A Travellerspoint blog

September 2012

Om mani padme hum and yak wool blankets...

Musings on Kathmandu

sunny 25 °C

Kathmandu, put simply, is brilliant. There is so much to see and do you can easily fill ten days, and there seems to be plenty there to suit all tastes, be they trekking, extreme sports, history, haggling, spas or bars there is something for everyone. The valley is a great place to gain an insight into a vastly different culture, often seemingly untouched by western influences, relatively easily. There doesn’t appear to be the same sense of chaos often found in other parts of Asia, but instead a much calmer atmosphere, and one very much able to cope with tourism. The multitude of sights and sounds, colours and flavours on offer create an exciting playground for foreign visitors to explore and culminate in an unforgettable stay in Kathmandu.

Wandering around tourist ghetto Thamel, (and every other attraction of the Kathmandu Valley come to think of it), we are greeted by kitsch Buddhist chanting on a nauseating yet amusing loop, which if nothing else fills the air with a sense of identity far removed from our own. The words 'Om mani padme hum’ and twee tea-field melodies invade us from every corner, forming the anthem of Kathmandu and forever acting as the soundtrack to our stay there. On top of this we are tantalised by a never-ending array of Yak wool delights. Countless blankets big and small and of every colour combination call for our attention with their bold fluffy designs and we can’t help thinking to ourselves “Yes, maybe I could do with one…”. And we are faced with the same feeling in tea houses, trinket shops, paper emporiums and scarf grottos. One way or another, having allowed Thamel to work its magic over us, we’ll end up buying something we don’t need.

Putting aside the kaleidoscope of shopping, Kathmandu boasts some fantastic cultural sites. Durbar square is like an historical theme park. Once recovered from the extortionate price western visitors have to pay to enter, we are delighted by dramatic Newar attractions. Beautiful pagodas pose for cameras displaying their wonderful spectrum of vivid reds, strange statues of mysterious beings bring a smile to our faces, and dark temples give us a glimpse of a deep and ancient culture. Some visitors are even lucky enough to see the living goddess Kumari who resides in the Kumari Ghar temple.

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A short walk outside of the city centre leads us to Swayambhunath, one of the most important Buddhist complexes in Nepal and a must for any visit to Kathmandu. The walk up to the stupa is steep, with a seemingly infinite number of steps, but persevering to the summit is certainly rewarded. There we are greeted by a fantastic panorama of the Kathmandu Valley, a vista stretching for miles, embracing city and mountains alike, and apart from that, a truly spectacular religious site. To us western visitors, Swayambhunath seems so magical, so exotic, and so shrouded in mystery. The wonderful colours of the prayer flags dance in the breeze and contrast perfectly against the white body and golden crown of the temple, offering endless picture perfect moments. And as Swayambhu's secretive eyes gaze out across the city we wonder what they may have witnessed in years gone by.

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It’s a similar story a short drive from the city centre at Boudhanath stupa, which although does not boast magnificent views of the valley, is this time an even bigger religious landmark. Walking the perimeter of the temple gives you a sense of its dramatic size, truly demonstrating its status as one of the chief Buddhist sites in the world, and as a key centre for Tibetan culture. And as the potent yet sweet scent of incense, the hum of worshipers, and the rhythm of the giant prayer wheel fill the air we can’t help but be enchanted by them. Boudhanath really is a great day trip from Kathmandu.

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Further afield, the old city state of Bhaktapur is not to be missed. Although, once more, western tourists have to pay a ridiculous amount to be allowed in, it is a brilliant place to visit. Flooded with history it is instantly fascinating from the moment you pass through the city gate. It is full of charming wandering streets filled with stories and marvellous temples whispering of a glorious past. There are four picturesque squares to amuse visitors, each different and engaging in their own way. Taumadhi square boasts a tall, charming pagoda that is now a quaint restaurant and a perfect place to pause and take in the lovely atmosphere of Bhaktapur.

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So, although many may argue that Kathmandu is busy, polluted, prone to powercuts and full of tourist tat, and although that may be somewhat true, I firmly believe that it is an awe-inspiring place to visit. The city itself is able to entertain for days and by venturing just a little further into the valley we are rewarded with truly amazing experiences. Ultimately, the Nepali capital has it all.

Posted by lauracerys 07:28 Archived in Nepal Tagged asia nepal himalaya kathmandu bhaktapur patan thamel boudhanath buddist swayambhunath durbar newar Comments (0)

The peculiarities of Indian train travel.

all seasons in one day 30 °C

Wide inquisitive eyes. Dangling feet. Blaring chai wallahs and rickety carriages with a million tales. Indian train travel is in itself a unique experience.

The first thing that strikes you is the buzz and roar of the train station. Uncountable families and individuals fill every nook and cranny of the platform floor, waiting, chatting, eating, napping, even living. Intermittently a food vendor rattles his pans and bellows to gain the attention of anyone he can to offer an array of hot local delicacies, and street children hover hopefully pulling on your heart strings with pleading open hands.

The grumble of an engine and the wail of a horn signify the arrival of a never-ending train. This train already looks full to the naïve outsider, however hoards of people beg to differ. Passengers scramble on three at a time into crammed doorways, limbs flailing around, and the unique combination of desperation, determination and optimism, convincing that there is still plenty of space onboard.

If you have made a reservation you will eventually find your seat, which may or may not be empty, and fellow travellers will gaze at you in amazement, smirking at your damp brow, oversized backpack and stressed demeanour. Personal space is not an understood concept, so you will no doubt be wedged in-between any number of people, them, dressed in brilliant sari’s and long tunics, you, probably in sweaty clothes that are unlikely to make it to the end of your trip.

Your journey begins, and you are filled with an awkward, guilty feeling as you pass by the railway slums, and although you know you will see them, and although you have seen Slumdog Millionaire, nothing quite prepares you for this devastating reality found across India. Soon you will be out into open countryside and very different pictures will flicker by of local people tending to their rural lives in the varying landscapes of India, each astounding in their own way. And meanwhile vendors scamper up and down the train aisles selling no end of tea and samosas. You may also be lucky enough to receive a performance of the mini tambourine’s greatest hits – initially amusing, ultimately annoying.

Given the immense size of the country, you could find yourself on the train for hours on end, passing away the time deep in thought, reflecting upon your trip so far – so many experiences, so many unique moments, so many memories made. Until finally you arrive at your destination and are faced once again by a mad rush of people fighting their way off and onto the train – at the same time – and dozens of men fervently competing to ensure you that their rickshaw is indubitably the best priced whilst you try your very best not to trip over the swarms of people sat on the platform floor.

And finally, having battled your way through the railway circus, you make it out of the station in one piece, eager to take on the next chapter of your Indian adventure.

Posted by lauracerys 03:00 Archived in India Tagged travel india train station railway journey Comments (0)

Pushkar - A bite sized burst of Indian culture.

sunny 30 °C

When we think of India, scenes of vibrant saris, meandering cows, exotic cuisines and almost theatrical religious practises spring to mind. In many places around the country however, our perhaps romantic notions of an ancient and exuberant culture are overshadowed by the harsh reality of what can only be described as organised chaos. An ear splitting cacophony of sound, death defying traffic, stifling heat, filth and poverty mean that many towns and cities can be simply overwhelming, and it’s easy to miss the beauty and fascinating history of the place when faced with such unappealing features. One place however, is able to offer us a calmer, manageable environment, providing us with a colourful and pleasant bite sized burst of Indian culture – Pushkar.

This Rajasthani lakeside town is an important Hindu pilgrimage site that it is always bursting with activity around its numerous ghats. However, this hustle and bustle never seems to become too much for the foreign visitor. Large groups of Hindu families gather around the shore, the ladies displaying and array of vibrant, majestic clothing, to perform mysterious religious ceremonies and bathe in the lake. At sunset, a soundtrack of bells and chanting takes over the town as Pushkar comes alive with the strange contradiction of clamour and spirituality which makes up the evening prayer. Heading to one of the many roof top restaurants which boast views of the moon shimmered lake makes for a perfect way to while away the twilight hours.

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The main bazaar provides a fairly relaxing shopping experience offering the usual Aladdin’s cave type goodies of intricate sequined throws, baggy pantaloons and elephant-shaped everything. The haggling is friendly enough and there are sufficient colours, shapes and sizes to keep even the most fervent shopaholic satisfied.

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By venturing a little further afield up some of the back streets, visitors are rewarded by some architectural gems, frozen in time. Beautifully designed palatial buildings, which in Europe would surely be tourist attractions, lay forgotten and empty, except for the odd monkey or two, who there in those princely mansions truly are the jungle v.i.p. The weathered facades and intriguing shadows add to the bewitching mystery surrounding these buildings which can’t help but allure and bewilder passers-by.

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Of course, this is still India, so we are confronted by dazed cows, lunatic drivers and unnerving smells. But, for a destination that offers an authentic insight into the enchanting India we long for, Pushkar truly is an unforgettable place to spend a few days.

Posted by lauracerys 10:31 Archived in India Tagged india lake rajasthan pushkar Comments (0)

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