkeys watch on.
I have stomach pains all night, so I phone down to say I will miss the first session of the last day's conference. I'm not entirely sorry. I drag myself out of bed to go down and say farewell to those who are leaving that day. I abstain from lunch, but am determined not to miss too much, so I go for walk round Pashupati Hindu temple complex, with one of the heads. Funerals are taking place, bodies being cremated by the water and there is an interesting sight round every corner. Men are charging for photos of a cow with a fifth leg sticking out of its side.
My stomach has now got so bad that I cannot walk, so I retire to bed. The remaining heads are attending dinner at Sandj’s house in Patan that night. By the time of their departure I have a sinking feeling that I am not very well at all and not wanting to be left on my own or deal with doctors alone I get on the coach with them and go to Sandj’s. The longest, bumpiest, most painful journey of my life.
Once there, Sandj phones a doctor friend who advises that I should decamp immediately to hospital. There the diagnosis of appendicitis is rapidly confirmed. The pain is now so bad that I am beyond caring, but the sight of Ann telling the nurse off for wiping her thermometer on the curtain is not reassuring. She does subsequently insert it under my arm, but the swarms of spectators marching in from the waiting room to watch me take my clothes off do not add to my comfort. Ann shoos them all out only to discover that she had also dispatched the radiographer waiting to cart me off to X-ray.
I am not too far from consciousness to note that the surgeon has nice eyes while Ann mops my brow and gives a running commentary via the mobile to the Heads at the party. Martin, the American GP friend, tells her that the only alternative is to put me on heavy antibiotics and fly me out in the morning. He adds that the chances are that I won’t make it. No choice then and Ann signs the consent form as my 'sister'.
I wake some time later in a hospital room. Sandj and Ann are sleeping on benches and, miraculously, the pain has gone. Sandj arranges a shift of people to keep me company. Henrietta, a large Dutch nurse, Rachel, the Chair of Governors and a teacher’s wife come in shifts and bring magazines. Repeating the tale to everyone takes some time. Martin had got three surgeons out to operate and the chief surgeon comes in to see me. It’s the one with nice eyes.
I have the best room in the B and B private hospital. I’m not sure what B and B stands for (someone suggests Blood and Beastliness) but it isn’t bed and breakfast, as food is not provided. The room is comfortable enough, but basic, and the whole of Nepal seems to lurk in the corridor outside, wandering in whenever they feel like it. The floor is cleaned three times, but the bathroom is not touched.
I read my horoscope in the November Indian Cosmopolitan. It says “Watch out for a stomach bug!”
My friendly surgeon is persuaded that I will be nursed just as well at Sandj’s. All the nurses do here is take your temperature and change the drip. All my bedding is from Sandj and the last drip came out yesterday. I rebelled when it jammed up yet again and the nurse tried to open up my vein with a hypodermic needle.
Through the thronging streets of Kathmandu, in a four-wheel drive. I am wearing a baggy green winceyette nightie of Sandj’s and my little black leather boots. On arrival I am laid on the settee in front of a roaring log fire. Then Sandj arrives with speaker Chris Woodhead, (Ex Chief Inspector) back from trekking in Pokara. So I sit and make polite conversation and sip champagne. I own up to not having been able to change my attire for three days. CW confides that this is fine, as neither has he. Sandj is trying on scarves ready for a reception with Princess Ann, who is also visiting here. My life has become totally surreal.
My first outing since the op, but worth the effort as HRH is visiting the school today. I sit with parents in a roped off area outside the school and watch her drive in, wearing a pink suit the same colour as the pashmina I have on. I cause minor security chaos by asking to go to the toilet and am fascinated by the Sandhurst wives sitting around me. Finally, I am introduced to Princess Anne who is patently trying to avoid talking to any of the children. She wishes me a speedy recovery. Mum will love the photos.
I am very pleased at my fortitude and my reception. I seem to be more famous than HRH – everyone has heard of me! Retire to bed.
I can't go back to the Philippines. I have to recuperate and I'm forbidden to fly. So, I'm getting to know more about Nepal. This country incorporating some of the Himalayan and the Annapurna Ranges is home to eight of the world's tallest mountains, including, of course, a share of Mount Everest, with Tibet. But it's not all mountains. there are also hills and plains, in the south.
Nepal's fascinating history is reflected in the medieval appearance of its cities. The predominant religion is Hinduism, as is seen in the many temples and shrines. But this is also the land where Buddha was born, in Lumbini, and Buddhism is by no means a minority religion. In the north, the culture is sometimes inseparable from that of Tibet.
The centrally located Kathmandu Valley was home to the Newar dynasty, who developed the regions' distinct traditional art and architecture. By the eighteenth century, the Gorkha Kingdom had achieved the unification of Nepal. Nepal was never colonised, but served as a buffer state between Imperial China and British India. The Hindu monarchy, eventually. gave way to a secular republic (in 2008).
Nepal is also notable for its flag (it's the only country with a non-rectangular flag). and its renowned fighting force, the Gurkhas (also recruited from Northern India). Former Indian Army Chief of Staff Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw was reputed to say: "If a man says he is not afraid of dying, he is either lying or he is a Gurkha."
There are daily outings to central Kathmandu and the local Durbar Square . Many more towering temples, and crowds attending another festival with chanting music and monks sitting on a stage. Kumari Ghar, the exquisitely carved house of the Living Goddess Kumari (the only living goddess in the world), is found on the southern side of the square. She sometimes peeps out of the window.
There is pigeon feeding taking place too and the whole evokes a scene from the Hitchcock film. Fakirs and wizened old men wander round in red woollen robes, daubed with paint hoping someone will take their photo, so they can ask for money.
The temple of Seto Machindranath in Jana Bahal (also known as Machhindra Bahal). draws the eye as we wander past. as do many others.
Into the bazaar, Indra Chowk, of course. At the other extreme, there are also arcades of expensive little shops and cafes. The Indian Shop is particularly damaging to the wallet. We drink tea on a rooftop, looking across the teeming square to the white-capped peaks towering behind. The air is clear and the view spectacular. Rachel drives carefully past No Entry signs with gay abandon and bicycles and mopeds career over all the roads. Then, into the local version of a shopping mall. Dirty escalators creak past rows of bazaars and dingy shop fronts.
In the evenings, outings too. Sandj's husband, David, takes me to a screening of the Sixth Sense with Bruce Willis at the International Club. Another surreal experience as I sit by a brazier, sipping mulled wine and watching the film being projected onto a large sheet above the swimming pool.
Tomorrow, I am setting off on a recuperation tour, to spend a few days travelling to Tigertops, round the Terai plain and relaxing by the mountains.
On my return, I am met by Laxmi’s husband, Prakash and whisked back to Sandj’s house. There is great excitement as Maoist terrorists have threatened to kidnap children at the school. It has been shut for the next few days and may not be able to open until after Christmas. Politics here is also becoming exciting. All the hotels will be shut from Sunday onwards, as the staff are going on strike.
Laxmi helps me pack, for my return to Manila, which is a major endeavour after all the shopping. We just manage to cram everything into my two cases and an extra duffle bag. Sandj sees me off at the airport. I am allowed to return business class because of the comfort (and also lack of seats, due to the strike and to Christmas). Thirty-five kilos just squeaks through. A final view of Everest from the plane.
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