Mem­o­ries of Kath­mandu

The sights, sounds and ad­ven­tures of Nepal’s cap­i­tal are fab­u­lously be­wil­der­ing and cap­ti­vat­ing

Vancouver Sun - - TRAVEL - VI­O­LET ST. CLAIR

I had a list of favourite cities that jos­tled and re­ar­ranged as I trav­elled the world dur­ing my summers off. Paris, Ulaan­baatar, Cape Town, Mel­bourne — they all cap­ti­vated me.

Then, I landed in Kath­mandu. I didn’t know where to look: the mass of jum­bled cords and wires above the streets re­flected the teem­ing tan­gle of mo­tor­bikes, ve­hi­cles, cows, dogs and peo­ple — throngs of peo­ple on the move, hel­ter-skel­ter. It was vi­o­lent and un­re­lent­ing. Oc­ca­sion­ally a macaque scam­pered and swung across the ca­bles.

Lanes were loosely, cre­atively, ter­ri­fy­ingly in­ter­preted. Drivers leaned on their horns. On ei­ther side of the roads, there were tow­er­ing crates of Orange Crush and Pepsi, along with ram­shackle carts of to­ma­toes, mel­ons and ba­nanas.

Out one win­dow of the taxi a group of men, bare chested in flip flops, soaped up with buck­ets of grey wa­ter. Out the op­po­site win­dow, women in long skirts car­ried awk­ward bun­dles on their backs. They were bent with their bur­dens as they ca­su­ally chat­ted among them­selves.

In both win­dows, lit­tle hands sell­ing matches and bits of food tried to en­tice me.

The build­ings and shops looked tur­bu­lent and thrown to­gether. Noth­ing fit, yet it was all so ir­re­sistible. I was so not in Kansas any­more.

On the cor­ner, close to my ho­tel, a bar­ber cov­ered his mir­ror with a cloth and hob­bled over to the bridge for a smoke. Closed for the day.

The next morn­ing, rested and rinsed free of the pre­vi­ous day’s dust and hul­la­baloo, I was ready to ab­sorb ev­ery­thing on my agenda.

Ev­ery morn­ing I felt the same; ev­ery evening I crashed. Kath­mandu was just too dense, too fab­u­lously be­wil­der­ing; a sen­sual, un­think­able bab­ble of sights, sounds and ad­ven­tures.

The Bag­mati River, holy to Hin­dus and Bud­dhists alike, flows through Kath­mandu and even­tu­ally joins the holi­est Hindu river, Ma Ganga, the Ganges. Into its tor­pid wa­ters, the ash re­mains of count­less gen­er­a­tions of Nepalis have been poured. I was headed to the east­ern bank of the river just op­po­site Pashu­pati­nath Tem­ple.

The path­way lead­ing up the hill to where the cre­ma­tion cer­e­monies can be ob­served at a re­spectable dis­tance, had plenty to dis­tract and tempt. Turquoise masks of Gane­sha and Shiva, Ti­betan singing bowls, rich red scarves and beaded ban­gles. The eyes of the Bud­dha were ev­ery­where, doors, tem­ples, T-shirts, cars. They re­minded me of the blue eye of Turkey.

Cows and dogs, ever present, wan­dered, and the mon­keys kept the tourists en­ter­tained, and the sell­ers wary. They are de­vi­ously light fin­gered, mer­cu­rial and saucy. Caps, wa­ter bot­tles, sand­wiches, even the painful yank­ing of a dan­gling ear­ring, schooled me to keep my dis­tance.

At the top of the hill, look­ing across the Bag­mati, there were sev­eral fires send­ing up swaths of smoke. The sight is im­me­di­ately com­pelling. Cre­ma­tion takes time and the queues sel­dom dwin­dle.

Over to the left by the bridge, a fi­esta of tan­ger­ine-coloured marigolds were piled high and jum­bled to­gether for the mourn­ers to place on the bod­ies. On a grey day with blur­ring swirls of ashen smoke, by a river al­most black with pol­lu­tion, this was the bright­est bit of colour and warmth to a griev­ing tableau. That night I dreamed of apri­cots and pump­kins and my de­ceased mother, plant­ing marigolds in her garden.

Then, there was Dur­bar Square: fiendishly fas­ci­nat­ing, stream­ing with life and op­u­lent with pi­geons, fe­roc­i­ties and tem­ples.

Street shrines, some with the fresh re­mains of a re­cent sac­ri­fice; tum­bling tem­ples and dusty piles of bricks and ma­sonry, cour­tesy of the 2015 earth­quake; long line­ups of men along a chain-link fence read­ing pages and pages from tacked up Nepali news­pa­pers; divine stat­ues of crea­tures and gods, the stuff of un­var­nished child­hood night­mares.

And al­ways, the ever-present heaps of fire-hued gar­lands. All of these im­ages butted their way into me, clam­our­ing for at­ten­tion, com­pet­ing for pri­macy.

I wanted to stay longer, much, much longer, and en­joy a lassi at a café by the banks of this in­cred­i­ble stream of life, but I had an ap­point­ment with a four- year-old girl, the cho­sen liv­ing god­dess, Ku­mari.

There are three ku­maris in Nepal, but the Royal Ku­mari of Kath­mandu is the most im­por­tant one. She lives in the Ku­mar Ghar (Palace) in Dur­bar Square and only leaves the palace a hand­ful of times for spe­cial fes­tiv­i­ties and rit­u­als.

She is al­ways car­ried; her feet may not touch the ground. She is be­lieved to be the em­bod­i­ment of the Hindu god­dess, Taleju. When a ku­mari is cho­sen, and many fam­i­lies of­fer up their young daugh­ters for this hon­our, she must un­dergo a long list of tri­als and cri­te­ria.

At the head of the list, pre­men­strual. At the on­set of men­stru­a­tion, the search be­gins anew for the next ku­mari. She must be a vir­gin with a per­fect and pure body and pos­sess enough brav­ery to wit­ness sev­eral sac­ri­fices with­out tears or dread.

There are dozens of other de­mands, and I won­dered how they judged some of the more ex­otic stip­u­la­tions, like chest of a lion and lashes of a cow.

The Royal Ku­mari will ap­pear, from time to time, on the bal­cony in the in­ner court­yard of her home. The ar­chi­tec­ture of the palace was sup­ported ev­ery­where with long stakes of wood, again a re­minder of the 2015 earth­quake. But it was still rich with in­tri­cate de­signs and beau­ti­ful with carv­ings of deities, beasts and war­riors. We waited pa­tiently, all cam­eras put away, our empty hands in full view.

She came sur­rounded by her watch­ful at­ten­dants; small and so vul­ner­a­ble look­ing with pouty lit­tle lips down­turned in be­muse­ment. She looked like a doll in her cer­e­mo­ni­ous cloth­ing. She gazed at us solemnly. And then, she was car­ried away.

Back at the ho­tel, I was ready to shower, share some scotch, and sim­mer through my im­pres­sions. Janet, an in­trepid Amer­i­can woman, re­cruited Ka­t­rina from Aus­tralia and my­self for a quick (so we thought) trip to a lo­cal store she had seen on Face­book.

The Lo­cal Women’s Hand­i­craft shop, started by Nas­reen Sheikh, was a fair-trade tex­tile and hand­i­craft col­lec­tive in Kath­mandu, fo­cused on em­pow­er­ing and ed­u­cat­ing dis­ad­van­taged women. The three of us piled into a cab and away we went into the night.

Ten min­utes later our driver ad­mit­ted that he was lost. We were now crawl­ing through tight lanes and dark path­ways, work­ing against the tide, shoe horn­ing our way through peo­ple, an­i­mals, scoot­ers, bikes and van buses.

Janet sprang into ac­tion lo­cat­ing the num­ber of the shop on her phone. We ar­rived less than five min­utes later and Nas­reen was out­side wav­ing and smil­ing.

It was such a lit­tle “hole in the wall.”

We had a great time lis­ten­ing to Nas­reen’s story, ad­mir­ing the beauty of the many hand­made items for sale, and of course, buy­ing, buy­ing, buy­ing. I think she kept the shop open late for us.

The im­ages of that night crowd col­lide in bursts of sepia-hued flashes; a blur of peo­ple and ve­hi­cles square danc­ing in un­pre­dictable pat­terns, er­ratic clus­ters of stalls and shops in pale pools of light, con­trast­ing with dark nar­row side streets.

A year later, a cer­tain shade of orange, a flight of pi­geons, a swath of flut­ter­ing prayer flags can still trans­port me there.


The sun rises over Kath­mandu, un­veil­ing the prom­ise of a new day of un­for­get­table ex­pe­ri­ences that are both over­whelm­ing and in­vig­o­rat­ing.


Tan­ger­ine-coloured marigolds are of­fered for sale at a stand on the streets of Kath­mandu.


Cre­ma­tion cer­e­monies are a com­pelling sight that can be ob­served from a re­spectable dis­tance.


The streets of Kath­mandu are a chaotic blur of peo­ple and ve­hi­cles, yet they’re some­how beau­ti­ful at the same time.


Where else might you see macaques on mo­tor­bikes?


Mo­tor­ized tuk-tuks can get aw­fully crowded.

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