I don’t sleep at all well, due in part to the unfamiliar surroundings. We begin our morning tour with a visit to the ghats at Pashupatinath. The bus drops us at the beginning of a dusty track that passes a line of small shops selling souvenirs and brightly-coloured dye powder. We are introduced to a bewildering cast of Hindu gods in the temple area up on the hillside east of the river, and, compounded with my lack of sleep, it’s all too much to take in. We pause a while, watching the cremations on the bank of the river opposite, and the monkeys shimmying from rooftop to rooftop by way of the connecting power cables.
Our next port of call is the Buddhist stupa at Bouddanath, one of the world’s largest. Following protocol, we walk clockwise around the imposing domed structure, which is topped by a tall spire. On each of the four sides of the spire is painted the eyes of the Buddha. I surprise Ray with my apparent religious zeal by removing my sandals, but actually it is because the stitching of one of the straps has broken and I can’t keep them on. Not bad for day one of the holiday.
A gigantic Buddha gazes down on us inside the monastery next to the square, and the Dalai Lama looks on benevolently from a framed photograph beneath. In a separate room next door, a gargantuan prayer wheel slowly turns, striking a bell once on each revolution.
We return to the city centre, to Durbar Square for lunch. Siling leads us to a quiet rooftop café in the south-east corner that serves a decent fried rice with chicken. Just across the square is the Kumari Chowk, where James is very keen to catch a glimpse of the ‘living goddess’, a prepubescent girl who lives inside the Chowk and whose feet are never allowed to touch the ground. A little further around the corner is a collection of yet more shrines, including a particularly disturbing image of ‘angry Shiva’.
It’s all starting to get a bit too much again as we squeeze into taxis to take us up the hill to the west of the city for Swayambhu, the ‘monkey temple’. The road even within the city is potholed and we are bumped and rolled down a series of narrow streets, at one point backing up to an electronic rendition of “Jingle Bells” and trying a different route. We approach the stupa from the rear entrance. Prayer flags in five colours are fluttering in the breeze—blue, red, green, yellow, and white, representing the five elements—space, fire, air, earth, and water.
The stupa itself is not dissimilar to the one at Bouddanath, but the view albeit smoggy over Kathmandu makes the climb worthwhile. Chest-thumping drums and sounds evocative of dinosaur indigestion emanate from the back room of a monastery bordering onto the square. Inside, red-robed monks are chanting, banging drums, and occasionally blowing into trumpets. The sources of the colonic-noises are a pair of 10-foot conical wooden trumpets, blown by two elderly monks sitting at one end of the chamber.
We descend an unnervingly steep and long stone staircase in the direction of the city. Monkeys, beggars, and hawkers all try to attract the attention of tourists in the hope of reward. A mother monkey watches patiently as her baby tries to climb a Buddha figure, repeatedly sliding back down the polished surface. After several minutes of this game, the baby is unceremoniously scooped up by the mother and carried off.
The taxi back to Durbar Square costs us 200 Rs, although we could probably have got it for 150. There is a confusing array of notes—1, 2, 5, 10, 20, 50, 100, 200, 500, and 1000. In mitigation, the exchange rate makes one rupee worth very close to one penny. The smaller notes are so creased and dirty as to all but obliterate their identity.
Back in Durbar Square, James makes another attempt to see the Kumari and receive her blessing. Meanwhile I wait outside on the steps of the Trailokya Mohan, a three-roofed pagoda dedicated to Vishnu the sustainer, the second of the Hindu ‘Trimurti’. (The other two are Brahma the creator and Shiva the destroyer.) There is much going on to watch in the square, but the constant stream of hawkers who try to engage me in conversation before striking for the kill grows tiresome. When James emerges he is disappointed—only the briefest sighting for his efforts.
We find our way back to the hotel fairly easily on foot and all meet up again for dinner in the hotel restaurant. Valerie, local Exodus organiser, puts in an appearance to brief us on the trek and to hand out maps.