Going back to Kathmandu to meet Alex. He comes from Ukraine for 2 weeks. Finally we can see all of Nepal together! There are elections happening soon, and some groups oppose elections, so they demand a country wide strike which will shut down all businesses. They try to act smart and keep their hands off of tourists, Thamel is swamped with police and army for tourists' protection, but still, many shops and restaurants are closed, they said that they will set taxies on fire and will puncture tires in local buses. I'm not really sure how are we gonna get around this week. Hopefully it won't be as bad as it sounds.
First day we relaxed - as much as noisy and dirty Thamel allows you too, and then went to the monkey temple. When I've been there the first time around, there were too many people and less monkeys, now it seems like it was another way around. There were herds of them, and they were all migrating at the same time. We almost ended up by mistake right in the middle of their move, and yes I'm still scared of monkeys, but the ones here seem to be harmless, cause I'm assuming they're used to so many tourists sticking cameras up their faces.
Alex decided to surprise me. He decided to come travel with me for 3 months instead of 2 weeks. Man oh man, a surprise indeed!!!
We went to the old town of Kathmandu and Patan which are only 4 kms apart, but before they were separate kingdoms. Most of the buildings are very new though because the 1934 earthquake leveled a quarter of all the buildings in Nepal. In Kathmandu the entrance was $7.5, we decided not to pay it, and went through the ticket office as though we didn't notice a thing :) In Patan we found a side entrance, but they're smarter here, and actually give a red ticket which you hang on your neck so you're easily identifiable ... so not much luck here :) The temples are beautiful, but they pretty much all look alike. One exception was that on one they had sex scenes, and on the other torture scenes.
In these and other temples of Nepal, the Nepalis Buddhists worship young girls who are called Kumari.
Wikipidia - Kumari or "Living Goddess" is the tradition of worshiping young pre-pubescent girls as manifestations of the divine female energy or devi in Hindu religious traditions.
Once Taleju has left the sitting Kumari, there is a frenzy of activity to find her successor. Some have compared the selection process to the process used in nearby Tibet to find the reincarnations of Tulkus, such as the Dalai Lama or the Panchen Lama. The selection process is conducted by five senior Buddhist Vajracharya priests, the Panch Buddha, the Bada Guruju or Chief Royal Priest, Achajau the priest of Taleju and the royal astrologer. The King and other religious leaders that might know of eligible candidates are also informed that a search is underway.
Eligible girls are Buddhists from the Newar Shakya caste (the clan to which the Buddha belonged) of silver and goldsmiths. She must be in excellent health, never have shed blood or been afflicted by any diseases, be without blemish and must not have yet lost any teeth. Girls who pass these basic eligibility requirements are examined for the 'thirty-two perfections' of a goddess. Some of these are poetically listed as such:
A neck like a conch shell
A body like a banyan tree
Eyelashes like a cow
Thighs like a deer
Chest like a lion
Voice soft and clear as a duck's
In addition to this, her hair and eyes should be very black, she should have dainty hands and feet, small and well-recessed sexual organs and a set of twenty teeth.
The girl is also observed for signs of serenity and fearlessness and her horoscope is examined to ensure that it is complementary to the King's. It is important that there not be any conflicts as she must confirm the King's legitimacy each year of her divinity. Her family is also scrutinized to ensure its piety and devotion to the King.
Once the priests have chosen a candidate, she must undergo yet more rigorous tests to ensure that she indeed possesses the qualities necessary to be the living vessel of Durga. Her greatest test comes during the Hindu festival of Dashain. On the kalratri, or 'black night', 108 buffaloes and goats are sacrificed to the goddess Kali. The young candidate is taken into the Taleju temple and released into the courtyard, where the severed heads of the animals are illuminated by candlelight and masked men are dancing about. If the candidate truly possesses the qualities of Taleju, she shows no fear during this experience. If she does, another candidate is brought in to attempt the same thing.
As a final test, the living goddess must spend a night alone in a room among the heads of ritually slaughtered goats and buffaloes without showing fear. The fearless candidate has proven that she has the serenity and the fearlessness that typifies the goddess who is to inhabit her. After passing all other tests, the final test is that she must be able to pick out the personal belongings of the previous Kumari from an assortment of things laid out before her. If she is able to do so, there is no remaining doubt that she is the chosen one.
Once the Kumari is chosen, she must be purified so that she can be an unblemished vessel for Taleju. She is taken by the priests to undergo a number of secret Tantric rituals to cleanse her body and spirit of her past experiences. Once these rituals are completed, Taleju enters her and she is presented as the new Kumari. She is dressed and made up as a Kumari and then leaves the Taleju temple and walks across the square on a white cloth to the Kumari Ghar that will be her home for the duration of her divinity.
Once the chosen girl completes the Tantric purification rites and crosses from the temple on a white cloth to the Kumari Ghar to assume her throne, her life takes on an entirely new character. She will leave her palace only on ceremonial occasions. Her family will visit her rarely, and then only in a formal capacity. Her playmates will be drawn from a narrow pool of Newari children from her caste, usually the children of her caretakers. She will always be dressed in red, wear her hair in a topknot and have "fire eye" painted on her forehead as a symbol of her special powers of perception.
The Kumari's walk across the Durbar Square is the last time her feet will touch the ground until such time as the goddess departs from her body. From now on, when she ventures outside of her palace, she will be carried or transported in her golden palanquin. Her feet, like all of her, are now sacred. Petitioners will touch them, hoping to receive respite from troubles and illnesses. The King himself will kiss them each year when he comes to seek her blessing. She will never wear shoes; if her feet are covered at all, they will be covered with red stockings.
The power of the Kumari is perceived to be so strong that even a glimpse of her is believed to bring good fortune. Crowds of people wait below the Kumari's window in the Kumari Chowk, or courtyard, of her palace, hoping that she will pass by the latticed windows on the third floor and glance down at them. Even though her irregular appearances last only a few seconds, the atmosphere in the courtyard is charged with devotion and awe when they do occur.
The more fortunate, or better connected, petitioners visit the Kumari in her chambers where she sits upon a gilded lion throne. Many of those visiting her are people suffering from blood or menstrual disorders since the Kumari is believed to have special power over such illnesses. She is also visited by bureaucrats and other government officials. Petitioners customarily bring gifts and food offerings to the Kumari, who receives them in silence. Upon arrival, she offers them her feet to touch or kiss as an act of devotion. During these audiences, the Kumari is closely watched and her actions interpreted as a prediction of the petitioners lives', for example as follows:
Crying or loud laughter: Serious illness or death
Weeping or rubbing eyes: Imminent death
Hand clapping: Reason to fear the King
Picking at food offerings: Financial losses
If the Kumari remains silent and impassive throughout the audience, her devotees leave elated. This is the sign that their wishes have been granted.
The sky has finally cleared up, and who knew that you can have amazing views of the mountains right from Kathmandu. I always thought it was impossible, as Kathmandu sits in a valley surrounded on all sides by hills, but no!, everything's possible, and a small scream always escapes me when I see snow covered mountains in the distance :)
Went to cremation ghats. It's a holy place, similar to Varanasi, since this river ends up in Ganges and Shiva's head fell on that spot, all devout Hindus need to visit this place at least once in their life time, and to try and die in the river or at least get burnt in it. There is a free hospice in there where people come to die, doctor visits once in a while, and when he says time is right, they put the person on some stone for 20 minutes in hope that he can die on it, if not, he goes back to the hospice to try to die again. There is also a temple there where animal sacrifices take place. But you can't kill an animal just like that, you have to ask it's permission. So you take water and splash it on the head of the animal. If the animal shakes it's head (a sign of agreement), you can sacrifice it. If not, you splash the water again and again until it finally shakes it's head!
We then took pictures with "holy" people - Sadhus who abandon their families, cloths, food for the holy immaterial world. They wonder around the cities asking for food. But not these Sadhus. While we were taking pictures with them they blessed us with tikka and flowers and said that if we'll give them $10 they'll give us a lot of blessing. I think we gave them enough by giving them $2 at which they almost cursed at us. There are 4 types of Sadhus, but I didn't ask how they choose which one to be. Naked Saddu; one who only drinks milk; one that smokes hash, and an entertainer. Naked Sadhus also carry heavy rocks hung from their penis and put needles through their body.
We took a bus to a mid location between Kathmandu and Pokhara - Bandipur. We got out, waited for an hour for a bus which didn't come, got a price of $20 to go 8 kms by a private car and ended up taking a bus again to Pokhara. There are elections now, some minor group is against government and against elections, so they scare everybody that if they'll be running any business, they'll burn it, or bomb it, or I don't know what. They try not to touch tourists, but still, we got stuck on the junction waiting for a local bus which doesn't run. Again, in Pokhara, we can't go trekking because only local bus goes to a starting point, they can call a car which will cost $100, and tourist buses only run between Pokhara and Kathmandu. Shops are not stocked properly because delivery doesn't work, and a lot of shops are closed because owners can't get there. Anyway, I hope tomorrow the elections will happen, and will go smoothly so that we can finally go trekking!
I signed up for the world's fastest, longest, steepest zip line. Maximum speed is 140 kms/hr, but I wasn't scared at all :( It looks scary when you just look at it, or when they prepare you and tell you about safety instructions, but the ride itself wasn't as exhilarating as I was hoping for.
We rented a scooter for a day to see sights around Pokhara. First was a sunrise view point of the mountains. We arrived there right on time and the place was swamped with people. Not the quiet and beautiful location we were hoping for. But luckily, we were the only ones who arrived on a scooter, so an hour later, all the tour groups left, all the taxis left, and we were left alone to enjoy the mountains and cloud covered Pokhara in the valley below us. Then we went to tourist free lakes and to a Tibetan refugee camp. To ride in Nepal is not for weak nerves. There are almost no roads in here, and the ones that exist are in terrible condition. You have to look for directions, pot holes, cows, dogs, chickens, people, and oncoming traffic, since people always take over in here and will push you to the side of the road. Cars will turn into your lane without any indications or even without looking, they'll just turn. It's your fault if you'll hit them ... so yeah, driving here is fun and not fun at all.
Off we go to Annapurna trek which often been voted as the best long distance trek in the world! I made notes during the trek, but I lost them somewhere :( We took a local porter with us - Harry, I'm sure the trek would be difficult enough without extra 10kgs on my back. People usually skip the first 1.5 days because the hike goes on the road. We barely managed to get the last jeep, and arrived in a village at night. Guest houses fight over clients by offering free room, but require you to have dinner and breakfast with them.
First day was beautiful but difficult. I guess we weren't used to walking for so long. Sometimes the path would merge with the road, and every time a jeep passed, we had to put a scarf on our nose, since it lifted a huge cloud of dust. The setting was jungle like with lots of waterfalls. My fake North Face shoes are perfect. Nothing hurts, and I loved them so much, I even shipped them to Canada after the trek. Closer to the evening, we had one of our many many fights. I got too tired and needed a break, he said that he's tired of trekking and just wants to get to the village. But I can't get to the village when I can't walk. So he went forward, and I picked a rock, sat on it, and ate a power bar. 15 minutes later, I regained my powers, got extra energy from the bar and continued walking quite fast. He waited for me about 500 meters down the road, and then got mad at me, because he thought that before that I was walking slow just to piss him off!
During our trek we took many breaks, long lunches, and in general when the map said that the trek between 2 villages is 6 hours, it would take me 9. First few days the elevation was low and it was very green, after a few days, the jungle changed to pine forest, and we started seeing snow covered mountains. During the day it was warm, I was even walking in a t-shirt, but at night and in the morning, it was soooo cold! There is no electricity in the rooms, and the temperature inside is the same as outside. I would wear all my cloths, bundle up in a sleeping bag, and still would be cold. It's good that a few more days later, the common area of the guesthouses had fireplaces and I would sit near it until it was time to go to sleep. Needless to say that showers were out of the question. We would just wash the areas that needed to be washed. But because it was cold enough outside we didn't sweat much. We reached a village with a mandatory acclimatization stop. The hotel there had solar panels, and we took our first hot shower in the late afternoon, because in the morning there was not even cold water available, since it froze! We washed all our cloths, which got dirty the next day anyway :) I went to an acclimatization lecture. We were told to drink lots of water, and not to gain more than 500 meters a day in altitude, and the best way to acclimatize is to walk slow (I'm natural at that!), and to sleep lower than the highest point of that day. The lecturer said that during this season (a bit over a month) already 2 people died due to altitude sickness, and most people who get in trouble are the athletic people who think, why should I only walk for 2-3 hours a day, I can do more! Why do I need a day to acclimatize? They gain more than allowed altitude change which kills them. It's a bit scary to listen to, especially with the sounds of rescue helicopters flying about your head. But we follow the rules, so hopefully we'll be fine!
Acclimatization day was fun. We did a short hike to a frozen lake and a glacier, had chocolate cake in a bakery, emailed mom that I'm doing find, and watched 7 years in Tibet in a local "cinema" ... with popcorn! The closer we get to the top, the less we have to walk and the more we can sleep in :) Before there was a jungle, then forest, then bushes ... now there are no even bushes, but brown earth. And there are villages here ... why would people live here? And it's not like the villages sprung up for the hikers. It's the organization who wanted to involve the local people and give them more income, so it trained the locals how to be a bit tourist friendly. On our last day before the pass it was cold!!! And the people working there said that this is nothing, 2 weeks ago, then it was really cold! Alex started getting a headache, but before turning back and walking a village down, we decided to walk up 600 meters, then back to our village, and see if his brain will readjust, and he also took a pill. He seemed to be fine. At 3am, we woke up for the longest and the most difficult day of the hike, the Thorong-La pass at 5416 meters. It's cold, it's high up, and it's 45 degrees steep ascent to the top. The mountains are covered in snow, so it's very pretty. When we crossed the pass, we entered a Tibetan plateau, and it's a pure desert. We didn't know what's worse, a 45 degree ascent, or a never ending decent to the first village after the pass. I felt like a zombie, just walking and walking, not thinking about anything. 6pm, after about 13 hours of hiking with some rest stops, we finally arrived! Another hot shower! Yeiii ! :) Next day, it seems that nobody wanted to do any more hiking, and the guest houses were full of people partying, drinking and staying warm.
Next morning we had to wake up early again, because we were passing a valley where winds really pick up in the afternoons, and we had to cross it before that happens.
We've heard that the rest of the trek goes on roads with constant jeeps passing by, so we decided to end our trek after 11 days in the big town of Jomson.
Instead of driving 16 hours in a jeep back to Pokhara where your insides come out, we decided to take a flight, to bad it wasn't with "Yeti airways" :). I think the most expensive flight in my life so far $110 for a 20 minute flight. Small plane that fits only 20 people. I sat in the front seat looking at the pilots. It was cool to feel the power of the plane at it takes off, how the engine gave more and more power, you could feel it with your butt :)
Back in Pokhara, I'm feeling dizzy, not happy, not concentrated. I wonder if there is such a thing as a low altitude sickness :) I think I took a way too long shower, and it seems that for 2 days we do nothing but eat. Sooo good and sooo cheap, unbelievable! :)
We went to Chitwan national park away from cold. Many animals are walking around, we even saw a rhino right near the resorts zone. Many birds are chirping around the river, and on our jungle walk we saw barking deers, a rhino crossing the river and on elephant safari we saw more deers and a mother with a baby rhino lazily grazing the grass in the middle of 10 or so elephants, not having a care in the world. I didn't like the elephant safari though. The riders were hitting them with sticks, I even yelled at one not to do it. And later I didn't leave a tip cause I didn't feel a fair treatments towards the elephants.
We decided to stay in the park one more day, cause it's way too relaxing and pretty and far far away from the hassle of Kathmandu.
We rented bicycles to go to the lakes, but there are no roads, and an hour later Alex and me got lost from the road and from each other and with famous Nepal roads, my back, my hands, my legs, my head, everything hurt. No more bikes for me for a while!
I always thought that I would only visit a country once. What's the point of going back when there are so many other places to see? This was true until I visited Nepal. It's now over a year later, and Nepal is all I can think of and I'm not even sure why. I'm not the only one. A lot of people told me, "yeah, you're saying that until you visit Nepal, this is a country worth coming back to!", I shook my head in a "no", but who knew, they were right!
Everest, see you soon!
pictures are added to kathmandu - https://plus.google.com/photos/100036016632387453128/albums/6116987786747804753