Kathmandu: a Grand Tour from the Monkey Temple to Cremations by a River

The next morning, we meet our guide for the day, Mr. Sanu Vajrachara. He is a research assistant to Prof. Todd Lewis (at Holy Cross University in Worcester, Mass.) and an all-around savant for the sights and histories of KTM. With a car and driver hired for the day, we are now highly mobile.

We head from the hotel to our first stop, Swayambhunath temple, perched atop a 300 meter hill at the edge of the KTM valley.



Here’s the myth behind its beginning:

“The entire KTM valley was once filled with an enormous lake, out of which grew a lotus flower. The valley came to be known as Swayambhu, meaning “Self-Created.” The name comes from an eternal self-existent flame (svyaṃbhu) over which a stūpa was later built. (Swayambhunath is also known as the Monkey Temple as there are holy monkeys living in its north-west parts. When Manjushri, the bodhisattva of wisdom and learning, was raising the hill which the Swayambhunath Temple stands on, he let his hair grow long and head lice formed. He changed the lice into these monkeys.)


(photo from Wiki Commons)

But before the lice-into-monkeys transformation, Manjusri had a vision of the lotus at Swayambhu and traveled there to worship it. Seeing that the valley could be a good settlement for humans, Manjusri cut a gorge and the water drained out of the lake, leaving the valley in which Kathmandu now lies. The lotus was transformed into a hill and the flower became the Swayambhunath stupa.” (from Wikipedia)

I remember coming up here some 35 years ago, although at that time the hill was in the countryside outside KTM proper. Today it is surrounded by buildings and roads, and has the feel of a city park more than a pilgrimage site. Since it is now more accessible, great crowds of people flow into the limited spaces available, creating bottlenecks as some offer prayers, others take photos, and a celebratory rather than religious atmosphere prevails. It is still a site of pilgrimage but, at least as I remember it, it seems to have shrunk in size. Too many people will do that to a place.



We then head to Bhaktapur, Nepal’s “cultural capital” some 11 km. from the city center and on a small plateau. It was designated a World Heritage site and so can charge foreigners (though not Nepalis) around $15 a ticket to enter. Ouch. Just inside the gate, the first two areas are connected with the royal palaces of ancient Newar kings that formerly ruled in the Kathmandu valley. No vehicles are allowed so there is a peace and order that is punctuated only by large groups of school kids, families, and Chinese on tour.imageImage


We pop in and out of buildings, with Sanu giving commentary along the way. Max seems more interested in the people than the sites, and I must admit the same. Ninety minutes later, we are finished with sightseeing and lunch, and are heading back to town. In my mind, however, I’ve noted a number of guest houses and inns, thinking that I’ll return after Max heads back to Japan on the 20th.

Our last stop is the Hindu temple Pashupatinath, dedicated to Shiva, lord of creation and destruction. We reach it around 3 p.m., feeling a bit tired and baked by the warm sun that has been with us since morning.


However, once we enter the hillside viewing tiers built above the cremation area on the other side of the Bagmati river, fascination replaces fatigue. One cremation is in progress: a high-ranking politician who was on a Nepal Airlines flight from Pokhara which crashed in the mountains that rainy weekend we were there. 18 people died, all because this particular politician was on a tight schedule and needed to pay a visit to the remote region before hurrying back to KTM.

Two other bodies are wrapped in orange fabric printed with the “om” Sanskrit character, awaiting final rites preceding cremation.Image

Sanu shows us meditation caves just beside the temple proper. I’m a bit surprised to learn that non-Hindus are not allowed in the main temple, even though we paid $10 per person for admission to yet another World Heritage site. Having this distinction seems to give places the right to charge whatever they want, although some of that fee goes for maintenance and preservation (I would hope). I wonder if they would have allowed George Harrison to enter, a dedicated follower of Krishna and thus a Hindu by default.

Max seems wholly absorbed in watching the bodies be positioned for blessings and final goodbyes. A temple attendant helps family members administer oils, water, and food to the dead person. One corpse is positioned on a special slab of stone above the barely moving waters of the river, allowing everyone on the other side some 40 meters away to see clearly the gaping mouth of this old man (or woman?), into which each family member or relative pours water and then a few grains of rice. Several women are wailing, and one male–a son presumably–must be supported by two women on each side.


At the same time some 40 feet directly above this riverside staging area, a group of devotees is drumming and singing pilgrimage prayers to Shiva. A Nepali Hindu would see no dissonance whatsoever between the pilgrims and the corpses since both are part of the life cycle and a result of karma. That is oversimplifying of course but I do wonder if the family members of the deceased even hear that lively music and chanting from directly above their heads.

On our side of the river, some people sit on a series of terraces facing the one ongoing cremation and the shrouded bodies awaiting their turn, while others sit on benches typical of public parks. There is a Pashupatinath cafe nearby, serving drinks and a variety of snacks.Image

And since a major Shiva festival is on the horizon, a number of wandering holy men are starting to converge and set up camps. Some are long-term residents of the temple, making ends meet by posing and being compensated monetarily for photos taken by visitors.  They may have been ascetics at one time in their careers, but these men seem to enjoy the role of religious performers, primping their face paint and hair while holding little hand mirrors, and then showing off for tourists. They are photogenic and I make a small donation of 20 rupees, but I also sneak a photo or two as other visitors snap away.


We have watched one family prepare their elderly parent for over an hour, and are now out of time even though we would like to stay longer to see the final fire. But our agreement is until 4 p.m., and so we leave with some reluctance and fight traffic to make it back to the hotel. At first Sanu puts up resistance about receiving some payment for ushering us thru the day, but eventually relents when I tell him that Todd will be pissed if he doesn’t take the money ($30). And although Max and I are pooped, we still have to eat and so, after resting a bit, head down to the stupa for a meal and an evening view from the windows of the Gurkha grill.

There are so many images, histories, resonances, and encounters of the day that it will take some time for the dust to settle. Mostly, I feel a sense of relief and gratitude that we made it through the day, and that Max’s last one in Nepal had a poignant lesson about the impermanence of life. We even talk at dinner about our own demise, and what should be done with the remains. It’s a cheery conversation, aided by a couple beers, that is not weighed down with sadness or regret.



A KTM Sanctuary: Hotel Shambaling

Since neither of us wants to stay in downtown KTM again, we taxi to the Bodhnath area and check in to the superb Hotel Shambaling. We even get a room upgrade to the garden side of the hotel, thus escaping some construction noise on a neighboring Buddhist monastery.



The giant stupa in Bodhnath is a World Heritage site and has been a magnet for Buddhists in south-central Asia since the 5th century CE. In particular, Bodhnath has become a refuge and home for many Tibetans, and a variety of Vajrayana monasteries from several denominations appear to be flourishing. More on that later.

Our room was on the first floor, closest to the camera.  What a relief to land here and have some peace and quiet in the midst of busy and oftentimes frenetic urban neighborhoods.

The International Incident at Pokhara Airport

Our last morning in Pokhara dawned crystal clear. We were both on the roof of the Dandelion Hotel by 7:30, taking panorama shots of the Himalayas turning from rose pink to their stunning white. After all the time I have spent gazing upon their forms/contours/colors/shadows/ and summits, I think they have taken up (more-or-less) permanent residence in a corner of my crowded mind. I can close my eyes and see them clearly, including some of the lesser ridges and peaks. “Mountains on my mind” sounds oppressive but is anything but that.


At the Pokhara airport, we are provided some jaw-dropping entertainment by a 40-ish Chinese man going through security. The young officer monitoring the x-ray machine calls over another security person to view the screen, and both of them then turn and look at each other. After some discussion among the four guards, the Chinese man is pulled aside, his group’s guide is called over, and a discussion ensues about the 4 Gurkha knives he has put into his carryon bag. These are substantial weapons, each with a blade of at least 5 inches. Since this is such a blatantly stupid act, the tourist off the hook because he is assumed to be ignorant (perhaps this goes with the territory of being a contemporary Chinese citizen, whose government systematically and consistently misinforms them about their own history, as well as misrepresents the history and politics of other nations). He not arrested, charged, fined or otherwise penalized. The knives are taken out and put in the check-in baggage, no problem.  I’m happy to get on a different flight than the one this guy is on.  Max and I sit by a window and enjoy the view all the way to KTM.


(note:  black face masks are quite common in the urban areas, so we are following local fashion as well as protecting our respiratory systems from the dust and other junk that can lay a person low)


“Sweet Joys Befall Thee” • Paragliding above Pokhara

(Since there is no way I would ever be able to render this experience in detail, I opt for evocation rather than representation.  And besides, the photos say more than I possibly can.  A line in the title  (from “Songs of Innocence” by the 18th c. poet William Blake)  helps set the scene…)


Today I was a bird,
then a gust of wind rattling bamboo,
then a helpless yet willing child
suspended in a basket
from a billowing parasail.

Mix all of the above
and consciousness is transformed.

My pilot Herve is French and
has flown 20,000 times
over a 25 year career,
yet he understands bien
how that first step and then

leap ! ! !

into absolutely nothing at all
unhinges and transports a person,
a transcendence
that completely delights.

I watch Max and pilot Pierre
take off like a seasoned team,
my son staring down
and then launching into
the embrace of a windy void,

their yellow sail a splash of color
against a crystalline blue sky.
Far below unfold the planet’s
slopes, undulations, and hues–
what a bird sees without thinking,

pure perception, instinct unflinching,
to soar above Sarankot,
riding thermals and bucking crosswinds,
lowering a wing to join
gravity’s spiral dance.

Too soon land and lakeside
rise rapidly, tangibly,
their abrupt materiality
both a caution and a welcome
for these fragile creatures’



Rain and clouds this morning, so no way in hell is anyone going flying. Despite a new head cold that has caught me by surprise, it seems that new plans are required and a hike in the countryside the best way to salvage bad weather. Given that the Himalayas usually stand clear in the morning (if only for a few minutes at or before sunrise), and that I very much want him to see these mountains, we agree on an overnight trek to Dhampus and one night at the Dhaulagiri View Lodge. Even if we have no view, the trail up and back is full of sights and people and the culture of Nepal’s foothills.

So we pack up quickly, leave two bags at the front, and let the DVL know we’re coming. We postpone the paragliding till Monday. A young taxi driver grudgingly agrees to take us to Phedi, where the trail to Dhampus begins (and which I tried to avoid by finding a vehicle to the top of the first ridge) and we’re off through the city on a Saturday morning.

About halfway up the trail, the clouds get their act together and it starts to rain lightly. I can tell from how fast they are moving that these clouds are serious. We make a run for the tea house I stopped at the other day, and just beat the downpour. While we warm up with tea and enjoy some coconut biscuits, the owner comes by and we chat about weather, his business, the Chinese, and visitors smoking dope. “Sometimes it’s okay, like when you’re on the trail all day and you get tired or have leg trouble. But it makes you one-sided.” He told the story of a German man who had just stayed with him for 3 days who indulged from morning to night. “He spoke in many voices,” the proprietor said, “and I think he was not right in the head.” After he took his leave, his son dropped by and let us know that he walked the Phedi to Dhampus trail everyday, up and down, so he could catch a bus that would take him to school in Pokhara. He wants to go into business and is working on his computer skills.

After a good 45 minutes under shelter, the rain lets up and gives us a chance to reach the ridge.
No sooner do we arrive than a party at a small tea shop strikes up, Nepali movie music blasting, and an attractive young woman steals the show with her smooth and sexy dance moves. One man after another steps up to try and dance with her, but she leaves them in the dust. It’s Saturday, everyone’s day off, and so a party mood prevails. We have lunch to get out of the blustery wind, and are delighted when the clouds part and sunshine reappears.


In fact, walking the last 20 minutes to the Lodge, we have a grand view of the Dhampus ridge and valley fields, the mountains peeking through the clouds, and a band of rainbow below. It’s an auspicious welcome.


Max carried the pack the entire way and I’m grateful because my energy levels are dropping precipitously. He is still in discovery mode and heads up to the ridge for the cloudy sunset, while I crash for a long and deliciously quiet nap.

At dinner, we talk about his recent Hawaii trip w/ his girlfriend, and how that went & etc. I tell him a little of being in Nepal this long and weathering the flu, getting well in Bandipur, and some general reflections about tourism and travel. Even though we last saw each other in Japan in October, we are able to pick up thematic threads easily and it’s great fun to chat. I will confess to a bit of anxiety before he arrived, wondering if all this solo time and travel had made me strange or weird. But he reassured me I’m still the same boring guy. Sweet.

He’s a media star in Tokyo, using skillfully his great ability in Japanese, his self-confidence, and his deep baritone voice–plus a smattering of good looks–to move regularly between radio (NHK World News and an intermediate English class), MCing major fundraising, corporate, music or sport events, TV commercials (his Honda and Samsung Galaxy ads ran throughout the Winter Olympics), and the occasional translation.

That he could leave all that behind for about 10 days, and lose income from missed opportunities MCing, is a great testament to his general curiosity about the world. His 2,500+ Facebook “friends” expressed a wide range of comments about how happy/envious/jealous they were that he can make this trip. I’m just relieved he made it safely and consider each minute together a precious gift.



Valentine’s Day Gift: Max in Pokhara!

imageFeb. 14

How marvelous when an imagined plan becomes tangibly real, and my son fresh from Tokyo emerges from the Pokhara domestic terminal. He flew from Tokyo to Osaka, changed planes, then to Bangkok, changed planes and endured a 5 hour layover, then on to Kathmandu for an overnight. To his great credit for a first-time visitor to south Asia, he plunged into the central city, walking from Thamel to Durbar Square and back again at dusk and into night, taking a couple hundred of photos en route!  Everything was significant or interesting or scenic and it was wonderful to hear how excited he was for that initial encounter.  Welcome and namaste.

Now he’s here and we’re hoping for good weather (despite the forecast of rain this entire weekend). We get him checked into the Dandelion Hotel in a room beside mine (so he won’t catch my cold), then stroll Lakeside to give him an idea of the difference between here and KTM. The clouds look serious, but we’re booked for paragliding tomorrow and so will hope for the best. His time in Nepal is six whole days, so we can’t really blow a single one.

Machapuchare Reconsidered

For the third day in a row, the morning reigns supreme with good visibility. As soon as breakfast is done and I’m all packed, I head up to the viewpoint for a final flute recital and a hearty see-you-later to my friendly Himal.

It dawns on me while looking at Machapuchare that the name associating the mountain with a fish tail is a dumb and rather disrespectful one, and so I ponder how to rectify it. The dual summits soon make clear that this stunning upthrust of rock (closely resembling the Matterhorn in Switzerland, or vice versa) has a balanced duality. At 6993 meters (22,943 ft.) these dual summits are complementary crowns, pushed up into the sky when the Indian subcontinent broke away from Gondwanaland 140 million years ago and floated north to collide with Asia. Basalt, silica, granite and white quartz now call out to neighboring Annapurna and Lamjung Himal that balanced binaries help organize this cosmos.

An association with gendered humans is obvious, but how about prior to our recent appearance on the planet? The mountain’s twin peaks could remind us of the mantle and earth’s core as a fundamental pair. Also primary is the sky and land binary. Night into day? Neuron and electron? No shortage of examples!

The south face and its peak must be “yo”/yang, both absorbing and transmitting the vital energy the ancient Chinese recognized as qi. The north and “in” face protects the south and is perhaps higher and more vulnerable to the shadows at its base and the winds howling around the top.

So then it’s Inyo Mountain for me, although “machapuchare” still sounds cool even if the meaning is, in my view, not really representative or evocative of the reality at hand.

My walk down the ridge and back to the Pokhara road is delightful, taking about 90 minutes. A local bus is waiting for me and so I hop on for the 45 min. ride back to the edge of the city, then taxi back to Dandelion Hotel. It was a perfect day and overall excellent trip, and now I’m ready for Mr. Tokyo to appear tomorrow.  

This last image was bestowed upon me after the previous day’s storm clouds parted briefly at sunset.  A lovely mountain bathed in a pastel rose light, with a lenticular cloud crowning its summit.  Suitable for framing and long-term inspiration….