The holiday is over, and the people of Kathmandu have returned from their families and festivities to normal – and so has the pollution level in the city. We steered through appalling traffic and dust and made our way outward and upward into the foothills. The further away from the valley we got, the clearer the air, but the haze was still evident until we were well up the foothills. It is hard to know how to fix this problem – like all cities in developing countries Kathmandu is a magnet for people looking for education, opportunity, excitement.
We headed for Dawainkali - the temple dedicated to Kali, goddess of death and destruction. “We are lucky you took a break day,” says Shaku, our guide. “If we had come on Monday as planned, there would be little to see, but Tuesday is a day for sacrifices.” We look at each other dubiously.
We arrive at the site, and walk up a cobbled street past blocks and blocks of people selling items for sacrifice, ranging from bouquets of roses and garlands of marigolds to chickens and baby goats. Not so many souvenir sellers – these stalls are for genuine Nepali worshippers, not just for tourist show.
At the site two long queues of people writhe around the shrine. In addition, paths are set aside for non-Hindus and others excluded from the temple to observe the proceedings. Shaku confided that she was very unhappy not to be able to participate, as she was the wrong time of the month; women in menses cannot enter the temple. However, she directs us to the best vantage point, and we are able to witness the decapitation of a goat as well as the axing of a number of chickens and coconuts.
Once the sacrifice is made, the blood is sprinkled on Kali’s image, and the devotee is free to reclaim the chicken, goat, or coconut. Just outside the inner shrine is a shed where the animals are plucked, gutted, and dismembered for later barbequing. The marble floor of the area was stippled with blood drippings and mud – the thought crosses my mind that if I slip and fall I will probably have to be air-lifted to Delhi for blood purification.
Next we climb up a steep hill of steps to a second, less blood-thirsty shrine overlooking the first, where the worship of Vishnu goes on inside while at the same time at a corner of the plaza has been set up as a small temporary Buddhist shrine , festooned with prayer flags, and a group of Buddhists are devoutly reciting scriptures under the tutelage of a white-garbed teacher. A nice example of Nepali’s peaceful coexistence of religions. (Maybe it’s only the Muslims and Christians whose evangelical fervor makes trouble?)
On the way down we stop for tea and sai, a sort of Nepalese donut. Since we eat with our guide, the entire set including a Coke came to 70NP (the going rate for a Coke alone in Thamel is 80NP). However, the Nepalese make no secret of their double standard in pricing; all the museums and historic sites charge foreigners and tourists 3-5 times as much as ‘citizens of the SAARC” – which includes India, Cambodia, Thailand, Nepal, Bhutan, etc. This seems fair for the historic sites, as the funds are used for maintenance and restoration, and even at restaurants the tourist rate is still very reasonable – we have not paid more than $6 / person for any dinner.
Next we visit a relatively new Buddhist stupa founded by Thai Airlines in memory of the crew members and passengers of a Thai Airways flight between Bangkok and Katmandu that crashed in 1992. Golden buddhas, and a good view of smoggy Kathmandu below.
Our final stop is at a traditional Newari village, where women in traditional costumes are threshing and winnowing rice using woven trays - tirelessly filling the trays and tossing the rice to the wind to allow the chaff to float away. Where were the men? Groups of them squat on street corners playing cards with dried beans for markers. “It is a festival time for them,” explains Shaku – but evidently not for the women.
Back through the dust and pollution and traffic to our hotel – this time I use my neck scarf as a face mask and it was better. We bid our escorts good by with generous tips (I am not the wife of an ex-tour guide for nothing.)
Our third friend has joined us, and we have been moved to the Holy Himalayan Hotel’s equivalent of a penthouse suite -two rooms, one with a king bed and bathroom with a tub, the other with twin beds, a balcony, and a small kitchen. The cost is actually less per person.
For dinner we follow the recommendation of my sister’s colleague and hit Fire and Ice Pizzeria. Like other restaurants in Thamel it was founded by people who came to hike and stayed – the pizzas are as authentic as can be made with Nepalese ingredients, and the place is packed.
We sat at table with a charming young Belgian couple who had just completed much of the Annapurna circuit and had also gone to the Chitwan national wildlife park - another of the World heritage sites in Nepal where one can enjoy bathing with the elephants, canoeing through the rain forest, spotting rhinos, and dodging crocodiles. Maybe next time.
Note to travelers in Kathmandu: If you want to get seated promptly at a restaurant, arrive at 6PM or shortly after – by 7PM the joint was jammed and jumping.
Second note to travellers in Kathmandu: if you want to get your check in a hurry at a restaurant that is jammed and jumping, fugeddaboudit.
Third note: When you get the bill, be sure they return the credit card BEFORE you sign the chit.